"Where's Ranma?" Akane paced back and forth impatiently across the Tendo living room. "It's nearly time to leave for school."

"I'll go up and ask him to come down, Akane." Kasumi ascended the steps toward Ranma's room. It wouldn't do for him to miss his first day at Furinkan. After all, the reason Mr. Saotome had brought him to Nerima was so that he could get a good education. After being on the road for so long, he was probably excited about the idea of being in school — learning from teachers and meeting other boys his age.

Besides, she needed to ask for his help on that other little matter, and now was as good a time as any.

***

Ranma lay sprawled across his futon, trying to figure out what to do next.

The curse was the first of his problems. Cold water turned him into a genie, complete with the ability to grant wishes. But he didn't have control over his powers the way that the genies in the old stories and legends did. Wishes that people made around him just got fulfilled automatically, with him having no say about it. He didn't even seem to be able to interpret the meaning of wishes the way he wanted to.

Of course, it made a kind of sense when he thought about it. The curse gave him the body and powers of a genie, but not the skills that one would have. It was the same as if someone fell into the Spring of Drowned Hard-ass Martial Artist; they'd get the muscles, and maybe fast reflexes, but they probably wouldn't know any special attacks until somebody came along to teach them.

So he needed to learn how to use his cursed form's powers. He obviously couldn't go out and sign up for genie training school. The only way to get better at it was to practice. But that meant letting people make wishes, and if he did that it would mean a whole lot of trouble for him.

His second problem was that Pop wanted him to marry Akane. Surprisingly, part of him seemed to be giving the idea of the engagement serious consideration. If he had to keep the curse, being one person's genie would be better than being up for grabs, even if she didn't like him.

Fortunately, the sensible part of his brain was still in charge. There was no way he was getting married just because Pop said so. Especially to someone like her. Especially when it would mean doing... that... with her. He wasn't an expert on the subject, but had a basic idea what married people did, and the thought of doing it with a macho chick like her was disgusting.

Stall. That was the thing to do. He knew from experience how to handle it when Pop got a stupid idea into his head. Trying to talk him out of it would only make him more stubborn, and he'd have to push the marriage thing just to prove that he was the boss. But if Ranma could procrastinate long enough, he might change his mind or just forget about it.

After all, if nothing else he probably had time. Not like Pop was insisting he get married right away.

"Oh, hello, Ranma!" Kasumi stepped in from the hallway. "Could I ask you for a quick favor? I mean, if it's no trouble." She had a glass of water in one hand, and a kettle in the other; it was easy to figure out the kind of help she wanted. "Oh, I really don't want to impose, and if it's a bother I could just—"

"That's okay." Ranma stood and walked over to her. This kind of thing was going to happen a lot; might as well get used to it.

"Oh, thank you." She dumped a little water over his head, and before he knew it he had become female. His Chinese shirt and pants had disappeared, and he was wearing the genie costume. Kasumi reached into her apron pocket and took out a pencil and a small piece of paper. "I wish I knew the telephone number of the person whose name is written here."

She smiled, quickly jotting down a number on the paper. Ranma felt relieved that that was all she wanted. A phone number couldn't cause him a lot of trouble, could it? "Uh... is that it, Kasumi?"

"Yes, that's all. Thank you so much!" She nodded as she handed him the kettle. He poured it over himself; his clothes, and everything inside them, changed back to normal. "Now you need to hurry and get downstairs. Akane is waiting for you!"

Ranma scratched his wet head. "Why's she waitin' for me?"

"Ranma, you know why your father brought you to Nerima, right?"

"Yeah." Don't remind me, he said to himself.

Kasumi smiled. "Well, it's that time!"

"It's...." Ranma's jaw dropped. "Today? Now?!"

"Mm hmm!" She nodded happily, and slipped back down the hallway.

***

Kasumi descended into the living room. Akane glanced at her watch and scowled.

"Is he coming, Kasumi?"

"He'll be right down, Akane. Just think. His first day of school. He must be so looking forward to it!"

From upstairs, Ranma's shout resonated through the house. "Forget it! I ain't doin' it! You can't make me!"

Kasumi put a finger to her lip. "Then again, I could be wrong."

***

Akane stormed up the steps and towards Ranma's room. She stopped at the doorway to his room, glaring at him. "Would you just come on?! If we don't hurry, we'll be late!"

"Not a chance!" Ranma folded his arms, looking away from her.

"I don't believe you!" Akane had never seen such a case of school-phobia before from anyone over the age of seven. "You're acting like a little kid!"

"I'm not a little kid!" he snapped back. "But I don't gotta prove it by doing.. that with you! I mean, I could, but I just don't wanna."

Do 'that?' What in the world was he talking about? Walking to school?

"I thought you were against this whole thing too, Akane." He eyed her with suspicion. "Don't tell me you actually want to do it with me?"

She sighed, tapping into her last reserves of patience. "Ranma, I'm only doing this because Dad asked me to. Believe me, I'd much rather be with my girl friends."

"You'd rather do it with your girlfriends? Akane, you... you !"

"What did you call me?!" She stepped forward into his room.

***

A few bruises and the correction of some slight misunderstandings later, Ranma and Akane walked off toward school. Kasumi waved animatedly after them as she watched them go. "Byebye! Have a nice day"

She hummed a tune to herself as she strolled into the kitchen. Mother Bess' children, a song that she remembered from school. The happy little melody ran through her head while she moved sprightly about the kitchen, putting every dish and utensil back into its proper place.

She felt bad that she was interfering in Ranma's life. But it was for the best. She'd seen the troubles that his father had caused him. Not that she blamed Mr. Saotome. It wasn't his fault. He was doing the best he could, and she was sure that he was a good father. But a father just wasn't enough to raise a child.

She moved over to the telephone. How did the words to that song go? Mother Bess' children have a good time when their mother's been fed? What strange lyrics. But it was a nice, joyful little tune, and that was all that matters. The dial tone hummed in her ear, and looking at the number she had written down earlier, she began to dial.

***

Ranma quickly followed Akane out of the Tendo grounds into the street. A gray overcast haze blanketed the morning sky. Rumblings echoed in the distance, as if forecasting doom.

A water channel ran alongside the road, blocked off by a linked wire fence. Ranma hopped up and began walking along the fence top. It was no problem to stay balanced and still keep up. He'd done training exercises with Pop that were a lot harder. On the road below, the light blue skirt of Akane's school uniform billowed and swished in the wind as she surged ahead. Ranma had to admit that she looked a lot more girlish in it than she had in her gi.

The fence ended at a cross street. Ranma jumped over to land with deft precision on another one, this one made of slightly uneven vertical wooden boards, and continued on without missing a step. He smiled to himself. He was going to get through this day, and absolutely nothing would go wrong.

The sharp flash of a lightning bolt pierced the sky, followed seconds later by the jarring crash of thunder. Everything darkened. A heavy rain began to fall.

"Aw crap," Ranma said in his now-female voice. Rain beat down on him as he jumped from the fence down to the road. Soaked with water, the genie costume clung to his body; it now left even less to the imagination than usual.

"What are you stopping for, Ranma?" Akane's hand brushed limp, wet bangs from her eyes. "Let's get to school where it's dry!"

"You go on without me."

"Huh?"

"Look at me, Akane! I can't show up at school looking like this!"

Akane sighed, then thought for a moment. "Okay. There's a maintenance room in the basement of Furinkan. The staff keeps a pot of water for tea there. I'll send you over, and you wait for me. All right?"

Ranma nodded, wondering why she didn't want to come with him.

"Right. I wish you were there."

Ranma's surroundings suddenly changed. Instead of Akane, he faced a tool cabinet. The room was cluttered with miscellaneous equipment, everything from step ladders to electrical meters. The rain pounded steadily against a small window set in one wall. Water dripped from his body onto the floor, and he shivered from the cold touch of his wet costume.

Quickly scanning the room, he spotted what he was looking for: a kettle that sat on a small electric hot plate on a desk near the door. He poured it over his head, and he was male.

Then he was female.

"What th—" Ranma spat the water from his mouth. He was back outside in the rain, right where he'd been before Akane wished him to school. She was about a block ahead. "Hey! Akane!" He ran to catch up with her. His vest, soaked with water, bobbed back and forth like a pendulum as he moved.

"Ranma?!" Akane stopped and turned around. "Why aren't you in school?"

"Because the hot water canceled your wish. I got sent right back here."

"Oh, good grief!" Akane's eyes narrowed in thought. "Well, why don't we...." She shook her head, and water sprayed from her long hair. "Aaargh! I just wish this rain would stop so I could think for a minute!"

The rain quit, as suddenly as if someone had turned off a faucet.

Akane reached into the air with her hand as if to confirm it. "Of course! Why didn't I think of that?" Her mouth twisted into a wicked smile, like a kid who'd just found the key to where his parents kept their supply of candy. "Okay, now I wish for us and our clothes to be dry."

Ranma and Akane now looked as fresh as they had back at the house. Birds twittered in the distance. A patch of blue peeked through the cloud cover.

"That's better. Now, one last thing. Ranma, I wish you were back in your male form."

Ranma transformed.

Rain poured down onto already-drenched bodies. Ranma transformed again. Akane screamed.

"Just forget it, Akane," Ranma said. "I'll just go home."

"Damn it, Ranma, I promised Dad I'd get you to school. And human or genie, that's where you're going. Now just come on!"

"No way! I ain't lettin' those people see me like this."

"That's it!" Akane's eyes snapped open wide. "Ranma, I wish you were invisible."

Ranma looked down; instead of his legs, he saw only the rain-soaked ground. His body had disappeared, though he could still feel it. He tried to move a hand in front of his face, and saw nothing.

"Now no one can see you, right?" She ran in the direction of the school. "So let's go!"

Ranma moved his legs (at least they felt like they were moving, though he couldn't see them) and followed. Invisibility, huh? It was kinda cool, though it'd take some getting used to.

As they approached the school gates, a sound thundered from within, like a herd of elephants. A crowd of boys ran out. They wore football uniforms, boxing gloves, soccer shorts, even the odd martial arts gi. "Akane Tendo's here!" one of them shouted.

Akane jumped forward to meet the boys' charge, and tore through them like a mower through grass. They never had a chance. They spent more time pushing each other around for position and shouting to make her notice them than they actually did fighting her. Those who did manage to attract her attention were rewarded with a fist in the gut, a foot or a schoolbag in the face.

Ranma leapt onto the brick wall that surrounded the schoolyard, watching from the sidelines, pausing only to dodge the occasional body that got flung his way. He had to admit (to himself, anyway) that he was impressed. He'd never seen a girl who could fight with as much power and speed — except for himself, of course, but then he wasn't a real girl.

"Hmph! Every morning!" Akane stood amidst the pile of her now senseless schoolmates. "Talk about a complete and utter waste of time!"

As if that was his cue, another boy swaggered up. "Truly." His heavy cotton robes and long, slightly curved stick identified him as a kendoist, though he wasn't wearing a kendoist's mask over his pretty-boy face. "Challenging you in hopes of earning the right to date with you. What fools these peons be!"

Ranma hopped to his feet. Standing near the blowhard, he stuck out his tongue. Invisibility could be fun.

"I'm late, Kuno," Akane said. "What do you want?"

"Why, to challenge you, of course!" Kuno flung a single red rose toward Akane. "And should I be victorious, I would date with you!"

Akane deftly caught the rose by its stem. "The same as them?"

"Well, yes. But I was able to express my intentions eloquently!"

Ranma tried to tap Kuno on the shoulder, and missed. He wasn't used to not being able to see his own hands. Maybe if Akane made him invisible again, she could do it so he could see himself but nobody else could.

"Kuno." Akane's teeth clenched. "If you don't get out of my way, I'm going to be tardy. I haven't been tardy in four years. If that happens, I'm going to insert that bokken where it'll be least comfortable. Understand?"

"Such truculence. Such vitality of spirit." Kuno moved to block Akane's path into the school. "Truly, my heart is but your captive, Akane Tendo. Oh, how I wish to date with you!"

Abruptly, both Akane and Kuno vanished. The rose fluttered to the ground, quickly becoming soaked with rain water.

Oops, Ranma thought.

***

Cafe Ajikenai was a small, homey restaurant with brightly-colored tablecloths. Sunlight streamed cheerfully in through oversized windows. Waitresses in frilly aprons slipped around the tables, offering warm smiles and hot tea. Conversations rang through the air from all directions, blending into an incomprehensible background
hubbub.

Tatewaki Kuno sat at one table, only occasionally pausing in his speech long enough to sip his tea. "Of course, before the team's second match, I had determined that improvements needed to be made. 'Fools!' I did say to them. 'As captain of this, the Furinkan Kendo Club, I have determined that your sloppy performance is unacceptable!' I went on to decisively institute a nine-point stratagem by which to elevate the team
from its current mediocrity. 'Truly, your idea is the peak of brilliance, captain!' said the team's lowly members as I outlined the improvements that would be implemented. Firstly...."

Across the table, Akane Tendo silently fumed. I'll get you for this, Ranma....

***

Students swarmed through the halls of Furinkan and began to file into various classrooms. Noisy conversation filled the air. Ranma zigzagged and weaved, sometimes leaping, frantically trying not to let anyone bump into him. He was supposed to go to room 1-F, but he had no idea where that was, and if he showed up while he was still invisible, the teacher would mark him absent anyway.

Hot water. That was what he needed. It would turn him back into his male self, and bring Akane back from wherever she'd disappeared to. Then he'd still be late, and she'd be mad at him, but that was better than not going to school at all.

Students drifted into rooms, and the hallways cleared, with only a few stragglers left behind. Ranma approached one of them, a petite girl with short hair. "Um, 'scuse me. Do you know where I could get some hot water?"

The girl turned. "Er... I beg your pardon?" She looked, and looked again.

"Hot water. I need it 'cause... well, I just need it." He didn't feel like explaining, and she wouldn't believe him anyway.

She reached out tentatively with a hand, touching Ranma in an embarrassing location. Her face drew closer, and her eyes bulged out.

"Um... if you don't know, I could go ask someone else...."

"Eeeeeeeeek!" She dropped her book pack on the ground and ran down the corridor. "A ghost! A ghost!"

Ranma sighed. This was going to be harder than he thought.

***

Checking down the corridor, Ranma spotted good news and bad news.

The good news was the door whose sign said "Boys." The men's room. He ought to be able to find hot water there. The bad news was that a man was standing in front of the door, and there wasn't enough room for Ranma to slip past him. C'mon, dude, Ranma thought at him. Get the heck out of the way! The slightly pudgy man wore glasses and a necktie. A school administrator, Ranma guessed.

The girl who Ranma had scared came barreling back down the corridor in the other direction. "A ghost!" she squealed.

"No running in the hall," the man in front of the bathroom said sharply.

"Yes, sir." The girl skidded to a stop. "But I just saw a ghost!" She pointed down the hallway. "I mean, I didn't see it. But I heard it! And touched it!" Ranma hoped she'd be able to convince him to go and check it out.

"Calm down, miss." The man stood his ground. "I'm sure there's a logical explanation. Probably another practical joke by the senior class."

"But— but I touched it!" the girl cried.

"Miss, please." He waved his hand dismissively. "Spook stories are for little children. You're in high school now. Take it from me, there are no ghosts."

Ranma saw his chance. He stepped closer, putting his mouth right by the man's ear. "Muahahahahahaha!" he shouted, sounding as mysterious and fearsome as he could manage with his female voice. "I am the Phantom of Furinkan!"

Eyes gaping, the tie-wearing man backed away several feet. His mouth opened, but only an incomprehensible noise came out.

"Yiiiieeee!" The girl ran down the corridor. "It's everywhere!"

Chuckling to himself, Ranma pushed the bathroom door open.

***

Hikaru Gosunkugi flushed the urinal and zipped up his pants. From outside, a high-pitched wail echoed through the walls. It was Nagisa's voice. He'd endured three years of middle school in the same homeroom with her and her screaming fits. A ghost. How ridiculous. Nothing that interesting would ever happen around him.

For years, he had been studying the supernatural. He'd read the Encyclopedia of World Myths, every volume, from cover to cover. He was a regular subscriber to Paranormal Observer. But never in his entire life had he actually witnessed any of the events that he'd read about in his hobby. His life had always been dominated by dull predictability, a tyranny that the laws of science enforced.

The door swung open, and then closed again. Nobody was there. Footsteps quietly padded over to the sinks. One by one, the water faucets turned on by themselves, and then off.

"Um... hello?" Hikaru said, staring intently. There weren't any wires or anything like that that he could see. It could be a trick, but if it was, it was a good one.

A female-sounding voice came out of nowhere. "Aaargh! They're all cold! Why can't this stupid school have hot water faucets?"

Hikaru reached forward tentatively. His hand felt something soft, fleshy.

"Would ya mind not touching me there, pal?*

"Oh. Uh...." He pulled his arm back. "Sorry!" Though embarrassed, he could hardly contain his excitement. This was an actual ghost, or some other supernatural creature.

"Don't worry about it," the voice said. "Look, you wouldn't know where I could find some hot water around this place, would ya?"

"Hot water?" Hikaru thought for a moment, then nodded. "Do... do you want me to get some for you?"

"Yeah, wouldja? I'd appreciate it."

"Okay. Wait right there!" He wondered why a ghost would want hot water. "Um... is there some sort of secret ritual that you need it for? Could I help?"

The voice sighed. "Look, all ya gotta do is get it, and pour it on top of me, all right?"

"All right!" Hikaru felt his pulse quicken as he bolted for the door. "I'll be right back. Don't— don't go anywhere!" He didn't know why a ghost would ask for an odd thing, but he was going to be the one to get it. He'd do a favor for this ghost, and maybe it would do something for him in return.

***

"Don't you have class now, young man?"

Hikaru whirled around to see the Vice-Principal. "I was just... er, going downstairs for something."

"Something your teacher asked you to get?"

"Er... no." He tried to think of an excuse that the Vice-Principal would accept, but nothing came to mind. He'd have to come back after first period. Hopefully, the ghost would still be there. It would be just his luck to get back and find out that it had left.

Then again, if it was really a ghost, that meant the spirit of a dead person. It had probably been stuck wandering the Earth for years or even decades. So just one more hour shouldn't be too long for it to wait.

***

What the heck was keeping that guy?

Ranma paced back and forth across the bathroom floor. He wasn't sure how much time had passed, but he'd already done a couple of hundred push-ups and other miscellaneous exercises. He'd found out the hard way that the tops of the toilet stalls weren't sturdy enough to be used as chinning bars. The baggy-eyed kid still hadn't come back with the hot water he'd said he was going to bring.

Oh well. If you want something done right, Ranma thought, you've got to do it yourself. That maintenance room that Akane had sent him to was around somewhere. He ought to be able to find it himself eventually.

A narrow window was set into the middle of the wall away from the door. Ranma examined it and figured that his girl body would fit without too much trouble. The window slid open easily. Ranma squeezed through with only a little effort and hopped down to the ground below.

Another building stood ahead. It had an angled roof, peaked at the center line like a western-style house. There were two doors at one end, and a lot of windows along the sides. To Ranma, it seemed as good a place as any to start looking.

He quietly slipped through a window and glanced around. Tall, metal lockers lined the walls. Sports equipment littered the floor, everything from ping-pong paddles to baseball bats. Ranma silently cheered. Finally, he'd gotten a lucky break. From what he knew about high school locker rooms, there ought to be a shower in the next room over. Then all he'd have to worry about would be explaining to a bunch of naked guys why he suddenly appeared out of nowhere with his clothes on.

From outside, voices approached. Ranma froze as a crowd of people came into the room. His jaw dropped as he got a look at them.

***

"Um... are you there? Hello?"

Hikaru's arm reached forward, feeling only empty air. He'd checked through the entire room, including all the toilet stalls; there was no sign of the ghost. He cursed to himself. This had been the one time in his life that he'd ever met anything supernatural, and he had blown it just because he hadn't had the courage to defy a school administrator.

The window in the far wall was wide open. Looking down, Hikaru saw footprints in the dirt below. it struck him as weird. Wouldn't a ghost be able to walk through the wall? And why would it leave tracks anyway?

He shrugged. His questions were good ones, but he wouldn't find any answers to them standing around in the bathroom. If the ghost went out the window, he'd have to follow.

***

Okay, Ranma told himself. Don't panic.

He was in the wrong locker room, surrounded by gabbing girls, many of them with only bras and gym shorts on. But he could handle that. Just go back out through the window, and around to the other side. That was all he needed to do. No big deal. Just go, as soon as there was an opening. And don't look. It wasn't polite to stare. Just keep looking at the window.

Something bumped into his leg.

***

"Sayuri!" Yuka shouted. "I— I felt something! There's something in the room with us!"

"What are you talking about?" Sayuri asked, not really wanting to hear the answer. Ever since Yuka had seen that television show about UFOs, she'd been seeing aliens everywhere she went. She probably checked for them under her bed every night.

"It's here! It's that ghost that we heard about this morning!"

Sayuri sighed. A ghost? What was Yuka going to believe in next? The tooth fairy? Wish-granting genies?

Then another thought came into her head, and she suppressed a giggle. As long as Yuka was being paranoid, she ought to have something to really worry about.

"No, Yuka," she said in as darkly serious a voice as she could manage. "It's not a ghost."

"It isn't? Then what is it?"

"I heard about this from my great uncle. There's a secret mystical discipline known to only a select few — the 'how not to be seen' technique. It's used by perverts in order to spy on unsuspecting young women. The technique lets them stand around while we take off our clothes, and we don't even know that they're there."

Yuka's eyes bulged. Sayuri laughed inwardly at her little practical joke. Who else but Yuka would be gullible enough to believe a silly story like that?

The other girls stopped what they were doing to cover themselves with arms, shirts, and whatever else was handy.

"Oh my gods!"

"Sayuri, are you saying that there's a pervert here with us?"

"Eeeeeeek!"

Sayuri resisted the urge to bang her head against the wall. She couldn't believe that these were her classmates. How far could she take this before they got a clue?

"Fortunately," she continued, "there's a way to deal with the unseen perverts. Carry a weapon with you at all times. When you're about to get undressed, strike into empty air once or twice, and if there are perverts there you'll knock them out."

It was hard not to laugh. The thought of these girls trying to club non-existent voyeurs into submission every night was just too hilarious for words.

Yuka picked up a baseball bat and swung it. It stopped abruptly in midair with a ringing thud. A voice from nowhere cried out, "Yeeeeeowtch!"

The girls fell into a circle surrounding where the noise had come from. Sayuri stared cautiously at the area, trying to figure out what the trick was. Ventriloquism, maybe? Was someone trying to turn the joke around on her?

She reached forward with a hand, tentatively at first, then all the way, feeling only air. "There's nothing here, Yuka."

From above, she heard the squealing sound of metal ripping and screws popping.

She looked up. The room's fluorescent lamp, torn out from its supports on one side, now hung down at about a forty-five degree angle. As she watched, the other end came loose. Something she couldn't see slammed down on the ground. The lamp fell from the ceiling, but bounced off of empty air midway down, allowing Yuka to catch it as it came down again.

A couple of girls threw a blanket into the air; it came down, betraying the figure of a person underneath. Shouts of "peeping tom!" and "pervert!" filled the air. A barrage of soccer balls assaulted the figure.

"Stop it!" a voice cried from under the blanket. "Why are you hitting me? I'm not a peeping tom. I'm a girl ghost!"

"A... girl?" The bombardment stopped.

"Look!" The blanket moved, wrapping itself around in a horizontal circle, forming the shape of a decidedly female torso.

The girls stared dumbfounded. "We're... sorry," one of them squeaked out.

***

The footprints led up to a window in the girls' locker room. Hikaru cursed again, this time out loud. Why? Why was everything going against him?

"What are you doing there, young man?" It was Mrs. Kinniku, the girls' gym teacher. "The boys' room is on the other side."

Hikaru knew when he was beaten. But maybe there was one thing he could do. "Here." He held out the kettle of hot water that he had brought.

"What's this for?"

***

"Oh, what a lonely life it is being a ghost!" Ranma said. "Doomed to wander around, and haunt places, and um... y'know, other ghost stuff...."

The girls sighed sympathetically. "That is so sad!" one of them exclaimed.

Another girl came up from the back. "Mrs. Kinniku said to pour this over the ghost." She held up a steaming kettle.

"Uh...." Ranma gulped. "I think I'll be goin' now. Bye!" But before he could move, the water burbled down onto his hair.

He pulled the blanket over his head, covering himself completely. Then he felt it jerked away. Looking up, he was standing in the middle of a circle of girls, many wearing no shirt, all wearing angry scowls.

"Uh... hi!" he said feebly.

The girls moved toward him.

***

Ranma staggered on to the Tendo estate. The bumps and bruises on the back of his head throbbed with pain.

"Oh my, hello, Ranma." Kasumi smiled at him as she swept off the porch. "How was your first day at school?"

"Educational," he answered.

"Oh, good!" Her face was practically glowing with excitement. "There's a surprise visitor here today. Why don't you go into the kitchen and say hello?"

"Um, yeah." He nodded and walked through the sliding door. Somehow, he couldn't bring himself to share her happiness. Surprises almost always meant trouble.

A splash of water greeted him as he entered the house, and he went female. "What th—" He looked up to see Pop holding a now half-empty bucket.

"I wish you were wearing normal clothes," Pop said. The genie costume vanished, replaced by Ranma's usual Chinese shirt and pants. They hung loosely on his smaller female body.

"Pop?! What the heck are you—"

"Listen, boy." Pop gazed grimly into his eyes. "If you value your life, do not tell the person in the kitchen who you really are!"

Before Ranma could react, Pop dumped the contents of the bucket over himself and became a panda. Ranma boggled. Just what was the point of all this?

"Oh, hello! You must be Akane." A woman stepped into the living room from the kitchen. She looked roughly thrityish, with slightly wavy hair. Dressed in a old-style kimono, she carried some long, thin object about the size of a kendo stick, wrapped in cloth. "How do you do. I'm Mrs. Saotome!"