Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 1

Copyright

Most of the characters in this piece and the setting for it, were conceived of by Rumiko Takahashi for her Ranma1/2 series of Manga. All such characters and the setting are the property of Takahashi-san and her licensees. All other characters in the piece are purely fictional and any resemblances to actual persons living or dead, are purely coincidental.


Nabiki Tendo rose uncharacteristically early on the Monday morning following her sister's aborted wedding. She had done so hoping to be out of the house before Akane made an appearance. She did not quite make it. Just before finishing an intentionally light breakfast, Akane walked in and sat down at the table, looking for all the world as though nothing was wrong and the world was a beautiful place. Nabiki knew better. This was Akane at her most dangerous. This was the Akane struggling to contain a fury only slightly less powerful than a category five hurricane. This was the same deadly, misleading calm that preceded the swirling, howling hell that rushed in from the sea to swallow entire cities. The situation was especially dangerous because Ranma was not around for Akane to unleash her fury against. Their father and Genma Saotome had quite wisely skipped breakfast that morning for a "little jog." Something neither had done in recent memory. Nodoka had been careful to confine herself to the kitchen. That left only Kasumi and Nabiki to deal with their baby sister. Nabiki had no illusions about how Akane was feeling about her at the moment. She decided that her meager breakfast was not worth the risk and left for school.

Nabiki walked at fairly fast clip, but did not over do her exertions. She had plenty of time and there was little point in working up enough sweat to damp her hair or mar her makeup. Akane would surely go visit Ranma at the clinic rather than come after her. She was not all that concerned about taking a drubbing from Akane. The trick was to avoid provoking her younger sister while within her reach. Sooner or later, Akane would realize that the wedding was doomed no matter who Nabiki had invited to attend the ceremony. Happosai would have acted just as he had no matter who had been there. The same went for Genma. Even if she had not invited the Kunos, or Xian Pu or Ukyo, word would have gotten around and they would have shown up anyway. Had they arrived without invitation, the trouble would have been much worse. By sending them formal invitations, Nabiki had obliged them to bring wedding gifts and to behave.

They had not behaved of course, but their gifts of money had been generous. Kodachi Kuno had been surprisingly generous. Now Kuno would find himself paying for repairs to the dojo because Nabiki would convince him that the entire mess was his fault. He drew a sword at her sister's wedding, that was conduct unbecoming of an American suffering from the touristas, much less a high-born samurai. Guilt, she reflected with an evil grin, was a far better weapon than the sword.

No matter how much it upset Akane, things had worked out the way they were going to work out and in this case, they had worked for the best. Neither she nor Ranma were ready to marry. They weren't even out of school and they were going to have a hard time finishing thanks to all the distractions and interruptions. The last thing either of them needed was the added strains of a premature marriage. Besides, had they gotten married they would have spent last night together and...Nabiki forced her thoughts away from that particular subject.

Fate could be incredibly cruel at times, but Nabiki Tendo regarded fate as something to be dealt with, not something to cry about. She had no choice about this attitude. She was the second of three girls born into a family of martial artists. A family of martial artists possessing a rather muddled heritage. Her mother was a Tendo of the Tendo no Taira Clan. Her father was a Mitamura who was adopted into her mother's clan as muyokoshi. Both families had always specialized in teaching the use of weapons, particularly the naginata.

Soun Tendo never became entirely comfortable with the clan he had joined upon marriage to his wife. Weapons, particularly in modern Japan after World War Two, were worse than an anachronism, they were often a liability. Shortly after he was licensed to teach the Tendo-ryu, he decided that a different form of instruction was needed, one that focused upon a broader range of skills, especially the forms of stealthy and unarmed combat. So it was that he began to study under the already infamous Happosai, founder of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts. This odd, newly founded school did not ignore weapons, but taught its students to never become reliant upon them. This made sense in the current era. The ownership of many weapons was illegal and the use of almost any weapon, even in self-defense, carried huge fines if not long jail sentences.

The problem with her father's decision was that it put an enormous strain upon their relationships with the greater part of the Tendo families. Nabiki did not understand and resented the stigma attached to her father for years until Happosai returned. The realization that she would never be fully accepted by her cousins, no matter how good she became was the main reason she had given up the Art. Well, that and the fact that boys tended to shy away from girls that could pull their arms out of socket. Nabiki could of course pull a man's arm out of socket, she just never made a show of her abilities. It saved her no end of trouble.

Still, she had not given up all of her interest in the Martial Arts. She had become an excellent judge of athletic ability and a connoisseur of the masculine form. She became an ardent follower of Sumo for quite a while. Her interest in Sumo and what she learned in mathematics class led her to discover her talent for figuring odds. She loved playing with numbers almost as much as she loved spending other people's money. The two complemented one another nicely. It had not taken her long to get things going her way. The betting pools at school led to other enterprises which were, quite often, a good deal more profitable. Life was nearing perfection until fate dropped Ranma Saotome in her lap. Well, sometimes she wished she had Ranma Saotome in her lap. That was the rub.

Nabiki often wondered how things might have gone had she ecnountered Ranma in his male form first instead of his cursed form. His female form had put her off to no end. She had been expecting a sleek, powerful martial artist to walk through her door. Come to think of it, a sleek, powerful martial artist had walked through her door. The trouble had been that said martial artist was sleek, powerful and female. It didn't help that the martial artist seemed to like, despite her protests contrary, having her breast squeezed by another girl. Nabiki had risked the girl's wrath a second time just to make certain. She had been furious with her father. What kind of weirdos did he think his daughters were that they would actually marry a lesbian? And how in the very devil was a pair of lesbians ever going to produce a proper heir? Besides, what girl in her right mind would want that bum Genma Saotome for a father-in-law?

It wasn't until several days later that Nabiki realized the magnitude of her error. Ranma, in his male form, was a thrill to look at. He was even more of thrill to watch whenever he was in action. One morning, as she watched Ranma spar with his father, she got to thinking about the day they had first arrived. It was then that she remembered the sensation of Onna-Ranma's nipple stiffening beneath her palm. Oh, Kami-sama! The full realization of what she had rejected was like being trapped on the downhill side of a volcanic eruption. The suffocating heat she felt at that moment was still with her, but she had already made her decision and the die was cast. Fate was something to be dealt with, not cried about.

From that day forward she had done everything she could think of to alienate Ranma. The few days that she had been enfianced to him had been the most exquisite torture she had ever endured. Being able to rub up against him with impunity, but knowing that she could never have him had been little different from walking on coals. Nabiki was very proud of herself for the way she handled that little episode. It would have been so easy for things to have gotten out of hand it was frightening. As it was, she had managed to walk the line and was proud of it, even though she dared tell no one of her achievement in self-control. Over time, and little by little, she had become the Ice Queen of Nerima. Sooner or later her obsession with Ranma would fade, then she could become Nabiki Tenjdo again. For now, she would remain the Ice Queen and be proud of her hard-won title.

Akane would eventually marry Ranma and carry forward her father's heritage. Sooner or later, Kasumi would marry and carry forward her mother's heritage. Nabiki? Well Nabiki would make her own way. That was the hand fate had dealt her and she was determined to play it for all it was worth. The world might never hear of the Tendo School of Anything Goes School of Capitalism, but it would without doubt feel its efficacy.

The sound of masculine voices broke her revery. Much to her disgust, the Hentai Brigade had reformed. She could hear them milling around in the school-yard forty meters short of the gate. Kuno was haranguing them. She did not find them disgusting because of their obsession. Her little sister afterall, was an extraordinarily attractive girl. More to the point, most of the Hentai Brigade was quite athletic and a joy to look at. What disgusted her about the Brigade was that they let a brainless wonder like Kuno lead them around by their penises.

"I, Tatewaki Kuno have at last defeated Ranma Saotome, the foul sorcerer who has too long held Akane Tendo and the lovely Pig-tailed Girl hostage. Now that I have banished him to the lower, nether regions, I now declare that ill-considered match between the fair Akane and the wretched Saotome null and void. None may date her save he that defeats her! So say I, Tatewaki Kuno! The Blue Thunder of Furinkan High!"

This was followed by a round of cheering. Nabiki rolled her eyes and quietly made her way to class, mentally racing ahead of the morning's unfolding events. She needed to re-structure the morning betting pool. These fools had no idea what they were about to do to themselves. Akane would not be the kind and gentle little warrior they had known in the past. Although she often griped about how Ranma never took her training seriously, Akane spent at least an hour per day in the dojo trying to land a solid punch on her mercurial fiance. The memory of Ranma's incessant teasing and Akane's answering growls of frustrated fury echoed in Nabiki's ears. It was hard to listen to and even harder to ignore. Saturdays were the worst. Nabiki had long ago lost count of the Saturdays and Sundays when Akane would insist upon sparring with Ranma for hours at a stretch, but never getting in a solid punch. The bills for repairing the dojo were nothing sneeze at either. Akane was neither the fastest nor the most graceful of martial artists, but she could deliver a punch that would bring a freight train running at full throttle to a cold stop. Nabiki had the invoices to prove it. There was entirely too much madness to the Saotome training method to suit Nabiki's tastes, but training was training and Akane had been doing a lot of it. Her little sister was whipcord lean and as of today, had plenty of reason to be mean. The Brigade was going to suffer this morning.

"Let's see," Nabiki muttered to herself, "We'd better reduce the odds for a serious injury from two-to one to even-steven, and lower the odds of a fatality from a hundred to one down to ten to one." She decided on her way up the stairs to adjust the odds for bets on the numbers and types of injuries as well.

The battle turned out to be something of a disappointment once it finally occurred. The action had been too fast for most observers to follow and too brief for almost anyone to believe. One moment Akane was standing in the school-yard gate being confronted by fifty or more hormone crazed athletes, the next moment she was standing in the schoolhouse door and straightening her hair before continuing on her way to class. She had simply flowed through the mob as unstoppable the incoming tide and as elusive as a stream of quicksilver. The Brigade milled around in confusion for several moments after she had entered the school, many of them still unaware that Akane had already passed through their ranks and was safely out of their reach.

Six of their number however, had definitely noticed her passing. Four of them were rapidly turning blue and would soon pass out. Another, Furinkan's best soccer goalie, was struggling to remove a rapidly swelling foot, already straining the laces of his tennis shoe. A sixth, the captain of the soccer team, lay flat of his back, taking long, deep breaths, then exhaling with a long drawn out cry of agony. Nabiki figured that he had a cracked pubic arch judging from the way he was holding his knees slightly bent and curling his toes. She had of course, seen this particular injury accidently inflicted on more than one occasion at the dojo. It was not quite as bad or as dangerous as a cracked sternum, but seemed a good deal more painful. Even a wannabe martial artist's life is rife with hazard.

"Did we get this on tape?" Nabiki asked one of her assistants who was speaking into a cellular telephone.

"We sure did! Got it from two different angles."

"Send someone out to check on Kuno. He's so still I can't tell if he is breathing or not." Kuno had not joined the fight as was his usual habit, yet he was now lying face down upon the grass, unmoving.

"Already done. He didn't get hit. He just passed out--hang on a second," Nabiki's assistant listened intently to her cell phone for a moment. "He's running a high fever."

"Get a water hose on him and cool him off. I don't want any arguments with anyone that bet on a fatality."

"Hai!"

"Nabiki-san!"

"Yes?"

"Good job on shifting the odds. It looks like we are going to clear almost fifty-thousand yen."

Nabiki allowed herself to look smug despite her inward misgivings. The money was great, but she did not want her baby sister going to jail. If the Hentai Brigade formed up in front of Akane again tomorrow, things might get very ugly.

"Have Gosunkugi bring the tapes to the infirmary. I want to see what happened in detail."

"Hai, Oyabun!"


Onna-Ranma woke up weak at the knees and nauseated, only to discover that he was standing at the front of a room crowded with people. Someone was holding his right arm and some unidentified jerk was playing music so loud it made his head hurt. His abdomen felt all puffy and he had that greasy feeling that he got a couple of times back when Ko Lon had given him the Full-Body Cat's Tongue. Worse, he was wearing his boxers and could not feel a pad. He felt something tickling his ears and realized that some idiot had let his hair down. He looked down. He was wearing a white dress.

"Oh, shit! What idiot dressed me in white on a day like...wait a minute! Wait a fucking minute! This is a wedding dress!"

Onna-Ranma glanced around quickly, trying to figure out what was going on. Sure enough, there was a priest in front of him, going on about obedience and fidelity and ...CHILDREN? He glanced to his right and the nausea became much worse, forcing him to gulp at the bile in his throat. He was standing next to Tatewaki Kuno, who was now fumbling around in his pockets as though trying to find something. He glanced over his left shoulder and spied his father, sitting on the aisle end of the front pew.

"What the hell is going on, Old Man?"

"Look boy, since you and Akane never got along all that well, Tendo and I decided to make a deal with the Kunos."

"With the Kunos?" Onna-Ranma felt a flood of adrenaline slam into his bloodstream. "You mean both of 'em?"

"Yes! Just think son! This is your lucky day. You'll have two weddings! First to your new husband, and then in an hour or so, to your new wife. The truly great beauty of it is, they're both rich!"

Onna-Ranma gritted his teeth in fury.

"And you needn't worry about Akane, either!" Nabiki's voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. "Her future is secure! Kuno set up a permanent, irrevocable trust for Akane, Ryoga and their kids."

"You may now kiss the bride!" The Priest happily proclaimed.

Ranma woke with a violent start. He regretted the jerk immediately. His sudden motion made the soft gauze of his bandages grate against his burns like so much sandpaper. Nor did the movement do his head any favors. Sharp pains snaked though his skull, accompanied by bright flashes of false light that he felt as much as saw behind tightly shut eyelids.

"Ouch!"

Opening his eyes revealed a stinging, blurry mixture of fluorescent lighting and squirming ceiling tiles. It took several minutes for his vision to clear.

I'm in Tofu's clinic, Ranma said silently to himself. Why am I here? What happened? Why was I dreaming about marrying...Oh, shit! The wedding! Why won't the stupid bastards give us a rest! Akane's gonna be furious.

The effort needed to contain his anger made him grit his teeth. Gritting his teeth, made the pain in his head nearly unbearable. He went through the flashing lights and blurred vision ordeal again.

"Note to self," spoke an echoing voice in his head, "Do not! I repeat, do _not_ grit your teeth until this concussion has healed."

"Concussion?" He whispered to himself. "I got a concussion?"

"Yes!" The echoing voice answered as a great wave of pain broke just behind his eyeballs and washed around them. "So don't grit your teeth and try to lie still! It hurts when you do that!"

"All right already! I only did it because I was mad, okay? The way I found out I was getting married was by Tendo and my old man knocking me out and dressing me in a white tuxedo--stupid bastards! I was so pissed I couldn't see straight. We hadn't been home from China for more than two days. They wouldn't even let us get a decent rest from that long-assed trip," he told the voice in his head.

"Yeah, that was pretty rotten, all right." The voice sounded doubtful for some reason. The voice was both female and familiar, but Ranma could not identify the speaker. He found this annoying. He knew the person was someone close to him.

"So I broke loose from Pops and ran up to Akane's room," Ranma told the disembodied voice, "I wanted to see if she was okay. If they had knocked her out again just to get her into a wedding gown, I was going to whip every ass in the house."

"But she was okay, wasn't she?"

"She was more than okay. She was beautiful!"

"Yeah, that western-style wedding gown looked great on her. She glowed, didn't she?" The voice asked, sounding slightly envious.

"Glowed, hell! She shone like the morning sun on a clear day in winter."

"Yeah, you're right, Saotome!" The voice said, suddenly sounding like a little girl lost in the stygian depths of a great cavern. "She was beautiful."

The word beautiful echoed around the inside of Ranma's skull a few times, making his eyes water.

"The funny thing was, she was willing to go through with it. She said it was because I said I loved her while we were at Jusendo."

Ranma paused to swallow at the burning pain he now found in his throat.

"She was willing to live with me forever, even after nearly dying because of me and my stupid curse! Two weeks ago I was holding her in my arms and feeling her body cool as she died, then yesterday, she stood in front of me looking for all the world like an angel."

"But you argued, didn't you?" The voice asked, quavering with anger. "You big jerk!"

"Yeah, we argued. I never told her I loved her and I knew it."

Ranma managed to stifle a sob, but he could not stop the tears which now began to stream down his face.

"I remember thinking of how much I loved her. I remember regretting never telling her that I loved her when I felt her dying, and I yelled out her name in my ki voice. I put everything I had into it."

He shuddered involuntarily at the memory. The movement generated many little ripples of pain in his skull. He wanted to howl, but held the urge in check. Such an act would only make matters worse. The pain faded after a minute or so.

"Then she hugged me and I knew she had returned. I must have been heard on the kami-plane and they sent her back, but I still never told her that I loved her. I didn't want her thinkin' I did."

"Why?" The echoing voice asked.

"Because I don't want any more lies between us, that's why! Who the hell are you, anyway?" he asked the voice.

"I'm the part of yourself that knows all the stuff you never admit to knowing," the voice answered. Its echoing made Ranma's head pound. "Now then, why no lies between you and Akane?"

"Because I really do love her, that's why!" he answered the voice mentally. "I love her more than my own life, but I can't do anything about it right now."

"As if not revealing the truth to her isn't a kind of lie!" the voice answered in a cynical tone. "So, O wonderful and noble Saotome-sama, why won't you marry her?"

"I ain't worthy of her yet," he whispered aloud to himself. "What the hell do I have to give her besides me? Ain't I some kinda sweet deal! What good am I to her? I'm a girl half of the time! How am I gonna take care of her? Sure, I'm a world class martial artist. So what? That won't put no rice in her bowl by itself. Besides, all I've ever done is make life hard for her. Akane's lucky to have lived through all the crap that followed me here."

"You worry too much about the curse, Saotome." The girlish voice sounded miffed.

"How do you know?"

"Trust me. I know!" The voice said confidently. "It bother's Akane some, but not enough to spoil her love for you."

"Whadda ya mean her love for me?"

"Oh, come on, Saotome! She loves you and you know it. You worry about the curse because you think you're starting to like it."

"I don't like the stupid curse!"

"Bullshit! You use it all the time. It's handy."

"I'm afraid I'll turn into a girl full time. What if I start likin' it too much after I marry Akane, then what? I expect her to...to..."

"That ain't gonna happen and you know it."

"Yeah, you're right. I'm a guy. Even when I'm girl and tryin' to act like a girl, I'm a guy. I don't know how they do it. Bein' a girl is a pain most of the time."

"And sometimes it's an even bigger pain, right?" Now the voice sounded positively impish.

Ranma shuddered and the new waves of pain made his ears ring.

"Please, I don't want to think about those times."

"So the curse is something you can live with, right? It ain't holdin' you back that much."

"No, not really."

"It's the money, ain't it?"

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"Whadda ya mean, why?"

"Why is the money a problem?"

"'Cause when you ain't got money ya hafta depend on somebody who _has_ got money. I don't like depending on anyone else. I don't want Akane havin' to depend on anyone else," Ranma said as rising anger made his headache worse. "All me and the old man have done for ten years now is bum around and leech off other people. I'm sick of that! I haven't made a fuss about it before because it would be embarrassing, but I want to end the mooching. I wanna earn my own way...and Akane's."

"You can teach the Art to make money."

"To do that, you gotta be able to hold classes on time."

"So?"

"So when do I have control of my time?"

"I'd say you need to take control of it, Saotome."

"Easier said than done!"

"Not so hard you can't do it though. All you really need to do is end the chaos."

"Things are never goin' to be neat, peaceful and orderly around me. No one has that much control. Whadda ya think I am? Lord High Daimyo of the Universe or somethin'?"

"No, but you can put a stop to much of it, and you should," the voice said, "Trouble is, you _like_ the chaos."

"Huh? Wadda you mean, I like the chaos?"

"Gimme a break!" the girl's voice said angrily. The echoes in Ranma's head became deafening. "You're an adrenaline freak, Saotome! About half the trouble around here is your fault, and when it ain't been your fault, you've made it worse by acting like the backside of your namesake!"

Ranma made no answer. The pain was too much for him to come up with one and not all of the pain came from his concussion. The voice would not let matters stand though.

"So if you really wanted to end the chaos around here, you could end half of it by cleanin' up your own act, right? I mean, the least you could do is try and be nice to Akane!"

"Yeah," Ranma whispered aloud, "I guess I could."

"But will you?"

Ranma almost made the mistake of nodding his throbbing head.

"Yeah," Ranma finally answered the voice contritely, "I'll stop all of it I can. Then I'll marry Akane."

"Not quite."

"Whadda ya mean, not quite?"

"There are a couple of other things you need to take care of first."

"Such as?"

"Well for starters, you have some ass whippings to hand out."

Ranma felt as though a jolt of electricity had passed through his body.

"Damn straight, I got some ass whippings to hand out! Plenty of people there yesterday had reason to be mad at me, but none of 'em had a reason to hurt Akane. It was _her_ wedding. It should have been regal, and nice, and...sacred...Yeah, sacred! They're gonna pay. Some of 'em are gonna pay a lot!"

"Better make a list," the girlish voice said in a grim tone, "You don't want to miss one or kick the wrong ass by mistake."

"Pop comes first."

"Why your dad first?"

"Because he's the one that talked Tendo-san into setting up the wedding, then made a mess of it by trying to steal our most important wedding present."

"You mean the water from the Spring of Drowned Man?"

"You got it! That water was as much for Akane as it was for me."

"I suppose your right about the water," the girlish voice said, sounding unhappy.

"Damned straight I'm right about the water! What girl in her right mind wants to be married to a guy that becomes a girl at the drop of a cold glass of water? I mean, I got the Nekko-ken because Pops was trying to make me a better martial artist, right? Okay it was a really stupid mistake, but he was just trying to help me out. I can forgive him for it. I got this curse because he took me to Jusenkyo. Okay, he was trying to make me a better martial artist. That's fine, Just another stupid mistake. I can forgive him--sorta. But this time he's got no excuse. He set this wedding up, then he help make a mess out of it and shamed Akane. I may donate him to the zoo and leave him there for a year."

"What about Happosai?" the voice asked in a tone so cold that Ranma felt icicles forming on the roof of his skull.

"We're gonna hold off on the old lecher."

"Good idea, Saotome!" the voice said sounding regretful, "I don't think we want any more blood on our hands, now do we?"

"Whadda ya mean, more blood?"

"You killed Saffron, remember?"

"I didn't kill Saffron--not really anyways."

"Bullshit, you didn't kill him! You shattered him like like he was a piece of cheap pottery."

"But he didn't really die, did he?"

"Yes he did," the voice said, sounding as though it were near tears, "Just because he was reborn a few minutes later, don't mean you didn't kill him. You know damned good and well you meant to kill him."

"Yeah, I did. I killed Saffron and I did it on purpose, but only to save Akane."

"You were angry, Ranma!" The voice said, obviously crying now. "You _wanted_ him dead."

It was not a vision Saffron's shattered body filling the eye of Ranma's mind, but the sight of Happosai clinging to Akane in her wedding dress.

"So you see my point, right? I'm still pretty angry with the old freak for gropin' Akane on her wedding day. Let's give me time to cool off. Put him on the bottom of the list."

"Do it this way," the voice said, sounding much calmer, "Wait and cool off a little so you know you can stay in control, then you can make him miserable for a couple of months."

"I really like that idea."

"I knew you would. What about Nabiki? She invited every nut-case in Nerima to the wedding, you know."

"Yeah, I know. But she's just trying to pay the bills. Besides, we need her help."

"Tryin' ta fill her own purse, is more like it!"

"You're not bein' fair to Nabiki, now. Sure, she always takes a cut for herself, but we'd be broke without her."

"Okay, Saotome. You win. Her punishment will be helping us clean this mess up--and no posing for her for a month. Note to self: Search out, steal and hide all of Nabiki's cameras as soon as possible. Better yet, search out, steal and hide her collection of negatives while you are at it. Even better, no more pictures until things are settled between us and Akane. This is for damned sure going to be on top of whatever it is Akane is already doing to her."

"What are we going to do to Kuno?" the voice asked. Apparently she could clinch her teeth without making Ranma's head hurt. "What that asshole did was unforgivable."

"I will think up something massive for Kuno." Ranma answered calmly. "He drew steel at Akane's wedding. Worse, he thinks he can lord it over her and tell her and her family what they can or can't do. That shit is going to stop as soon as I can get out of this bed. I am going to hurt him so bad that the very mention of Akane's name will make him break out in hives."

"Okay, what about his sister?" The voice asked, sounding as though smoke was beginning to pour from her ears. "That goofy bitch arrived at Akane's wedding wearing a wedding gown."

"Hmm, better let Nabiki work on that one. If I can get Big Sister good and pissed at Kodachi, it will be the end of the Kodachi problem--maybe forever. Why are you so pissed at Kodachi, anyway?"

"It's strictly a girl-type thing," the girlish voice said in a superior tone of voice, "You don't wanna know. What about Ukyo?"

"Jeez! I can't really blame Ukyo for being angry with me and Pop, now can I? Okay. I'll let her off with no more than a spanking."

"Careful, Saotome! You know how much Ukyo craves attention. She might actually enjoy being spanked by you. Ignoring her for a couple of weeks would work much better, and would be a whole lot safer for all concerned. Besides, Akane might misunderstand if she saw you spanking Ukyo."

Ranma sighed aloud.

"Yeah, you're right. Come to think of it, Akane might have already beat the tar out of Ukyo. Ukyo is pretty good, but no match for Akane in full hurricane mode."

"I was wondering when you were going to start respecting Akane's..."

"I'm going to kill Xian Pu," Ranma thought, feeling his heart grow heavy, as it shrank to the size of a small marble.

"What? Come again, Saotome?" the voice asked, sounding alarmed. "You don't even like to hit girls, now you're thinkin' about killin' Xian Pu? What the hell has gotten into you?"

"She is going to kill Akane. I have to do something to stop her and she isn't very easy to stop."

"What? Oh, you're just thinking about what she said when she threw that bomb at you during the wedding!" The voice quavered as it spoke.

Ranma's blood ran cold as Xian Pu's words came echoing back up to him from the well of his memory.

"Aiya! Xian Pu aiming for Akane, not Airen!" the Amazon had said.

"I remember what she did at Jusendo, too!" Ranma said, very nearly gritting his teeth.

"She couldn't help it! She was under a--"

"Do you really think for one second she ever had any intention of using that bottle of water to cure Akane? No way! As soon as I had been engulfed by one of those surokomi egg things, she would have thrown Akane's body out with the trash. Then I would have been Xian Pu's slave forever because she would never be able to release me and stay alive. Remember! She threatened to kill Akane after the bottle of water got broke and Akane was still untreated. Akane was already dying! Do you really think Xian Pu was kidding? What do you think she's planning to do right now?"

Something Xian Pu had said on other occasions came back to haunt him, "Obstacle is for killing."

"Killing Xian Pu won't solve the problem, Ranma!" the girlish voice said in pleading tones. "You gotta stay in control!"

Ranma's blood ran cold again. He shivered and it ran even colder. Actually it was his ki that had begun to run cold. So cold in fact that the room temperature began to fall. He was so preoccupied with his internal struggle, that he was unaware of the effect he was having on his surroundings.

"Xian Pu saw how you really felt at Jusendo, boy," the echoing voice had begun to sound like Genma, "She is going to become desperate and a desperate foe is the most dangerous kind of foe. How many times did you have to stop her from killing Akane just after she came here? Twice was it?"

"I will stay in control! I will stay in control," the girlish voice chanted softly inside Ranma's head. "I will not kill Xian Pu. That will not solve anything. I will stay in control."

"What do you mean it won't solve anything, boy?" Genma's gravelly voice ground it's way around the confines of Ranma's mind. "Killing a snake leaves you with one less bite to worry about."

"Yeah, but then I'd hafta worry about every Amazon in China coming over here lookin' for revenge, shit-daddy!" The girlish voice shrieked back at the Genma voice. "Think straight!"

"Well you had better come up with something soon, little girl! Amazons don't let anything stop them from getting what they want. She knows you and Akane are getting closer! Do you really think she's going to just stand by and let that happen?" The Genma voice sounded like boulders tumbling down a mountain. "Xian Pu ain't laid up on her ass and helpless like you are right now, boy!"

"I _will_ stay in control!" Ranma said aloud to what he thought was an empty room.

"Ah, Ranma-kun! I see you are awake at last," Tofu Ono said with a wry smile. "How are you feeling?"

Ranma quickly realized that Tofu was having to struggle to maintain his normally affable, bed-side manner. He was shivering. Something is very wrong, Ranma thought to himself. What's bothering Tofu?

"Mornin', Doc." Ranma grunted from the pain the effort of speaking in a normal voice caused him. He lay still for moment, wondering how he would muster the strength to get up.

"I feel like somebody just dug me up out of a bomb crater," Ranma said with a forced smile. "Do I look that bad?"

Tofu laughed nervously. "No, not quite that bad, but you won't be back up to full speed for a week or so. That blast of Happosai's was pretty heavy. You have some minor, first degree burns on your upper chest, neck and arms. The real damage came from your breaking through the floorboards of the dojo with the side of your head.

Ranma suddenly realized that Akane was happily going about her daily affairs, completely unaware of the danger she was in. Xian Pu could strike at any time, and Akane would never see it coming. Her anger always burned out quickly, and she was trusting by nature.

"How long have I been here, Doc?" he asked, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.

"Half of a day yesterday, all night last night, and half the day today. It's Monday. I didn't think missing one more day of school was that important, given your physical condition--and everything else."

"I've gotta get outta here, Doc! Where's Akane? Is she at school?"

"You aren't going anywhere for a couple of days," Tofu said sternly, "but I am pretty sure that's where Akane is. She stopped by to check on you this morning, wearing her uniform."

"I've got to get out of here!" Ranma tried to get up, but the pain in his head nauseated him and the burns on his neck and shoulder hurt so badly he nearly screamed.

"There, you see? I'm not keeping you here to be mean. I'm keeping you here so you can heal."

"Doc, you don't understand! I can't leave her out there by herself right now!"

Tofu froze in place and regarded him with a sad expression. Ranma had seen that look on Tofu's face before. Now he thinks I've flipped my wig or somethin', Ranma thought. He watched in horror as the doctor fetched a chair and sat down next to the bed. The air in the room seemed to be clouding up with a fine mist. Is the air conditioner on the blink? Why is Tofu shivering? How come I don't feel cold? Who gives a shit right now anyway?

"Ranma, tell me what has been going on this last month or so."

"It would take too long!" Ranma said, trying not to sound desperate and failing, "Anything could happen before I got it all explained!"

"Would you feel free to talk about it if Akane were here?"

"Yeah, but I can't let her go walkin' around by herself!"

Tofu stared at Ranma for a moment with a very thoughtful gaze. The concern the doctor felt was very evident on his face

"You are worried about something or someone nearby."

The burning pain in the back of Ranma's throat was so intense he knew that his voice would crack if he tried to speak. He stared hard at Tofu, aware that his eyes must be burning like those of a madman, but he could not help it.

"Have you told Akane about any of this?"

He shook his head and immediately regretted it as waves of nauseating pain washed through him.

"I didn't realize there was a problem until just a few minutes ago," Ranma said with an involuntary gasp. He could feel bile rising in his throat.

"Do you need a pan?" Tofu asked.

"No," Ranma said, being careful to not shake his head, "but some aspirin would be nice."

Tofu handed him a small bottle from his pocket, then poured a cup of water from the pitcher on the bedside table. He glanced at his watch.

"I'll tell you what I'll do. I will personally go get Akane and escort her back here. Then, if the three of us decide it is best, she can stay here until you are able to get around. Is that a deal?"

Ranma felt a sudden surge of relief. Tofu was a powerful martial artist. One of the few Ranma knew to be capable of concealing most of his aura. Akane would be safe with Tofu around.

"You'll stay with her the whole way and never let her out of your sight for a second?"

"Since you think it is necessary, yes. I will."

"You'll have to watch for trouble like you were up against a bunch of ninja, Doc."

"Oh?"

"As long as you are around Akane, that's the kind of trouble you are in."

"Oh, really? How many will I be up against should hostilities break out?" Tofu's voice remained perfectly even and serious. Ranma was not too terribly sure that Tofu understood. Tofu was such a kindly soul he might not even be able to understand.

"Just one, I think. I doubt if she will risk asking anyone for help."

Tofu cocked an eyebrow at this last as he stared at Ranma again, his gentle, brown eyes were unreadable. He reached into his pocket as he stood up and pulled a heavily laden key chain from his pocket, then he walked across the room and unlocked a metal cabinet. Ranma's eyes widened with shock as Tofu withdrew a shoulder holster from the cabinet and put it on. Even more shocking was the fact that he had something suitable for filling the holster. What the hell? Ranma thought to himself, Tofu owns a gun? Then, watching as the doctor loaded the weapon, he realized that it was a tranquilizer gun.

"How many times have you had to use that thing?"

"Only twice so far," Tofu said with a rueful grin, "I had to use it on your dad once down at Miyagi-san's."

"Let me guess, he was in his panda form, right?"

"Yes, but that isn't why I used a tranquilizer dart on him. I did it mostly to make the police happy. They were going to use something rather more potent."

"He must've been drunk out of his skull."

"No, not really. It was just one of those situations where a number of people leapt to erroneous conclusions."

"Oh," Ranma said, "I see." He really did understand in spite of being angry with his father. He had been the victim of such circumstances too many times himself to think what ever happened would necessarily have been his father's fault. He knew his father would not have gone to Miyagi's in his panda form, so there must have been some kind of accident involving cold water. A panda in a beer joint with a bunch of drunks had to have been a rather volatile mix.

"I'll be back here with Akane in a little under an hour I should think," Tofu said reassuringly as he put on his lab coat, "You just try to relax, okay?"

"Just be damned careful, Doc."

Tofu flashed Ranma a toothy grin. "Ranma, I've been practicing in Nerima for quite a while now. One thing I do know how to do is to be careful."

Tofu walked over to the bed so that he could lean over and look Ranma closely in the eye.

"Now, I want you to stop pulling all the heat out of the room! It's already cold enough to store meat in here. Do you want Akane to get a chill?"

"Do what?" Ranma asked, sounding startled. Pull heat out of the room? He had never done anything like that before. He looked around and realized that the mist he noticed earlier was thickening into a fog and beads of condensation were forming on the walls near the floor. Am I really doing this? He silently asked himself. He looked inside himself and realized that he was indeed the cause. He took a deep breath and stopped it from happening. He looked back outside himself to find a sadly amused Tofu smiling at him.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Tofu! I didn't realize I was doing it."

Tofu smiled and said, "I know that, Ranma."

"I didn't even know I _could_ do it," Ranma said sounding puzzled, "What the hell was I doing?"

"We'll talk about that when I get back here with your fiancee," Tofu said and patted him carefully on his left arm.

"Okay, Doc."

"I won't be gone long," Tofu said over his shoulder as he started to leave the room.

"Oh, by the way, Doc?"

"Yes?"

"If you happen to see Nabiki, tell her I need to talk with her as soon as she can come over here."

"I'll make sure to find her," Tofu said, "You get some rest, okay?"

"Okay, Doc."

Tofu flashed him one more smile, then left.


Akane Tendo was in a bad mood. She hated having English class in the afternoon. She naturally became sleepy in the mid-afternoon and English bored her to tears. She had gotten little sleep the night before, even though it had turned out to be her non-wedding night. Being greeted by the return of Kuno's Hentai Brigade at the school-yard gate this morning had done little to improve her disposition. Matters were further aggravated by her own friends during lunch period with their endless stream of questions and catty commentary about a "non-wedding" night.

The weather isn't any help either. Akane thought sleepily to herself. It was warm despite being the middle of the fall. She watched out the window as a gentle breeze stirred fallen leaves beneath a beautifully blue sky while the year's last hatch of cicadas whirred one last tune before an overdue frost came to end their summer-long cacophony. I wish I could have gotten some sleep, Akane thought. It isn't as though I had good reason to lay awake till dawn.

Her imagination had teased her with the sensations of Ranma's hard, flat belly cuddling up to her bare back as put his arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. She tried hard not to think about such things the whole night through to no avail. Even now, during the brightly lit afternoon, long suppressed desires wore away at her, taunting her with things she seldom allowed herself to contemplate in the darkened privacy of her room, much less in a public place.

"Now, what do you say in English when someone sneezes?" Hinako-sensei asked as she turned from the chalkboard to face her class. At that very instant, Akane felt the touch of Ranma's ki. The feeling was like being hugged by a strong man while having one's ankle's stropped by a large, tom cat.

"Atchoo!" Akane sneezed.

"Bi-resu, ryu!" The class chorused, then promptly burst out into paryoxisms of laughter.

"Excellent timing, Tendo-san!" Hinako-sensei quipped as she waited for the class to calm down.

Akane felt her cheeks redden as her classmates continued to laugh. Much to her horror, Ranma's ki manifested itself again. This time she felt as though Ranma's female form was cuddling up to her back while the cat part of his touch began to gently bat her ankles with bared claws.

"Hai-a-tchoo!" Akane sneezed again loudly. The class fell silent, as Akane was again seized by the unstoppable urge to sneeze. She failed to notice that the uproar had ended.

"Ranma," Akane muttered as she put her hand over her nose and mouth.

"Hai-a-atchoo!"

"I'm fine," she muttered into her hand, "Now..."

"Hai-ai-atchoo!"

"Stop that and leave me alone!"

"Ai-choo!"

"You pervert!"

Ranma must have been reassured in some way, Akane thought, I can't feel him anymore. She glanced up to apologize to Hinako-sensei, only to find that everyone in the room was staring at her with knowing smiles. The silence did not last. Everyone again burst out laughing and Hinako gave up any hope of regaining control of the class. It was only five-minutes to the bell, but that short remainder of English period seemed several lifetimes long to Akane.


One floor down on the far end of the building, Nabiki Tendo spent fourth period straightening up the nurses station and catching up the filing as she had done since the beginning of her enrollment in Furinkan. This was her fourth and last year to work at this volunteer job. It had been quite useful to her. It had gotten her out of other, far more onerous chores one was normally expected to perform at school, while allowing her access to information which often confirmed, refuted or clarified the endless rumors that wound their way around the society of Furinkan High.

The morning's reappearance of the Hentai Brigade had not surprised her in the least. Wishful thinking was the hallmark of those hormone addled fools, especially with Kuno around to whip them into slavering frenzy. Leave it to Kuno to decide that he had defeated Ranma at his own wedding. Maybe I should talk to Ranma about not hitting Kuno on the head quite so much, she thought. Nah! Waste of time. Ranma wouldn't listen and Kuno's brain could never be any worse than it is now and maintain autonomic functions.

The reports Nabiki read while filing them for the nurse confirmed her own battle damage estimates nicely. Four had been examined and sent off to class with minor bruises. The goalie though, had a badly damaged foot. Several toes and other small bones were broken. The soccer team captain had a broken pubic arch. Both had been sent to the hospital for further treatment. The official cause was being given as an accidental kicking during soccer practice. Nice of Akane to make it all so easy to explain, Nabiki thought. Neither boy was likely to ever admit that they had been hurt by the diminutive Akane Tendo, so it was unlikely there would ever be a problem with the authorities or law suits. Revenge might become a problem later, but Ranma could take care of that kind of foolishness. Had he been with Akane this morning, neither of these boys would have gotten hurt. The Brigade would have scattered like a covey of quail.

The video tapes of her sister's battle proved to be fascinating. A frame by frame replay of the morning's events had revealed a different sort of Akane. She was furious, but not out of control. Rather than take on all comers as she had done in the past, Akane picked a path through the Brigade like a woman finding the best place to step in a muddy field. Her specialty had always been the devastating counter-attack, but there was little of that to be seen on the videos of this morning's battle.

Unless rigorously trained, and then only if they are ordered to stay in some kind of formation, a large group of people will form up into conversational groups. This was the sort of shape Furinkan's Hentai Brigade was in as Hurricane Akane swept into the school-yard. The camera caught the changes in Akane's face as the situation registered in her mind. Without pause or hesitation she walked directly to the nearest group. It took them a second or two to realize that their prize was walking right into their hands. Before the signals in their little brains could reach their arms and legs, their "opportunity" was lost. Akane's left arm flashed upwards in a sweeping motion that was a combination of Western style boxing and Aikido. The camera was just barely fast enough to get a good picture of her hand as the heel of her palm slammed into the first boy's chin. This started him over backwards and Akane helped him along with a short, wicked heel sweep with her right foot. He fell back onto his two companions entangling them long enough for Akane to get past them and inflict pain elsewhere.

She dispatched one boy approaching her more or less alone from her left with an elbow stab to the solar plexus. He was one of the ones turning blue as Akane entered the building. At one and the same time, three boys were coming in on her fast from her right. Akane caught the leader in the solar plexus with a straight snap kick and he went down in front of his hard-charging companions as though shot by an elephant gun. They tripped over him as Hurricane Akane swept past them and thrashed another group of voluntary victims. Nabiki replayed the segment twice hoping to get a freeze frame shot of Akane's foot. It was not to be. Video operated at thirty frames per second which is more or less the equivalent of a still camera stuck on a shutter speed of one thirtieth of a second. One hundredth of a second may have gotten a good, single frame, but one thirtieth was no where near fast enough to get clear picture of Akane's foot. All any one frame of the clip revealed was a blurred streak of fast moving sock and shoe. Even her recovery from the kick was blurred. Little wonder that the boy folded up like a portmanteau and dropped like a rock.

Six boys approached Akane from her left. She feinted a turn to her right, but with a sudden pivot on her firmly planted, right foot she slammed the heel of her right hand into the right-shoulder of this group's leader. He spun like a top, taking two of his companions down with his flailing arms. The remaining three dodged around their fallen comrades in a vain effort to get their hands on Akane, but she clambered over the boys that had fallen, taking no more cognizance of their dignity than she would that of a stepladder.

She made a good ten yards progress towards the school building before another group manage to get in her way again. The strange thing was that Akane did not run. She merely walked along at crisp pace, as though preoccupied and in a hurry. A crack behind the knee of the leader with her book bag managed to slow this group to a stop and a very crafty dodge by Akane caused the next group to go down in a tangle as they desperately over-reached themselves.

Five yards from the schoolhouse door, two groups managed to coalesce in front of her. Akane feigned a hard turn to the left, then a hard turn to the right, thinning their ranks in the middle and that was where she then struck, and struck hard. Her first victim took a punch on the nose that must have been heard blocks away. He went down in a spray of blood. The next nearest boy was awarded Akane's sharp, little right elbow to the solar plexus and a backfist to the sensitive, upper lip for good measure. Blinded, out of wind and in considerable pain, this young man tried to turn away, thus blocking the paths of his companions and freeing Akane from any pressure on her right flank. She very calmly resumed her business-like stroll towards the schoolhouse door.

Just as she stepped clear of this last group, the soccer team captain's hand came in from Akane's left and seized her by the breast. It was not an accident, nor was the stupid jerk simply copping a feel. He squeezed Akane hard, intentionally trying to inflict pain. Akane's right knee came up precisely on target. Her aim had been quite deliberate and she had not aimed for the boy's testicles. Her kneecap collided squarely with the front of his pubic arch. It broke with a crack loud enough to be recorded by the video camera's puny microphone. True to form for this particular injury, the boy came up on the balls of his feet, then fell over backwards without attempting to break his fall. Nabiki watched that part of the video twice in slow motion. The young captain's head bounced beautifully on the hard ground, but he seemed oblivous to the beating his skull was taking. Clearly, he was too busy worrying about other agonies.

The goalie approached Akane from the right, seizing her by the back of her bra strap with his left hand, and reaching for the front of her blouse with his right. Akane's knee had just dealt with the Soccer captain's pubic arch. Akane brought her knee up higher as she rolled her pelvis and pivoted on her left leg, then her foot rocketed down as a single, long streak of light on the video. Her heel slammed into the front part of the goalie's right foot. She may as well have used a five-kilo sledgehammer. The blow landed with enough force to drive the ball of the boy's foot down past the surface of the school-yard's hard-packed soil. Just as the pain made him turn loose of Akane's bra strap, she nailed him on the nose with a right-handed backfist that crossed his eyes.

The sight of the goalie's crossed and watering eyes amused Nabiki so much she replayed the scene several times. A huge gout of blood from his nose came several seconds later. A pretty good sign that Akane had broken the bone high up above the mass of cartilage making up the lower part of a person's nose. Nabiki laughed out loud.

"Son-of-a-bitch, that hurt!" She said in English as she shook her head. English was a much better language when you really wanted to curse.

But Akane had saved the best for last in her ninety second bout with the Brigade. The second camera had been farther away from the action. Realizing that she would not be able to capture much of the action well, the cameraman had focused upon Akane's face. Her quick thinking was rewarded by catching Akane's last and most dramatic move of the battle. She had thrown a poisonous stare at Kuno. Not an ordinary glare, mind you. This look would have set paper on fire ten meters away. Nabiki was certain that this had been an unintentional ki attack on Kuno by Akane. The look on her face went beyond mere anger. It was the same sort of look she had seen on the other ki adepts she knew.

Not that the camera captured a visible manifestation of ki. The only way an aura had ever been captured on film, or was suspected of having been captured on film, was by surrounding the subject with an intense, high-voltage electric field; a technique known as Kirlian photography. Ordinary video cameras could not operate in such an environment; high-voltage fields disrupted their circuitry. Physicists argue that such photography does not catch a person's aura at all, but that such photographs are the product of an effect known to electrical engineers as coronal leakage. The air around living things always carries a significant amount of moisture. The high-voltage field used by camera's designed to photograph an aura is conducted by the moisture, allowing it to ionize the air surrounding the subject; the ionized gasses then give off the light recorded by the camera or film.

Nabiki was certain that the physicists had only a partial answer to the question. They might well be right about the technique of Kirlian photography, but their explanation only eliminated Kirlian photography as a detector of ki, not the reality of the ki phenomenon itself. The physicists are quick to point out that Kirlian Photography does not work in a vacuum, but martial artists had claimed for centuries that breathing was central to the use of one's ki. One may, for good or ill, breath any number of gasses, but no one could breath a vacuum. It looked to her as though both might have a partially accurate assessment of the facts.

Certainly there was such a thing as people capable of using their ki to do amazing things. She had seen it done on more than one occasion by more than one person and knew that perfect control of one's ki was still the Holy Grail of all serious Martial Artists. The still frame she was looking at, was at best, only circumstantial evidence that Akane had used her ki to attack Kuno, but it was enough for Nabiki, given her experience with martial artists. The great masters of the Art were reputed to have the ability to stop an opponent's attack with a mere look or shout. To Nabiki, this single frame from camera two suggested that Akane had used her ki in the way spoken of by martial artists for centuries. She had felled an opponent with a hard stare. Nabiki would mark this moment as her baby sister's first known use of a pure ki attack.

It was the look on Akane's face that convinced Nabiki her younger sister had launched an inadvertent ki attack on Kuno, that and the fact that Kuno had dropped from what appeared to be heat exhaustion. She had gotten word that their local reservoir of delusional fantasy had been up all night pacing the grounds of his estate. Nabiki had no reason to doubt her source's word on the matter. It had been proven correct too many times to doubt without good reason. More than one of her informants had told her that Kuno had worked through several extra kata with unusual vigor before delivering his sermon on the evils of Saotome this morning. It was entirely possible that Kuno had simply overdone it this morning, and it only caught up with him at the end of Akane's counterassault of the Hentai Brigade, but Nabiki doubted it. She suspected that Kuno had done what many athletes and martial artists often do; he had pushed his limits this morning. Perhaps he had pushed them a little too hard, leaving him vulnerable to an uncontrolled, unintentional and unfocused burst of ki.

Then of course, Kuno was probably on the verge of hyperventilation by the time Akane launched her ki attack. Nabiki had deduced a dirty little secret about Kuno that she had mentioned to no one. She knew all too well why he orchestrated these morning bouts for her sister. Watching Akane fight turned him on. For Kuno, three minutes of watching Akane struggle with the Hentai Brigade was better than four hours of pornographic film. Nabiki had few doubts on the matter because she herself got the same sort of thrill from watching Ranma fight. He had ruined the Sumo matches for her the day he had arrived in Nerima. Damn those blue eyes of his! Her interest in Sumo withered and died within a week of his arrival.

Thinking about Ranma made her shiver. No, that was not what made her shiver. A cat had somehow gotten into the school building and was now stropping her ankles. She looked down. There was no cat. Chills ran up her back, then to her greater consternation, she felt Ranma's presence in the room.

"Ranma?" Nabiki asked, looking around room.

Nabiki got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she sneezed. He wouldn't be able to do this if there wasn't some sort of bond between us, she thought. And I have done everything imaginable to make sure there was never any such bond. Yet there was no mistaking what she was experiencing at this very moment, Ranma wanted her attention and was getting it even though he was no where near the school.

"Oh, all right. Whatever it is...Athcoo!...I'll help, okay?"

Nabiki took a deep breath as she felt Ranma's presence fade. She turned her attention back to the video monitor and cocked an eyebrow at it.

"Well, baby sister! Your dancing in the dojo with him has paid off quite nicely," Nabiki said aloud to monitor, "Had we dyed your hair red last night, you would have passed for the Pigtailed Kami out there this morning."


Tofu Ono had treated Ranma Saotome for numerous injuries. The overwhelming majority of them had been minor and sports related--that is assuming that the Martial Arts might rightly be considered a sport. These injuries however were different. No single injury the boy suffered this time was anymore serious than the injuries Tofu had treated in the past; the frightening difference was their overall number. Happosai had never been on Tofu's list of favorite people, but now the old man was on the very short list of people for whom Tofu Ono bore genuine anger. It was time someone taught the callous old fool a lesson. He would have a word with Soun and Genma.

Ranma's alarm over Akane's welfare had confirmed something he had already come to fear about his observations of the young man's mental condition. The boy was showing every sign of suffering from a classic case of combat fatigue. Tofu had gone to the trouble of bringing the tranquilizer gun as a sop to Ranma's fears, but now, as he walked towards Furinkan, he began to wonder if he might not have also taken a wise precaution. While it was true that victims of combat fatigue sometimes suffered from unreasonable fears, they always had good reason for their paranoia. This young man's life had been terribly difficult arriving in Nerima, and by all accounts he knew of, it had not been a picnic the ten years prior. If Ranma's fears were well founded, it made matters worse for his young patient not better. It merely confirmed the validity of his diagnosis and worsened the prognosis.

The bad thing was, simply treating Ranma at the clinic would not effect a permanent cure. He would very quickly begin to deteriorate again once he returned home because the day to day stresses underlying the problem would still be there waiting for him upon his release. Sooner or later, something would happen to push Ranma over the edge, and as powerful as his techniques were, that would spell disaster himself and half of Tokyo. Tofu Ono realized that he was in the ticklish position of a man disarming a fast fission device, equipped with only a poorly translated manual and a crescent wrench. He knew quite a bit about Ranma, but he would need to know more before he could cure him.

Once at the school, Tofu merely informed the principle of his intentions, rather than asking permission. The principal complained, but Tofu stared him down. As far as Tofu was concerned, this irresponsible boob was a major problem for several of his patients. He brooked no argument from the fool. He learned from the janitor that Nabiki helped out at the nursing station during this period.

"Nabiki Tendou, volunteering to help without getting paid?" He asked the woman incredulously.

"Compensation comes in many forms, my good Doctor," the janitor said with a raised eyebrow. "I'm sure Tendo-san has her reasons for volunteering. She always has reason for everything else she does."

"I see."

"No, Doctor. You only think you see," the janitor said in dire tones. "Pray you never see it all."

Tofu had Nabiki's largesse figured out by the time he had reached the nurses station. He could not imagine a better place to gather more information on more people in the school than actually being on the faculty, and perhaps not even being on the faculty would be better for Nabiki's purposes.

"Nabiki-san?"

"Hello, Tofu-sensei. What brings you here?"

"It's a long story and I haven't much time, but Ranma Saotome asks that you come by and see him sometime after school today."

"I _knew_ he wanted to see me," Nabiki said, sounding vaguely worried. "Did he say what about?"

"No, he didn't. How did you know..."

Nabiki cut him off with a smug grin and casual wave of the hand.

"It's a long story and you probably don't have the time."

"Touche, Tendo-san! Touche! This evening then?"

"Ciao!" Nabiki said with a nod of the head.

A short time later he got Akane out of class and found himself helping her carry books and papers. Doubtless, she and Ranma both had a ton of schoolwork to catch up.

"Dr. Tofu?" Akane asked as they left the school grounds.

"Yes, Akane?"

"How bad is Ranma? He isn't going to..."

"I expect him to physically recover very quickly, Akane," Tofu said tiredly, "but his mental condition is fragile and will worsen rapidly if immediate changes are not made. I need you to stay with him for a little while so that he will calm down. He became deeply concerned about you as soon as he woke up this afternoon."

Akane stared straight ahead as they walked along the street saying nothing, nearly oblivious to her surroundings. Tofu noticed her apparent lack of concern for her own safety as he scanned the area for potential threats.

"I knew Ranma was worried about me before you got here," Akane said with a sigh. "I felt him touch me a little while ago."

"He touched you?" Tofu said, feeling a bit taken aback.

"Mm-hmm," Akane noised as she nodded her head. "He does that sometimes. It always makes me sneeze."

"There must be a very powerful bond between the two of you," Tofu said, as much to get Akane's reaction as anything else. He needed to know for Ranma's sake how Akane really felt about the boy. Tofu had already inferred an answer, but wanted confirmation from Akane herself. Nothing beat an open admission in his business.

"There is," Akane said sheepishly , "but neither of us has a clue as to what to do about it."

Tofu could not suppress a chuckle.

"Why don't you try doing what comes naturally?"

"Because neither of us is ready to have children," she said emphatically.

Tofu had not expected quite so frank an admission.

"Well you needn't let things go that far, Akane!" he said as he nodded at a passerby.

"I...I..." Akane stammered and wiped at the sudden tears burning her eyes without even realizing they were welling up at the corners of her eyes, "We live in the same house. We eat at the same table. We see each other every morning of nearly every day. If we were to...I don't think I could stop myself if we ever let a romance start, Dr. Tofu. The temptation would become too great."

"I'm certain Ranma has more than enough self-discipline to avoid trouble," Tofu said in a soothing tone, "And I think he probably would, Akane."

"That pervert?" Akane sounded incredulous. "Stop something like that? No way! You didn't see what he did the first day I met him."

Tofu suppressed a laugh as he continued to check for threats.

"I think I've heard this story! You walked in on him in the bath, right?"

"Yes," Akane said with clinched teeth, "I did. I thought he was a girl and I wasn't wearing any clothes."

"Let me guess. He became erect, didn't he?" Tofu asked as though he already knew the answer.

Akane's eyes widened to the size of dinner plates as she nodded her head in agreement. They walked on in silence for a few steps while Tofu did his best to contain a screaming fit of laughter. Young people were so funny sometimes. It was not their fault of course. Ignorance and hormones had combined to make a volatile mixture for eons. They would go on doing so for as long as humanity existed.

"He couldn't help it, you know," Tofu said with a grin in his voice.

"What do you mean, he couldn't help it?"

"He couldn't help feeling what he felt anymore than you did at the time."

An ominous red glow began to form around Akane, but Tofu ignored it. The time for these two to face themselves had come and gone long ago.

"You see, the trouble with us men, is that we can almost never hide what we feel in that sort of situation, even if we try thinking of something quite different. As you no doubt noticed, our plumbing is a little revealing."

The glow around Akane dissipated. She nodded her head again and giggled.

"I'll say it's revealing! It scared the hell out of me."

"Oh, really? Why?"

"Because...because..."

"Because you felt brand new form of very intense excitement when you saw it, right?"

Akane began to turn several shades of red. Tofu smiled to himself.

"You needn't answer that, Akane. Just listen to me for a moment, okay?"

Akane nodded silently, blinking back a new flood of tears. Tofu gave her a handkerchief.

"There was nothing perverted about happened to the two of you that day. Ranma was and is a very healthy young male. You are a very healthy young female. Reacting that way is perfectly natural and healthy. So long as the two of you maintain a little self-control, you shouldn't feel ashamed of feeling that way about him anymore than he should feel guilty about feeling that way about you. After all, the race must go on, you know." Tofu flashed a smile at her and was gratified as Akane seemed to relax a little, but then she tensed up again.

"But what if...what if I feel that way about him while he's female?"

Aha! Tofu thought, to himself. I thought there must be more here than what meets the eye. The poor girl is wrestling with her own hormones so much she's afraid to look inside and see what she might find out about herself.

"Is it just Onna-Ranma you feel that way about?"

"Mostly," Akane said and then hesitated for a moment, "other girls only excite me when my mind is really on Ranma. Well...Oh! I never felt that way about anyone before until he, I mean she..."

Tofu wanted very badly to laugh, but suppressed it. People were taught such foolish things as they grew up. All he could do was his best to help them sort matters out on their own. He could not really do anymore than that. He waved at Yamakami-san as they passed her house. She was out working on her flagstones as usual. Tofu had first worried that she might be obsessive-compulsive when he first met her.

"When did you first start feeling an attraction to his female form?" Tofu asked Akane.

"Not long after I met, him actually," Akane said in a distant voice. "He had gotten splashed during a fight. When he got worried that I might get hurt, he took me into his arms and jumped to a rooftop so I would be safe. It made me tingle all over."

"Onna-Ranma picked you up and jumped to a rooftop?" Tofu was impressed. There were any number of martial artists in Nerima capable of jumping to a rooftop, Tofu himself among them, but Akane was half of a head taller than Onna-Ranma and probably outweighed her by a couple of kilograms. Such a leap was phenomenal. He wondered if Ranma had taken time to notice which form he was in at the time.

"Being carried to safety made you tingle all over, or was it the physical contact with Onna-Ranma that did it?"

"Both, I think. I got...I got very excited that day and I've had trouble with it ever since."

"Akane, there is nothing inherently wrong about any of this," Tofu said with a sigh, "your attraction to Ranma, whether male or female, is perfectly natural. Neither of you are perverts."

"How can you say that, Dr. Tofu? It isn't natural?"

"Oh, really? Throughout history Akane, a fraction of the human population has been homosexual. The percentage has remained steady, despite the often drastic disapproval of the heterosexual majority. To me, it suggests that homosexuality is not inherently wrong. It is, simply put, just another potential source of release nature has given us."

Akane stared at Tofu suddenly looking horrified.

"I am not saying you are homosexual. In your case, feeling a sexual attraction for Ranma is not the least bit questionable or abnormal, given Ranma's unique condition. Which form of him attracts you the most?"

"Sexually? Definitely his male form, but...but his girl half..."

"You, my dear girl, whether you want to admit it to yourself or not, are very much in love with Ranma Saotome...both halves of him."

They walked on silence for a few steps before Tofu thought of another question.

"How long has he been able to touch you from a distance?"

"Oh..." Akane hesitated as she tried to remember. "I think it must have been right after he learned the Umisen-ken."

"Umisen-ken?"

"Mmm!" Akane nodded her head. "It's a secret technique Uncle Saotome taught him. Ranma can disappear from sight right in front of you."

"Ninjutsu?"

"No, I think it's a special ki technique," Akane said, then grinned. "But the big jerk messed up."

"How?"

"To practice, he started coming into my room late at night and replacing my things with things from the kitchen. I found out that if I think about him, I can feel his presence."

"Does he know?"

Akane shook her head. "I'm saving that for a surprise."

Tofu grinned even though he was beginning to tire. Counselling a patient while watching for unknown threats was strenuous. He took a deep breath and continued.

"On the whole Akane, I'd say you are one of the most fortunate people I've ever met."

"How so?" Akane asked, sounding slightly alarmed.

"For starters, you are engaged to a man who, as he gets older, will come to understand more about being a human being than anyone else on earth."

Akane glanced up at Tofu and he was fairly sure he saw the sparks of realization flashing in her eyes.

"And if you have the good sense to marry him, you will no doubt have the best sex life a person could ever hope to have."

"Now you are beginning to sound like Nabiki, Dr. Tofu!"

"Thank you, Akane! Nabiki has an exceptionally good head on her shoulders about some things."

"He owes me some things, first," Akane said grimly.

"Such as?" Tofu asked.

"Respect, mainly," Akane said with a sigh. Then, in a more menacing tone she added, "He especially owes me more respect as a student of the art."

Tofu smiled to himself. Rivalry between spouses was not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it gave both an incentive to improve. In this case, a mutual love of their art could easily result in a mutual love of one another for a century. Neither of them was likely to suffer the ills the majority of his patients suffered from. Either or both could die in an accident or a fight, but heart disease or lung disease or any of the most common killers of people were pretty much ruled out for this pair.

"I think Ranma respects you a great deal as a person already, Akane," Tofu said, "but when it comes to the art, I think you need to be sure of two things."

"What's that, Doctor?"

"Be sure you understand his training methods, and be doubly sure to earn his respect in the dojo."

"How can earn his respect? All he does is pick at me and dodge my strikes. He never even bothers to block!"

"What bothers you the worst? His teasing or his dodging?"

"The teasing. He only does it to make me mad."

"Well, I think you just figured out how to earn his respect, Akane."

"Huh!" Akane noised, the consternation she felt was plainly written upon her face.

"Think about it."

"You think Ranma has good reason to worry about me," she said with a gasp as she looked up at his face, "Don't you, Dr. Tofu."

"He may. Why do you ask?"

"Because you are watching everywhere at once as though you were expecting an attack."

"Ranma is suffering from what can best be described as combat fatigue, Akane. Victims of this condition usually have good reason to worry. In this case, Ranma's fears may be nothing more than a symptom, but until we know for sure..."

"I understand," Akane said, as she too became watchful and they quietly walked the rest of the way to the clinic.

Akane dropped her books on the couch in the lobby and kept going until she reached the room Ranma was in.

"Ranma, you dummy! What's the big idea having me pulled out of school?"

"Nothin' harder than fists! Okay, tomboy?"

"Okay, but only so long as you don't do anything perverted."

Tofu grinned to himself in the lobby as he locked the entrance and hung up his closed sign. So far so good. The fractious pair were dealing with one another in their usual fashion. In some ways this would actually help his patient, but he made a mental note to talk with Akane about the name calling. As comforting as it could be for both of them, the proper course of treatment called for greatly reducing the stress in Ranma's life.

"Okay, we gotta deal then. Where's Doc Tofu?"

"Right here, Ranma," Tofu said as he entered the treatment room. "Now, how about telling us what's going on, and why you are so worried."

"Xian Pu," Ranma said simply as though he had explained life, the universe and everything in it with a single word. Akane turned livid with fury, then paled with fear.

"Xian Pu?" Tofu asked, "Maybe you had better elaborate a little, Ranma. I'm not sure I understand."

"She's gonna try to kill Akane sometime soon."

Tofu quickly put his hand on Akane's shoulder, hoping she would take it as a cue to remain silent. Much to his relief, she did.

"What makes you say that?" Tofu asked.

"What she said during our attempt at marriage yesterday. And the things she threatened to do to Akane and me while we were in China."

Akane buried her face in both hands, remembering all that had happened in just the last month. Much of it had not been pleasant.

"What did she say at the wedding, Ranma?" Tofu asked.

"She threw some pretty heavy bombs at the wedding yesterday, Doc. Just before they went off in my face, I heard her say she was aiming at Akane instead of me."

"I see," Tofu said speculatively, "but didn't Ukyo throw some as well? That's what I was told."

"Yeah, but she was throwin' her stuff at me because she meant to hit me, not Akane. Her argument is with me and she knows it. I didn't mind that too much. I can understand her bein' mad at me. Shampoo was aimin' for Akane. That was just plain spiteful."

"But it was never your fault, Ranma!" Akane cried. "It was your dad that caused all the trouble engaging her to you after you were already engaged to me! Ukyo has no right to take it out on you, anymore than Xian Pu has a right to hurt me!"

"Yeah, but I owe Ukyo, Akane. Me or Pop neither one has done anything to make things right with her!" Ranma said, "Trouble is, I'm not at all sure of what to do for her. How can I pay her back for everything she's been through?"

Tofu sighed and asked questions until he understood about Ukyo. He had known about the loss of her dowry, but the subsequent treatment of her by her family was news to him. He had to bite his tongue in anger at the behavior of Ukyo's father. He had to try and put the matter aside for the moment. It was an issue he would look into later. Chances were good that there would be little that he could do to help the poor girl, but he would try.

The truly disturbing news was what he learned of Xian Pu's behavior. Most people would consider a person like Xian Pu to be completely insane. Tofu knew better. The girl had been raised in a society held together by harsh rules. She was simply doing what she considered to be both legal and morally necessary. This made her far more dangerous than a person suffering from mental illness, because she had full control of her mental faculties. Xian Pu could and most likely would, make full use of her intelligence to serve her purposes. He looked at Akane as she stared at Ranma and realized that Nerima might soon be embroiled in a feud little different from that between the Taira and the Minamoto. Come to think of it, a feud between the Tendos and the Joketsuzoku might actually be far worse. The Taira and Minamoto led to a civil war in Japan. A fight between the Tendos and the Joketsuzoku might lead to a war between Japan and China, given Nerima's infamous weirdness index. Tofu broke from his reverie with a shudder, only to find Ranma staring at him with a fevered gaze.

"Runnin' won't work, Doc," Ranma said grimly, "Xian Pu followed me here all the way from Qing Hai. I know she didn't know where we were going in advance because even I didn't know until after we got here. And my old man is one of the world's best at coverin' his tracks. Now that she thinks she might be losin' me, Xian Pu will find Akane no matter where she goes."

Tofu swallowed back the sour taste in his mouth and asked, "Won't Ukyo be at considerable risk as well?"

"Only after Akane is out of the picture," Ranma said, "but you're right. Xian Pu would probably go after Ukyo next--just to be safe if nothin' else."

Tofu searched around the room and found another chair. Pulling it over close to Ranma's bed, he sat down heavily, struggling to banish the vision of introducing Genma to some of the more refined techniques of ubijutsu. Then he had to struggle with the pity he felt for the two youngsters now in his care. Pitiable though they were, pity was not what they needed at the moment. He needed to think clearly. After a moment, he hit upon what he thought might be a good solution for the interim. At least it would buy them so more time.

"What if you were to announce that you and Akane were no longer engaged, Ranma?" Tofu asked. The suggestion caused both of the young people to blanch visibly. He could tell that neither of them liked the idea. The funny thing was, they were both looking at him and not each other.

"What is announced, need not necessarily be true," Tofu added quickly.

"I thought about it, Doc," Ranma said in a quiet voice. This caused Akane to give Ranma a very hurt look, but much to her credit, she allowed Ranma to finish his thoughts aloud. "It would never work. The only thing that has held Xian Pu back is the knowledge that I have feelings for Akane and Ukyo. Her fear of offending me is the only thing that has kept either of them alive. If she thinks she is about to lose, she'll attack. If she thinks she's gonna win, she'll want to close the back door."

"Ranma," Akane asked in a small voice, "How long have you known that Xian Pu was this serious?"

"From day one really, but after the Cat's Tongue thing, I thought for a while that maybe she had changed. Now I know better. After what happened at Jusendo and at the dojo yesterday, I'm sure she is as dangerous as ever.

The silence which then pervaded the room was profound and long lasting. It was Ranma that finally broke it.

"After you left to go get Akane, Doc, I started thinkin' maybe I'm down to two choices. I can marry Xian Pu, or I can kill her. I ain't very happy with either option."

Tofu studied Ranma's face and did not like the lines of growing tension he saw there. Even worse was the horrible conflict of emotions running across Akane's face. Now he would have to separate them long enough for Akane to recover. Otherwise, Ranma would begin suffering from even more stress.

"I think I'll make us some tea," he said trying to sound hopeful, "Akane, could you give me a hand with the dishes and tray?"

Akane said nothing but merely rose from her chair to signal her acquiescence, the obediently followed Tofu into his kitchenette.

"Akane, what do you think of all this?"

"I am not sure. I know he's right about Ukyo, but Xian Pu..."

"So you think he may have valid cause for concern?"

"I don't know for certain," Akane said, as tears began to run down her face in a solid stream, "All I can tell you for sure is that Ranma doesn't scare easily, but he hasn't acted as though he were worried about what Xian Pu might do for a long time now. It's...it's hard for me to believe, but Ranma..."

Tofu placed a calming hand on her shoulder.

"Would you mind staying here with Ranma over night?" Tofu asked, "I know it must seem to be a rather unusual request, but I'm afraid Ranma won't rest unless you are nearby. Try to keep him thinking about some other subject. His mental condition is quite fragile at the moment."

"How long will he be like this, Dr. Tofu?"

"Hmm, well combat fatigue is very similar to other stress related illnesses. Provided it is diagnosed and treated early, it usually fades quite rapidly if the source of the stress is removed. If we do not do something about it now though, Ranma could easily end up like your father."

"Dad has had combat fatigue all these years?" Akane asked in shock.

"His condition is not combat fatigue _per se_, but his symptoms are almost the same. Your father's condition arose from prolonged exposure to a great deal of emotional stress. Your father suffered from it for so long, he has never been able to fully recover."

Tofu paused to marvel at the look of revelation on Akane's face. Now you see, don't you my dear girl? Tofu thought to himself. Your father is worthy of a little more credit than you've been giving him all these years.

"Ranma's condition is not that bad yet, Akane. He will improve rapidly, provided he gets some rest from the things that are bothering him. Without a respite, he cannot recover. He will become increasingly irascible and find it increasingly difficult to maintain his self-control."

The thought of an out of control Ranma Saotome frightened Tofu. The aftermath of a major earthquake would be far easier to deal with on an emotional level than the havoc Ranma could wreak while in the grip of an all consuming rage. Tofu thought about some of the things that happened in the Pacific during WWII and shuddered.

"Poor, Ranma!" Akane said, almost in a wail, "We can't ever let his mother see him like this."

"His mother?" Tofu asked, sounding shocked, "What..."

Akane quickly explained about Nodoka and the agreement Genma had made with her regarding Ranma's manliness. Tofu felt his face begin to turn red and had to fight down a wave of nausea as he realized that he would have to act immediately on the behalf of his patient, even if it meant going to the authorities. He would avoid having Genma and Nodoka declared incompetent parents if he could. The authorities disliked doing such a thing and Genma Saotome was still a hero in the minds of older Nerimians. They still remembered the days when Soun and Genma were instrumental in ridding the town of ne'er do wells. Disgracing Genma and by extension, Soun Tendo would hurt Ranma's prospects as a teacher of his art. It would also be certain to harm Tofu's own practice, but all that be as it may, Tofu had a patient at risk and he resolved to do what he must.

He took a clean teacup down from the shelf and walked over to the refrigerator. He opened a plastic container full of small, odd looking fruit. He took one of them out and put the lid back on the container. After closing the refrigerator he returned to the counter and squeezed juice from the small fruit into the teacup. He rolled the cup around so that the clear juice coated the interior surfaces of the cup.

"Akane?"

"Yes, Dr. Tofu?"

"Make sure Ranma drinks his tea from this cup."

"Yes, Doctor."

"After the two of you finish your tea, I want you to be sure and clean this cup very, very thoroughly with soap and very hot water, okay?"

"Okay, what are you putting in it."

"It's the fruit of a cactus, _lophocereus ono_," Tofu said with a little pride in his voice, "It's an extremely rare, slow growing plant I found while I was away on my research trip. The juice of the fruit isn't exactly a narcotic, but it does help a person relax and maintain their self-confidence and self-control."

"Help with self-confidence? Ranma needs help with his self-confidence?"

"Yes, for the moment. He has very little control over his own life right now, in case you have not noticed. It has eroded his self-confidence a great deal. This is one of the major causes of combat fatigue. A lack of control over one's own life and circumstances. It can destroy the strongest of men."

Akane inhaled sharply as though experiencing a sudden revelation.

"Much of Ranma's behavior has been overcompensation for this lack of personal control in his life. He has borne up quite well, all said and done."

"That's why he's always so happy in a fight!" Akane exclaimed, "He feels as though he's in control."

Tofu nodded as he thoroughly washed his hands. "And he usually is if half of what I hear is true."

Akane giggled in spite of herself. "I'm sure you haven't heard the half of it."

Tofu involuntarily shuddered. How much more could have possibly been happening to this young man, he thought. He poured the treated cup full of green tea, then filled another cup for Akane.

"Here, go have tea with Ranma. I'm going to be gone for a while. I am going to lock the outer doors. You are not to allow anyone else into the clinic until I return."

"Okay, Dr. Tofu."

"I may be gone for several hours, so don't be alarmed. You'll find a cot in the hall closet if it gets to be too late."

"Where are you going, Dr. Tofu?"

"I am going to go have a little talk with Ranma's parents and a few other folks. Be sure to rinse that cup in hot water before you touch the inside of it!" Tofu said over his shoulder as he hurried towards the lobby. The last thing he wanted at the moment was an argument from Akane. He was going to need that energy to deal with other matters.

Akane watched Tofu's departing back through the glass doors of the clinic. Much to her shock, he was emanating a battle aura. I wonder if he is going to beat up Mr. Saotome, she thought, more power to him if he does. Remembering her assigned duties she fetched the tray and carried it into Ranma's room. His eyes were closed and for the very first time, Akane saw something in Ranma's face had never noticed before. Perhaps the reason she had never seen it was because worry engraves a person's face slowly and no one notices it until something breaks. Akane sadly shook her head. The seams in Ranma's face were so obvious now it was hard for her to believe she had missed them. She was still studying his face when he noted her presence and opened his eyes.

"I brought you some tea."

"Where's Dr. Tofu?"

"He had a few errands to run," Akane said as she helped him raise his head. Rather than simply hand him the cup, she held it to his lips. "Drink this."

"What is it?" Ranma whispered in hoarse voice.

"Tea and a little something to make you feel better."

"It isn't going to knock me out is it?" Ranma asked suspiciously.

"Dr. Tofu said it would ease your pain and make you relax. He didn't say anything about sleep."

Ranma did not refuse the tea. She did not think he would. He never refused anything from her when she really wanted him to take it.

"Aw, man!" Ranma said as he laid back against the pillows, "That hit the spot!"

Akane smiled. Some small part of her mind warned her that she was letting her true feelings for Ranma show. She told it to go to hell. Even beat and bandaged, the classic lines of his god-like body thrilled her. Being held by him was like being caressed by a bronze statue, but one that was warm and alive--Oh, so very, very much alive! Ranma looked back at her, his eyes shining in a way she had not seen before. She got lost in their ocean blue depths.

"Ranma, I..."

She did not get to finish because he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her. This was not a platonic peck on the cheek, nor was it a gentle brush of his lips on hers. This was a full blown, fully passionate, R-rated, let's go make babies together type kiss. He did not let her come up for air for a very, very long time. Akane was so shocked she almost did not take time to enjoy it until the very end. She sat down heavily in the nearby chair the instant he let her go. Her legs were too weak for her to remain standing.

"Akane...I'm...I'm sorry. I...I've been wanting to do that since the first day I met you...I would have too, but...but I was a girl at the time. I won't let it happen again! I promise!" Ranma said, then passed out as though some unseen hand had pressed his off button.

Akane dropped the teacup and it shattered unnoticed upon the immaculately polished tiles of the clinic floor. She began giggling, then she laughed so hard her ribs hurt.

"Ranma Saotome, you big dummy!" Akane said, blinking back unbidden tears, "I love you! How could you not know that by now?"

Ranma snored obliviously as the lines of worry in his face showed signs of fading. Akane took his hand and clutched it to her breast.

"Oh, Ranma," she whispered, "Whatever will we do?"


By the time Tofu reached the Tendo home, the tiny quantity of drug that had soaked through his skin while preparing Ranma's dose, took its full effect upon him. It was not very much, but he was thankful for it just the same. Kasumi answered the door.

"Oh, my! Good evening, Dr. Tofu!"

"Good evening, Nurse," Tofu said, "Is Saotome-san here? I need to speak with him."

Kasumi blinked at his calling her nurse. Tofu hated being so impersonal with her, but now was not the time for him to lose control of himself. He had a patient in need of care and that came above all else. Thinking of Kasumi as a fellow professional helped.

"Why yes, he is. This way if you please, Doctor," Kasumi said as she led Tofu into the living room. Tofu was grateful that she caught his cue and recovered so quickly. As usual, Soun and Genma were sitting in the engawa, engrossed in another shogi match.

"Mr. Saotome?" Kasumi said cheerfully as ever, "You have a visitor."

Both Genma and Soun looked up at Tofu, then stared at him in shock for a second. They got up quickly and bowed.

"Good evening, Sensei," Soun said as he bowed.

"Is Ranma all right?" Genma asked as he straightened up and looked concerned. Tofu studied Genma's physique carefully as he began to think, If I try to explain this straight out, he is simply going to scoff and say the boy will recover the same way he always has before. I have to do something to make him realize the seriousness of this situation. Much of Ranma's trouble comes from that damnable Nekko-ken training. Genma's a good hearted soul, it's just that he is entirely too rough and doesn't listen very well. Aha! That old trick will work on him.

What Tofu had in mind would not work on everyone, but he could now see that Genma was among the few susceptible to the particular treatment he had in mind. The technique was commonly used as a prank on new trainees, just beginning to learn the rudiments of ubijutsu. Sensei's often used it on new students who needed a lesson in paying attention to instruction. Experienced students paid very, very careful attention to their instructors in ubijutsu.

Taking full advantage of his lanky frame and deceptive movements, Tofu quickly closed on Genma and rubbed Genma's neck and shoulders. He was of course, applying judicious amounts of pressure to specific parts of Genma's body.

"Now you should be able to hear a gnat land a hundred meters away, Genma-kun," Tofu said in a voice so low he should not have been heard by anyone.

Genma quickly covered his ears with both hands as his eyes grew wide with shock.

"Don't worry," Tofu subvocalized, "It will only last a few hours."

"Why don't you have a seat at the table?" Tofu asked in a normal voice. "We need to talk."

Genma winced as though Tofu had shouted into a large, powerful public address system, then nodded his head.

"Nurse?"

"Yes, Doctor?" Kasumi said.

"I think Saotome-san needs some aspirin."

"Right away, Doctor," Kasumi said. Tofu noted that she seemed quietly amused. Maybe she likes being called "Nurse," Tofu thought.

Soun Tendo was staring at Tofu too shocked to cry, but looked as though he might start. Tofu reached over with his left hand and pinched Soun's right shoulder. Soun collapsed to his knees. The ubijutsu technique was not quite as effective as those suggested by science fiction movies, but it worked well enough under these rather more mundane circumstances. Soun was not unconscious, just very, very calm. Hearing a faint noise behind him, Tofu raised his left hand into the air without turning around.

"Don't go anywhere just yet, Nabiki! "Tofu said grimly, "This involves you just about as much as it does anyone else here tonight."

Nabiki first froze in her tracks, then quietly walked over to the table and sat down. The sound of her steps suggested she was more than a little apprehensive. Good! Tofu thought to himself, she should be.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tofu could see Genma pressing his hands against his ears, and holding his mouth open. Good! Tofu thought. Now you cannot help but hear what needs to be heard. You won't miss a thing, Genma-kun! Even if you do cover your ears, and going panda will only make matters worse.

Tofu was about to ask about Nodoka when she came down the stairs.

"Good evening, Sensei," Nodoka said, to Tofu.

Genma winced.

"Good evening, Saotome-san. Please excuse me for intruding upon you this evening, but we need to discuss the matter of your son's health and future well being."

Tears came into Genma's eyes. Tofu smiled inwardly at this. Genma was only just beginning to feel the technique's full effect.

"Of course, Sensei. Would you care for tea?"

Kasumi returned with a bottle of aspirin and a glass of water, setting them on the table in front of Genma. He blinked and drew back as though she had just entered the room astraddle a large frontloader and dumped a load of gravel on the table.

"That would be very nice," Tofu said with short bow, "Thank you very much."

Genma again covered his ears with both hands and moaned as Tofu spoke. Clearly he regretted the latter action, stopping in mid-moan with a little squeak that was almost equally devastating.

Kasumi pried the adult proof cap off the aspirin bottle. It opened with a faint pop, causing Genma to dive for cover. This action of course caused several noises which Genma seemed to immediately regret. He returned to an upright position, moving as though he were preparing to go into the Umisen-ken. Just as he got straightened out, Kasumi shook two aspirin out of the small, plastic bottle. Tofu knew for a fact that Genma was bald, but he could have sworn the man's hair stood straight up as Genma tried to shield his face from what was obviously an exploding aspirin bottle.

Nodoka began setting the table. The noise she made caused Genma to vibrate as though he were caught in a paint shaker. He reached for the aspirin bottle.

"I wouldn't take any more of those for an hour or so, Genma-kun," Tofu subvocalized, "They might make your ears ring."

Such a prospect obviously terrified Genma. Tears welled up in his eyes, whereupon he promptly put on a show of trying to locate the loud noises coming from his tear ducts. Tofu recalled that the tear ducts made a dreadful, squishing sound when they pumped tears, as though one were being stalked by an evil, gelatinous monster from a popular horror flick. Tofu smiled.

By the time the tea was served, Genma had begun to adjust to his new condition, that is until Soun sipped his tea. Genma shivered from head to foot and stared at his old friend as though he were some kind of horrible, movie monster.

"Tendo Soun, what is your opinion of Saotome Ranma's manliness?" Tofu asked, nearly choking on the question. He watched as shock registered in everyone's face but Nabiki. The only reaction she gave was a slight cock of the right eyebrow. Soun seemed completely baffled. Nodoka's face began to reflect genuine concern as Kasumi eventually smiled.

Genma winced and jammed a finger in each ear, then looked down at his chest. Uh-huh, Tofu thought to himself. When you do that your heartbeat drives you nuts and the sounds from outside get through anyway.

"I have no worries about Ranma's manliness, just his indecisiveness," Soun finally said.

"Ranma has good reason for some of his indecisiveness, Tendo-san. I think perhaps we should discuss that topic on some later date. What is your opinion of him has a martial artist?"

Genma was beginning to look like a middle-aged man trapped in the mosh pit at metal concert.

"Gifted, is the only word that describes him. He has a great deal yet to learn, but he is already better than all but a handful of martial artists that I know about. I do believe however, he should spend a bit more time in meditation and he has neglected serious study in the use of weapons."

"Saotome Genma, what is your opinion?

"I agree with Tendo-kun for the most part. I do not doubt my son's manliness." Genma said in a soft, tiny voice. He paused to allow what Tofu knew sounded like the echoes in a vast cavern to die down, "Of his skill in the art, I think he will soon be a match for Happosai, if he isn't already. I suspect he sometimes holds back to avoid embarrassing or hurting the master."

Much to Tofu's surprise, Soun nodded his head in agreement at Genma's last statement. Genma seemed about to succumb to exhaustion, until he noticed that Nabiki had been watching him out of the corner of one eye and now looked as though she might erupt into hysterics. Genma stared at her with a pleading look.

"Tendo Nabiki," Tofu asked, "What is your opinion of Saotome Ranma's manliness?"

Nabiki's face held its usual, cool and calm demeanor, but her eyes were shining with pride, "You mean when he's a guy or while he is cursed?"

Tofu worked very hard at not appearing to be flustered.

"In both his forms, please."

"He is very much a guy. He's even worse when he's a girl," Nabiki said with a smirk, "He is especially bad when he is a girl and it is that time of the month."

This took Tofu Ono back considerably. How had the boy endured this many problems and remained essentially sane? Tofu thought, anyone else he knew would have turned homicidal long before now. Aw, nuts! Tofu thought. Now I've got to explain to him about visiting a gynecologist. That won't be any fun. Do I have any lady gynecologists on my reference list? Only Takahashi-sensei. That means I'll have to go with Ranma across town to see her. The change of scene would do him some good, but it wouldn't do to let him wonder about Tokyo on his own right now. Tofu let out an involuntary sigh. Thankfully at least, Takahashi-san specialized in strange cases.

"It's only happened the one time, Doctor," Kasumi said, "A long time ago. When Ko Lon gave him the Whole Body Cat's Tongue."

Tofu noted that Genma was beginning to calm down considerably. Must be the aspirin kicking in, he thought. He checked his watch. Yep, it's the aspirin.

"Oh, I see! So it is an irregular occurrence. I wonder why he never..." Tofu cut himself off as he eyed Nodoka warily. Her face was as serene as ever, but she was beginning to shake. Time to change the subject, Tofu old buddy!

"Thank the kami it's irregular!" Nabiki said, "He was as mean as Uncle Saotome with a hangover while that went on."

This proved exactly the right thing to say at exactly the right moment. Everyone in the room, including Nodoka laughed about it. Genma of course, visibly regretted it all. Tofu worried about what might happen now that Ranma could deliver ki attacks. It would not be too terribly worrisome had he grown up as a girl, but he had not grown up as a girl. Menstruation could easily cause him serious trouble with his self-control. He would have to remember to discuss it with Ranma later.

"I happen to know that you make book on Ranma's fights, Nabiki-san," Tofu said quickly, "What is your opinion of him has a martial artist?"

"I never take even bets against Ranma in a straight up fight, unless his opponent is someone of extraordinary ability, like Happosai, or someone who is engaging Ranma in a competition he does not have the requisite skills for. Even then, I never take the bet without very good odds in my favor. Since this last trip to China, I am not so sure that I would take even bets against him if he were fighting Pantyhose Tarou." Tofu noted that Soun and Genma both shuddered at the mention of Tarou.

"Thank you, Nabiki," Tofu said.

"Tendo Kasumi, what is your opinion?

"I think he is a very manly man, indeed," Kasumi said, " but I think he could be much, much more than he is. He is not allowed to be everything he could be."

"How so, Kasumi-san?" Tofu silently thanked all the kami of Japan for his recent exposure to the confidence drug. Kasumi's presence would have otherwise turned him into a gibbering idiot.

"Please excuse me for I mean no offense. I love Ranma dearly. He is like a brother to me, but Ranma is almost too manly. He is fiercely protective of those he loves, but he does not know how to show love. When he tries to encourage someone else, he insults them because he knows nothing of nurturing. He knows next to nothing about manners, " Kasumi said, then paused to let her words sink in.

"You forgot to mention that Ranma's promises are as good as gold, Kasumi," Nabiki said. Kasumi nodded her head in agreement, then spoke again.

"I think Ranma is like this because he grew up without his mother. We learn most of the things Ranma does not know from our mothers. I had mother's journals and did a lot of reading to learn for myself, and to teach my sisters, but poor Ranma has never had any such help. His life is out of balance. I have never met anyone like him. He is completely masculine despite his curse. He has not been around women enough to know how to talk to one, let alone be like one. Personally, I think it is time for Ranma to begin teaching. I believe that in teaching his art to others, he will find it necessary to face up to his shortcomings and correct them. I think he will learn to show love and how to nurture once he begins to teach, because a great teacher must know how to do those things."

Tofu noted that everyone but Genma was staring at Kasumi in shock. He decided to let this go on for a bit. He knew from observation that they seldom gave Kasumi credit for her real genius. The people of Nerima treated her with a good deal more respect than her own family did. She had, over the years, become Nerima's version of Solomon the Wise. Whenever neighbors got into a dispute, especially if it was one man arguing with another over something, it was almost always Kasumi they turned to as an objective arbiter. She specialized in untangling complicated knots with a gentle tug upon a single strand, in making the crooked straight, and in making the obscure, plainly seen. In a way, her family's ignorance of the role she played in Nerima was not surprising to him. When you are very close to something, it is often difficult to see all of it. Stay too close too long, and you will forget everything but what you can see day to day.

Genma for his part, had been staring down at the floor. Sometimes gentle little Kasumi's words could tear at a man's soul like thousands of raking claws, and Genma had just heard every little nuance in her voice. Tofu shuddered. He had not meant to be quite so cruel to the elder Saotome, but there was little help for it now. Genma's boulder like frame was beginning to sag visibly.

It was Nodoka that broke the silence first. "I am very pleased to hear many of the things everyone has to say about my son, but I still worry about him in one respect. He seems to lack a manly interest in girls." Nodoka's face was as serene and cool as a mountain lake on a calm day, but Tofu could see tears building up in the corners of her eyes.

Genma, whose posture was now suggestive of a slumping pile of human goo, stared at Nodoka as though she might be the gelatinous movie monster. He's listening to her tear ducts, Tofu thought. Poor bastard.

"You mistake Ranma's innate nobility for a lack of manliness, Auntie Nodoka!" Kasumi said, "Thanks to the attractiveness of his cursed form, Ranma has a profound understanding about some of the terrible things women endure."

"That's true, Kasumi, but have ever noticed what his nipples do when he looks at Akane in his girl form?"

Kasumi gave Nabiki a rather hard stare over this, but much to Tofu's relief, he could see the light of revelation dawn in Nodoka's tear glazed eyes. Finally! Now maybe I can get to the point. This seppeku business has to stop immediately. It was time for him to speak.

"With the respect that is due to all of you, I have a rather higher opinion of Saotome Ranma. I see a great many different people suffering from a great many different ailments. Ranma is the only person I know capable of enduring what he has endured without breaking. Everyone else I know would have run away, or become insane, or become a criminal. Ranma has done none of these things. Most of his flaws, stem from undervaluing things he shouldn't."

Tofu paused to see if he still had their attention. Satisfied on this point, he continued.

"I do not question Ranma's manliness, I envy it. Courage and self-control such as his are rare, even among the highly trained. However, this is not the main reason for my being here this evening. I have come to you because despite Ranma's prodigious durability, he is human and like all humans, he has his limits. Those limits were reached yesterday, perhaps sometime before yesterday."

This earned Tofu a round of concerned stares and everyone looked as though they were about to speak at the same time, so he held his hand up for silence and hurriedly continued with what he had to say.

"I treat a great many people who suffer from stress related illnesses. It is a very, very common problem in modern day Japan. Ranma however, has a rather unique, stress related illness. One that no Japanese person that I know of has had in many years."

Tofu fell silent and waited for someone to ask, mainly because he wanted to see who felt themselves most qualified to help. As he expected, it was Soun Tendo who spoke up first.

"What is so unique about Ranma's problem, Sensei?" Soun asked.

"He suffers from combat fatigue."

Tofu's highly trained ears told him that every heart in the room but his had just stopped beating for a second. Here it comes, he thought.

"Combat fatigue!" The family chorused, all but Nabiki that is. She nodded her head, looking not the least bit surprised. Cool, Tofu thought. She is always so very goddamned cool. She's basically a warrior at heart, but I'll bet she falls to pieces while she is alone in her room at night. I'll have to keep an eye on her. Tofu waited until the flurry of questions, claims, counterclaims, conjectures and accusations faded away before trying to speak. Sometimes it was best to let a group of people vent their emotions. It helped them clear their minds. The noise of course, greatly accelerated Genma's rate of liquefaction.

"As I said before, I treat a great many patients with stress related problems. Most of them are salarymen, who by the way, are often very manly. Because stress related illnesses are so common, I have studied them a great deal over the past few years. Combat fatigue, though it is a stress related illness, has unique symptoms and unique causes. The primary cause is the victim's constant fear of dying. The other sometimes unrecognized cause is..."

"The dread of having to kill others," Nabiki said, interrupting Tofu.

"That is correct, Nabiki."

Nodoka stared down at the table in morose silence. Tofu cold see that she was struggling to hold back a flood of tears. Genma, still slip-sliding into a viscous puddle of utterly boneless humanity, fixed his large, staring eyes upon Nodoka as though she were the one about to change shape.

"Fortunately, the cure for Ranma's condition is quite simple. All he needs is rest. A refuge from the source of his stress. What would be better though, would be to completely eliminate the stress or as many sources of it as possible."

The silence was now smothering. Tofu watched as Nabiki and Kasumi exchanged quick glances with one another and their father. Genma and Nodoka continued to stare at the table as three pairs of Tendo eyes settled upon Nodoka. Tofu let it go on for a minute or so, but it seemed a century came and went. He could tell that Nodoka was not going to mention the contract she and Genma had made with Ranma, as he had hoped. Probably too embarrassed, Tofu thought. Had it been any other patient with most any other family he would have allowed matters to stand as they were and hoped that the family would have done what was necessary to help their son, but this was no ordinary family. They were proud and strong and both those traits were hindering them now. Suddenly, a potential, face saving solution occurred to him.

"I am curious about something and have long wanted to ask Ranma this question, but I have not wanted to risk embarrassing him. I should like to ask it now and I will apologize if it causes anyone here any discomfort or concern."

During another, prolonged silence, Genma some how pulled himself back into something resembling a semi-human shape and responded.

"Please ask your question, Sensei. We will do our best to answer it honestly."

"Isn't Ranma qualified to carry a sword, by now? I should think he is more than worthy to be a protector of the Saotome Clan by now."

No one said anything, but Nodoka nodded.

"I am glad to hear that my estimate of him is accurate," Tofu said with his sunniest smile, "I do admire him very much." Tofu realized that he may as well have used a cat 'o nine tails on the Saotomes. He winced inwardly. He really wanted to get the contract away from Nodoka and burn it right here on the table with their assent, but that would be asking too much of them too quickly. He would wait and hope Nodoka would think of it on her own.

"I have given Ranma a special sedative. I expect he will wake up just before noon tomorrow. I would imagine that he will be ravenous when he does. Perhaps you should all come to the clinic then and try to cheer him up."

Even Nabiki smiled and nodded at this. Tears were running down Nodoka's face in small rivulets, but she smiled and nodded her head vigorously.

"Good! I should be getting back to my patients," Tofu said in his most cheerful voice, "Oh, by the way. I have asked Akane to stay at the clinic. One of Ranma's symptoms is a profound fear that something will happen to her. He is much calmer in her presence. I hope you don't mind, Tendo-san."

Soun began to blubber, "If it will help Ranma, I have no objections Sensei."

Genma's head jerked around to face his best friend as he stared at Soun in wide eyed horror. Good, Tofu thought. You need to listen to the tears you cause, Genma Saotome. Perhaps after tonight, you will become a little more human.

Tofu bowed, then said, "I must be going. I thank you all for your attention and please forgive my intrusion."

Everyone began to protest that he had not intruded and began asking him to stay for dinner as he stood up. Out of the corner of his eye, Tofu caught the rapt admiration in Kasumi's eyes and felt his self-control begin to slip. He squeezed his eyes shut in frustration. Why, oh why can't I get a grip on this? Fortunately for him, the ever patient Kasumi seemed to understand.

"Nabiki, would you see the Doctor to the door for me? I need to check on some things in the kitchen."

"Sure, sis," Nabiki said cheerily, "Would you help carry some things to the clinic for Ranma and Akane, Sensei?"

Tofu was relieved at this. He wanted to speak with Nabiki before she spoke with Ranma, anyway.

Once outside the gates, Nabiki's curiosity got the best of her. Her nimble mind had inferred a great deal, but that only whetted her appetite for more facts to chew on. She was not impelled by her intellect alone. Something had touched her earlier in the day just before Tofu had come to the nurse's station. She knew in the core of her soul that it had been Ranma, but she could not understand how it had happened. She had done everything she could think of to kill the feelings that would make such a thing possible. Why were they surfacing again? Why now?

"How bad off is Ranma, Ono-sensei?" She asked as she took Tofu's right arm.

Tofu looked at Nabiki and raised an eyebrow before answering. "Well, he hasn't got a case of the thousand-yard stares just yet, but it could happen without warning. Given Ranma's abilities, the results could be tragic."

"Thousand-yard stares?"

The lower edge of the sun, now a huge, flaming red ball touched the distant rooftops.

"A condition diagnosed by every major combatant during WWII. It is hard to describe, but once you've seen the pictures of someone afflicted with it you can never forget. A man in that condition is deadly dangerous to everyone around him, even his friends and allies. The technical term for it is "hyper-arousal" Of the two terms, it is the more descriptive of the two without showing a picture of a victim."

"In other words, Ranma is ticking away like a bomb."

"More like an old fashioned bomb. The kind with a lit fuse. The "bomb" if you will, is easily defused by giving him some time away from the source of stress. Without that rest, things could go tragically wrong--and with almost no more warning than we have now. A sudden threat of any kind, real or imagined by the victim, will trigger the worst of it's symptoms. It's not too terribly different from the Nekoken really, except that Ranma would be able to use his intellect better."

Nabiki shivered at the thought of a Neko-Ranma gifted with intelligence and some of his more advanced techniques. The immediate destruction of several people she knew would be a foregone conclusion.

"Do you think he might slip into the Nekoken without warning?"

"No, this would be different. Quoting a military officer's manual on the subject, the fact is that overstressed human beings with loaded weapons are inherently dangerous. Ranma, thanks to his extensive training, is a loaded weapon in his own right. Unfortunately, he is also overstressed. Have you read any of the old legends about the berserkers or the amoks?"

Nabiki nodded.

"I am reasonably sure those were sufferers of combat fatigue. The Nekoken training was a deliberate attempt to create a berserk. It was abandoned because the majority of the trainees became listless masses of quivering nerves. Combat fatigue is much the same. The majority simply become listless wrecks, but Ranma's Nekoken is a kind of hyper-arousal state. I don't want to take any chances with his combat fatigue. He will most likely develop a classic hyper-arousal state.

"How long have you been watching this develop, Ono-sensei?"

"I've been worried about him since I learned of his Nekko-ken training. The effects of psychological stress are cumulative. The signs of stress related trouble have become a little worse with every visit he has made to the clinic. I became seriously worried about it just before this recent trip to China," Tofu said.

"Why didn't you say something about it months ago then?"

"Because I was not certain of my diagnosis and I was fairly sure that neither of Ranma's parents would listen."

"You've got a point, Doc. I'm certain Panda-man would have scoffed at you, especially if you had said anything in front of Aunt Nodoka. I'm pretty sure Daddy would have listened though."

"Perhaps I made a mistake then," Tofu said, sounding contrite.

"No, I don't think you can call it a mistake. You made the best call you could based on what you knew at the time. What do you need me to do?"

"I want you, to make your sister's life a little easier," Tofu said with a smile, "because I happen to know it is well within your ability to do so."

Nabiki smirked at him. "Oh, you think making things easier for Ranma would make Akane's life easier, right?"

Tofu nodded his head.

"What does Ranma want with me?"

"Anything I might tell you at this point would be a guess, and I'm sure your guesses would be much better than mine."

"I'll do everything I can do for Akane, Ono-san. Much of what I've done so far has been to..."

"You needn't explain, Nabiki-chan. I know much about your family from my other patients. The elderly ones who have lived here for a long time love to tell stories. You'd be surprised how many comment on how much like your mother you are."

Nabiki felt the sting of tears at the back of her eyes, but maintained her composure. She was not surprised by this news. Since she had begun loaning money to the skilled labor working in the shops and small factories on Forges Street, she had heard that statement more than once. Apparently, her mother could be a certifiable bitch when it came to collecting debts. On the other hand, she also very often heard how much like Kasumi her mother had been. It all depended on who was telling the tale. Several even mentioned how much like Akane her mother could be from time to time, usually while rubbing some part of their anatomy in memory. The thought of it made Nabiki smile.

"The stories about how nice my mom was I can understand," Nabiki said, "What I have never understood is the high regard so many have for my Dad and Saotome-san."

Tofu smiled at her, almost laughing, "Sometimes one sort of demon is very much preferable to another sort."

"Even if the demons in question are Fiends of the Happosai?"

"Especially, if they are friends of Happosai." Tofu laughed.

"Ono-sensei?"

"Yes, Nabiki-san?"

"Can Ranma ever be cured of the Nekko-ken?"

"I don't know for sure. Certainly he cannot be cured without a lot of therapy and unfortunately, the normal course of treatment for such phobias is very risky in his case."

Nabiki stopped walking forcing Tofu to pause with her. Somewhere in the distance, a nightingale sang. A gentle breeze rustled their hair.

"Why?"

"Because the usual method of treatment is to expose the victim to his or her fears until they become desensitized. In Ranma's case, he enters a special kind of hyper-arousal state that is dangerous to him and everyone around him. It would not be so bad were it not for his ability to use his ki so effectively."

"So, as Ranma becomes a better martial artist, the more dangerous his Nekoken becomes."

"It can't get much more dangerous than it is now," Tofu said with as shrug as he led Nabiki towards the clinic, "Everything has its limits, but a Ranma with the thousand yard stares would be much, much worse. In his cat state, he can be distracted. In a purely hyper-arousal state with his intellect fairly intact, distraction will not work. He would tend to destroy anything that moves without distinguishing between friend or foe. Everything becomes a target to men in that state."

"How come this has not been more of a problem in the past?"

"In times of war it is very often a problem, but it is seldom reported. Even so, cases like Ranma's are pretty rare. Only about one case of combat fatigue in two-hundred manifests these symptoms, and most of them die in combat shortly thereafter."

"He is like this because of his parents," Nabiki said, the words fighting their way past the lump in her throat, "Isn't he?"

"You may well be right. Current research suggests that upbringing and an unstable home life are far more important than individual personalities as predictors of who will, or will not suffer from this malady. Almost all of them led lives of abuse, or harsh discipline or simply had home lives bereft of love and nurturing during early childhood."

"How likely is Ranma to become abusive of his own family?"

"He may become quite abusive of his father in the near term, but if you are asking about a wife or children, I'd say the probability is quite low in Ranma's case."

A street light came on overhead as they walked beneath it.

"Why?"

"What irritates Akane about him the most?"

"He doesn't take her training seriously enough," Nabiki said, then stopped in front of the clinic door and stared at Tofu. "He's scared to death he might hurt her!"

Tofu smiled. "If he trains her, he will hurt her. It is part of the process. Ranma cannot bring himself to do her any harm, even though she very much wants and needs the training." Tofu unlocked the door and the two of them went inside.

Akane was still sitting in the chair next to Ranma's bed, leaning forward to use the edge of the bed as a pillow and clutching Ranma's left hand with both of her own. He was awake.

"Doc?"

"Yes, Ranma?"

"You got a cot or somethin' for her?"

Tofu nodded his head.

"Would you mind setting it up? She's cutting the circulation off in my hand."

"I'll get it," Nabiki said, "Hall closet, right?"

Tofu nodded yes, then noticed that Akane's teacup was still full and saw the pieces of Ranma's cup lying on the floor. Nabiki went to get the cot.

"Ranma, did Akane drink anything from your cup?"

"No, Doc. Why?"

"You didn't see her touch the inside of it or anything did you?"

Ranma thought for a minute before answering. "Not that I saw. I went to sleep for a while after drinking the tea. Why? What's wrong?"

"Well the medicine in your cup is pretty potent and it can be absorbed through the skin."

Ranma looked alarmed. "Will it hurt her?"

"No, but she may behave differently for a day or two."

"Doc, I uh...I uh...kissed her right after I drank the tea."

Tofu stared at Ranma for a moment then burst out laughing.

"What's so damned funny?" Ranma asked with a little heat in his voice, "Is she going to be all right?"

Tofu composed himself then answered. "She'll be fine, Ranma. She is going to be very cheerful and sweet for the next couple of days, but it won't hurt her. It's my fault anyway. I should have anticipated something like this."

Ranma blinked thoughtfully for a moment.

"Will it improve her cooking?"

"I can't say for sure. What's wrong with her cooking?"

Ranma looked down at Akane with a bemused look, mixed with humor and affection. He reached out and stroked her hair with his right hand.

"It's like everything else she does, Doc. She tries too damned hard."

"Well, in that case, the drug might help a little."

Ranma's face lit up with a huge grin.

Nabiki came in and set up the cot for Akane. Tofu had to use a pressure point to loosen her grip on Ranma's hand, then he and Nabiki tucked her in.

"How's the hand, Ranma?"

"Starting to tingle. It'll be fine."

"I've got to go catch up on some paperwork, Nabiki-san," Tofu said, "Don't keep him up too long."

Nabiki smiled at Tofu as he left, then turned to Ranma. Her knees became unsteady as the memory of all those nights she had fought off the urge to sneak into Ranma's bed came rushing back in an unanticipated flood. You can't have him, Nabiki! She silently admonished herself, he belongs to Akane. You turned down your chance, fair and square. Besides, you went to great lengths to make sure he wouldn't want anything to do with you.

Working hard to wrap herself in that cloak of icy composure she kept constantly at the ready, Nabiki managed to speak without swallowing first.

"So, what did you need to see me about, Saotome?"

Ranma's stare was angry but affectionate. Nabiki forced a smile away from her lips. Affection from Ranma was nearly irresistable.

"What will you charge me to help Akane and me keep up with our school work?"

Nabiki did not actually run the school; Principle Kuno's secretary ran it as best she could with the senior Kuno's interference and much help from Nabiki. She would not even have to call in a favor to help Ranma and Akane out.

"No charge for that one, Ranma. What else?"

"I need your help dealing with Kodachi."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Whatever it takes. She showed up at Akane's wedding wearing a...wearing..." Ranma was so angry he could not continue.

"Okay, Ranma," Nabiki said as her eyes went flat, "Consider her ass fried."

"Freebie, right?"

Nabiki nodded. "She insulted my little sister! She suffers; her brother picks up the tab."

"She belongs in a nut ward, you know."

"When I'm through with her, she'll have herself committed. Don't worry, Saotome. I know what you are after. Now then, who else?"

"This one's dangerous, so I want you to think about first. Okay?"

"Who?"

"I need you to put a tail on Xian Pu, around the clock if you can swing it."

"Around the clock might be a little hard to do," Nabiki stopped speaking for a second as her face reflected sudden horror. "You think she's going to go after Akane! Don't you?"

Ranma nodded grimly. "I think we can just about count on it."

The fires of hell suddenly flared in Nabiki Tendo's eyes. Careful Nabiki! The more objective side of her mind warned her. Both of you could easily be wrong. But what if he's right? She questioned it. Xian Pu's deadly!

"Don't get carried away, Nabiki," Ranma said, "I've got a plan for dealing with this, but I need your help covering all the bases."

"What do you have in mind?" Nabiki's voice was grim. Better to be cautious for the time being, she thought to herself. Xian Pu might be plotting murder and she might not. If we prepare and she does nothing fine. If she does, we make sure she can never try it again.

"I'm going to be in here for at least another week, so I plan on keeping Akane here until Doc Tofu says I can go home. After that, we can never leave her alone anywhere she goes, except around the house, got it?"

"Xian Pu may get desperate and kill Akane and anyone else she thinks might be potential witnesses, Ranma."

"No she won't."

"How do you know that for sure, Ranma. This is my little sister's life we are talking about here."

"She won't because we are going to give her another option that's easier. We'll let her think we aren't guarding Akane while she's in her room at night."

"Umisen-ken?" Nabiki asked. He's finally learning to think ahead a little! she thought to herself. Damn! I should have taken him when I had the chance. He's going to turn out to be a first rate partner.

Ranma nodded.

"You aren't going to tell Akane, are you?"

"It's a case of what she knows might kill her, Nabiki. Akane is like an open book, especially if she's angry about something."

Nabiki regarded him with sly eyes for a moment. What I wouldn't give to have you in my room all night, Ranma! She thought. She tried, but failed to suppress a shiver of delight. Akane is such an idiot! Well, they're both idiots, but they are getting better and he is positively edible. Better focus on business, girl.

"I don't think it makes sense to put a tail on Xian Pu until you two are out of here," Nabiki said aloud.

"You might be right about that Big Sister, but I would feel better knowing where she is and what she is up to."

Now what would I prefer Xian Pu to be up to about now, Nabiki asked herself. Sleeping would be nice. She's a very nice girl while she's asleep.

"Oh, haven't you heard? The Nekohanten has the best ramen in Nerima!" Nabiki said in a cheerful voice, "Their take out is even better than what they serve at their tables!"

Ranma grinned, causing Nabiki to gasp at him. It was an unpleasant sight. This was a side of Ranma she did not know existed.

"You are my kind of evil, Nabiki." Nabiki smiled back at Ranma and thought, No you aren't, Ranma. You like this idea because you only inflict pain to teach a lesson. I just like the idea of the bitch falling down dead tired at the end of a long day.

"What about the rest of them, Saotome?"

"The rest of them belong to me," Ranma said in a voice so cold it made Nabiki shudder. It was not just his voice of course. The room temperature dropped precipitously. The air conditioning came on and Nabiki realized that it was producing warm, not cold air.

"Ranma?" Tofu called from another part of the clinic.

"Sorry, Doc!" The air in the room began to warm up as the central air unit quickly began to catch up with Ranma. Nabiki's eyes widened with the realization of what had just happened.

"Ranma did you just...?"

"Yeah, it was me," Ranma said with an irritable wave of the hand, "I didn't meant to. I'll have it under control in a couple of days. Don't let it bother you none."

Nabiki wanted very badly to say she was sorry, but how? There was so much for her to apologize about, and there was no way she dared explain why she had been so mean to him all this time. She hated to think what he might do if she told him the truth. I've been mean to you because I wanted to jump your bones, Ranma. I was afraid I might fall in love with you. I was afraid I might try to take you away from Akane. I wanted to make sure you were never attracted to me.

Ranma broke her out of her reverie by touching her arm.

"Big Sister?"

"Yes, Ranma-kun?"

"No picture sales for two-months."

Nabiki clamped down hard on the laughter that rose in her throat. If only you knew how much I enjoyed those pictures myself, she thought.

"You're going to let me off that easy?" Nabiki asked aloud.

"I figure Akane will take care of you in her own way."

"Actually, it's Kasumi that has me worried."

Ranma managed to give her a bleak look, while somehow still getting across a modicum of sympathy.

"I'm sorry to hear that," he said.

Nabiki smiled at him, then stood up by the bed and bent over so that she could whisper in his ear.

"I'm sorry, Ranma-kun."

"You don't owe me an apology, Big Sister. You should apologize to Akane."

Nabiki kissed his ear, then his cheek, then his lips, taking great delight in the reaction she got from Ranma. She slid the palm of her hand over the unbandaged parts of his muscular chest. Ranma shivered. I thought so, Soatome! Nabiki said silently to herself. I do turn you on a little.

"I'm not apologizing to you for the wedding, Ranma-darling. I'm apologizing for what I didn't do when you first came into our home."

Ranma's eyes grew wide with shock.

"It's too late now," Nabiki said with sigh as she straightened up and stretched. Ranma vigorously nodded his head in agreement, then winced at the eye-watering pain the motion caused.

"I guess I'll just have to let Akane keep you."

Ranma's very wide open eyes became firmly fixed upon the ceiling.

"Have I ever told you how handsome you are when you're embarrassed?" Nabiki asked. Ranma, to her great delight, became even more flustered. She brushed his bangs away from his eyes with one hand, causing him to look her in the face. Nabiki did not mind. She wanted to show him that he really was loved.

"Boy! I never had a chance, did I?" Ranma asked.

Nabiki shook her head and smiled. "Never did. Never will, Saotome. You are going to marry a Tendo," she said as she continued to play with his bangs.

"I got lot's of stuff to do first."

"I know, Ranma," Nabiki said, pausing to swallow back a knot in her throat, "You both do. Just don't take too long, okay?"

Tears began to swim around the edges of Ranma's eyes. He nodded his head. "Nabiki I..."

"Doc Tofu says you need to rest, so rest now. I'll go get Operation Rose Garden underway."

"What about Xian Pu, got a project name for her?"

"Nope. I'm gonna cover it all under one allocation for expenditure," Nabiki said with one of her most predatory of smiles, "Get some sleep, Little Brother."

Nabiki quit playing with Ranma's bangs and left. He let out a sigh and thanked all the kami of Japan for Akane Tendo. Then as an afterthought, he said a prayer for whoever it was that Nabiki would eventually choose for a husband. The poor sod would need divine intervention more than any other man who had ever lived. It began to dawn on him then that Akane's sisters regarded him as family. As he basked in this new found warmth, sleep crept up on him quietly and took him without a struggle.

A few moments later, Nabiki came back into the room and cleaned up the remains of Ranma's shattered teacup. Rather than throw the shards away, she tipped them into a resealable, plastic bag. Nabiki held the bag up so that she could see the pieces in the dim lighting and smiled.

"Nothing like a fire to fight a fire with," she whispered to herself.

Nabiki Tendo rushed home. She needed some sleep for tomorrow would be one of the busiest she had endured in a long time. She smiled at the prospect of it. She loved challenges.


Nerima is subject to have a strange day on any given day of the week, and usually does have. However, the strangest days in Nerima usually occur between Friday and Monday as may be logically expected, because even the denizens of Nerima must strive to earn a living. The district's strangeness index tends to go up on the weekends when the majority of Nerimians have a little more time on their hands that what is entirely healthy for them. Such circumstance do not however, prevent Nerima from having a very peculiar day arise during the week. This particular Tuesday was one of those, not so rare exceptions.

Ko Lon suspected that the incoming tsunami of chaos had actually begun to build up on Sunday, the day of Tendo's attempt to wed his daughter to her son-in-law. She also suspected that Xian Pu had something to do with germinating the nascent, strange attractor because she had dressed in her finest clothes and was absent for most of that day. By the time Ko Lon had gotten to the Tendo dojo, things had already taken their predictable course. Questioning Xian Pu on the details had proven fruitless.

Late that Sunday evening, something woke Ko Lon up. This was not unusual in and of itself. Ko Lon had been elderly for some three-hundred years and she, like many of the elderly, needed little in the way of sleep, often had trouble going to sleep, and was easily wakened. What was so unusual was the nature of the event which disturbed her sleep. It was a very peculiar surge of ki. The event was nearby but faint. Unlike most faint surges of ki, this one was steady, not staccato and it did not taper off. It stopped abruptly without a trailing tingle. She had felt it again on Monday evening while in the bath and it had wakened her again shortly after going to bed on Monday night.

Still, such a surge was not in and of itself a frightening thing. Nerima had more than its fair share of accomplished martial artists. Ko Lon remembered experiencing a similar event in her early youth. No, what had been frightening was the voice she heard in the wee hours of this Tuesday morning. It had made her sit up in bed with a start. It had been Most Revered Grandmother using her ki voice, speaking to Ko Lon from far off Qing Hai. "Beware the Cold Dragon, Ko Lon," Ancient Mother had said. The shear weight of centuries had made the old woman's voice dry and dusty. Hearing the message delivered in muffled tones, late at night, born by a distant person's ki made Ko Lon feel as though someone had spoken to her from the grave.

Ko Lon had at first thought she had simply heard Revered Grandmother's voice in a dream, but she knew better after a mere second's worth of thought. No, Revered Grandmother's ki signature was unmistakable. The voice had not been a product of her sleep ridden imagination. Ko Lon understood down to her very bones the terrible toll sending a message in such a fashion took on Revered Grandmother's frail body. She herself had been bedridden for two days the last time she had accomplished such a feat, and Revered Grandmother was twice Ko Lon's age. If Revered Grandmother thought the matter important enough to run such a terrible risk to her own health, then something important and probably very dangerous was afoot.

Ko Lon immediately consulted the ancient texts she had brought with her from China. After three hours of searching she found the reference she needed. It had been written in a text so old that Ko Lon found it difficult to follow. Another hour of searching produced a list of names. Names of those that had been given the gift of the Cold Dragon. Much to Ko Lon's surprise, two of those names were from her own family line, but from long, long ago. There had been talk at one time of breeding a family line for this particular gift, but nothing came of it. The ancient text was clear on why those efforts would fail, "The Cold Dragon gifts only those who winnow the coals of hell and live."

More reading warned of the signs and portents manifest when the Cold Dragon woke. Ko Lon shuddered. There was no longer any doubt in her mind about what she had felt for the past two days, nor was there much doubt in her mind as to who had received the Cold Dragon's gift. She carefully put the tattered old scroll away, then looked at herself in the mirror. She looked herself in the eye and considered all that she had learned, all her accomplishments, all her failures, her strengths and her shortcomings, then she wept. She wept for Ranma Saotome. He was beyond her help. She could not help him and she knew of no one who could. So she prayed to the kami and asked them to show the boy a little mercy.

By the time she finished praying it was time to begin work on a fresh batch of chicken stock. The only thing worse than owning a restaurant is owning a dairy. Actually, no one owns either sort of establishment. Those establishments own the people holding their titles. One either enjoyed the work involved in running a restaurant, or got out of the business.

At nine in the morning Cologne began to get a feel for just how strange an attractor had hit town. She had just finished putting the vegetables into the soup, Mu Suu had just finished washing the last of the dishes and Xian Pu was gratefully taking a break having just finished with the floors and tables when the telephone rang.

"Hello?" Cologne said into the infernal device.

"Yes, we do deliver takeout. Where and when, please?"

Cologne scribbled down the order and hung up the telephone.

"Xian Pu?" Cologne said.

"Yes, Great-grandmother?"

"I want you to..."

She was cut off by another ring of the telephone.

"Nekohanten, may I help you?"

"Yes, of course! Where and when would you like it delivered?"

"What's that? Oh, certainly we can have there right on time. We do that all the time. Yes, of course! No problem. Bye, bye!"

"Xian Pu I want you to..."

The telephone rang.

"Nekohanten, may I help you?"

"I see. Where and when would you like it delivered?"

Cologne wrote down the specifics for the third takeout order of the day. It was long an complicated.

"Xian Pu I need you to..."

The telephone rang.

"Answer this damned thing so I can cook!" Ko Lon said in a near howl of fury, "Mu Suu!"

"Yes, Honored Elder!" Mu Suu said, looking obeisant with every fiber of his being.

"Check stock!" Ko Lon said, sounding for all the world like a seasoned officer extricating her troops from an ambush, "Have you fixed the tire on your bicycle yet?"

"Not yet, Honored Elder," Mu Suu said as he dove down into the basement storage room.

"Hurry every chance you get! We are in for a busy day."

The telephone rang.

"Nekohanten! What Xian Pu do to you today?"

"We're low on noodles and there isn't a shrimp in sight!"

"What about pork?"

"Sure, I deliver plenty!"

"Okay on pork. Low on chicken though!"

"What you mean? Xian Pu not desert! Xian Pu delivery person!"

"Go fix that tire then get in here and take care of that bloody ring-a-ling thing!"

"Where that is? No way! Xian Pu no deliver that place! Is love hotel!"

Xian Pu was not slow witted and she could do a perfectly good job of receiving an order while getting it right, but her telephone presence sometimes invited delay. It was amusing on slow days, but this was not a slow day.

"How are we on vegetables, Mu Suu?"

"Is okay. Xian Pu deliver there, but you no behave you be sorry!"

"Tons, still!"

The telephone rang again before Xian Pu could remove her hand from the headset.

"I'll go fix the tire now," Mu Suu said, emerging from the storeroom.

"Nekohanten! What Xian Pu do to you today?"

"Never mind the bicycle, Mu Suu! Just get your ass in here and take care of this damned, ring-a-ling-a-thing!"

"Sure! Xian Pu deliver anytime, anywhere!" Xian Pu said into the phone, followed by her chirping giggle. "Whipped cream? What that for?"


End of Chapter 1
Copyright © Don Granberry