Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry.

Chapter 2


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.

Tags: Lemon

The first weak rays of dawn on Tuesday morning lit a forlorn looking Genma Saotome sitting upon the tall rock on the north end of Soun Tendo's koi pond. He had gotten up because it had become an irresistible habit. The trouble was, his son was not around for him to spar with. Ranma had been gone before of course, but this was different. Something had changed. Something Genma Saotome was having a hard time getting a grip on. His hopes of understanding were obliterated by the shrieking attack of someone twice Ranma's size and age. It was Soun Tendo. Genma countered effectively, but lost his balance, fell from his perch and onto the wet grass of Tendo's lawn.

"Caught you napping, eh Saotome?"

"More like preoccupied, Tendo," Genma replied with a grin, then went after his old friend as though the two of them were still in their twenties. Both men laughed. Neither was a pushover and both knew the other quite well. The surprises were over. Well, not quite over. After twenty minutes or so, Kasumi called them to breakfast. The two men were so engrossed in their drill that Kasumi's call caused them to miss their timing and fall as a single great mass into the pond.

"Damn, that's cold!" Soun groused.

"Rrrr!" Genma agreed.

After breakfast they engaged in something a bit more sensible for two men their age, shogi. For a long time, nothing but the clacking of tiles could be heard from either man until Genma finally broke their relative silence.

"We have a problem, Tendo-kun."

"Think so, Saotome?"

"Mmm, Kasumi is right about Ranma, you know. It's time for him to begin teaching, rather than just sparring."

"I agree. It is time." Soun said, allowing his friend to carry the conversation forward, even though he knew full well what the problem was and that it was indeed a serious problem.

"That means we must ask the Master to license the boy to teach."

Soun sighed in exasperation. He knew this day would come, and had been dreading it. Happosai would without doubt make things as difficult as possible, if for no other reason than simple perversity.

"You know, Genma-kun, he is going to make our lives hell over this."

"It'll be worth it, Tendo."

"Oh, I quite agree. When do we broach the subject with the Master?"

"I was thinking perhaps this afternoon before he goes off on his usual rounds."

"All right. Don't you think we ought to be getting ready?"

"Getting ready for what? I know the Master will do something, but I'm damned if I can figure out what it might be."

"Me either. He is so unpredictable, the Master is."

"That's part of his genius, Tendo-kun."

"My guess is that he will place most of the burden on the boy, Genma-kun."

"No doubt, but he'll want something from us as well."

An uncomfortable silence ensued wherein the shogi match was temporarily forgotten and both men lapsed into a reverie of difficult times gone by.

"Oh, good grief Saotome!" Soun Tendo, said after several minutes had passed. The two men stared across the shogi board at one another in wide-eyed horror.

"He's going to try to top the test he gave us!" They chorused.

"Ranma is twice the artist we were at that age, Saotome!"

"I know, Tendo!"

"And he's never done anything but antagonize the Master."

"I know, Tendo!"

"And both of them are probably going to take quite a bit of it out on us!"

"I know, Tendo!"

"It's fate, Saotome!"

"I know, Tendo."

"One doesn't cry about," Tendo paused to sniffle, "fate, Saotome."

"I know, Tendo."


Soun again paused to sniffle.

"I know, Tendo!"

"Deals with it--boo-hoo-wah-ha-ha-ha!" They said in chorus.

For once, Genma Saotome joined his oldest and best friend in a good cry. It did relieve a little of their tension, but neither of them felt that much better after it was over. Fate still hung heavily in the air above their heads. No one could rightfully teach a particular school of the martial arts without being licensed by that school's founding master. Each master had his own way of determining a disciple's worthiness as a teacher. Obtaining a license to teach almost always entailed an exercise in high risk, during a prolonged struggle, followed by a day-long critique of one's technique by the founding master. The intensity of these ordeals tended to vary with the founding master's imagination. Happosai, had more imagination than most founding masters and had a penchant for killing more than one bird with a single Soun--er--stone.

Kasumi listened to her father and Ojisan from the kitchen with her usual, quiet poise. Tea seemed to be in immediate order, so she put a kettle of water on the stove and turned the heat up high. She got lucky. The water had begun to boil just as the tears in the engawa began dying down to the level of sniffles and loud nose blowing. She carried in a tray and served the two men tea, then hurried up to her room. She dug a cell phone with a red case out of the top drawer of her dresser and quickly dialed the emergency number Nabiki had given her a few months previously. It was answered almost immediately.

"What's the matter, Kasumi?" Nabiki asked in a tense voice.

"Father and Mr. Saotome are going to ask Grandfather Happosai to license Ranma to teach this afternoon."

"Oh, no!" Nabiki said. "How are we on first aid supplies?"

"Oh we have all the small things we need, but we could use one or two more large, leg splints...and...Oh! I think we had better get some hardware cloth and plaster of Paris in case Uncle Saotome gets hurt in his panda form."

"Okay. I'll see to it the stuff gets delivered by nightfall. We are going to have to be careful with the money, Kasumi. Only the kami know how much bail this is going to cost."

"We may not need it all right of way, Nabiki," Kasumi said brightly, "The Master will probably wait until Ranma is out of the clinic."

"I hope you're right, Big Sister," Nabiki said, sounding somewhat relieved, "but I think it would probably be a good idea to stock up on first aid supplies today."

"Oh, I agree with you there," Kasumi said, "It never hurts for _us_ to be prepared."

"Okay, sis," Nabiki said, "I gotta go. I have to come with a way to make some money fast over the next two weeks. There is no way we are going to get through this without having to bail somebody out of jail."

"Do you really think it will be that bad, Nabiki?"

"Come on, Kasumi! You know Happosai as well as I do. What sort of test do you think he'll throw at Ranma?"

"Oh, my!"


"It is going to be bad, isn't it?"

"Love ya, Sis. Gotta go, bye!" Kasumi heard the phone click as Nabiki broke the connection. She placed the cellular phone back in its hiding place and got busy making preparations, humming as she went.

"Oh, dear! I forgot to tell Nabiki about the fire extinguishers! I think two of them are out of date. I had better check them."

Ranma Saotome woke much earlier than expected. Much to his relief, his vision was quite a bit clearer and he found that if he moved quite slowly, he could move his head without becoming nauseated. It still made his head hurt, but at least he could now look at something besides the ceiling. The first thing he wanted to look at was Akane. He had to make sure she was all right. Much to his relief, she was still in the room on her cot and snoring. He found the snoring to be especially reassuring. He could not get close enough to her to tell if she was okay without it. Thus reassured, he began to consider what his next move should be.

"Food!" The echoing, female voice in his head told him. "Right now! Our entire body is one, great big, _empty_ stomach."

"Boy! You got that right!" Ranma whispered to his inner voice.

"I beg your pardon? You are the guy in this operation, remember?" The echoing, female voice in his head asked.

"Hey! You're really a guy too, you know."

"You'd like to think so, wouldn't you fem-boy?"

"Aw geez! Why are you buggin' me this early in the morning?"

"For the same reason Socrates goaded the Athenians, Saotome!" The voice said, sounding smug. "You need it."

"Didn't they make that guy drink poison?"

"Actually, he drank it just to spite 'em. The Athenians expected him to just leave town."

"And I guess you are going to be just as bad?"

"Worse! I ain't stupid enough to drink poison on purpose, even if it would piss you off, and I can't leave."

"So how come I never heard from you before yesterday?"

"'Hey! You been so busy screwing up, I haven't been able to get your attention."

"Screwin' up? Whadda-ya mean screwing up?"

"You screw up because you just drift, Saotome. You aren't headed anywhere."

Ranma paused to think about this for a minute. It was true. He had allowed everyone else set the rules and conditions of his existence. He could not think of a retort, so said nothing back to the voice.

"Ooh, hit a nerve, didn't I?" The voice taunted.

"Yeah, you did."

"So what are you going to do while your stuck in here?"

"Not much to do but be bored, I guess."



"You've got schoolwork you could be takin' care of."

"Like I said, nothin' to do but be bored."

"Yeah? Well why dontcha let me take care of it for you?"

"Hey, wait a minute! Aren't we really the same person?"

"Yeah, but I'm curious and you ain't. I'll study and you nap. You're real good at napping."

"Oh, hah-hah!"

"Well, you are! What are we going to do about Akane?"

"We are going to marry her. Didn't we settle that already."

"No, stupid! About her and The Art. Isn't she about ready for some serious training?"

"Yeah, but I don't want to hand her off to the old man. His idea of training girls is to run them out of the school as quickly as possible. That won't do her any good. Her dad won't teach her anymore 'cause he can't figure out how to handle her."

"So we'll teach her then."


"Huh? Why not?"

"We haven't been licensed to teach the Anything Goes School, that's why. The only one that can license us is Happosai."

"Aw, geez! I had forgotten about that. Wait, I know! Pretend to be sparring with her!"

"Come on! You know that won't work. There are about a dozen kata she needs to learn and her breathing is atrocious. Hell, if I were to just get her to straighten out her breathing, she could probably beat Ryoga in a fair fight."

"She needs to learn how to stay relaxed, too. She gets so uptight it's pitiful."

"Yeah, she does. She's always tryin' too hard."

"So? Tell Happosai you're ready to teach and you want your license."

"I can't tell him that! Dad has to be the one to recommend me. You know the rules."

"Hmm, we've got a problem there too, don't we?"


"Hey, I know! Get her dad to talk to Happosai."

"Hmm, that might work. I'll do it! She's gotta learn some real serious stuff, fast. I can't be around her every minute of every day. That'd drive all three of us nuts."

Akane sneezed in her sleep.

"You could try letting me be around her once in a while."

"Nah! Your into all that mushy stuff."

"So? Girls like mushy stuff."

"Yeah, I know."

Ranma took a deep breath and held it as he considered his alter-ego's proposition.

"Okay, we'll try it. But don't let things get out of hand and don't do nothin' stupid, okay?"

"Don't worry, Saotome. I won't let things get out of hand. I know more about the consequences of that than most guys do, right?"

"Yeah, I guess I can trust you. You just remember who and what she is, okay?"

"Hey, no problem! What is it about her anyway? I mean she can't cook. She's got a temper that won't quit and..."

"She's beautiful and she's got a spirit that won't quit. I worry about her all the time. I'm always afraid she'll bite off more than she can chew."

"Hey, Saotome. Have you ever noticed that she never hits girls, besides us I mean?"

"Oh, sure she hits girls! She spars with 'em."

"NO! I mean, do you remember Akane ever just hauling off and socking some bitch in crying need of a good walloping?"

Ranma blinked as he stared at his sleeping fiance. She sneezed again, then wriggled.

"She's really cute when she does that, you know?" Ranma's alter-ego said.

Akane sneezed again.

"Careful!" Ranma said to his inner voice, "We're gonna wake her up."

"Well do you?"

"I don't know. I can't remember her ever just hitting a girl, or fighting one outside of a prearranged match. When she's mad, she almost always takes it out on us."

"I'll bet it's her training."

"Surely not."

"Think about it, Saotome. You are raising three little girls. You don't want 'em goin' around bruised and marked up all the time, so what do you teach 'em?"

"Oh, man!"

"It's gettin' hot in here!"

"You got that right. We're startin' to soak the sheets with sweat."

Akane stretched, then opened her eyes.

"Ranma?" She asked as she sat up on the edge of the cot.

"I'm still here, Akane."

"Are you all right? Why is it so hot in here?"

"Other than being hot and starving, I'm fine."

Akane gave him her cutest smile, the one that always weakened him at the knees, as she walked over to his bed.

"Good grief, Ranma! You are giving off heat like a stove with the broiler on."

"Akane, I gotta have somethin' to eat." Ranma was beginning to shake uncontrollably.

"Let me see if there is something cold to drink in Tofu's refrigerator."

"Don't leave the building!" Ranma called to her departing back.

"I won't."

"And check the air conditioner while you are in there!"

Akane stuck her had back through the doorway.

"Ranma, don't yell like that! This is a clinic."

"What does it matter? We're the only ones here!"

"It's a clinic. Don't get into the habit of yelling!" Akane shouted.

"I won't if you won't!" Ranma shouted back, then convulsed as his stomach began growling like a refuse grinder swallowing a large rock.

"I'll be right back, Ranma. Don't go away."

Ranma gave her a hard stare with crossed eyes.

Akane was still staring into the open refrigerator when Dr. Ono came in bearing a flat of tofu.

"Good morning, Akane," Tofu said as he put the flat down on the lab bench. "Are you hungry yet?"

"A little, but Ranma is starving and he's running really high temperature."

"Did you take it?"

"Huh? No, there wasn't any need, Dr. Tofu. You can feel the heat coming off of him from across the room."

"Oh, dear!" Tofu exclaimed. "That's why it is so hot in here. I thought I had left the heater on. Grab that large bottle of papaya juice and bring it down to his room. We need to get some food into him." Tofu picked up the heavy flat laden with bean curd and hurried down the hall, Akane close on his heels.

"I thought you were supposed to starve a fever," Akane said.

"That's just an old wive's tale and Ranma doesn't have a fever."

By the time they re-entered Ranma's room, he had gotten control of his convulsions.

"Good morning, Ranma!" Tofu said, forcing some cheerfulness into his voice.

"Good mor...Food!"

"Take it as slow as you can, Ranma," Tofu cautioned.

"Mrrmkay!" Ranma noised as he nodded his head and stuffed another block of bean curd into his mouth.

"Would you like something to drink, Ranma?" Akane asked.

"Mrrminaminnit," Ranma said around what must have been a quarter pound of tofu.

"Better slow down and have a little juice, Ranma. You are going to upset your stomach eating that fast," Tofu said.


"Oh, I see," Tofu said with a grin. "Are you sure?"

"Gyah!" Ranma cried out as he ripped the cap from the half-liter jug of papaya juice. He took a deep pull on it, reducing its contents by half, then he again began stuffing been curd into his mouth using a variant of the Chestnut Fist attack.

"He's beginning to cool off a little," Akane said.

"Yes, it's the food that's doing it," Tofu said.

"Don't you mean the papaya juice?" Akane asked. Ranma paid them no mind.

"No, what we are witness to here is the law of conservation of energy."

"Well food is fuel, shouldn't he warm up after eating? I always do."

"Ordinarily anyone would, Akane, but Ranma has been using his ki to soak up heat out of the air, off and on for the last couple of days. Without a lot of protein, he could no longer contain it."

"I don't understand."

"Let's see, how to explain? How long were the two of you in China?"

"Oh, I was there several weeks. Ranma even longer."

"Strenuous, wasn't it?"

"I'll say!"

"How well were you able to eat over there?"

"Not very well at all. We were a little short on money."

"So several weeks of heavy exercise with little to eat and a great deal of emotional stress thrown in for good measure, right?"

Akane nodded her head.

"Then you come home and have that rather bad weekend, right?"

Akane rolled her eyes towards the heavens, then gave Tofu befuddled stare.

"So Ranma's body needed to rebuild after enduring all that stress. Yours probably does as well. Over the last two days, Ranma has been soaking up heat with his ki, then using at least part of that energy to heal and rebuild, but now his body has run short of protein with which to rebuild. You can only store energy with your ki for just so long. It is a use it or lose it situation. Without food, he had to release the heat. The problem is, storing heat with ki can be dangerous because you have to use up ki to hold it and you must use up ki to dissipate the heat once it is stored that way."

"Oh! I see! Energy is always conserved. He wasn't making the heat disappear, he was just moving it to another place."

"More or less."

"But can't you use energy to make more ki?"

"No...well, not directly and not very quickly. Ki is not really a form of energy. No one is really sure of what it is or how it works exactly, but what we do know is that it is not conserved. It is the product of biological processes. Only living things generate ki. It can be destroyed, and it sometimes dissipates without ever affecting its surroundings, unlike energy which always affects the medium into which it is propagated."

"Watching him eat is making me hungry," Akane said with a sigh.

"Have some tofu," Tofu said with a grin, "Doctor's orders."

"Just tofu?"

"Sure! It's good for you."

"Yeah, but it's a lot better ghaff zumbden do go wiffit," Akane suddenly found herself trying to talk around a piece of tofu that had unexpectedly materialized in her mouth. "Erm-m-m...Rrnba!"

"Mrrm--Dahgdor's urrders!" Ranma said around yet another mouthful of the high protein staple. He smiled at Akane with his eyes, then took another pull on the bottle of papaya juice. Akane swallowed.

"How about a little warning before rmm wahg at rrrmgin, gaka!"

Tofu stared at Akane in fascination. He knew that Ranma must have tucked another piece of bean curd into her mouth unexpectedly, but it had happened so quickly he did not see it. Ranma did not appear to be able to feed himself that fast.

"How does he do that?" Tofu asked Akane, whose ears were now starting to turn pink.

"He got into this weird, martial arts eating match several months ago and he likes to...rrrmbracdise..ond--be! Gah hadrrnt fibbished wiff duh rrst one, goo baka!"

"Rrrm, do skinny!" Ranma said while exhibiting his unique style of mastication.

"Skinny!" Akane shouted. "Skinny? Since when have I ecom do schginney ver oo, gurk?"


Akane would have said something else but her mouth was suddenly too full to make any sound at all without spewing half-chewed bean curd all over the room. Tofu laughed and slapped his knee.

"I'll go get you kids some more juice," he told them as he turned to leave the room. "Try nod do joke efore Ahd gaid ack. Ay! Eez butty good dofuu."

Ranma and Akane can be a lot fun to be around, provided you know how to take them.

Nabiki Tendo was doing something she had not done in a long time. She was worrying. This licensing thing would without a shred of doubt end up costing tons of money and the party would probably start within two weeks. That meant she did not have time to sit back and let a scheme unfold at its natural pace. She hated that. Pushing a scheme along at an unnaturally quick pace was almost always a good way to incur a loss rather than make a profit. The right amount of patience was a necessary ingredient in any money making scheme. Kasumi had called her at nine that morning and her mind had been gnawing away the problem almost constantly until lunch time rolled around. She was just sitting down under her favorite tree when Xian Pu came rolling onto the campus, the brakes of her old Schwinn screeching in protest at the way they were being overused. Xian Pu did not have a choice in the matter. She was being mobbed by a hungry throng. Nabiki glanced at her watch.

"Well, looks like Xian Pu is right on time!" One of her assistants said cheerfully as she sat down next to Nabiki. "Maybe we should throw a few more orders at the Nekohanten, just to make sure she stays good and tired."

Nabiki loved sudden inspirations, especially when they were hers. There was the solution to her acute money problem, standing right in front of her. Most of the pieces were already in place. The rest would be easy. A betting pool on Xian Pu would fill the ticket nicely. Nabiki grinned. She would be killing many birds with a single stone. A betting pool would encourage people to order takeout from the Nekkohanten without it being necessary for Nabiki to exert any influence or call in any favors. Better yet, her cohorts would lend truly enthusiastic support with the smell of money in the wind. A huge smile lit her face. It was going to be a wonderful week.

"A man is never so harmlessly occupied as when he is busy making money," Nabiki said to her cohort.

"Ooh, I like that," Nabiki's minion said between bites, "It's profound."

"Applies to women, too," Nabiki said, grinning like a cat that had just figured out how to catch a canary. She had to remind herself not hum while eating.

Nodoka and Kasumi had gone all out for their indoor picnic with Ranma and Akane. The Tendo kitchen had been almost as busy this morning as that of the Nekohanten's. They had prepared grilled unagi on rice, raw, fatty tuna and rice wrapped in nori, baked ham in pineapple sauce, baked, Cornish game hens stuffed with six-count shrimp. Tofu had told them about Ranma and Akane's need for protein. Kasumi had also concocted a tossed salad made with fresh spinach, endive, bean sprouts, sliced tomatoes and purple onions, crowned with a liberal sprinkling of tofu pieces. Nadoka had even built a small fire in one corner of the yard and cooked Ranma's favorite vegetable, roasted maize. Even after all of it was boxed up into bento for carrying, it made an impressive spread.

"We will probably still be eating this until late next week, Auntie Nodoka," Kasumi said.

"Especially since that worthless husband of mine is too cowardly to visit his sick son!" Nodoka said.

"There, there," Kasumi said, "I am sure Uncle Saotome has good reason for allowing Ranma to rest. After all, he works out with Ranma all the time. He might well be part of the stress problem Dr. Tofu was telling us about."

"I'm sure you and the good doctor are correct, Kasumi. Genma is doubtless a major source of trouble for our son, but still! You'd think he could at least go visit him."

"Are we ready?" Kasumi asked with a smile, thinking it wise to change the subject.

"I believe so, yes," Nodoka said.

"Father, could you lend us a hand, please?"

"Yes, of course Kasumi dear," Soun said as began to gather up the heavier items.

The three of them set out for the looking for all the world like a cross between an impromptu circus act, or possibly a three-way juggling routine inspired by Jerry Lewis. The whole thing was made a bit more exciting owing to Nodoka's ever present katana.

"This would be ever so much simpler if we had a pull cart," Nodoka said in a somewhat flustered voice. "Why don't we go back and get it?"

Soun looked rather embarrassed.

"Ah, well you see the Master sort of lost it a while back and I never replaced it because..."

"Never mind, Tendo-san," Nodoka said, "I'll set Genma to work building you one as soon we get back."

Kasumi looked at Nodoka in surprise. "Can Uncle Saotome do that sort of thing Auntie?"

"Kasumi dear, the man can do truly wonderful things with his hands, once you ever get him started," Nodoka said with a smile. "Surely you don't think I married him just for his looks?"

Kasumi blushed, then giggled. Nodoka watched her slyly out of the corner of one eye.

"Of course, I think you are considerably more fortunate than I am," Nodoka said, being careful to keep her voice even, "Tofu is much better looking than Genma and almost certainly has magic hands."

Kasumi turned scarlet, even as she smiled.

"How did you get Uncle Saotome started, Auntie Nodoka?"

"Well, it wasn't easy, I'll tell you! But I'll let you in on a little secret, it was well worth the effort."

"Any pointers, Auntie?"

"Perhaps later, dear," Nodoka said with a sly smile, "I think we are distressing your father."

A glance at Soun confirmed that he did indeed look as though he might start blubbering. The two women caught one another's eye, then shared a happy giggle.

Tofu watched Ranma and Akane consume the bean curd from a safe distance, being amused and amazed by turns. The flat of tofu he had brought in that morning was stripped down to the crumbs by eight. He wanted very badly to get in an entire day observing this peculiar couple, but his more normal patients began arriving at eight-thirty. He left them to their own devices after cautioning them to remain as quiet as possible.

Akane was not nearly so amazed by the total annihilation of the tofu as her favorite doctor was. She had after all, seen Ranma seriously hungry before. What amazed her was that she seemed to have helped him out by eating at least a quarter of it herself, and now, even though she was so full she worried that something vital might well split open, she still felt hungry. The next truly amazing thing was what Ranma did. Rather than falling asleep the way she expected him to, he asked her to fetch his history book. Then, after she gave it to him, he actually began to read it. She watched him for a while, doubting that he was actually going to read the thing, but he never looked up after he got started so she got out her algebra book and began working problems. She quickly became so engrossed with the beautiful labyrinths of matrix algebra that she was totally lost to the real world for a little while. Mathematics was fast becoming one of Akane's secret obsessions and talents. Obsession or not, her concentration was shattered four hours later by the mouth watering aromas that accompanied Nodoka and Kasumi's arrival at Tofu's clinic.

"Mom!" Ranma cried out, then followed that cry up with one of, "Food! Awright!"

Akane could not have agreed more. The food was most welcome. Tofu even managed to overcome his "allergy" to Kasumi and came in to check out the goodies. Akane was happy to see Tofu managing to keep his act together, but then was disappointed as he got dragged into a conversation with her father, instead of talking with Kasumi. Perhaps it was just as well, she thought. He and her father needed to get to know one another anyway and this was a good opportunity for that.

Kasumi and Nodoka eventually found places to put everything, a major chore given that they had brought so much, then hung back as though waiting for something in particular to happen. It finally dawned on Akane that they were expecting her to serve Ranma. Her father's presence in the room caused her to hesitate, but Nodoka's presence and obvious expectations overrode her concerns with his reactions. She picked up a bento packed with unagi donburi and a pair of chopsticks, then went over and sat down in the chair next to Ranma's bed.

"Ahhh!" she said to him.

"Sure you don't mind doing this, Akane?" He whispered with a grin.

"I just hope we don't find ourselves getting married in the clinic over this tomorrow. You know how dad and Uncle Saotome are."

"Don't worry about that," he whispered back. "It ain't gonna happen."

By way of answer she stuffed a piece of grilled eel in his mouth, then took a bite for herself. The delightful flavor made her aware of just how painfully hungry she really was.



"Think you can handle this on your own?"


"Good! 'Cause I'm starving and I want to get a bento of my own."

"Hey! No problem, Akane. Just stick close, okay? It'll make mom happy."

In under two hours there was nothing left of the massive feast, but empty bento and a nearly empty, two-gallon thermos of chilled, oolong tea. Ranma and Akane were both so full that they were straining the buttons on their clothes. Akane had eaten twice as much as she had intended, thanks to Ranma.

"Boy that was good!" Ranma said in a cheerful voice, "How long till supper?"

This of course got a huge laugh out of everyone and pleased Nodoka to no end. Anyone with an appetite that large had to be healthy, right? In truth it would normally be a sign of someone rapidly recovering from an illness, but Akane knew better. Ranma might be recovering, but he obviously had a ways to go and she found what was happening with him and his ki alarming. She held her tongue and said nothing. What purpose would talking about it serve, other than to alarm her father and upset Ranma's mother? Besides, being cooped up in the clinic for a week or so with her two favorite guys and no unwanted company sounded like a good deal to her. Better to not rock the boat if she could help it. The last thing she wanted was her dad getting panicky and urging her to come home, or worse, Nodoka taking up full time, temporary residence at the clinic. She wanted Ranma to herself for as much and as long as possible. There were things they both needed to know from one another and had never discussed because some well meaning fool or a rival was constantly getting in their way.

Then suddenly, Akane found that she was alone in the room with just Ranma and his mother. Even the empty bento and dishes were gone. I wonder how she pulled that off? Akane thought to herself. I'll have remember to ask Nodoka how she managed it later.

"Ranma, my son?" Nodoka said softly.

"Yes, mother?" Ranma asked. Much to Akane's shock he had used the proper honorific of "okaasan" rather than his more usual, "ofukuru."

Nodoka produced a yellowed bit of paper and placed it on the bed next to Ranma's right hand, then removed the covering from her family's katana. Ranma's eyes widened with concern at this.

"Twelve years ago, you swore an oath to return to me as a man and to become one of the world's greatest martial artists."

Ranma gulped visibly, clearly unsure of what was on his mother's mind. Akane had already figured it out, but she had to admit that Nodoka was not easily read, not even by another woman.

"Today I proclaim that you have returned to me as more than a man among men, and no one anywhere that I know of thinks that you are anything less than a great master of The Art."

Tears were not something that could come easily to Ranma Saotome, this Akane well knew and immediately understood that the possibility of him shedding tears was why Nodoka had seen to it that the two of them were the only ones left in the room for this little ceremony. Ranma did not actually cry, but his eyes got awfully shiny.

Nodoka held the sword before her still sheathed and parallel to the floor as one would for a proper exchange of arms between samurai.

"I therefore declare you to be the rightful guardian of the Saotome Clan's honor and keeper of its sword," Nodoka said. She raised the sword and bowed to it as was proper, then extended it to Ranma. Akane silently thanked the kami that Ranma managed to remember the protocol for an occasion such as this. He was wonderful in many ways, but manners and protocol were never going to be his long suit. He gripped the sword in an underhanded grasp on either side of Nodoka's hands, but did not take it from her grasp. He instead bowed to his mother and waited for her to release her hold upon the it, as was required in a formal exchange of arms. When Nodoka released the weapon, Ranma then held it up and bowed to the sword itself, before bringing it close his chest and pulling it an inch or so out of its scabbard so as to examine the markings near the guard. He then re-seated the sword in its scabbard and looked his mother in the eye.

"Mother, I must ask you to keep this sword for a while longer."

Nodoka looked nonplussed. Akane gasped.

"You have waited patiently for twelve long years, my mother, and it grieves me no end to ask you to be patient for a little while longer, but I must," Ranma extended the sword in the proper, two-handed grip.

"Why do you wish to wait, my son?" Nodoka asked, visibly shaken.

"I do not wish to accept this sword, until after I have handed you your first grandchild," Ranma said, then glanced over at Akane.

Akane felt a strange tickling in her stomach and discovered that for some reason she was becoming very light-headed. Ranma had just said the word grandchild, then looked at her. She was thrilled, she was titillated and she was furious with him for thinking about her like that, but she was pleased that he thought about her like that. What she really wanted to do was faint. She did not dare faint, not now. Maybe she would faint later.

Nodoka's smile lit up the entire room and more. Somewhere in Hokkaido the farmers were swearing they had been witness to a visit by Atamaresu.

"I understand, my son," Nodoka said as she placed her hands on the sword, "And I accept your pledge." She bowed to Ranma and he released the sword to his mother. She held it up and bowed to it, then silently swaddled it in the silken bag made for that purpose.

"With your permission, Saotome-san," Nodoka said with a formal bow, "I ask to be excused. There is business in need of my attention."

"Of course, Mother," Ranma said, nearly choking, "Will you visit me tomorrow?"

"If it is your wish, Saotome-san," Nodoka said.

Akane held her breath. Ranma was clearly baffled by his mother's behavior, but Akane understood it down to her very bones. She had always known that Nodoka was an old-fashioned woman, but right now she was behaving the way her grandmother always behaved towards her father. Ranma had never been around anyone who acted that way. Thankfully, he managed to maintain a semblance of decorum.

"I do wish it, my mother. I wish we had seen much more of one another before now."

"It is a great honor, to have such a manly son," Nodoka replied, as she rose and bowed. Then, without another word she turned and strode out the door without looking back. Ranma really was close to crying now.

"Akane, what just happened? Did I just lose my mother?"

"No, silly!" Akane said, blinking back a few tears of her own, "She's so proud of you she can barely talk. She left so she wouldn't embarrass you in front of me."

"Oh," Ranma said with a puzzled frown, "I wish she hadn't left. I wouldn't have been embarrassed."

"Then she would have been embarrassed for you, Ranma," Akane said as she sat down on the chair next to his bed and took his right hand in both her own. "A martial artist like yourself should already know and understand these kinds of things."

"Pops never taught me anything about this kind of stuff! I just barely remembered what to do with the sword."

Akane stared at her husband to be with shining eyes and smiled. "It's okay, Ranma. We all know that and understand."

In truth, Ranma sometimes acted as much like a gaijin as a real gaijin. Genma's training of his son had been focused upon The Art to the near exclusion of all else. These shortcomings had and would, cause Ranma trouble until he himself realized that there was a value in the things he had never been taught.

"You know, Ranma," Akane said in the mildest tones she could muster, "Now that you can be around your mother, you should ask her to teach you some of those things."

"D'ya think she'd do it?" Ranma asked. "I mean, it don't seem all that manly or nothin'."

"Oh, Ranma! Of course she would! For that matter, I might sit in with you. It wouldn't hurt me to polish up on proper etiquette either."

"Gee, Akane! Would...would you really do that?"

"Sure," Akane said, then gave him an impish smile, "I'll even throw cold water on you so you won't feel out of place."

"Akane...I, well...I ..."

Akane put a finger to his lips. "Shh, Ranma. I know. We have time."

The tension in Ranma's shoulders vanished and he sighed.

"I'm sorry, Akane."

Akane's heart stopped.

"Sorry for what, Ranma?"

"For making your life difficult."

Akane's heart began beating again.

"It was difficult before you came here, Ranma."

He did not say anything in words. He just stared at her. He looked like a man who had just found a sack of diamonds. Akane loved it and hated it at one and the same time. Being desirable was one thing. Being looked at as though she were property was another. It thrilled her and it made her want to reach out and touch someone--real hard.

"You don't own me, Saotome."

"I will before long." Ranma's tone was deadly serious. Frustration washed over her. She wanted to swarm up onto his chest, kissing him and hitting him by turns, but the clinic, being open, was just a wee bit too public for all of that and Ranma was not in good enough shape to deal with it.

"It will cost you," Akane said, then looked him over very carefully, as though he were slave she might buy, "Sure you want to pay the price?"

Much to Akane's amazement, Ranma did not flinch. He grinned. It was an almost evil grin, as though he knew something she did not.

"When the time comes," Ranma said, "I'll pay it."

Much to Akane's consternation her hands were beginning to shake and her knees were knocking. What's come over me all of sudden? She asked herself.

"You should rest now, Ranma," she said. Not only was this true of Ranma, but she herself needed to get away from this subject for a while.

"I'm not a bit sleepy. Would you hand me my science book?"

"Sure," Akane said, as she fetched the book, "I was thinking, how about pizza for supper tonight?"

If Ranma thought it unusual that Akane would still be thinking about food after their enormous meal, he showed no sign of it.

"I don't know, Akane. Sometimes it makes me have weird dreams when I eat it for supper."

Akane stuck out her lower lip at him.

"Oh, all right already! Pizza's fine. Just be sure to have 'em bring lots of soda water, okay? And no anchovies!"

Akane rewarded him with her special, just for Ranma when he's a good little boy, smile. It worked better than usual. No one but her was in the room to watch him react.

The sun dropped below Nerima's horizon at precisely six-thirty in the evening, just as astronomers had predicted it would. Not that this success on the part of the astronomers was that unusual, just that prediction and Nerima are used in the same sentence only after great caution has been previously exercised. Xian Pu reached down and flipped the lever that pressed the little generator against the front wheel of her bicycle and was rewarded with a beam of light shining out in front of her. She rang the bell a little earlier at each corner, just in case someone was thinking of stepping out in front of her as she pedaled on into the night. The generator powering the light wasn't really that much drag and ordinarily, Xian Pu would have paid it no heed, but this was the end of an extraordinary day and she found herself resenting the additional load, minor though it might be. Upon her return to the Nekohanten she discovered that she had yet another five deliveries to make when all she really wanted was to strip off her sweaty clothes and collapse--never mind a bath. That could wait until morning. Five minutes and a half-gallon swig of water later, she was back on the streets pedaling away until well past nine o'clock.

Ko Lon would not hear of her going to bed without a bath. She had made arrangements for the local bathhouse to stay open a little later than usual, just so they would have a chance to bathe. Xian Pu went upstairs and gathered her things, then made the mistake of sitting down in a chair while waiting for Ko Lon and Mu Suu to come down.

"Let's go, child," Ko Lon said.

"Xian Pu too tired, Great-grandmother. No want to walk to bathhouse."

"You need only walk as far as the door, my dear."

Xian Pu turned her head so that she could see past the doorway. Mu Suu was standing next to a large, two wheeled pull cart. The cart had a number of cushions and a blanket in it.

"Mu Suu, where you get cart?"

"I stole it from Happosai."

"Happy no own cart, Mu Suu. Cart belong somebody else!"

"So? If somebody comes to claim it I'll let them have it back and say Happy gave it to us to pay his bill. Now come on. People are waiting on us."

Xian Pu clambered aboard the cart and sprawled out on the cushions. Mu Suu and Ko Lon had not pulled the cart for more than half a block before she fell sound asleep. She perked up quite a bit after their bath, but still sat in the cart and let Mu Suu pull her towards home. Partly because she was tired and partly because Ko Lon told her that Mu Suu had looked like a man hauling gold to the bank on the way to the bathhouse. Flattery was one of few things Xian Pu liked better than flowers.

Two men came stumbling out of the big party being held at Miyagi's Sake Parlour and noticed Xian Pu riding in the cart with Ko Lon walking along side.

"Now that's the way to take care of a champion!" One of the men said cheerfully.

"Yeah! With care like that, we're sure to win tomorrow!" The other man said happily.

"I beg your pardon?" Ko Lon asked.

"You mean you don't know?" The first man asked.

"Know what?" Ko Lon asked.

"The betting pool!" The second man said.

"Betting pool?" Ko Lon asked.

"Yeah, we're both bettin' on this pretty little girl, here."

"Bet on Xian Pu to do what?" Xian Pu asked.

"We're bettin' you won't miss a delivery or be late by more than five minutes, for any order placed all day tomorrow."

"Hah! What fool give you five minutes against Xian Pu, much less miss delivery?"

"That's the spirit, girlie!" the first man said happily if a bit blearily.

"Yeah! We knew we could count on you!" The second man said, then the pair staggered off down the street arm in arm, singing something in English.


"Yes, child?"

"What 'Mary McCarthy'?"

"You don't want to know, dear. How are your legs?"

"Legs fine. Tired though."

"I just imagine they are."

Much to Ko Lon's annoyance, the telephone was ringing as they walked back into her establishment. Xian Pu laboriously made her way up the stairs as Ko Lon waved for Mu Suu to stay with her for a moment. She was scribbling rapidly as she spoke into the telephone. She groaned as she hung up.

"Set your alarm for four, Mu Suu. The graveyard shift on Forges Street has discovered us. They want supper delivered by six. It's a huge order or I would have turned it down."

Mu Suu groaned. "I never thought I'd see the day I hated prosperity."

Ko Lon cackled. "Better go get some sleep Mu Suu. Looks like tomorrow is going to be another long, long day."

The party at Miyagi's Sake Parlour was being thrown in honor of Ranma Saotome. Not that Ranma Saotome was in attendance, or even knew about it. The party was Happosai's idea. Soun and Genma had, just as they agreed to do earlier in the day, requested that Happosai test Ranma for his teaching license. Happosai was delighted that they thought Ranma was sufficiently advanced to begin teaching The Art. Happosai was so delighted, he insisted that this momentous event be properly celebrated at Soun and Genma's expense. One of the few things the old man loved as much as he did stealing panties, was taking advantage of the opportunity to party-hearty on someone else's money. He was proficient at it. Not that he ever let a mild bout of inebriation keep him from trying his hand at a bit of judicious panty plucking anyway.

Fortunately, Miyagi's wait-staff were all old pro's, knew Happosai quite well and therefore made allowances for him. Most of them actually enjoyed these affairs, especially since they all wore some of the most expensive lingerie made of cotton to be found anywhere outside Paris, and knew that Nabiki would find a way to pay the bill, provided it was properly itemized. Miyagi sent a runner around to each of the girl's houses to fetch more undergarments with specific instructions to retrieve the best stuff the girls owned. Everybody was having a good time.

By eleven, Soun and Genma were three sheets into the wind and still not getting any steerage. Happosai on the other hand, was just getting good and warmed up. He sat in the middle of the table while Soun and Genma stared stuporously at the ceiling, a bottle of sake as big as he was in his left hand, while snagging panty hose and what have you from the bodies of passing waitresses with his right hand. The girls reacted to this by squealing and wriggling, then would put on a show of mock outrage while making half-hearted attempts to recover their underwear. Miyagi's other customers enjoyed this bit of improvised theater as much as Happosai did. It was the best sort of magic act any of them had ever seen. Word got around to the other bars and Miyagi's filled to capacity by eleven-thirty.

Everything was going quite well until Tillie's two meters tall boyfriend showed up. Just as he walked through the door, Happosai extracted Tillie's frilly and to be truthful, Velcro(tm) tabbed brassier with a deft pluck of the thumb and forefinger. Tillie squealed, wriggled and attempted to retrieve her bra, just as the script of the evening called for. Happosai took this opportunity to bury his face between Tillie's ample breasts, much to the amusement of Miyagi's other customers. Tillie's boyfriend however, was now two-meters tall and a hundred kilograms worth of upset. He locked onto Happosai with a laser-like focus of hatred, and fired himself across the room with the sole intention of driving Happosai into the floor like a tack, turning over tables and upsetting chairs laden with seated and sadly besotted salary men like a middlebuster tearing up so much old turf.

Happosai, immediately recognizing the disturbance for what it was, having much experience in these matters, you see, picked up a fifty-yen coin and flung it downwards so that it struck the big toe of Genma Saotome's right foot edge on, without ever removing his face from Tillie's cleavage. The coin struck the nail of Genma's big toe at a velocity just short of warp six. Genma's toe immediately transmitted pain signals of a magnitude sufficient to pierce the alcoholic fog presently befuddling his nerve centers, thereby tripping several alarms in his autonomic nervous system. Given that the ganglia running the cerebral cortex of what passed for Genma's brain was entirely too addled to function at their more normal, but less than admirable, peak efficiency, the autonomic system proceeded to respond to the best of its ability. It made Genma stand up in front of the rapidly approaching, hundred kilograms of destructive intent, which had so recently hurled itself at Happosai.

This was exactly what Happosai expected Genma to do. After all, his main purpose in letting Soun and Genma hang around with him was to handle his light work and defray costs. In exchange, he inflicted enough pain upon the pair that they learned a thing or two. The fact that it often required a great deal of pain to teach them anything did not bother Happosai in the least. In his view, their innate density made them the most profitable pair of students he had acquired since embarking upon the profession of itinerant pedagogue.

"E-e-e-eyowie!" Genma bellowed, "That hurt, you know!"

Genma Saotome is often the target of vitriolic opprobrium. Often, said opprobrium is justified, but sometimes not. The man is not without his talents and good traits which tend to work in his favor and occasionally, in the favor of others. One of the things which often goes unrecognized about Genma Saotome is that he is a man of considerable martial skill. Skill that was hard earned by constant training and drill over the course of several decades. The other trait which is often noticed, but too often belittled rather than appreciated the way it should be, is his rather substantial build. Genma Saotome's physique is very similar that of a large, granite boulder with the chief difference between Genma and a granite boulder being that Genma is a bit more solid than your average run of igneous rock.

Genma's eyes, having observed the rapid advance of the two meters tall Tillie tingler, had been sending urgent signals to the ganglia making up the cerebral cortex of what passed for Genma's brain for a lengthy, by beer joint brawl standards, mind you, period of time now. Receiving no response, the eyes timed out the connection and began sending the same signals to the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic system was not equipped for, nor was it given to, a great deal of analytical thinking. Fortunately, because Genma had trained and drilled for so many hours out of so many days for so many years, roughly sixty-percent of his martial skills were contained in his somatic memory. The autonomic system picked a routine from the somatic memory, launched it, then as much out of frustration as desperation, began dumping large quantities of adrenaline into Genma's bloodstream, hoping that this drastic measure would succeed in getting the attention of the ganglia making up the cerebral cortex of what passed for Genma's brain.

The routine stored in somatic memory that the autonomic system chose is known among martial artists as the "go no sen" strategy. Anyone who was once a member of the 82nd Airborne, would recognize this as the "lured him in with a piece of bread" gambit. There are of course numerous ways to implement any given strategy and each martial artist and soldier has his own, personal, favorite way of pursuing such an affair. Genma's personal favorite took advantage of his rather substantial physique, and is widely known as the "Fujiyama-ken." This consisted of Genma dropping into a peculiar looking, if extraordinarily stable crouch, while settling extremely heavy ki into his lower limbs. He favored this technique so much that it was actually the first subroutine automatically called by the "go no sen" routine stored in his somatic memory.

The two-meters tall Tillie tingler failed to recognize the "Fujiyama-ken" for the devastating technique it was. Even though he was an accomplished brawler of considerable repute, the two-meters tall Tillie tingler lacked any formal training in The Art, was new to Nerima and had never heard of, nor had he ever seen, the group known to the more experienced Nerimians as Happy and the Fiends of the Happosai. What he thought he was seeing, was a badly inebriated, ineffectual, overweight, middle-aged boob that he could easily remove from his path with a vicious shove.

Ki is always created. Energy is not. We often think of energy as something we "generate" but we do not generate energy. We can shift energy around, we may direct it or re-channel it, we can even change it's form, but energy exists as a fixed quantity in the universe and is never created or destroyed. Energy is always, always, always conserved. The two-meters tall Tillie tingler was reminded of this when he applied a large quantity of energy to the squatting Genma Saotome, whose "go no sen" routine in somatic memory was generating mega-tons of heavy ki with its Fujiyama-ken subroutine, designed long ago by ancient masters of The Art to allow Genma, or anyone else who happened to master the technique, to hold his ground while looking hapless.

The ferocious quantity of energy the two meters tall Tillie tingler applied to the hapless looking Saotome had to go somewhere. The universe demanded that it be conserved. The energy expended by the two meters tall Tillie tingler, unable to have any significant affect upon the solid, if hapless looking Saotome, instead affected the two meters tall Tillie tingler. This is what is known as reflection and it resulted in the two meters tall Tillie tingler performing a fair imitation of a bullet ricocheting off a large slab of magma, extruded from the deep crust long ago in a prefecture far, far away.

He sailed over the heads of a dozen or so sadly besotted salary men seated at a table he had not managed to overturn in his headlong rush to crush the salacious Happosai, slammed into the wall near the far corner of Miyagi's Sake Parlour, then crashed onto the table occupied by ten or twelve of the work-hardened, hammer and wrench wielding, blue-collar hands that worked the dayshift in various shops along Forges Street, who would have ordinarily been home, snug in their beds by now, but had been enticed to stay for an extra few brews, by Happosai's impromptu demonstration of Anything Goes Martial Arts Panty Plucking.

These hale and hearty fellows were not so much upset at the two meters tall Tillie tingler for landing on their table, nor were they all that disturbed by his spilling their beer and sake. Such a thing was to be expected, given that the physics of the situation demanded it. No, what they were upset about was that he had interrupted their floor show. ETFSOI (Elapsed Time from Start of Imbroglio): one and one half seconds.

Never let it be said that the Japanese always take a great deal of time to reach a consensus. They can, if a matter is urgent enough, or if by training a group of them has gotten into the habit of acting quickly, reach a consensus in a more than timely fashion. In the case of the blue-collar hands working dayshift in the shops along Forges Street, they had become inured to the need for cooperating quickly in the face of sudden, unexpected demands and work loads. They instantly decided that beating up the two meters tall Tillie tingler themselves, would not be nearly so much fun as feeding him to the still crouching, Genma Saotome. ETFSOI: One and three-quarters of one second.

By one and three quarters seconds ETFSOI, Genma's autonomic nervous system had dumped enormous quantities of adrenaline into his bloodstream and it was at this instant that the ganglia of the cerebral cortex making up what passed for Genma's brain, got their act back together. The voluntary system then notified the involuntary system that it was back on-line and demanded to know just what in the blue blazes was going on. The autonomic system responded by relaying the pain alarm emanating from the big toe of Genma's right foot.

"Which one of you stupid jerks stomped on my toe?" Genma bellowed, rattling the window panes and causing the walls of Miyagi's Sake Parlor to breath in and out a couple of times. ETFSOI: two seconds.

It was at this point that the work-hardened blue-collar hands working dayshift in the shops along Forges Street finished applying large quantities of cooperative energy to the two meters tall Tillie tingler. One must remember that the application of energy in this fashion always gives rise to a resultant which is a vector, not a scalar quantity. In this case, the resultant vector sailed the two meters tall Tillie tingler through the air and over the heads of the same dozen or so sadly besotted salary men, that had failed to note the previous passage of the two meters tall Tillie tingler, at a velocity far greater than he experienced the first time he sailed across the room, terminating in a rather violent landing by the two meters tall Tillie tingler upon the still crouching, still heavily ki laden, Genma Saotome. ETFSOI: two and one tenth seconds.

The dynamics of the universe being what they are, yet another resultant vector manifested itself before anyone could do anything. The two-meters tall Tillie tingler bounced off the redoubtable Saotome, slammed into the floor, then shot under the table of the same, sadly besotted salary men who had missed the previous passages the two meters tall Tillie tingler had made over their heads, and were just now beginning to wonder if something in the room might be amiss. The ensuing, follow-on resultant of the two meters tall Tillie tingler's frame ricocheting away from the firmly ensconced Saotome for a second time, was roughly analogous to the spectacular results witnessed when a destroyer escort is struck by a torpedo. Beer, sake, pieces of table, pieces of chair, whole chairs, salary men, pieces of salary men, along with a variety of disgusting fluids, present because several of the salary men had neglected to visit the john during Happosai's two-hours of impromptu, Anything Goes Martial Arts Panty Plucking demonstrations, were launched into the air, flight-limited by the ceiling of Miyagi's Sake Parlour. ETFSOI: two and fifteen one hundredths seconds.

As salary men and other disgusting debris rained down around him, the two meters tall Tillie tingler sat up and saw Tillie doing one of the things that had endeared him to her in the first place. She had just finished some ticklish negotiations with the salacious Happosai, which had begun earlier in the evening, and had now set about earning a week's pay in a single night the old fashioned way, by blowing it. Truth be known, she had accepted the job as much for the challenge as she had for the proffered, monetary reward because the tool currently in hand was the proximate size, shape and consistency of a Vienna sausage. Given that this was the case, one might well wonder how the two meters tall Tillie tingler noticed, but notice he did and he let forth with a howl of pain, jealousy, humiliation and rage that simultaneously shook the Pillars of Heaven and rattled the Gates of Hell. ETFSOI: two and one half seconds.

For her part, Tillie had heard many similar such cries of outrage and paid it no heed as she went about taking care of her difficult, if diminutive challenge. The two meters tall Tillie tingler, while a handsome enough and energetic enough of a fellow, was a little too short on tongue for Tillie's tastes and she had been planning on replacing him anyway. Now that he had created a disturbance at her place of work, she wanted to be doubly sure she was shut of him. Earning money the old fashioned way while he watched seemed, to her at least, the perfect means of slaying two nuisance grade demons with a single lash of the tongue.

The howl of the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler did nothing to stop the brief rain of salary men, pieces of ceiling and other disgusting debris. One of the sadly besotted and now thoroughly confused salary men dropped, willy-nilly, into the lap of one of the work-hardened, hammer and wrench wielding, blue-collar hands who worked dayshift in one of the shops along Forges Street. He, being annoyed and more than a little put off by this unexpected if entirely predictable turn of events, brushed the sadly besotted salaryman out of his lap with a contemptuous snort and called the salaryman a name which will not be repeated here, but had something to do with Tillie's chosen method of earning a week's pay in a single night. This greatly offended the salaryman, who in turn suggested that the blue-collar hand's mother made her living by a means remarkably similar to the one currently being employed by Tillie. Thus the enthalpy necessary to trigger the vigorously exothermic reaction between alcohol and testosterone typically seen on any given Saturday night in most any bar found anywhere in the world, was more than amply provided in Miyagi's Sake Parlor on an otherwise quiet, Tuesday night in Nerima. Birds of a feather always flock together, but never more so than they do in Japan. The salary men exhibited considerable courage, given who they were up against and the condition they were in. ETFSOI: two and fifty-five one hundredths seconds.

The howl of the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler also served to further arouse the ganglia making up the cerebral cortex of what passed for Genma's brain. The voluntary nervous system signaled the autonomic system for more power and got it. It then used that power to execute the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts Final Attack, by diving for the floor and crawling under the heaviest, sturdiest looking table in Miyagi's Sake Parlour. Here, the voluntary system found itself and Genma being greeted by the remainder of Miyagi's wait-staff. They, being wise in the ways of Miyagi's Sake Parlour in particular and Nerima in general, had already taken cover beneath the aforementioned, sturdiest table in the joint. Genma's sudden appearance did not upset them in the least. More than one of the girls simultaneously decided it was an excellent opportunity to garner a little more valuta before the evening's close. They hiked their skirts and offered Genma a little something to eat, which was easily done by them thanks to Happosai's plucking earlier in the evening. There is only one thing on Earth that Genma Saotome has ever refused when it was freely offered for the eating, and this night would be no exception to that lifelong behavior pattern. He would not realize the full costs incurred by this ill-considered indulgence on this particular evening for several days. It would be Nabiki who received the itemized bill, and it would be Nabiki who would have to write a check to pay said invoice. Nabiki's continuing silence over the matter would cost Genma dearly for many, many years to come. Never let it be said that a man with low tastes necessarily gets by on less money. ETFSOI: two and sixty hundredths seconds.

Happosai, seeing the seeds of a general conflagration germinating in the far corner of Miyagi's Sake Parlour, and realizing that the shout of the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler would without doubt cause Genma's voluntary nervous system to take full control of Genma's substantial frame, decided he had best rouse and deploy his other fiend. He actually hated to do such a thing to Miyagi's. He liked Miyagi and rousing Soun from a drunken stupor under these circumstances would be little different from using a flamethrower to eradicate cockroaches in an outhouse, but he seldom got this kind of attention from a barmaid as good looking as Tillie, even when he offered them exorbitant sums of money. Even more importantly, Tillie was famous for the way in which she finished one of these little jobs. He was therefore, determined that she should be allowed to complete her ministrations without interruption, no matter what it cost anyone or even everyone on Earth. Happosai estimated that in all probability, the greater part of Tokyo would be spared although he could never be certain of what would happen once the dark side of Soun Tendo was provoked, but in the interest of immediately furthering Tillie's Art, Happosai provoked it anyway. ETFSOI: two and sixty-five hundredths seconds.

Alcohol affects Soun Tendo in a very different manner than it does Genma Saotome. Unlike Genma, Soun's voluntary nervous system never quite shuts completely down, thus it never quite leaves his autonomic system in control. Instead, Soun has bad dreams while under the influence of alcohol. With just the right amount of alcohol, the amount which makes most other people worship at the cool, white porcelain Altar of Bacchus, Soun's subconscious mind takes command. The end result can vary from maudlin to terrifying, depending upon what sort of external stimuli are present when this threshold of intoxication is reached or exceeded. In the circumstance of Miyagi's Sake Parlour on this otherwise quiet, Tuesday night in Nerima, the sounds and smells of fighting can be detected. Soun's subconscious mind has already begun to relive the terrible, day long battle of Sekigahara. No one knows why his subconscious mind insists upon reliving the Battle of Sekigahara, but it does. The thimble full of peppermint schnapps that Happosai produced, seemingly from no where, and poured down Soun's throat at ETFSOI two and sixty-five hundredths seconds was just the proper amount of alcohol necessary to allow Soun's subconscious mind to seize control of Soun Tendo. The results were terrifying. There may have been one or two warriors in the service of the long dead Tamerlane who were somewhat more bloodthirsty than Soun's subconscious mind, but that is mere speculation of dubious quality, only indulged in by elderly residents of Nerima over hot sake on cold winter evenings.

At about this same time, the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler had managed to get to his feet and had once again locked onto the salacious Happosai with a laser-like focus of hatred. This time however he had decided that he would seize Happosai and pull off his, well, pull off Happosai's head, right after he dealt with this tall, goofy looking, middle-aged dolt with the long hair and silly moustache. The two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler was laboring under the misapprehension that he had somehow frightened Genma away, not having any way to know that Genma habitually went to great lengths to avoid fighting anyone unless food or some other significant tangible was at stake. The two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler was not therefore, the least bit alarmed by the arousal of Soun Tendo. This proved to be a terrible mistake.

Soun's subconscious was at that very moment berating its owner for having misplaced his favorite pole arm, the family naginata, which of course was ridiculous. One did not carry a naginata to a sake parlor, as it is considered bad form to show hostile intent at such an establishment prior to becoming snockered. Soun's subconscious however, did not believe Soun to be in the middle of brauhouse brawl, but instead believed him to be in the middle of the Battle of Sekigahara, which in many ways is even more ridiculous because Soun was born several hundred years after the Battle of Sekigahara and had never so much as even visited battleground. He had not done so because he was afraid his subconscious might take over while he was sober. At least when it took over while he was drunk, he could blame his odd behavior on being drunk and could therefore avoid confronting a number of deep-seated, psychological problems.

Casting about for a suitable substitute to serve in lieu of Soun's missing naginata, the subconscious part of Soun's mind fixated upon the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler. He was after all, two meters long, almost the exact length of a naginata made for someone of Soun's height. The fact that the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler weighed one hundred kilograms and was not, strictly speaking, made of a rigid material troubled Soun's subconscious mind not one whit. After all, that is what shiatsu points are for, to cure minor defects in makeshift weaponry. ETFSOI: two and seventy-five hundredths seconds.

With a speed and dispatch rivaling Ranma Saotome's Chestnut Fist technique, Soun's hands under the command of Soun's subconscious mind reduced the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler's weight by ten kilograms, he was full of it, you see, and had him standing rigidly at attention, unable to do anything, but breath and caterwaul. Soun's subconscious mind considered the caterwauling to be a very annoying defect, but like any good Samurai or Marine, was determined to adapt and overcome. It adapted by ignoring the caterwauling and seizing the now rigid, two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler as though he were in fact a somewhat overweight naginata, then made an effort to overcome by attacking the warring factions in the far corner of Miyagi's Sake Parlour with his makeshift, caterwauling and somewhat smelly weapon. ETFSOI: three seconds.

What had begun as a battle between sadly besotted salary men and burly blue collar hands, now became a battle between Soun's subconscious mind and everyone else. The one thing that must be said in favor of Soun's subconscious mind is that even though it is exceedingly bloodthirsty, it does not stoop to making class distinctions. It holds steadfastly to the policy of "Kill 'em all and let the kami sort 'em out." Given that there was no exit handily available on this end of Miyagi's Sake Parlour, the two groups had no choice but to cooperate in the face of this newly arisen crisis and try to fight their way past the raging Soun Tendo, thereby gaining the exit to Miyagi's rapidly deteriorating establishment. ETFSOI: thirty-five seconds.

The preferred method of dealing with the adept of a pole arm has for centuries been to drop back and let the archers put a hundred or so shafts in him. Unfortunately there was not a single archer among the combined forces of sadly besotted salary men and hammer and wrench wielding, blue collar hands that would ordinarily have gone home before now. Nor would such a putative archer been in possession of his equipment had one been amongst their number, because carrying weapons to an establishment such as Miyagi's Sake Parlour display's hostile intent prior to becoming snockered and is therefore considered a gross display of both ill manners and poor breeding. After all, even the habitue of Miyagi's Sake Parlour has their standards.

By now, the salacious Happosai was being introduced to the true terrors of Tillie's Super Secret, Tongue and Hum but Don't Let 'im Come 'til He Yodels, technique, and was beginning to whimper like a whipped puppy. Tillie was having a hard time with her timing owing to the noise created by Soun's attack upon the poor, dumb sots in the far corner of Miyagi's Sake Parlour, and the incredibly loud caterwauling of his makeshift, and somewhat smelly weapon. Still, she was very good at this particular technique, most of it being of her own invention, and could make up for what she could not hear by using tactile inputs, much to the dismay of the salacious Happosai, who was already aching for release from this unique form of ecstatic torture. ETFSOI: one minute, thirty and one half seconds.

It has been said that the heat of battle serves to concentrate the mind wonderfully. This is true, provided there is a mind available to concentrate. For five terrible, seeming to stretch out into an eternal hell minutes, there was no mind employed in the resistance against the raging Soun Tendo and his caterwauling, somewhat smelly, makeshift weapon. All the proffered responses to his assault had so far been measures inspired by surprise and a sudden shot of adrenaline to the bloodstream and were therefore relatively mindless. It was one of the salary men who, though not a world-class martial artist, had indeed made it all the way to first dan in kendo and had read Musashi's Book of Five Rings several times, as well as getting a huge kick out of the sillier Samurai movies, experienced a flash of insight in the heat of battle. Oddly enough, the source of his sudden inspiration came not from his formal training or reading, but was instead inspired by a scene from one of the sillier Samurai movies. He stepped back away from the raging Soun Tendo, seized a heavy, glass pitcher and flung it at Soun's head. Soun of course, blocked the pitcher with the long suffering, two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler now serving as a caterwauling, somewhat smelly, makeshift naginata. While this was rather hard on the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler, it did save Soun from a heavy blow to the head. It also inspired the salaryman's cohorts and they too began to throw things, anything and everything, including their false teeth at the raging Soun Tendo. There was at one time, four different dentistries in Nerima, all of which disappeared because the dentists died from overwork. ETFSOI: six minutes, thirty and one half seconds.

Up until this time, Soun's subconscious mind had not employed any sort of adrenaline enhanced speed techniques. It had, up until the time this improvised fusillade of makeshift projectiles began, been concentrating on doing a cold, craftsman like job of killing everyone in the building. Fortunately for everyone in the building but the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler, the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler lacked the sharp points and cutting edge of a real naginata, or the sadly besotted salary men and the work-hardened blue collar hands alike would all have been graveyard dead at ETFSOI, five seconds or so. As it was, they had been taking a severe beating, but were surviving the onslaught perpetrated by the hallucinating, subconscious mind of Soun Tendo.

Upon receiving the fusillade, Soun's subconscious surmised that he was under attack by archers. This is one of the great fears of all accomplished naginataka and they train heavily for such an eventuality. Soun's subconscious sent an urgent message to his autonomic nervous system demanding more power and to send it fast. The autonomic system realizing what the subconscious apparently did not, that the two-meters long, ex-Tillie tingler was about eighty-five kilograms heavier than a real naginata should be, opened Soun's adrenal ducts to their maximum, stepped hard upon his pituitary with both feet, then sent an urgent reply back to the subconscious that said in essence, "Hit it!" whereupon Soun's subconscious immediately went into that graceful frenzy which allows an accomplished naginataka to fend off hundreds of arrows fired from every direction at once. Which meant, among other things, that the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler would now have to endure removing several square meters of Miyagi's ceiling boards with his head and toes as he was whirled around and about Soun Tendo as though he were the rotor of some sort of insane helicopter.

The voice of the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler had already begun to sound a bit hoarse after several minutes of steady caterwauling, but now, thanks to the not so inconsiderable, centripetal forces being applied to his entire person, including his sore throat and vocal chords, his caterwauling had begun to sound very much like the most serious sort of air raid siren. The kind that woke the good people of Nerima and said to them:

"MIRV's and BUFF's and Bears! Oh, my!"

"And this is not a drill! Oh, me!"

"MIRV's and BUFF's and Bears! Oh, my!"

"And this is not a drill! Oh, me!"

"MIRV's and BUFF's and Bears! Oh, my!"

"And this is not a drill! Oh, me!"

So it should come as no surprise that once the sadly besotted salary men and the hammer and wrench wielding, blue-collar hands inside Miyagi's Sake Parlour ran out of improvised projectiles, thereby allowing Soun's bloodthirsty, subconscious mind to go back into attack mode, that there was a sizeable number of people outside watching as it began to rain sadly besotted salary men and badly battered, blue-collar hands who worked the day shift in various shops along Forges Street. The bulk of them of course, had departed Miyagi's Sake Parlour via exits not previously extant in the roof of that particular structure. ETFSOI: eight minutes.

One or two of the good citizens witnessing this turn of events shook their heads in disgust, while the majority just laughed or grinned. One however decided that this must be the product of a fairly serious brawl and that medical and police assistance seemed to be in order. He whipped out his cellular telephone and dialed 119. Upon hearing that there appeared to be trouble brewing in Miyagi's Sake Parlour, the 119 dispatcher demanded to know if it was the weekend already. He found working nights to be distressingly disorienting, you see. The concerned citizen being somewhat exasperated informed the 119 dispatcher that no, it was not Friday night, nor was it a Saturday nor even a Sunday night, but this was Nerima and strange stuff happens here, even on a Tuesday night like tonight and that assistance was urgently needed because it was raining sadly besotted salary men who were not, as a general rule, given to brawling in Miyagi's Sake Parlour or any other joint. The 119 dispatcher then reluctantly carried out his assigned duties and dispatched four policeman to investigate what was going on at Miyagi's Sake Parlour.

These four policeman, being much wiser in the ways of Nerima than the inexperienced boob at 119 dispatch, were on their radios screaming for backup before they had taken three steps away from their koban. This turned out to be an exercise in redundancy because the sergeant in charge of the night-standby riot squad had heard the dispatch from the 119 service, and already had his men suiting up while he dialed the emergency, night number of one Dr. Tofu Ono. Doctor Ono was the only medic he knew that could effectively treat the peculiar injuries his men always suffered in Nerima. The injuries were almost never serious or life threatening, but difficult and expensive to treat, unless the doctor in charge possessed a thorough understanding of them. He figured that if Ono ever quit his practice in Nerima, his men might reasonably refuse to service any calls in that district. ETFSOI: nine minutes, twenty seconds.

The vocal chords of the two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler finally fuzzed out, just as a large crowd of curious onlookers began to form up around the outside of Miyagi's Sake Parlour. The caterwauling was almost immediately replaced by one of the most extraordinary performances of yodeling that anyone in Nerima had ever heard. Whoever it was doing the yodeling inside the badly bedraggled structure possessed a voice of enormous range, almost four octaves.

One member of the crowd, Furinkan's music teacher to be exact, opined that it was not possible for an unaided, human voice to have that sort of range and volume. This sparked a round of speculation and impromptu, back of the envelope design work amongst the electrical engineers in the crowd, all of whom began to wonder where Miyagi got his karaoke equipment and how on earth did he afford it? Obviously there was some previously unknown development among their competitors that they needed to be concerned about. They had no way of knowing that what they were hearing was not the product of exceptional, solid state design and engineering, but was merely the combination of Tillie's technique and Happosai's fifty years long need of release. ETFSOI: ten minutes, ten seconds.

The yodeling stopped without warning and was immediately followed by what sounded like a female version Johnny Weismueller doing his famous Tarzan yell. The crowd began cheering uproariously. The crowd was still cheering when a completely unruffled Tillie appeared in the front door of Miyagi's Sake Parlour, looking as though she had just finished a very large meal. She gave the crowd a prim little bow and strolled off into night. It was at this point that several of the men in the crowd realized what must have happened to some lucky bum inside Miyagi's Sake Parlour and fell upon the street laughing. They would later find themselves at a loss to explain to their wives what was so funny about Tillie's departure from the scene. ETFSOI: fifteen minutes.

Shortly after Tillie left, the night-standby, riot squad, Doctor Tofu Ono and the four street-beaters previously dispatched by the 119 service, arrived at the scene. The noises coming from inside the badly battered and bedraggled Miyagi's Sake Parlour were quite faint, but ominous to their ears. The sergeant of the riot squad ordered his men to surround the place, then he and Tofu cautiously entered Miyagi's Sake Parlour via the front door. Inside, they found a recumbent Soun Tendo, snoring away as though he were at home in bed, with a hideously deformed, two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler lying across his chest. Happosai had passed out upon the table that he, Soun and Genma had occupied much earlier in the evening. His eyes were locked wide open and staring glassily at the stars through a large hole in the roof and ceiling.

The sergeant of the riot squad motioned one of his men over and pointed to Happosai.

"Arrest that old man for indecent exposure, and be careful where you point that thing! It may go off again."

Tofu knelt down and examined the hideously deformed, two meters tall, ex-Tillie tingler. Looking at the unconscious man gave the sergeant of the riot squad a bad case of the involuntary shivers.

"How is he, Doc?"

"Oh, it looks much worse than it is, actually. He'll recover nicely in about two weeks."

"What made his feet and lower legs swell up like that? Ugh! Good grief! He's got blood oozing out from beneath his toenails."

"Centrifugal force, I think," Tofu said absently as he continued to examine the man. "We had best take him to the clinic rather than the jail."

"You're the doc, Doc," the sergeant said, then he noticed peculiar noises coming from beneath a large, heavily constructed table on the other end of the sake parlor. He motioned to his men and had them silently surround it. He picked up a nearby firewater bucket, which by some inexplicable miracle had not been turned over during the course of the imbroglio, and waited for his men to get into place around the table, their long, Okinawa style batons drawn and ready.

With a throwing style he had picked up while serving as a volunteer with his hometown fire department, the sergeant flung the contents of the bucket into the darkened space beneath the table. Tofu's highly trained sense of hearing had already told him who was under the table and what was going on under the table and so it was no great surprise to him when a howling mad panda reared up and turned the table over as several members of Miyagi's wait-staff scattered like a covey of plucked quail. The girls quickly made their way through the badly shocked ranks of heavily armored riot cops, desperately seeking the cloak of darkness just beyond the spectators. Outside, the crowd roared with laughter. Genma roared with frustration and would have given the riot cops a severe beating if the quick thinking and previously prepared Tofu had not planted a tranquilizer dart between his shoulder blades.

"Wasn't this damned thing in this place the last time we got called out here?" The sergeant asked. Several of his men nodded their heads in affirmation.

"Well load it up and take it back to the zoo!"

The cops began breaking out their ropes and manacles.

"Arrest that one," the sergeant said, pointing at Soun, "and haul this one down to the clinic."

It was at this point that Miyagi finally stepped into the picture and interceded on Soun's behalf.

"Uh, officer?"

"Oh, hello Miyagi. Where were you when all this took place?"

"Under my bar!" Miyagi exclaimed, sounding slightly offended. "Where do you think?"

"You're a smart man, Miyagi. Too smart sometimes. What do you want?"

"Well, if you don't mind, my bartender and I will take this fellow home," Miyagi said, pointing to Soun.

"Oh, yeah? I was about to arrest him for creating a public disturbance. You know some reason I shouldn't?"

"Aw come on, Sarge! This is just Soun Tendo. He's a big crybaby. He never causes any trouble. He just had a few too many and passed out in the wrong place, is all."

"Are you sure, Miyagi?"

"Sarge, do ya really think I'd try to get some guy off the hook if he busted up my place?"

"Naw, I guess not. Get him out of here before somebody notices me being nice. I have a reputation to live up to."

"You got it, Sarge!" Miyagi said as he motioned his bartender over. The sergeant went outside.

"Run over to the Nekohanten and borrow their cart," Miyagi told the bartender. The bartender grinned at his boss, then sprinted away into the night.

"Okay, Folks! The party is over. Go home and get some sleep! It's a work night, for Pete's sake!" The sergeant bellowed at the crowd.

Four, "Super-gargantua" pizzas with everything but anchovies on them, and a case of soda water arrived at Tofu Ono's clinic at half past six. Doctor Ono, lacking the cast iron stomach of his young patients, or perhaps just having better sense, declined their kindly offers to share their meal and went out to eat before going home. Ranma and Akane attacked the pizza with a zest that can only be described as wolfish.

"Ow!" Ranma said, nearly spewing pizza around the room. "I guess I shudda said no jalapeņos!"

"What's the matter, Ranma?" Akane asked with an impish grin, "Can't take it?"

"Hey! I can take anything you can, Tomboy!"



"Well let's just see!" Akane said as she shook out a liberal sprinkling of crushed cayenne upon the slice of pizza she currently had in hand. Ranma's eyes widened with admiration and awe as Akane bit into the horrifically seasoned slice of pizza without flinching. Taking a deep breath to quell his heartfelt trepidation, he followed suit by reaching for the pepper shaker and dousing his own slice of pie with the fiery bits of dried chili, then decided that discretion was the better part of valor and added on some freshly crushed, parmesan cheese. Much to Ranma's pleasure and pain, the pizza tasted wonderful. Through watery eyes he looked at Akane and said, "Hey! I really like this stuff!"

Akane just grinned, because her mouth was so full she looked like a chipmunk and popped another piece of pizza into Ranma's mouth. Ranma decided that because the martial arts eating technique was not, strictly speaking, a part of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts, that there would be no harm teaching Akane a move or two. The four pizza's, along with most of the soda water, evaporated by ten minutes past seven and both the non-newly-weds were in dire need of a bath.

"Ranma? Could you sit up a little? I need to get this sauce off your pillow without smearing it."

"I think so. I'm feeling a lot better than I was yesterday."

Much to his shock and suprise, Ranma's middle ear did not try to tell him that he was walking around on the ceiling or worse, floating around in free fall.

"Hey! I'm not even dizzy!"

"That's good," Akane said absent mindedly as she attempted to remove the stray dollop of tomato sauce without making a mess of Ranma's pillowcase.

"Geez, Akane," Ranma said sounding a little alarmed, "You're a mess."

"I know," Akane said sounding slightly guilty, "we both are."

"Think you could help me to the bathroom again? I wanna wash some of this off. That pizza junk is greasy."

"Are you sure you should be doing this, Ranma?"

"Hey! When ya gotta, you gotta," Ranma said speaking with a self-assuredness he did not really feel. His previous trip to the bath earlier in the day had been an ordeal, even with Tofu there to help.

Akane helped him get down out of the bed. Standing up on his feet proved to be a very different thing from sitting up in the bed. He froze in place and hung onto the bedstead, waiting for the dizziness to pass.

(Yo! Saotome! Time for you to take a nap. I'm cuttin' in.)

(Huh? Now?)

(You agreed to this earlier today, remember?)

(Yeah, I remember.)

(So go get some sleep. I'll take it a while.)

(Just remember what we said about not lettin' things get out of hand.)

(Since when do things ever get out of hand around us, Saotome?)

Ranma suddenly found himself wishing he could give his alter-ego a dirty look.

(Unlax, will ya? Everything will be fine. I love her as much as you do.)

(Oh, all right! Good night, Red.)

(Good boy, Saotome.)

"Are you better yet, Ranma?" Akane asked.

"Yeah, a little. Let's give it a try."

"Would you like some cold water first?"

"Huh? Why would I want cold water?"

"I was just afraid you might be embarrassed," Akane said. "Being helped by a girl while you're a guy, I mean."

(She don't count as girl.)

(Shut up and go to sleep, Saotome!)

"Am I always that childish?" Ranma asked.


(Just shut up and watch what happens, Saotome. She's got a sweet side, you know! You just never figured out how to bring it out.)

Akane looked up at him smiled at him, her eyes shining with pride.

"Not always, Ranma," she said, patting his chest, "Not always."

(Well hey, it's working!)

(No shit, Saotome. Now if you aren't going to...)

(Okay, okay! I'll be quiet.)


"I'll try to do better from now on," Ranma said softly.


"I promise."

Akane laid her head up against Ranma's arm and smiled up at him.

"I'm glad."


(Yeah. I made you promise that you'd act like a real man instead of Shit-daddy, that's what.)


(You come real close sometimes, Saotome. Real close!)


(Yep. That means we'll have to try and behave, doesn't it?)


(Ooh! I'm so scared!)


(What I have done, Saotome, is to decide that it really doesn't matter if someone sees us being nice once in a while, or admitting we need help when we really do need it. It's the manly thing to do!)


(Admitting you need help to someone who loves you and can help you is a strength, you twit! You go runnin' to Shit-daddy whenever you need help with a technique you can't beat, right?)

(Not very often anymore.)

(And your point is?)

(All right already! You gotta point, but I don't hafta like it.)

(Don't like it all you don't wanna, Saotome. Makes no difference to me, but if we don't change somethin' soon, we're gonna lose Akane.)

(I don't...are we really all that sure we even want her?)

(Hmph! You answered that question the day you scattered Saffron's bones all over Jusendo! You remember the guy I'm talkin' about, right? The single source of heat and light his people had? Remember him? That guy?)

(ENOUGH ALREADY! I hate what I did, okay?)

(But you did it for a good enough reason, Ranma. You gonna blow it now that the fight's over?)

(I don't wanna lose her. Akane...Akane is...)

(I know what she is to us, Saotome. We die right after she does or the day she leaves. Now go to sleep before you grit our teeth and give us a headache. We don't need a headache right now.)

(What makes you think you're all that good at this kind of stuff anyway?)

(I ain't all that good at it, but I am one whole hell of a lot better at it than you are, right?)

(Yeah, okay. I'm outta here.)

(Good night, Saotome.)

Ranma had broken out into a sweat by the time Akane had helped him through the narrow door of the bathroom. He sat down on the commode lid, breathing heavily.

"Are you sure you're okay, Ranma?"

"I'm a little dizzy."

"I hate to say this, but..."

"I need a shower, don't I?" Ranma said, finishing Akane's sentence for her.

"Think you could manage a shower while sitting down?" Akane asked.

"I don't think I can reach the knobs, Akane."

Akane looked into the open shower stall and realized that Ranma was correct. It was a western style stall with the controls installed so as to be easy for a standing adult to reach without bending over.

"It's too dangerous for you to try by yourself. You stay right there," Akane said. "I'll be right back."

"But...Akane? Akane!"


(I gotta pretty good idea, Saotome, but I ain't so sure I actually believe it.)


(Don't be silly! She's wearing an oversized teeshirt and a pair of shower shoes.)


(Will you calm down?)

"Excuse me, Ranma," Akane said as she squeezed by him and stepped into the shower stall.


(You want I should use that trick Happosai showed us?)


(Relax! I was just pullin' your leg.)


Ranma felt a sudden tingling over his entire body. The tingling that told him he was going through the change. He had to fight off the urge to shake his head as water ran out of his bangs and down into his eyes.

"Thats cold!" Onna-Ranma said aloud to Akane.

"Sorry, I guess I should've warned you first, huh?"

"That's okay, Akane. It feels pretty good to tell you the truth."

"Stand up and hold onto the sink, Ranma. I'll help you get out of those sticky clothes."

"Okay," Ranma said, as she helped him stand up.


(I am going to enjoy this shower, Saotome. You are going back to sleep.)


(No, you are.)


(Hmmph! Here you are about to take a shower with the two most beautiful women you know and you're acting like your pants are on fire.)


"Pick up your left foot, Ranma."

"Okay," Onna-Ranma said sweetly.

"Now pick up your right foot."

Onna-Ranma complied.

"Try not to take this too personally, Ranma," Akane said in an impish voice.

"I won't, Akane."


(Will you hush?)

"Raise your left arm."

"Okay," Ranma said sweetly as he looked at himself in the mirror and winked.


(So? You gonna calm down now?)

(Yeah, okay. I'm calm.)

(I thought you said you trusted me.)

(I only sort of trust you. I don't trust me at all, not when it comes to her.)

(So go away and let me handle this.)

(Okay, okay! I'm goin'.)

Akane moved one of the stools into the shower then helped Ranma get inside the stall and sit back down.

"Ready for some water?"

"Whenever you are."

The water was cold, but Ranma did not mind it a bit.

"Oh, man! That feels good."

"Sure it's not too cold?"

"Hey, if you need to warm it up a little Akane, go ahead. Just don't get too carried away."

"I'm fine, Ranma. It's you I'm worried about."

"Oh, believe me. I needed this. I really appreciate you going to the trouble."

Akane stared at him for a moment with a puzzled look on her face.

"What's the matter?"

"You really aren't yourself, you know."

"What do you mean?"

"You're acting different."


(The Tomboy is mostly your fault, Saotome. Watch this.)

"You mean I'm not bein' enough of a jerk, right?" Onna-Ranma asked.


" exactly, but I well..."

"Pass me the soap, Tomboy," Onna-Ranma said gruffly, then grinned at Akane. "That make you feel any better?"

Akane grinned back at him as she handed him a bar of soap. Ranma began soaping up a bath sponge.


"Hmm?" Onna-Ranma noised.

"Are you sure you are all right?"

"No. I'm not all right. My skull is cracked and I get dizzy everytime I move around the least little bit, but I'm gettin' better."

"That's not what I meant."

"It really is me, Akane. I'm the same old Ranma Saotome. The only difference is I've been bitin' my tongue tonight, okay?"

Akane giggled. "Must be pretty sore by now."

"Enjoy it while it lasts, Tomboy!"

"All right," Akane said with another giggle, "I will. Want me to scrub your back?"

"Would you? I might fall off this stool if I try it."

Akane knelt down behind him and began scrubbing his back. Ranma could not remember anything that felt quite that good. He leaned back against her a little as she put her arms around him and pressed her warm palms against his girl-type's tummy.

"I really don't wanna fight with you anymore, Akane."

"Ranma, You don't..."

"No, I mean it. I really don't, but we both know that I am who, and what I am and...and..."

"Shhh! It's all right, Ranma. I understand."

She gently rocked him in her arms as though he were a child. They said nothing for a long time. The only sound to be heard was that of running water as it pummeled them from above, like a cold, spring rain. Ranma became conscious of Akane's heart beating against his back as a new, never before felt warmth grew between them.

(Hey! She really is sweet.)

(Toldja, ya big jerk.)

(Speak for yourself.)

(I just did.)

(Yeah, I guess you did, didn't you?)


(Yeah, I know. Go to sleep.)

(Good boy.)



"What are we going to do next?"

"We're gonna go back to fussin' and fightin' once we leave here."

"Why?" Akane asked, unable to keep a painful edge out of her voice.

"Partly because of me and my big mouth and you and your short temper," Onna-Ranma said, then grunted as Akane gave him a little poke in the ribs. "But mostly because we gotta keep up appearances for a while."

"Why should we?" Akane asked sounding hurt, "How long is a while?"

"You know what will happen if we don't," Ranma said, "You wanna go through what we put up with Sunday all over again?"

"No, not really."

"Me either. I've got a few things to settle before we marry, and I don't know about you, but I'd like to wait until we are out of school and we have some money of our own coming in."

"Are you going to teach The Art to make money?"

"No choice there, Akane. The Art is the only thing I really know anything about or care about doing. We ain't never gonna be rich, unless fate's gotta fairy god-mother department."

"I'm not worried about being rich, Ranma."

"I'm worried about us bein' poor. I don't want you to go through what my mom's been through."

Akane gave him a little squeeze.

"I'm not worried about being poor, just don't plan on taking our son off on some ten-year training trip."

"Aw geez, Akane! I ain't, Pop! Why d'ya think I wanna hold off on us gettin' married?"

"What about all your fiancees?"

"What fiancees?"

"Well, Ukyo then."

"I...I ya...Aitchoo!"

"Oh, really?"



"I ain't in love with Ukyo. I'm...I'm...I'm in love with you."

Akane kissed Onna-Ranma's shoulder at the base of his neck. Chills ran up and down his spine.

"I love you too, but what are you going to do about her? I mean you can't just keep leading her on."

"I don't know what to do about her. Pops has gotten me into a real fix with U-chan. I mean, I'll eventually be able to pay her back for the yatai, but that doesn't begin to cover what she's owed, does it?"

Onna-Ranma expected Akane to become angry with him, but she hugged him tighter instead.

"You know, Ranma. For such a great martial artist, you truly are a soft touch."

"Shhh! Don't say stuff like that! Somebody might hear you."

Like it or no, what Akane had said was the truth. Ranma hated to inflict pain on anyone, especially emotional pain and always went to great lengths to avoid such a necessity. Avoidance would soon cease to be an option. He did not like hurting Xian Pu, but the truth of the matter was she was more interested in preserving her face back home than she was in love with him. Kodachi was a Kuno and did not figure into his considerations at all. Ukyo on the other hand, was his first friend and a fellow artist. Her obsession with him was, well, it lacked perspective, but there was no question that the debt owed her went well beyond the price of a yatai.

"We need to let your hair down so I can wash it."


"Think you can close your eyes while sitting up? I don't want to get this in your eyes."

"I'll be okay."

Akane began working the shampoo into his thick hair and massaging his scalp. The strength in her tiny little hands was incredible. In truth, were it not for his worries about Xian Pu's reaction or only the kami knew who else's reaction, he would have been more than happy to marry Akane at sunrise, all other consequences be damned, but the risks were just too great.

"You gotta lot more to learn in The Art, you know, Akane."

"So? When are you going to start teaching me."

"I'm going to talk to your dad about helping me get my license after we get out of here."

"Must you? I mean you already know just about everything dad and Uncle Saotome knows."

"I could, but then I'd have to start my own school, and what would I tell my students? That I studied under hundreds of masters and never mastered a single art?"

"You don't need a license to teach me."

"It would offend Happosai if I started teaching you without his permission, then he might not ever give me a license."

"I hadn't thought of that," Akane said as she rinsed out his hair.

"There ain't no tellin' what sort of test he'll put me through."

"I hope he doesn't demand something really sick. One of his so-called tests could get you thrown in jail, Ranma."

"Don't worry. I ain't gonna do anything that would land me in jail. If he demands somethin' like that, I'll just go to another sensei and study under him until I can get a license from that school."

"You could study under Ko Lon."

"Her price is a little too steep."

"Maybe, maybe not. I think she likes you."

"Even if she does, she's got all those Amazon laws she has to go by and she ain't gonna be happy over me refusin' Xian Pu."

"So what will you do if Happosai comes up with something really sick for a test?"

"I'll go to Nikko or Yayugi. I just hope the old man hasn't offended those masters so much that they refuse me if I do."

"How long do you think you would have to be there, Ranma?"

"Three, maybe four years."

"That long?"

"Or longer. Serious dojos ain't like a college where you get credit for what you already studied. It's more like startin' over from scratch until you prove yourself."

"Oh, Ranma!"

"Will you go with me?"

"Of course I'll go with you."

"You'll have to learn how to pick tea. It's about the only way to make any money up in the high country."

"Pick tea, huh?" Akane asked sounding dubious, "What about you?"

"Me? I already know how."

"Okay, so we stock up on clothes and things before we leave. That way we don't have to try buying them when we are short on money. I'll ask Kasumi to help me make a list, just in case we need to go, but it might not be an option."

"Why?" Onna-Ranma asked.

"I think your dad is a lot smarter than he lets on. It would be just like him to have all the really good masters so angry at him that they would never accept you as a student. That way, you would have no choice but to stay with the family school."

"You might be right, Akane. But if he did, there's a weakness in his plan."

"Oh, yeah? What's that?"

"Me. I never caused anyone any trouble and I always did everything I was asked to do. I don't remember a master ever sayin' anything bad to me, just to him."

"Where would you try first?"

"Yayugi, I think. It's a great place to train and the school at the shrine there is first rate."

"You've had a lot on your mind lately, haven't you?"

"What?" Onna-Ranma asked as he smiled at Akane, "You mean you actually believe I got a mind?"

"Let's get you dried off and back into bed," Akane said and gave him a peck on the cheek. "This shower is getting too cold for me."

(We're gonna hafta toughen her up, too.)

(Don't remind me, Saotome. I'm dreadin' that as much as you are.)

(Yeah, I know.)

(Now then, you...)

(I know, go back to sleep. By the way, Red, nice job.)


Akane helped him get out of the shower stall and over to the sink so that he would have something to hold on to while standing, then began drying him off with a fresh towel.

(Hey, uh, Red? RED!)

(Yeah, I know, Saotome. Thrilling, isn't it?)

(Whoa! Man, I hope she doesn't do THAT again!)

(You are such a prude, Saotome.)


(So? It wasn't hiding anything after it got wet, and she can't dry us off with it on. It gets our back wet.)


(Gorgeous, right?)




(Uh, huh! Our curse comes in real handy sometimes, don't it?)


(Mmmm, I like that!)

(Me too...oo-o-o-ooh!)

(Aw nuts! She stopped.)

(We ain't got any of those right now, Red.)

(What's the matter? You miss 'em?)

(At this very second? No.)

(I can't believe you admitted it.)

(Hey! I admitted it to me.)

(No, you admitted it to me.)

(Like I said, I admitted it to me.)



"Do you want to dry your hair, or do you want me to do it?"

"You do it Akane, but go slow. If my head moves around too much, I get seasick."


For the first time in Ranma's memory, Akane actually did do something gently, but he became seasick anyway. The key to fending off seasickness, is to find something in the distance to focus one's vision upon, preferably the horizon line. In this small room, the only thing available for him to maintain focus upon was the seam where the wall joined the ceiling. This worked out pretty well because holding his head at that angle sped Akane's efforts to dry his hair and brush it out.

"You make for a very pretty girl with your hair like this, Ranma."

"I'll never be as pretty as you are, Akane."

(Layin' it on a little thick ain'tcha, Red?)

(You wanna keep her, right?)


(Then we ain't as pretty is she is, not now, not ever! Got it, dipstick?)


(Yeah, you had better sleep.)

Akane kissed the back of his neck. Chills and goose bumps radiated out away from where her lips touched his skin like tingling ripples in pond. They spilled over his shoulder and down his front, making his aureoles stiffen.

"It's sweet of you to say so, Ranma," Akane whispered into his ear, then kissed his neck again. Ranma shivered.

"I ain't lyin' to ya, 'Kane. You _are_ prettier. I'll never be any kind of a match for you."

"So how come Kuno can't make up his mind over us?"

"You can't go by anything that weirdo says."

Akane cuddled up to his back.

"You're cold, Akane."

"Mm, hmm. I just finished taking a cold shower, not that it helped much."

(Didn't help us much, either.)

(We're cleaner ain't we?)

"Hang on a second, Akane. I'm going to try something."

"Don't make yourself...Oh, you're so warm!"

A deep rumbling began in Onna-Ranma's torso. He watched in the mirror as Akane closed her eyes and smiled.


(Why? She likes it.)


(She likes it! Relax, will ya?)

"What's so funny, Akane?"

"You are. You're purring."

"I think I'm gonna hafta lay down now, Akane. My legs are gettin' kinda weak."

(Our legs are not weak. They are quivering and our knees are knocking together, but our legs are not weak.)

(D'ya really think I don't know that?)

(We got other stuff quiverin' too.)

(I know. Why d'ya think I want us to lay down?)

Akane helped him back to their room. Onna-Ranma could not quite manage putting on his pajamas by himself. He had to put his head down too far to pull on the bottoms. Akane came over to help him out.



"Are you sure you're, okay? Maybe I should call Dr. Tofu."

"Why d'ya wanna do that?"

"Because your legs are quivering."

"Don't worry about it, Akane. I'm fine."

"Are you sure?" Akane asked as she felt the inside of his left leg at the knee, "You don't seem to be in control of them."

"Akane, I...I...really am still a guy in here, ya know!"


"So how are your legs right now?"

Akane's face reddened, but she smiled, then said, "Here, let me help you with this top."


Rather than help him to his feet, Akane simply scooped Onna-Ranma up in her arms and carried him to the bed. Onna-Ranma did not mind this in the least and held on to her for a long moment after she set him down.


"Would you like some hot water?"

"Boy! Would I ever!" Onna-Ranma said, yet did not let Akane go, "But I don't think it would be very wise."

Akane giggled, then crawled up into the bed so they could properly snuggle for a little while.



"We don't want to go to sleep like this."

"Mmm," Akane noised then wriggled.


She gave Onna-Ranma a peck on the cheek then got out of his bed and fixed the covers.

"G'night, Ranma."

"'Night, Akane."

(Yo, Red!)

(Yeah, Saotome.)

(How come we didn't get a goodnight kiss?)

(Why would we? She's a girl. And right now, so are we.)

(I really did want to kiss her.)

(Well so did I! Now get some sleep, will ya?)

Neither version of Ranma really wanted to sleep, but sleep they did.

Tofu arrived at his clinic right around one in the morning, supervising the police who delivered his most recently acquired patient. The poor man looked even worse in the harsh, flourescent lighting of the clinic. The police were quick, efficient, quiet, and glad to be rid of the man once they left. After the badly beaten brawler was in a bed of his own in the second of Tofu's four examination rooms, Ono checked on his younger charges. He was gratified to find that neither had been disturbed and remained peacefully asleep. He went back to his newest patient and treated the man's scalp with tincture of potassium permanganate to prevent any onset of bacterial infection, then he decided that going home at this late hour would be a complete waste of time. He would need to check on his patients at least once before daybreak and that was only a few hours away. He went up to his old flat above the clinic. There, he collapsed upon the single piece of furniture left in the place, a worn out couch. He was asleep before his head had completely settled into it's favorite spot on the arm cushion.

Onna-Ranma fell. He wasn't sure why he fell or what made him fall, but he fell and fell and fell until he slammed into the cold bottom of a narrow gorge. It was so deep and narrow that it was more of a large crevasse than it was a canyon. The depths of the gorge were so dark he could barely see. The canyon floor was hard, wet and slippery with beaded moisture. His head hurt and he was so sick at his stomach that he dared not lose control of himself. If he allowed the nausea to get the best of him now, he would not stop vomiting until he threw up his shoes. He had to stay in control. His enemy was somewhere nearby. He tried to stand up and walk, but decided against. It was too demanding and he would need that energy for the fight which lay ahead. Thick strong vines entangled his feet and he wasted a lot of energy kicking at them until at last he was free of them and his shoes.

The monster had grabbed Akane and run away. He would find it and kill it, then finally, he and Akane could live in peace and be happy. Ranma just wished that the wet, marble-like stone was not so slippery. It was so slick that just crawling upon it was proving difficult. Fighting the monster in here would be the most dangerous thing he had ever done. He cursed himself for never actually learning to skate on ice. It did not matter. He had beaten Sanzenin on ice, he would beat this jerk on wet marble, or whatever this stuff was. Boy, was he ever going to beat this jerk.

"Give it up Fem-boy! You can't beat me," the monster said. The voice roared as much as it spoke.

Onna-Ranma kept crawling.

"I am Ranma Saotome, of the Saotome School of Anything Goes School of Martial Arts. I don't know how to give up."

Nothing gets the attention of a confirmed brawler the way the sound of one brawler baiting another does. Tillie's former boyfriend was no exception. He woke with a start and immediately began having trouble understanding where he was or what was happening. He was lying in a very comfortable bed, but it seemed to be somewhere out in the open. Not only was the air was chill and damp, but a heavy fog was rolling in around him.

"Careful, Fem-boy! Death is here!" The monster's voice rumbled.

Onna-Ranma rested against the left hand wall of the gorge for a moment. It seemed he was making twice as much motion to gain half the distance he should be gaining.

"You shudda thought about that before you grabbed Akane, dumbass."

Tillie's ex-boyfriend shook his head upon hearing the girl's voice. She was talking as though she were answering someone he could not hear. Who the hell is Akane? He wondered. The temperature was dropping fast. His breath was now making its own contribution to the swirling fog.

"I wish you would hurry up! I ain't ever seen a cute little butt attached to an alligator mouth."

Onna-Ranma banged his shoulder on a vertical rib of rock and paused to feel around the base of it. The gorge was widening out, or seemed to be.

"Better wish for somethin' else while your wishin'. That one ain't such a good idea."

Tillie's former boyfriend noticed a faint blue glow in the fog, coming from a low angle not far from his bed. The girl's voice had a confident, menacing edge to it, making him wonder if she was carrying a gun. He decided he best get up and figure out where in hell he was and what in the hell was going on. He sat up in the bed and listened intently for a moment. All sorts of ominous creaking and popping noises assailed his ears. The cold mist had begun clinging to his skin, forcing him to wipe his face with the palm of his hand. He winced as he did so. His face felt as though it were badly sunburned.

"She doesn't love you, you know," the monster said.

Onna-Ranma determined that the gorge was definitely widening out at this point and decided to stick to the left wall of the wide spot, wishing there was more light. He bumped into a rock with his head and began trying to feel his way around it.

"That ain't gonna help you none, buzzard bait. Me and Akane are goin' back home together. You're gonna stay here and draw flies."

Outside Tofu's clinic, rivulets of condensation began running down the glass of the lobby windows and puddling at the base of their frames. There the water froze solid, forming dripping icicles which draped over the window ledges. A strange, coruscating blue glow cast an eerie light into the streets of Nerima from within the lobby.

"Ooh! Sounds like you found out you'd hafta squat before you could pee when you got up this morning."

Onna-Ranma found his way around one corner of the rock and was now following its length by allowing his left shoulder rub against it as he crawled along the wet, slippery bottom of the canyon floor.

"Oh, it's worse than you think. I'm a world class martial artist and I got a bad case of PMS. You got any more stupid questions?"

Tillie's ex-boyfriend gingerly put his feet on the ground, no floor. This surface was entirely too smooth to be anything else. It was cold and wet. So cold it made his overly tender feet hurt. He gritted his teeth at the pain and began shuffling towards the low lying, blue glow with his hands held out before him, thinking that the light must be coming from beneath a door.

"I thought sumthin' smelled funny," the monster said, sounding disgusted.

Onna-Ranma bumped into another rock with his head, then felt around with his hands. He decided that this was not another large rock. It seemed more like another wall. He had reached the widest part of this section of the gorge. Pressing his left shoulder against it, he moved on, struggling to crawl across the slick stone of the canyon floor, cursing the frigid puddles of water he was now encountering. Some of them were covered with a thin scum of grainy ice.

"Clean out your pants before I get there, will ya? I don't want any of that stuff on my foot."

Tillie's former boyfriend found the door and was shocked by the feel of it. It reminded him of sticking his hand inside the freezer compartment of an icebox. His flesh wanted to stick to the door. The doorknob would not turn beneath his barehanded grip. He had to use the tail of his hospital gown to grip it. It made crunching noises as it turned. The door resisted opening. He had to jerk on it several times and make it pop open. He regretted opening the door almost immediately as a flood of cold air washed in around him. It was so cold it almost hurt to breath. The hallway was lit with an eerie, bright blue glow. Looking down, he realized that it probably would not be a good idea to try walking across the floor in the hallway on his bare feet. He returned to the bed for a blanket.

"You ain't gonna like what you get in your mouth either! I'll bet you're the kind that likes to swallow."

Onna-Ranma had found yet another turn in the wall of the gorge and was now following it with his left shoulder as fast as he could.

"Oh, you bet! Right after I tear it out by the roots and roast it over a slow fire."

Outside Tofu's clinic, the lobby windows were now covered with a layer of ice several millimeters thick. It was rapidly growing thicker as a misty fog condensed along the entire wall and spilled down into the street. The coruscating, blue light emanating distorted rays though the windows had grown so intense it looked as though someone might actually be welding in Tofu's lobby, while fine flakes of snow settled around them. The snow was so cold that it would have burned the skin of any normal person inside the place. It was a rather unique kind of snow. It was made of carbon-dioxide. The building began to creak and groan as though it were a wooden ship, riding out a storm at sea.

"You sure picked a homely little thing for a girlfriend, Saotome. I hafta admit though, she's kinda hot lookin' when she ain't wearin' nothin' but rope."

Onna-Ranma had found yet another turn in the wall of the gorge and was now certain that he was in a cul-de-sac.

"I'm gonna blow off school for the rest of this year and stay right here with you. You _ain't_ gonna enjoy my stay," Onna-Ranma said, his voice dripping menace as he rose up from crawling position to his knees.

Tillie's former boyfriend dropped the blanket upon the floor in the hallway and stepped on it, rather than the frozen tiles. A flickering, blue light came from down the hallway on his right. He looked to see what it was and forgot to breath. Nerima's newest brawler was not a man given to flights of fancy. Science fiction movies with all their wonderful, special effects left him cold. Fanciful tales of magicians and monsters had never interested him, not even when he was a child. Now he was face to face with something right out of a horror movie. A beautiful, red headed girl was standing on her knees in the clinic lobby with a spectral dragon of blue fire coiled around her. Chills ran up and down his spine, and they were not by any means produced by the falling temperature of the building.

"You know, Saotome. You actually frighten me. I don't think I want to fight with you at all."

Onna-Ranma her eyes about the cul-de-sac, straining to see through the darkness, his ears turned up to maximum, hoping to detect any faint traces of sound or movement.

"Too late for that now! You shudda thought of that before you pulled this stupid stunt."

Tillie's ex-boyfriend watched the red headed girl's face as she spoke and sincerely hoped she was not speaking of him. He decided to check and see if perhaps the clinic had a rear exit. As he shuffled down the hall and away from the lobby by sliding the blanket beneath his badly swollen feet, he decided that the clinic was in desperate need of a rear exit and should it not have one, he would add one without charging the building's owner a single yen.

"Not really. You see, I did think of it in advance. While you are blundering around down there in that dark, twisted maze of yours, your girlfriend and I will be taking a little trip. I'm sure we can find a nice, private place where we can talk. We have much to discuss, Akane and I."

Onna-Ranma's felt a surge of panic in his stomach at this. He had never considered the possibility of some thing, or someone kidnapping Akane for any reason other than picking a fight with him. His rage burned cold.


Akane woke from a deep sleep, every nerve ending in her body jangling with alarm. Something was very, very wrong. She glanced over at Ranma's bed and saw that he was gone. His sheet and blanket were trailed out across the floor of their room towards the door, as though Ranma had been entangled with them as he left. She threw off her own covers, then leapt from her bed.

"Of course I'm a coward, you fool! Surely you didn't think I would be silly enough to fight you when I have a chance to run?"

A cold, harsh wind blew through Ranma Saotome's soul.

"You can run, but you cain't hide, you stupid jerk! Sooner or later I'll find your ass and fry it whole!"

The flash of an intense, blue light caused Akane to look to her right as she stepped out into the hallway. She found herself staring at the most horrible thing she had ever seen in her young life. It was tall, at least two meters tall, and shaped like a long, thin hourglass. The head was hideously wrinkled as though the skin had been pulled upwards by thousands of rough fingers, with twin spikes of hair which stuck right straight up into the air, like an absurd pair of antennae, separated by a bald pate, oozing red and purple ichor. The thing's eyes were laced with prominent, red vessels that nearly glowed and blood was oozing from the corners of its eyes. It was coming towards Akane on huge, puffy feet attached to huge, lower legs with all sorts of swollen veins and arteries showing through it's bright, red skin. It was approaching rapidly, despite its ridiculous, galumphing gait. Its lips seemed locked into a horrible, sneering, upturned rictus that displayed fierce, yellow teeth clinched together in hatred. Akane stepped back through the doorway of her room and dropped into a ready stance.

"Well the world is a big and beautiful place, Saotome. I'm sure you will enjoy your tour," the monster said. Its voice grew fainter as it spoke, as though it were rapidly receding.

As Ranma Saotome felt the ignition of pure, unmodified fury in his soul for the first time in his life, the air temperature in Tofu's lobby dropped precipitously, causing the building to groan, pop and creak as though its collapse were imminent. Rumbling and thumping noises could be heard coming from the second floor, followed by a resounding crash and a hard thump.

"No! Bring her back here you, blackguard!"

The horrible looking creature looked at Akane as it galumphed past the door way to her room. As it passed her by it said, in a horrible, grinding voice, "Run for your life, girlie! There's a monster in the lobby of this place!" As it galumphed on down the hallway, Akane stuck her head out the door and watched the terrible apparition disappear through the back door of the clinic. The fluttering tail of its hospital gown revealed a perfectly normal looking, perhaps even attractive, masculine rump. Akane blinked several times to make sure her eyes were not deceiving her. Her eyes had not misled her. The moster had a really nice ass, not as nice as Otoko-Ranma's, but a nice one.

"Sayonara, Saotome," Onna-Ranma's nightmare beast said to him in very faint voice.

Onna-Ranma was consumed with grief and gave forth with a soul tearing wail.

"A-a-a-arhg! Akane! A-a-a-a-k-a-a-ane-e-e-e!" Onna-Ranma screamed in a voice unintentionally amplified by his ki.

The materials used in the construction of the front facade of Tofu's clinic were not designed to hold up to cryogenic, or even near cryogenic temperatures. They had become as brittle and fragile as fine, Venetian crystal. The glass of the front windows had become even more fragile. The only thing that had prevented the facade's collapse, had been the layer of ice which had formed upon its exterior, but Ranma's grief and fury had dropped the temperature so low that even the ice had become brittle. Onna-Ranma's high pitched wail in the exceedingly dense air trapped inside the lobby set up a vibratory load the facade's materials could no longer support. The facade failed as though the entire thing had been made of a single piece of thin glass. Rupturing with a sharp bang, it spilled rubble into the street that shattered into smaller pieces upon impact. The incredibly cold, dense air within the lobby rushed outwards, freezing everything it touched into crumbly, dead fragility.

The sudden release of dense air from the building created a temporary pressure drop inside. The windows in the rest of the building were unable to resist the sudden load and shattered inwards, thus allowing an inrush of warm moist air to equalize the pressure within the building. The interior of the building was instantly beswaddled in a heavy, dripping fog which obscured everything from view.

"Ranma are you all right?" Akane screamed, her ears hurt from both Onna-Ranma's wail and the sudden changes in pressure. It made her own voice sound to her as though it were muffled and distant.

"Akane? Akane is that you?" Onna-Ranma called back.

Onna-Ranma sounded as though he were miles away to the cottony mass of Akane's hearing.

"Yes, it's me Ranma! It ran away. I'm fine."

"Oh, Akane! I thought I had lost you."

"Stay there, Ranma! I am going to come get you."

"Akane? Akane, I can't stand up."

"I know, Ranma. Don't try to move! I'll be right there."

"Akane?" Tofu called out from behind her.

"Doctor Tofu?"

"Here," Tofu said, handing Akane a pair of geta, or wooden, Japanese clogs. "Put these on first. Whatever you do, be careful not touch anything other than Ranma. Everything on that end of the building is dangerously cold."

Akane put the geta on then asked, "What if Ranma's frozen to the floor or...or--"

"I think he'll be fine, Akane. His own ki should have protected him through all of this. I am going around front. If you can get out that way without risking a fall, do so. It will be better than risking the hallway while you are carrying Ranma. I would go, but he may not be able to recognize anyone but you right now."



"Stay there, Ranma! I'm coming to you right now."

Akane found Onna-Ranma kneeling in a puddle of water in the center of the lobby. She squatted down with her back to him. He needed no prompting to climb onto her back.

"Ready, Ranma?"

"Yeah, let's go," Onna-Ranma said hoarsely.

"Akane! This way!" Tofu called out from the side of the building. The end wall of the lobby was gone and there were no obstructions. Akane walked out to him, carrying Onna-Ranma on her back. Suddenly, they were deafened by sirens and blinded by bright lights as Nerima's firebrigade arrived.

"Hold your water!" the fire captain shouted to his men, "Hold the water! We gotta cryogenics leak!"

Tofu had Akane give him the geta. He put them on and went back inside the clinic for several minutes. Then came back out scratching his head.

"Akane? Did you see anyone leave the clinic during all of this?"

"Just the monster."

"Monster?" Tofu asked, "What monster?"

"The one Ranma was fighting, I guess."

"Akane," Onna-Ranma said, "I was having a nightmare. There wasn't any monster."

"Ranma," Akane said, with heat rising in her voice, "I saw a monster! It ran out the back door just before you started calling my name."

"Um, Akane?" Tofu asked, "What did this monster look like?"

"Well, it was only about two meters tall, but it was the ugliest looking thing I have ever seen."

"Was it wearing a hospital gown?"

"Uh, huh. And it had great big, floppy feet."

"That was one of my patients, Akane. Did you see which way he went?"

"You treat monsters?" Onna-Ranma and Akane chorused.

"How the hell did this happen, Doc?" The fire captain asked.

"Oh, no! We're gonna make the evening news again," Tofu said, as he held his head with both hands. He looked up suddenly at Onna-Ranma and Akane then grinned, "No more pizza for supper, you guys." The three of them broke out laughing, much to the exasperation of the fire captain. The sun was well up before anything was even partially sorted out.

End of Chapter 2
Copyright © Don Granberry.