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.
It was Shirikawa's turn at the wheel. He had parked the prowler just barely out of the line of sight on a sweeping, right hand turn. The traffic was still fairly light with two hours before the evening rush began. They had not had a bust since he had parked in this particular spot. The weather was turning unusually damp and sultry for this time of year with plenty of cumulus clouds marching in off the coast. Ohga was growing impatient.
"See, Tetsu? I told'ja we use this spot too often. They're getting used to us bein' here."
Shirikawa, being the brains of this particular pair ignored his partner's irascibility. He had been keeping records of where they got the most busts and the largest number of good chases. All but two of their best chases had started from this very spot.
"I know that! I keep tellin' ya, we got as many collars as we need for this week. I'm hopin' for a good chase."
"I ain't worried about collars for the week! I'm worried about collars for the month. I like to meet quota early."
"Yeah, uh-huh! Remember what happened the last time we all got out and started making quota early? They upped the quota, didn't they?"
"Are you sure that's really what happened?"
"Hey! I showed you the numbers didn't I? What is it with you and basic arithmetic, anyway?"
"Aw, I don't know. I guess I just don't trust numbers the way you do. My gut always tells me more."
"Well my gut and my numbers tell me this is the best place to snag a good chase and its my turn to drive. Now shut up and lemme concentrate on the radar, will ya?"
"Yeah, okay. Whatever."
The pair passed a few moments in silence.
"Whoa! Talk about a speed demon! Lookit this!" Shirikawa exclaimed.
"Radar says seventy kilometers an hour, so what?"
"Yeah, but look behind us and see what it is."
Ohga's eyes widened with shock.
"A kid on a bicycle?"
"Yeah! A nice lookin' kid on a bicycle."
Xian Pu whipped by the parked prowler without paying it any mind whatsoever.
"Well I guess we ought to pull her over and tell her not to be ridin' that thing on the expressway, Tetsu."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," Shirikawa said sounding disgusted. "I've got half a mind to write her a citation for it. We might've picked up a runner here today."
"Oh, horsehockey! You just get her to pull over and I'll do the talkin'."
"Hey! You are gonna share the squeeze with your old buddy now, ain't cha?"
"Shirikawa, not only are you an idiot, you are one sick puppy! She's just a kid, for cryin' out loud."
"Yeah, too bad."
"Will you roll this thing?"
"Okay, okay! It's not like she's ridin' a Ninja, or nothin'!"
"Yeah, but she could get hurt!"
Shirikawa checked his mirror, then pulled out onto the expressway, easily catching up with Xian Pu on her borrowed, mountain bike.
"Man! This kid's hell on wheels. She's still makin' a solid seventy!" Shirikawa said.
"Well blip her and let's get her off this expressway before she gets flattened by a truck."
Shirikawa turned on the prowler's flashers and blipped the siren. The girl looked over shoulder. Shirikawa saw her eyes widen, then she stood up on the pedals of the bicycle.
"Holy smokes, she's actually speeding up! We're doin' almost eighty now."
"Well get up along side of her and I'll try to talk to her."
Shirikawa moved one lane to the right and easily came alongside the franticly pumping Xian Pu. Ohga rolled down his window.
"Okay, kid. Very impressive. Now pull over so we can talk."
"Ramen for customer in Kasuga! No can sell you. You call Nekohanten," the girl shouted back.
"Aw, shit! She's gaijin. I can't make her understand what I want."
"Pull over! I police. I need talk you!" Ohga shouted out his window, hoping that the message would get across in pidgin.
"Xian Pu no have time for gossip! Have delivery to make!"
Shirikawa laughed and let off the gas.
"What are you doin'?" Ohga shouted.
"Relax, will ya? If we crowd her at this speed she's bound to get hurt. We'll just get in behind her and wait for her to wear out. It ain't like she's got a four-banger on that thing, you know." Shirikawa said as dropped back into Xian Pu's lane.
"Hell, I didn't think of that."
"And you're always callin' me an idiot, Ohga. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
They cruised along for about two minutes at eighty kilometers per hour. Shirikawa began to wonder if there wasn't an engine of some kind on the bicycle and he simply failed to notice it.
"This kid's a regular powerhouse!"
"Unbelievable. How are we going to log this one?"
"Whoa!" Shirikawa shouted as the girl and bicycle suddenly loped over the left hand guardrail and disappeared down the slope from the expressway's road bed. He pulled off onto the shoulder and stopped.
"Can you see her, Norio? Is she all right?"
"Yeah, I can see her. She just rocketed off into a neighborhood down there."
"Damn! How did she do that?"
"How are we gonna log this, Tetsu?"
"Whatta ya mean we ain't?"
"You wanna try explainin' this to the Captain?"
"No, not really."
"Then we ain't gonna log it, Norio."
"Aw rats! Look at the time, Tetsu! It's almost shift change."
Shirikawa did his other dog imitation as he tramped down on the gas pedal and got back out onto the expressway. The one thing that could get a Tokyo cop a bigger chewing out than wrecking his squad car, was being late for shift change.
After delivering Ranma and Akane's lunch, Nabiki decided she had a break coming and went to her favorite coffee shop on Market Street. It was smaller than the one on Sales Street and a little more expensive. Nabiki did not mind the slightly higher prices, because the quality was a bit better and the place tended to be less crowded even though it was smaller. She sat down at her favorite table then spread out her notes and opened her ledger book. On top of everything else, she had ton of bookkeeping to catch up on. Maybe now would be good time to buy that laptop. Happosai owed her at least that much for her time and trouble.
Nabiki was on her third cup of coffee and well into her bookkeeping chores when Kodachi Kuno and her coach, Saeko Shimazu walked in. Kodachi was wearing a very plain dress and blouse combination that was nevertheless expensive. One might not have noticed this accept that Shimazu was with her and was attired in similar, but far less expensive clothing. The contrast was startling. Nabiki calmly dropped her notes into the ledger book, then closed it. Just as she expected, Kodachi noticed her. In all probability, Kodachi had come to this coffeehouse expecting to find her.
"Good afternoon, Tendo-san!"
"Good afternoon, Kuno-san."
"Have you met my trainer? This is Saeko Shimazu," Kodachi said, "and this is Nabiki Tendo."
The other woman extended her hand as Nabiki stood up and took it. She knew who the woman was, but they had never actually met.
"Pleased to meet you, Shimazu-san. Your reputation precedes you," Nabiki said with a genuine smile. The truth be known, Nabiki admired competence of any kind and there could be little doubt about this woman's competence.
"Pleased to meet you, Tendo-san," Shimazu said as they shook hands.
"Would you be kind enough to join me?" Nabiki asked the two women.
Kodachi smiled and sat down. "Delighted, Tendo-san."
Nabiki did not know why, but two phrases leapt to mind as Kodachi and her coach took seats at the table. "A man is never so harmlessly occupied as when he is busy making money," and "Hold your friends close, but hold your enemies even closer." Truth be known, Nabiki had been entirely too busy to give the Kodachi problem all the consideration it deserved. She had been having second doubts about using the confidence drug on her. Nabiki did not know enough about what the results might be, but she had promised Ranma to take care of the Kodachi problem and take care of it she would. Nabiki smiled as she sat back down, not realizing that it made her look like a great white shark.
"So how are things going for you, Kuno-san," Nabiki asked.
"Oh, they've been better. And you, Tendo-san?"
"It has been a very busy week."
"Yes, I suppose it has. Tell me, how is your little project at Miyagi's coming?"
Nabiki's smile widened. Kodachi chose a nice way to lead into the topic she was really interested in. Nabiki decided to cooperate.
"Oh, I think we will be finished by opening time Friday evening. The clinic project will be completed much sooner--noon on Friday, I think."
"What on earth does Doctor Ono do with cryogenic materials?" Kodachi asked, sounding slightly outraged.
"Nothing," Nabiki answered, "Ranma did that."
"My Ranma-sama?" Kodachi asked, sounding shocked. Shimazu rolled her eyes.
"Yes, he's been having a little trouble with his ki since this past Sunday."
Kodachi suddenly looked very fragile. Shimazu began to look deeply concerned.
"How is he, Tendo-san? I'll pay whatever you want."
"Oh, I'm not going to charge you this time, Kuno-san. The matter is entirely too serious. Ranma is dangerously ill."
"Dangerously ill?" Kodachi squeaked.
"Yes. He has a stress related illness which is very similar to combat fatigue. It makes him very dangerous. Doctor Ono tells me that Ranma is almost as dangerous as an atomic bomb, right now. I thought at first he was exaggerating, but what happened at the clinic last night changed my mind."
Kodachi closed her eyes and shivered. Shimazu was now hanging on every word Nabiki said.
"How long will it take for his condition to improve, Tendo-san?" Kodachi asked after a long pause.
"I don't know. It depends on several things. Doctor Ono says Ranma must have several weeks of restful quiet."
"If he needs restful quiet, why is that...that...Why is SHE there?"
"My little sister, you mean?"
"She's there because Ranma insisted on it. He thinks Akane's life is in grave danger and won't let her out of his sight for more than fifteen minutes without becoming dangerously upset."
"Oh," Kodachi said in a small voice.
"He's worried about a few other people, as well."
"Oh, really? Might I ask who?" Kodachi asked in a coy way.
"You for one. He's paying me to take care of you," Nabiki said, then cut her eyes over to Shimazu.
"What?" Kodachi wailed. "My Ranma-sama is paying you to take care of me?" Kodachi began to cry. Shimazu rolled her eyes, then covered her face with both hands.
"Why on earth would he be worried about me?"
"Mostly because he is overstressed, Kuno-san. He is deeply concerned about Ukyo and Xian Pu, as well."
"Oh," Kodachi said, looking as though she had a bad taste in her mouth, "Those two."
"How on earth can he afford your services, Nabiki Tendo."
"Ranma and I operate on a barter basis. He is heir to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts. I am the founding master of the Anything Goes School of Capitalism. Our skills complement one another nicely." This was true only in the most theoretical of terms of course, but Kodachi did not need to know that.
"You? A capitalist?" Kodachi asked, sounding amused, "How delightfully silly! What could _you_ possibly know about capitalism, Nabiki Tendo?"
Shimazu cut her eyes over towards her client, as though trying to get her attention. Don't go there! Shimazu's face seemed to say.
"A great deal more than you will ever know, Kuno-san," Nabiki said with a cold smile and hard eyes.
"Ho, ho, ho, hooo, ho, ho! I suppose next you will be offering me a chance to become one of your students."
Nabiki calmly leaned back in her chair, then sipped her coffee.
"Never!" Nabiki said with a smirk, "You haven't got what it takes."
Kodachi's face froze and her eyes grew very, very hard as she regarded Nabiki. Nabiki smiled and sipped her coffee again. Shimazu shivered as goosebumps swarmed up her arms and legs.
"I can do anything you can, Tendo-san."
Nabiki allowed her smirk to become a sneer.
"Who are you trying to kid, Kuno-san?" Nabiki asked. "You have never wanted for anything in your entire life. You can't even manage your own money."
"I most certainly can!"
"A hundred-thousand yen," Nabiki said with a smirk.
"That's nothing!" Kodachi said with a sneer, "Why not a serious wager?"
"Oh, I'm not offering you a bet, or even charging you a fee, Kuno-san," Nabiki said as she worked her face into the smile she reserved for those who were trying to get out of paying off a loan. "I am setting a limit."
"If you become my student, that is all you will be allowed to bring away from your estate. Anything beyond that, you will be required to earn by your own efforts."
Shimazu gasped. Kodachi gave her a sharp look.
"I have certain obligations which must be met."
"I understand. But you will move out of your mansion. You will find a place of your own without servants and you will make a new start with only a hundred-thousand yen," Nabiki said coldly, "It is called training, Kuno-san."
Kodachi's eyes narrowed. "I can do it you know."
"No, I don't know, Kuno-san," Nabiki said with the smirk she usually reserved for aggravating Akane, "And I don't believe you know either."
"Very well, sensei! I will prove it to you!" Kodachi said with a snarl, "I will become your student this coming Monday. I have certain arrangements to make first."
Nabiki's smirk took on an aspect that could have frightened every demon in Japan and probably did. "You will leave your wardrobe as well, Kuno-san and you will not rent, purchase, borrow or steal anything without talking to me first."
Kodachi glowered at Nabiki. "As you wish, sensei. May we go now?"
"Of course, Kuno-san."
Nabiki gritted her teeth to stifle her laughter as Kodachi and Saeko left. This was going to be a lot more fun than she first thought it would be.
"Waste not, want not," Nabiki reminded herself as opened her ledger book.
"Why are you playing with that monster, Kuno-san?" Shimazu asked, once the two of them were outside the coffee shop.
"Ho, ho, ho, ho! I _love_ dangerous pets, Shimazu- san."
"That's no pet, Kuno-san! That bitch is a big, toothy shark studying to be a big, toothy orca!"
"I know! Delightful company, isn't she?"
"Oh, yeah! Sure! She makes Midori-gami look like a chihuahua puppy."
"I think I'd like to rehearse again, Shimazu-san, if you have the time."
"Of course, Kuno-san. By all means, let us rehearse while your batteries are charged!"
"Ho, ho, ho, ho! Shall I wear pink fur this time? Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!"
Shimazu could only shake her head. She made a mental note to consult with Doctor Ono as quickly as she could. Kodachi did not wear pink fur, but she was more like her old self once they returned to Kuno-ke. Shimazu felt much better about the impending competition after Kodachi's second rehearsal, she just wished she could be as hopeful about the future of humanity. The knowledge that Kodachi Kuno and Nabiki Tendo would soon be locked in a struggle to see who would become Empress of the Universe was unnerving. The weather did not improve her mood any as she left the Kuno estate. The air was hot, damp and sticky negating the effects of the light breeze blowing in off the coast, while over head the clouds had begun to darken. It was a perfect match for her sense of impending doom.
In his little shop on Forges Street, Jean-Luc Thibbedeaux had made great progress on Xian Pu's bicycle. All the tubing had been bent and fitted up in the jigs he had built. The welder and his helper would soon have the frame completely welded out. While they worked, he finished hogging out the sprockets. He had already gotten a call from Nagai Plastics. The carbon fiber leaf springs he had designed would be delivered by nine o'clock. The tires had already been delivered. With any luck at all, he would have the first prototype of the Enterprise D completely assembled by eleven. Then it would merely be a matter of final tuning and finish work. He felt good. When Xian Pu arrived by eleven on Thursday morning, she would have her badly needed bicycle and he would have produced a world class design in twenty-four hours. He was about to join the ranks of Thomas Edison and Donald Douglas and he knew it.
Contrary to Tofu Ono's fears, the news coverage did his practice no harm whatsoever. By late Wednesday afternoon he had seen and treated three times as many patients as would have been ordinary. Some were not really in need of any treatment. They had merely come by to see him and be supportive. Several of them had been people that he had been encouraging to come in. He smiled to himself about the little ironies of life as he finished up the last of his paperwork. He had thought about hiring someone to help with paperwork, but really wanted to hold that position open for someone special.
He decided to check on Ranma and Akane before leaving. The poor brawler had insisted on being taken to the infirmary at the jail, Tofu could not really blame him. Time there would count as time served, and all he really needed to do was rest until he healed anyway. Tofu wished things could be that simple for Ranma.
A glance at the sleeping young man was all he really needed, but he decided to lift Ranma's covers and do a more complete visual just to be sure. Tofu shook his head. Physically, Ranma was practically whole. Were it not for his emotional condition, Tofu would have released the boy that afternoon.
"How is he, Doctor Tofu?" Akane asked in soft voice.
"Physically, he is almost completely healed," Tofu said as he replaced the covers.
"Has he had another episode?"
"No, just the one. He has slept like a baby ever since."
"All right. When he wakes up, I'd imagine that will be in about two or three hours, he is going to be very hungry again."
"Nabiki said she would bring supper over."
"Good," Tofu said with a smile, "You did tell her not to bring pizza, right?"
Akane's eyes got wide and she nodded.
"When he wakes up he is going to be feeling a lot better. Tell him I said to take it easy. He might feel good, but it will be easy for him to overexert himself."
"Tell him I said no more than one kata in four hours, got that?"
"You know he'll do two or three anyway, Doctor Tofu."
"I'm counting on you to nag at him about it, okay?"
Akane grinned, then nodded her head.
The telephone rang.
"Well I guess I'd better get that before I go," Tofu said, "See you tomorrow, Akane."
"Good night, Doctor Tofu."
Tofu walked back into his office and picked up the telephone.
"This is Saeko Shimazu, I don't know if you remember me or not."
"Oh, yes! We met at that stress related disorders seminar in Onimichi last spring. How have you been?"
"Just fine, thank you. And you?"
"Actually, we have been pretty busy here of late."
"I think I know why. One of my clients is, ah, infatuated with one of your patients. Her name is Kodachi Kuno. Have you ever heard of her?"
Tofu nearly dropped the receiver.
"Oh, you could say I've run across the name a time or two. She fancies herself to be the fiancee of a patient I'm currently treating. Is something extraordinarily wrong?"
"Let's just say that I think a consultation between us might be in order, Doctor Ono."
"I was afraid you would say something like that. Is the matter acute?"
"I think prompt action may well be in order."
"I see. How about this evening, then?"
"Have you ever tried okinomiyaki? There's this little place on the northeast side that..."
"Ah, I really do like it, but we would be better off trying another place, I think."
"Well there's that great little noodle shop over on the northwest side. This little old Chinese lady makes the best bowl of ..."
"Hmm, I think the Oukanki-ya would be better for us, Shimazu-san."
"Bleah! They never get their noodles right."
"Yes, I know what you mean. Why don't you meet me at the Nerima Unagi-ya, then?"
"Well, it's a little expensive, but..."
"My treat! See you there in a couple of hours?"
"Hey! Clients or no clients," Shimazu said cheerfully, "I never turn down free unagi."
"See you in a couple of hours then. Bye"
"Is Soun feeling better now, Kasumi-chan?" Nodoka asked as she finished putting up their sewing projects.
"Oh, yes. I'm sure he'll sleep till morning, now. Poor father! His arms and back really seem to be bothering him."
"Don't worry, dear. He's just suffering from a little overexertion is all. I can't tell you how many times I babied Genma through these kind's of spells. I finally learned not to spoil him."
Kasumi giggled, but looked guilty about it.
"What do you say we step out for a bite to eat? You spend entirely too much time in that kitchen of yours."
"Do you think we should, Auntie Nodoka? I mean money might be a little tight here in the near future."
"Kasumi-chan, if the men of this household can be forgiven for throwing away hundreds of thousands by tearing down a sake parlor, I don't think you and I should begrudge ourselves a decent meal we did not have to cook."
"I never thought of things that way before."
"Well, it would be unwise for you to make a habit of it. I seriously doubt Tofu will be the handful that Soun and Genma have been all these years."
Kasumi gave Nodoka a questioning look.
"Oh, I never met your father until I found out Genma had brought Ranma here, but I have heard the stories."
"Oh, my!" Kasumi said, looking delighted, "Could you tell me some of them?"
"Of course, dear, but not here. Have you ever tried eating at the Nerima Unagi-ya?"
"I'll just go put on my kimono," Kasumi said with a smile, "I've had their take-out, but I have never eaten at the restaurant."
"You are going to love this place, dear! The atmosphere is just marvelous."
"I'll be right down, Auntie!" Kasumi said happily.
"Eight large specials?" Ukyo asked, "Are you sure, Nabiki?"
"According to Doctor Ono, Ranma needs a lot of protein right now. He's eaten two entire flats of tofu by himself in the last two days."
Ukyo poured out four large discs of batter on the griddle and began laying out toppings as she spoke. "I knew Ran-chan was a big eater, but good grief! Two entire flats of tofu? Just tofu, nothing to go with it?"
"That and several large meals between binges," Nabiki said with a nod of her head. "I thought he might be coming home in a week, but after last night I'm not so sure anymore."
"I thought a big appetite was supposed to be a sign of recovery."
"Well, that would be true with any normal person I'm sure," Nabiki said.
"You got a point there, Nabiki. Ran-chan is a lot of things, but normal ain't one of 'em. What do you think the real problem is?"
"Too many fiancee's and one too many fights, I think. That battle he got into in China took a lot out of him."
"Is it true he defeated a kami, Nabiki?"
"I don't know that you could rightly call Safuron a kami, but he is about as close to one as you are likely to find in the flesh. Ranma more or less killed him because just wounding him wouldn't put him out of the fight."
"Ran-chan...killed...someone!" Ukyo became very pale.
"Yes, but he only did it to save Akane's life. That's why she's at the clinic every day instead of school. Ranma is afraid that something will happen to her. He keeps having nightmares about it."
Ukyo began to look like a very lost and frightened little girl.
"He's worried about you, too."
"Look, all three of you, you, Xian Pu and Akane, worry him to death. If one of you isn't being grabbed by somebody, you are fighting each other tooth and nail over him. Ranma doesn't want anyone hurt on his account. I think he'd rather be dead. No, I take that back. I _know_ he'd rather be dead. The three of you keep this up and he'll leave just so you three idiots will stop fighting."
"Well if he would just make up his mind then..."
"And what if he did make up his mind Ukyo? What would change? Been to any bombed out weddings lately?"
"That hurt, Nabiki!" Ukyo said, as she began to cry.
"Damned right it hurt! It hurt Ranma a hell of a lot more than it did anyone else! Why do you think he's holed up in that clinic fighting to hold on to his sanity?" Nabiki's voice was suddenly vehement and her eyes flashed with anger. The two young women stared hard at one another for several minutes until acrid smoke began to fill the as the two women stared hard at one another.
"Damn! Now look what you made do!" Ukyo chided Nabiki as she threw the burnt okinomiyaki into the trash.
"I'll pay you half-price for it," Nabiki said.
"Since when did you become so generous?" Ukyo asked, sounding suspicious.
"Since Ranma asked me to help out," Nabiki said, gritting her teeth.
This was an answer Ukyo found amusing. She broke out into wild fit of laughter. Nabiki calmly waited for the storm to pass.
"You find that amusing?"
"Yes, I do, Nabiki! Ran-chan must be slipping really bad to trust your help," Ukyo said as began to cleaning her griddle.
"I always deliver what I promised," Nabiki said coldly.
"Oh, I know, but what you promise always works out best for you."
"Naturally. Why should it be any other way? Anyone that says they are making you a deal that works out in your favor alone is lying to you, Ukyo. You've been in business long enough to understand that."
"So what do you get out this, Nabiki, hmm? I'd like to know, because I really do love Ranma and if you hurt him, you'll have to answer to me."
"He will marry a Tendo, you know," Nabiki said coldly.
"It's in the contract between our parents. It says nothing about Ranma marrying Akane. It says he'll marry one of Soun Tendo's daughters, and if not one of Soun's daughters, one of our cousins."
"What on earth were they thinking?" Ukyo practically screamed.
"I wish I knew," Nabiki said. "It doesn't really matter right now anyway. You know what does matter? Until Ranma is married, neither Kasumi nor I can make any plans, nor will you or Xian Pu. Every last one of us is waiting around for this to be settled one way or another." Nabiki shuddered inside. She prided herself on her ability to maintain a poker player's coutenance, but this was really pushing the envelope. If these idiots did not come around soon, she would elope with Ranma and put an end to it that way.
Ukyo poured out more batter looking thoughtful.
"So you are here to make me an offer, right?"
"No, because you don't strike me as the type that would accept money as payment for something like this," Nabiki said with as much warmth as she could muster. "I'm not the one expected to marry Ranma in any case."
"So you're saying I'll have to make a deal with Akane then, right?"
"I'm saying you should think about it. If Ranma marries Akane or Kasumi, money is all you are likely to get."
"Oh, really? You mean it would be different if he married you?"
"If I had accepted him the day he arrived, this mess would already have been settled. I never let love get in the way of reason."
"I can believe that!" Ukyo said as she boxed the first four okinomiyaki, then started another four on the griddle. "Especially if the reasoning leads to money."
"You are a very bright young lady, Ukyo Kuonji."
"There is no way you could make enough money out of Ranma for you to willingly marry him, so I guess I don't have to worry about you, or do I?"
"Do I look like the sort of woman who would become a brood mare just to satisfy tradition?" Nabiki managed to keep up a cool appearance despite her elevated heart rate. The truth be known, she would not mind taking a stab at being a brood mare for Ranma, so long as she did not quite succeed.
"So you'd pick me to be Ranma's concubine, is that it?"
"It would settle your claim, wouldn't it?"
"Akane would never go for it--not that I'd go for it, either.
Nabiki smiled. Ukyo most certainly would go for it. Hell! I'd go for it if I thought Akane would, she thought.
"No, Akane won't. So you need to start thinking about what you are going to do. Ranma can't marry everyone that has a claim to him, much less everyone that thinks they have a claim to him. He can only satisfy one claim and my sister's claim has precedence over all others, yours and mine included."
"Your claim?" Ukyo asked, staring at Nabiki in surprise. "Since when did you have a claim, Nabiki?"
"I'm a Tendo, remember? You don't really think I'd let Kasumi marry him do you? He'd never be able to take care of her. Who ever marries Ranma will need to be pretty much self- sufficient."
Ukyo took a deep breath and began boxing the second set of okinomiyaki.
"So if for some reason Akane rejects him, you will step in?"
"Yes, I will. Otherwise, Kasumi would. You know what a traditionalist she is."
"I love him, Nabiki."
"We all know that, Uchan. That's why we are all scratching our heads trying to figure out a way to solve this, but try to understand one thing, Ranma _will_ marry a Tendo."
"It's not fair!"
"You think I don't know that? It isn't fair to Ranma, or you, or me, or my sisters. Genma laid a trap for you, you know."
"Sure he did. The more women after Ranma, the more likely Ranma will produce an heir, right?"
"That bastard!" Ukyo shouted, gritting her teeth and clenching her fists. "I'm gonna kill him!"
"Don't do that anytime too soon, Ukyo-chan. I'm not through torturing him, yet. I might've grabbed Ranma if hadn't been for him."
Both of them giggled at this.
"You'd better take your order and go, Nabiki-chan. It's going to get cold."
"Just one thing though."
"What if Ranma decides he doesn't want to marry a Tendo?"
"Then he will have to give up his school, Ukyo-chan. You know Genma would disown him. Happosai could care less about him. Given a choice between supporting Ranma and free room and board, guess who he would axe?"
"Genma wouldn't disown Ranma!"
"I'm pretty sure he would. I haven't found out why he and my dad made their little deal yet, but I'll let you know when I do."
"I gotta run," Nabiki said as she took the boxes. "Do us both a favor, will you, Ukyo?"
"Stay away from Kodachi and Xian Pu."
"Hah! No problem there."
Ukyo sat thinking for a long time after Nabiki left, trying separate her enemies from her rivals and decide what to do about which. She knew she would never insist that Ranma give up The Art. It had been his entire life until now, but she could not bear the thought of giving him up, either. If Ranma married Xian Pu he would go back to China and she would never see him again. He was never going to have anything to do with Kodachi so that was not a worry beyond Kodachi being a nuisance. Akane had Ranma on her own turf. Did she really want to hang around hoping they would break up? No, but she would. Could she share him with another woman? She gritted her teeth. Right now it looked as though there were little choice. There was little doubt left in her mind that Ranma was in love with Akane. She had not understood about what happened at Jusendo until Ryoga explained it the night after the failed wedding. If Ranma was married to Akane though, opportunities would arise sooner or later. If he married Nabiki things would work out even quicker. There seemed little to be gained by antagonizing either of the younger Tedou girls.
What if he married Kasumi? That thought made her shudder. It would be the end. Ranma would never do anything to offend or hurt Kasumi. No decent person would. One thing was certain however, she was going look Genma up and give him another good beating. Ukyo suddenly realized that there was a lot of room in her heart for friendship with Akane. She would have to make peace with her. This mess was Genma's fault, not Akane's and so long as she remained friendly with Akane and Ranma, there was hope that...they could...could. Much to Ukyo's annoyance, she was still blushing as customers started coming through the door.
The Nerima Unagi-ya was everything Nodoka said it was. The place was exceptionally clean and brightly lit without seeming to be part of a hospital. The decor pleased Kasumi no end. The floors were brightly polished, the lamp shades dust-free, the tables gleamed and the chairs were comfortable. Their waiter however, was new to the job.
"Green tea for you ladies, I guess?"
"Yes, for starters. We would like sake as well please, young man," Nodoka said, bristling slightly. She might be a traditionalist, but even she bridled at being talked down to. This young man was being much too casual in his approach. When acting as a servant, one asked. One did not guess.
"Any particular brand, ma'am?" the waiter asked, obviously nonplussed.
"I'm sure you will choose a good one for us, won't you dear boy?" Nodoka said icily.
"I'll, I'll do my very best ma'am."
"That's a good lad," Nodoka said with a cold smile.
The waiter ran to the bar for advice. He wasn't at all sure how to handle this situation.
"There's two very straightlaced lookin' broads at one of my tables wantin' sake. Any ideas?"
"Yeah, serve 'em their tea and tell 'em the sake is being warmed up," the bartender said as he dug out a bottle of sake and blew the dust off of it.
"Hey!" the waiter said sounding alarmed, "That's pretty potent stuff."
"Yeah, but its nearly tasteless. That's why the professional drunks almost never ask for it. These two won't drink a whole flask between 'em. Go serve 'em their tea."
"Your tea, ma'am."
"Thank you, young man," Nodoka said.
"The sake is being warmed up for you right now. I'll bring it out as soon as it is ready."
"That will be fine, thank you," Nodoka said, giving the struggling youngster a somewhat warmer smile than before.
"Thank you, ma'am."
"I have never drunk sake before."
"What? Not even a taste?"
"I never could get past the smell, to tell you the truth."
"Well it's time you tried it, dear. A little will do you no harm."
"Yes, Auntie," Kasumi said, sounding dubious.
"Just try a little taste, dear. There will be times later on in life when you will have to drink a little to be polite."
Kasumi nodded her head, seeing the wisdom in what Nodoka said.
"So tell me, what has life with my son and Genma been like?"
"Oh, mostly it's been very amusing. Sometimes quite exciting, especially after Happosai returned."
"Exciting? I can just imagine! Ha!"
They were so engrossed in their reminisces, that the waiter was more or less ignored as he delivered the sake. The sake itself was so bland that the two of them consumed the entire flask without really noticing. The waiter was new, but not an idiot. He brought out a second one without being asked. They kept right on chattering. He interrupted them long enough to take their food orders, then faded into the paint. He brought another flask of sake out with their order out. The two women seemed to be having a wonderful time together. He began to look forward to a healthy tip. Meanwhile, the place began to fill up and he suddenly found himself too busy to really pay attention to how much sake the two were consuming. He just kept bringing it out when ever they appeared to be low. After all, the bottle was open. They may as well get rid of the stuff while they had the chance.
The was no breeze by the time she got off at the bus stop nearest Tofu's clinic. The humidity had climbed to the point that she felt like she needed a towel by the time she reached the clinic a mere two blocks from the bus stop. Much to her surprise, Ranma was up and walking around.
"Well look at you!" Nabiki said as she struggled with the door. "You look fit enough to give me a hand."
Ranma hastened to help her out.
"Hi, Nabiki," Akane said. Nabiki looked closely at Akane's face. Her eyes looked strained.
"Hi, Sis. Studying hard?"
"I am so far behind, Nabiki, I don't know that I'll ever catch up."
"I know what you mean, Akane. I can't stay long. I'm getting behind too."
"Busy day?" Akane asked.
"Oh! You know it."
"Good. Let's eat. I can't stay long. I've got a ton of homework to do and still have a bunch of bills Kasumi and I need to go over."
The okinomiyaki did not last long.
"So, Ranma. Think you could make it up and down the stairs okay?" Nabiki asked.
"If I really had to, yeah. I still get dizzy if I move around too much at one time."
"Think you can handle living in the flat upstairs in a couple of days?"
"Well yeah, I guess, but why?"
Ranma and Akane both gave Nabiki questioning looks.
"Because I think it might be a good idea to get you guys out of this examination room as soon as we can."
"Well why not just have us go home in a couple of days? I think I'll be probably be able to go back to school by Monday."
"Because it isn't your call, Ranma. I don't think Tofu is going to release you for at least another week, maybe longer."
"What about school, Nabiki?" Akane asked, her voice rising with concern.
"What about it? Both you guys are doing better now than you ever did before."
"Huh?" Ranma and Akane chorused.
"It's true. Your teachers are flipping out. They have never gotten this much work out of Ranma and the papers they've graded so far suggest that you'll both improve your grades by at least a letter."
"Do what?" Akane asked.
"It's true. All you have to do is keep turning the work in and I won't have any trouble covering for you, okay? But if you guys stop turning in work, they'll start griping about you not being in class."
"It makes sense in a way," Akane said looking a little glum, "We've had more peace and quiet here than we ever had in school."
"Boy! That ain't no lie!" Ranma said.
"If I were you guys, I'd try to stay here for as long as I could. At least until you get caught up with your schoolwork."
"What about our parents, Nabiki?" Akane asked.
"You know, Akane. I think Dad and Saotome-san are going to be a little too busy to worry about you guys for the next couple of weeks, but I'm pretty sure Aunt Nodoka will be coming to see you every other day or so."
"Nabiki, what are you up to?" Akane asked.
"Me? I'm just trying to help, Akane."
"Why?" Akane asked.
"Well, for one thing I figure I owe you. For another, we have got more money coming in than ever before."
"Huh? How?" Ranma asked, sounding alarmed.
"Operation Market Garden, Saotome."
Akane started to say something, but stopped when Ranma touched her shoulder.
"Really. I need at least a week, maybe two to bring it to a perfect conclusion, but I can shut it down whenever you want."
"If it ain't broke, let's not fix it," Ranma said. "I'll try the stairs tomorrow maybe."
"Don't do it if it's too much strain, Ranma," Nabiki said, "but I think it would work better for all concerned if you two were a little less conspicuous around here. Out of sight, out of mind. If you know what I mean."
"It sounds to me as though you are having fun, Nabiki."
"You know me, Akane. I love swimming with sharks."
"Even when you get bit?" Akane asked.
"My bite's a lot worse, Little Sister," Nabiki said with grin. It was a very convincing grin. Nabiki glanced at her watch.
"Ooh! I gotta go. I'll stop by and see you guys on the way to school tomorrow."
"Good night, Nabiki," Ranma said.
"Be careful going home, Big Sister."
"I will. You guys behave, okay?"
"Around this tomboy? No prob...OOF!"
"Have your schoolwork ready!" Nabiki called over her shoulder.
"We will!" Akane called after her, then turned on Ranma.
"No problem, huh? Tomboy, huh?"
"Hey! It's just part of the act, okay?"
"Yea...mmph!" Akane cut Ranma off with a kiss.
"Uh, Akane?" Ranma asked.
"We really do have to behave."
Akane thumped him on the chest. "I know, silly. You haven't healed up enough, yet."
Ranma blinked several times, then all but ran to the bathroom for cold water. Things would be much less likely to get out of control if he were in his female form.
Tofu Ono sat in opened-mouth horror listening to Saeka Shimazu, his expensive serving of kanabaki completely forgotten.
"Kodachi agreed?" he asked. "She is actually going to become Nabiki's student?"
Shimazu nodded her head, her face a grim mask.
"Oh, may the kami have mercy on us all!" Tofu said, sounding disconsolate.
"She is moving out of the Kuno estate on Monday. I suppose she and Tendo-san will be seeing a great deal of one another after that, because she agreed not to buy, rent, borrow or even steal anything unless she talked it over with Tendo-san first."
"Oh, the humanity!"
"More like inhumanity, if you ask me, Ono-san. I've been thinking about buying property in northern Australia all day."
"Perhaps we should go have six-six-six tattooed on our foreheads early tomorrow morning and beat the afternoon rush," Tofu said in a speculative tone as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
Shimazu's eyes widened with terror. Tofu noticed her reaction and their gazes locked.
"Do you know anyone around here that might sell me a goat?" He asked.
"A goat? Why would you want to buy a goat?"
"Because we'll have to sacrifice at least one goat, perhaps two. This is going to require some really big favors from the kami."
"Do you really sacrifice animals to the kami?" Shimazu asked.
"I found that sacrificing a chicken once a month is the only thing that will keep my fax machine and copier working," Tofu said with a huge grin.
Shimazu nearly choked on her food.
"So that's how you keep that junk working? I would never have guessed!"
"Works for Win95 too, but you have to hold your mouth just right."
Shimazu laughed. "You're terrible! How can you joke at a time like this?"
"It made you laugh, didn't it?"
Shimazu laughed some more. "Are you hinting that I'm seeing things a little out of perspective?"
"Only a little. I must admit that the prospect of Kodachi Kuno working as a teammate of Nabiki Tendo is a bit, well, daunting, but I don't think it will last for very long."
"Oh, really? Why is that?"
Tofu explained what he knew of Ranma and Akane's wedding.
"She didn't really! She showed up at another girl's wedding wearing a black wedding gown?"
"I'm afraid it's so, Shimazu-san. I heard it from more than one source. All of them reliable for the most part."
"Oh, dear me! And her brother actually drew a sword? Isn't that illegal?"
"Well this is Nerima, you know."
"I can't imagine!"
"Look, I think all that will come of this in the end is that a few more blocks of the neighborhood will get renewed, Kodachi will have her ego trimmed down a notch or two, and Nabiki will pay a few more Tendo bills with Kuno money. It happens around here all the time. It may be a little more frightening this time around, but so what?"
Shimazu giggled, sounding faintly hysterical.
"You're pulling my leg again, right?"
"No, not at all! I've been practicing here for a long time. This place is just, well, it's different, that's all."
"Different?" Shimazu asked, then giggled again.
"Hello, Doctor Tofu!" a sweet voice spoken through gritted teeth said, "Fancy meeting you here!"
Shimazu watched as Tofu's glasses suddenly fogged up. She could not imagine why. There had not been any change in temperature that she could feel. She looked to her left to see who had spoken and found herself looking at two of the most conservatively dressed women she had seen since age four. The older of the pair had a face that was as cold as an Antarctic cliff and held a katana which, thank all the kami that be, was still inside its cloth cover. The younger of the pair was doing her best to maintain her composure, but had her fists on her hips. For all of that, neither of the two women looked all that steady on their feet.
"Oh! Hello, Kasumi-san! What a coincidence, seeing you here! Ha! Ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha!"
The girl Ono had referred to as Kasumi was smiling and her voice still sounded very sweet when she spoke, but she spoke through gritted teeth.
"Isn't it though! I suppose Auntie Nodoka and I should have checked with you before we left. We could have met you here."
Tofu got up in a rather clumsy fashion, tipping his chair over.
"Ah, Kasumi? I'd a like to introduce you to someone!" Tofu said as he reached over and seized a salaryman seated at the next table. The poor man's eyes widened with shock, but he made no protest as he stood up for Tofu. Shimazu was not surprised. She was not an expert in ubijutsu, but clearly the man had no real choice about whether or not he complied. Kasumi kept smiling with her fists on her hips.
"This is Doctor Saeko Shimazu. We've, ah, we've been discussing Ranma's case. Ha! Ha, ha! Ha, ha, hoo!"
The salaryman smiled a huge smile, then bowed as best he could given the way Tofu was holding him. Shimazu found herself giggling again.
"Oh, my! What a lovely dress, Shimazu-san!" Kasumi said sweetly to the benighted salaryman through clenched teeth. "I am so pleased to meet you!"
The now very puzzled salaryman gave Kasumi a sickly smile and nodded his head vigorously. Clearly, he seemed to think his demise was very near unless he made these lunatics happy. Shimazu did not blame him.
"Have you known, Doctor Ono for very long?" Kasumi asked sweetly through her grinding teeth.
"Urgle, berk aaah, stuuhhggnng," the salaryman said, then smiled brightly.
"Oh, my! That is just fascinating," Kasumi said, with her teeth still tightly clinched together. "Do you think Ranma will be able to come home soon?"
"Heeryuu bururoranga, purooong da!" the salaryman said with as much confidence as he could muster as he nodded vigorously in the affirmative.
"Oh, that is _so_ good to hear!" Kasumi said as though she had just been given a million yen. She then turned an looked at the quivering Tofu Ono and said, "Now then, Doctor Tofu. Let Doctor Shimazu go."
"Oh! I...aha...sorry, Shimazu-san!" Tofu said as he released the salary man. Kasumi righted Tofu's chair. The salaryman fell to his knees and began bowing to Kasumi while whispering the words "Arigato, gozaimasu!" over and over.
"And sit down and finish your dinner now, all right?" Kasumi said as she guided Tofu back to his seat.
"Oh! Ah! Aha! Ee! Ah, sure, Kasumi-san!" Tofu said as he sat down.
Kasumi bent over so that she and Tofu were nose to nose.
"I'll come by and see you in the morning, all right?" Kasumi asked.
Tofu was now unable to speak, so nodded his head.
"Good," Kasumi said as she poked his forehead gently with her index finger, "You and I have some consulting of our own to do."
Kasumi stood up straight and began walking towards the exit.
"Coming, Auntie Nodoka?" Kasumi asked without looking back.
"Yes, Kasumi-chan. It is getting rather late."
Tofu collapsed face down upon the table. Nodoka bent over so that she could speak into Shimazu's ear without being heard.
"Whatever _else_ you do tomorrow, dear, avoid Tofu's clinic!"
Shimazu nodded her head vigorously without saying a word. Nodoka straightened up, then rushed, albeit in a dignified way, to catch up with the departing Kasumi. Shimazu twisted around in her chair and watched Nodoka leave, then turned back around and surveyed the room. The salaryman was still bowing and thanking the absent Kasumi. He might have kept it up for the rest of the night if the bartender had not come back to see what was going.
"Oi!" the bartender said as he got down on his knees in front of the still bowing and scraping salaryman, "You can stop. They're gone."
The salaryman would have collapsed, but the bartender helped him up and back into his chair. As he started to walk by, he stopped and looked at Shimazu.
"You're fairly new here, aren't you?"
"How did you know?" Shimazu asked.
"You've got that look on your face," the bartender said, "but don't worry. You get used to it after awhile and the look goes away."
"Yeah, the look of perpetual surprise. It goes away after you get used to being here. Don't let it bother you any. Nerima's a nice place, just different."
The bartender gave her a warm smile, then merrily went about his business. Shimazu looked at her table companion.
Tofu seemed to be mumbling something to the table top.
Concerned because he did not answer, Shimazu got up and walked around the table.
"Doctor Ono?" she asked as she touched his shoulder.
"Aaah! Hooo! Hee hee! Kasumi touched me!"
"Isn't it wonderful, Betty?"
As if by magic, Shimazu was suddenly transported outside the restaurant. Much to her consternation she seemed to be waltzing to the Blue Danube, being performed by Tofu in arpeggio.
"La da-da-da-dum, da-dum, da-dum!"
This would not have been nearly so disconcerting had her feet been touching the ground, but Tofu was holding her up in the air as though she were a child, or a puppet of some kind. After they had waltzed for a block or two, Shimazu suddenly and inexplicably found herself being transported on Tofu's back as he hopped, skipped, jumped, hooted and shouted for joy. What was truly amazing about the entire ordeal, were the sympathetic looks she got from onlookers. They actually seemed to understand what was going on. This might have been reassuring, had they not looked so sympathetically sad.
Before she fully realized what was going on, Shimazu found herself in a closet alongside a skeleton.
"Good night, Betty! See ya in the morning," Tofu said as he closed the door. The light went out and Shimazu began to scream at the top of her lungs. She would have screamed herself hoarse, except that the closet door popped open.
"Oi! Good evening! My name is Akane Tendo!" A lovely young woman said, as though nothing at all unusual had happened.
"Oh, ah, good evening. I'm uh, I'm Saeko Shimazu."
"Are you all right?"
"Ah, yes. I, ah, I , ha-ha, I ha-ha, think so. I don't seem to be hurt, anyway."
"Wouldn't you like to come out of the closet now?"
"I'm not sure."
"Oh, don't worry. Doctor Tofu has gone home."
"So where did you guys run into Kasumi, anyways?" an extraordinarily lovely, red-headed girl asked from behind Akane Tendo.
"Does he act like that very often?" Shimazu asked.
"Not that often anymore. Only when Kasumi surprises him right, Ranma?"
The red-headed girl nodded her head slowly.
Shimazu reluctantly came out of the closet.
"Hi, I'm Ranma Saotome!" The red-headed girl said with a huge grin and outstretched hand. Shimazu was amazed by the girl's steely grip and the oddly placed calluses on her hand. Definitely a martial artist, Shimazu thought.
"Ranma Saotome? Isn't there a boy by that name living around here."
"That's me!" the red-headed girl said cheerfully, "I'm really a guy."
Shimazu blinked. The girl was well endowed and was wearing a tank top with no brassier. No way those are fake, Shimazu thought. If she's a guy, I'm a Martian. Shimazu smiled. She smiled very carefully.
"Oh, well! That is a very effective disguise."
"Oh, it's no disguise," Akane said, "Ranma has this peculiar sort of curse."
"A curse?" Shimazu asked, becoming alarmed.
"I think there's some warm water left on the hot plate, Akane," Ranma said glumly she began walking out of the room, "I'll go get it. There's no point in trying to explain. A demonstration always works better."
Akane nodded. Shimazu stared for a moment, then began scouring the room for a hidden camera. She was still looking when the red-headed girl returned and handed her a kettle.
"Here, pour this on my head," the red-headed girl said.
Shimazu carefully poured a stream of water from the kettle onto the girl's head, then her shoulder as she suddenly gained height and Shimazu found herself looking up at an extraordinarily well built, handsome hunk of a young man. This was him! This was _the_ Ranma Saotome. The love of Kodachi Kuno's life.
"Hey! Are you okay? You ain't gonna faint or nothin' are ya?" the handsome young man asked. His voice was a melodious baritone.
Akane helped Shimazu sit down in a chair.
"You must be new around here," Akane said cheerfully, "You've got that look."
Shimazu shook her head, trying to clear it.
"Yep. She's new here," Ranma said with a chuckle.
"I don't...I don't live in Nerima," Shimazu said in a faint voice, "I have been working here for about a year. I don't shop here or socialize very much with the people that live in Nerima."
"Oh! That explains it," Ranma and Akane chorused, then smiled at her.
"It does?" Shimazu asked.
"Well, yeah. If you lived here that long you'd understand," Ranma said.
"He means you'd be accustomed to what goes on around here by now, Shimazu-san. No sane person really understands it."
"I am _so_ glad to hear that!" Shimazu said. The relief in her voice was genuine. Ranma and Akane gave her a pair of sympathetic smiles.
"It does take some gettin' used to," Ranma said, "but Nerima sort of grows on you after a while."
"Did...did you start changing like this after you came to Nerima?" Shimazu asked.
"Naw. There's nothin' _that_ dangerous around here. Well, not unless Pantyhose Tarou shows up. I picked up my curse in China."
"Pantyhose? In China?"
"Ah, well you see, Pantyhose Taro is this guy that's got a curse sorta like mine, but he lives in China. He only shows up around here once in a while."
"He turns into a girl and his name is Pantyhose?"
Ranma started to explain, but Akane cut him off.
"Ranma, I think she's had all she can handle for one night."
"Yeah, your probably right. Say, Shimazu-san, it is gettin' kinda late. Can we walk you to the bus stop or somethin'?"
"Oh, would you?"
Akane gave her a warm smile and nodded her head.
"Lemme get some cold water, and I'll go with you two," Ranma said.
"Cold water?" Shimazu asked.
Akane nodded her head.
"Cold water turns him into a girl," Akane said in a conspiratorial whisper, "He wants everybody he can to know that we're never alone together here unless he's in his girl form."
"Oh! I was thinking hot water turned her into a boy. Why would he want to be a girl?"
Akane shrugged. "He's afraid our parents might make us marry if he stays with me overnight as a guy."
"Oh, well that makes sense," Shimazu said, as she nodded her head. It really did make sense. Shimazu found the fact that it made sense to somehow be frightening. Things like this should not make sense at all, but this did. She shuddered. Was she becoming acclimated that quickly?
Onna-Ranma walked back into the room. The thin cotton of his shirt was soaked through with water and even though it was a dark colored, the wet shirt made his change of form hard to miss. Shimazu stared without meaning to.
(Look at her, Saotome. She probably wants to see our X- rays. Curiosity is eating her alive.)
(So why don't we let her see, Red? It won't hurt nothin'. She's a woman and a doctor.)
(You just want to show off, pervert.)
(You love it and you know it, Red.)
"I know what your thinking," Onna-Ranma said, "You're a doctor, right?"
Shimazu nodded her head. Onna-Ranma removed his shirt and slowly turned around.
"It is a complete change isn't it? You are completely female, skeleton and all!"
"Just my body is female," Onna-Ranma growled.
Shimazu stifled a giggle while Onna-Ranma put his shirt back on. The growl had been an octave or so higher than it should have been, but it had been a most masculine growl. Shimazu shook her head. She was having a very difficult time maintaining her grip upon reality. The look in the red-headed girl's blue eyes had the confident, tiger-like gaze of a young man just now growing into his prime. Yes, there was no doubt about it. Shimazu was not being fooled by any sort of legerdemain. What she was seeing was real. She let the air out of her lungs once she realized she had been holding her breath.
"You okay?" Onna-Ranma asked.
"Yes, I'm fine. Thank you for asking, Saotome-san."
Onna-Ranma smiled. It was a very charming smile.
"It is a little hard to get used to," Akane said with a smile. "Shall we go to the bus stop?"
Tofu had not given Shimazu time to collect her shoes at the restaurant, so Akane insisted that Shimazu use her geta while Akane wore Tofu's. Onna-Ranma could not wear Tofu's geta, the feet of his female form being entirely too small. On the way to the bus stop, Onna-Ranma seemed to have a mild attack of vertigo.
"Are you all right, Ranma?" Akane asked.
"Aw I just got a little dizzy is all. No nausea or anything."
"What are you being treated for, Saotome-san? That is if you don't mind my asking."
"I don't mind. I got hit on the head pretty hard during training Sunday and it gave me a mild concussion. I'm feelin' a lot better today, but Doc Tofu won't let me go home."
"Well I should hope not!" Shimazu said, "You shouldn't even be out of bed, much less...My goodness! Where is all that heat coming from?" Much to her alarm, she could distinctly see the wavering distortions of heat waves surrounding Onna-Ranma. Moving closer to him, Shimazu could actually feel the heat pouring out of him. It was almost as though her newly made acquaintance had suddenly become a stove or a heater. It was mind boggling. She had never met anyone with such a powerful ki.
"Ranma? Are you sure you are all right?" Akane asked, "Do you need something to eat?"
"Naw, I'm not hungry. I guess I must have soaked up too much heat last night."
"You want me to call Doctor Tofu?" Akane asked.
"What would he do, Akane? I'm the one that's gotta figure out how to deal with this," Onna-Ranma said as he held his hands together at their heels above his head. A large, globe of crawling light, formed between his hands. It reminded Shimazu of a plasma globe. The light was primarily golden in color, but had many strands of differing colors crawling around within its confines, as though Onna-Ranma had just made a bubble of plasma. She could not know it for not even Ranma or Akane yet knew or understood that this was exactly what Ranma had just done. The globe grew from the size of a grapefruit to the size of a basketball in seconds. Once the size of a basket ball, it rose up into the air like a soap bubble until it was about thirty meters above their heads, then burst into a colorful display of light similar to an aurora borealis. Shimazu could only blink.
"Boy, that was weird!" Onna-Ranma said, "I feel better now though. Am I still hot?"
Akane stepped closer to the red-headed girl and wave her hand around Onna-Ranma's head and body.
"It seems to have stopped, Ranma."
"Man, I'm sure glad I decided to sleep during the day today. Can you imagine what would have happened if I had done something like this in my sleep?"
Neither Akane nor Shimazu could of course. None of them were even sure of what they had just seen.
"What was that, Ranma?" Akane asked.
"I ain't really sure, Akane. I released a little ki and it just happened."
"Are you sure you don't want me to call Doctor Tofu?"
"Akane, you saw what kind of shape he was in when he left. We'll just have to wait until he gets over his Kasumi attack."
"Kasumi attack?" Shimazu asked.
"Poor Doctor Tofu is in love with my oldest sister, Kasumi," Akane said, "The problem is that he is so shy he has a little breakdown every time she gets near him."
"A breakdown? Is that what you call it?"
"Well, I'm not sure what else it should be called. Usually he dances all over the neighborhood with his skeleton, he calls it Betty, until he is worn completely out. Sometimes if he is someplace where Betty isn't within reach, he uses some innocent bystander as a substitute. I hope he didn't frighten you too much tonight. He really is a nice man he just...loses control a little around my sister."
"A little? He turned into a raving lunatic!" Shimazu said. After a moment's reflection she added, "But at least he's a sweet lunatic."
"He really is a good doctor. We just have to find a way to help him with his Kasumi problem," Akane said.
"Maybe we should try treating him the way they were gonna treat me for my fear of...of..ca..ca."
"Cats," Akane finished for Onna-Ranma
"You're afraid of cats, Ranma?"
"Believe me, Ranma is much worse about cats than Doctor Tofu is about Kasumi."
"Have you considered undergoing desensitizing, Ranma?"
"Doc Tofu said it's too risky in my case, but I wonder if it wouldn't work for him and Kasumi."
"It might," Shimazu said," but it is bound to be inconvenient for him to undergo the treatment. His patient load has been pretty heavy."
"Yeah, I know. I see him quite a bit myself," Ranma said.
"Oh, look! There's your bus, Shimazu-san."
Part of Saeko Shimazu wanted to stay and see what happened next. Another part of her, the part with all her practical survival instincts, insisted that she board the bus. It won her internal argument. She sat down and turned in her seat as the bus pulled away so she could see out the back glass. Onna-Ranma was producing yet another globule of energy between his hands. This one was easily twice the diameter of the first one. The glowing globe drifted up into the night sky. She turned back around facing the front of the bus and caught the driver's eye in his rear-view mirror.
"Your name wouldn't happen to be Rod Serling, would it?"
The driver gave her a knowing smile. "No, but I bet you were hoping it was, right?"
Shimazu made no reply, but instead sat back in her seat and wondered if the real estate offices in Australia were open at the moment. She had only the vaguest idea about which time zone Australia was in.
The driver just laughed and shook his head.
Ko Lon finished loading her largest stock pot and put it on to simmer. One of the secrets to her success in the restaurant business in Japan had been her use of chicken stock to supplement the usual soup stocks preferred by the Japanese, which were made by simmering bonito flakes. There wasn't anything wrong with such a stock of course, but the difference in her stock made for a pleasant break from the usual in Japan. Making a good stock was one of the keys to a successful noodle business and in this case, chicken stock was her secret weapon. Stock made from bonito had to be watched closely and the bonito flakes strained out at the right time or the stock would be too salty. Chicken stock on the other hand could be made with a low flame under a large pot overnight without being watched. She had marked where to set the flames so that the large pot would never quite come to boiling. A boiled stock would be cloudy and while this did not hurt its flavor, most Japanese would turn up their noses at it.
She was tired and thankful for the ever persistent Muu Su. He had come through like a true Amazon for once. No complaints, just hard work. He had already loaded the pull cart with cushions, prepared for Xian Pu's return. Ko Lon set bowl of soba and a flagon of water on a table for her. Then decided to go upstairs and fetch her's and Xian Pu's bath things. There was little point in making the exhausted Xian Pu do it. Too much was riding on the girl's legs over the next several weeks. Half way up the stairs, Ko Lon felt a surge of ki. This was different from the horrible night before. This was a brief, very powerful burst.
Ko Lon gasped aloud, then gritted her teeth as she mustered all her strength.
"Careful, Ranma! That can cause real trouble!" Ko Lon said with her ki voice.
The effort brought her down to her knees. It had been necessary though. There were several dangers involved in what the boy was doing, all of them potentially fatal. She rested for several moments. Damn this wedding mess! She thought. I really do need to talk to the child. He might kill himself mastering the Cold Dragon's Gift without help. For that matter, Ranma might kill himself with Ko Lon's help, but at least with a little help he stood a chance.
Thunder rumbled outside while Ko Lon waited for her strength to return. The trouble with using ki to communicate was that you were so old by the time you learned enough to use it, you were too old to use it.
"What is it, Muu Su?"
"Xian Pu's here!"
"There's food for her on one of the tables down there. Tell her to go ahead and eat. I'll get our bath things."
"I would, but she's already asleep."
"In the cart. She never came inside. She just fell across the cushions and went to sleep."
"All right! I'll be down shortly. Why don't you to go head and start for the bath house."
"Oh, and Muu Su?"
"Load our umbrellas!"
"Already got 'em, Honored Elder!"
"You've done well, child!" Ko Lon called down to him. Damn! She thought. I should never have called him that. Now I'll have to spend the next week reducing the swelling in his head! She got up from where she had been sitting upon the stairs and made her way up to their living quarters. Just a little more to do and she could sleep for a few hours. Well, maybe she could sleep for a few hours. Ranma might well keep her awake tonight. Those gifted by the Cold Dragon were sometimes known to cause a bit of trouble with the weather. Or at least that is what the old records said could happen. Ko Lon was not all that sure of that she had read them correctly, or that she could actually believe it if she had. Ancient writings were often heavy on allegory and short on hard facts.
"Did you say something, Akane?" Onna-Ranma asked as he and Akane watched his latest creation float up towards the clouds.
"No, I didn't say anything. Why?"
"I thought you said to be careful, because what I was doing could be dangerous."
"I didn't say anything."
"Hey, look! It's going to reach the clouds!"
They craned their necks and watched as the glowing globe disappeared into the cloud base. It became a fuzzy bright spot, then without warning lightning shot out from in all directions through the cloud. A few seconds later they heard a thunderclap.
"Whoa!" Onna-Ranma said.
"That was amazing, Ranma."
(Yeah Red, what is it.)
(That had to have been the old Ghoul talkin' to us.)
"Ah, it was probably just a coincidence, Akane."
(Are you nuts? She ain't even around here.)
"I don't know, Ranma. It looked like it caused that lightning to me."
(I think Akane's right and I'm sure that was Ko Lon we heard, Saotome.)
"Why don't we go inside?" Ranma asked sounding worried, "I'm feelin' a little tired."
"You just want to get me inside because you're afraid I might get hurt, you baka."
"I can't hold up all that good to lightning either, you know."
Light drops of rain began to fall.
"Ranma, you have to start telling me what is going on! You can't just keep making decisions without explaining what..."
"Can we discuss this inside?"
(Yeah, yeah! I'm on it, Saotome. Nap time for you.)
"I suppose, but don't plan on changing the subject on me, Ranma!"
"All right already! Let's just get in out of the weather, okay?"
They went inside.
"Why won't you ever tell me what is going on?" Akane asked, clearly aggrieved.
"For one thing, you almost never let me finish when I try!"
"For another, I usually have a hard time figuring out what to say. And sometimes I just don't want to or there ain't time because of the situation."
"Okay," Akane said sounding exasperated, "so now we'll make the time and I'll let you finish, Ranma!"
They stared at one another for a silent moment, eyes hard and shining. Akane blinked first. She took both his hands in her own.
"What is going on with you, Ranma?" She asked, sounding contrite.
"I wish I knew, Akane. Not knowing scares the hell out of me!" Onna-Ranma answered in a quavering voice.
(DAMMIT, RED! YOU NEVER ADMIT YOU'RE SCARED.)
(Hey! We're talking to Akane here, not Pantyhose or Shit-daddy. Besides, right now we're scared we're going hurt somebody without meaning to.)
(Yeah, okay. But you go easy on that stuff! OOF!)
(I'm gonna hug her back.)
(It ain't manly!)
(Saotome, you really are an idiot sometimes. Huggin' a girl is _very_ manly.)
"What really frightens me most is that you might get hurt. My control isn't all that great right now. I never dreamed that anything like this might happen to me. I never even heard of anything like this happenin' to anybody."
"Who might know something about it, Ranma? We could go to them for help."
"Ko Lon might, but I don't want to talk to her right now. She would just try to take advantage it."
"Has Doctor Tofu told you what he really thinks is wrong with you? Besides the concussion, I mean?"
"There's something wrong besides the concussion?"
"He thinks you've been under too much stress. He says it's not too different from combat fatigue."
(DID YOU HEAR THAT?)
(Yeah I did, Saotome. You gotta admit, it makes a little sense.)
(WE'VE GONE CRAZY! WE'RE GONNA GET LOCKED UP IN A NUT WARD!)
(Will you calm down? Now isn't exactly a good time to go nuts.)
"How come he ain't said nothin' to me about it, Akane?"
"I think he's been planning to tell you, after your concussion healed up some. It wouldn't have helped to tell you anything about it while you were still sick from that."
"Yeah, probably so."
"He says you have to rest, and not fight anybody."
"Not even you, huh?"
"Especially not me."
"I don't think he knows for sure Ranma, but from what he told me, I think he believes you will be fine after you have had some rest. He said my dad cries all the time because he didn't get rest when he really needed it."
(Aw, man! I don't wanna end up like Soun!)
(Me neither, Saotome. I guess we try to relax, huh?)
(Come on, Red! In Nerima? And what is up with all this weird, ki stuff we've been doin'?)
(I don't know anymore than you do. As for relaxing in Nerima, we just lay low for as long as we can, ne?)
(I guess Nabiki was right about staying here at the clinic for a while then, huh?)
(Looks that way, Saotome.)
"He said that if Dad had gotten away from whatever was bothering him for a while, he might not be like he is today."
"Geez, Akane! I had no idea."
"Me either, Ranma, but I don't want you to end up like Daddy."
"Don't worry, Akane! I ain't gonna! Can you imagine what Mom would do?"
"Try not to worry about that too much, Ranma. It causes stress."
(Yeah, I know! It's happenin' again.)
"I gotta go outside again, Akane. Stay here."
"Stay here! There ain't nothin' you can do to help and you might get hurt."
"But Ranma I don't want you to be alone."
"Okay, watch me from the back door, but be ready to duck."
Onna-Ranma walked outside and into the rain as fast as he could. Running was out of the question. His head still bothered him too much for running. Once outside, he tried to use his ki again as he had done earlier in the evening, but could not form a mass of ki the way he had earlier. What he got was a big wad of steam and hot water.
"Hey! I just turned back into a guy! Didja see that, Akane?"
"Ranma I can hear your voice, but I can't see you. There's too much mist."
"It ain't mist, Akane! It's steam."
"Aw, man!" Otoko-Ranma said sounding both frightened and frustrated, "Now I'm turnin' into Safuron!"
Akane's eyes widened with horror as the cloud of steam surrounding Ranma began to glow with the strange, crawling energy Ranma had produced earlier. It formed a dome that completely engulfed Ranma for a few seconds, then leapt skyward, becoming spiraling column of scintillating colors as it did so. As quickly as the top of this column disappeared into the dark sky overhead, a bolt of lightning struck the ground in the midst of the steam an vapors surrounding Ranma. This was quickly followed by an ear splitting blast of thunder. The air literally stank from ozone. Akane ran out the door towards the rapidly dissipating vapor. Within it she found a girl type Ranma. His eyes wide with shock. His hair was standing straight up on end and his eyebrows were singed.
"Ranma, are you okay?"
"What'dja say, Akane? My ears are ringin' I can barely hear ya!" Onna-Ranma shouted.
"Are you all right?" Akane shouted.
"Yeah, I think so! My ears hurt, but I think that'll pass!"
Onna-Ranma looked down. The lightning had struck the pavement right in front of him and the paths it took through the pavement as it dissipated left odd, squirmy little trails of melted asphalt and shattered stones.
"Whoa! Lookit that, Akane!"
Akane looked down and gasped.
"I guess it's a good thing I was wearin' these geta, huh?"
Akane said nothing. She just hugged the breath out of him again.
Muu Su and Ko Lon stood outside the bathhouse holding umbrellas. Xian Pu was sound asleep in the cart sheltered from the rain by a tarpaulin Muu Su had rigged over it.
"That was strange looking lightning!" Mu Su said.
"Yes, it was unusual," Ko Lon said. She considered calling to Ranma with her ki voice again, but knew she dare not risk it. Dammit all! She had to find a way to talk to the boy. He was going to kill himself and perhaps others if she didn't.
"It was Saotome, wasn't it, Honored Elder."
"Yes, Muu Su, it was. That was very perceptive of you. How did you guess?"
"Oh, that's easy. Weird stuff almost always happens to him first, then it comes around and gets the rest of us."
Ko Lon cackled.
"What's so funny?" Muu Su asked.
"When you get to be my age, child, boredom is your greatest enemy."
"Is that why we're still here?"
"Partly, Muu Su, but there are other, far more important reasons as well. Let's get in out of this weather, shall we?"
Nabiki Tendo lay on her bed listening to the rain fall. It had just about lulled her to sleep despite her worries when one of her cellular telephones began making rude noises. She picked it up from the lamp table and flipped it open.
"Tendo!" She growled into the phone. "This had better be good!"
"You heard Xian Pu has a new bicycle?"
"It's a much better bicycle than the one she was riding."
"Ah, I see your point. I'll adjust the odds in the morning."
"There's more, though."
"The guy that owns this shop never works more than eight hours a day, usually less."
"So right now, his shop is still open and people and material have been coming and going out of here since early this afternoon. He's building another bicycle on a rush basis."
"You think he's building a special bicycle just for Xian Pu."
"Yeah. And what's more, I've never seen a bicycle quite like this one. It's either going to be a brilliant design that turns out to be a trend setter, or a complete flop."
"Hmm. Good job. I'll adjust the odds in the morning. Can you get me a picture of this new bicycle.?"
"I think you'll be able to see it for yourself sometime tomorrow morning. The frame came in here a few minutes already painted and baked out. I think he'll be through with it be ten tomorrow."
"I see. Look, I don't know that much about bicycles. What's so unique about this one."
"It's got this weird new spring arrangement on it. It should help the cyclist make better use of his muscle while making the bike ride smoother."
"You think that makes a big difference?"
"It will make a huge difference if he kept the weight down and the thing is at all durable."
"Okay. Keep me posted on progress tomorrow. I've got to get some sleep."
"Good night, Tendo-san."
"Good night, Jiro."
Nabiki fell across the bed and let the rain lull her to sleep.
"Fools and their money," she murmered, "Fools and their money."
End of Chapter 3 Part c
Copyright © Don Granberry