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.
"Are you sure you're okay, Ranma?"
They were standing in the hall of Tofu's clinic, just inside the back door.
"I'm sure, Akane. Whatever that was, it's completely gone now."
Onna-Ranma looked up into Akane's eyes, hoping to reassure her. Outside a soft, cold rain continued to fall. It would have been romantic if the two of them had not been soaked to the skin and shivering from the cold.
"Let's get out of these wet clothes," Akane said softly.
"Good idea," Ranma said as they broke eye contact. Akane started down the hall towards their room.
She stopped and turned around.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you like that."
"You couldn't help it, Ranma," Akane said, "I'm not mad at you."
Akane watched Onna-Ranma closely for a reaction as she tried without success to suppress a shiver. She was too frightened and too cold to fend it off. Onna-Ranma's eyes grew sad. He reached towards Akane as though he wanted to offer comfort, but stopped himself. Then just stood staring at her with woebegone eyes while he shivered. Why did he stop? Akane silently asked herself. Is it because he is afraid of how I might react? Or is he uncomfortable being intimate with me while the curse is on him? Maybe it's both. I've yelled at him enough times about touching me whenever he's in his girl form.
Her train of thought took a completely different track when she noticed the wrinkle lines on Onna-Ranma's forehead. There were lines around his eyes and mouth as well. He's more afraid than I am, she realized. He just won't admit to it. He _can't_ admit to it. He would lose control. His legs are shaking and...Akane's thoughts were again interrupted when the light in the brightly lit hallway suddenly dimmed. She looked up. The hallway was lit with fluorescent lighting and the one meter long tubes were glowing as brightly and as peacefully as ever, but their light was not making its way into the area around her and Onna-Ranma. She looked back at Onna-Ranma. He looked as though he were standing in a deep shadow that was quickly growing darker. Akane could now feel the air temperature falling. He's losing control again! She thought. Even as Akane watched, the air around her fiance absorbed more and more light until only the faintest traces of him could be seen. A fine, barely discernible fog was beginning to fill the air around them.
"No!" Akane shouted, "Ranma, you stop that this instant!"
"Ranma!" Akane screamed, then plunged into the shadows that had engulfed him. Once inside the dark globe that had formed around Onna-Ranma, she could see him. The light was very dim, but there was still light. The air within the sphere was quite cold and getting colder.
"Akane get back!"
"No, Ranma," Akane said, trying to force her voice to stay calm and almost succeeding, "You get back into control. I'm keeping my place."
"Your place is somewhere safe!" Onna-Ranma screamed, "Out of danger, and that's wherever I tell you to be!"
"No, Ranma," Akane said, quite calmly but with real iron in her voice, "My place is with you. In danger, out of danger, in heaven or in hell, wherever you are, there am I. Now and forever, Ranma!"
"Dammit, Akane!" Onna-Ranma choked on her shriek as her shivering became almost spasmodic. "I ain't got no control over this!"
"I love you, Ranma Saotome," Akane said, hearing with amazement as her own voice suddenly become as firm and as gentle as Kasumi's, "I believe in you."
The air was now cold enough that their breath could be seen, despite the low level of light. Onna-Ranma dropped heavily to the floor and sat staring up at Akane with pleading eyes.
"Akane, please! Please, get back!"
Akane dropped to the floor alongside her beleaguered love and caressed his cheek with her right hand. Onna-Ranma's skin was cold and clammy, but still much warmer than the surrounding air. Bright, bluish tendrils of light began to flicker in and out of existence in the cold darkness around them.
"I'm not going anywhere, Ranma," Akane said in a calm whisper, "You are my protector. I'm only safe when I am with you."
Onna-Ranma choked off a sob, then took a deep breath and held it. After a few seconds, the light suddenly became so bright that both of them were forced to blink. Onna-Ranma let out her long-held breath with a great sigh.
"Stubborn, baka!" Onna-Ranma shouted between gasps for air.
Akane just smirked at him as she stood up and offered him her hands. Onna-Ranma accepted the offer and Akane helped him to his feet.
"I knew you could do it!" Akane said with such a cheerful note in her voice that Kasumi would have stuck a gold star on her forehead had she heard it. Onna-Ranma was not so impressed.
"You coulda got killed!"
"No way, Ranma," Akane said with an evil grin, "All you needed to do was take control of yourself, and there is no way you would ever let anything you were doing hurt me."
They stood holding hands for a long time, just staring into one another's eyes. It was Akane that broke the prolonged silence.
"Ranma, this is almost as though you have grown new legs," she said, "You just have to learn how to use them, that's all."
Neither Akane nor Ranma had any way of knowing how close to the truth her analogy was. Onna-Ranma broke the spell by taking stock of their surroundings.
"Your hands are freezing. Why don't you go get a hot shower and warm up? While you're doin' that, I'll mop up all this water."
About half the hallway was covered in condensation and water that had dripped from their soaking wet clothing. Akane giggled. This was the one of the things that truly puzzled her about Ranma. He was compulsively neat. He was not quite as bad as Kasumi, but he truly hated having anything out of place. She remembered all the times he cleaned up the messes left behind by Hinako-sensei and bit her lower lip. Then she giggled again. A distant flash of lightning brightened the room. There was a brief pause, then thunder rumbled around them.
"I'll see if I can find a hanger for your dress."
Akane made her way to the tiny bathroom only to find that her zipper was stuck, not at all unusual for one of her cotton sundresses. There was no way she could pull the dress off over her head while it was wet. She struggled with the zipper with shaky hands for a few minutes until frustration got the best of her.
"Ooh! Will you please just break loose!" Akane shouted. The echoes of her voice in the tiny bath hurt her ears.
There was knock at the door.
"Akane? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine!" Akane said, unable to keep the exasperation out of voice, "It's just that my zipper is stuck."
"You want me to help?" Onna-Ranma's voice sounded positively fearful.
"Would you, please?"
Onna-Ranma came into the bath looking as though he feared for his life. Akane suppressed a giggle. She really couldn't blame him for that, could she? He had already changed into a dry tank top and a pair of boxers. Akane turned around so that he could reach the zipper. He had more than a little trouble with it. He had to zip it all the way up before he could pull it back down and it tried to catch a couple of times. Akane shrugged off her dress before he could leave the room.
"Did you bring the hanger?"
"Ah--no," Onna-Ranma said, looking somewhat alarmed, "I'll go get it right now."
"I guess it's time to let him know how I really feel about his curse," Akane whispered to herself as he left the room. "Maybe then he'll be a little more at peace with himself. Kami knows, he's got enough to deal with already. The least I can do is make sure he understands how little his curse bothers me anymore."
She wrung the dress out over the tub until Ranma returned.
"This is the only empty hanger we've got left, Akane," Ranma said as he walked back into the room. She handed him her dress. He made a show of putting it on the hanger without looking at her. Akane giggled inside. He wants to stare, but he's afraid I'll get mad. She turned her back to him and began struggling with her bra-strap.
"Could you undo this for me, Ranma?"
"Uh...er..uh...are you sure?" Onna-Ranma stammered as he hung the dress on the hook Tofu had installed on the bathroom door.
"Please? It's wet and I can't get a good grip on it."
"Okay," Onna-Ranma said in a tiny, squeaking voice.
Akane could feel his shaking hands as they fumbled with her brassiere. It took him a minute or more to figure out how the clasp worked.
"Give me your hands, Ranma," Akane said as she felt her brassier go slack. She held her arms back while quickly opening and closing her hands. Akane could not see Onna- Ranma's face, but could easily imagine how it must look. She smiled to herself. When Onna-Ranma fearfully touched her fingers, Akane seized his wrists, then pulled him towards her until she could feel his body pressed against her back.
"You're so warm," Akane said in a soft voice.
Akane smiled, then slid Onna-Ranma's tiny hands beneath her bra and pressed their palms against her breasts. Oh, kami-sama it felt good! Onna-Ranma began shaking and pressed one cheek against her back. Akane felt Onna-Ranma's tears before she heard his suppressed sob.
"I love you, Akane!" Onna-Ranma said, as he pressed their bodies together in a fierce hug. Akane moaned, luxuriating in his firm embrace and the pressure of his hands against her nipples. She wanted more. She wanted a lot more, but it was too soon. We aren't ready for that, yet. She thought.
"I know, Ranma," Akane said as she pulled his hands away from her breasts and pushed them down to her waist. She released his hands and turned around. Ranma stepped back a little in cooperation. Akane looked into Onna-Ranma's sea- blue eyes and smiled.
"I love you, Ranma."
Onna-Ranma was looking very confused and very fragile. Akane realized that she would have to be very careful at this point. The least little thing would shatter him. For all his courage and all his power, Ranma was easily crushed. Akane wished she had realized it sooner.
"You are _my_ man," Akane said as she gently laid her palms on either side of Ranma's lovely face. "My only man."
Onna-Ranma looked as though he had very serious doubts and more than a few questions that he was afraid to ask. Akane smiled, knowing that words never came easily to him. She bent down and kissed him gently on the lips. The fire that raged in both their bodies shocked her. The kiss plunged them into the depths of a passion long felt, but never appeased. Thunder rolled several times, driving the flames higher. Finally, the need for air forced them to break. Akane pressed Onna-Ranma's head to her chest and stroked his hair.
"I could never do anything like this with a girl, you know."
Onna-Ranma wept. Akane held him tight and kissed the top of his head.
"I really do love you, Ranma," Akane whispered to him as the sound of gentle rain filled the quiet of the clinic. "You are the only man I know worthy of me."
"Akane," he paused to sob, "I can't." Onna-Ranma's voice failed him again, "I don't..."
"Shh, Ranma," Akane said, "Just let me hold you. I'll always be here to help."
"Do you really mean it?"
"I love you, Ranma."
"Even when I'm cursed?"
"You're still my Ranma, even when you're cursed," Akane said in a soft, reassuring voice, "Maybe especially when you're cursed. I think it's made you more of a man than you could have been otherwise."
Onna-Ranma's tears came hot and fast.
"I don't feel very manly right now, Akane."
"If ever there was a single human being anywhere on this earth that deserves a good cry right now, it's you, Ranma Saotome."
Onna-Ranma shuddered, unable to stop the tears.
Akane knew to the very depths of her soul that she was the only woman on earth that he could trust this much. Not even his mother could stand by him in this crisis. Outside, there was a bright flash, followed by a loud crash of thunder and the lights went out in the clinic.
Akane scooped Onna-Ranma up into her arms and walked out into the hall. He clung to her neck with both arms while laying his head against her shoulder. Akane felt the heat of his tears as they trickled across her skin. It made her shudder. She set Onna-Ranma down gently on his bed. Onna- Ranma rolled onto his side and took Akane's right hand in both of his own.
"Go get your shower, Akane. I'm better now."
"Are you sure?"
Onna-Ranma nodded, then pressed Akane's hand to his lips.
"I won't be long, Ranma."
"Will you come say good night before you go to bed?" Onna-Ranma asked in a quavering voice.
Akane kissed him on the cheek.
"Don't worry, Ranma. I won't leave you alone. I'll be right back, okay?"
"Okay," he said in a thin, faint voice as he gently squeezed her hand.
The sound of his voice stabbed at Akane's heart. This was the young giant that had destroyed two different mountains. The man who could get into a fight with the son of a dragon, or even a kami and still live to tell about it. Now he was reduced to begging her to come say good night. For the very first time in her life, Akane Tendo actually felt needed. There could be no doubts or second thoughts on the matter. Ranma needed to be loved and comforted by her, not by Ukyo, not by Xian Pu, not even by his mother, Nodoka. Ranma needed her, Akane Tendo. With the realization that Ranma's needed her and not someone else, came the knowledge that she, Akane Tendo, really was a woman and that all the things that had been said about her that caused her self-doubts were false. For the first time in her life she felt womanly. She was in fact, feeling very, very womanly.
"Be strong for me, Ranma," Akane whispered fiercely, "You are my man among men."
"I will, Akane," Onna-Ranma sighed, "I expected ya to dump me a long time ago."
"Hmph! You didn't think you could get rid of me that easily did you?" Akane teased. "What the hell is a flaming kami and few bombs to a kawaii-kune tomboy like me, hmm? None of those other girls could hold up to all we've been through, now could they?"
Onna-Ranma managed something like a sickly smile, so Akane returned to the shower. She did not stay long. She was there just long enough to freshen up and make a decision or two. Maybe she should teach Ranma a thing or two before their new life began. After all, nothing would be the same after they left this clinic. Whether or not anyone else ever noticed, nothing would be the same again. Akane knew that things would, if anything, be even more difficult in the near future. Their lives were not going to become simple anytime soon. They had too many known problems to deal with already and only the kami could know how much trouble remained to be discovered in the near future.
What they needed now, as in immediately, was a way to form an unbreakable bond. Akane was determined to make that happen tonight. Too many opportunities had been lost to them in the past and an opportunity like this one was unlikely to present itself again for long time to come. For the moment, they were secure from prying eyes and listening ears. There were no worries about hidden cameras or obsessed parents hoping for an excuse to break out wedding invitations. And for once, for the first time in almost a year, Akane would not have to worry about some bitch of a martial artist interrupting them. Tonight's the night! Akane thought. May all the kami forgive me, for I am not going to give Ranma any choice. Tonight, I make him mine forever.
Akane struck a Kuno-esque pose and whispered, "Tonight I will cleave unto thee, Ranma Saotome! And thou shalt cleave unto me. The rest of the world be damned for all I care." The lights came back on and Akane giggled at the way she had been acting. She donned her bathrobe, then walked back into their room. Onna-Ranma was curled up on his left side, staring blankly at the wall. Akane turned off the light in the room so that the only light left was that which came in through the window from the street light outside. The rain had lessened a little, but still sighed softly against the window panes. Akane untied her robe as she reached the side of Ranma's bed, then let it fall to the floor. She hesitated at the bedside, savoring the sensation of being naked in Ranma's presence. Onna-Ranma seemed to stiffen. I wonder if he can tell already? Akane thought as she slid into the bed alongside his deliciously muscled, female form. He senses things other people can't.
She scooted over until her breasts were pressed firmly against Onna-Ranma's muscular back, then kissed the nape of his neck, right where it joined his shoulder. Onna-Ranma breathed in sharply and held it in. Akane smiled to herself and kissed the side of his neck, just below his right ear as she ran the palm of her right hand over the firm muscles of Onna-Ranma's stomach.
"Hmmm," Onna-Ranma groaned. "Akane, what are you doing?"
"Teaching you how to seduce me when the time comes," Akane said as she cupped his left breast with her right hand. Much to her delight, Onna-Ranma's nipple stiffened against the small patch of sensitive skin she had left in the center of her palm. She could feel her own nipples stiffening against the soft fabric of his tank top. Unnoticed by either of them, a soft red glow began to fill the room.
"What would you know about being seduced, Akane?" Onna-Ranma asked, sounding as though he were about to became very alarmed.
"Oh, not much, really. It's just that I've been dreaming that you would sneak into my room and make a real woman of me since you got into that fight with the Musk," Akane said as she slid her hand upwards and began caressing his right breast. Onna-Ranma's breasts were weighty and delightfully plump.
"Geez, Akane," Onna-Ranma said with a gasp, "That was last winter."
"I know," Akane said with a smile in her voice. She kissed the join of his neck and shoulder again. The glow began to brighten.
Onna-Ranma squirmed around until he was laying on his back and looking up into her eyes.
"I never realized..."
Akane cut him off with a kiss as she slid her right hand beneath his shirt and began tweaking the nipple of his left breast with her thumb and forefinger. Onna-Ranma broke their kiss and gasped for air.
"Do you have any idea what that does to this body?" He asked.
Akane giggled as she nodded her head. The red glow began to scintillate with gold threads of coruscating gold.
"Let's just say I have my suspicions, Ranma."
Onna-Ranma looked Akane over, then his eyes grew wide with shock.
"You haven't...you aren't wearing any..."
Akane cut him off with another kiss. The fires of passion roared up to white hot. She could feel the heat boiling up from his body and knew that her own must be warm enough to be glowing. She cupped Onna-Ranma's right breast in her hand, delighting in it's weight and feel. Knowing how much her actions must be arousing Ranma thrilled her in a way she had never felt before. She had never been this excited by anything she had ever done.
"Take off your shirt," Akane demanded when they finally broke for air. Onna-Ranma happily complied. Akane began applying teeth and tongue to the nipple of his right breast as quickly as it was exposed to the air. Onna-Ranma groaned as he dropped his shirt on the floor. Akane worked the nipple of his left breast over with the thumb and forefinger of her right hand.
"I--,"Onna-Ranma said, "I...I...Aiyah!"
"Are you all right, Ranma?" Akane asked.
"I'm fine," Onna-Ranma said, trying hard not to pant. He laid his hands along either side of Akane's face and tried to pull her to him for a kiss. She resisted his pull and instead began to suck on the nipple of his left breast.
"Oh, my!" Onna-Ranma gasped. "Oh, Akane-e-e-e!"
Akane stopped what she was doing and looked up at him with an evil grin. The coruscating gold and red brightened, unnoticed by either of them.
"Do you want me to stop, Ranma?"
"Come here, you!" Onna-Ranma said, as pulled her face down to his, greedily seeking her lips. Akane complied happily, pressing the full length of her naked body upon his. Onna-Ranma's right knee came up between Akane's legs, causing his thigh to come into contact with her fully distended vulva. She reached down with her right hand and began to caress the inner part of his left thigh near the knee, while rubbing her excited sex against the hard muscles of Onna- Ranma's right thigh. This forced Onna-Ranma up for air.
"A-ah!" He cried aloud.
Akane began sucking on the nipple of his right breast while letting her hand wander farther and farther up his inner thigh.
"Akane," Onna-Ranma whimpered, "You are driving me crazy!"
Akane stopped and propped herself up on her left elbow so that she could look down into his eyes. She began tracing little circles on Onna-Ranma's hard, flat tummy with the middle and ring fingers of her right hand. Her other fingers were heavily callused from all the martial arts training she had done over the years.
"I love you, Saotome."
"I can't imagine why, but I'm glad you do," Onna-Ranma whispered.
Looking into his eyes was like diving into a deep pool, of cool clear water. Akane could have stayed lost in them for an eternity, but remembered she had work to do. She had years worth of pleasure she wanted to mete out in mere hours. She began kissing his neck at the shoulder again while forcing her fingers beneath the waistband of his boxers. His mons was prominent and covered with stiff curls. Akane delighted in meaty the feel of it and its wiry hair. Her own was much less pronounced, and covered with very straight hair. Onna-Ranma clapped her legs together and gasped.
"Akane, what are you doing?"
"I'm going to turn you into my love slave, Saotome," Akane said with a playful growl in her throat as she pressed his vulva together with her ring and middle finger. Onna- Ranma began to whimper as Akane applied pressure to the little spot just below the peak of his mons.
"Feels good, doesn't it, baby?" Akane asked in an evil sounding whisper.
"Right there?" Akane asked as she applied pressure in a gentle, circular motion.
"Yes!" Onna-Ranma squeaked.
Onna-Ranma was suddenly very, very damp. Akane gently slid the slender ring finger of her right hand up and down his rapidly moistening slot.
"Akane, stop!" Onna-Ranma said.
Akane paid him no heed.
"Don't!" Onnna-Ranma gasped.
Akane pressed gently until she could feel the moist, inner labia of his now, very excited sex.
"Oh, baby!" Onna-Ranma cried.
Onna-Ranma reached behind Akane's head and pressed her lips to the nipple of his left breast. Akane was more than happy to oblige him with a gentle nip and a long hard suck, then she lashed the swollen aureole with her tongue. Onna- Ranma gasped and bucked with his hips. Akane's ring finger slid deep inside him well before she intended it to. This wasn't a problem. Onna-Ranma was more than ready, but Akane knew it was too soon for that. She gently withdrew the her finger, gleefully ignoring the desperate motions of his hips as he tried to recover her retreating finger, then slid it upwards until she found his bulging clitoris. She was delighted by the size of it, but rather than rub it directly, she played with the fleshy little hood above it, gently teasing it with the soft pad of her ring finger.
Onna-Ranma began to make whimpering noises that were really a wordless form of begging. Akane persisted with this line of sweet, gentle torture until the large tendons at the join of Onna-Ranma's thighs began to quiver, then she finally began to barely stroke his clitoris. Onna-Ranma dug into the mattress with both heels and arched his back. Akane smothered his shriek of pleasure with a deep kiss and applied a little more pressure. Onna-Ranma clapped his legs together and dropped back down onto the mattress. Akane then used both her ring and middle fingers to probe the aching void between his legs, letting them straddle Onna-Ranma's rapidly retreating clitoris as they slid in and out of the moist, aching little cavern between his powerful legs. The glow of their intertwined aura went from red and gold to pure gold as the flashing, threads melded themselves together in a single, glowing mass of light.
"Oh-ho, me!" Onna-Ranma cried out, as he lost control and spread his legs again. "Akane!"
Akane slowed her pace and began gliding in and out of him smoothly and ever so gently. This was not what Onna-Ranma wanted.
"You're torturing me!"
Akane kissed him hard, probing deep into his mouth with her tongue, then she pulled back and gave him an evil grin, still gliding her fingers in and out of his tender flesh. He was becoming very wet now.
"But it's so much fun, Ranma."
Akane shifted her weight slightly so she could reach the nipple of his right breast. The color of his aureoles had gone from a light cream color to bright, fleshy pink and looked for all the world like perfectly conical little tents. Akane caressed it lightly with her tongue. Her touch made Onna-Ranma jerk and whimper. Akane stroked a little faster.
"Yes!" Onna-Ranma cried as he began to buck with his hips. Akane's fingers slid deep into his moist flesh. She added her forefinger to the two that were already exploring his body and began using her thumb to slide beneath his hood and rub his swollen clit.
"Aha, yes!" Onna-Ranma cried as he bucked even faster. Akane let him do the work with his hips while concentrating on keeping her fingers and thumb in the right places. Suddenly her hand was covered with a warm, slippery fluid as Onna-Ranma's muscles clamped down as hard on her fingers. Akane wiggled her thumb as fast as she could, being careful not to use too much pressure. Onna-Ranma went wild with the sweet agony of a second orgasm. Akane hungrily kissed him on the mouth. Onna-Ranma pressed her thighs together, capturing Akane's hand.
"Akane stop!" Onna-Ranma gasped, "I'm gonna die!"
Akane giggled and wiggled her thumb again.
"Oo-oo-oo-hoo! You bitch!"
Akane nibbled at his right nipple, as even more fluid coated her right hand.
"Oh, _please_ stop!" Onna-Ranma begged, "Please? I can't...I can't take it anymore!"
His bucking had ceased and was now nothing more than sharp little jerks and spasms. Akane delighted watching his stomach muscles ripple with each movement. Onna-Ranma was panting, but not from exhaustion. Akane kissed him again. They took their time. The kiss was soft, and gentle and lasted for what seemed an eternity.
Akane shifted the her weight off her elbow once they finally broke for air, then settled her head in the hollow of Onna-Ranma's powerful shoulder. She kissed his cheek, reveling in the feel of her stiff nipples pressed up against his heaving ribs. She waited quietly, wondering what would he would do to her once he recovered. Whatever he decided, she was more than ready. Hopefully, he would go for hot water. The still unnoticed glow of their blended aura dimmed as it changed to deep orange color of banked coals.
"Would you like me to scrub your back, Kasumi-chan?" Nodoka asked.
"Oh, would you Auntie?" Kasumi sounded delighted, "I haven't had anyone here to do that for me since Mother died."
"Of course, dear!" Nodoka said, "I sometimes think that the definition of true loneliness is having no one to help you wash your back."
"You never bathe with your sisters?" Nodoka asked.
"No, not for several years now," Kasumi said with a fond smile, "They decided they were too grown up to bathe with me several years ago."
Nodoka smiled at this as she began work on Kasumi's back.
"The four of us should visit the sentou soon," Nodoka said, remembering that some of the best gab-fests that she had ever had with her friends happened while they were at the public baths. Of course, when she was still a young girl, the sentou was not an option. Very few homes had their own furo in those days and the public bath was a necessary institution. Nowadays, the sentou was becoming a form of family entertainment to be indulged in only on weekends.
"That would be fun," Kasumi said, then with a teasing note in her voice added, "We could invite Ranma along and make it five."
Nodoka chuckled, then answered, "That would be letting a fox in amongst the chickens."
"Ranma is actually a very chivalrous young man," Kasumi said.
"Yes, and very much a man, even when his curse is upon him," Nodoka said with more than a little pride in her voice, "The women of Nerima should be thankful for his chivalry."
"It may interest you to know that he is a constant thorn in Master Happosai's side," Kasumi said with a giggle, "Ranma seems to enjoy interrupting his depredations."
"With spectacular results, I'm sure."
"And very often amusing as well."
"I hope your sister snares him soon," Nodoka said with a sigh. "I look forward to being a grandmother, but I don't want to be an _old_ grandmother."
"Oh, I'm pretty sure she has already snared him, Aunt Nodoka," Kasumi said with a shiver as Nodoka poured fresh, cold water on her soapy back, "I think now she isn't all that sure she wants to saddle him."
"Then she shouldn't bother with a saddle and simply ride him bareback," Nodoka said with a smile in her voice as she turned her back to Kasumi.
Kasumi silently soaped a rag as she thought those implications through. She blushed once she finally sorted out Nodoka's meaning.
"I don't think Ranma will accept the responsibility of a wife and child until he is certain he can take care of them, Aunt Nodoka."
"Why would he worry about that?"
"I hate to say this," Kasumi said in a tiny voice as she began work on Nodoka's back, "but I think he wants to avoid being anything at all like his father outside The Art."
Kasumi became more than a little alarmed as she felt the muscles in Nodoka's back go rigid. Nodoka took a deep breath and held it for several moments, then let it out in a long, sad sigh.
"Well, I can hardly fault him for that, can I?"
"Uncle Genma _is_ a great Artist, Auntie."
"So my son wants to be greater than his father, does he?"
"In more ways than one, Aunt Nodoka."
"Then we will help him do exactly that," Nodoka said with a note of finality, "A little more to the right if you would please, dear."
Kasumi smiled and the room brightened. Kasumi herself was not aware of this, but Nodoka was.
"I am glad you agree, Auntie."
Onna-Ranma lay next to Akane in the softly lit room, moaning a little every once in a while as energy slowly returned to his limp, tingling body. Akane's soft, sweet breath against his neck made him tingle in all the right places. The girlish part of his mind noted that the light in the room was a lovely shade of burnt orange. He delighted in the feel of the fresh clean sheets beneath his girl-type body and the warm scent of Akane cuddled up to his side. Akane's nipples were still very stiff, he could feel them as the brushed against skin every time he took a breath.
(Yo, Saotome! You still with me, old buddy?)
(I cannot believe you, Saotome! Three little orgasms! That's all! Just three, and you turn into a blithering idiot.)
(BLEE-BOO-BOO-B00-BOO, BLEEBEE-BOO-BOO-BOO-BLEEBEE- BOO...)
(Yo, Saotome! Your turn at bat, you most manly man among men, you!)
(Come on, Saotome! Snap out of it! Time's a wastin'!)
(If you don't snap out of this, I'm gonna hafta do your girlfriend without ya. You sure you wanna miss it?)
(Well, let's see--A hot shower would probably snap him out of it.)
(LOT'S OF SOAP! BahBlue-bloo-bloo-bloo...)
(What? And ruin the ambiance we got goin' here? Are you nuts, Saotome?)
(Yeah, okay. You ain't exactly hittin' on all eight cylinders at the moment.)
(Gir-r-r-ls...geddit...habbit bedder...baburlbe-bur- bur-bur...)
(Come again, Saotome? You almost made sense that time.)
(Giruls plessur bedder...gurble blonga!)
(Yeah, okay. I guess you're right about that, but we need to do something, and do it fast! Akane's lying right here next to us with her motor running.)
(GO WHOPPA WOONGA?)
(Yeah, uh-huh! We haven't seen Maw Thumb and her four daughters for two weeks. If I get you into a hot shower now, we won't last thirty seconds.)
(Getsu nippon gloria, na?)
(Yeah, whatever. Be quiet and let me concentrate on this, okay? It's going be tricky and we need to get it right. Akane gambled really big on us tonight. If we don't back her play now, she'll never forgive us.)
"I don't know if this will actually work," Kasumi said, as she poured a cup of the special tea for Nodoka with exaggerated care, "but the book I borrowed from Doctor Tofu says a cup of this and two aspirin will all but prevent a hangover." Kasumi felt much better after the bath, but her head was still not as clear as she would have liked.
"Really?" Nodoka said as she took a sip. It had an odd flavor to it, with more than a hint of sassafras and just a touch of salt. "Haven't you tried it before?"
"Well, I've never needed it before tonight," Kasumi said with a rueful smile, "and I could never get Father and Uncle Saotome to try it."
"You know, it's very odd, but I think they actually enjoy having a hangover together."
Nodoka laughed heartily. It was almost as frightening Ko Lon's cackle. Kasumi smiled into her cup.
"I wonder what makes men like that?"
"I think it is called Male Bonding," Nodoka said, then laughed again. "For some reason, suffering together strengthens their friendships."
"Tell me about your katana."
Nodoka's face sobered as she began to unwrap the old weapon.
"Well, it was forged in 1351 by Saotome Nagateru, who was both a smith of the Bizen school and a samurai, being a retainer of the Ogasawa of Kyushu."
"Weren't the swords of the Kamakura period normally much longer than this one?"
"Yes, and so was this one. It was shortened and sharpened during the Edo Period for Saotome Hanimoto. It hasn't been touched with a stone since that time. I have always been quite careful about cleaning it and powdering it. The last time it was ever used in anger, Saotome Nabuyuki used it to kill two bandits who tried to rob him in December of 1918."
"Oh, my!" Kasumi said, putting her hand to her mouth.
Nodoka smiled at Kasumi's reaction. "Come now, Kasumi- chan. Surely you've helped your father clean and store the family weapons, ne?"
"Yes, but I never..."
"I assure you, this sword saw a great deal of use well prior to 1918, as I am sure many of your family's weapons did," Nodoka said as she unwrapped her ever-present katana. She removed the weapon from its scabbard and laid it upon the table.
"It's so plain and--and deadly looking, isn't it?" Kasumi whispered.
"Yes, it is. Saotome Nagateru made swords for lower ranking samurai like himself and was never particularly famous as a smith," Nodoka said with a chuckle, "Even so, many families around Nara and further south own blades very like this one, so they must have been quite popular as working blades."
Nadoka pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve, the took the sword by its hilt and turned the cutting edge up.
"Here, Kasumi-chan," Nodoka said, "Drop this on the blade."
Kasumi did so and the handkerchief cut itself in two with its own weight as it fell across the incredibly keen edge. Kasumi's eyes widened in surprise. She had seen this done with other swords, but they had been museum pieces and were much prettier than this one.
"The sword belongs to you, right?"
"Yes," Nodoka said with a nod of the head, "My father left it to me in his will."
"Then Uncle Genma is..."
"Your father adopted him?"
"Yes, just before father died, Genma and I were married," Nodoka said with a sigh, "Life was so different back then. Genma and I were very different then."
Nodoka looked down at the sword gleaming on the table with a sad face.
"Now Ranma and I are the last of the Saotome line."
"Aunt Nodoka, why are father and Uncle Saotome so eager to see our clans joined?"
"That's a very long story, Kasumi-chan."
"I'll make some more tea, then," Kasumi said with a smile, "We seem to have the time."
"Why not, dear?" Nodoka asked as she sheathed the katana. "I haven't had a white night in years."
Onna-Ranma turned his head to his right and gave Akane a peck on the forehead.
"Who are you calling a tomboy, pervert?"
"Roll over onto your other side, Akane."
"Just roll over, silly."
"Oh, all right," Akane said, feigning irritation.
Onna-Ranma cuddled up to Akane's back and purred. Not the fake sort of purr humans ordinarily make as a joke, he actually purred like a cat. Akane smiled at the feel of Onna- Ranma's plump breasts crushed against her back and the vibration of his purring.
"How do you do that?"
"I don't know," Onna-Ranma said, "It just happens sometimes."
"It feels nice."
"I'm glad you like it," Onna-Ranma said, just before kissing Akane's neck at the join of her shoulder.
Onna-Ranma grinned, then kissed her neck in a sequence of places between Akane's left shoulder and ear.
"Did I get it right?" He asked as he reached across and cupped Akane's right breast with his left hand.
Onna-Ranma shifted her weight so that he could slip his arm beneath Akane's neck and reach up to her left breast, teasing the erect nipple he found there between the ring and middle fingers of his right hand. Akane began to pant. Onna- Ranma began working his way down her neck with kisses. Akane treated him to a squirmy little wiggle, and rubbed her heart- shaped little behind against Onna-Ranma's thighs. Onna-Ranma shivered in response.
"Hmm?" Onna-Ranma noised between kisses.
"I was really hoping you would go get some hot water."
Onna-Ranma kissed Akane on the neck one more time, then extricated his arms so he could roll Akane onto her back. He sat up in the bed and looked down into her eyes, then placed the palm of his left hand on her tummy, just below her navel. For reasons Akane could not understand, this excited her more than anything else they had done that evening. She could feel a warm flow of energy passing from his hand into her body.
"He loves you very much," Onna-Ranma said, "but I want us to save that for our wedding night. Our wedding night has to be special."
Akane froze, as the cold claws of genuine terror gripped her heart.
"What do you mean HE wants?" Akane asked, "Who are you? The girl that drowned in the spring?" Akane's experience told her that she had good reason for alarm. Her own soul had been transferred into a doll while an ancient spirit sought vengeance against Ranma in her body. For all she knew right now, some supernatural power could be in command of Onna- Ranma's body.
"No, it's not like that!" Onna-Ranma paused, groping for words. "I'm sorry, Akane! This is me, Ranma--or part of him at least."
"Are you his female self?" Akane asked softly.
"Sort of," Onna-Ranma said, "We're more like opposite sides of the same coin. We are both the same person, but slightly different."
"I think I understand," Akane said with smile as the fear in heart melted away, "So where's your male side right now?"
"Oh, he sort of a...well...he...uh..."
"Yeah." Onna-Ranma gave Akane a naughty grin, then whispered conspiratorially, "That third one was too much for him to handle."
Akane giggled. Onna-Ranma bent down and kissed her. Akane hungrily returned it.
"Do you love me, Osage no Onna?"
"More than I can say, Akane," Onna-Ranma said with a deep sigh, "I really am Ranma at heart, you know. Whoever owns his heart, owns mine. I think Ranma kind of conjured me up to help him handle some of the stuff that's been going on lately."
"That is so strange," Akane said with genuine wonder in her voice, "and so beautiful, and so very like Ranma."
"Just be sure you understand one thing, Akane," Onna- Ranma said as he began tracing circles on Akane's tummy with the fingers of his left hand, "Ranma _is_ going to crawl into your bed one night, and put his heir into this cute little tummy of yours."
Akane shivered from head to foot as a tingling sensation deep inside her body began to grow. Onna-Ranma helped it along by caressing her now quivering stomach with the palm of his hand.
"On our wedding night, maybe?" Akane asked, then gasped for air. She knew she must be blushing bright red by now, but was beyond all caring.
"If you want it that soon, sure."
"He--I mean you, really want to marry?" Akane asked, her eyes shining.
"Oh, yes!" Onna-Ranma said firmly, "We want to marry you. We want to have children with you, and we want to live out the rest of our life with you, but we and you...the three of us, have some things to work out first."
"We'll talk about it later," Akane said as she seized Onna-Ranma's left hand in both of her own.
"Shh!" Akane kissed Onna-Ranma's fingers, the placed them right where she wanted them the most, "I've got something else I need to you take care of-- Right now!" Akane gave Onna-Ranma a smoking stare that made him shiver, then turn pink from head to toe. Akane reached up and pulled his head down until his lips met the aureole of her left breast. Suddenly, she was enraptured by the sweetest agony she had ever known as Onna-Ranma's slender fingers found their way inside the yearning void between her thighs. Their entwined aura leapt out into the room like the fires of a blast furnace, filling it with golden light enlivened with ethereal sparks of ruby red.
Kasumi sat down and poured tea for Nodoka. The older woman filled Kasumi's cup before beginning her story.
"According to family history and legend, the Saotome Clan, the Tendo Clan and the Kobayashi Clan were all part of the Ogasawa Clan on Kyushu, during the time before the first Emperor. Presumably, we were among the first settlers of Japan, other than the Ainu. Legend has it that we fled from a great civilization living in an island chain far away from Japan and visited many places, including China before making landfall in Kyushu."
"Does the legend say why we left our original homeland?"
"Well, you know how those old stories go, there's more than one version and there doesn't appear to be a great deal of truth to any of them, but they say that we either fled to escape the great evil our most ancient of ancestors wrought, or we fled because of a great, natural disaster. Some of the stories hold that the natural disasters were the result of the great evils committed in those ancient times. I'm not sure how much of it can be believed."
"Oh, they sound wonderfully romantic. Are any of them written down?"
"Yes, but all the scrolls are locked away in storage. Once my house has been restored, I'll let you borrow them."
"I'd love to read them."
"The curious thing is, that the Ogasawa did not originally consider themselves to be great warriors. They were primarily traders and explorers. Many of them, mostly of the Saotome line, took up farming and artisanship after they settled in Kyushu. The Kobayashi line stuck to fishing and ship building while the Tendo branch became the traders and warriors."
"But you know how turbulent our history is. Warfare became the rule rather than the exception. Every branch of the Ogasawa line eventually became a warrior clan. We were no exception to the rule. Oh, some of the Saotome remained farmers and a few never aspired to anything beyond being much-needed craftsman, but on the whole, we became a very warlike people."
"Sekigahara changed everything, didn't it?" Kasumi asked, "Was Nerima really a Tendo fief?"
Nodoka laughed. "It was _the_ Tendo fief, Kasumi-chan. The Kuno Clan were merchants. They bought their swords during the latter part of the Edo Period. They were never actually warriors. Nerima remained in Tendo hands until the Meiji Restoration."
"Oh, my!" Kasumi said, "That explains a lot."
"I'm surprised you didn't know some of these things, dear."
"Oh, I had been told some of the story, but it was a long time ago and I never really believed it. We once held _all_ of Nerima? I always thought we were a minor family."
"Oh, you were. Just as we and the Kobayashi were minor players, but that only goes to show how truly powerful the important families were. The Tendo were given Nerima after Sekigahara. The Kobayashi were given most of the islands in the Inland Sea. The Saotome became retainers of the Yagyu and settled in the high country above Nara, even though we still owned some small parcels of land in Kyushu."
"The Yagyu?" Kasumi asked, her eyes widening with surprise, "the family of Yagyu Jubei?"
"The same," Nodoka said with a nod of her head. She seldom told anyone this much about Saotome history, too few ever believed it. Yagyu Jubei had, in his day, been Japan's most formidable swordsman. Only the reputation of Musashi Miyamoto rivaled that of Yagyu Jubei.
"What became of the Saotome holdings in Kyushu?"
"Oh, they were sold, or given away. Some were taken by the government and sold to pay off inheritance taxes, but we still own one small piece."
"Eh, honto-za!" Nodoka said, "it's now in my name."
"Does Uncle Saotome know?"
"Yes, but he cannot touch it, and would not if he could," Nodoka said in a steely voice, "for you see, that brings us to the rest of the story about the Tendo and Saotome clans."
Kasumi refilled Nodoka's cup and Nodoka paused in her story to refill Kasumi's.
"When the Ogasawa first settled in Kyushu, the Saotome were entrusted with the duty of storing and safeguarding the Ogasawa treasure."
"Treasure?" Kasumi asked, "Why were the Saotome given charge of it?"
"Because we were the farmers and artisans, Kasumi- chan. Everything we did was done on the land, so it just made sense that the Saotome line of Ogasawa become the protectors of the treasure."
"What sort of treasure was it?"
"I am not sure," Nodoka said with a sigh, "my grandfather told me that it was not really a treasure at all, but an archive of ancient knowledge. Some of it supposedly tells about the terrible powers that destroyed our original homeland. He said those secrets were too dangerous to ever be made general knowledge again until the right man came along to wield the power they could unlock."
Kasumi gasped, thinking of the Umisen-ken and the Yamasen-ken. Techniques so dangerous that her father had insisted that Genma Saotome seal them up and promise to never reveal them to anyone other than Ranma and Ryuu Kumon. The only reason the Kumon boy had been included was because he had already come into possession of the Yamasen-ken. The boy's father had died trying to master the technique.
"Is Ranma the..."
"I don't know, Kasumi-chan," Nodoka said, pausing to take a sip of tea. "It might be Ranma, or it could just as easily be Ranma's child to be."
"I think I am beginning to understand some of the things I found puzzling before now, Aunt Nodoka."
"Genma does not know the whole secret, Kasumi-chan," Nodoka said grimly, "It is you that I have chosen to share this knowledge with. Genma thinks it is just a treasure that only Ranma or his child will be able to find. He does not know the true nature of what is stored on the Saotome lands."
Kasumi blinked, feeling more than a little alarmed at this revelation.
"Why me, Aunt Nodoka?"
"Because, dear," Nodoka said with a genuine smile, "I can trust you to guide Ranma and Akane if I am not here to help them when the time comes. Genma's advice--well I don't think we need to discuss that."
"More tea?" Kasumi asked with a smile, not knowing what else to do.
"Thank you, dear. The day Saotome Hanimoto retrieved this sword from the man who made the new scabbard for it, he ran across an old soothsayer. She asked to see the sword's naked blade, then told him that the Saotome line would one day come close to utter extinction, but that it would rejoin with the Tendo and Kobayashi. She said that once the Ogasawa were again joined into a single tribe, that they would then conquer the very heavens."
"Oh, my!" Kasumi said, "Is Uncle Genma a ..."
"Kobayashi? Yes," Nodoka said with a nod, "and now Ranma will most likely marry a Tendo."
Nodoka stared Kasumi in the eye for a moment before she spoke again.
"I am sorry to burden you with this dear, but there are several more things you need to know in case the time comes and I am not present. Will you agree to tell no one, until and unless that time comes?"
"Yes, Aunt Nodoka," Kasumi said, wishing her heart would slow down, "I will."
Akane lay on her back pleasantly exhausted, enjoying the feel of Onna-Ranma snuggled up to her side, but just as she began sliding into that dreamy stage of semi-sleep, Onna- Ranma sat up. Akane opened her eyes. Her fiance was sitting seiza (with his legs folded beneath him), fiddling with his pigtail and not quite looking in the direction of Akane's face. Akane felt her vague annoyance evaporate at the sight of this. Ranma only fiddled with is pigtail when he was truly embarrassed about something, or was placing himself at grave, emotional risk, as when apologizing or making a confession. Such a thing did not happen often. Akane keenly felt a sense of foreboding.
"What's the matter, Ranma?" She asked.
"I...you promise...First you have to promise you won't laugh at me."
Akane felt herself smiling her sunniest smile.
"It's times like that I wish I could paint, Ranma," Akane said, "A camera could never do you justice when you are like this."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Onna-Ranma asked as a scowl marred his lovely face.
"It means I love you and I promise not to laugh at you--if I can help it."
Onna-Ranma breathed a deep sigh and looked disgusted.
"It's the best I can do, Ranma," Akane said, quickly. "I won't make a promises to you when I don't know if I can keep it."
"Well," Onna-Ranma hesitated, his face reflecting his internal struggle and indecision. "I guess that's fair enough. I've never let you see..." His voice trailed off and Akane could not hear the last of Onna-Ranma's speech.
"Never let me see what, Ranma?"
"Akane we need to talk," Onna-Ranma said hurriedly, suddenly much louder than before and sounding determined.
"Okay, so?" Akane said. She was truly puzzled now.
"Uh, girl to girl I mean," Onna-Ranma said.
Akane's heart froze as she stifled a giggle. It would have been a very typical, girlish, one girl to another type of giggle, but she was afraid he might misunderstand. Akane rolled out of the bed to her feet and put her hands on her hips.
"Okay, Ranma, but first let's put some clothes on," Akane said with a happy smile.
"Girls don't usually talk "girl to girl" while they're naked, Ranma," Akane could not keep herself from giggling this time, "It just isn't done."
"Oh," Onna-Ranma said, then reach towards his shirt and boxers on the floor.
"No, silly!" Akane said, throwing him a pair of her pajamas. They draped across his head and left shoulder. "Put these on."
Onna-Ranma pulled the pajamas from his shoulder and stared at them for a moment, then he stared at Akane for a few seconds, then he shrugged.
"Well I guess it makes sense in a way," he said as he began to dress, "The top's gonna be a little tight in the chest, though."
Akane's ears burned at this. The kami must be crazy, or have a serious appetite for practical jokes. No natural girl in heaven or on earth could have the petite figure and musculature of an Onna-Ranma, then still muster enough fat to make more than half a boob. Yet here Onna-Ranma sat before her, Hollywood grade breasts threatening to burst the darts of Akane's pajama top. It wasn't fair, but Akane had to admit that it was funny--to a kami maybe.
"That's okay, Ranma," Akane said with another giggle, "I'll do my best to remember we're talking girl to girl and not lover to lover."
Akane felt an involuntary shiver run through her body as she said the words, "lover to lover." I never thought I'd be saying something like that, she thought. Onna-Ranma froze for second in the middle of pulling the pajama bottoms over the flair of his hips, then continued. I guess it got to him too, Akane thought, as she finished donning another pair of pajamas. She hopped back up onto the bed and sat seiza, facing her lover and fiance.
"So what are we talking about here, Osage no Onna?" Akane asked with an impish gleam in her eye.
Onna-Ranma grimaced at Akane's epithet, then giggled.
"HE just calls me, Red."
"I think I like Ranko better," Akane said with a smile, knowing that the girl in front of her was talking about Ranma when she said the word he with emphasis, "Do you mind if I call you that?"
"No," Onna-Ranma said, suddenly looking shy, "Not really, but he isn't very fond of that name."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Akane said, "I know you were unhappy about hiding things from your mother, but some of the best times we've had together were when you were pretending to be my country cousin, Ranko."
"It's okay," Onna-Ranma said, "there's no reason for him to have his way all the time about everything. I mean, it's not like Kami-sama died and made him boss!" Ranko said, then giggled. Akane joined her.
"Where is he right now?"
"Well, he's asleep, kinda."
"Is he going to remember this when he wakes up?"
"Oh, yeah," Ranko said as her eyes widened, "and he'll try to give me grief about it, too. You might not get to see me for several days after this."
Akane felt her heart go out to the girl now sitting in front of her.
"Is he really that bad?"
"No, Akane, it's...it's not like that at all!" Ranko said. "Ranma and I are the same person, but we were born a guy and we can only stand being a girl for just so long or just so much, and then we have to be, well, extra-manly for a while."
"Oh, great!" Akane said, trying to dampen her annoyance, "I guess tomorrow he'll be very much the macho, jerk again." She stared down at her hands. Her shoulders had slumped and she had begun to rub the forefinger of her left with the thumb and forefinger of her right hand without even thinking about it.
"Maybe, maybe not, Akane."
"Huh?" Akane perked up a little.
"It's a lot easier for him to be his real self here."
"Are you trying to tell me that Ranma Saotome is not a macho jerk?"
"He is _always_ going to be macho, Akane," Ranko said with a giggle, "Would you love him if he weren't?"
"Ah, well," Akane said, then paused to think. She's got a point. I wouldn't be the least bit interested in him if were anything less than thoroughly masculine. "No, I guess not."
"He is trying to be less of a jerk, even though maybe you haven't noticed it yet."
"Dammit!" Akane said as tears began to sting her eyes, "Why does it always have to be so hard for us!"
"It's going to get harder Akane, but in a new way. Things are different now that we all know where we stand with one another," Ranko said as she patted Akane's hand.
"By that, I gather you mean, me, you and Ranma, right?"
"Oh, sure! I have to include this part of him," Ranko said, indicating herself with a shrug, "Even if Ranma got rid of his curse tonight, I'd still be around. We have memories now that run so deep that they've buried themselves into our bones, Akane."
Akane felt relieved, "I'm glad."
"Not that I think he'll be all that keen on getting rid of the curse after tonight," Ranko said with mischievous gleam in her eye.
Akane looked at Ranko, then squealed as she realized what Ranko meant.
"Oh! I didn't think about him remembering _that_ tomorrow!" Akane said as she put both palms to her cheeks. "I hope I haven't ruined him!"
"Nah! No way!" Ranko said with a dismissive wave of her hand, "He wasn't planning on going after a cure until he was satisfied with your training anyway. Now I think maybe he might give up on the idea altogether."
"That wasn't quite what I meant," Akane said in a low tone, "but I get your point."
Ranko stared at Akane in confusion for a moment, then gave Akane an evil grin. Akane did what any girl would do under such circumstances, she giggled. This was followed by Ranko giggling. Then the two of them began laughing and squealing together. Call it, a fit of "female bonding," and as it goes with all such things, it did eventually end.
"Ranko?" Akane asked, hating the timidity in her voice, "Is Ranma serious about my training?"
"Sure!" Ranko said, sounding somewhat surprised, "He's been training you indirectly since we got here."
"You mean he thinks all that dancing around he does the dojo while I try to hit him is training?"
"It has been training, Akane!" Ranko said, sounding amused, "You have gotten a lot better because of it. You're faster. You're more precise and you don't telegraph your punches nearly as much as you did when we first met."
Akane answered with an exasperated sigh.
"Look me in the eye, Akane."
Akane looked up at Ranko with an eye-piercing gaze.
"Now take my hands," Ranko said as she held them out and wiggled her fingers.
Akane took Ranko's hands in her own and gasped, amazed by the things she had never really paid any attention to in the past. Ranko's hands were not very feminine at all. Her palms were small, and almost square. Her fingers were nicely proportioned to her small palms, but shorter in relation to them than a woman's fingers usually were. There were other differences which made an even greater impression upon Akane. Ranko's hands felt like bundles of living steel cable wrapped in hard leather. The skin of the outer portions of her palms felt as tough as the sole of a leather shoe. So did the skin between Ranko's thumbs and forefingers. The back of Ranko's left hand had a hard, bony knot in the center.
"You broke this left hand once, didn't you Ranko?"
Ranko nodded her head. "Shattered it, actually. I stayed laid up in bed with it for a week." Ranko shuddered at the memory. "Look at the backs of 'em, Akane."
Akane looked down at the backs of Ranko's hands. The knuckles of her forefingers and middle fingers where they joined her palm were huge and covered by heavy callous. She could tell that Ranko must sometimes have a difficult time moving those four joints. Thick calluses covered all the knuckles of both Ranko's hands, even her thumbs. There were also a great many scars. Too many scars. Some large, some small, most of them from cuts but more than a few of them were from burns--bad burns. The sight of them took Akane's breath away because she knew that Ranma's scars nearly always faded in a month or less.
"Now you know why my handwriting is never going to win any prizes," Ranko said sadly, "I can do quite well with a brush. Large characters on a big piece of paper don't give me any trouble, but a ballpoint requires too many tiny movements. It has been part of the price, Akane."
"For being as good as you are in The Art?"
"No," Ranko said with a shake of her head, "for being impatient and trying to accomplish too much at one time," she said, then gave Akane's hands a hard squeeze.
Akane looked up at Ranko in surprise, "That should have hurt!"
"But it didn't, did it?"
"You mean all this time he's been...he's been..." Akane paused to grit her teeth in anger, "He's been _encouraging_ me to use him for a punching bag so I could build up my hands!"
"Yeah, and it worries him sick when you go outside and start breaking bricks. He thinks it's unladylike."
"Unladylike?" Akane asked. She was suddenly angry. "What would he know about being ladylike?"
"Hey!" Ranko said in haughty tones as she put her hands behind her head and struck a classic, pinup pose. The pajama top very nearly succumbed to the resulting pressure. "I sprang fully grown from the mind of Ranma Saotome. Ain't _I_ ladylike?"
Akane's anger vanished as she was overcome by paroxysms of laughter. She looked at Ranko through the tears welling up in her eyes and shook her head. Ranko feigned a look of great hurt and wounded pride in answer.
"You are _very_ sexy, Ranko, just not very...You aren't very..."
"I ain't very ladylike, am I?"
"Good," Ranko said, then began laughing along with Akane.
"I could show you how to be much more sexy, Ranko- chan."
"Ooh, that sounds like fun, Akane-chan," Ranko said with a grin, "but Ranma is getting nervous as it is." This of course constituted the need for a long, rather pregnant silence.
"Next time then?" Akane asked hopefully.
Ranko looked blank for a moment, as though some invisible person by her side was whispering in her ear. "I won't make any promises Akane, but maybe just for you--if you are a good little girl in the meantime."
"Okay," Akane said, giving Ranko a little pout, knowing full well what it would do to Ranma, where ever he was, "be that way if you must."
"Do you know when we fell in love with you?"
"That day in the bath?"
"Well no, not exactly. We did sort of fall in lust with you though."
"Oh, well I did notice that!" Akane said, "It was a little too much to ignore."
Ranko's face turned bright red. "Hey! Sometimes that happens to guy before he can stop it, you know!"
Akane rolled her eyes.
"So when did you fall in love with me?"
"When you charged into the school yard and whipped all those guys that next morning."
Ranko nodded her head and grinned, "Even Ranma would have had second thoughts about trying that until he saw you in action. We knew right then and there that we weren't being saddled with some cute little, know nothing, do nothing girl."
I really should close my mouth, Akane thought. She's going to start laughing at me in a minute and I'll have it coming. Besides, it's not very ladylike.
"You could be as good as I am, Akane," Ranko said, "but it won't be easy, even though you are already good. I just wanted you to know that there is a price to pay."
"I'll pay it, Ranko."
"You gotta learn to breathe right."
"I already know how to breathe," Akane said sounding vaguely annoyed.
"Not in the best way, you don't. You also hafta learn to swim," Ranko said with a wicked smile.
Akane felt her face begin to redden.
"I suppose I have to learn to cook and be graceful too, huh?" Akane asked in angry tones, "Will bridal training count?"
"You're gettin' it all wrong, Akane. You know that both the Tendo-ryuu and the Saotome-ryuu have techniques for fighting in the water. You can't get your second dan with out mastering them."
Akane looked down at her hands again. Ranko was right. Those techniques were required and she had never learned them because she could never even manage to float on her back in the water.
"The only time you have a problem with being graceful is when you start worrying about being clumsy. You'll train yourself out of that, and we could care less if you never learn to cook. Ranma already knows how to cook. That's one of the things that ten years of living on the road will do for you."
Akane looked up at Ranko her eyes shining with tears of frustration.
"But I want to cook for him, Ranko!"
"Believe me, Akane. He would be a lot happier if you concentrated on mastering The Art first. The cooking can wait until this challenge is met. It is the more important of the two."
"What will Aunt Nodoka think?"
"You let me and Ranma worry about Mom, okay? You just concentrate on what we tell you. Everything else will work out."
"How can you be so sure?" Akane asked.
"That is one of the first things you must learn, Akane."
"You must learn to be sure, even when there's no reason to be. Just like the way you forced Ranma to take tonight."
"How can you be sure of something when there is no reason for it, Ranko?"
"Simple," Ranko answered with a smile, "You just make sure you become the reason."
"I don't know if I can do that, Ranko."
"You can and you will, Akane," Ranko said in a gentle voice, "Ranma and I are going to help you with that."
Akane turned inwards to her own thoughts for a moment. She could see that Ranko was at least partly correct. Most of her really bad failures had happened when she started something and then suffered a lack of confidence in her own abilities. Nearly all of her best successes had come when she had simply thrown caution to the wind and worked at something until she succeeded.
"You and Ranma could stand to learn a thing or two as well," Akane said.
"Tell me!" Ranko said, "HE doesn't find school work interesting or challenging. It makes it hard for me to concentrate on the stuff."
"So you're the reason he's been catching up on his schoolwork without me nagging him."
"Ah, yeah. You could say that."
So he doesn't find his school work challenging, huh? Akane thought to herself. I'll just have to find a way to fix that.
"What are you thinking, Akane?" Ranko asked with a note of concern in her voice.
"I'm not going to tell you," Akane said with a sly grin.
"Because you don't need to know, Ranko-chan." Akane's smile grew larger.
Ranko stared hard into Akane's eyes, for a moment, then relaxed.
"Okay, whatever you think best. Just be careful, okay?"
"Don't worry," Akane said with a gentle smile, "I won't do anything too drastic."
"Look, I'd like to visit some more, but I've got to go let Ranma out of this body."
Akane seized Ranko by the hand as she got down from the bed.
"Make Ranma come say good night to me before he goes off to study, pretty please?"
Ranko gave Akane a huge smile and a peck on the cheek.
"You bet, tomboy."
"Good night, pervert."
"Ha! Look who's talkin'!"
Akane smiled at Ranko's departing back. After a few moments she fluffed the pillows and laid down on Ranma's bed. She pulled the sheet up over herself and closed her eyes. A kind of warm glow that she had not felt since before her mother died coursed through her body. She stretched and opened her eyes, only to find Otoko-Ranma looking down at her. He had that look in his eyes again. The look that said, "Mine!" Akane smiled and held her arms out to him. He bent over and gave her a passionate kiss while she pressed his hard, flat chest to her body. Just the feel of his weight made her tingle in all the right places. After a long moment, Ranma stood up and looked down at her again. She took his left hand and placed it upon her tummy where Onna-Ranma had placed that same hand earlier in the evening. Akane stared Ranma in the eye and knew that her own face was growing hard as she spoke.
"You have to train me first," Akane said as coldly as she could.
Ranma grinned. It was that ferocious, cocky, self- assured, macho-jerk grin he always got when accepting a challenge. His blue-eyes glittered, making Akane think of a line from the Odyssey, "the storm-grey sea."
"I know, Akane," Ranma said, sounding faintly amused, "I know."
Then he bent down and kissed her again. After their lips parted he said, "And you will have to learn, my love. You are _gonna_ learn."
End of Chapter 4
Copyright © Don Granberry.