Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 5c

Copyright

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


Akane was downstairs when it happened. She had agreed to study near the telephone while Doctor Tofu was out to lunch. This required her to leave Ranma alone upstairs. He had been sleeping very peacefully, showing no trace of the nightmares that had plagued him since the battle of Jusendo. The cold, white mist sliding down the stairwell told her that things had changed. She ran up the stairs, only to find Ranma thrashing about on his futon, arms and legs badly entangled in his covers. The white mist was nearly forty centimeters deep, and the room temperature had dropped to a point suitable for storing fresh vegetables.

"Ranma!"

"Akane!" Ranma bellowed, as though trying to be heard over a great deal of noise.

"Wake up, Ranma!"

"What?"

"Wake up! It's just a dream!" Akane said, kneeling as close as she could to the futon without being struck by the violently thrashing Ranma. The air in the room was quite cold, nearly matching the temperature of a refrigerator's interior.

Ranma woke up staring Akane in the face, his blue eyes hard with fear and anger.

"Are you all right, Akane?"

"Yes, Ranma," Akane said, struggling and failing to keep the concern out of her own voice. "I'm fine. You were having another nightmare."

"Where's Doctor Tofu?"

"He went to grab a bite to eat," Akane said. "He'll be back in just a few minutes."

"He went out to eat and left you here alone?" Ranma asked, sounding annoyed.

"He's been seeing patients all day without a break, Ranma," Akane said, sounding aggravated herself. "Doctors have to eat too, you know. Besides, I am not here alone. You're here."

Sharp anger glittered in Ranma's sea-blue eyes for a moment, then faded.

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Ranma said after a moment of silence. "He has gone way out of his way to take care of us."

Akane watched her fiance for a moment. He looked troubled.

"What's wrong, Ranma?" Akane asked. "You look as though the world were about to come to an end."

"Ah, I don't _think_ it's quite that bad, Akane."

"Oh, yeah? You want me to bring you a mirror so you can see for yourself?"

"Huh?" Ranma asked, looking puzzled. "No! I'm not talking about the way I look! I'm talkin' about trouble bein' on the way."

"Trouble?"

"Yeah," Ranma said, looking grim, "I guess my danger sense triggered the nightmare. I can feel it coming."

"Are you sure, Ranma?" Akane asked. "It might just be all the stress we've been through, you know."

"Oh, believe me, Akane," Ranma said, "this is way more than just a nightmare."

"Ranma, I..."

Akane did not finish because she suddenly found herself locked in Ranma's tight embrace. He held her close and said nothing. He just rocked back and forth as though he were trying to comfort a child.

Akane did not mind being held in the arms of Ranma's male body, but his behavior worried her greatly. Will he get better? She asked herself. How long will it take? What is he worried about now? Is it something real, or is his imagination in control?

"What do you think it is, Ranma?"

"The trouble, you mean?"

"Uh, huh."

"I don't know," Ranma said. "It's still a pretty good ways away."

"When do you think it will be here, whatever it is."

"Hmm, tomorrow I think. Maybe the day after."

"You don't have any idea what it is?"

"I've felt it before, Akane," Ranma said, sounding very certain, "but I can't put a name on it. I just know it's dangerous and that we've faced it before."

Akane sighed. Assuming Ranma was actually detecting a threat, and not simply suffering from stress-induced paranoia, which she could not rule out at this point, the list of threats they had faced before was a long one. The only good news in what Ranma said was that the threat, whatever it was, would be a familiar one and would likely be easier to deal with than something new and completely unfamiliar.

"I'll think about it for a while," Ranma said, breaking into Akane's reverie. "Maybe I can figure it out if I just think about it for a while."

"Hmmph!" Akane snorted. "I think you just need an excuse to hold me."

"An excuse to hold...Why would I want to hold a...I don't need an excuse to hold a..."

"You're floundering, Ranma."

Ranma kissed her full on the lips.

"How'zat for flounderin'?"

"Not bad," Akane said with a giggle. "Betcha can't do it twice!"

"Is anyone here?" A voice called up from the first floor.

"It's Konatsu," Ranma said. "I guess you win that one."

"What's he doing here?" Akane asked.

"I don't know," Ranma said. "Go on down and talk to him. I'll be down as soon as I get my pants on."

"You aren't wearing any pants?" Akane asked. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I've been asleep!"

Akane just grinned, then wriggled cutely as she made her way towards the stairs.

"Coming!" Akane called as she went down the stairs. "Just a minute!"

"Good afternoon, Tendo-san" Konatsu said with a deep bow as Akane entered the hallway.

"Hello, Konatsu," Akane said, returning his bow. "What brings you all the way out here?"

"Is Saotome-san here?" Konatsu asked.

"He's on his way down," Akane said. "I just woke him up. He...Here he is."

"Yo, Konatsu! What's going on?"

"Good afternoon, Saotome-dono!" Konatsu said as he bowed again.

This took Ranma back a bit. He did not think he warranted the honorific "dono." That was something used for the mayor or a member of the neighborhood council or something. People sometimes addressed Akane's father that way, but never Ranma or his father. After a moment, Ranma realized that Konatsu was holding his bow while held out a couple of expensive looking envelopes. Ranma hastened to bow as he took them from the cross-dressing ninja's hands.

"Arigato, Kenzan!" Ranma said, deciding that one good honorific deserved another.

One of the envelopes was addressed to Akane, the other to Ranma. He handed Akane hers, then carefully opened his own. It was an invitation to a Cha No Yu. Ranma looked at Akane and raised an eyebrow. She gave him a quick nod of the head.

"Please tell Ukyou that we'd be honored to attend, Kenzan," Ranma said with a deep bow.

Konatsu returned Ranma's bow and said, "Ukyou-sama will be very pleased, Saotome-dono."

"Thank you for coming all this way, Kenzan," Ranma said unaware that Akane was staring at him. "Would you care for some tea?"

"Thank you, no, Saotome-dono," Konatsu said. "I must return quickly. The evening rush will begin soon and we must be ready for it."

"I understand, Kenzan," Ranma said, then bowed again.

Konatsu bowed and left.

"Well, you seem to have manners when the occasion really demands it," Akane said, sounding faintly annoyed.

"Hey, I was wingin' it!" Ranma said, feigning irritation then asked, "Did I do it right?"

"Mostly," Akane said, giving Ranma a sunny smile. "It's just that I have never seen you try that hard before."

"Hey! Konatsu's kinda weird, but he's an okay guy."

"Maybe I should get Happosai to hit you on the head a little more often."

"Hey! Hey! Hey!" The air around Ranma darkened briefly.

"Well you have been trying a lot, lately."

"Yeah, well..."

"Well what?"

"Ya can't stay a kid forever."

"Says who? And what's being a kid got to do with having manners?"

"Are you gonna be okay with this tea ceremony, Akane?"

"Sure. Ukyou is just trying to do the right thing," Akane said, "but I don't think for a minute that she's giving up on you."

"Oh, man!" Ranma said, sounding aggrieved. "I figgered she wanted to make peace and let me go."

"Ranma," Akane said as she stepped in close to her fiance and put her arms around him, "I don't know that she _can_ give up. I wouldn't be able to."

Ranma sighed as he put his arms around his un-cute, yet very beautiful fiancee and patted her back.

"I must've been a very bad little boy in my last life."

"I don't doubt that for a second," Akane said with a giggle, then kissed him on the cheek. "Hadn't you better go finish your nap?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Ranma said, then began walking towards the stairs. "Be sure to stay inside until Doc gets back. Okay, Akane?"

"Okay, Ranma," Akane said with a note of sadness in her voice. She could not help but notice that the air around Ranma had darkened a little when he asked her to stay indoors.

I wonder if this will ever end?" Akane softly asked herself in the now empty hallway.

-----------

Kasumi woke feeling better than she had in many months. The break in my routine must be doing me some good, she thought. Meeting up with Nodoka on the other hand, gave Kasumi second thoughts. The older woman was red-eyed, bored and cranky, being in need of sleep and having run out of things to do early on in the day.

"Shall I wake you for supper, Aunt Nodoka?"

"No, dear, I think I might well sleep through until morning. If that's all right with you?"

"Oh, certainly!" Kasumi said cheerfully. "It's no problem at all."

"Nabiki called and asked if you could arrange supper for Ranma and Akane," Nodoka said. "Apparently, her extra- curricular work is interfering with her studies and she has some catching up to do."

"Oh, that's wonderful," Kasumi said. "I wanted to go see them and Doctor Tofu anyway."

"I thought it would work out nicely for you, dear," Nodoka said with a smile. "What about your father?"

"Oh, I think he'll be fine for the evening, but we should probably go after Uncle Saotome soon. Father will become fretful in another day or so without company."

"Well, why don't we try to squeeze that in during the mid-morning tomorrow?" Nodoka asked.

"Yes, that should work out nicely!" Kasumi said. "Then we can go shopping again."

"No doubt we'll need groceries with my husband back in the house!" Nodoka said, sounding as though she were bearing a heavy burden. It made Kasumi smile, knowing full well that Nodoka was mostly joking.

"He doesn't eat nearly as much as Ranma, you know," Kasumi said, "but then Ranma still a growing boy."

"Good night, Kasumi."

"Good night, Aunt Nodoka!"

Kasumi hummed to herself as she began to prepare a large, evening meal that could be successfully carried out.


After sending Konatsu to the clinic with the invitations, Ukyou hung out a sign telling everyone that her restaurant would be closed until six that evening, then rushed over to the tea garden. The tea house she had rented, and the path leading to it, would have seemed beautiful and perfectly kept to a gaijin, but to the eyes of a nihonjin about to host a serious Cha No Yu, the place was in unspeakably bad shape. She would have to do an enormous amount of work before the place would be even halfway decent and Ukyo was determined to have it in far better than decent shape.

The proprietor stopped by and watched Ukyo's furious pace for a few moments, then sent her gardener to help. Much of what Ukyou was finding necessary to do should have been taken care of by her staff, but this little tea house was so seldom used and the others so busy that it had been neglected. It is generally expected that the host of a Cha No Yu will make all the necessary preparations for the ceremony herself, but Ukyou made no objections to the gardener's help. Even with all the pruning and general policing of the grounds done, which meant there would not be a single leaf nor blade of grass out of place, she would still have to arrive two hours early the next day and do one more round of cleaning. A serious Cha No Yu, at which one hoped to offer apologies and make peace, required everything to be perfect. The tea house and its grounds would have to be positively immaculate. Much to Ukyou's relief, Konatsu joined in the work shortly after three, speeding up the things up considerably. With a bit of luck, we'll just manage to re-open the restaurant in time for the evening rush, she thought.


"I think my ass is dragging out my tracks," Nabiki said in English to one of her minions.

"What does that mean?" The girl asked.

"It means I'm tired!" Nabiki said. "What time is it?"

"Five-thirty," the girl said with a grin. "At least we made a lot of money today."

"That we did," Nabiki said. "Why don't you go on home. All I have to do now is study."

"You do need to spend a little more time on schoolwork, Boss."

"I will," Nabiki said, "as soon as we get this current crisis out of the way."

"When is there not a crisis around here?"

"Well there are problems and there are crises. This is a crisis."

"What makes it a crisis?"

"My sister's life and millions of yen hang in the balance."

"I think I see your point."

"Good! Now go home."

"See ya tomorrow, Boss."

"Ja, ne!" Nabiki said tiredly. It really had been a long day. In addition to attending class, she had negotiated a bargain with the owner of the Northside Tea Gardens, settled two violent disputes between Miyagi and Uchigawa, that work was going well despite Miyagi's usual antics, delivered Ranma and Akane's homework and picked up their new assignments, kept tabs on all the latest rumors, kept track of Xian Pu's deliveries, ran the rest of the gambling pool, and even managed to get a peek at Thibbideaux's Bicycle Shop. Now all I need are a couple of kids to feed and mollycoddle! Nabiki thought. Wait a minute! I do have a couple of kids to mollycoddle, not counting Dad, Uncle Saotome and Happosai. I've got to make sure Ranma and Akane's kimono get to the clinic before noon tomorrow. She paused long enough to call Kasumi and ask her to take care of it when she carried supper over for them, then returned to her studies.

By six-thirty, her stomach demanded enough attention to end all hope of serious study. Nabiki briefly considered going home to eat, then decided that the Nekohanten would probably be a better idea. It was time she and Ko Lon had a talk. Fortunately, it was a short walk from Furinkan to the Nekohanten. She arrived just in time to see Xian Pu depart on her new bicycle. The young Joketsu pedaled away towards Forges Street with what must have been a hundred kilograms of orders.

Much to Nabiki's surprise, the restaurant itself was nearly empty, save for a very busy Mu Suu and Ko Lon, who was sitting at a table taking a smoke break while Mu Suu tried to catch up with washing bowls. The old woman cackled when Nabiki walked through the door.

"Konnichi wa, Tendo-san!" Ko Lon said in a cheerful voice. "I've been hoping you'd stop in to see us. How are you doing, my dear?"

"Tired and hungry, at the moment," Nabiki said with a genuine smile. Despite everything, she really did admire Ko Lon. "I don't suppose you could spare me a bowl of noodles?"

"Oh, I think we can scrape a small order together for you!" Ko Lon said with a casual wave of her pipe. "Mu Suu?"

"Coming right up!" The tall, young man said. "Will chicken be all right, Tendo-san?"

"That would be perfect, Mu Suu," Nabiki said as she sat down at Ko Lon's table. Mu Suu set a steaming bowl in front of Ko Lon, then a another in front of Nabiki. The smell was glorious. Nabiki paused to appreciate Mu Suu's whipcord figure before digging into her soup. Mu Suu returned rather quickly with a teapot and two mugs. The tea was the hard to find and quite expensive Oolong-Suuchong variety, smelling of rose petals and old oak with just a touch of tar. It was rich, dark and delicious.

"So, what brings you here besides hunger, Miss Tendo?" Ko Lon asked Nabiki in shockingly proper English.

"I thought a talk we should have," Nabiki replied in the same language. "How is my English?"

"Surprisingly good, considering where you studied the language," Ko Lon answered. "Do you speak any other languages?"

"I study the French have been, but I very little of it speak yet."

"Hmm, French is an exacting language and takes quite a while to master," Ko Lon said. "English should be safe enough for our purposes."

"Your English sounds very British, Honored Elder. You study in Britain did?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I did," Ko Lon said with yet another cackle. "I am afraid my English is a bit dated. You see, Victoria was still Queen the last time I visited England."

Nabiki's eyes widened at this.

"You really must give in and tell me some of your beauty secrets, Ko Lon," Nabiki said, inadvertantly speaking in Japanese.

Ko Lon howled with laughter.

"Sorry, child," Ko Lon said at last. "At least half of my secret is genetics."

"Oh, poo!" Nabiki said, in Japanese while feigning great disappointment, "I was hoping there was a spring of drowned, eternal virgin or something."

"You and millions of other young women!"

Both of them laughed at this.

"So tell me," Ko Lon said in English. "How is my son- in-law doing?"

"Ranma," Nabiki said carefully, "quite well physically is. He best shape in is not, but completely healed is. His temperament worrisome is."

"So I have gathered," Ko Lon said. "Having difficulties controlling his ki, especially in the late evening?"

Nabiki nodded her head.

"It will pass," Ko Lon said. "The boy is nothing if not resilient."

"That, my conclusion also," Nabiki said. "My sister I worry about most."

Ko Lon drew a deep breath and sighed.

"And not without good reason, Miss Tendo," Ko Lon said. "I am glad you wanted to discuss this with me."

Nabiki looked up in surprise, only to find that Ko Lon had become quite interested in her soup. They ate in silence for a moment, then Ko Lon took a long, noisy slurp of her tea. She put her cup down and refilled both hers and Nabiki's mugs.

"I am very sorry about what happened at your sister's wedding," Ko Lon said. "Had I known what Xian Pu was up to, I would have prevented it."

"I believe you, Honored Elder," Nabiki said. What Xian Pu had done never had any hope of working. Her actions had done the only thing they could have done for her. They had made matters worse.

"Unfortunately, by the time I caught up with her, things were already a great mess," Ko Lon said. "And I must say, I was more than a little worried about Ranma's condition. He looked to be in a rather poor shape when his father carried him to the clinic."

"Doctor Tofu said you several days of his recovery time probably saved," Nabiki said in a quiet voice.

"Good!" Ko Lon said. "Now about your sister and Xian Pu..."

"Before you con-tin-ue," Nabiki said, interrupting Ko Lon, "there things are you need know I think. Things no one the good sense or politeness? Manners! Manners have you before now tell."

"Oh?"

"Yes," Nabiki said, then gulped. She had been dreading this in more ways than one. She would be making targets of herself and Kasumi once she had said it, but there was no other way out that she could see. "The marriage agreement between Saotome Clan and Tendo Clan is. Just our two families is not."

There was a moment of silence while Ko Lon sorted out Nabiki's idiosyncratic English.

"O-o-o-h, ho-o-o!" Ko Lon said. "Which means that if anything happens to your youngest sister, you or Kasumi would be obliged to take her place, yes?"

"And of us none able to meet the obligation is not, one of our cousins will," Nabiki said. "As long Ranma Saotome lives, member Tendo Clan marry him obligated is."

"What can you tell me of your family's history, Tendo- san?"

"Our history?"

"Yes," Ko Lon said, "Would you prefer to speak Japanese?"

"No," Nabiki said, "Speaking English good practice for me. I cannot say you our family's history much about, but a lot of it there is. I know Nerima Tendo Fief prior to the Meiji Restoration was."

"Hmm, how far back do your records go?"

"Not sure am I," Nabiki said. "I record dated 1299 or something like have seen, but I sure cannot be. Japanese that old difficult read."

Nabiki had a sudden thought that made her sit bolt upright.

"Something wrong, Dear?"

"Nothing wrong. Ranma those older records could read."

"Oh, really? I never took him for a scholar."

"Ranma studious when he interested is," Nabiki said with a grin. "He ancient Japanese and old Chinese can read. Many scrolls about The Art in those languages written were."

Ko Lon slapped her thigh and laughed.

"He much history knows also," Nabiki said.

"Tell me. What is his mother like?"

Nabiki took a deep breath and held it a moment before answering.

"She a formidable woman is," Nabiki said, then paused again. "And she goofy as wooden watch."

"Oh, really?" Ko Lon asked, sounding surprised.

"She driven by something seems, but what I know not."

Ko Lon held up her hand, then spoke.

"There is far more to this arranged marriage than you know, Miss Tendo. In all probability, there is more to it than I know, yet. Certainly, there was far more to it than I knew before just a few days ago."

Nabiki was shocked speechless. Getting this kind of news from this particular source was not something she had in any way expected.

"I will not speak of it now, for I am not entirely sure of its accuracy, but rest assured that I am keenly interested in having peace between the Joketsuzoku and Tendo- ke."

"Peace with Tendo-ke, or with Ranma Saotome?"

"Both, of course!" Ko Lon said with a very open smile. "But there is much more involved than I can rightly discuss with you at the moment. I think in the meantime your fatigue campaign against Xian Pu should continue--within reason of course."

Nabiki smiled at Ko Lon. It was from her very best imitation of the great white shark.

"I happy hear you like it."

Ko Lon grinned right back, and it was every bit as toothsome as the smile Nabiki had given her.

"It is a brilliant ploy, my dear! Worthy of a true Joketsu!"

"Thank you, Honored Elder."

"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"

"That on the question depends."

"How do you feel about Ranma?"

Nabiki blushed violently.

"I thought so," Ko Lon said, as she squinted her eyes at Nabiki. "I suppose then you can understand my great- granddaughter's infatuation with him?"

Nabiki had to admit that Ko Lon had a point. For a person such as herself, Ranma was the sort of guy one might consider dragging off to bed for a night or two, not the sort she would ever marry. For a girl like Xian Pu though, to whom martial arts and fighting were the be-all and end-all of existence, Ranma had to be irresistible. Who are you trying to kid, Nabiki? She silently asked herself. You have regretted the day you palmed him off on Akane for almost a year now. You would marry him in an instant and support him the rest of his life if you got the chance.

"I understand can, Honored Elder."

"Don't think that I am immune either, my dear."

"Nani?" Nabiki was so surprised by this she lapsed into Japanese, then quickly remembered to speak in English. "You in love with him as well are?"

"Hah-ha-ha!" Ko Lon laughed. "No, not really. I do think of him as a son, though. He welded himself to my heart shortly after I arrived here."

"When this happen? That day on beach?"

"No, a few weeks before that. In this very restaurant."

"What happened?"

"He marched in here just as big as you please and demanded that I give him the Never Dying Phoenix Pill. When I did not give it to him, he promptly tried to take it from me."

"Then what happened?"

"I threw him out the front door! He landed head first in that same garbage can sitting out there by the curb at this very moment."

Ko Lon paused to laugh.

"He levered himself out of the can and marched right back in here for another try. I threw him out the door again, only that time, I threw him much harder. He hit the wall across the street back first and upside down. He slid down the wall and landed on his head. After scrambling to his feet, he noticed my help-wanted poster. He snatched it down off the wall, trooped back in here and informed me that I had just hired the cutest waitress in town!"

Ko Lon broke out laughing at the memory.

"It was all I could do to keep a straight face at that very moment, but from that day since, he has had a very special place in my heart."

"You that impressed by simple, physical courage were?"

"Physical courage?" Ko Lon asked sounding shocked. "Tell me Tendo-san, have you ever tried walking a mile or so in a man's shoes?"

"You the truth I tell, Honored Elder, difficult not I think," Nabiki said with a bit of a smirk. "This Japan is, Joketsuzoku village not."

"Hah! I could arrange for you to be a man for a few days if you should ever want to give it try, Tendo-san," Ko Lon said with an evil glimmer in her eyes, "but try to imagine how it must be for a man to cope with being a woman for a month or more, here in Japan!"

"Now that something I appreciate can, Honored Elder," Nabiki said. "Real courage necessary."

"For a sixteen-year-old Japanese boy, the stress of becoming a girl is horrendous. Ranma's friends and enemies both came in here for weeks, just to ogle his bust and to have a go at patting that heart-shaped little arse of his."

Nabiki began to giggle uncontrollably. Now she suddenly understood why so many of the boys at Furinkan had spent some time wearing casts. Some of the idiots had actually spent a month or more with casts on both limbs!

"But he never lost sight of his goal. He tried every day, all day long to take that pill from me."

Nabiki began to cackle.

"He became so good and so fast, that I feared he might actually succeed. I took the precaution of removing the real medicine from its case and replaced it with a piece of chocolate candy."

"And contest at beach ended. He Neko-ken used," Nabiki said, finishing the tale for Ko Lon. "I that fight saw. It magnificent was."

"And I was shocked beyond words by his use of the Neko-ken, believe you me! Do you have any idea how many have died or became complete wrecks trying to master that technique? Thousands, Miss Tendo! Thousands! Just enough of them have succeeded to keep more fools trying to learn it. The boy's father should be strung up by his toes for that one."

"Is why you relented? You what he through had gone knew?"

"Yes. That and the fact that what he was going through by being stuck in his cursed form was only making matters worse. Besides, he did give me a sound thrashing that day. No one had done that in fifty years."

"Fatigue campaign, go on not long, Honored Elder. If too long, your business, or Xian Pu be hurt."

"We only need to keep it going for another week or so, a fortnight at the most, Tendo-san. I expect to receive word from the Council within that time, then I think you and I and possibly Ranma's mother will be able to engage in some serious negotiations."

"Over Ranma's hand?"

"That among other things, yes."

Nabiki had been about to say that Ranma's nuptials were not on the table, but decided silence was the better part of valor. Ko Lon was showing every sign of wanting to settle the matter without requiring Ranma to marry Xian Pu, or resorting to violence against Akane. That would be worth a considerable price, even if the Joketsuzoku had no legal claim to Ranma under Japanese law.

"I had best be going, Nabiki said in Japanese. "It is getting late."

"Yes, it is. Do try to arrange a little more time for study, Tendo-san," Ko Lon said in Japanese. "It would never do to have a youngster as bright as yourself held back by poor grades during her last year of schooling."

"Thank you for your concern, Elder," Nabiki said in Japanese and sounding more than a little surprised. "I will do as you suggest."

"Good night, Tendo-san."

"Good night, Ko Lon."


At five-thirty, Akane woke Ranma up. He had not suffered another bad episode, but the room did feel nicely air conditioned. She went back downstairs so that he could change in private. Just as she reached the first floor, the telephone rang.

"Akane?" Doctor Tofu called out.

"Yes?"

"Would you take that call for me? I am not quite finished here."

"Okay!" Akane said, cheerfully and picked up the telephone.

"Ono Clinic, may I help you?"

"Akane?"

"Oh! Hi, Kasumi."

"I just wanted to call and let you know that I'll be bringing supper over in a little while."

"Okay!"

"I'm also bringing some formal clothes for you and Ranma. Which kimono will he want for tomorrow? Do you know?"

"Ah, just bring both, Kasumi. He's in the shower right now and I can't ask him."

"Okay, that makes sense. See you soon."

"Thanks, Kasumi. Bye."

"Was it urgent?" Tofu asked just as Akane put down the receiver.

"No, sir. It was for me. I really should talk to Nabiki about getting us a cellular telephone, that way our calls won't be mixed up with yours."

"It hasn't been bad so far, Akane."

"No, but it could be inconvenient," Akane said.

"Is Ranma awake yet?"

"Yes, he's in the shower."

"Bring him to the lab when...Oh, there you are, Ranma. How are you feeling?"

"I'm okay, I guess Doc. I had a nightmare this afternoon."

"Was it bad?" Tofu asked.

"He was making things pretty cold, Doctor Tofu," Akane said. "I had to wake him up."

"It was about..." Ranma cut himself off and glanced at Akane, "I can't remember the details all that well."

Tofu cocked an eyebrow at Ranma and smiled.

"I think I finally found something that will help you with that, Ranma."

"Really?" Ranma asked, sounding genuinely pleased.

"Come on into the lab and I'll show you how to make it up. You'll be taking this for quite a while, so you may as well learn how to prepare it."

"Okay," Ranma said, sounding faintly dubious. "What is it?"

"A medicinal tea," Ono said with a grin. "It isn't too complicated so you should be able to make it yourself."

Ranma and Akane followed their friend and doctor into his tiny laboratory.

"You need two small pots of water and a thermometer," Tofu said, as he began to go over the instructions with Ranma.

Akane watched in silence. The tea was really not that complicated. It used four herbs and required that one of them be steeped in water just short of boiling, the other three in water of exactly seventy-degrees centigrade. It seemed like a pretty dull recipe to her. Some cinnamon and cilantro would help it a lot, perhaps a touch of cayenne as well. She would remember to try that the first time she made it for Ranma.

"Is this all there is to it?" Ranma asked.

"Yes," Tofu told him. "You need two cups when you get up and three an hour before going to bed. Just be sure to put these three herbs in the cooler water and never add anything to the mix, not even sugar. You must remember that this medicine and treat at as such."

"Akane?"

"Yes, Doctor Tofu?"

"I want you to drink one cup of this in the morning and two before going to bed."

"Why should I drink it, Doctor Tofu? I'm not sick am I?"

"Well, you have been under quite a bit of stress as well, Akane," Tofu said, as he handed Akane a steaming cup.

"Oh."

"Are you still up for a little pushing hands with me this evening, Ranma?" Tofu asked.

"Sure, Doc," Ranma said, matching the doctor's enthusiastic tone of voice. "I'd love to!"

"Good! I'll go change while you two drink your tea."

"Okay, Doc," Ranma said.

Akane gave Ranma a quizzical stare as Tofu left the room. Ranma sipped his tea and made a face.

"Well it doesn't taste bad, but it's familiar to me."

Akane tried a sip and agreed with him. The tea tasted pretty good, and it was indeed familiar.

"Ranma?"

"Huh?"

"What did Doctor Tofu mean by pushing hands, with him?"

"It's Tai Chi Chuan practice."

"Tai Chi Chuan?"

"Uh, huh."

"I didn't know you practiced any of the soft arts."

"Well I don't really, except that some our school's advanced techniques have a little Tai Chi Chuan in them. I picked up quite a bit of it while I was in China. Pop hated it."

"It figures," Akane said. "Will you teach it to me?"

"I think I'll let Tofu do the teaching, then you and I will practice together," Ranma said. "Will that be okay?"

"What's the matter Ranma, afraid you don't know it well enough?"

"I'm certain I don't know it well enough," Ranma said with a grin. "Besides, you'd love an excuse to practice with Tofu."

Akane gave him a mock slap.

"Kasumi's bringing supper over later, and our clothes. I asked her to bring both of your kimono because I didn't know if you would want to go to the Cha No Yu as a girl or a guy."

"Yeesh, I hadn't thought about it much," Ranma said. "Think it'd be easier on Ukyo if I went as a girl?"

"I don't know, Ranma," Akane said. "It may not matter to Ukyo. She adores your girl half as much as does your guy half."

Ranma grimaced, then looked down at his feet. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers and looked up with a huge grin on his face.

"What is it, Ranma?" Akane asked as her eyes widened with alarm. "I know that look! What are you thinking?"

"I'm going to talk Tofu into wearing a blindfold while we push hands."'

"Whatever on earth for?" Akane asked, her voice rising with increased alarm.

"Kasumi's coming over, right?" Ranma asked. "Do you wanna be close to him when she shows up?"

"Well no, not really, but why are you grinning like that?"

"I owe the doc a good one."

"Ranma-a-a-a!"

"Easy, Akane! Easy!"

"If you get my sister hurt I'll..."

"Hey! Hey! Hey! It's desensifying."

"What? Oh, you mean desensitizing."

"Yeah!"

"Oh, Ranma! You wouldn't!"

"And why not? By the time Doc knows, he'll already be exposed. Have you ever pushed hands before?"

"No."

"The beginning forms are a lot more like dancing than a martial art."

"Oh, wait! I just remembered! Kasumi studied Tai Chi Chuan for a while when we were little. So did Dad."

"See? It'll work, won't it?"

"I think you're right, Ranma. It would be good for both of them."

"I'm ready, Ranma!" Tofu called from the hallway.

"Go ahead and warm up, Doc!" Ranma called back. "I got another cup of this stuff to drink yet."

"Okay, but don't take too long."

"I won't!" Ranma called back. "Jeez, Akane. I never had any idea how busy doctors are until we started hanging around here all day. He never wastes a minute."

"Me either," Akane said.

"Why don't you go on out and ask him to show you the basic steps while I finish this?"

"Okay."

(How long do you think, Saotome?)

(Oh, it'll take Kasumi at least fifteen minutes to get here, more like twenty.)

(So we spend ten minutes or so working on this tea, right?)

(Yeah. Meanwhile, Akane is keeping Tofu plenty busy. You know how slow she is at picking things up.)

(She's getting better at that, you know.)

(Yeah, but let's face it, Akane is never gonna be as fast at learning new moves as we are.)

(No, I guess you're right, Saotome.)

(So what are we going to do, ask him to wear a blindfold while he pushes hands with us so we won't be embarrassed?)

(Well, that might work, but you know how Tofu is. He's a born sensei. As soon as he thinks he's found a weak spot he'll start tryin' to help us get rid of it.)

(So how are we going to get him into a blindfo...I got it!)

(Yeah?)

(Sure! We just challenge him. Bet him he can't do it.)

(I don't know if that will work with the Doc, Red.)

(He's a martial artist, right?)

(Yeah, he is that. Okay, we'll give it a try.)

(Okay, so let's go, Saotome! We got ten minutes before we get a Kasumi-storm.)

Ranma looked out the backdoor and saw Tofu struggling to teach Akane the beginner's version of pushing hands. Just as he expected, Akane was trying too hard.

(See? What'd I tell ya, Red?)

(She's doing pretty good, all things considered.)

(Think so?)

(Think you could teach this to Hiroshi or Daisuke?)

(Are you kiddin'? Those two klutzes...Okay, okay! You gotta point. She ain't all that clumsy, really.)

(The thing is, we are used to working at this stuff six to eight hours a day, six days a week. Akane's never had that privilege.)

(Privilege? Is that what you call it?)

(Yeah, privilege, Saotome! How many of these other kids got to spend ten years doing almost nothing but study the Art?)

(Hey! They got to do a lot of stuff I never got to do, like getting to know a mother.)

(So what's your point? Akane didn't have a mother and Uncle Tendo isn't exactly the ideal father.)

(In some ways, he's a bargain, Red.)

(You're getting away from the point!)

(Okay, okay! I'll cut her some slack. She's got it coming, okay?)

(Okay.)

(Shall we break in, now?)

(Yeah, I think we better. I think we have about five minutes left. Work fast, Saotome.)

(You work fast! I'm gonna sit this one out.)

(That water was really cold, Saotome!)

(It's training, okay?)

Onna-Ranma stepped out the backdoor.

"Pay close attention, Akane," Onna-Ranma said as she walked out the back door, "Tofu-sensei is one of the few people that could do this stuff blindfolded."

"What? Blindfolded?" Akane asked, sounding credulous and slightly out of breath, "No way!"

(Hey! She's pretty quick on the uptake, too!)

(See? I've been telling you underestimate her, Saotome.)

"Tell her, Doc!"

"Well it has been a long time, but I'm sure I could, Akane," Tofu said in a low voice. Obviously he did not like showing off.

"Think you could do it with Ranma?" Akane asked. "I wouldn't ask you to try it with a beginner like me."

"I don't know, Akane," Tofu said, then smiled. "How about it, Ranma? Do you feel lucky this evening?"

"Probably not as lucky as you, Doc," Onna-Ranma said, unable to suppress a grin, "but I'll give it a whirl!"

Akane produced a large kerchief, seemingly from out of nowhere.

(See, she thinks ahead, too! We are really lucky to have her, Saotome!)

(Yeah.)

"Here, Doc!" Onna-Ranma said, as he skipped over to Akane and Tofu. "You had better let me put that on for you."

Akane stuck her tongue out at Onna-Ranma.

"Hey! You can experiment on me later, okay? The doc here is too valuable to risk."

"What sort of experiment did you have in mind, Ranma?" Akane asked, giving Onna-Ranma a smoldering stare.

"Hey! Hey! Hey!"

Tofu chuckled, while Akane gave Onna-Ranma an impish smile.

(Simply irresistible!)

(Yeah, and another cold shower for us, Red.)

(Yeah, huh!)

(Hey! Will you not think up stuff like that? It's not nice!)

(Saotome, you are such an insufferable prude!)

(Well somebody's gotta keep us outta trouble!)

(Hah! Look who's talking!)

"There! All fixed, Doc. Comfy?"

"Yes, that will do quite nicely, Ranma," Tofu said with an evil grin. "Are you ready?"

"Ikuzo, Isha!" Ranma said, in a hearty voice. ["Let's go, Healer!"]

"Hai, Shatei!" Tofu answered ["Okay, little brother!"], and the non-contest of pushing hands began.

Tai Chi Chuan, translated from the Chinese can be taken to mean either the "Supreme Spirit Force" or "Supreme Ultimate Fist." In the end, they mean the same thing. It is a study in the art of recognizing, using, mastering and even neutralizing ki. The point of the "Pushing Hands" is not so much to have a contest, as it is to learn about one's own ki and how it interacts with that of other people. Think of it as a tennis match where no score is kept and where neither participant has the least interest in scoring. The idea is to keep the ball in constant transit over the net, volley after volley after volley, testing one's "aite" or "counterpart" with each return, never quite pushing him or her beyond the limits of their ability to respond, but forcing them to improve. This is pushing hands. One learns to listen for, to sense, the aite's ki and to respond to it. In Tofu Ono, Ranma Saotome found an almost perfect teacher. In Ranma Saotome, Tofu Ono found the ultimate student. The very air around them began to crackle shortly after they began. Their focus and concentration upon one another became total in mere seconds.

"Oh, my!" Kasumi said to Akane. "That is so beautiful!"

"Konnichi wa, Onee-san," Akane said to her sister. "Let me give you a hand with that."

Kasumi did not respond. The whole of her attention was focused upon Tofu and Ranma.

"Kasumi?" Akane asked, giving the large basket Kasumi was holding a gentle tug.

"Hmm? Oh, I'm sorry, Akane."

"Let's take this inside," Akane said, giving her sister a smile. "Do you remember how to push hands?"

"I'm not sure, Akane-chan!" Kasumi said as they entered the clinic. "It has been a long time, almost five years now."

"Let's take this upstairs," Akane said. "Then I'll get Ranma to let you have a turn at pushing hands with Doctor Tofu."

"Akane," Kasumi said, her voice grave, "are you sure that is wise?"

"Don't worry, Kasumi. Ranma and I have it figured out. Did you notice that Doctor Tofu is wearing a blindfold?"

"Oh, my!"

Once the two sisters came back downstairs, Akane picked up a tiny pebble and threw it at Onna-Ranma. It hit him between the shoulder blades.

"Doc?" Onna-Ranma asked, then panted for breath.

"Yes, Ranma?" Tofu was a bit short on breath himself.

"I think Akane wants another turn. Do you mind?"

"Oh, not at all, if you need a rest."

(I can't believe he said that!)

(Oh, relax, Saotome! He's just trying to be polite.)

"I really could use a break, Doc."

"Okay, Ranma," Tofu said with a smile. "We'll have to do this for a few days and get your endurance up."

(Grrrr!)

(Down, boy! Down!)

"Just wait here, Doc. I'll bring her to ya."

Onna-Ranma walked hurriedly over to Kasumi and took her by the hand, while motioning for Akane to follow them with his head.

"Here she is, Doc. Feel her hands?"

"Yes, I'm fine, Ranma. Are you ready, Akane?"

"Yes, Sensei," Akane answered before Kasumi could say anything.

The results were nothing short of spectacular. Kasumi it seemed, remembered her old lessons well, and then of course, there was the little matter of love to consider.

"My, Akane!" Tofu exclaimed. "You have improved considerably."

Kasumi did something Ranma had never heard her do very much, she giggled. The air around Kasumi and Tofu turned blue, then red, then gold.

"Maaa!" Akane said, in a reverent tone.

"O-o-oh!" Onna-Ranma said in the most manly way he could.

"They are so beautiful together, Ranma!"

"Yeah, but the doc has had one hell of a workout today," Onna-Ranma observed dryly. "He's gonna be sore as the dickens in the morning."

"Do you think he's figured it out by now?"

"Oh, yeah."

"He sure seems to be holding up well, if he has."

"It's the technique, Akane," Onna-Ranma said. "It really helps you stay in focus."

"Kasumi's pretty good, isn't she?"

"With a little practice, she's going to be one of the greats," Onna-Ranma said in sober tones. "Tai Chi Chuan suits her to a tee."

"Will you practice with me some more tonight, Ranma?"

"Sure, right after we eat. I'm starving."

"You and your stomach!"

"Hey! I can't help it! I'm a growing boy!" Onna-Ranma said, gently thumping his ample bosom. Akane made no reply, other than to snort and give him a mock slap. Ranma scooped her up and gave her a quick kiss. Before she could react, he had already set her back on her feet.

"Baka!"

"Yeah, but I'm your baka, right?"

"Experiments later," Akane said with a clearly ominous threat in her voice.

"Ooh, hoo! I'm _so_ scared!"

"You will be, boy!" Akane said as she gave him a menacing stare and tried to wrinkle her face as much as possible. "You _will_ be!"

"Oh, my! That was marvelous, Doctor Tofu!" Kasumi said, causing both Ranma and Akane to look the older couple's way. "Thank you so much!"

"Ah...It was my...ah...my...ah...my pleasure, Kasumi- san," Tofu was stammering, but maintaining an even strain. He began struggling with the blindfold, but was having difficulty in removing it. This did not surprise Ranma. The Anything Goes School was very eclectic, and one of the martial arts little known outside Japan, but is in fact something of a Japanese specialty, is concerned with tying people up, gagging them and blindfolding them. Tofu would never remove the kerchief without help. Onna-Ranma watched and smirked.

"Hang in there, Doc!" Onna-Ranma called out. "You've been doin' great so far!" Tofu visibly flinched.

(Paybacks are a bitch, aren't they, Saotome?)

(Yeah! And they're fun to watch, too!)

"Here, let me help you," Kasumi said to the badly befuddled Tofu. He stopped struggling and let Kasumi remove the blindfold. Onna-Ranma and Akane sat and stared at them while Kasumi and Tofu stared into each other's eyes. Onna- Ranma suddenly felt a crushing pain in his right arm. It was Akane, who in her excitement had closed her powerful fingers around his forearm. Only a large, hydraulic press could match Akane psi for psi.

"Do you think they'll kiss, Ranma?" Akane asked, in an excited whisper.

"I think they already have, Akane," Ranma answered in normal tones. Whispering, in his opinion would have been wasted effort on Tofu and Kasumi.

"I...what do you mean?"

"Hell! Look at 'em and tell me what you see."

"Oh, I guess maybe you're right in a way."

"I know I'm right," Onna-Ranma said with his usual cockiness. "Let's go eat."

"We aren't going to wait for them?"

"I don't think they are all that interested in food at the moment, Akane," Onna-Ranma said with a grin. "'Sides, looks to me like they could use a little privacy."

Akane's stomach rumbled.

"I suppose you're right," Akane said, "but it seems awfully rude."

"Believe me, Akane," Onna-Ranma said, as he took Akane by the hand, "they won't mind it a bit and I am starving."


Tofu Ono had realized right away that it was not Akane who had taken Ranma's place. This girl was not nearly as powerful as Ranma, but her technique was much more refined and subtle. After a few moves, he realized that it was Kasumi Tendo with whom he was exercising. The gentle sweetness of her ki was unmistakable. He felt his control begin to slip, then much to his surprise, Kasumi invited the rising tide of confusion into emptiness and he felt it die away even as it began. Kasumi then forced him to exercise in earnest, sending forth powerful streams of ki which forced him to "invite them to emptiness," and counter them with measures of his own. Soon, she began to find his weak spots and he had to work harder. He sought out hers, forcing her to work harder, to seek out answers to the problems he presented her. He would have loved for their play to last forever, but he had already been exercising for a while and neither he, nor Kasumi were up to more. It did not matter. He knew now that there would many tomorrows for the two of them.

Struggling with the damned blindfold was embarrassing, and Ranma's urging him to "hang in there" did not help the problem at all. Tofu grinned to himself despite his plight. He had to admit that he had this one coming. Young Saotome owed him one, but he had not expected anything quite so massive as this. How did Ranma tie this thing on anyway? He wondered as he continued struggling with the kerchief. I would never thought it possible to make blindfold difficult to remove! Finally, Kasumi removed it for him and he breathed a sigh of relief, only to find himself holding his breath. He and Kasumi were standing almost nose to nose and Tofu suddenly found himself swimming in the gentle depths of Kasumi's soul. For Tofu Ono, the rest of the universe ceased to exist. There was only Kasumi and nothing else.

"I brought over a little something for everyone to eat," Kasumi said in a very quiet voice. "Are you hungry, Doctor Tofu?"

There are times when there is simply too much for a man to say. Too many words required. Too many complexities in need of communication and those times invariably come at the wrong moment.

"Why don't I treat you to something you did not have to cook, for a change?"

"Oh, Doctor Tofu, I'm not really dressed to..."

"Well, the place I had in mind won't care, Kasumi- san," Tofu said. "The vegetables are always fresh and vine ripened. The kitchen is as spotless as your own and the chef is superb."

"That sounds wonderful but..."

"And it's quiet enough that we can talk, Kasumi-san," Tofu said, beginning to feel desperate, "and I desperately need to talk with you."

Kasumi smiled and it was as though the gloom of late twilight had been banished by the noon-day sun for Tofu Ono.

"Then let's go, Kasumi said. "Can you see well enough to find the way?"

"Yes," Tofu said, "I see much better with my glasses than without, but I can get by without them for most things."

"Where are you glasses, anyway?"

"I think Ranma still has them," he said, "but I have another pair where we are going."

"Oh!" Kasumi said, sounding somewhat surprised, "we are going to your apartment?"

"It's a condominium, actually," Tofu answered. "They let me install several greenhouses on the roof for my medicinal gardens."

"Oh, I would love to see them!" Kasumi said cheerfully. "Will you show them to me?'

"Of course, dear...I mean, Kasumi-san," Tofu said.

"Would you remind me to call Aunt Nodoka once we arrive?" Kasumi asked. "I don't want to worry her."

They walked off into the rapidly falling night, arm in arm.


"Tadaimaa!" Nabiki called out as she entered the front door of Tendo-ke.

Nodoka, despite her intentions to sleep, had been up for almost an hour.

"Konnichi-wa, Nabiki-chan," Nodoka answered, looking Nabiki over. "Oh my dear! You look worn completely out."

"It has been a long day, Oba-san," Nabiki said tiredly, "and I still have tons of studying to do."

"I kept some supper for you," Nodoka said. "Do you want it now, or would you prefer to bathe first?"

"The furo sounds like the next stop for me, Aunt Nodoka," Nabiki said, then gave the older woman a smile.

"Oh, good!" Nodoka said. "I'll join you and we can talk."

"Oh...uh..all right," Nabiki said. I haven't bathed in a private bath with another person since I was seven! Nabiki thought to herself. Nodoka is really old-fashioned! Then another thought ran across her mind. Don't kid yourself, Nabiki, you fool! You left your ledger out this morning. Now she wants to know about Ranma.

"Your things are already laid out in the bath, dear," Nodoka said with a smile, as she relieved Nabiki of her books. "Why don't you get started and I'll join you?"

"Thank you, Aunt Nodoka!" Nabiki said, trying to sound cheerfully grateful. Geez! She must not have nearly enough to do during the day. I wonder what she did with herself all those years Ranma and Shit-daddy were on their training trip?

A few moments later Nabiki rediscovered how nice it was to have someone scrub your back for you, even if you did have to help them out in return. It felt good. The furo was even better. The hot water very quickly soaked away the tension in her neck and shoulders. Nodoka had joined her, of course, but Nabiki found it not all that unpleasant. Nodoka could be good company when she wanted to be. They talked about school and what Nabiki was planning for the future and much to Nabiki's surprise, Nodoka was very supportive.

"The time for a woman to remain a simple housewife has come and gone, Nabiki-chan," she said. "Work hard and do well in college. Then you can afford to pick a man just for his looks!"

They both laughed over that idea, even though Nabiki found it a bit too close to the truth for comfort.

"So tell me. Has Genma done anything to help since he and Ranma have been here?"

"You mean around the house, or with the money?" Nabiki asked.

"Either or both," Nodoka said, sounding grim.

"Well, he has gone out and gotten a part time job a few times," Nabiki said. "And he's been real good about helping out with the heavy repair work that has been needed around here."

"But did he help out with the finances, Nabiki-chan?"

"Not much," Nabiki said. "Ranma has done most of that."

"But how?" Nodoka asked.

"Oh, that has been very easy," Nabiki said. "He poses for me and I sell photographs of him at school."

"Nani?" Nodoka's voice took on a cold edge.

"Sure!" Nabiki said, with a huge smile she did not really feel like wearing. "You should see the girls drooling over him all the time. I never have a problem selling photographs of him."

"Oh, my!" Nodoka said, with a giggle. "I would never have thought to try that! Girls in my day would never do such thing--not that we didn't want to, of course."

Nabiki heaved a great sigh of relief.

"The pictures were not too terribly naughty were they?"

"Just enough to make their tongues hang out, but not enough to make them cover their faces," Nabiki said, with a sly smile. "With Ranma's looks, that is all that has ever been required."

"Oh! I am _so_ proud of him!" Nodoka said, squealing like a teeny-bopper at a rock concert. "My manly son is a beefcake!"

Nabiki felt her face begin to redden despite her best efforts to prevent it.

"I think I have had enough of this hot water, Aunt Nodoka," Nabiki said, "and I really should be getting on with my studies."

"Of course, dear!" Nodoka said, with hearty cheer in her voice. "If you don't mind, I think I will soak for a bit longer."

Nabiki was careful to get out of the furo and turn her back before rolling her eyes towards the heavens and breathing a silent prayer of thanks to the kami. In a way, it made her feel a little shabby. Nodoka was glowing over her "manly" son's exploits and vicarious conquests, but without knowing the whole truth. At least it's mostly true, Nabiki thought. Several of the girls really do buy a lot of the beefcake stuff, especially Kodachi and Ukyo, but that has not been where the serious money came from. The less Nodoka knows about this, the better for Ranma and me alike. May the kami help us if she ever discovers the whole truth! Otherwise, there will be three for seppuku instead of two. I'll make Shit-daddy go first, Nabiki swore silently to the gods. I will volunteer to be his second!


"Ranma?"

"Mmm?" Onna-Ranma noised around a mouth full of chicken teriyaki.

"Maybe we should go check on them."

"No way!"

"Why not?"

"Because I'm still young and I want to go on living for a while."

"I can't believe my sister Kasumi just ran off with a...with a..."

"Doctor?"

"A man!"

"What have you got against Kasumi, Akane?"

"I don't have anything against Kasumi! It's just that I..."

"Yes?"

"Oh, Ranma!" Akane said, covering her face with her hands. "I'm so happy for her!"

Onna-Ranma rolled his eyes towards the ceiling, then took another bite of chicken.

"But it's so hard for me to accept!"

"Are you through eating, Akane?"

"Yes!" Akane said, looking up so that she could glare at Onna-Ranma. "I mean, no!"

"Well, then, eat! You haven't got all night. You need to get some sleep so you can study tomorrow. I need to study and we both want to train and snuggle, right?"

"We could just snuggle."

"Training first!"

"Meanie!"

"Hmph!" Onna-Ranma snorted. "Be glad you aren't trainin' with my old man!"

"I'll pass on the pit full of hungry cats, thank you very much!"

"Oh, that was one of the easier parts of my training," Onna-Ranma said in a casual tone of voice. "You don't know the half of it."

Akane gave Onna-Ranma a disbelieving stare. Onna-Ranma answered with a cold stare of his own.

"What? You don't believe me?"

"I'm not sure I can."

"Hmph! Eat!"

"What could possibly have been worse?"

"You don't want to know."

"Yes, I do."

"The swimming lessons for starters."

Akane gulped. "Swimming lessons?"

"See? I told you. You don't want to know."

"You aren't planning to teach me the same way are you?"

"Hell, no! Now, eat!"

"Why are you so worried about me eating?"

"Because you lost so goddamned much weight in China, that's why!" Onna-Ranma shouted. He clenched his fists and began to shake.

"You really are worried, aren't you?"

"Shouldn't I be?" Onna-Ranma asked, fighting to regain some small measure of control over his voice.

Akane got up and walked around the table so that she could sit closer to her fiance.

"Please don't worry so much about me, Ranma."

"I can't help it you know," Onna-Ranma said, as he began to shake again. "Do ya think I feel good about all the crap that's happened to you since I came here?"

Onna-Ranma suddenly found himself in Akane's lap. She cuddled his head to her shoulder and rocked him as though she were comforting a baby. Onna-Ranma decided it best to just relax and go with the flow. Some things, it did not pay to fight.

"My life was pretty strange before you got here, you know."

"Yeah, but it wasn't nothin' you couldn't handle on your own," Onna-Ranma said, then sniffled. Much to his shock and surprise, he was beginning to cry. He was crying like a girl!

(Just relax and let her comfort us, Saotome.)

(And where in hell were you when I needed ya?)

(Hey! You didn't need me. You were doing just fine.)

(Whaddaya mean just fine? I lost control!)

(So? Sometimes you have to put love ahead of work.)

(Yeah?)

(Yeah! So let's just snuggle a while, then we'll coax her into eating something.)

(You're worried about her too, huh?)

(Geez, Saotome! We're the same person, living in the same head. I see the same things you do. We got reason to be worried.)

(Okay, just so long as I'm not goin' off the deep end or nothin'.)

(We're doing okay, mostly.)

Onna-Ranma nuzzled Akane's neck, then stroked her cheek with his left hand.

"I'm sorry I yelled, Akane."

"That's okay, Ranma," Akane said, choking back a little emotion of her own. "I know you did it because you love me."

"I shouldn't have yelled."

Akane kissed him on the lips and Onna-Ranma felt his body begin to respond.

(Yo! Red!)

(Yeah, I know! We got other stuff to do and this is dangerous. See if you can get her to eat something, Saotome.)

Onna-Ranma reached over to the table with his right hand and picked up a piece of Kasumi's excellent chicken.

"Ah-ah-ah!" Onna-Ranma said.

Akane obliged him by opening her mouth. He placed the piece of chicken on her tongue. Akane closed her mouth and began to chew.

"Mmm!" Akane noised around the chicken.

"See? It's good, isn't it?"

"Mm, hm."

"You been just pickin' at your food for weeks."

"Have not...gurk!"

Onna-Ranma had taken the opportunity to feed Akane some rice.

"Mm not a goose, Ranma!"

"Eat!"

Akane tickled him. They carried on this way for nearly an hour before Onna-Ranma decided that Akane had finally eaten an adequate meal.

"You ready to get in a little more exercise?"

"On a full stomach?"

"Hey, pushin' hands ain't like regular trainin', now is it?"

"What about all this food?"

"Leave it out," Onna-Ranma said as they went down the stairs. "We're gonna have a short little workout. Then you'll shower and go to bed and I'll have a big snack later."

It dawned on Akane as they stepped outside that Ranma had been getting by on just two meals a day.

"Here you are fussing at me for not eating and you've only been eating two meals a day."

"Naw, I almost always find some leftovers in the refrigerator."

"Not for the last two days, you haven't!"

"It's no big deal for me Akane," Onna-Ranma said. "I didn't have any trouble eating the food in China, remember?" Food had been hard to come by, thanks to their shortage of funds and they had been forced to accept what they could beg, borrow or scavange. Game is not plentiful throughout much of China.

"How could you eat that stuff?"

"Hey! Live on the road with my old man for ten years and you'll learn to eat anything that doesn't bite you first."

"Even my cooking?"

"I said, anything that doesn't bite you first!"

Akane gave him a mock slap.

"We'll get you past your cooking problem this summer," Onna-Ranma said, "I promise."

"Oh, really, Sensei?" Akane asked, looking at him with a cocked eyebrow. "How are you planning on doing that?"

"I finally figgered out what your problem with cooking is, Akane," Onna-Ranma said with a happy, evil grin. "That means we are halfway to a cure."

Akane stared at him suspiciously.

"No! You aren't going to like it!" Onna-Ranma said, still grinning. "But you'll learn to cook."

"Hmmph! We'll see!"

"Yes, we will," Onna-Ranma said. "Now remember! Tai Chi Chuan is about using your ki, not your strength, okay?"

"Okay."

They worked for about half an hour in the simpler, standing form of pushing hands, then Onna-Ranma went inside and got some hot water so that Akane would have the chance to work with someone significantly larger than herself. Ranma was pleased with her progress, for even though she was slow in picking up the technique, she did have very powerful ki. This could be both a blessing and a curse. Powerful ki is useful, but it is also easily read by another adept. Akane would have to work hard on the problems of control.

He sent her to the shower after another half-hour of exercise. Much to his pleasure and embarrassment, she insisted that he bathe with her in his girl form. He got out of the shower first and made the special tea she was supposed drink in the lab and brought it up for her. After she drank it, Onna-Ranma cuddled up to her back and purred, hoping it would help Akane sleep, but she wanted to talk.

"Ranma?"

"Hmm?"

"What do you think will happen at the Cha No Yu, tomorrow?"

"I think Uchan is going to apologize to you for what happened at the wedding."

"You think that's all?"

"Mmm, probably."

"But that won't really settle anything, will it?"

"Hey! As far as I'm concerned, everything got settled at Jusendo, Akane."

"I know that!" Akane said, sounding slightly irritated. "But we can't just ignore Ukyo, now can we?"

Onna-Ranma took a deep breath, then sighed.

"Ukyo may have something in mind, Akane. I'm hopin' she'll bring it up tomorrow."

"You aren't planning on accepting whatever she has in mind, are you?"

"Maybe, it depends on what you and Mom think about it."

"That's all I needed to know, Ranma," Akane said and patted him on the thigh. "I can sleep now."

Onna-Ranma got up and went to the shower to douse himself with hot water.

(Time to study, big boy!)

(Yeah, okay! But let's go downstairs. I'm not comfortable up here for some reason.)

(Yeah, I know what you mean. Where do you think we ought to go?)

(I don't know. Let's look around until we see the right spot.)

(Okay.)

He hunted around the first floor for several minutes until finally settling on the closet-like space where Tofu kept his copy machine and fax.

(Why here, Saotome?)

(Beats me, Red. It just feels right to me.)

(It feels right to me too, but I'm damned if I can understand why.)

(Put the chair here?)

(That looks like the place to me, Saotome.)

(Good! You study! I'm gonna get some sleep.)

(You are bound and determined to grow up ignorant, aren't you?)

(Hey! I can't help but know what you do.)

(That's true. Mind if I wake you up if I find anything interesting?)

(What are we studying?)

(Chemistry.)

(Bleah!)

(Oh, go to sleep!)

(G'night.)

(Good night, Saotome.)

The light in the room dimmed slightly shortly after Ranma began to read, then the dark aura which had formed around his body reached out with a pair tentacles. They wavered and twisted around until they found their way behind the copier. There, they began to caress the two-hundred, twenty-volt socket in the wall. Ranma was so absorbed by what he was reading that he failed to notice what was going on around him. The sun would be well up on the horizon before he moved again.


Nabiki took a break from her studies shortly before ten and went downstairs to find a snack. Rather than go back upstairs, she decided to turn on the television and catch the evening news. One of her minions had left her a voice-mail suggesting she do so. She was disappointed at first. It was the usual folderol. The Americans were deploying troops in yet another obscure little country on yet another "peacekeeping" mission. Several of Japan's own, arch- conservatives berated the populace because Japan wasn't "doing her fair share to establish world peace." An environmentalist group was vociferously alarmed about the habitat loss of _musca domestica_ or some other such obscure creature. There was yet another banking scandal and then there was the hideous traffic jam caused by some immigrant girl on a bicycle.

"What?" Nabiki shrieked loud enough to get her father's attention.

"What's wrong, Nabiki?"

"Look!"

Sure enough, there was Xian Pu tearing along behind a milk truck on the west bound expressway.

"Isn't that Xian Pu?" Soun asked.

Nabiki nodded her head and turned up the volume.

{{"...The truck and cyclist were traveling at a little over one-hundred, fifty kilometers per hour when the police caught up to them. This was the result, captured on tape by an amateur photographer who just happened to have her video camera on hand. This clip is quite graphic and sensitive viewers may wish to avoid watching it...}}

Soun and Nabiki watched as an unmarked police car pulled up alongside Xian Pu. The footage was grainy and the camera unsteady, but they could make out the officer on the passenger side of the cruiser, motioning for Xian Pu to pull over. Xian Pu looked over at the police car, then reached out and touched it lightly with the index finger of her right hand. Rich, white smoke immediately streamed out of the tail pipe of the police car, cutting visibility in the cameraman's car to zero. The driver of the cameraman's car instinctively let off the gas, causing the cameraman to lurch forward and then to the right as he changed lanes in order to avoid the rapidly decelerating police car. The smoke cleared, as the cameraman panned right, allowing the camera to capture a glimpse of the cop on the passenger side of the car. It was a truly hideous sight to behold.

"Oh, God!" Soun cried out.

"E-e-ew! The poor guy looks like something out of a Picasso!" Nabiki said.

"More like a Dali," Soun said, as he gulped his supper back down.

The cameraman stayed on the cruiser. Soun and Nabiki watched in horror as the white smoke trailing from it suddenly turned blue-black and the car began to spin. By now it was well behind the cameraman's car. The drivers leading the traffic behind them and the police cruiser had begun to initiate panic stops. The cameraman kept filming through the back windshield of her car as the police car began to spin. After going through two complete turns, all four tires on the cruiser burst. These were not, Nabiki noted, ordinary blowouts. Bright orange flames gouted from each tire as it ruptured, adding a huge cloud of black, dusty smoke to the oily, blue-black smoke already streaming from the cruiser's exhaust pipe.

The sudden loss of its tires did nothing to improve matters for the police car. It kept spinning towards the median, trailing sparks beneath the heavy smoke as its newly bared rims skittered across the concrete roadbed, until it slammed nose first into the guardrail. It then began to spin back towards the shoulder, albeit with much less speed, until the passenger side of the cruiser made hard contact with the guardrail on the shoulder side of the expressway. There it finally came to rest, smoke curling up around it as though it were about to burst into flames. The interior of the car was filled with a fine, white mist.

The driver of the cameraman's car whipped off onto the shoulder of the road and stopped. Soun and Nabiki watched in horrified fascination as the camera lurched backwards. The driver of the camera car had slammed it into reverse began backing towards the smoking police car. He stopped several meters short of the wreck. The driver of the cameraman's car got out first, not being encumbered by a camera, then sprinted towards the wreck. The cameraman lost the picture briefly as she got out of her car, then the picture bobbed violently as she too sprinted towards the smoldering cruiser.

"I'll bet that's her husband," Nabiki said.

"Seems likely," Soun replied, with a sage nod of his head. Nabiki smiled to herself. Her father's sagely nods never failed to amuse her.

Just as the driver of the cameraman's car reached for the handle of the driver's side door of the cruiser, the camera's tinny little microphone picked up a loud bang. The police car immediately swelled up like a balloon as its windows and windshields turned into clouds of fast moving, gravel-sized fragments of tempered glass. The driver of the cameraman's car turned his face towards the camera, raising his arms in an effort to ward off the thousands of tiny fragments now whistling through the air around him. The air eructing from within the cruiser was traveling at high speed as well, for it blew the man's hair back and ruffled his clothing as though he were caught out in a short-lived typhoon.

"Damn!" Soun and Nabiki chorused.

The driver of the cameraman's car all but turned green as he grasped his nose with a thumb and forefinger. This was not enough apparently, because he then bent over double and vomited.

"Yi-e-e-ch!" Soun and Nabiki chorused as both wrinkled their noses in disgust.

The cameraman's driver again attempted to open the driver side door of the cruiser, but became too weak. He collapsed to his knees and again retched.

"There must be a terrible odor coming from the car, "Soun said.

Nabiki nodded her head in agreement.

The camera lurched forward as its operator slowed her approach towards the cruiser and killed her momentum. Her driver forced himself erect, then still holding his nose with a thumb and forefinger, he jerked at the door handle. The driver's door creaked open to reveal yet another horrible sight. The steering wheel and steering column were both gone. The speedometer and other panel gauges had popped out of the dash and were dangling by their wires above a foul looking, brown slime filling the floorboards. In their places was the badly battered and bleeding face of Officer Tetsuro Shirikawa. The camera's built-in microphone, barely useful though it was, easily picked up his screams.

"Help me! He-e-e-l-p, me-e-e-e! Help, me-e-e-e!" Shirikawa screamed.

This was obviously more than the cameraman could take because millions of viewers were suddenly treated to a fascinating view of the pavement being painted with her partially digested lunch.

"G-i-i-r-o-o-ss!" Nabki cried out, choking back on a bit of her own gore.

"Argh," Soun said, as his own complexion turned slightly cyanic. "That was dreadful."

{{"As you can see from these pictures, Officer Shirikawa's entire body somehow became wedged up behind the dashboard during the crash. His partner, Officer Norio Ohga, was not found for almost two hours. A search for his body was being conducted in the area, when someone thought to look in the police vehicle's trunk. He was found there. He had somehow been crammed into the spare tire well. This is amazing, given that Officer Ohga is one-hundred, seventy-two centimeters tall and weighs a little over eighty-two kilograms. Thankfully, both officers are reported to be in stable condition at the Kasuga Hospital. Their injuries are described as being slight. Lieutenant Hashigawa, their supervising officer, thinks that both men will be able to report for duty by noon tomorrow."}}

"I can't believe they expect those poor guys to report in tomorrow!" Nabiki said, sounding outraged.

"A policeman's life is fraught with peril, Nabiki- chan," Soun said pompously, "It is only natural to expect them to report for duty if they are able."

"Daddy! That is such...such...macho bullshit!"

Soun tried to smother a chuckle at his daughter's response and almost succeeded.

{{As all of you can see from the footage just shown, the police car seems to have suffered from a very peculiar mechanical disorder, or perhaps even several such disorders. We have had several callers suggest that the delivery girl used a powerful, martial arts technique to cause this accident.}}

Nabiki suddenly found herself holding her breath. She glanced over at her father and was amazed to see him grinning.

"Don't worry, Nabiki," Soun said. "They are going to blame it all on the car, or leave the question dangling until everyone forgets about it."

"How can you be so sure?"

"I've been around a lot longer than you have," Soun said.

{{"To examine this issue, we have invited a panel of experts in to discuss it with us. Hopefully, one or more of them will be able to shed a little light on this mysterious matter."}}

A bald headed, pompous little man wearing black gi, and sporting a white, handlebar moustache strutted onto the set and took a seat.

Soun snorted in disgust as soon as the man appeared.

{{"Here we have Sensei Inoue, now teaching judo, aikido, kendo, tae kwan do, and aerobic dance at Tokyo University as part of their Adult Education Program."}}

{{"Thank you for coming, Sensei."}}

{{"I am honored to be here," the cocky little man said with a curt bow.}}

Soun snorted even louder, "You should feel honored, you know-nothing little..."

The last of Soun's commentary was unintelligible to Nabiki, but she could easily infer two things. Firstly, her father did not like this man. Secondly, the man was not really much of a martial artist, at least not by her father's standards.

{{"Also here with us tonight, is Mr. Akira Takamatsu, Chief of Forensic Engineering for Tomobiki Motors. Welcome to our news program, Takamatus-san!"}}

{{"Thank you for inviting me," the middle-aged engineer said, as he took a seat next to Inoue.}}

{{"And finally, Doctor Horatio Yeager, Professor of History and Hoplology at Tokyo University. Hoplology is the study of combat and how humans adapt to combat conditions."}}

{{"Welcome, Doctor. We are very happy that you could visit with us and our viewers this evening."}}

{{"It is all my pleasure," the man said. He bowed, then took a seat next to Takamatsu.}}

Yeager was a very large man in his late middle-age with iron-grey hair and thick glasses. Nabiki was fairly sure from looking at him that he was blind in his left eye. He was overweight and out of shape.

Soun's reaction to Yeager's presence was markedly different from the way he reacted to Inoue. Tears began running down his cheeks, even as he made his face as hard as stone.

"Do you know him as well, Daddy?"

"Yes," Soun said, "He and Genma and I worked together from time to time."

"Oh, really?" Nabiki asked. "When?"

"Later, Nabiki-chan," Soun said. "Let's see how this goes. It might actually prove interesting with Yeager-san on the panel.

Nabiki turned her attention back to the television set with renewed interest.

{{"Sensei, with your having seen the tape just shown earlier this evening, is there any possibility that a martial arts technique of some kind wrecked the police car?"}}

{{"None whatsoever," the little man said arrogantly. "Anyone who believes that is just buying into a lot of foolishness and superstition about the use of ki, that's all."}}

{{"So you think this spectacular crash was the result of a mechanical failure or a series of failures?"}}

{{"What else could it possibly have been?" Inoue asked, then stared smugly at the camera.}}

{{"Takamatsu-san, what do you think the cause may have been?"}}

{{"We have yet to prove an exact cause, but we suspect some type of sabotage. We think it will be only a matter of time before we will be able to prove this."}}

{{"What makes you think it must have been the result of sabotage?"}}

{{"Well, the white smoke which poured out of the car when this incident began was the result of transmission fluid somehow finding its way into the fuel system. The oily, bluish-colored smoke was the result of engine lubricants being mixed into the fuel."}}

{{"Won't an engine suddenly smoke like that without warning if it has begun to fail?"}}

{{"Yes, but in this case, there is nothing wrong with the pistons or oil rings. Even the compression rings are in good shape, with only nominal wear. We checked the valve stem seals and everything. The only way this engine could have produced this particular kind of smoke, is by having engine lubricant mixed in with the fuel."}}

{{"What about the spectacular failure of the tires, Takamatsu-san? That seemed very unusual."}}

{{"It was indeed, a most unusual failure with a very unusual cause. The tires had gasoline vapor in them."}}

{{"GASOLINE VAPOR!"}}

The camera's cut over to the News-anchor, who did an excellent job of looking both shocked and outraged.

{{"Yes!" Takamatsu confirmed. Gasoline vapor! There is no way for that to have happened on accident."}}

{{"What do you make of all this, Doctor Yeager? Could it have been sabotage?" The news-anchor asked.}}

Yeager gave the cameras a huge grin before answering.

{{"I think it is too early to rule anything in or out at this point. In my opinion, we would do well to wait until the engineering reports are complete."}}

{{"So you do not rule any of these possibilities out?"}}

{{"It would be bad scientific practice to do so at this point in the investigation. Clearly, this was a very odd sort of accident, but it may well turn out to have a perfectly mundane cause."}}

{{"How do you think the officers in that car reacted to the situation they found themselves in this afternoon?"}}

{{"Oh, I'd say they reacted in a very human way, given what the man on the tape did after the windows blew out. I just imagine the smell was atrocious."}}

{{"I see. Well, that's all the time we have tonight. Thank you all for coming, gentlemen..."}}

"Good old, Yeager-san!" Soun said with a laugh, "He's still as crafty as ever!"

"So where did you meet this Professor Yeager, Daddy?"

"Well, it was a very long time ago. He was with US Naval intelligence in those days. They hired us to do one or two odd jobs for them and he was our contact."

"Us?"

"Ah, well...me and Genma and the Master."

"Oh, really? What did you guys do? Steal panties from the Russian Embassy?"

"No! Well, we only stole panties one time and then it was from the North Koreans, not the Russians."

"You guys pilfered panties from the North Korean Embassy?"

"The ambassadorial residence, actually," Soun said, as he began to redden around ears and nose. "I am not at liberty to discuss the details, of course."

"I'll just bet you're not," Nabiki said with a grin on her face and tears of suppressed laughter in her eyes. "Was the mission successful?"

"Well, yes," Soun said, looking even more embarrassed, "even though it didn't go quite as smoothly as we had planned."

"How long before we'll be able read about this in your memoirs, Daddy?" Nabiki asked, struggling mightily to prevent an outbreak of hysterics.

"Oh, in a decade or two, I suppose."

"Ooh, I never realized that my Dad was a double-oh- seven type."

"I wasn't actually," Soun said, then cleared his throat. "Genma did all the flashy stuff while the Master and I skulked around in the shadows."

"Uncle Genma?"

"Oh, he was quite the rake in his younger days, Nabiki."

This was too much. Nabiki broke out into peals of laughter. Soun stared at his daughter for a moment, then chuckled a bit himself.

"He did look ridiculous a time or two."

"A-a-a-ah!" Nabiki cried out between peals. "I can just imagine!"

Soun smiled and stared at the ceiling. Seeing Yeager had obviously brought back many memories.

"There is something I'd like ask that cannot possibly be classified, Daddy."

"Oh? What's that Nabiki?"

"Is there some ancient, historical connection between the Tendo Clan and the Joketsuzoku?"

"Not that I know about, Nabi..." Soun fell silent in mid-sentence, then thought a long time before continuing his answer. "No, I don't think so. There are some old legends, but I don't think there is any real significance to them."

Soun gave forth a mighty yawn, "Boy, I'm really sleepy! I think I'll go to bed now."

Nabiki recognized her father's dodge almost immediately, but knew better than to try to press him at that very moment. She would have to be patient. Her father was not given to lying, but could and would very often make creative use of the truth, or part of the truth. He was obviously going to bed because he did not want to discuss those old legends, but that was very unusual for him. Soun Tendo was a great raconteur and loved nothing better than telling a tall tale. She stared after him as he shuffled down the hall. Whether there was a connection between Tendo-ke and the Joketsuzoku or not, there was obviously something about the family legends her father did not want to discuss.

"I guess tomorrow I'll go buy a few bottles of saki and get him started talking after supper," Nabiki muttered to herself. "Daddy can't keep a secret from me to save his life."

Nabiki studied until nearly eleven, then went tiredly to bed. Somewhere around two in the morning she began to dream about the accident she had seen on television. She woke up screaming when she realized that she knew the contorted face that was pressed out flat against the window of the police car. It was the guy that had placed the two-hundred thousand yen bet earlier that morning. She sat bolt upright in the bed and shivered.

"Nabiki Onee-chan? Are you all right?" Kasumi asked softly from Nabiki's now open door.

"Yeah, Sis. I'm okay. It was just a nightmare."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure, Sis. Sorry to wake you up."

"Oh, you didn't wake me."

"What time did you come in?" Nabiki asked, as her mind began to put certain other events together.

"About twenty-minutes ago."

"You guys shouldn't be keeping Ranma and Akane up, like this! They both have a lot of studying to do!"

"Oh, don't worry, Nabiki," Kasumi said, cheerfully. "We didn't."

Nabiki stared at Kasumi. Her older sister seemed to have a glow about her.

"I'll just go get a bath now," Kasumi said with an angelic smile wreathing her face.

"Ah...okay, Sis," Nabiki said, still puzzling over what she was seeing. Kasumi close the door and the room darkened. Nabiki lay back down and had almost dozed back off when she suddenly found herself sitting bolt upright in her bed again.

"What did she mean, 'We didn't?'" Nabiki asked herself out loud. "Who is we? Where did they go and what did they do?"

It was at that point that Nabiki began to cry. Too much was going on too fast. Things were getting out of control and control was the one thing that Nabiki had to have in order to stay sane. She did not stop crying until she finally fell asleep from pure exhaustion at about three o' clock on Friday morning. It was going to be another very long day for her, longer than anyone, least of all Nabiki, could have possibly imagined.


End of Chapter 5 Part c
Copyright © Don Granberry