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, except those noted below, are purely fictional and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, are purely coincidental.
Jack Burton is the creation and property of W.D. Richter, Gary Goldman, and David Z. Weinstein, screenwriters for the movie _Big Trouble in Little China_. The role of Jack Burton played by Kurt Russel. The movie directed by John Carpenter.
Brief mention is made of Sensei Nobuhara Yagyu. Yagyu-Sensei is the current and twenty-first headmaster of the Shinkage-ryu hyoho. He is a direct descendent of Yagyu Sekihusai Munetoshi, the founder of the Shinkage-ryu. The Shinkage-ryu hyoho was the school of swordsmanship adopted by the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Yagyu and their allied clans were instrumental in assuring a Tokugawa victory at Sekigahara.
No insult of Yagyu-sensei or his renowned school is intended by mentioning him and the Shinkage-ryu in this story. Quite the opposite obtains. In this writer's opinion, it would be a gross violation of verisimilitude to write of a great, Japanese Martial Artist and not mention the Sensei and his school, at least in passing.
Ko Lon helped Xian Pu rush through the process of setting three places at a table near the door, then they worked like mad to set three places at a table near the counter. Xian Pu laid a large towel on the back of each chair at this table. Ko Lon stretched out a set of screens to obscure this second table from the remainder of the restaurant. The meal they set out at this table was smaller, but more sumptuous than the one laid out on the table near the door. This meal would be for herself, Kasumi, and Nodoka. Ko Lon cast an eye upon their handiwork and decided that it was satisfactory.
"All right, Xian Pu," Ko Lon said with a nod of her head, "you may fill the foot pans now."
"Yes, Great-Grandmother," Xian Pu said, then made her way rapidly towards the kitchen.
"Don't bring them out until the ladies are seated, my dear!"
Ko Lon waited calmly while speculating on how things would go. She could easily find herself knee-deep in negotiations over Ranma's nuptials, or the whole thing might turn out to be nothing more than a mere preliminary. It all depended upon the state of the Saotome woman's mind. If Nodoka was in a sufficient state of shock, she might well be willing to accept a reasonable offer from the Joketsu. Given the Japanese penchant for conformity, how many Japanese girls would want to be burdened with a dragon for a husband? How many Japanese women would want such a burden for a son? Heroes and myths are always a good deal more comfortable when viewed from a safe distance.
The door chimed as Mu Suu opened it, breaking Ko Lon's reverie. One look at Nodoka told Ko Lon she could relax. There were not going to be any serious negotiations today. Nodoka's old-fashioned hairstyle and kimono spoke volumes. The family sword she carried spoke even louder. Louder still however were Nodoka's calm demeanor and steely gaze. Ko Lon found a smile playing at her lips despite it all. A glance was all she needed to understand where the steel in Ranma's soul came from, not to mention the source of his adamantine will. Nabiki's description of Nodoka as a formidable woman was right on the mark. Razor sharp steel clothed in velvet is this one. Such a woman would never allow herself to be drawn into serious negotiations at the drop of a hat. The best Ko Lon could hope for today was to open the preliminaries.
"This way, if you would, please, ladies!" Ko Lon called out in a cheerful voice as she indicated the table behind the screen. Both Kasumi and Nodoka looked greatly relieved.
"I have warm, dry towels waiting for you, here," Ko Lon added while maintaining her welcoming smile.
"Have a seat, gentlemen," Mu Suu said to the three men in a low voice, indicating the table near the door. "I'll go fetch some towels for you."
"Thank you, Mu Suu," Tofu said softly.
"That is very kind of you, son," Tendo said in his friendliest voice.
"Ummph!" Genma noised around a mouthful of noodles.
"From father to son," Mu Suu muttered to himself in Chinese as he stripped off his rain gear.
"Elder Ko Lon," Kasumi said, "Please allow me to introduce you to Saotome Nodoka, Head of Clan Saotome and mother of Saotome Ranma, now the Cold Dragon of Nerima."
Ko Lon found herself laughing inwardly at Kasumi's proud description of Ranma. It was the one of the last things she expected, even though perhaps she should have.
"Aunt Nodoka, this is Ko Lon, Honored Elder of the Joketsuzoku, great-grandmother of Xian Pu, who claims your son's hand in marriage by rite of combat."
"I am honored to meet you at last, Elder Ko Lon," Nodoka said with a polite bow. "Thank you most kindly for inviting us in out of the weather."
"Not at all, Saotome no Mae (Dame Saotome)," Ko Lon replied and bowed her head in kind, "We are deeply honored that you grace us with your presence."
Both women bowed to one another again.
"Won't you have a seat?" Ko Lon asked.
Nodoka and Kasumi gratefully accepted the offer and began patting their faces dry with the warm towels. Both sighed with great relief.
"Warm water for feet, Honored Mother-in-law!" Xian Pu said as she gently placed a pan of fresh, hot water at Nodoka's feet. Ko Lon flashed a smile at Nodoka and Kasumi as she served them tea.
"Thank you, child," Nodoka said, then flashed a smile at Xian Pu. "That is very kind of you." Nodoka visibly relaxed as she slipped her cold, bare feet into the pan of hot water.
"I go get water for Tendo-san, now."
"You needn't trouble, Xian Pu!" Kasumi said as Xian Pu left.
"Is no trouble," Xian Pu said cheerfully over her shoulder. She quickly returned with a pan of water for Kasumi, who despite her protestations found herself greatly relieved by it.
"Try the tea, ladies," Ko Lon implored. "I think you will find it most satisfactory."
"Thank you, Honored Elder," Kasumi said.
"See that Mu Suu is looking after our other guests, would you please?"
Ko Lon joined Kasumi and Nodoka as they dug into their meal, giving them a period of silence in which to recover from their exposure to the vile weather and the shock of Ranma's change in form. She had felt the powerful wave of ki that washed over Nerima during the fight and did not need to see Ranma to know what had happened to him. As she struggled with a way to broach the subject, Nodoka surprised her by unexpectedly breaking the silence.
"Tell me, Honored Elder. What is the exact nature of your great- granddaughter's claim on my son? Is she with child?"
Ko Lon was taken back a bit by Nodoka's last question. The woman sounded positively hopeful. Was she really so eager to have her son prove himself a man? Among the Joketsuzoku, Ranma's behavior would be considered manly to the point of frigidity. To the Joketsu, a real man did not throw himself into the bed of any and every woman that crooked her finger. Here in Japan, among his own people, Ranma was a peculiarity and sadly, peculiarities were disliked and mistrusted in Japan. Doubtlessly, the boy would be better off among the Joketsu than among his own.
"Unfortunately, no," Ko Lon answered with a chuckle, "and not because my great-granddaughter wanted it otherwise. Your son has demonstrated incredible self-control and constraint for such a young man. He has been quite chary with his pillow."
Nodoka sighed while looking vaguely disappointed. Ko Lon went on to explain the nature of Xian Pu's claim in detail. Nodoka's face became a mask of great concern as Ko Lon related the tale. By the time Ko Lon had finished, Nodoka's eyes were glittering with anger.
"This is a most serious matter, Elder Ko Lon," Nodoka said in a very quiet voice. "I am very sorry this has happened."
"I am relieved to hear that you see it as a serious matter, Dame Saotome," Ko Lon said, "but I cannot see it as an occasion for unhappiness. The Joketsuzoku needs young men like your son. We would be overjoyed to make him one of our own."
The restaurant became quiet enough to make the soft rain falling outside sound like a waterfall, as the men ceased eating and talking. Nodoka leaned on the back of her chair for a moment of silent thought before speaking.
"I am very flattered that you think so highly of my son, but as you may or may not know, he has been away from home training these past ten years."
"So I have been informed, Dame Saotome."
"Then you would understand when I tell you that I am loathe to see him leave home again."
"This, of course, is perfectly understandable, Dame Saotome."
Nodoka's eyes glittered with humor now instead of anger.
"Would your great-granddaughter accept my husband's head in lieu of my son's hand in marriage?"
Choking sounds came from beyond the ladies' screen, followed by a series of rapid, hollow thumps.
"Don't worry, Saotome-kun," Soun said in a too-loud whisper, "I don't think Xian Pu will settle for your head. You are entirely too bald."
Ko Lon clamped down hard with her self-control in order to stifle a belly laugh before answering.
"I would be more than happy to bring the offer to her attention, Dame Saotome, although I think it unlikely that she will accept such an inordinately generous offer."
"On the off chance that she should find it acceptable," Nodoka said, raising her voice ever so slightly for Genma's benefit. "Will she want it delivered, or would she prefer the honor of taking it herself?"
There were more choking sounds heard from beyond the screen and Ko Lon found it impossible to stop her face from turning red.
"I will be sure to inquire as to which option she prefers, Dame Saotome."
"Good," Nodoka said. "When may we expect an answer from her?"
"Well," Ko Lon said in a speculative tone as she derived great pleasure from the noises being made across the room, "I think we should perhaps give her an adequate amount of time to consider the matter. Would a fortnight be too long for you?"
"She may take more time than that if she needs it," Nodoka said calmly, "We must not rush her into making a hasty decision."
A loud gasp could be heard from the far side of the screen, then at least one stifled chuckle. The chuckle sounded as though it were Tofu's.
"Oh, I think that should be more than enough time," Ko Lon said with a huge grin as her lips quivered on the edge of a riotous laugh. "I will give you a call on that day and let you know if she has decided or if she needs more time."
"Thank you, Honored Elder," Nodoka said, sounding sincere. "Your help in this matter is greatly appreciated."
"If I may be so bold, I suggest we both give consideration to other options during this interim," Ko Lon said. "Just in case Xian Pu does not require such a heavy price of your family."
"I find that a very wise suggestion, Honored Elder," Nodoka said, with a serious face and a nod of her head. "Something shall be done to satisfy your great-granddaughter's honor. You may rest assured of that."
Ko Lon instantly recognized Nodoka's genuine sincerity and realized that unless she played her cards carefully, a stuffed panda might well be all that the Joketsu ever received for her and Xian Pu's efforts. Whatever offer they made, it would have to be acceptable to this incredibly hard woman. She wondered if it might be wise to simply adopt the whole of the Saotome Clan as part of the Joketsuzoku. While Genma might well prove to be a significant downside to such a deal, Nodoka and Ranma would be well worth the price of any trouble he might cause. Of course, they could demand such an adoption as well as Genma's head. That might actually work out quite well. She would have to think it over carefully once the scrolls she had requested of Revered Grandmother arrived and she had a chance to read them.
"We are humbled by your respect of our customs, Dame Nodoka," Ko Lon said with a bow.
"And we by your forbearance, Honored Elder," Nodoka replied with a carefully measured bow.
"It is still raining outside, dear," Ko Lon said in less formal tones. "Would you allow me to call cab for you?" This was an overwhelmingly generous offer, given that cabbies in Tokyo habitually charged at least double their normal rates during bad weather.
"Oh that would be a godsend, Elder Ko Lon," Nodoka said with great relief.
"So tell me, Tofu," Tendo said in the best of his hale and hearty tones, "Have you tried Kirin's latest saki?"
"Well no, I didn't realize they brewed saki, Tendo-san."
"Well it's the latest thing! And let me tell you, it is the best stuff I ever drank! Would you like to try some?"
"Well," Tofu said, "it is a Friday night. Why not?"
"Good!" Tendo said cheerfully. "Bear a hand with Genma here and we'll go knock back a bottle or two!"
"Good idea, Tendo-san!" Tofu said, doing his best to sound enthused.
The three women snickered as they listened to the sounds of the two men grunting, followed by the scraping sounds of Genma being dragged through the door.
"Gerrower!" Genma noised when the rain invoked his curse. Shortly after the men's voices faded into the distance, a car pulled up outside the Nekohanten and honked.
"There's our ride, Aunt Nodoka!"
"Good night, Elder Ko Lon," Nodoka said. "Your kindness this evening will never be forgotten."
"It has been a memorable visit," Ko Lon said with a laugh. "Thank you for coming."
Mu Suu followed the two women outside with an umbrella.
"Great-Grandmother?" Xian Pu asked in her native tongue.
"I have no need whatsoever for the panda-man's head."
"I know that, Xian Pu," Ko Lon answered in their ancient dialect, "but make no mistake, Saotome-san would be more than happy to cut Genma's head off and give it to you if it meant her son could stay here at home."
"I don't want to stay here! It's too hot in the summer, damp in the winter, and I hate the noise. I want to go back to our mountains."
"We may not have a choice in that matter, child."
"Things are changing at home."
"Why? Has something gone wrong?" Xian Pu asked sounding deeply alarmed.
"Patience, child," Ko Lon said in a gentle voice. "I am waiting on word from Revered Grandmother. Once I know what her plans are, I will be able to tell you more."
"I hope this isn't going to take too long."
"No, it won't be too long, Xian Pu," Ko Lon said, being careful to keep her gentle tone. "Now let's clean this place up. I'll have Mu Suu make your deliveries on Forges Street this evening."
Tatsu-Ranma polished off the side of beef, then settled to the ground with a loud groan.
"Man, I needed that! Thanks, Nabiki," he said in his Onna-Ranma voice.
"You're welcome, Ranma," Nabiki said. "How do you feel?"
"Sleepy," Tatsu-Ranma said, then rewarded the girls and Konatsu with a toothy yawn. "I feel like I could sleep for a month."
"Think you could stay awake long enough to make it back to the clinic, Ranma?" Akane asked. "I need to get my coat."
"Sure," Tatsu-Ranma said, then struggled back up onto his four feet.
His four companions started laughing.
"What's so funny?" Tatsu Ranma rumbled in his dragon's voice.
"You're so full you look like a snake that just swallowed a big rabbit, Ran-chan!" Ukyo said, then giggled.
"Huh?" Tatsu-Ranma noised, then craned his neck so that he could get a glimpse of his midsection.
"Your belly nearly drags the ground," Akane said.
"I can't believe I ate the whole thing!" Tatsu-Ranma rumbled, the gave out a window-rattling burp.
"It's almost as though he were pregnant," Nabiki said with a giggle.
"Ah, geez!" Tatsu-Ranma said with more than a little whine in his Onna-Ranma voice. "Did'ja hafta say that?"
The girls stopped giggling and broke up laughing at him.
"We should be going," Konatsu said. "It's getting colder and it will be dark soon."
"Ranma?" Akane asked.
"Can you go into the Umisen-ken while you are in this form?"
"I think I can manage it. Why?"
"It might save us some trouble if people can't see you on our way to the clinic."
"Yeah, I guess you're right, Akane," Tatsu-Ranma said, then disappeared.
"Wow!" Konatsu exclaimed. He was deeply impressed by this. He could vanish, but not the way Tatsu-Ranma had just done it.
"Let's go, guys," Nabiki said. "My feet feel like blocks of ice."
Tatsu-Ranma broke the Umisen-ken once they reached the clinic, then slithered into the narrow green space between the clinic and the low wall, which surrounded it. Konatsu and the girls ran inside and up the stairs to the living quarters Ranma and Akane had been using for the past week. Akane stayed only just long enough to throw on a coat then went back downstairs to stay with her fiance.
"Go ahead and shower, Konatsu," Ukyo said. "Nabiki or I will go next."
Then ninja answered with a silent nod of the head and disappeared into the bathroom.
"So how did the Cha No Yu, go?" Nabiki asked Ukyo after Akane left.
"Perfect!" Ukyo declared, then explained how things ended.
"Oh, no!" Nabiki said.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's settled!" Nabiki said.
"Sure it is," Ukyo said, clearly fighting for self-control. "Ran-chan's free to marry whoever he wants, now. If he asks me, I'll say no."
"But that still leaves the trouble over your dowry and honor open to question, Ukyo," Nabiki said. "Neither Ranma nor Akane is going to be happy with that."
"Well you know, I think that really should be between me and his dad, or maybe me and his mother."
"Are you kidding? Nodoka is ready to kill for a grandchild. I know what they'll want you to do and I don't think my baby sister will go for it."
"Don't worry, Nabiki," Ukyo said firmly, "I won't go for that either."
"Are you sure, Ukyo?" Nabiki asked.
"Well, so long as Nodoka makes the offer while I'm sober, anyway."
Nabiki gave Ukyo a crooked grin. Konatsu came out of the bath wearing a dry yukata, interrupting Nabiki's train of thought.
"Where did you find that?" Nabiki asked.
"Oh, I always carry one with me," Konatsu answered. "You never know what you might need when you are a ninja."
"Go ahead and shower, Nabiki-san," Ukyo said, "I'll start us something to eat."
"Why don't you shower before you start cooking, Ukyo," Nabiki said, "You must be freezing."
"And you aren't?"
"I can shower while you cook," Nabiki said, "There is only one person in the world that cooks worse than I do."
"You're that bad?"
"Let's just say I'm a very distant second to Akane for World's Worst Cook, okay?"
"You convinced me," Ukyo said. "I'll go next."
Nabiki waited for Ukyo to start the water running before talking to Konatsu.
"So how is she holding up?"
"I'm not sure," Konatsu said. "Sometimes she won't react to something like this for a couple of days, then she goes to pieces."
Nabiki heaved a great sigh.
"You could be a lot more help to her, Konatsu."
"How? I love, Ukyo. I'm already doing everything I can for her."
"Do you love her enough to stop cross-dressing?"
"I...I have thought about it. Do you think it would do any good?"
"Trust me on this one, okay? You're around Ukyo day and night. You are as good or better at the Art as Ranma is ... "
Konatsu shook his head no. "You're comparing apples and oranges. I can't do some of the things Ranma does, but he could probably learn to do what I know."
"Are you telling me you couldn't learn from Ranma?"
"Oh, well sure I could, but ... "
"Ah ... well ... "
"Look, Konatsu, the only thing keeping you and Ukyo apart is that she has never come to think of you as a man."
"Well look at you! Look at her! Why do you think she has never been able to get anywhere with Ranma? He thinks of Ukyo as a boyhood friend. One of the guys to be exact."
"So you think Ukyo is the same way by me?"
"I'd give you very good odds on it."
"I'll ... it's a big change for me ... I don't know what sort of ... "
"Tell you what, Konatsu. How about you and I go shopping together Sunday? The first thing you need to do is to change the way you dress."
"I don't know, I don't want to leave Ukyo by herself. She might become depressed and you have never seen what she's like while she's down."
"Is it bad?"
"I stopped her from hurting herself on accident twice. She drinks a little too much when she gets depressed."
"I guess we'll take her with us then. I'll tease her into helping you choose your new wardrobe."
"Do you think she would?"
"Once I get her started? You bet. She knows more about guys clothes than I do anyway."
The water stopped running.
"Just let me handle it, okay?" Nabiki asked in a whisper.
Konatsu answered with a nod of his head.
"Oh, that felt good!" Ukyo said as she came out of the shower. "I had no idea how cold I had gotten."
Akane chose that moment to return from downstairs. She was shivering very badly.
"How's Ranma?" Nabiki and Ukyo chorused.
"He's sound asleep," Akane said between chatters. "He might be a dragon, but that fight took a lot out of him."
"Come on, Sis," Nabiki said, nodding her head towards the bath. "I'll scrub your back, you scrub mine."
"Anything to get warm!" Akane said with yet another, involuntary clack of her teeth. Nabiki had to help Akane remove her clothing once they were in the bath.
"Oh, God that's hot!" Akane shouted as she stepped beneath the shower stream.
"Do you want me to make it cooler?" Nabiki asked.
"So how's Ranma?" Nabiki asked. "Is he really asleep?"
"He might be," Akane said. "He's worried sick about how his mother is taking all this. He might have been faking sleep just so I would come inside."
"I can't blame him for wanting you to get out of the cold," Nabiki said. "And I know he's worried about what his mom thinks. You wouldn't think a dragon lady like Nodoka would mind having a dragon for a son, but then she wanted him to be a 'man among men,' didn't she?"
Akane nodded her head.
"Now that he's an ambulatory myth, she wouldn't even come over and congratulate him for winning."
"I don't think you can call dragons a myth anymore, Nabiki," Akane said. "It's not like Ranma is the only dragon we've run into. Besides, you spent what was it? Two hundred thousand feeding one today."
"Well you've got a point there, I'll have to admit," Nabiki said thoughtfully. "How are _you_ holding up?"
"I don't know," Akane said. "I guess I'm more worried that he might not be able to change back into his human form than anything else."
"That would be a real shame," Nabiki said sounding sad. "It looked to me like he had gotten control of the curse during the fight."
"Ranma says he's thinks he might have, but he can't be sure. He was pretty busy."
"Yes, he was!" Nabiki said. "At least our house was spared this time."
"Hey, that's right! They didn't even do much damage to the school this time," Akane said. "Are you ready for a turn under the shower?"
Nabiki, like Akane, did not wait to be asked twice. After luxuriating beneath the warm stream of water for a moment, something occurred to her.
"Akane, what was the name of that place where Ranma fought Safuron?"
"That was the name of the cave, right? What was the name of the mountain the cave is in?"
"Oh, aah, Kenseizan." [Fist Perfection Mountain]
"Kenseizan. Kenseizan, " Nabiki repeated to herself as she recalled kanji necessary write out the mountain's name. The character for "ken" could be read to mean fist, but it very often meant technique, especially when the use of one's ki was involved. The character for "sei" could be taken to mean "perfection" or "essence" or even both at the same time, depending upon context. "Kenseizan! Of course!"
"Don't you see, Akane? Jusenkyo is a training ground all right, but it was a training ground where you were supposed to learn how to perfect the use of your ki. That's why they named the source of the springs Fist Perfection Mountain."
"Oh, my God!" Akane exclaimed. "Why didn't we see it before now?"
"Because we never thought there might be any sort of cure besides a contradictory curse, Akane," Nabiki said, "but if Ranma has gotten even partial control of his curse, it's the only thing that makes sense."
"Nabiki, it _is_ the only thing that makes sense," Akane said. "Those springs are painfully cold. The cold water alone is more than enough incentive to do well in ordinary training. The so-called curses are what makes the place special."
"I see your point," Nabiki said. "Being dunked in bitterly cold water several times a day would make just about anyone want to improve their skill, but it's the curse that must be mastered."
"The curses mean that whoever created Jusenkyo intended it to be a place where only very advanced martial artists would come to train."
"I'll bet that it was by invitation only in the beginning and only the extremely talented were ever invited."
"Now all it takes is commitment," Akane said, sounding a little bitter, "or the wrong enemy."
"It also explains why Ko Lon hasn't given up on Ranma and gone home, Akane."
"Huh? Ko Lon? Ko Lon doesn't want to marry Ranma."
"You don't think Xian Pu would have stayed here all this time without Ko Lon, do you? What would she have done for a living? Rob people? Ko Lon wants Ranma for her tribe. To her, he's prime breeding stock. It isn't just Ranma's strength and skill she's interested in. She wants to breed his talent into her tribe."
"Whatever you do, don't say anything like that to Nodoka, okay? She might try to put him out to stud."
"Now why didn't I think of that?" Nabiki asked in the cheerful tone she that usually got when she had hit upon a good moneymaking scheme. "We wouldn't even need to send him to China to do that."
"NABIKI! Ranma is NOT a horse!"
"Oh? Why the funny name then?"
"Seriously, Akane, think about it. Ranma is Nodoka's only child and the only heir to his school. Nodoka is probably more worried about the continuation of her family line than she is anything else. It would explain a lot."
"Including that stupid contract she's been all too willing to execute?"
"Hmm, all or nothing," Nabiki said, "you're right. That doesn't make any sense at all. There has to be more to it than what we've discovered so far."
"It makes perfect sense if you view yourself and your son as nothing more than breeding stock," Akane said glumly. "Animal breeders very often kill their inferior stock to keep the bloodline strong."
Nabiki tried to stop her gasp before it got out but failed. She looked up at her younger sister. Akane had become fascinated with the tiles of the shower floor.
"Akane, I could probably get you out of this engagement if you want out."
Akane shook her head no.
"Are you sure, little sister?"
"He chose me, Nabiki," Akane said barely loud enough to be heard above the running shower. "Ranma has chosen me above all else, even The Art."
This took Nabiki back more than a little. Has she been sharing Ranma's futon, Nabiki wondered? Why else would Akane be so certain?
"What makes you believe that, Akane?"
"Because I tried to seduce him and he wouldn't let me," Akane said in a tight little voice. "He said he wanted to save that for our wedding night."
Nabiki's mind reeled at this.
"Did he say he would give up The Art so he could marry you?"
"He said he can't teach me until he's licensed to teach," Akane answered. "He said that if Happosai wouldn't be fair about it, that he would quit the Anything Goes School and go to one of the Koryu."
Nabiki gasped again. Koryu are the very exclusive, very traditional and hard to get into schools of martial arts. Most of them have been around for seven hundred years or more. Strictly Japanese in tradition, they teach primarily weapons skills, but Ranma's thinking was obvious, to Nabiki. A license to teach is a license to teach. It need not necessarily be from his own family's school. Once licensed, he could teach the skills of both schools, so long as he did not claim title to his family school. More importantly Ranma could found his own school independently of his family line. The license from a Koryu would give him all the credibility he needed to found a completely new school and the beginnings of a new tradition. Nabiki found herself placing one hand against the wall of the shower in order to stop the world from spinning. Who would have expected Ranma Saotome to think that far ahead?
"Is he sure he could do that, Akane?"
"He has an open invitation to come back from more than one sensei, Nabiki," Akane said with heartfelt pride in her voice. "Most of them understand that Ranma is not anything like his father."
"Where does he plan to go if things don't work out?"
"You don't need to know."
Now Nabiki was thoroughly impressed. Not just with Ranma, but with her younger sister as well. Ranma the "dumb jock" and her little sister, also "a dumb jock," had come up with a secret, secondary plan of action on their own. What's more, they understood the necessity of concealing it. It made Nabiki's regrets that much sharper. Ranma was now completely out of her reach and so long as Akane lived, he would remain that way. Mission accomplished, girl! she thought to herself bitterly. You did real good.
"Are you all right, Nabiki?"
"Ah ... I think I had better get something to eat," Nabiki said. "I'm feeling a little light-headed."
"What did you do, skip lunch?"
"Thanks to Tarou, yes."
"It must be the smell of Ukyo's cooking getting to you," Akane said with her prize-winning smile. "It's starving me to death."
"It does smell good. Let's go!"
Within in minutes of arriving at Tendo-ke, Kasumi and Nodoka found themselves happily ensconced in a furo of very hot water. Well, perhaps more accurately they were comfortably ensconced. Nodoka was not particularly happy. She closed her eyes, then placed her cold towel over her upper face in order to hide her tears.
"Are you all right, Aunt Nodoka?"
"Genma has made a monster of my son," Nodoka answered as she began to shake. "Perhaps we should let Ranma return to China with the Joketsu. To insist that he marry into your clan would not be fair, nor reasonable."
Kasumi then had a most unusual and disagreeable experience. She frowned.
"I cannot find it in my heart to blame my son for his condition," Nodoka said, choking back a sob. "It is not his fault."
"He is _not_ a monster, Aunt Nodoka."
"Please, Kasumi-chan, do not patronize me! What else could you possibly call that scaly thing I saw gulping down the pieces of a shattered statue?"
"Your son! Ranma Saotome, defender of home and kin."
Nodoka removed her towel and gave Kasumi a hard stare.
"You should be very proud of him, you know," Kasumi said, meeting Nodoka's gaze without so much as batting an eye. "Ranma became what he needed to become in order to defeat a real monster and send it packing."
"You think I am being unfair."
"Yes, Aunt Nodoka. I do."
"Do you have any idea what our neighbors are going to think about this?"
"I don't know," Kasumi said, "and I don't care. I believe they should be grateful to him with the likes of Pansuto Tarou roaming about. Tarou is a monster in both his forms. Ranma is not monstrous in any form"
"How can you say that, Kasumi-chan?" Nodoka asked, choking with emotion. "He became a long... scaly ... THING!"
"He became dragon, yes. A monster? No. Ranma could have easily killed Tarou while in that form, but he let the boy live. Even though Ranma has good reason to want him dead, he let Tarou live."
Nodoka put the towel over eyes, then leaned back against the tub.
"Who is this Tarou fellow, anyway?"
"He is a very naughty, power-lusting little boy that lives in China. He became that way because Happosai bathed him in the waters of Jusenkyo the day he was born, and gave him the name Pansuto. Unlike your son, Tarou allowed the foolishness of others turn him into a true monster. Ranma has faced every challenge thrown at him and managed to cling to his humanity. I am very proud of your son, even if you are not."
Kasumi quavered with anger by the time she finished. Nodoka stared at the younger women in wide-eyed shock.
"Rest assured that my father will never release Ranma from his promise to marry one of us," Kasumi said.
"How do you know that, child?"
"Because he knows he will spend his old age in hell if he does," Kasumi said.
"And if both your sisters have doubts about marrying him?"
"Then I will marry him!" Kasumi practically snapped. "Tendo-ke will live up to this commitment. We would be a shame to our entire clan if we did not. Ranma has done nothing to deserve belittlement from our clan or the Saotome!"
"You must have great faith in Akane's love for him," Nodoka said, in a quiet, sly voice.
"Yes, I do," Kasumi said. "And more than a little in Nabiki's as well"
"Nabiki's?" Nodoka asked, sounding shocked.
"Hadn't you noticed, Aunt Nodoka?"
"Now that you mention it, I had noticed that she seems fond of Ranma in a way, but what of you, Kasumi-chan?"
"He is everything I ever wished for in a little brother," Kasumi said with a smile. "I love him dearly. I would not choose to marry him, given a choice, but I will do what honor demands of me and my family."
Kasumi paused and exchanged unflinching stares with Nodoka.
"Besides," Kasumi said with a mild blush reaching her cheeks, "I do not believe I would find being Ranma's wife that much of a burden."
This was too much, even for the steely Nodoka Saotome. She began to weep without restraint. Kasumi did her best to comfort the older woman, even as she wondered what on earth could have possibly made Nodoka into what she had become. Kasumi could not know that Nodoka was feeling no shame, but wept from relief instead. The Saotome had always lived under harsh rules and in many ways, Nodoka was the perfect product of those rules. Nodoka's father had chosen Genma for her over other prospects for his cunning prowess as a Martial Artist. Other worries and considerations had been matters of secondary or little concern at all to him. Insofar as the grandson he would never meet was concerned, his decision was now being vindicated. Genma's best had done well by Ranma, yet Ranma seemed impervious to the worst of Genma's flawed influences. Her son was indeed proving himself a man among men.
Mu Suu finished the night delivery run along Forges Street without incident, returning to the Nekohanten shortly after midnight. Ko Lon, much to his alarm, called him over to a table and asked him to sit down.
"What is it, Honored Elder?"
"I need a favor of you, Mu Suu," Ko Lon said, "I want you to understand that you should feel free to say no. I would not blame you for refusing me in this."
"What do you need done, Elder?" Mu Suu asked, feeling a lump of ice form in his stomach. Ko Lon NEVER asked anyone to do anything. She either ordered it done, or suggested that it should be done, or did whatever she wanted done herself, without ever mentioning it. This could not be good and he had little doubt that it had to do with Ranma Saotome turning into a dragon earlier in the day. They had all felt the powerful wave of ki as it washed over them when it happened and Ko Lon had explained in detail, making no attempt to obfuscate the facts.
"I need you to go have a look at Ranma Saotome," Ko Lon said.
"Is that all?" Mu Suu asked, sounding surprised. "I can do that in fifteen minutes or less."
"No! You cannot," Ko Lon said emphatically. "The Saotome child is more dangerous than a troopship full of Musk right now. You must approach him without alarming him or arousing any additional suspicions in him."
This gave Mu Suu a bit of a pause.
"Saotome has always been dangerous, but he has always had great control," Mu Suu said. "Why do you think him so dangerous now?"
"As with any dragon, he is worried about something happening to his treasure, Mu Suu," Ko Lon said. "And to make matters even more risky, this is his first night as a dragon. He has yet to become familiar with his new senses and power. He could easily do you great harm before either of you realized what was taking place."
"Hmmm," Mu Suu said. "Then perhaps I should make an open approach by simply walking up to the clinic wall. Any attempt to be extra quiet would only alarm him."
"That is my thinking as well, Mu Suu," Ko Lon said, sounding very pleased with the lanky Amazon. "Your ability to think does your family credit."
"Thank you, Elder."
"If you go, you must be prepared to dodge any of his strikes and retreat quickly," Ko Lon said. "You are not to fight him, even if it costs you your life."
Mu Suu's jaw went slack.
"I am very serious about this Mu Suu. Muko-dono could destroy half of Nerima before he became aware of what he was doing. Should he become angry with us, we would never be able to escape him," Ko Lon said. "You must understand how grave the risk is."
"Why not just leave him alone then?" Mu Suu asked.
"I would prefer to do that," Ko Lon said. "If I thought that the wisest course, I would leave him alone."
"You want to know what he is thinking, don't you?"
"Correct again, Mu Suu!" Ko Lon said. "I also want him to understand that we will not harm him or any of his family, especially she whom he treasures most at the moment."
"By that I gather you mean Tendo-ke as well."
"That I do. Be certain to tell him that we will not harm any of them in any way."
"All right," Mu Suu said. "I think I'll walk rather than ride the bicycle. I will look considerably less threatening to him that way."
Ko Lon thought about the way Xian Pu so often approached Ranma on a bicycle and nodded her head in appreciation of Mu Suu's forethought.
"Whatever he does when you first approach him, Mu Suu, remain calm. A sudden movement might trigger his reflexes and they are far faster now than ever before, believe me."
Mu Suu nodded his head.
"If he shows himself, be sure to make note of how large he is in this form."
"How big do you think he will be?"
"I would be surprised if he is as long as twenty meters," Ko Lon said, "but he has not held to the usual pattern according the information I have. He has made this transition much sooner than I had reason to expect."
"You expected to hear from home before this happened, didn't you?"
Ko Lon nodded her head. "Yes, I did. No one gifted by the Cold Dragon has ever made the transition this quickly and I haven't a clue as to why this has happened."
"Could it have been the fight he got into today?"
"Oh, I am quite sure that it was the trigger, but he should not have been able to make this change because of this single fight."
"You did not see him fight Safuron, Ko Lon," Mu Suu said. "Saotome does whatever he thinks he must and the laws of nature be damned for all he cares."
"You are that impressed by him?"
"I am scared spit-less of him," Mu Suu said, "and have been since we started our return trip from Jusenkyo."
"Then you understand the risks involved," Ko Lon said. "Go with care Mu Suu. I will wait up for you."
"One question before I go, Honored Elder."
"Have you warned Xian Pu to stay away from him and the Tendo family?"
"I have explained to her. You needn't be jealous of Ranma any longer."
"You misjudge the gravity of my concerns, Honored Elder!" Mu Suu said as he adjusted his glasses. "The thought of a dragon falling into the throes of the nekoken gives me pause."
Ko Lon paled at the thought of Ranma falling into the madness of the nekoken while a dragon. The very idea of such a thing fell into the same category as signing up to face the Legions of Doom upon the Har Meggido. After a moment's reflection, she decided signing up for Armageddon might be the more attractive prospect. At least you might have the chance to enlist an escort for crossing the Styx at Har Meggido. Such would not be the case if you faced a maddened Ranma in his draconian state.
Mu Suu threw on his foul weather gear and left. The Nekohanten, normally a brightly lit and convivial abode suddenly seemed a cold and lonely place.
End of Chapter 7 Part a
Copyright © Don Granberry.