Most of the characters in this piece and the setting for it were conceived of by Rumiko Takahashi for her Ranma 1/2 series of Manga. All such characters and the setting are the property of Takahashi-sensei and her licensees. All other characters, except those noted below, are purely fictional and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Brief mention is made of Sensei Koyama Takako. Koyam-sensei is the current headmaster of the Yoshin-ryuu.
No insult of Koyama-sensei or the Yoshin-ryuu is intended by mentioning them in this story.
Many extra special thanks go to my pre-readers for helping to improve this piece.
There is a fine line of distinction between what one's senses relay, and what the mind apprehends. The senses often relay far more information than the mind bothers to notice. This is good, for it allows us to ignore the distant boom-box or the smell of automobile exhaust until they present an actual hazard to our well-being. It is bad because we fail to hear all of the music, having become inured to noise. We fail to notice the difference when the butter used to make the cookies is fresh, because we live in a city full of automobiles filling the air with their exhaust.
Ranma Saotome's senses did not become much sharper because he was now a dragon part of the time. What had happened was that his mind was now much more aware of what his senses were telling him, having once experienced the acute senses of his draconian form. Right now, as he slowly drifted up from a deep sleep, lying on the very edge of wakefulness, his senses were telling him that he and Akane were no longer at the clinic.
He knew Akane was nearby because he could smell her, hear her breathing, and feel the warmth emanating from her body. She lay on the futon next to his. For some reason, this news did not alarm him at all. He found that confusing. Why shouldn't he be worried? Oh, yes. Tofu! Tofu had told him something about taking a trip out to the country. Something about riding in the old ambulance a friend of his had bought from the fire department. Retired ambulances could always be had for bargain prices in Japan. Virtually no one wanted anything to do with something a person might have died in. Elderly Japanese would often refuse to even ride to a hospital in one. Ranma remembered the early part of the ride now. Tofu had put him on a bed built into the ancient, rattling rig rather than a gurney. He remembered that it still held the faint odor of a hospital. The boxlike vehicle reeked of antiseptics and other things he could not identify. Maybe they had been the residual ki left by previous passengers. He shuddered at the memory of riding in the thing.
Ranma lay still and quieted his mind so that his senses could speak to him without interference. The house they were in was large and old. It smelled of aged wood blessed with years of polish and the warm aroma of thousands of meals cooked in a happy kitchen. The ambient sound of the place was spacious and relaxing. There was a pine near the window. Ranma could hear the breeze whispering through its needles. There was the faint yet heavy rumble of moving water off in the distance. Were they near the sea? There was no definable rhythm to the sound. Probably a waterfall, he thought. Another long slow breath told him that others were nearby. Kasumi and Tofu he identified right away, the third person took him a bit longer. He puzzled with the information for a moment until he realized that it was his mother. He opened his eyes and smiled. The quiet of this place was comforting, like the soft weight of an old blanket.
Ranma rolled to his left. The shifting weight on his chest informed that he was still in female form. Akane, he could see, was at least partially awake and did not appear to feel very well.
"Hey, Tomboy," Onna-Ranma whispered as he reached across with his right hand to caress Akane's tummy. "You okay?"
"I ache all over," Akane murmured.
Onna-Ranma stopped stroking Akane's stomach.
"Don't stop," Akane said in a soft voice. She turned her head towards Ranma and gave him that warm smile he treasured so much. "That felt good."
"Hmmm," Onna-Ranma said as he resumed caressing her. "I think you could use a hot soak and a rubdown."
"I don't think I can make it to the furo, Ranma," Akane mumbled softly.
"Sure you can," Onna-Ranma said. "I'll help you."
"Oh? And who will help me while I bathe?"
Onna-Ranma gulped then squeaked out, "I ... I ... could do that."
"I'd like that," Akane murmured around a sunny smile, then winced when she tried to shift her weight.
"I'll go warm up the bath," Onna-Ranma said as he slowly got to his feet. "I'll bet no one thought to fire it up last night."
Akane watched Onna-Ranma on his wobbling legs for a moment, then asked softly, "Are you sure the two of us can manage this on our own?"
"Hey! We're talkin' Ranma and Akane here," Onna-Ranma said with a cocky grin. "There ain't nothin' we can't handle together."
Akane smiled at Onna-Ranma again, making him feel as though he were sitting out in the sun, even though they were indoors on a cold gray day. A wave of dizziness washed over him and he leaned up against the door-frame for support.
"Try not to hurt yourself, Ranma. You look like you have the hangover to end all hangovers."
"Hmmph!" Onna-Ranma snorted. "Wait'll ya see what's waitin' in the mirror for YOU."
"Bleeyah!" Akane stuck her tongue out at her fiance.
Onna-Ranma chuckled at her, then wobbled out of the room in search of the furo. He had to use the wall for support more than once.
At Tendo-ke, Nabiki stole quietly down the second-story hallway to Happosai's room. Careful not to make any unnecessary noise, she eased the door open and slipped inside. She knew exactly where to find what she was after and was gone in mere seconds. The two boxes she had retrieved were small, but heavy. Happosai's seals, or "hanko," were made of stone.
Once downstairs, Nabiki hurriedly donned her overcoat and picked up her umbrella. If everything went well, and she suspected it would, she would be back at Tendo-ke just in time to head off any mischief her father and Genma cooked up. Thankfully, Nodoka and Kasumi left a long list of things they wanted the two old farts to do. Nabiki grinned to herself as she made her way to the bus stop. It would be fun playing supervisor once she got back. Probably even more fun than tormenting the Happosai.
Ranma was grateful to find that he and Akane had been given a room on the ground floor. Akane was in no shape to be negotiating stairs. His mother's doing, he decided. The furo turned out to be something of a surprise. It was huge, and very well appointed. He found the water heater after a bit of searching. It was hidden from easy view, being enclosed in a closet. It was one of the old-fashioned gas heaters with a gas pilot-light rather than having an electrical pilot. The pilot-light was not lit. Such frugality did not surprise him. It made no sense to leave the pilot-lights burning in a seldom-occupied house. He checked the sight glass to make sure the tank was full of water, then, after a few minutes of fiddling about with matches and buttons, the heater came on with a satisfying "woof!"
"Shit!" Onna-Ranma whispered to himself. "It's gonna take this thing an hour or more to heat up that much water. I may as well make tea and get breakfast started."
He found the kitchen without any trouble. The old house was large, but its layout was very traditional. The stove was of a kind Onna-Ranma had only seen in small restaurants. It had three burners on a side with a heavy cast iron-griddle in the middle. A large, four-liter perhaps, brass kettle sat on the griddle towards the back. Onna-Ranma turned a knob, but there was no gas. He stood up on his tiptoes and felt around behind the stove, giving out a sigh of relief upon finding the gas valve. There was a box of matches stored on a nearby shelf. He used one to light the pilot burners and was grateful when they lit. It meant that he would not have to go outside and find the propane tank. He filled the kettle with water and set it down on one of the burners set to high. The kettle began to creak and hiss merrily as the water began to heat.
Casting an eye about the kitchen, Onna-Ranma noticed that there were four bags of groceries, a new electric rice cooker and a shallow casserole pan holding something wrapped in damp dish towels.
"Awright!" Onna-Ranma whispered after peeking at what was wrapped in the damp towels. "Willow bark! Just what Akane needs."
He rummaged around until he found a small saucepan, ran about a cup of water into it at the sink, then set it onto the stove to heat. He looked right at the kitchen's set of knives twice before realizing what they were. They were stored in a wooden block rather than in a drawer. He retrieved the paring knife from the block, then with practiced skill, he used it to remove a long strip of the cambial layer from the inside of the willow bark, making the strip a little wider than his thumb. Onna-Ranma held it up by one end, wondering if he shouldn't cut it in two, then decided that the strip was about the right length for what ailed Akane. He coiled it up and dropped it into the saucepan. The stove's burners proved very efficient. The water in the saucepan began to boil less than a minute later. He turned down the heat and put a lid on the pan, then set about storing the groceries in the cupboard and refrigerator.
The water in the large kettle was not quite hot enough to make tea, so Onna-Ranma decided to get the rice for breakfast started. Ordinarily, two-and-a-half cups of dry rice would be enough for five people, but he decided he wanted Akane to eat a little extra. He threw three cups dried of rice into the cooker, along with two tins of chicken stock, plus one tin of water, then one and a half teaspoons of salt, and turned the cooker on. He noticed a few packages of instant miso in the groceries, and decided that he may as well start it. Once the soup was started, he put a block of tofu out on the counter so that it could warm up a bit.
The water in the large kettle was finally hot enough to make tea, so he rummaged around in the cabinets looking for a teapot. Actually, he found two teapots. One of them was a bit smaller than the other and had the kanji for medicine on its sides. Onna-Ranma wondered where Tofu had found it. The kanji had not been written onto the teapot after it had been made, but was in fact part of the vessel's glaze. With a shrug of the shoulders, he poured the willow-bark tea into the medicinal teapot and then made ordinary tea in the other. It was then that he remembered that he was supposed to be drinking a cup of special brew every morning, but decided it could wait. Akane's sore muscles took precedence. He loaded up everything he needed onto a tray, then put the large kettle back on the griddle so that the water would stay hot without quickly boiling away, and made his way back to his and Akane's room.
"Ranma?" Akane asked as the door to their room slid open.
"Yeah, Akane, it's me."
"What have you been doing?"
"Making you some tea. It took me a while to find everything."
"Oh," Akane said with a smile, "I thought you had gotten lost."
"What? You got me mixed up with Ryouga, or something?" Onna-Ranma asked as he poured some of the willow-bark tea into a cup.
"No," Akane said as she tried to sit up, then immediately regretted it. "Ow! I don't."
"Here, this will make some of the pain go away," Onna-Ranma said as he handed Akane the medicinal tea. "Try to drink it fast."
"Does it taste that bad?"
"No, not really, but it isn't all that good either. It tastes like tea made from a bale of hay or something."
Akane gave him a questioning look.
"It's tea made from willow bark," Onna-Ranma said. "It does about the same thing as aspirin, but it works faster and ain't nearly so bad about upsettin' your stomach."
Akane sipped cautiously at the tea, then immediately made a face.
"See? I toldja."
Akane glanced up at her fiance just long enough to stick out her tongue at him, then gulped down her medicine.
"Here," Onna-Ranma said, holding out the pot of ordinary tea. "A cup of this will kill the taste."
"You're welcome, Akane."
Akane sipped her second cup of tea as Ranma poured a cup for himself, then asked, "Ranma?"
"Hmm?" Onna-Ranma noised as he sipped his tea.
"Why didn't you tell me Ryouga was cursed?"
Ranma choked, nearly spewing tea all over the room. He had to gasp for air a couple of times before setting his cup down. He wanted to be able to dodge without flinging tea all over the room.
"You mean you finally figured it out?"
"No!" Akane said emphatically and sounding peeved, "I saw him change yesterday while you were trying to pick a fight with him."
"So WHY didn't you tell me?"
"Akane," Onna-Ranma said, then paused to rid himself of the catch in his throat. "Ryouga became cursed because of me. It was an accident. I wasn't in my right mind at the time, but it was my fault just the same. I promised him I'd never tell anyone that he was cursed."
"How was it your fault?"
"He followed me and Pop to China when I didn't show for our duel all those years ago. He caught up with us at Jusenkyo. He got there just after I had fallen into the Spring of Drowned Girl. I was completely berserk and was chasin' Pop around when I accidently knocked him into the Spring of Drowned Piglet."
"When did you finally find out?"
"The same night you met P-chan."
"He probably lied to you."
"Oh, come on, Akane," Onna-Ranma said, not believing Ryouga could think of such a thing on his own. "Ryouga wouldn't up make something like that!"
"You think not, Ranma? I've got plenty of reason not to trust him."
"Yeah, ... well ... I guess you do. I mean, I ain't exactly proud of him for doin' what he did, but you gotta understand how things are with Ryouga. It ain't like he's got the brains to plot nothin'. He just got into a jam with you, that's all. He shouldn't have kept it up, but he probably would never have started it if things had been just a little bit different."
"Hmmph!" Akane snorted. "Believe me, Ranma. I have more reasons than you know to hate and mistrust that bastard. And he's no friend of yours, no matter what you think of him."
"Akane," Onna-Ranma said sounding desperate, "he didn't mean you any harm. It's just that ... "
Akane had begun giving Onna-Ranma a hard stare.
"Just what, Ranma?"
"He fell in love with you after you were nice to his piggy-half. The poor, dumb sod just got into a trap, that's all. The only way he could be close to you was to be your pet pig."
"Horseshit," Akane said in a quiet, menacing way as her face grew hard. Her eyes became glacially cold. Onna-Ranma said nothing. He had never seen Akane like this. This was nothing like her usual _modus operandi_. By all rights, he should have been halfway to the moon by now, and he had never heard Akane use that kind of language. He decided that she must be terribly sore or he would have already been trying to pick soft spot to land on.
"He's a pervert, Ranma! And he has caused no end of trouble between us," Akane said as tears started coming into her eyes. "Trouble he could never have started because he couldn't have found out how without listening to me while I talked to my cute little pet pig. I'll never forgive him for that."
Onna-Ranma closed his eyes and took a deep breath before speaking. "Maybe so, Akane, but we, you and I, made it easy for him to cause trouble between us. Didn't we?"
Akane smiled through her tears and held it for a moment, then began to giggle.
"I suppose we did," Akane said. "I should have seen through him, and it's not like either of us went out of our way to get along."
"You know," Akane said, pausing as she stared down into her teacup, "I wouldn't get mad at you nearly as often if you wouldn't embarrass me all the time."
"Embarrass you?" Onna-Ranma asked in a surprised voice.
"Yes!" Akane said in a louder voice, not quite a shout. "You embarrass me all of the time, Ranma."
"Well ... well ... I don't mean to! I couldn't help what the curse was doin' to me all that time."
"I'm not talking about the curse!" Akane snapped. "I know there wasn't much you could do about that. It's the things you say and do in front of other people that upsets me."
"Like calling me names! Or making fun of me."
"I ... er ... Hell! You know I don't really mean it half the time."
"Other people don't, Ranma! That's the point."
"Who cares what other people think, Akane? I don't pay any attention ta hardly any of 'em until they become a nuisance."
"Or you need something from one of them?" Akane asked, in an arch tone. It brought Onna-Ranma up short.
"I ... I ... hadn't thought about it that way before."
"That's the problem with you, Ranma. You aren't really mean, or a bad person," Akane said, pausing to wipe tears from her eyes. "You're just thoughtless sometimes."
"I'll try to do better, Akane."
"I promise," Onna-Ranma said, sounding contrite. He was now fiddling with the end of pigtail and had a very sheepish look on his face.
"And I hate the way you let Xian Pu hang all over you!"
Onna-Ranma became very red in the face as Akane continued.
"You could have stopped that at any time if you had really wanted to."
"Not without getting you hurt or maybe even both of us hurt," Onna-Ranma said, trying to contain his anger.
"Oh, really?" Akane asked, with an arched eyebrow. "Like you did when she put that stupid brooch on?"
Onna-Ranma's anger vanished, replaced with deep embarrassment.
"It's ... it's ... compli ..."
"Yeah!" Onna-Ranma exclaimed, sounding irritated. "But that ain't the whole thing and you know it. Back then I wasn't all that sure I wanted to marry you--or anyone else! D'ya think I enjoyed watchin' you cuddle up with P-Chan and carryin' him off to your bed every time he blundered into town?"
Much of Akane's anger dimmed for a moment, then flared back into full scorch mode.
"You could have put a stop to that as well."
"I tried!" Onna-Ranma said, becoming angry again. "I threw every hint I could atcha!"
"Why didn't you just tell me about him, Ranma?"
"Oh, tell you? You mean like you'd ever listen long enough for me to tell ya somethin'? I'm usually half-way ta the moon by the time I get two words out of my mouth!"
Akane closed her eyes and took a long deep breath before speaking again.
"I guess we both have been pretty stupid," Akane said.
Onna-Ranma opened his mouth to speak, then closed it abruptly. His face seemed to suggest that he was about to agree with Akane, but then changed his mind. For several moments he seemed to be having an argument with himself, then finally he spoke, sounding as though he did not really want to say what he was saying.
"I guess we both made our fair share of mistakes, Akane."
Akane stared at Onna-Ranma in silence for a moment. Such an admission coming from him was very nearly unprecedented. Of course, it was just the two of them in the room.
"Both of us?"
"Yeah, both of us. Maybe I made a couple that I really shouldn't of made."
"So did I," Akane said, in a much softer voice.
"Yer dern tootin', ya did!"
Akane glared at Onna-Ranma.
"Ah ... uh ... both of us did."
Akane seemed only somewhat mollified.
"Ya gotta give me a little break here, Akane," Onna-Ranma said, notes of pleading dominating his voice. "I ain't all that good at this stuff! Ya know?"
Akane gave Onna-Ranma a sly grin before answering.
"Yer dern tootin' you're not any good at it."
Onna-Ranma opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to think better of it and closed his mouth. He sat in silence, staring at the now mystified Akane for a moment, then grinned at her.
"But I'm gonna get better at it, startin' right now."
Akane giggled and her tears began to dry.
"You're gonna hafta learn to listen long enough for me to explain things, you know."
"All right, Ranma," Akane said, as the first faint traces of a smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth, "I will, but only if you'll try to find a brake for that jawbone of yours, especially when other people are around."
Onna-Ranma started to speak, then stopped himself and stared at the floor for a moment.
"Promise me you won't go after Ryouga the next time he shows up."
"Okay, I promise, but I will never forgive him, Ranma. Think of him as your friend if you want, but I'll never trust him or like him ever again. He was always acting oh-so-very-noble and superior to you, yet he was deceiving me about being P-chan all that time. He was taking advantage of both of us. Neither of us deserved that kind of treatment from him, the bastard!"
The light of sudden realization dawned in Onna-Ranma's mind.
"That's how you got like this, isn't it? You were chasing Ryouga this time instead of me."
Akane nodded her head.
"I guess that means Ryouga owes that goofy dogcatcher a life-debt, doesn't it?"
Akane's eyes were as hard as stone as she silently nodded her head again.
"You let your temper get completely away from you, didn't you?" Onna-Ranma asked while giving Akane a disapproving stare.
Akane looked shamefaced as she nodded her head, then whispered, "Yes."
"He really was in love with you, you know," Onna-Ranma said. Akane started to speak, but he held up his hand. "Wait! Listen ta what I'm tryin' to tell ya, okay?"
Akane took a deep breath, then nodded her head.
"Ryouga would give his life for yours right now, if he had to. Even though he's finally started givin' up on you, he threatens me every time he thinks I'm not takin' good enough care of ya. He's helped me every time it really mattered, even though he didn't want to. Even though with me out of the way he could have had a chance to ... to ... "
"Sleep in my bed in his real form?"
"Aw, Akane! He ain't like that! He was in love with you. He did everything he could for both of us at Kenseizan! Remember?"
Akane's eyes remained very hard as she stared at Onna-Ranma. Then slowly, as seconds seemed to tick by at the rate of one per millennium, they began to soften a little. Not much, but enough to make Onna-Ranma breathe a sigh of relief.
"Drink your tea, Akane," Onna-Ranma said gently, having decided that a change in subject was in order. "It'll help the medicine work faster."
Akane took another sip of tea as Onna-Ranma scooted down to the foot of her futon.
"Let me have your right foot," he demanded as he held his girlish hands out.
Akane winced at the effort required to raise her leg, but Onna-Ranma caught her leg under the knee with his left hand, taking the weight off her sore stomach muscles. Akane sighed with relief as he began to massage the sole of her right foot with his thumb while kneading the top of it with his powerful little fingers.
"Oh!" Akane cried out. "That really helps."
Onna-Ranma gave her an evilly cocky grin.
"Learned this trick from Pops. He used to rub my feet for me at night when I was little."
"During the early part of your trip?" Akane asked, then winced at the odd mix of pleasure and pain that Onna-Ranma's ministrations were causing her.
"It's funny. Whenever I get really mad him, I remember him doin' this for me and I can't stay mad at him anymore. He always tried pretty hard to take care of me, even if he has pulled some major boners."
"Like the Nekoken training?"
"That was one of his major screwups, all right," Onna-Ranma said, "but not the only one and not necessarily the worst."
"Were his swimming lessons really as bad as the Nekoken training?"
"Much worse!" Onna-Ranma said with a shudder, then grinned despite the memories running through his mind. "Lucky for me, we found someone who knew a lot more about teaching people to swim. The old man had to work his ass off for 'em for a couple of months, but things came out a lot better in the end."
"So your dad didn't really teach you how to swim?"
"No, but he taught me what I know about fighting under water."
Akane shivered at this last, but then smiled.
"Are you planning on taking me to the same person?"
"Yeah, but only to teach you how to swim," Onna-Ranma said cheerfully. Then his voice took on a note of menace, "The water fighting techniques you'll hafta learn from me, so you had better pay close attention to your swimming instructor."
"Who is he?"
"Oh, you'll meet her soon enough."
"Yep. She'll probably help me fix your breathing, too."
"There's nothing wrong with my breathing!"
"Think so, huh?" Onna-Ranma said, annoying Akane with another of his cat-got-the-canary grins. "Give me your other foot."
Akane gave Onna-Ranma a thoughtful look, as though she had just gotten his point. While she certainly had not sat idle at home while she was growing up, the intensity of her training had been nothing like Ranma's. If he thought her breathing needed work, it probably did. She tried to raise her left leg, but it hurt too much. Onna-Ranma picked it up by cupping his hand beneath her knee, then went to work on her other foot.
"Ow! Oh! Oh! Oh!"
"Want me to stop?"
Onna-Ranma's grin broadened as he kept working the knots out of Akane's left foot.
"It's already starting to make me feel better, Ranma. Thank you."
"Good," Onna-Ranma said with yet another evil grin. "We'll get you up and walking around some today."
"Oh, yes, Akane. If we don't, you'll be laid up stiff for weeks. Ya gotta do some stretches, too."
"Hey, speakin' of walkin' around, the water oughtta be hot by now."
"I don't know if I can get up, Ranma."
"Sure you can, Akane. I'll help ya."
"Well, go fill the furo, first."
"All right," Onna-Ranma said as he gently lowered Akane's leg to the futon. Then in artificially deep voice and odd accent he said, "I'll be back."
"Don't worry," Akane said, pretending to be terrified. "I'm not going anywhere."
Onna-Ranma chuckled as he left the room. He was not gone for long.
"Okay, Tomboy!" Ranma said cheerfully as he re-entered the room. His hair was wet from having poured hot water on himself.
"Let's get you up."
"I thought you were going to fill the furo, first."
"It's filling right now," Ranma said, as he dug around in their things getting out towels and yukata. "By the time we get there and start bathing, it'll be nearly full."
"Ranma, I don't think ... No! I KNOW, I can't walk right now."
"Hold these, Akane," Ranma said as he handed her their bath-things.
Akane looked his male body over, then cocked an eyebrow at him as she gathered their things to her chest.
"I'll change back once I get you into the bath, okay?"
Akane feigned a pout.
"Now who's bein' a pervert, Tomboy?"
"You're being a tease, Ranma."
"Get used to it," Ranma said with a smirk. "Unless you wanna get married tomorrow."
"Is that a proposal?"
Ranma froze in his tracks.
"I love you, Akane. Would you marry me, scales, claws, chaos, curse and all?" he asked, staring into her eyes.
Akane pulled his head down so that she could kiss him. It was one of those thousand-volt, I'm gonna make you yodel later type of kisses. Ranma very nearly fell to his knees.
"I kind of like your scales, you know," Akane said after they came up for air. "Where is it?"
"Where is what? My scales?"
"The ring, silly!"
"You, baka!" Akane said laughing. "You do realize that you'll have to do this all over again, right?"
"But you'll say yes?"
"Hmm, I probably shouldn't hold you to that until you've had a chance to really talk to Mom," Ranma said as he carried Akane towards the bath. "Being the wife of a true Martial Artist is fraught with danger."
"Hmmph!" Akane snorted. "Just hanging around with you is dangerous. What difference would being married to you make?"
"Well, gee," Ranma said, wishing he could rub the back of his neck. "I dunno."
"You are not taking the kids on some ten-year long training trip," Akane said. "At least, not without me going, too."
Ranma tried his best to look disappointed, but it was hard to do while grinning from ear to ear.
"And no Nekoken training, either!" Akane said, feigning the tones of a complete nag. "I forbid it!"
Ranma laughed out loud despite an involuntary shudder.
"As if I could ever gather up enough ca ... ca ... cats to try it!"
Ranma set Akane down on one of the bathing stools, then splashed himself with cold water. Fighting off the change in form would have cost him enough ki to make him pass out. The cold water alone was enough to make him dizzy.
"Ranma, are you all right?"
"Aw, I just ... "
"You're overdoing it a little yourself this morning, aren't you?"
"I'll be okay, Akane," Onna-Ranma said, holding his head in an effort to stop the world from spinning. "Just give me a minute, will ya?"
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Onna-Ranma said as he began removing his clothes.
Akane watched him undress. He could tell that not only was Akane enjoying the show, but that she was also watching for any further signs of weakness. The truth was that he did feel pretty weak, but did everything he could to hide it. Showing weakness at a time like this would NOT be very manly.
"Need help with your pajamas?" Onna-Ranma asked as he finished stripping.
"Pretty please?" Akane asked, looking and sounding delighted with the offer. She hampered his efforts at undressing her by kissing his lips and neck, and tugging at his breasts while he fumbled with her buttons.
"I'm gonna hafta spank you if you keep that up," Ranma said, with mock menace in his voice.
"Sounds like fun," Akane said with an impish smile, "provided you're up to it."
Onna-Ranma was shivering from the cold and lack of ki by the time they finished scrubbing and rinsing off. It hadn't helped that Akane was having a difficult time flexing her limbs or using her stomach muscles. Onna-Ranma had to help her quite a bit more than he expected.
"Maybe you should stay out of the hot water, Ranma," Akane said, sounding worried. "You look awfully pale."
"I'll be okay, Akane," Onna-Ranma said, "Honest."
"Well at least allow yourself to change back into your guy type," Akane ordered. "I don't think you should keep using up your ki the way you have been so far this morning."
"You won't mind?"
"How can you ask that?" Akane said, sounding a bit frustrated. "After we ... after we ... "
"Okay," Onna-Ranma said, with a sheepish grin. "Think you can make it as far as the furo if I help?"
Akane nodded her head.
Onna-Ranma helped her up, and she let out a little squeal of pain as her badly stiffened legs protested. Their entry into the furo was less than graceful. They just fell into it with a loud splash. Both of them came up spewing water and gasping for breath.
"Are you okay, Akane?"
Akane smiled before answering. "I'm fine. How about you?"
"A little dizzy," Ranma said as he put both hands to his head, "but I'm okay."
"Good," Akane said as she leaned back against the side of the furo. "So come over here and cuddle with me."
Ranma moved to comply and was immediately embarrassed at his male body's reaction to Akane's proximity.
"You look tired, Ranma," Akane said.
"I am, a little," Ranma said, thanking the kami that she had not noticed the rather too prominent protuberance between his legs. He was still thanking them when he felt Akane's slender fingers close around it. He gasped with shock.
"Did I hurt you?" Akane whispered into his ear as she gave him a gentle squeeze.
"Ah, no," Ranma managed to squeak out of his nearly completely closed throat. He was fairly certain that his heart had somehow crawled up into his windpipe. "Just surprised me a little, that's all."
"I just wanted to know what it felt like," Akane said, sounding a little embarrassed as her face turned forty-nine shades of pink.
"It ... ah ... It feels pretty good ... actually," Ranma said in a scratchy voice.
Akane giggled, then stroked him gently with her fingers.
"It's a pretty good handful, too," Akane said, grinning despite her rapidly deepening blush.
Ranma had another severe dizzy spell. He let his head slump against Akane's shoulder.
"Ranma!" Akane cried out in alarm, as she placed both hands on his shoulders and shook him.
"Shh, Akane," Ranma said weakly. "I just need to let my ki build up a little. I can't think of any other place I'd rather rest, right now."
"Are you sure, Ranma?"
"Put your arms around me, Akane."
They both fell fast asleep within minutes.
Nodoka Saotome awoke to the smell of rice cooking. Not wanting Kasumi to assume all the housekeeping chores, she hastened to get up and dress. Much to her surprise, Kasumi was nowhere to be found, even though the rice cooker was hissing away merrily and a large kettle of water sat upon the griddle, dutifully staying warm. Then Nodoka noticed that someone had started the morning's soup and had set out the tofu to warm.
"Good morning, Aunt Nodoka," Kasumi said cheerfully as she entered the large kitchen. "Trying to steal all the fun, I see."
"No," Nodoka said, bewilderment suffusing her voice. "I thought you had done all this. I just walked in here."
Kasumi scanned the kitchen quickly with a faint hint of worry in her face, which for Kasumi, spoke volumes.
"Well, it doesn't look as though Akane has been in here," Kasumi said, sounding as puzzled as Nodoka felt. "That's no surprise, Tou-chan said she would have considerable difficulty in moving around for the next couple of days."
"Perhaps Tofu ... "
"No, it wasn't Tofu," Kasumi said with an embarrassed smile, then blushed.
Nodoka felt a thick layer of ice form around her heart. That left only one person--Ranma. Her son had started breakfast. IN A HOUSE LOADED TO THE GILLS WITH WOMEN, HER SON HAD GOTTEN UP EARLY AND STARTED BREAKFAST! WHAT SORT OF MANLY BEHAVIOR WAS THAT?
"Oh, look!" Kasumi said cheerfully as she re-covered the willow bark with damp towels, "Ranma must have made willow-bark tea for Akane."
Nodoka closed her eyes in relief as all her internal alarms suddenly went silent. Ranma's behavior was perfectly acceptable if he were simply taking care of his fiancee. That was VERY MANLY of him, even if doing all the other work he had done the kitchen was going a bit overboard. As her blood pressure dropped back down to normal levels, she remembered what Tofu had told her. Would spending time in his girl form require Ranma to be ... be ... feminine? What then of his draconian form? Genma certainly seemed to be rather panda-like when the curse was upon him. She shook her head to clear it. Ranma was her child. Hers! She would learn to cope.
"Oh, my!" Kasumi exclaimed. "I just remembered! Tofu said the water heater will need to be lit and it's one of the old-fashioned kind with a gas pilot light."
"Oh, well that's no problem, dear," Nodoka said relieved to have something other than her son's manliness to worry about. "All we need do is find it. I know how to get one of those going."
"Oh, good! Where do you suppose it is, Aunt Nodoka?"
"Most of these old houses have them in a closet in the bath," Nodoka said, "but sometimes the only way to get at them is to go outside and open a small door in the wall."
"Why don't we check the furo first?" Kasumi asked by way of suggestion.
Nodoka nodded her head at Kasumi and the two of them wandered about the grand old house together, looking for the furo.
The combination of discomfort and desire woke Akane from her brief nap. She shifted her weight around so that she could have Ranma's hard body pressed against her front. He murmured something unintelligible as she kissed him on the neck. A large but silent motion of some kind tugged at her peripheral vision. When she looked up, Akane found her eldest sister and Nodoka standing in the furo. Kasumi was staring at them slack-jawed, her skin about the same color as a hospital sheet. Nodoka stared at the water and seemed to be delighted.
"Shh!" Akane noised with a finger to her lips, then whispered, "He'd be embarrassed if you woke him up like this."
"Is he all right?" Nodoka murmured softly.
Akane nodded her head. Kasumi dragged her jaw shut, then put a hand over her mouth. Kasumi's skin color however, remained very close to pure white.
"Still very tired, I think," Akane whispered. "He overdid it a little this morning."
"We'll go finish making breakfast, Akane," Kasumi murmured. "You shouldn't stay in here too much longer."
Akane nodded her head.
"Ask Doctor Tofu to come check on us in a few minutes, would you, Kasumi?"
Kasumi nodded her head, then she and Nodoka beat a retreat to the kitchen. Nodoka seemed to be floating on air. Kasumi smiled at this reaction, but was still concerned.
"They are still a bit young for all this, don't you think?"
"Oh, nonsense, Kasumi-chan," Nodoka said with sunny smile. "Bathing together is perfectly innocent. Besides, they'll be married soon enough that it will not matter."
"But what about schooling and ... and ... college ... and ... "
"We'll find a way, Kasumi-chan," Nodoka said, sounding as though her faith was unshakable. "Now let us see what we can do about getting our families fed, shall we?"
Kasumi had to smile. Nodoka's enthusiasm was nothing if not infectious.
Nabiki's visit with Happosai turned out to be something of a shock. The old man was abnormally subdued and her visit lasted mere minutes. He took his seals, under the watchful eye of the police, then quickly stamped a document he had already written out. He handed the heavy parchment to Nabiki, saying nothing until she took it from him.
"Do not let your father or Genma read this," Happosai said. "Soun would panic and Genma might try to forbid it."
Nabiki raised both eyebrows as she read the license. The "okugi" or "innermost-secret-teachings" were no laughing matter to be sure, but Nabiki had not realized that they were also exceedingly dangerous for both student and teacher. The phrase "... assuming you and said student survive the training ..." was not the least bit reassuring. She might have taken it as Happosai indulging in hyperbole, but the text was entirely too formal for it to be Happosai's work. That meant that the license was modeled upon an older document. A much older document if Nabiki was any judge of kanji, and she was.
"Just tell them to prepare for a student beginning the okugi," he said. "They'll know what to do after that without knowing the details."
"This authorizes Ranma a single student of his choice," Nabiki said. "You must be pretty confident that he will choose Akane. Do you really think she's ready to begin the okugi?"
"Who else is there for him to choose and meet the requirements?" Happosai asked. "Your father should have started her on this a year ago."
Nabiki sighed, then said, "You know how fearful Daddy is about one of us getting hurt."
"Hmmph! Then he should have remarried and had boys."
Nabiki gave Happosai a cold smile.
"That would not have been nearly as much fun for you, now would it?"
"No, I suppose you're right about that, Nabiki-chan," Happosai said without a hint of shame. "Any word on when I'll be getting out of here?"
"I've been trying to hurry things along, Grandfather," Nabiki said. "I think they may release you this coming Wednesday."
"I won't be coming back to Tendo-ke anytime soon, Nabiki."
"I have things I must do and they can't be done in Nerima."
"Any idea how long you'll be gone?"
"Oh, I think I'll return about the same time the second crop of yams comes out of the ground this year."
Nabiki was a bit taken aback by this. That would be late in the fall.
"Why so long?" she asked. "I would have thought you might want to check on Ranma before then."
"Nope!" Happosai said firmly. "He's on his own for this one. It's a test. I won't help him, nor will I interfere with him. Besides, your father and Genma are going to be more than enough of a nuisance for him."
"You never gave a second thought about being a nuisance for him in the past."
"This is different, Nabiki-chan. Ranma is about to face the greatest challenger he is ever going to meet."
"Oh, really?" Nabiki asked with more than a little concern in her voice. "Who might that be?"
"And here I thought your were going to say Akane Tendo."
"Hah! He conquered her the day he arrived," Happosai snorted, then laughed. "Not that the young fool realized it!"
"So you think Ranma is going to have a difficult time with this."
"I KNOW he is," Happosai said with a grimace. "And I have to be ready for him once he's done."
"So you expect him to succeed."
Happosai looked Nabiki in the eye, then nodded.
"I hate that I am going to miss out on all the fun. You'll tape what you can of it for me, won't you?"
Nabiki smiled, but it was a smile which held the chill of dry arctic snow.
Happosai responded with a knowing grin of his own. Then turned his head so that he could see his guards.
"All right, boys!" Happosai called out to them. "We're finished here. You can take me back now."
"Hang in there, Gramps," Nabiki said with a smirk, "only four days left."
"I'll make it," the old man said without looking back.
The trip back was uneventful, but unpleasant. Nabiki had entirely too many gloomy thoughts running through her mind to enjoy the ride. She had seen people get hurt in the dojo during normal training. She herself had been hurt more than once. Practice weapons might lack sharp edges, but they were made of oak and even a minor mistake could hurt like hell. She knew all too well about the physical agony and boring drill of martial arts training. She shuddered to think of what the advanced training must be like. There was the very definite risk of hospital bills to pay, and if things went very badly wrong, they would be attending a funeral.
As soon as she opened the door, Nabiki knew that there would be little point in trying to hide her arrival. She could tell from the smell of cigarette smoke that her father and Genma were already up. The clack of wooden tiles and Genma's grunt of surprise told her that they were playing shogi.
"I'm home!" Nabiki called out as she changed from shoes to slippers in the foyer.
"Welcome back, Nabiki!" Soun Tendo called back.
He was looking up from the shogi board at her when she walked into the main part of the house.
"I gather the Master has granted Ranma his license to teach," Soun said, looking at the box Nabiki was carrying.
"He said to tell you and Uncle Genma that you should make preparations for another student about to begin the okugi, but not to let you read the documents he made for Ranma."
Upon hearing this, Soun at first looked as though he was upset and might cry, but with the swiftness of an unexpected change in the weather, he suddenly looked relieved, then happy.
"I'll call the priest, Saotome."
"Hmm, I guess I had better start gathering firewood, Tendo."
"Let me make the call and I'll give you a hand," Soun said.
This left Nabiki completely baffled.
"What's going on, Daddy?"
"Oh, nothing you need worry about, Nabiki-chan," Soun said in an airy tone. "Genma and I have a few preparations to make is all."
"You guys aren't thinking of trying another wedding are you?" Nabiki asked, sounding suspicious.
"No, nothing like that, Nabiki-kun," Genma said in his rumbling voice. "This will be a much more important ceremony than a wedding."
The Tendo patriarch nodded in agreement.
"Whether Ranma and Akane ever marry or not, this will be important to her, Nabiki," Soun told her. "Shouldn't we go get the ore first, Saotome-kun?"
"Way ahead of you, Tendo," Genma said with one of his rare smiles. "I've had it stored under the dojo for the last three months. I expected us to need it right after the wedding."
"Oh, well good!" Soun said, sounding genuinely pleased, "All we need do then is erect the shrine and call the priest. Once that's done, we can begin."
"Gotta gather deadfall, too," Genma said with a grunt. "We can't use cut firewood for this, remember?"
"Well, we had best get started then, hadn't we, old friend?"
"I'm with you, Tendo-kun," Genma answered as he and Tendo walked out to the foyer together.
"Weren't you going to call the priest?"
"Let's just talk to him once we get to the shrine, Saotome," Soun said. "We'll be gathering wood from his grove, anyway."
"Good point," Genma said.
Nabiki stood with her mouth hanging open as she watched them leave.
"Well, so much for Aunt Nodoka's list of chores!" Nabiki said to the empty house. "I just hope they don't find more trouble to get into."
With a shrug of the shoulders, Nabiki picked up the telephone and called Ukyou Kuonji.
"Ukyou?" Nabiki asked, when someone picked up the telephone on the other end of her call.
"Oh, fine. Busy is all," Nabiki said, being careful to put a smile in her voice. "Think you could spare Konatsu for a few hours?"
Nabiki smirked into the telephone at Ukyou's question.
"No, nothing perverted, unless you count taking some of Ranma's things to him perverted."
"Five-hundred yen? Sure, that's fine. No, I don't mind giving you the money instead of him. Yes, I'll pay for the cab and train fare."
Nabiki found herself smiling despite everything that had been going on. Ukyou understood the Art of the Deal well enough to make dealing with her a pleasure.
"You bet! Thanks."
Nabiki hung up the phone and sighed heavily. It was hard for her to not think about what Ranma and Akane were doing now that they were more or less left to their own devices. Well, if Ukyou could learn to deal with it, so could Nabiki Tendo, Ice Queen of Nerima.
"Ranma?" Tofu Ono asked with a grin and a wink at Akane. He gently touched Ranma's arm in precisely the right spot, causing Ranma to wake with a start.
"Huh? Doc?" Ranma asked as his eyes fluttered open. What happened next was a testament to the speed and efficacy Ranma Saotome's reflexes. He took in his surroundings, remembered what he had been doing before going to sleep, and, at one and the same time, realized that he was being observed by Tofu Ono. All of this in less than five microseconds. Such a feat of data processing is rare, even among race car drivers and fighter pilots. Somewhere on the kami plane, Seymour Cray wept with envy.
"This ain't watcha think, Doc!" Ranma shouted in a state of panic.
Akane giggled. She was holding a towel over her front.
"Oh?" Tofu asked in an innocent voice. "You mean your ki has fully recovered?"
"Ah, well, ah, no ... not exactly," Ranma stuttered.
"I didn't think so," Tofu said with a smile. "You do look quite a bit better this morning, though. Where did you learn to make willow-bark tea?"
"Hey, train with my old man on the road for a month and you'll pay close attention to him when he talks about stuff like that."
"I can just imagine," Tofu said. "Sorry to startle you, Ranma, but I thought it best to check up on my patients. I had no idea one of them wanted to practice medicine."
"Aw, Doc," Ranma said, sounding contrite, "I didn't mean to be practicin' nothin' but The Art. There ain't hardly a sensei in Japan that doesn't know about willow-bark tea."
"Well, I suppose you have a point there, Ranma," Tofu said with a chuckle. "They do have a regular need for it."
"I picked up lots of other stuff like that in Hiroshima, but I never use it. That WOULD be practicin' medicine."
"Oh, really? As part of martial arts training?"
Ranma nodded his head.
"Yoshin-ryuu," Ranma said, "Lot's of good yari and naginata stuff taught there as well, but Pops wanted me to pick up on their methods for treating wounds. They even have a kind of kata for treating the wounds of a warrior who's been cut in different places."
Tofu's smile broadened into a grin.
"Did Koyama-sensei make you wear furisode every other class?"
Ranma rolled his eyes towards the heavens.
"That must've been hilarious," Akane said. "You studied there before you went to China, didn't you, Ranma?"
Ranma sheepishly nodded his head.
"Well, look at it this way, Ranma," Tofu said, "You probably never looked as silly as I did."
"Why on earth did they make you wear furisode?" Akane asked, then giggled as the image of the lanky and very masculine Tofu Ono wearing furisode played across her mind.
"Because Yoshin-ryuu specializes in instructing young ladies of substance in the use of the naginata and yari, Akane," Tofu said. "Koyama-sensei feels that the male students need to know the same things as the female students."
"Does your mom know, Ranma?" Akane asked in a loud whisper as she dug him in the ribs with her elbow.
Ranma responded with a loud sigh.
"You and your dad must have fit in around there like socks on a rooster."
"You can't even begin to imagine, Akane!" Ranma said. "In some ways, it was a real nightmare. In other ways, it was one of the best places I ever studied. The food was great."
Tofu nodded his head in agreement.
"I'll never forget the shrimp and crab soup with soba and mushrooms!" Tofu said.
"Or the steamed abalone!"
"Ah, you said it, Ranma! How did you like the fish roasted over oak?"
Akane's stomach rumbled in reply to these reminiscences. This proved immediately embarrassing because both Ranma and Tofu stared at her.
"What are you two staring at?" Akane asked in a tone of mock menace, hoping to cover her unease.
"Perhaps we should get you two out of here, " Tofu said with a knowing grin. "Breakfast is probably on its way to the table by now and I just imagine Kasumi and Nodoka would like to bathe right after we eat."
"Okay, Doc," Ranma said, then realized that it was his turn to be slightly embarrassed. Tofu was a doctor, sure. And they were both guys, sure. But they were both guys and Ranma was not wearing any clothes while Akane was sitting in the furo as naked as he was. Tofu proceeded to handle it as though he were in a hospital and Ranma was an intern. The ploy worked.
"Give me a hand with this patient, Ranma," Tofu said in a tone of voice that was still as kindly and as soft as ever, yet brooked no argument. "We need to get her up and back to her room for further treatment."
"Can I eat first?" Akane asked.
"Sure," Tofu said with a smile. "I'll let my student here set you up with a tray."
Ranma gave Tofu a puzzled stare as they helped Akane out of the furo.
"That is assuming you want to learn what I can teach, Ranma."
"You bet!" Ranma said, enthusiastically.
"After we eat, I want you to give Akane a rubdown," Tofu said in his professional voice. "You do still remember how, don't you?"
"Sure, Doc," Ranma said, nodding his head. "But I'll bet you could give me a pointer or two."
Akane shivered uncontrollably as her ears and nose turned pink.
"You okay, Akane?" Ranma asked, sounding worried.
Tofu grinned at Akane's response to the idea of having both Ranma and himself working on her, then said. "I'll watch you work on her this evening, Ranma. I think your mother and Kasumi have other plans for me this morning."
"I'm fine, Ranma," Akane said, as her the color of her face turned into a deeper pink. "I just need to get off my feet. My legs are bothering me a lot."
"C'mon, then," Ranma said gently. "We'll get you back to the room."
Breakfast went by quickly, but pleasantly. Akane found that she had somehow eaten half-again as much as she ordinarily would, and that the muscle pain was returning with a vengeance. There was a knock at the door.
"Yes?" Ranma and Akane chorused.
"It's me," Tofu said.
"Come on in, Doc," Ranma said cheerfully.
"I brought special tea for the two of you," Tofu said, as he walked in with a tray. "I just imagine Akane is starting to feel a little pain by now."
Akane nodded. She drank the proffered cup of hot, willow-bark tea as though it tasted of ambrosia.
"This is for you, Ranma," Tofu said. "I'll bet you forgot yours this morning."
"I did think about it, Doc," Ranma said sheepishly. "I just got a little sidetracked is all."
"Kasumi is warming up the oil I made for Akane, Ranma," Tofu said. "I'll let you apply it."
"Just remember, there are two kinds. One is stronger than the other. Use the stronger oil for her lower limbs. The milder oil is for her back and shoulders."
"Be careful not to get any of it on her face or other sensitive areas."
"Is it the same stuff they make down in Hiroshima?"
"I remember that stuff real well," Ranma said. "I'll be careful with it."
"I was sure you would have had some personal experience with it."
Ranma nodded. "Got it on the wrong part of my body once."
Tofu chuckled, then asked, "How far did you run before some kind soul caught up with you and knocked you down?"
"Just a hundred meters or so," Ranma said with a grin. "My legs were shorter then. People in Hiroshima understand. They just kind of grin at you when you run by 'em naked."
There was another knock at the door.
"I brought the oil, Tou-chan," Kasumi said from the door. "How are you feeling, Akane?"
"Much better than yesterday, Kasumi-chan," Akane said. "Thanks for all the help."
Kasumi smiled as she put down a bowl full of warm water. It had two long, skinny bottles in it. One was made of brown glass, the other of dark blue.
"The blue bottle has the milder oil in it, Ranma," Tofu said, "but as you no doubt remember, you still must be careful not to get it on anything sensitive."
"Think you two can manage on your own for a few hours?" Tofu asked.
"Sure, Doc," Ranma said.
"Good. Kasumi and I are going to take your mother out to see the waterfalls. We may have lunch around there somewhere."
"There are sandwiches in the fridge for you, Ranma," Kasumi said. "In case we're not back in time for lunch."
"Yes, Doctor Tofu?"
"This oil will make you feel rather peculiar when it's first applied."
Ranma rolled his eyes at this.
"So don't panic, okay?"
"I won't, Doctor Tofu."
"Good!" We'll see you two later."
Ranma waited until Tofu and Kasumi were well down the hall before speaking softly.
"Akane?" Ranma asked as he poured another cup of green tea for her.
"Doc didn't exactly tell you everything about this oil, okay?"
"What didn't he tell me?"
"It's the weirdest stuff you've ever run into in your life. The creams you get in a drugstore for sore muscles don't even touch it."
"You'll think your skin caught on fire for the first minute or so."
Akane's eyes widened.
"Then you'll think you're being bathed in ice-water or somethin'."
Akane's looked even more dubious.
"Then your muscles will go completely limp and you'll feel warm all over."
"That's more or less what the stuff at the drugstore, does, right?"
"Only sorta," Ranma said. "This stuff gets it right. You just need to know not to panic when I first start puttin' it on ya."
"Okay, Ranma," Akane said. "Are you ready to start?"
"If you are."
Ranma had her roll onto her stomach, then wisely began with her less sensitive lower legs, gently rubbing the oil into her skin. Akane bit her pillow, then squealed despite her best efforts not to.
"You want me to wait and let this cool down before I move on?"
Akane shook her head. Ranma had not been kidding, but she was determined to prove that she could take anything he could. He had not been lying about what to expect. Her lower calves seemed to be soaked with burning gasoline. Ranma proceeded to work further up her legs, rubbing the fiery stuff into the backs of her thighs.
"Whoa, Ranma!" Akane cried out. "Give me a minute."
Akane could hear the grin in Ranma's voice as he spoke. "I'll work on your calves for a minute, that usually helps the burning stop sooner."
To Akane it felt as though he was rubbing the skin off of her lower legs. The smell of the oil was quite potent. The room was filled with the overpowering scent of eucalyptus, camphor and some other aromatic she could not identify. The smell of the stuff made it seem as though she was breathing superheated air.
"No wonder everyone else left!" Akane said. "They didn't want to listen to me scream--or smell this stuff."
Ranma laughed, as he continued working on her lower legs.
Akane suddenly breathed in sharply.
"Startin' to feel cold now?"
"Yes," Akane said, unable to keep a whimper out of her voice. Ranma began applying more oil to the backs of her thighs.
"Eeeyaah!" Akane shouted. "I'll bet you're really enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Yeah, but I'm your pervert! Ain't I, Tomboy?"
"Don't you ever forget it ... Aaaah! ... Baka!"
Ranma began working the oil into the skin of Akane's hips. It hurt, but it was curiously thrilling at the same time. The initial shock of having the fiery oil applied had passed, as had the notion of pain. Now it was more like a kind of sensory overload. Akane relished the feel of Ranma's hard fingers digging into and massaging her sore buttocks. He worked the stuff in up to the start of her lower back.
"Oh, God! That hurts so good!"
"I'll bet you enjoyed this at that all-girl school, didn't you, Ranma?"
Ranma snorted before answering.
"I wish! It wasn't an all-girl school, Akane. I got teamed up with Pops most of the time. If not him, some other guy that was older than me."
"Yeah!" Ranma said with a chuckle. "Double-bleah."
Akane began to shiver as the sensations from the oil went from unbearably hot to freezing cold.
"Now I'm freezing!"
"Good!" Ranma said, then laughed evilly. "Roll over so I can do the other side of your legs."
Akane felt her areolae stiffen against the fabric of the futon beneath her and was suddenly glad that Doctor Tofu had not stayed to give Ranma any pointers. Ranma seemed to know without being told how to find all the right spots. The rubdown was proving to be some of the sweetest agony she had ever felt. She happily ignored her protesting muscles as she rolled over onto her back.
Ranma began with her feet this time, rubbing the oil in a little at the time between the bones that ran from her ankle to her big toes, then paying close attention to the muscles behind her ankle and the Achilles tendon. Wave after wave of pleasant relaxation began to wash over her as the pain and tension began to fade from her badly overused muscles. The muscles in the backs of her legs had begun to go limp and feel incredibly warm, as though she were floating upon a shallow pond on a hot summer day. This made the brief sting of the freshly applied oil seem pleasant and something be looked forward to rather than dreaded.
Akane opened her eyes and watched Ranma's face as he worked. He looked for all the world like a great craftsman making something small and delicate. His movements were gentle but firm. The muscles in his forearms rippled as he found the tiny knots tension in her muscles and rubbed them away. God, she wanted him! Oh, God! She wanted to spread her legs and pull him down between them and feel that hard, rippling belly of his pressed up against her own.
"You know what I wish, Ranma?"
"I wish we had started doing this a year ago."
"You woulda killed me if I tried," he said as his strong fingers worked their way up into the muscles her left calf. "You'll never know how many times I thought about it, though."
"'Cause I thought about it so many times I lost count."
"Sure," Ranma said with a shrug. "There were lots of times I could tell you needed a good rubdown."
"A rubdown, huh? Was that all you thought I needed?"
Ranma cocked an eyebrow at her.
"Hey! I'm your pervert, remember?"
Akane giggled, then winced as his fingers found a particularly sore spot in her right calf, just below the knee.
"That one's pretty sore, ain't it?"
Akane nodded her head and stared Ranma in the face. His eyes were calm and tranquil, like the blue waters of a deep lagoon, but Akane could detect the first faint flickers of the lightning-like fires of desire in those unbelievably tranquil depths. It took her breath away. He wants me! She thought. Oh, God! He wants me as badly as I want him. Will he really wait until we are married? Akane quickly forgot all about her question as Ranma began working on the muscles in her right thigh where they joined the knee. It hurt and tickled at one and the same time.
"I thought you'd be sore there."
"And it hurts!"
"You want me to stop?"
"DON'T YOU DARE!"
Ranma began working on a spot just above Akane's right kneecap with his thumbs. It made her leg tingle from her knee to her heel, then the sensation shot up her inner thigh to another, rather sensitive spot. It made her gasp aloud.
Akane mutely nodded her head as her eyes began to water. Ranma gave her his cockiest grin.
"I am going to pay you back for this in spades, you know," Akane said in threatening tones.
Ranma laughed and then went to work on the same spot on her left leg. Akane fought down the urge to howl at the sheer ecstasy of it all.
"I'll remind you of that threat one of these days."
"You do that," Akane said, trying to make her voice sound cold, but only partially succeeding. She grinned evilly when she realized that she would get to play with Ranma in two of his three forms. It would be great fun finding out what made his male form feel this helpless.
Ranma noticed her grin and shuddered.
Akane's grin broadened into a smile. That's right, Ranma. I own you--body and soul, she thought. Now and forever, you are mine. I love you.
Ranma's face softened as though she had spoken her thoughts and Akane realized that he was watching her face and reading her emotions. Being the treasure of a mighty dragon was a pretty good deal, once you figured out that you owned the dragon as much as he owned you. Akane giggled.
"Nothing," Akane said. "Just happy is all."
Ranma started probing the large muscles on either side of her left thigh as he rubbed oil into the fairly sensitive skin of that area and Akane sucked in a long, whistling breath.
"I could switch oils, if you want," Ranma said as he began plucking at the massive tendon that ran down her inner thigh to the knee.
Akane was unable to speak. She just shook her head.
She nodded her head. The searing sensations passed much more quickly now. The burning was gone and it already felt as though he were stroking the inside of her leg with a block of ice. His strong fingers were painfully working the aches out of the muscles in her thigh, while thrilling tingles of pleasure rippled through her lower body. Akane gasped.
"Startin' to feel better already, huh?"
Akane sighed with pleasure as one particular hard knot of muscle flared up with sharp pain beneath Ranma's probing fingers, then began to relax and feel warm.
"That was a bad one. It'll hurt a lot less tomorrow."
"Are you going to do my back?"
"Yep. Gotta finish with your legs and do your tummy first, though. Your stomach muscles and lower back take a real beating from running. Your upper back and shoulders get tight just because your legs and stomach hurt."
"Where did you learn all this stuff?"
"From Pop," Ranma said with a wry grin. "Sometimes by him telling me, sometimes by him letting me learn the hard way."
"Aah!" Akane cried out as Ranma began to work on her right thigh. She was beginning to pant heavily now despite her efforts at self-control. Things other than her skin and muscle were began to buzz and tingle. Had it been with anyone other than Ranma, this experience would have been thoroughly disagreeable, but it was turning out to be incredibly pleasant and more than just a little erotic. Akane shivered as she felt a familiar little fire ignite deep in her belly. By the time Ranma finished with her right thigh, she was aching for him to put out that little fire.
"Just relax for a minute, Akane," Ranma said as he began to carefully towel his hands. "I need to dry this stuff off my hands and change oils before I start on your stomach muscles."
Their eyes met as Ranma finished speaking. Akane fought off the urge to breath in sharply beneath Ranma's gaze. He looks hungry, she thought. She held his gaze without blinking and did her absolute best to look edible.
Ranma shivered as though a bucket of ice water had been poured down his collar. He closed his eyes for a moment then cast his gaze about looking for place to put the oil laden towel. Akane smiled at her victory. None of the other girls could do that to Ranma Saotome. His ego had never allowed it.
"This may be a little hard to handle at first, Tomboy," Ranma said as he oiled his hands with the contents of the blue bottle. Akane felt her heart skip a beat as she realized that he was being careful now to avoid her gaze. Ranma was still quivering slightly, a sure sign of what his self-control was costing him.
"Are you okay, Ranma?" Akane asked in her sweetest voice. "You look a little pale."
Ranma gave her a wry grin as a very definite blush ran up his neck and filled his cheeks with a pink glow.
"Oh, I'm doin' okay," Ranma said in a shaky voice. "I'm just a little nervous."
"Nervous?" Akane asked coyly. "Why?"
Ranma began to flounder.
"Put your hands on me, Ranma," Akane said in a tone that seemed to fill the room with steam. "Now!"
Searing heat washed over the skin of Akane's stomach, causing her to sit up part way without thinking. The pain in her badly abused abdominals forced her to lay back with a less than ladylike grunt.
"Smart a little, Akane?"
The changes in Ranma's voice and demeanor were very subtle, but Akane noticed them.
"Two can play the naughty little girl game, you know, girlfriend."
"But you're ... you're ... "
Akane realized suddenly that, if anything, the desire in Ranma's eyes was now burning brighter than ever.
"Oh, I sent him off to take a cold shower," Ranko said with a grin as he continued to work at the knots in Akane's stomach muscles. "He was losing control."
Akane gasped as her fiance's hard fingers gently probed and kneaded the muscles of her stomach. The pain was exquisitely pleasant. Maybe I really am a pervert, Akane thought to herself. I never expected to enjoy something like this.
"You know, Akane, you have a truly beautiful little tummy," Ranko said with an impish smile as he stopped probing her sore muscles and began to gently caress her skin with his oily hands. The sensations generated by the oil had gone from fire to ice, making Ranma's fingers feel like warm sunlight kissing her skin.
Akane closed her eyes and moaned. Oh, may the kami forgive me! She thought. I am lying here, and letting a girl in a guy's body seduce me! Hell! I'm enjoying it. I want to go all the way with her ... er ... him.
"It's like spring steel covered with velvet," Ranko said, as he gently spread Akane's legs and knelt between them.
Now Akane was burning from the inside out with a liquid fire she had only felt twice in her young life. Once on the night after she first saw Ranma naked in the furo, and then on the night she had seduced him in Tofu's clinic. She began to shiver with longing.
Ranko gave Akane a knowing smirk, then slid his hands beneath her buttocks and pulled her to him. Quite without meaning to, Akane wrapped her legs around his waist. Ranko slid his hands up along Akane's sides, depositing a thin layer of the burning oil along the sides her rib cage, then he moved his hands upwards until he was applying to her ribs, just below her breasts.
The searing pain was almost more than Akane could stand for a moment. She gasped several times and involuntarily squeezed Ranma's body with her bare legs, digging her heels into his hard buttocks.
Ranko gently worked more oil into Akane's skin above her solar plexus and diaphragm, then gently trailed his fingers along the lines of the muscles in her tummy. He began gently tracking circles around the dome of hard muscle around her navel. Akane squeezed him with her legs again, this time becoming acutely aware of the hard, proud flesh filling the front of Ranma's pants.
"I suppose one of the good things about being engaged to me," Ranko said as he captured Akane's eyes with his own, "is that it doesn't take me long to figure out what a girl really likes."
Akane squeezed Ranma's body even harder, making little circular motions with her lower body as the rapidly fraying remnants of her self-control disintegrated.
Ranko began rubbing the oil into the flesh covering the peak of Akane's pubic arch with the thumb of his left hand. The fiery bite of the oil made her cry out, then she began to spasm with pleasure. Ranko lowered himself so that his belly pressed against hers, then kissed Akane's left breast. Akane whimpered as wave after wave of pleasure washed through her aching body. She reached up to the back of Ranma's head with her left hand and pressed him hard against her breast. The pleasure lasted for ages. Ranko knew what to do in order to keep things going.
"I love you, Ranko!"
"Good!" Ranko said in Ranma's voice. "I fell for you before he did."
"Yeah, well, maybe a little."
"Well, okay. We fell for you at the same time," Ranko said. "We couldn't help it, being the same guy and all."
"This is so crazy," Akane said, then shivered as a little aftershock of pleasure wracked her frame. "I don't know what I'd do if ..."
Akane interrupted herself as she realized that Ranma had taken back control from Ranko. He kissed her full on the lips. Akane suddenly felt helplessly willing. Ranma sat up on one elbow and began to caress her belly.
"Remember, our vow?" Ranma asked.
Akane took his hand in both her own, the pressed it hard against her stomach.
"Yes, I do," Akane said. "Will you stay here and cuddle with me for a little while?"
"Sure," Ranma said with a wan smile. "I'm too weak to do anything else right now anyway."
Ranma grinned evilly then plucked Akane's left breast with his lips.
"Very perverted when it comes to you, Akane."
Ranma rolled onto his back, then cuddled Akane's naked body to his side. Her muscles protested a little, but it was nap time and Ranma made for an exceptionally comfortable bed warmer. Sleep came quickly to them both for the second time that day.
Akane sat down in her favorite chair in the engawa so that she could watch the late afternoon sun play with the surface of the koi pond. She was too old to sit seiza the way she had in the past. Was it the age, or the mileage? she wondered to herself. No, it's the age, Akane, old girl. Ranma's got as many or miles on him as you have and he's still going strong. They had enjoyed a very full life together. They had defeated more than a few monsters and captured several crews of pirates together, but still managed to raise a sizeable family. Even the dojo had done well. Now she was a great-grandmother, and her bones had gotten into the habit of reminding her of every adventure, especially whenever the weather was about to change. There was little wonder in this. Akane had been shot twice. Once it had been a pistol and once it had been a shotgun. She had caught an arrow with her left shoulder once and had been sliced by shuriken more times than she could count, not to mention all the falls and dirty fist fights she had survived.
Ranma had aged as well, but not nearly as much as Akane had. His dark, reddish beard was shot through with gray in a few places, but he still had a full head of hair. He was much broader in the shoulders now, but had somehow managed to win the "battle of the bulge" most men lost without serious struggle in late middle-age. He still bounded across the rooftops of Nerima whenever the mood took him and even teen-aged boys would whistle at his girl-half. Thinking of it gave Akane a pang of jealousy, even as it made her smile. Ranma's masculine side still winced at such treatment, even while the female half of his ego reveled in it.
Of their four children, their youngest daughter, Zanma, was the one they got to see most often. She was a peculiar mixture of her mother and father. She had the build of Ranma's girl-type. Her hair was an unruly mop like Ranma's, but it was dark colored with bluish highlights, just like Akane's excepting a single renegade forelock of bright coppery red. The dragon's blood in Zanma was easily seen in her eyes. They were like balls of fiery, golden glass. She was very much her father's daughter in that she had inherited Ranma's steely will and unfailing loyalty, but was much like her mother in the kitchen. She did not pick up the Art at the same rate as her father, but she had his easy grace and like her mother, once she had mastered a technique, she was the best at it.
"In here, Zanma!"
"Are you ready to go?"
"Yes, but I'm not sure I want to," Akane said to her youngest daughter. "Have you heard from your father?"
"No, but I talked to Ukyou," Zanma said with a smile, "he said to tell you that he and dad would meet us at the beach house."
"Oh?" Akane asked, sounding skeptical. "Where were they?"
"Ukyou said it was all over but the paperwork, so I guess they are down at the police station filling out forms."
Akane breathed a sigh of relief. Ukyou, their eldest son, had become a private detective specializing in the hairy business of countering corporate espionage and thievery. Much to Akane's annoyance, he often enlisted his father's aid.
"I still don't know if I want to get out," Akane said with a sigh.
"Aw come on, Mom! You haven't been out of the house for ages. Besides, almost everyone is going to be there, even Aunt Nabiki and Uncle Tofu."
Akane smiled at this. She had not seen Tofu for quite some time. He was still fairly spry for his age, but had grown quite reclusive after Kasumi passed away. Nabiki, well, Nabiki had become something of a jet-setter after college and Jiro, her only son, was now the CEO of Mitsubishi. Much to Nabiki's feigned annoyance, Jiro worshipped the ground Ranma walked on.
"You know, Zanma," Akane said in a sad voice, "I should have turned your father loose ten years ago."
"Mom! Don't talk like that."
"Well it's true," Akane said, choking at the pain in her voice. "I can't keep up with him anymore. I'm getting old. He's barely aging at all. He needs a younger woman."
"Don't be silly, Mom. Dad would fall to pieces without you."
"I'm not going to live that much longer anyway, Zanma," Akane said. "What will become of him after I'm gone?"
"Aw, Mom! This is exactly why you need to get out of this house. A little change of air will do you a world of ... "
Zanma stopped talking at the sound of the front door opening.
"Yo, Tomboy! What the hell are you doin'? You forget we're goin' to the beach today?"
"Dad must have flown home."
Akane looked irritated. She always complained that a man Ranma's age should not be seen doing those kinds of things, but in truth, she would love to be cruising along right beside him.
"Ranma no baka!"
"Yeah, but I'm your baka, right, Tomboy?" Ranma asked cheerfully as he scooped Akane up in his powerful arms. Akane thumped him on his heavily muscled chest. It was like slapping the side of tree.
"Just you wait till I get you alone," Ranma said with a grin and mock menace in his voice.
"Yeah, but I'm Akane's kind of pervert, right?"
Akane put her arm around her husband's neck and cuddled up to him.
"Getcher Mom's things," Ranma said. "We'll meetcha at the beach house."
"Okay, Pop," Zanma said. "You gonna fly her down there?"
"Ooh, you're finally learning to use your head!"
Zanma stuck her tongue out at her father. Ranma replied in kind. Akane gave Ranma another walloping blow on the chest.
"Go on, get out of here, Pop. I'll see the two of you in an hour or so."
"You bringin' what's his name? That Kuno kid with ya?"
"He's waiting out there in the car, Dad!"
"Tell him not to pull that Osage-no-Onna stuff again, or I'll have to beat the hell out of 'im."
"Oh, believe me, Pop! He'll never do that again."
As hard as it was for Akane to believe, Tatewaki Kuno had somehow managed to father a perfectly normal child--well, perfectly normal for a child born and raised in Nerima, anyway. Even more surprising was the fact that Zanma had taken a liking to the young man. Akane did not know whether to be relieved or worried. Zanma had waited until she was almost thirty before showing a serious interest in any man, then that man turned out to be a Kuno. She gave the matter little further thought. Traveling via Air Ranma had always been thrilling, especially after Ranma puzzled out the techniques he had seen Haabu use.
Occasionally passing up light planes and a helicopter or two, they arrived at the beach well short of sundown and Ranma almost instantly found himself buried beneath a pile of teen-aged grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and more than a few great-grandchildren in their pre-teens. Oh, to be sure they all came over to give Granma Akane a hug and kiss, but they were also careful not to play with her the way they did with the family patriarch. Akane's frustration surged again. Growing old had not been all that bad, until she suddenly became frail. It was almost as though she had gotten up one morning only to discover that she was made of glass.
The evening wore on in a pleasant blur. Akane found herself being doted on by her three powerful sons and adored by her daughter. She found herself wishing Nodoka had lived to see this moment. She would have been so very, very proud. After the meal, her three boys and Ranma decided to try their luck at a bit of fishing in the surf, while the older of the grand-children gathered around to listen to Akane tell about the adventures she and Ranma had enjoyed together, or perhaps more accurately, endured with style together.
There was the funny story about how the general madness and confusion of Nerima led to Ukyou being named after Ranma's first official fiancee. And the story about how Daima got his name. He had to be delivered by Cesarean Section. How they named Genma after Ranma's father. Akane had still not forgotten how tenderly the old man had held his third grandson as he lay in his bed, terminally ill with cancer. They had given Zanma her name in hopes that she would be blessed with Onna-Ranma's figure. This, of course, led to Zanma sticking her chest out and strutting around the group in a circle. The youngsters laughed at Zanma's antics, but Akane thought the Kuno boy was going to faint.
Soon the half-full moon was high in the southern sky, turning the whitecaps blue with its soft glow, and everyone was sleepy, everyone except Akane, that is. It was another mixed blessing of old age. Sleep did not come easily, and in truth she needed little of it anymore. Zanma brought her a blanket and a flask of hot sake, then sat in warm sand next to Akane's lounge chair. Their companionship was silent, but warm for all of that.
"Your father and the boys are coming back."
"You sure, Mom?"
Akane nodded her head.
"I guess I had best get up to the house, then. I promised Mariko I'd take the midnight diaper watch."
Akane gave her daughter a knowing grin.
"I'll bet you're glad you don't have to do that anymore."
"Oh, yes!" Akane said with chuckle. "How did you get roped into it?"
"Your daughter-in-laws insist that I get in some practice," Zanma said with a rueful grin. She stood up and brushed the sand from her clothing. "They seem to think I'll need it soon."
Akane took a long look at her daughter, then nodded.
"I don't think so, Mom," Zanma said, sounding a little sad. "I haven't found a man yet that I couldn't squash ten of."
"Well, don't give up hope, dear," Akane said. "And remember, there is more to life than the Art."
Zanma grinned at her mother.
"Aunt Nabiki says I shouldn't worry," Zanma said with smile.
"Yeah, she said if she could find a suitable husband, anybody could."
"Just between us, Zanma, I think you'll have much less of a problem with it than your Aunt."
"Hah! That's what Aunt 'Biki said," Zanma said with a laugh. "She said with my figure and looks I could have the pick of the horde anytime I wanted it."
"Like father, like daughter," Akane told her youngest.
"It's true you know."
"Maybe. Look, I'd best get on upstairs. I really did promise Mariko that I'd help out with the babies."
"Good night, dear."
"Good night, Mom," Zanma said as she turned to go, then stopped and turned back around. "Are you sure you're going to be okay out here alone?"
"Who, or what, would be foolish enough to bother me?"
"I guess you got a point there, Mom. See ya in the mornin'."
"Good night, Zanma."
Zanma was not gone for more than five minutes when Akane's three sons arrived, lugging heavy stringers of fish.
"Boy, you guys got lucky for a change," Akane said.
The boys stopped and broke out a flashlight so that Akane could see what they had caught, then got caught up in ribbing each other about who caught the biggest or the best or the most and other such nonsense. Akane loved every second of it.
"Where's your father?"
"Aw, you know how he is, Mom!" Ukyou exclaimed.
"He's out dancing on the surf, Mom," Genma said.
"Yeah, he's probably waitin' on us to go in so he can be alone with you," Daima rumbled.
Daima resembled his grandfathers. He had inherited Soun's height, but Genma's build and bald head. For all of that, he was a ruggedly handsome man with surprisingly refined tastes. Of the three boys, he was the best educated, eventually becoming a world renowned surgeon.
"Well I wouldn't mind that at all!" Akane exclaimed. "You boys get upstairs and go to bed."
The three men grinned at their mother, then chorused, "Yes, ma'am!"
Daima proved to be right. Ranma came riding in on top of wave shortly after the boys had gone up to the beach house. He dragged a lounge up next to Akane's, then stretched out beside her. He reached over and placed his hand, palm down, upon her tummy. Akane took his hand in both her own.
"I love you, Akane."
"I love you too, Ranma," Akane said, feeling a lump in her throat. The time had come to tell him. To clear the air between them.
"You know we haven't much time left together, Ranma."
Ranma opened his mouth to speak, but Akane could tell from his face that he was about to begin spouting his usual protestations. She held up her hand for silence.
"We have to face this, Ranma. I'm aging much faster than you are."
Ranma's face looked tormented, as he tried to blink back tears. The tears spoke volumes, for even at the age of ninety, Ranma Saotome hated for anyone to see him cry.
"I will always love you, Akane."
"I want you to promise me something, Ranma," Akane said, making sure to keep Ranma's hand pressed firmly to her stomach. It was not all that firm anymore and it was scarred from both injury and bearing children, but they had always had their most sincere exchanges like this.
"What would you have of me, Akane?"
"Promise me you will re-marry after I'm gone."
"Akane ... WHY?"
"Because I must, Ranma. I love you and I don't want you wasting away in some cave somewhere just because I am gone."
"Akane ... I ... I ..."
"We have had a good life together. I do not regret a second of it. When I go, I'll go willingly. My time is coming soon."
"Don't weep for me, Ranma. Just remember me. Okay?"
"I ... I justwishtherewassomethingIcouddo!" Ranma exclaimed.
"Death comes to all of us sooner or later, Ranma. I have lived far longer than most other people. You will live on for much longer, provided you don't lose your head and do something stupidly heroic."
Ranma's eyes suddenly reflected the light of realization.
"You want me to re-marry so I'll feel responsible for someone ... Dontcha?"
Akane smiled at him, then nodded her head.
"I know you all too well, Ranma Saotome," Akane said in a scolding voice. "You expect to go out in a blaze of glory."
"Akane, I can't promise you that I'll ever remarry," Ranma said, then choked back a sob. "I don't know that I can do that."
"Then promise me you will go visit the Joketsuzoku for a year or so."
Ranma looked somewhat annoyed by this for moment, but relented.
"All right, I promise."
"Good! Now come here and give me a kiss. A good, long one."
Ranma did, but both of them stiffened when they came up for air. Something had triggered their sense of danger.
"Someone's out on the surf," Ranma said.
There were only three or four people in the world besides Ranma who could do such a thing. Only one of them would be able to find them so easily.
"Probably Haabu," Akane said aloud.
"Yeah, I pretty sure you're right, Akane."
"Go meet him and see what he needs, Ranma."
"I'd rather stay here with you."
"What you'd rather doesn't matter, Saotome. You wouldn't be you if you didn't answer a call to duty."
Ranma started to say something, but Akane cut him off.
"Go on and get what ever it is over with, just remember that I want you back here and in my bed before the week is out."
"And you always call me a pervert."
"You are a pervert!" Akane said with a derisive snort. "But that's okay, I'm a pervert too."
"You mean you're finally gonna admit it after all these years?"
"Get the hell out of here, Baka!" Akane said with mock anger as she released his hand. "You obviously have work to do."
Ranma got up grumbling and was still muttering as he walked down towards the water. The wind carried a few of his words back to Akane.
" ... uncute ... slave-driving ... TOMBOY!"
Akane smiled. She watched as Ranma met up with the figure that surfed in on the waves. It was definitely Haabu. His regal poise and tall figure were unmistakable, even with just the moon lighting the scene. Akane watched as they charged out into the surf, skipping over the wave tops. Neither of them looked back.
"Good-bye, Ranma. My love." Akane whispered.
Akane's ears began to ring as everything began fading into darkness. No! Her ears were not ringing, that was a bell ringing. Akane woke with a start and tried to sit up. Her abdominal muscles screamed in protest at her sudden violence. Akane looked desperately around the room, trying to understand exactly where she was. Then it all came back to her. They were staying at the Ono family's old home place. She felt the futon next to her own. It was empty.
"Down the hall, Akane!" Ranma called out as he ran back to their room. He slid across the floor on his knees and took Akane's hand in both his own.
"Are you okay, Akane?"
"I'm fine, Ranma," Akane said, doing her best to get her breath back under control. "I was having a weird dream and I sort of got scared when I woke up and you weren't here."
"Somebody's at the front gate," Ranma said, obviously torn between answering the bell and seeing to Akane's needs.
"Well, go answer it, silly," Akane said, punching him lightly on the arm. "I'm fine."
Akane nodded her head. Ranma patted her hand, then left to go see who was at the gate out front, leaving Akane alone with a whirlwind of unsettling thoughts.
Ranma was not gone long. When he returned, he was carrying a very formal looking envelope.
"Who was it, Ranma? Is that a challenge letter?"
"It was Konatsu, and no, this isn't a challenge letter."
"What is it then?"
Wordlessly, Ranma handed her the envelope. Akane opened it carefully, and as she read the contents, the maelstrom of thoughts churning through her mind intensified by several orders of magnitude. Why on earth did she dream about Haabu seeking out Ranma's help? If there was anyone on earth with an ego larger than Ranma's it was Haabu. He would never ask Ranma for help, especially given what had happened the last time Haabu had visited Japan.
It's karma! Akane thought to herself. This letter is what the dream was about! If I don't train hard enough, I'll be left behind. Neither Ranma nor I will have a choice. Ranma is destined to live a hard, adventurous life and if I am to be part of it, I have to be as good as he is! I must be able to follow him move for move! Otherwise, he will have to leave me behind and I'll have to let him go.
Akane looked up from the license Happosai had given her fiance and said one word, "Yes!"
Ranma gave Akane his most irritating smart-alec grin, then asked, "What makes you so sure I'm going to choose you?"
Akane surprised Ranma by throwing her arms around his neck and pulling him down on top of her.
"Hey, I ..."
Akane cut Ranma off with a long, hard, deep kiss. When she let him up for air she asked, "So when do we start?"
"Whenever you're up to it, Tomboy."
"We start tomorrow?" Akane asked hopefully.
"More like the day after, Akane."
"Okay. I can deal with that."
"You sure are eager," Ranma said. "Are you that sure you want to go through with this? We got no room for error here, ya know."
"Whereever you go, Ranma," Akane said, "be it heaven or hell, there am I."
"Well, I hate ta tell ya this, Akane, but it's gonna pretty much be a grand tour of hell."
"Then we shall endure it with style."
"Some of this serious training gets to be deadly dull, ya know."
"I'll deal with it."
"Akane," Ranma paused for emphasis, "you'll end up eatin' a lot of bitterness before this is over with."
"You really mean to go through with this, dontcha?"
"Who else could you possibly pick, Ranma?"
Ranma's face became dead serious as he looked Akane coldly in the eye.
"Akane," Ranma said gravely, "this is a test. Our future depends on me passin' it. If I had the slightest doubts about your being able to do it, or ... or I think you don't really wanna do it ... with all your heart, I mean, I will choose Konatsu instead."
This sobered Akane considerably.
"He would be the better choice, Ranma."
"But he isn't you," Ranma said in a near-whisper.
Ranma took both of Akane's hands in his own, then looked her in the eye before speaking.
"Akane, this is going to be the hardest, dullest, most frustratin' thing you have ever done in your whole life. You are going to want to quit ten-thousand times before it is over."
Akane tried to speak, but Ranma cut her off with a vigorous shake of his head.
"Every time you want to quit, and you will, I promise you, I wantcha ta think about this talk we're havin' right now, 'cause there won't be no goin' back after we start. Do you understand?"
Akane placed the palm of Ranma's right hand on her tummy, then held it with both of her own.
"Wherever you go, Ranma, there am I."
Ranma gently gathered his fiancee into his arms and held her close, slowly rocking back and forth, as though she were a mere child in need of comforting.
"I sure hope the kami watch over us, Akane, 'cause we're gonna need all the help we can possibly get."
"That's not a problem, Ranma," Akane murmured into his shoulder. "They already watch us like hawks."
End of Chapter 8
Copyright © Don Granberry