Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 12


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.


Many extra special thanks go to my pre-readers for helping to improve this piece.

There is a translation of Ranma's song at the end of this chapter for those who do not recognize it, although I think the majority of readers should be able to identify this little song from the context.

"Times are already interesting enough without this," Ko Lon said as the big Amazon male staggered through the back door of the Nekohanten. His eyes were glazed over and his upper body was covered with lipstick stains.

"What happened to you?" Ko Lon asked the man, although she was relatively sure of what his answer would be.

"Someone ...some THING ...took your cart, Honored Elder," the man said as he slowly collapsed to the floor.

Kiima, who was visibly upset, rolled the man over so that she could see his face, and asked, "What on earth happened to this man?"

"Oh, don't worry," Ko Lo said with a chuckle. "He hasn't suffered any permanent harm. The effects of this particular narcotic wear off fairly quickly."

"Narcotic?" Kiima asked. "You have seen this before?"

"Yes," Ko Lon said with a grin. "One of our neighbors is an accomplished ninja. He probably just wanted to borrow the cart and our would-be guardian here startled him."

"This is a most peculiar attack," Kiima said.

"Indeed," Ko Lon answered dryly, "implemented by a most curious ninja. It is not a matter of great consequence, Kiima. Do not let this trouble you, nor should you punish this man. There is no way he could have prevented this from happening."

"But he is a warrior trained by the Joketsuzoku!" Kiima said.

"Our peoples are not the only ones to impose harsh training, Kiima," Haabu said, looking down at the fallen man with obvious amusement. "I gather that the fellow who did this must be a great talent, as well as being rigorously trained?"

"That he is, Lord Haabu," Ko Lon said. "He is something of a friend to your favorite cousin as well. He is known as the Kunoichi Konatsu Kenzan and is one of the few people to fight Ranma Saotome to a draw during a serious contest."

"A draw?" Haabu asked.

"Yes, a draw," Ko Lon said. "They knocked one another out simultaneously as I understand it."

"Hmm, that is an estimable feat," Haabu said, "but I thought the Japanese word 'kunoichi' meant that the practitioner of ninjutsu would be a female."

"It does mean that, Lord Haabu. However, this young man was reared as a girl. He has the physical strength of a man along with the pliant and mission-driven nature most men exhibit, but he possesses the looks of a lovely young girl. He would make an excellent spy."

"Indeed he would," Haabu said. "We could certainly put such talent and training to good use."

"I have hope for that very thing, Haabu," Ko Lon said. "Young Konatsu is a loyal retainer of Ukyou Kuonji, Ranma's second fiancee."

"Second fiancee?" Haabu asked. "Am I to understand that he is affianced to three women?"

"Technically speaking, Lord Haabu, he is married to my great-granddaughter under our law and is affianced to two girls by Japanese custom. Sadly, his marriage has yet to be consummated and is, therefore, easily annulled."

Haabu laughed out loud. It was a chilling sound even for someone as experienced and battle-hardened as Ko Lon.

"Are the other girls nearly so attractive as Xian Pu?"

"They are attractive, but I leave comparisons to those with plumbing suited to such a task," Ko Lon answered dryly.

Haabu erupted into another bout of his bone-chilling mirth.

"The more I learn of my cousin, the more I am amused by him!" Haabu exclaimed. "Is he always surrounded by such chaos?"

"No," Ko Lon said, in a tone which implied she was being very precise. "It is most often worse."

Haabu shook his head in disbelief before speaking.

"Do you know how I may find him, Honored Grandmother? I have much to do before returning and things to give him before I may return home."

"As I told you, his physician and I agreed that it would be a good thing for the child to be removed from this area for a while. His lack of control is a definite hazard to himself as well as others. I would suggest you speak with his mother before paying him a visit."

"If you think that best, I shall, Honored Grandmother."

"I expect her to return to the Tendo domicile some time today," Ko Lon said. "How well versed are you in the Japanese form of Ceremonial Tea?"

"I learned the simpler versions of it long ago, but I have not practiced it for some time."

"Then I will help you with a review of it," Ko Lon said. "It is the most dignified way to carry out your mission, I suspect."

"Will I be performing this for his mother?"

"No, for him and the Tendo girl. Your visit with his mother would simply be a courtesy call."

"I see," Haabu said, "Would you mind including my second-in-command in these exercises? I shall be taking her with me."

"Not at all, Lord Haabu," Ko Lon said. "Give me some time. I will call Doctor Ono and make the necessary arrangements later this morning."

"Thank you, Honored Grandmother," Haabu said. "I am most grateful for your help."

"And I, yours, Lord Haabu," Ko Lon said.

Ranma woke just as the sky outside barely began to turn grey. He was lying on his back. Akane was lying on her left side and cuddled up to his right side. He nearly jerked in alarm when realized that his right hand was parked on the right cheek of Akane's derriere. He took a deep breath and sighed. She was definitely a pleasant armful, and he did not at all mind waking up next to her in the same bed, but he had yet to grow accustomed to the experience. In a way, he hoped he never would. He felt a sudden spasm in his loins. Desires long repressed were now aching for release. His manhood began taking on a life of its own.








(Ain't you the one always bitchin' about me bein' a prude?)

(Yeah, but you aren't usually the one who needs to be reined in! What the hell has gotten into you?)

(I'm a man, or did you forget?)

(No, I haven't forgotten, but I think you're forgetting a thing or two.)


(We need to get out of here for a while, Saotome ... before we do something stupid.)

(Stupid, huh?)

(Yeah, like hanging around long enough for me to lose control and give in.)

(You already gave in, remember?)

(Dammit, Saotome!)

{{I suggest we go fishing.}}

(I think I'd rather play with our treasure, Scales.)

{{As much as I think we would enjoy that, we are not ready. If we give in to our desires now, we may never gain our independence.}}

(Would that be such a bad thing?)

{{This from a man who has never deigned to wear a high school uniform? Even when all his peers gladly comply with the custom?}}

(Yeah, okay. You got a point there, Scales. So where do we go fishin'?)


{{There is a river nearby. Chances are quite good that the sweetfish are running.}}

(Hmmm, roasted sweetfish, fresh out of the river!)

(Man, it has been a long time since we tasted sweetfish roasted over an open fire, Saotome.)

(What's it been now, Red? Two years?)

(Close to that I think. We didn't have any luck at all the last time we went out with shit-daddy, remember?)

(Yuck! Do I ever! Nothin' but rice and cabbage for four days. The water was too cloudy to catch anything.)

{{Kasumi would be thrilled should we bring back fresh fish for her to cook. You know how much she likes to cook them for breakfast. That is nothing to sneeze at.}}

(Hmph! We oughtta build a fire in the yard and give Tomboy here her first cookin' lesson.)

{{As daunting as such a task may seem, Saotome, I would be far more comfortable with that job than the prospect of your teaching her the okugi while she was with child.}}

(Fergit that, Scales. No way she takes on the okugi if she's pregnant. No way!)

(Sounds good to me, Saotome. Let's go!)

(Well, there's this little problem.)

(Yeah, what is it?)

(When we go ta get up, we're gonna wake Akane up.)


(So we're already standing at attention.)

(So change, you idiot!)

(Hmph! You just wanna steal all the fun, Red.)

(You have a better idea, then?)

(No, but for once I'd really like to ...)

(Yeah, I know, Saotome. I can't blame you either, but look at it this way. Once we do get all this straightened out, you'll be havin' all the fun while all I'll get to do is watch.)

(Fat chance of that, Red. Who do ya think yer foolin'?)

(Well, you'll have most of the fun!)

(You know, I don't really believe that, somehow.)

"Ranma?" Akane murmured as she ran her fingers across his stomach, then downwards.


(See? I told you so, Saotome.)

"Oh, mby!" Akane said in a hoarse whisper as she gently stroked Ranma with her fingers. "And, I'm nod veeling very seggzy dis mornigh."

"Of course, you are sexy, Treasured One," Ranma said in a deep basso rumble. "You bear the marks of fierce determination. What other sort of mate would I chooose?"

Akane giggled. "You should led your dragon side out a liddle more ovden, Ranma. He'z zweed."

Ranma felt the pulsing surge of fluid in his loins as Akane continued her fondling.

"Akane, my treasure, you must choose."

"Oh? Jooze whad?"

"Between this and the okugi, Treasured One," Ranma said in a deep voice. "My desire for you is limitless and timeless, but I constrain it for both our good."

"Why musd I choose bedween dis and the ogugi?" Akane asked.

"Because there are limits to my control, Dear One," Ranma said, "and I will not risk you or my child by dragging you through the okugi after we have ..."

"Do you know how badly I wand to magke your male half go?" Akane asked, cutting Ranma off. "Or vor how longh?"

All Ranma could do in reply was to muster a weak whimper.

"I love id when you do dad," Akane said. "I love maging you veel good."

Ranma began to shudder, barely hanging on to the last faint vestiges of his self-control.

"Bud I wand do be preddy vor you de firsd dime," Akane said, moving her hand upwards and onto Ranma's chest. "Zo you'll have do waid vor a vew days."

"Pretty, hell!" Ranma exclaimed with a gasp. "You're beautiful right now."

Akane thumped Ranma's chest with her tiny fist.

"Nod righd now I'm nod."

(She's giving you a chance to back down, Saotome!)

(I'm tryin', okay? Things are kinda full at the moment.)

(Yeah, I know. It's starting to quiver. Things will get messy if it starts to jerk.)

{{Our mother would be most impressed, Saotome.}}

(Whoa! That worked like a bucket o' ice!)

(We could still go girl, Saotome. I'd really like to ...)

{{An excellent idea, Scarlet One. Our father would admire such cunning were he not so eager to please our mother and Tendo-san.}}

(Okay, that did it! Let's go fishing, Saotome. Sex just doesn't mix with thoughts of shit-daddy.)

(Or old man Tendo!)

{{May we go fishing now? I am quite hungry.}}

"Mmm, dat veels good, Ranma."

Ranma suddenly realized that he had been rubbing the small of Akane's lower back with the fingers of his right hand.

"What do you think of fresh fish for breakfast, Treasured One?"

"Zounds grade do me, Ranma, bud vhere are you going do ged de vish?"

"There is a river nearby, Treasured One," Ranma rumbled. "If there are any fish in it, we will eat well this day."

"Ooh, aren'd we veeligh convidend dis mornigh!" Akane said as she slid herself up and across Ranma's chest. She kissed him on the neck, then nibbled at his left ear lobe. Ranma responded by hugging her tightly with both arms.

"I need to be in the water just as the sun rises," Ranma said. "Such a time is when I can see the fish better than they can see me."

Xian Pu woke up to a rhythmic creaking sound which seemed familiar somehow. She lay still for few moments, trying to deduce what was going on. The feel of the air on her skin told her she was outside. This was hard to understand. She had fallen asleep in a chair in the hospital lobby. The lobby had felt strange, and it had been difficult for her to relax. Where she was now seemed familiar and comforting, although she knew it should not. There was a bump, and the creaking noise stopped.

"Xian Pu-sama?"

Was that Konatsu's voice? Yes! It was Konatsu. Xian Pu suddenly remembered his attempts to wake her. Xian Pu became angry. How dare he cart her off when she ...I'll show him!

"Whoa, there, Sugar!" Ukyou cried out as Xian Pu flashed into the cat-fighting stance from a prone position. "We're just tryin' to help you out."

Xian Pu glanced around herself. She was standing in a pull-cart which was parked in front of the Nerima sentou.

"Why you do this?" Xian Pu demanded. "Morning rush start soon."

"What are friends for?" Ukyou asked with a shrug of the shoulders. "Life ain't always easy."

Xian Pu's shoulders slumped as she quit the cat-fighting stance. She put the back of her right hand to the bridge of her nose.

"Oh, Mu Suu!" Xian Pu cried.

"Come on down from there, Sugar," Ukyou said, "You wanna smell nice for him when he wakes up, right?"

"It might not make difference," Xian Pu said with a painful catch in her throat. "Xian Pu hurt Mu Suu too, too bad."

"Come on down here, Honey," Ukyou said. "Mu Suu won't be mad at you. It was an accident, for cryin' out loud."

Xian Pu squeezed her eyes shut as scalding hot tears began running down her cheeks. She swayed on her feet as a wave of dizzying disorientation washed over her. Suddenly, she was in someone's powerful, slender arms. The person holding her gave a little hop, and then they were on the ground. Xian Pu opened her eyes. Amazingly, it was Konatsu who held her. The power in his slender arms was astounding.

"I walk now, Konatsu-san," Xian Pu choked out.

Ukyou smiled and nodded her head at Konatsu. Konatsu gently set Xian Pu on her feet.

"Come on, Xian Pu," Ukyou said with her irrepressible sunniness. "You'll feel a hell of a lot better after you've had a bath."

"Xian Pu no have clothes or ..."

Konatsu cut her off by handing her a bundle of her clothes and a plastic tub with her bath things.

"How you get these?"

Konatsu shrugged his shoulders. "I always had to fetch things for my sisters."

"Ukyou! You send man to my room and have him paw my things?"

"Hey! I owed you one, remember? We went up to the hospital to check on you last night, Sugar, but we could see you weren't gonna be in the mood for company, so we left ya alone. I figured you'd be needing company by sunup, though."

Xian Pu took a deep breath, then grinned before speaking. "Xian Pu grateful. You no have to do this."

"No, we didn't," Ukyou said, "but we wanted to. Now come on! I need a bath so bad I itch."

In the southern reaches of Japan, near Ise, Ichiro Tetsugo's senior apprentice fetched a glowing billet from the fire and placed it upon an anvil while Tetsugo finished his long chanting prayer. The powerful old man glanced around his forge to see that his four junior apprentices were ready. He tapped the anvil once. They raised their hammers to the ready position. He chose a spot on the glowing billet.







Showers of glowing sparks danced upon the cold stone floor as droplets of sweat hissed upon the incandescent billet. Forging a new nation was hard work, but worth the effort. Tetsugo knew such work first hand, having done it before. He had very high hopes for this project, even though its location seemed improbable. His skills had improved considerably since his last attempt.

Ranma's nose and ears led him to the river, or rather to the falls where it tumbled down the side of a nearby cliff into a deep pool of quiet water. A dense grove of sugi surrounded the pool. The trees were quite old, and a thick layer of their needles carpeted the shade enfolded ground beneath them, making his footfalls soundless. There was no deadfall and next to no undergrowth in the grove, so he was not at all surprised to find a torii and shrine in the stand of ancient trees.

There was a small cistern of fresh water near the torii. A ceremonial bucket and ladle hung from the eave of the roof which had been erected over it. The bucket and ladle were newly made from the bare wood of a maple and left unpainted, as custom required. He took them down and dipped up a bucket of water from the cistern, then washed his hands and rinsed out his mouth. His ritual ablutions complete, he restored the bucket and ladle to their places.

Ranma had visited many shrines, of course. Very few of them moved him as this place did. Unlike most such places, this one seemed to have an actual presence. It felt genuinely sacred to him, and he was careful to behave in a reverent way as he made his way through the grove and downstream from the pool. The grove abruptly gave way to a small clearing, in the middle of which was the largest sakura he had ever seen. The trunk of the old giant was a little over two meters thick. The trees on the far side of the clearing were obviously secondary or tertiary growth, which was not at all surprising in a country where farming was on the decline. What had once been ancient forest had become fields and was now becoming forest again. This smaller, much younger growth made the vast old sakura stand out even more by contrast. It had been well cared for. Its ancient limbs had been propped up with poles wherever their weight threatened to overtax its trunk. A large rope made of rice straw festooned the trunk, indicating that the sakura was considered a sacred object. Ranma was not at all surprised to see that the tree was an object of worship. It was certainly magnificent enough.

{{Let us approach yonder giant, Saotome. Perhaps it will speak to us.}}

(I don't know, Scales. We've gotten into a lotta trouble in places like this before.)

(Saotome's right, Scales. We have had some really weird things go on in places like this.)

{{Come now, Saotome. This place is possessed of a benign spirit. Surely you sense it as well as I.}}

(Aw, all right. Let's just hope this old tree isn't like the one Kuno had in his yard.)

{{I think this is a very different sort of tree, Saotome. Just be respectful of it.}}

Ranma approached the old giant as though he were walking on eggshells. As he passed beneath its overarching branches, he felt an almost overwhelming surge of ki. Once near its trunk, Ranma clapped his hands sharply and gave the tree a bow. Ki surged around him.

{{Let us embrace the tree, Saotome.}}

(Aw, I don't know, Scales. That don't sound like such a good idea to me. We're already pushin' our luck.)

(Why don't we go girl first, Saotome. Then we can sing for it.)

(I thought we were comin' down here to fish!)

(Please, Ranma?)

(Okay, okay! Geez!)

There was a bright flash as Ranma became Onna-Ranma. He began to sing as he walked around the girth of the old giant. The gentle melody was simple enough for anyone to perform, and almost everyone sang it at least once during hanami, but Onna-Ranma's voice sounded sweet on this cold grey morning beneath naked limbs, even to his own ears. His high notes rang like crystalline bells.

"Sa-ku-ra! Sa-ku-ra! Ya-yo-i-no so-ra-wa,"

Ki began to surge around him, as though he were gathering it for the Hiryuushotenhaa.

"Mi-wa-ta-su ka-gi-ri. Ka-su-mi-ka? Ku-mo-ka?"

Onna-Ranma found himself being drawn closer to the old giant's mighty trunk as he walked around it, still singing as he went.

"Ni-o-i-zo i-zu-ru."

Onna-Ranma's shoulder began to brush the bark of the grand old cherry.

"I-za-ya, i-za-ya, mi-ni yu-ka-n."

There was no flash of light. There was no willing it on his part, but Onna-Ranma suddenly became Otoko-Ranma as he found himself pressing his cheek against the ancient giant's trunk, tears streaming down his face. Ki poured into him in a gentle flood, like an incoming tide slowly gaining strength as it ran inshore.

Ranma Saotome had grown up a wanderer. He had learned much from his travels and travails. He had gained knowledge and skills which few of his fellow Japanese could match. The tradeoff had been that his sense of being Japanese had suffered. He lacked a sense of belonging. His ten years of travel had deprived him of nearly all the experiences most Japanese shared in common. To many of them, Ranma Saotome was not Japanese at all. Many had tried to bully him into conformity, only to learn that it was not possible. In the end, he stood upon the threshold of manhood only to find himself apart from his people and his land. The ceremonies and mannerisms of his people meant very little to him. He aped them to get along, not because he felt any real connection with them. His performances had always been perfunctory. To him, they were a _pro forma_ means to an end. Between Ranma and Japan a great emotional gulf had yawned open during his youth, like a freshly opened wound. On this cold grey morning, as he pressed his body against the aged sakura, that gulf was bridged and the wound began to heal. Now that his soul was finally learning what it was to be Japanese, he would learn to be something more.

Ranma wrapped his arms around the trunk and pressed his body against its smooth bark as tightly as he could. An observer, had one been present, would have been treated to a shocking sight as both the powerful young man and the ancient tree began to glow with a strange blue light and an etherial haze filled the clearing around them. After several minutes of this, Ranma stepped back from the trunk and gave the tree a respectful bow.

"Arigatou, Sakura-sama," Ranma said aloud. "I am Ranma Saotome of the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts. I will long remember your generosity."

As Ranma finished speaking, the glow around the tree winked out and the haze in the clearing dissipated. An errant breeze passed through the bare branches high overhead, whispering softly as it passed. Ranma' face, for the first time in his short life, held something it had never possessed before, peace and harmony.

{{Now that we have paid our proper respects, let us go catch some fish!}}

A grin spread across Ranma's face as he made his way further downstream. At length he found a place where he could safely enter the water along a sandbar. The shells of several large freshwater clams were scattered around the sandbar, littered in the tracks of tanuki. Ranma found this amusing and placed one of the shells in his creel. They were handy for scaling fish and he silently thanked the unseen tanuki for leaving them in such a handy place. He did not bother to fend off the change as waded off into the chilly stream. Within minutes, he had a sweetfish in his creel and was stalking a second.

{{This seems a terribly slow way to fish. We could starve before we caught enough to make a meal.}}

(Maybe when we're dragon-sized, Scales, but it's plenty good enough for our human forms. Me and Pop ate good this way, remember?)

(Sometimes we did, Saotome. Sometimes we got by on rice we boiled in an old coffee can.)

(That only happened once or twice, Red. You know what's weird about today?)

(Other than that tree, you mean?)

(We ain't cold. The water ain't botherin' us none.)

{{I should like to try something, if I may.}}

(Sure, go ahead, Scales.)

Onna-Ranma bent his knees, submerging his upper body in the slow running water of the waist-deep stream. He made a deep, rumbling noise in his chest.

(What the hell was that for, Scales?)

(Ah, let up on him, will you, Saotome? We're still trying this dragon stuff out.)

{{ I think it might work for us in our male form.}}

There was an actinic flash as Onna-Ranma changed back into his male body. He tried making the deep rumbling noise again. A half-dozen sweetfish floated to the surface of the river, bellies up. Ranma hastened to gather the fish and put them into his creel before they floated downstream.

(Hey! That was neat!)

(Sure was! Too bad we can't do it when we're me.)

{{We will do much better as me.}}

(Wait! Hold on a second, Scales!)

(Yeah, Scales. Let us get out of our clothes, first. Akane'd get madder'n a wet hen if we come back to the house without no clothes on.)

{{Our treasure likes us without clothes.}}

(Not out in the open, she don't!)

(Saotome's right, Scales. Akane wouldn't like it if we came walking back to the house naked. Her sisters are there, remember?)

{{I do not understand at all. They seem to enjoy looking at our manly body, but I will wait.}}

Ranma waded back to the high point of the sand bar and removed his clothes. The river bottom filled with an incredibly bright flash of blue-white light as Ranma dropped his shirt. A glistening dragon now stood in the place once occupied by a handsome and powerfully muscled young man. It gracefully slid back into the water and swam upstream in a crocodilian fashion, stopping to gulp down several stones as it went. Upon entering a sizable eddy where the river had carved out a hollow in the steep bank, the dragon made a deep, deep rumbling noise in its chest while submerged. Spikey little wavelets, several centimeters in height, danced above the surface of the water. Ripples shot outwards all around the dragon. Hundreds of stunned sweetfish silently floated to the surface.

{{Time for breakfast!}}

The dragon began to gleefully gulp down the floating fish, spewing the excess whater from the sides of its mouth with every gulp.


{{Yes, Saotome?}}

(We gotta bring some fish back for Akane and the others, remember?)

{{Not to worry, Saotome. There are many fish in this river.}}

(Yeah, but we ain't got all day, ya know.)

{{Your point is well taken.}}

(Do we have enough ki to change back, Saotome?)

(What are ya askin' me for?)

{{We have more than enough, Scarlet One.}}

Another bright flash filled the river bottom. Where once there had been a blue-green dragon, there was now a very nude and very muscular young man treading water.

{{That hole upstream and on the left should have a great many fish in it.}}

(Okay, Scales.)

(This is a hoot, Saotome!)

Otoko-Ranma swam upstream until striking shallow water, waded for a while then slid off into another deep eddy. Ranma made a deep, rumbling noise in his chest.

(Your wavelets don't dance all that high, Saotome.)

Fish began floating to the surface, belly-up.

(Hey! It works good enough and it beats spendin' hours tryin' to tickle 'em out of the water.)

(Guess what, Saotome.)

(I fergot the damned creel!)

{{Bwaha! Bwaha-ha-ha-ha! Why not just eat them here, Saotome?}}

(Because we're supposed to take some of these back, that's why! How long have we got before the fish start wakin' up?)

{{Not long.}}

"Shit!" Ranma shouted as he struggled through the water while juggling the slippery sweetfish. He had left the creel sitting on the sandbar some twenty meters away.

The single most important man in all of Japan rose early. It had long been his custom to rise early. The one or two precious hours of solitude in the graylit dawn were the only private moments he could have. By law, he had no official duties. By custom, he never involved himself in the politics of his nation. By custom his person was the link between his people and Amateresu, but this aspect of his existence had no legal standing. Officially, he was never consulted on matters of national importance. Decisions were made in advance and then brought before him so that he might give his _pro forma_ approval. His was a very curious existence, if one looked at it only from the perspective of politics and officailly sanctioned public policy.

Few suspected the truth. He did make numerous decisions concerning certain special situations with which his people's government had no means of dealing. One such matter had been keeping him up late at night. He sat down on his favorite bench in his garden and opened the thick Manila folder he had been carrying. He leafed through it, merely scanning the pages as he did so. He had already read every word on every page and had studied every picture it contained down to the minutest detail. One of the photographs caught his eye and he stopped to look at it again for perhaps the hundredth time.

"Such a magnificent child," he murmered to the gently drifting mists around him. He closed the folder and set it down on the bench beside him. This morning, his solitude would be disturbed. He had known this in advance. His Prime Minister and two of the cabinet members were here to see him. He made as short of a job as he could of the necessary formalaties and bade the ministers to sit. Guards appeared from the mists to provide chairs. He waited until they were seated before making his decision known.

"There will be no action taken."

The faces of the ministers, two men and a woman, lost all color. The Mikado seldom gave a direct and plainly stated order. Imperial wishes were almost always framed in the language of a request, or of a suggestion.

"Has this child shown any sign of being disloyal to us?"

The answer was in the negative. He knew that it would be. The child was as innocent of politics as a newborn.

"Did he not spare one of our servants who put him to sore trial? Did he not obey the laws of our land despite our servant's foolish behavior?"

The answers were in the affirmative, as he well knew they would be.

"Then the fears and false accusations of others are of little concern to us. This child is our loyal subject. He and his family shall remain unmolested. They remain under our protection, as would any of our loyal subjects. I suggest that you find a way to allay the fears of our friends from overseas."

Kasumi sat down with a cup of tea after Tofu left with Nodoka, finding herself at loose ends. She ordinarily enjoyed having the quiet of early morning to herself, but today she would likely have more of it than she needed. Nabiki and Akane would both sleep in. Her only hope for conversation was to wait for Ranma to get up. She was reasonably sure he would. The poor boy often woke up before dawn, even when his father was not around to defenestrate him. On such days, Ranma would often get up and sit with her for a few minutes, then go back to bed.

Kasumi smiled at the fond memory of those moments as she rose and carried the tea service into the kitchen. Ranma had told her many an exciting and outlandish tale over early morning tea. She would miss him once she moved away from home. She would miss a great deal once that happened, not the least of which would be her mother's kitchen. To be sure, she had a new kitchen equipped with anything she wanted to look forward to, but she would still miss the kitchen at Tendo-ke. It had, after all, been the place where she had found her own Art and thereby found a way to bring happiness to her family.

She set the tea service down upon the counter, then began filling the kettle to heat more water. Hearing a noise outside, she looked out the kitchen window. It was Ranma. He was standing outside completely bare from the waist up, scaling fish with a clam shell. Kasumi shivered. The boy was wet from head to foot. The beaded water on his skin glistened in the pinkish light of early dawn. Despite the cold, there was an aura of liveliness about Ranma that made Kasumi smile. He was not whistling, but Kasumi thought he should have been. She thought about how things were about to change and was saddened. Soon her morning visits with Ranma would be a thing of the past, or at best, be very few and far between. She set the kettle back down upon the stove. Gathering a large spoon, a sharp knife and a fresh towel, she made her way outside.

"My, Ranma! You look happy this morning."

"Mornin', Kasumi," Ranma said, looking up from his work just long enough to flash Kasumi a smile. "Yeah, I guess I do feel pretty good."

"Here," Kasumi said as handed him the towel, "stop long enough to dry off a little. Just looking at you makes me shiver."

Ranma grinned then turned the faucet on and washed his hands before taking the towel. Kasumi picked up a fish and began scaling it with the spoon she had brought.

"Oh, my!" Kasumi exclaimed upon seeing how many fish Ranma had caught. "What a wonderful catch!"

"Yeah, I ain't seen a river with this many sweetfish in it for a long time."

"How did you catch so many?" Kasumi asked.

Ranma grinned. "I found a great big old cherry tree. So big it had props under most of the limbs."

"Oh, I've seen it! Tofu and I visited it last week. He said it was planted by the local daimyo shortly after Sekigahara. It is said that the daimyo and his retainers trained there almost every day. But, how did finding the tree help you catch so many fish?"

"The tree was loaded with ki, Kasumi," Ranma said, pausing his work and looking her in the eye. "Ki just poured into me when I touched the trunk. I ain't never had anything like that happen before."

"It probably has something to do with your gift, Ranma."

Ranma shrugged his shoulders. "You might be right. Bein' a dragon can be handy. I can make a rumblin' noise in the water and it stuns the fish."

Kasumi gave Ranma a surprised stare. "You have changed into a dragon and changed back this morning already?"


"Didn't you get hungry the way you did the last time?"

"Oh, yeah!" Ranma said, then smiled at Kasumi. "I already ate breakfast. I caught lots and lots of fish."

"Oh, my, Ranma," Kasumi said. "You'll want to be careful about that sort of thing. The game wardens might not like it."

"Do ya think they'd try to carry me off to the dog pound?" Ranma asked.

Kasumi stopped eviscerating the fish she had just scaled and thought for a moment. "I don't know. They might just think you were some previously unknown animal."

"Hey! That wouldn't be half-bad. There ain't many of us dragons, ya know. They might declare me an endangered species."

Kasumi returned to working on her fish and smiled.

"That's true. They might even want to create a breeding program for you, just as they have for the Japanese Crane."

Ranma blushed violently.

"Just what I need! An entire branch of the government treatin' me the way Pop has!"

Kasumi giggled, then began work on another fish.

"What does this noise you make sound like, Ranma? It must be terribly loud if it stuns fish."

"You know, that's what's funny about it, Kasumi. You can barely hear it," Ranma said, then made the noise.

Kasumi felt chills run up her back as waves of goosepimples ran the length of her arms. She dropped her knife. Ranma had told the truth. The noise he made could not actually be heard. She felt it seep into her chest and rattle around inside her rib cage. It made her faintly nauseous.

"Oh, my! That's frightening!" Kasumi said.

"Didja hear it?"

"I did not hear it so much as I felt it, Ranma. It gave me goosebumps."

"Weird, huh?"

"Yes, it is. Perhaps you should demonstrate it for Tofu when he gets back. He might be able to explain it."

"Yeah, good idea. I'll do that."

"Tell me something, Ranma."


"Do you really believe Akane will learn the okugi in time for you to meet Grandfather Happosai's deadline?"

Ranma took a deep breath and sighed.

"It's a challenge, Kasumi. I hafta believe she'll finish in time. That's the only way ya can deal with a challenge."

"How much of a challenge is it?"

"Big and tough," Ranma said with a rueful grin. "The old freak took Pop and your dad out for many a training trip before he taught it to them. Pop trained me for nearly six years before starting me on the okugi. 'Course, everything was different for me. Pop wanted me to have somethin' more than just the okugi."

"What on earth could that have been, Ranma? I thought the okugi was everything."

"It ain't just the knowledge, Kasumi. It's attitude and it's spirit, and it's ...well, it's stuff we ain't even got words for. Akane's got most of that already. I think she musta been born with it. She'll endure anything, tackle anything or DO almost anything to be what she wants to be in the Art. I woulda never pushed myself the way Akane does without Pop's help. Akane starts in on herself the minute she gets up in the mornin'."

Kasumi could not suppress a smile at this.

"She tries much too hard, doesn't she?"

"I mean to tell ya she tries too hard! That's why she got hurt last night. She's gotta learn some patience, especially with herself. And, that temper of hers! Man, it's scary!"

"She seems to be doing a little better with her temper," Kasumi said.

"Some, yeah. She finally started figurin' out when I'm baitin' her, anyway. What she still has ta learn next is to stay cool when it's an opponent tryin' pull her chain."

"It must be very hard for you."

"It is and it ain't. I know what to teach her. That ain't the problem. The hard part is figurin' out how to teach her what she needs ta know."

"What do you mean, Ranma?"

"Well, I can't treat her the way the old man treated me, ya know? So I hafta remember what Pop taught me when and how he taught it to me, then I hafta figger out a way, a technique, that Akane can learn from."

"I gather then that you haven't been throwing her out the window at the crack of dawn."

"I almost did just exactly that, Kasumi," Ranma said with a shudder, "but I caught myself just in time."


"Yeah, Kasumi?"

"Things have certainly changed between you and my sister."

Ranma nearly fainted.

"What's the matter, Ranma?"

"We were ...ah... that is Akane and me were kinda...kinda hopin' nobody would notice."

"Well everyone in the family has noticed, Ranma, especially your mother."

"Aw, geez!"

"Well, there's nothing wrong with it, really. Just so long as you don't let things go too far."

Ranma's jaw went slack as his face turned bright red.

"I was afraid of that," Kasumi said.

"It's a's a's notwhatyouthink!"


"There's no way ...well ...what we did ...You see we ...I'm real careful about when and where I'm a guy. Okay?"

Kasumi suddenly found herself blushing. Her hands began to shake so badly she found it necessary to put her knife down.

"She loves me, Kasumi. It don't matter to her none which form I'm in. She knows it's me. She ain't ... well ... she ain't one of THEM, okay? You don't hafta worry about that."

Kasumi closed her eyes and took a deep breath before speaking, "I suppose it looks to you as though I haven't the right to say anything, Ranma, but ..."

"I love her. I ain't gonna do nothin' to spoil our chances of havin' a good life. We ain't ready to be married and there ain't no way we're ready to have kids. But, we love each other. We need to ...we need ..."

"You need to become closer?"

"Yeah! That's it! But, I don't dare do anything that might ...that would,..You know ... WE AIN'T READY TA HAVE KIDS OR MARRY, SO WE CAN'T!"

"But you want to, right?"

"Yeah, I guess we both do, but I ain't gonna let it happen!" Ranma said, looking very flustered. "Why are you askin' me about this stuff?"

"I wanted to know where your heart is, Ranma."

"Have ya checked under Akane's pillow this mornin'?"

"I suppose I should have thought to look there, shouldn't I?" Kasumi asked as she began working on another fish.

"Kasumi, you'll always have the right ta say whatever ya want to me. Have you and Tofu set a date, yet?"

"Tentatively, yes. We must talk it over with father, first."

"If he gives ya any trouble, lemme know."

Kasumi thought this over for a moment. Ranma's leverage over her father was obvious, especially given that Ranma and Akane had made up their minds.

"Thank you, Ranma. I will."

"You know what I don't understand? I don't understand why they're pushin' me and Akane so hard. I don't get it."

"They do have their reasons, Ranma. I'm not sure that they are valid reasons, but they do have them."

"It don't make sense to me, Kasumi. None at all."

Kasumi took a deep breath before speaking again. She had to word her answer carefully.

"There is much more to it than you know, Ranma. There is a great deal of family history involved."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Mmm, the efforts of several generations are about to culminate."



"I still don't get it."

"I'm sure your mother will explain it all to you when the time is right, Ranma."

"What do you know about all of this, Kasumi?"

"Enough to fill in for your mother should the need arise."

Ranma had been scaling a fish, but stopped. He dropped the clam shell he had been using and stared Kasumi in the eyes.

"She made ja promise not to tell us, didn't she?"


"Do ya think she is right about it?"

"Mostly," Kasumi said. "I think she is being just a little impatient with you and my sister, but ... You have a legacy, Ranma. It is an important legacy. It goes beyond just our two families. It involves the future of at least three entire clans, perhaps more than that."

Ranma stared at Kasumi in silence for a moment, then gulped.

"That can't be! What the hell could be so important about me and Akane gettin' married?"

"I can't tell you, Ranma. But, ask yourself this, what would ever possess a woman to do what your mother has done? It would have to be terribly important, wouldn't it?"

"You're talkin' about the contract and all that, ain'tcha?"

"And, marrying your father," Kasumi said, giving Ranma a wink.

Ranma snorted, then Kasumi watched as gooseflesh ran up his arms, and he shuddered.

"Are you cold, Ranma?"

"Naw, I just had a vision of my mom and dad gettin' all mushy and stuff, that's all."

Kasumi smiled. "That is a rather disconcerting thought, isn't it?"

"Sickenin' is more like it," Ranmna said. "I can't figure out why a lady like my mom married Pops in the first place."

"That I can answer for you, Ranma. She married your father because her father arranged the marriage."

"Ya mean she don't even love him?"

"I did not say that, Ranma. Love is like a garden. It begins as something nice, but only becomes grand after you have nurtured it for a decade or so."

"Hmmph! The old man's got a lotta weedin' ta do!"

"So has your mother, Ranma. They put their lives on hold for you and ... well, you and one of us."

Ranma's eyes widened at this, but he said nothing. They resumed work on the fish for several minutes before Ranma spoke again.


"Yes, Ranma?"

"What would you have done if I had decided to pick you?"

"I ...I ...don't know, Ranma. It did not work out that way."

Ranma gave her a wicked grin. "It worked out the way you wanted it to, right? What would you have done if I had messed it up for ya? I could have picked you and stuck by my guns, ya know."

"We would be celebrating our first anniversary in a few months if you had, Ranma," Kasumi said with a faint trace of her inner steel in her voice. "It would have been unfair of us to make others wait on our decision."

Ranma blushed.

"I'm glad I didn't," he said. "You don't love me that way and never would. It's been a lot better havin' ya for a ...a ..."


"Yeah, sorta. More like a ...a," Ranma stammered as his blush deepened.

"Thank you, Ranma," Kasumi said, then gave Ranma her warmest smile. "Are there any more fish?"

"Nope, we're done."

"Why don't you go get a bath while I get breakfast started?"

"Yes, Auntie," Ranma said with an impish smile.

"And do it quietly!" Kasumi admonished. "Nabiki and Akane need their rest this morning."

"Yes, Auntie."

Tofu dropped Nodoka off at Tendo-ke shortly after seven. She found Soun and Genma fast asleep on the engawa, just as Kasumi had warned that she would. Apparently, they had succumbed to fatigue while playing shogi. Genma lay flat on his back, arms and hands spread wide. Nodoka walked over to him with the intentions of scolding him awake until she saw his hands. The sight of them made her gasp. Large blisters had swollen beneath his heavy calluses. Some of them had ruptured. Soun's hands were in even worse shape. Both of the men had numerous burn marks on their arms and faces.

With a shake of her head, Nodoka made her way to the bathroom and filled the furo with hot water, then put out towels and fresh clothes for the two men. Returning to the main room, she kneeled beside her husband and whispered into his ear.

"Genma, dear?"

Genma stopped snoring and smiled lasciviously.

"I am going to start breakfast soon," Nodoka breathed into her husband's ear. "Perhaps you and Soun should go bathe now."

"Why not you and I, No-chan?" Genma asked.

Nodoka tried and failed to suppress a shiver as desire washed over her.

"Perhaps this evening, dear. For now, I think the two of you should bathe and eat. You, my dear, are going to need all the strength you can muster tonight."

Genma's eyes opened wide at this news.

"Do you really mean that, No-chan?" Genma asked.

Nodoka smiled, thinking of the noises Ranma and Akane had made in the night, and patted Genma's rock-hard chest. Genma captured Nodoka's hand with one of his own and stared into her eyes. Nodoka shivered again.

"You should give poor Soun a hand, I think," Nodoka whispered. "He seems to be considerably worse for wear."

"Life's been too easy on him for the last few years," Genma rumbled, "but he's still as tough as he ever was. He made it."

"Well he looks rather fragile at the moment, dear."

"I'll take care of him, No-chan," Genma said. "What are we having for breakfast?"

"Oh, I thought a western style breakfst would be nice, with perhaps an special side-dish."


"Mmm, I thought perhaps a dozen or so steamed mussels might be in order."

Genma leaped to his feat and picked up the limp and now protesting Soun Tendo as though he were a sack of potatoes.

"Come on, Tendo-kun!" Genma said in a hale and hearty voice. "Time for us to get a bath."

"Ahh! Go easy, Saotome! I feel as though I've been hit by a train!"

"Not to worry, Tendo-kun!" Genma said as he heaved his old friend up and across his shoulder. "You'll feel better after a hot soak!"

"Shall I heat some liniment, dear?" Nodoka asked.

"Please do, No-chan," Genma said as headed for the bath, "and make a pot of willow-bark tea, if you would, please."

"Of course, Husband."

The telephone rang just as Nodoka had gotten the men served and was ready to take a bite for herself. She rose with unruffled calm and picked up the receiver.

"Hello? Tendo-ke," Nodoka said.

"Ah, Saotome no Mae, this is Ko Lon."

"Good morning, Honored Elder," Nodoka answered. "How is your student?"

There was a momentary silence on the other end.

"Oh, you mean Mu Suu?"

"Yes, I'm sorry. I had quite forgotten his name."

"I have no news other than his surgery seems to have gone quite well and that he is resting quietly," Ko Lon said. "I wish to thank you for the generosity of your family in our time of need."

"Not at all, Honored Elder," Nodoka replied. "It was the least we could do in such circumstances."

"Saotome no Mae, I have in my presence a young man who has journeyed here from the far reaches of northwestern China. He wishes to request an audience with your son. Could you find it in your heart to entertain his entreaties this afternoon?"

Nodoka was a bit taken aback by this. She well knew the formalities of such a situation, but this was the first time in her life to be entertaining entreaties made by someone else. Usually, it was Nodoka requesting such a boon. One always arrived with a letter of introduction and never brought up one's entreaty. The host would bring the matter up after gauging the worthiness of the supplicant. If the host did not bring the subject up, the supplicant's request was denied. This kind of arrangement saved face for all parties concerned.

"If you think him worthy, Honored Elder," Nodoka said, struggling with a sudden catch in her throat, "I should be happy to see him."

"He is a man of considerable repute, Lady Saotome, and of royal blood. I would have denied his request for you had he been a lesser man."

"I see," Nodoka said, cursing the squeak that suddenly entered her voice. "When may I expect him?"

"Would three this afternoon be convenient?"

"Oh, certainly," Nodoka said. "That would be just in time for tea."

"Then I will give him leave to visit you, as well as directions for reaching Tendo-ke."

"And I will look forward to his arrival, Honored Elder."

"Thank you, Lady Saotome."

"You are most welcome, Honored Elder."

Nodoka put down the telephone then went about the household chores at a brisk pace. She had much to do.

Ranma had found himself at loose ends after bathing. He wasn't hungry and did not want to wake Akane. She needed some rest and she would not be able to do anything in the way of useful training for at least another day. They would not even be able to practice her breathing, thanks to the damage she had done to her nose. He tried to study for a while, but found it impossible to concentrate.

(Yo, Red! What's the matter? I thought you liked this stuff.)

(I'm just not up to it today, Saotome. Why don't we go for a walk? Maybe turn dragon again. What do you think, Scales?)

{{We have more than enough ki for it, but perhaps we should hold it in reserve for our visitor.}}

(Yeah, I guess you're right, Scales. I had forgotten about him.)

(Typical girl!)

(Oh, put a sock in it, Saotome. Besides, you don't really want to know what I think of Haabu.)

{{A walk would be nice. The sky seems to be clearing nicely. We could explore for a while.}}

(Hell, yeah! Let's go!)

(Typical guy.)

(Hey! You like adventure too, Red.)

(Yeah, okay, Saotome. You got me there.)

Ranma got up and walked into the kitchen.


"Yes, Ranma?"

"If you don't have anything you need me to do, I thought I'd take a little walk. I'm feeling kinda restless."

"Okay, Ranma," Kasumi said with a smile. "Nabiki and Akane will probably sleep for at least another hour. Are you sure you won't want some more breakfast?"

"Nah, I'm plenty full, Kasumi."

"Have fun, then!"

Ranma walked out into the yard of Ono-ke and, for the first time, perhaps because it was clear and the sun was shining, noticed that there was a railroad track about a kilometer to the north.

(Let's go see if we can find some nice rocks.)

{{Excellent idea, Saotome.}}

(What is it with us and rocks all of sudden? Don't you guys think that's a little weird?)

(Hey! Girls like rocks!)

{{Especially the shiny ones. Remember all those things Nabiki taught us about gems, Scarlet One?}}

(We are NOT going to find gems on a railroad bed, Scales!)

(Might find an agate or two, though.)

(Oh, all right! I guess it's one of those guy-type days.)

Ranma cheerfully ambled across the northern field of Ono-ke towards the tracks. It had lain fallow for several years. Grass and weeds had long ago taken it over. They were knee high for the most part, but waist high in places.

(Look at all these baby trees, Saotome.)

(Yeah, sure lots of 'em, ain't there?)

{{This will be forest soon.}}

(These rails aren't very shiny, Saotome.)

(No, but they ain't rusted over, either. I guess they still carry a little traffic.)

(Looks like you guys are out of luck on the rocks, Saotome. They used crushed lava for ballast on this line.)

(Yeah ... Hey! What's that?)

Ranma bent down and picked up a white stone. It's surface was fairly even, but quite granular.

(Limestone, I think, Saotome.)

{{It is. There seems to be more of it lying on the tracks to the west of us than to the east of us.}}

(Yeah, you're right, Scales. I wonder why.)

{{Why don't we go west and see if we can find out?}}

(It is definitely going to be a guy-type day!)

(Oh, you love it!)

Ranma picked up two more stones, each of them slightly smaller than his fist. He stepped up on the north rail and began walking westwards on it, juggling the three rocks as he went.






(What? I'm tryin' ta concentrate here!)

(It's hard to take in the sights with you doing all this!)

(Hey! It's trainin'! You and Scales sight-see and I work on our balance and timing.)


{{He's right, O Scarlet One. This is excellent training for us.}}

Ranma continued westward for another kilometer, still juggling and never stepping off the rail.

{{Hold a moment, Saotome. The stream below is quite interesting.}}


Ranma stopped his juggling, then turned and faced west without stepping off the narrow rail.

(Look! The water runs underground up there, then pops back up out of the ground just before it reaches the bridge.)

{{Indeed, Scarlet One. The stream bed seems to be limestone. There must be a quarry nearby. Limestone is a rare commodity in Japan.}}

Ranma turned and faced south, then hopped over to the next rail, his balance never faltering.

(Hey, look. It goes back underground a little ways downstream from here. That's weird.)

{{Not that unusual, really. The odd thing is the limestone. There is little of it in our land.}}

(Let's go see if we can find the quarry, Saotome. We've never seen one before.)

(Probably just a big pit dug in the ground.)

(So? Have we ever seen one?)


Ranma shrugged his shoulders then turned and headed westward on the southern rail as he resumed his juggling. He had not gone more than a half kilometer before coming across a switch and tributary track which split off the main line and cut northwards through woodlands.

(I'll bet this is the siding for the quarry, Saotome.)

(Hasn't been used much, Red. Look at the rust. I'll bet there hasn't been a train on that track in years.)

{{Decades, I should think. Shall we go have a look?}}

((Why not?))

The signs of an abandoned track became more and more prevalent as Ranma ran along the rail. The space between the rails was littered with deadfall. Dirt had filled the cracks between the ballast stones and weeds were poking up between the ties. There were a few places where such growth was so thick he had been forced to get down off the rail and walk on the ties. Eventually, though, the track led out of the wood and into a large opening. The first thing to come into sight was the rusting hulk of a long abandoned steam shovel.

(Look at that old thing, Red.)

(Yeah, it looks really old. Like maybe it was steam powered.)

{{It was. See the cylinders that make the shovel go up and down?}}

(Let's go get a closer look!)

(I thought this guy-type stuff bored you, Red.)

(Hey! I LIKE machines. You're the one that's all thumbs.)

The closer Ranma got to the old machine, the more curious the place seemed to be. There were numerous pits and craters around the place. Some of them were deep enough to reveal the limestone beds beneath their violently disturbed overburden. Most of craters were partially silted up and more than a few of them held stagnant water.

(These look like bomb craters, Red.)

(Geez, do you think this place could really be that old?)

{{Very likely. This quarry must have been abandoned during the World War. Limestone is needed to make steel, that would explain the bombing.}}

Ranma found a place where a crater had been blasted out in the middle of the siding. The rails were twisted upward into bizarre loops of rusting steel as thick as his forearm.

(This has gotta be bomb damage. I ain't ever seen nothin' like this.)

(I wonder what was under that old shed, Saotome.)

(Let's go look.)

Ranma made his way over to the badly decayed structure. Parts of it were still standing, even though the corrugated tin of its ragged roof flapped in the light wind, making eerie creaking and banging noises. Inside was a huge pile of brownish-yellow dust and fiber.

(What is this stuff?)

Ranma raked at part of the immense pile with his fingers and struck something that felt like a stick. He pulled it out.

(Lighter pine, Saotome?)

Ranma sniffed the piece of wood and caught the sharp smell of ammonia mixed with the pungent scent of concentrated pine oil.

(Yep! That's gotta be what it is, lighter pine.)

(I can't believe they were fueling their boilers with firewood, especially pine.)

(Late in the war it got to be real hard to move anything around without the Beijin shootin' it up, remember?)

(Yeah, I guess so. Let's go look at the pit. This old building looks ready to collapse.)

(Good idea, Red.)

The quarry pit was roughly heart-shaped. Partly because of the way it had been dug and partly from the bombing and subsequent erosion that had taken place over the years. In several places, the steeper banks had collapsed into piles of loose limestone block. Scattered clumps of willow had taken root near the water's edge. The water was as clear as freshly rolled glass, and shaded to a deep green in its greater depths.

{{The water is a disappointment. It seems completely lifeless.}}

(Yeah, it could use a few koi or somethin', couldn't it?)

Ranma sat down at the water's edge, then skipped a stone across the glassy surface of the pool. He watched the wavelets as they spread and mingled along its surface for a while. The sun had swung higher into the sky and began to warm his shoulders.

(Man! The sun sure feels good, doesn't it, Saotome?)

(Yeah, it's so quiet here I can hear my heart beat.)

{{A good place to meditate, is it not?}}

(Yeah, lemme find us a rock, Scales.)

(Try that black one, Saotome.)

(It ain't a rock. Looks like charcoal or something.)

{{It might have been blown here from one of the fireboxes during a bombing raid.}}

(Could be, I guess. Wanna try growin' it?)

The extinguished coal was interesting to look at, being full of tiny pits and what looked like deep worm holes leading from its dark surface into even darker depths.

(Yeah, let's give it a try, Saotome.)

Ranma found a large flat stone and set the piece down in the middle of it. Satisfied with its position, he took up a comfortable sitting position nearby and began to concentrate his mind upon the charcoal. Time, for Ranma at least, slowly trickled to a stop.

Nabiki stared in awe as Akane ate breakfast, barely able to believe what she was seeing. Oh, sure, fresh sweetfish was quite a treat for breakfast, but good grief! When Akane noticed her staring, Nabiki pretended to jealously guard her plate. This earned her a smile from Kasumi and a blank stare from Akane.

"Whad?" Akane asked, sounding puzzled.

"You've been hanging around Ranma and his old man too much, Akane," Nabiki said with a smirk.

Akane's eyes narrowed. "Whad's dad zupposed do mean, Nabiki?"

"It means that I'm worried about poor Kasumi and me. We might starve to death, that's what."

"Oh," Akane said as an impish grin spread across her face.

Nabiki noticed a blur out of the corner of one eye, then felt the faint touch of a breeze upon her wrist. She looked down. The best piece of her fish was missing from her plate. She looked up only to find Akane grinning back, her cheeks packed full like those of a chipmunk. Nabiki decided to give her younger sister a level two glare.

"Would you like some more fish, Nabiki?" Kasumi asked sweetly.

"Yes, I ... Where'd at gum vrum?" Nabiki asked around a mouth suddenly and inexplicably full of fish.

"You mide joke vile I'm ad de dable, Nabiki," Akane said, "bud you von'd zdarve."

"Iz dat zo?" Nabiki asked, as her eyes began to water. She wanted to laugh, but was afraid she might really choke. After a few moments of struggling with the inordinate load of fish in her mouth, she managed to swallow. "Did Ranma teach you that?"

Akane nodded her head.


"He zaid dad hiz dad vould brobably tezd me virst," Akane said. "Jusd do mage zure I vouldn'd vail in vrond ov Habbosai."

"Well that was pretty fast, Akane," Nabiki said, "but I don't think you're fast enough to take on Panda-san at the dinner table."

Akane smiled. Her wrist flicked as her chopsticks went snicker-snack, then she held them out towards Nabiki. Nabiki looked down at them. Akane had captured a housefly by trapping one of its wings between the blunt points of her chopsticks. Nabiki's heart froze in her chest. Catching a fly requires much more than mere speed. Even most untrained people are more than quick enough to catch one. Catching a fly requires a peculiar state of mind, a kind of concentration which allows one to anticipate the fly's attempt to avoid capture. Akane had just demonstrated that she could achieve such a state without effort.

"Ranma zays I'm brobably goigh do be more aggurate dan him or hiz dad," Akane said as she separated the tips of her chopsticks. The fly buzzed off for parts unknown. "He zayz hiz girl zide is de zame vay."

"Would you like a fresh pair of chopsticks, Akane?" Kasumi asked cheerfully.

"Dang you, Gazumi."

"Is he teaching you to steal jockey straps?"

"No! Vhy vould he do dat?"

"Well, I don't know for sure, Akane," Nabiki said with an evil grin, "He isn't teaching you steal panties, is he?"

Akane tried to snort in disgust. This, of course, made her grimace with pain. Her eyes began to water as she put the back of one hand against her forehead. Nabiki nearly burst out laughing.

"What else have you two been practicing together?" Nabiki asked, giving her sister a sly look. "Did it feel good?"

Akane blushed violently.

"Oh, I see!" Nabiki said gleefully. "Is he good with his hands?"

"Nabiki!" Kasumi said in a scolding voice.

"Oh, take it easy, Sis," Nabiki said, giving her older sister an even more evil grin. "I was going to ask you the same thing about Tofuu, but I KNOW what the answer to that one has to be."

Kasumi put her hands on her hips and gave Nabiki an annoyed stare. Nabiki could no longer contain her amusement and began to cackle.

"I'll hold her, Gazumi," Akane said in a grim voice. "You dickle her."

"Deal!" Kasumi cried.

Nabiki immediately realized that Akane's threat was genuine, and rose from the table hoping to beat a hasty retreat. Foolishly, she paused to fling a parting jibe.

"What are you going to dickle me with, Sis?" Nabiki asked, looking over her shoulder. "I didn't think you had that kind of plumbing. Are we resorting to toys already -- ACK!"

Nabiki knew she was in trouble the second she felt her younger sister's powerful fingers wrap around her ankle. Nope! We ain't goin' nowhere, Nabiki, old girl. Looks like you're gonna hafta take your medicine this time.

"Oh, I think my fingers will do everything that need be done, dear sister!" Kasumi said cheerfully. "Hold her foot up, Akane."

Akane cheerfully pulled Nabiki down, the raised Nabiki's right foot so that its sole was exposed. Kasumi gleefully gave it gentle raking with her nails.

"Heeeeee!" Nabiki cried, as she vainly tried to squirm out of Akane's grip.

The fun lasted for quite a while. Nabiki managed to give as good as she got once or twice, but it all ended after Akane's nose began to bleed.

"Akane, are you sure you didn't bump your nose?" Nabiki asked. Akane was standing over the sink in the bathroom, doing her best to bleed into it and not onto the floor.

"YEZ!" Akane said. "I dink dis sdarded vhen I znorded ad jou."

"You znorded at me?" Nabiki asked sounding puzzled. "I don't remember you doing that."

Akane looked flustered and annoyed. "Nod znorded, snordeted!"

"Oh, snorted!"

Akane rolled her eyes towards the heavens. Nabiki smirked.

"Just so long as we didn't knock it crooked, you know."

Akane nodded her head gently, but bled all the more despite her caution.

"Nabiki!" Kasumi called from somewhere else in the house.

"Yes, Kasumi?" Nabiki called back.

"Tofu's here."

"Oh, good! She's still in the bathroom, Kasumi!"

"Is it still bleeding?" Kasumi asked.


"Tofu's on his way."

"Let's see that nose, Akane-chan," Tofu said a moment later as he entered the bath.

Akane turned, then looked annoyed as blood soaked into her blouse. Tofu tilted her head back and examined her face for a minute or so.

"No problem," Tofu said with as grin, "You broke a clot is all. The bleeding will stop again in a few minutes. Why don't you go lay down and I'll bring you some cold towels, okay?"

"Ogay," Akane said. "I vish Ranma vas here."

"He isn't here?" Tofu asked, sounding surprised.

"Nope," Nabiki answered. "He went for a walk."

"He went for a walk and left Akane here with just you and Kasumi?"


"That's wonderful!" Tofu exclaimed.

"Huh?" Nabiki and Akane chorused.

"It means he's starting to return to normal," Tofu said. "He might be back to his old self in a few weeks."

"I don't think that's possible, Doc," Nabiki said. "Not after all that's happened to him."

"Well, as close to his old self as can be expected, anyway," Tofu said. "The fact that he went for a walk without Akane suggests his paranoia is dissipating. It's a very good sign."

"Oh," Nabiki said.

"Why don't you help Akane back to her room," Tofu said. "I'll go soak some towels in ice water for her."

"Okay, Doc," Nabiki said.

"Juzd zoag dem in duh rain barrel, Docder Dovu," Akane said. "De vader in id iz blendy gold."

"The rain barrel?"

"Idza longh zdory," Akane said. "Dage my vord vor id. Da vader in de rain barrel iz bery gold."

"Oh, okay! I understand now," Tofu said with a grin, then left. Nabiki helped Akane back down the hall and into her room. Kasumi had already prepared Akane's futon, covering it with a plastic sheet.

"Comfy, Sis?" Nabiki asked after Akane had laid down.

"I hade blastig zjeets!" Akane said.

"Yeah, they kinda remind me of when you were little."

Akane gave Nabiki a weak grin while struggling with the blood running from her nose.

"I'll go get you some paper towels."

"I vish Ranma vas here."

"You want me to see if I can find him?"


"Sure thing, kiddo," Nabiki said. "It might take a while though. There's no telling where he went. You know how guys are."

"He zhould ov daken me vidh him!"

"Now who's being paranoid? Besides, you aren't exactly in any shape to be hiking around right now."

Akane stuck her tongue out at Nabiki. "You don'd undersdand."

"Oh, I think I do, Akane. I'll see if I can find him."

"You don'd mind?"

"Not really. This place is so quiet it's giving me the creeps. I need something to do anyway."

"Ogay," Akane said, her face contorting with the effort required not to sniffle. "Dang you."

Nabiki pinched her own nose closed with her thumb and forefinger and said, "You're velgome!"

Akane shot the bird at her older sister, so Nabiki gave her a level five smirk in return. This little fracas held every promise of escalating into another tickle fight, but was interrupted by Kasumi bearing a roll of paper towels.

"Later, Akane."

"Ogay, Nabiki."

Once outside, Nabiki was immediately confronted with two problems. The sun was well up in the mid-morning part of its course and the sky was a brilliant burning blue, but it was bitterly cold. Worse, Nabiki had not the faintest notion of where Ranma might have gone. She went back inside and put on a heavier coat. She also briefly considered putting on an extra pair of socks, but decided against the idea and went back outside.

"Well, let's see," Nabiki said aloud to herself. "He's been down to the river once today, so he probably decided to try another direction."

She looked south.

"Nope. That's the way we came in. He's seen that."

Nabiki walked over to the west side of the house. Someone had recently plowed the field just west of Ono-ke, and even though the woods on the far side of the field looked inviting, Nabiki could not see any sign that Ranma had crossed the upturned earth. She walked on around the house until she was on its north side and spied the sunlight glinting off the distant railroad track. After a moment, she spied the obvious trail Ranma had left as he made his way through the tall grasses in the north field.

"Bingo! Gotcha, Ranma."

Grinning, Nabiki crawled through the rail fence and took up Ranma's trail. By the time she reached the railroad, her socks and shoes were soaking wet from picking up the moisture in the tall grass. Nabiki clambered up the sloping ballast and stood between the rails.

"Where did he go from here?" she asked the bone-chilling breeze as she fought down the urge to begin shivering. There was another fallow field north of the rail line, but no sign that Ranma had continued in the same direction he had been traveling.

"He must have followed the tracks, but which way? East or west? The river is east of here and that means a bridge. He might have gone that way. He likes bridges for some reason."

Before choosing a direction, Nabiki decided to look around and see if she could spot something that might have gotten Ranma's attention. Nothing in her view struck her as being at all curious accept that something to the west of her and just north of the westward running rail line kept catching her eye. It was annoying. She knew that something was niggling at her vision, but she could not actually make anything out. After a few tries, she realized that it was part of the sky that was getting her attention. A little north of west, there was a patch of sky slightly darker than it should be. She looked away and then back at it just to make sure she was not seeing things. The patch remained in its place. It was just a narrow wedge of deeper than normal blue, wide at the top and narrowing as it disappeared behind the trees.

"That has got to be Ranma!" Nabiki exclaimed with a grin. "Gotcha again, big boy!"

Nabiki made her way west until she came upon the siding and decided to stop and rest for a minute. She had held a brisk pace and breathing in the cold air in such volumes was taking its toll on her. She tried to suppress a shiver and failed.

"Just a little walk, huh, Ranma?" Nabiki asked with a shake of her head.

BA-A-ROOM! Ka-rack-aa-lack!

She heard the explosion just a fraction of second before the concussion rocked her back on her heels. A thin column of black smoke shot up into the sky just beyond the tree line, followed by a spray of water. The clatter of falling debris was not far behind.

"Oh, shit! RANMA!" Nabiki shouted as she sprinted up the old siding, completely oblivious to the cold and her fatigue. "R-A-A-AN-MA-A-A!"

Ranma sank into a meditative state with relative ease for the very first time in his life. The fist-sized piece of charcoal grew rapidly into the size of a boulder. After a few minutes, or perhaps after several hours, time did not seem to be the same in this state of mind, he had made a vast black mountain of it. The mountain was riven with rills, ridges, tunnels and caverns.

(Too bad we can't go climb it, huh, Saotome?)


{{Oh, but we can, O Scarlet One, can't we, Saotome?}}

Ranma suddenly found himself standing upon a narrow ledge far, far above the ground.


{{See? I told you we could.}}

(Is this ... is this like the other place, Scales?)

{{I am not certain, Scarlet One. There may well be similarities.}}

(This ledge seems to be awfully crumbly.)

{{Perhaps we should think of flying, then.}}

Ranma raised his arms as he stood up on the balls of his feet, as though performing a swan dive. Rather than plummeting to the ground, however, he drifted upwards at an accelerating rate. The cliff face rushed by as though he was riding the bullet train straight up the vertical face of a cliff.

(There's the top, Scales! We're going to fly right by it!)

{{Indeed we are! This is fun, isn't it?}}

Ranma shot high into the sky above the charcoal mountain, then dove back towards its craggy surface. Just as he was about to slam headlong into its grainy blackness, it began to recede rapidly, even though he was still accelerating downwards. This continued for quite some time.

(What the hell is going on, Scales?)

{{We are expanding our vision, O Scarlet One.}}

Ranma abruptly ceased dropping towards the surface of the charcoal as his motion suddenly became exceedingly jerky, erratic and unpredictable.

(This is making me seasick, Scales!)

{{Try to concentrate upon this unique viewpoint, O Scarlet One, rather than the motion we are experiencing. Are not the things around vaguely familiar, somehow? Have we not read of this kind of movement?}}

(I don't know, Scales. What kind of motion is so unsteady and unpredictable? I don't ... wait! Brownian motion? Then those bubbly things are ... are ...molecules?)

The "bubbly things" continued to increase in size as the gut wrenching motion became more and more violent.

{{I wonder what our predecessor made of all this.}}

(Nothing! There is no way he would have endured this for very long. It would have made him seasick and scared him out of his wits!)

{{Hmmm, too bad there is not a way to lessen the impact of this erratic dance.}}


{{Temperature? Oh, of course! Saotome, would you ...}}

The motion rapidly became less and less violent, even as the bubbly things became larger and larger, until, at last, Ranma found himself drifting through them, one at the time. The "bubbly things" had become loops within loops of ethereal ribbons, glowing in a pitch black void. Most were arranged in pairs within pairs, twisting and dancing in a complex pattern.

(I don't know that what we are seeing is nothing more than pure hallucination, Scales. This stuff doesn't look anything at all like what we have in our textbooks. I don't see anything that looks like an electron orbiting a nucleus, just these shiny ribbons. Look! Some of them are almost braided together.)

{{It is very strange, is it not? But, has any scientist ever obtained clear images of anything on this scale?}}

(No, everything we know is derived from theory. This stuff, if it is what we think it is, is too small to measure directly.).

{{There does seem to be a pattern of sorts to all this.}}

( ...four, five, six, seven, eight, nine ...)

{{What are you counting, O Scarlet One?}}

(Shh! Let me finish! Twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Okay, I got it now! This must be a nitrogen molecule, Scales. See how much fainter these two outer ribbons are? They swing way out around the inner twelve and the two pairs of six ribbons are nested around different centers. The only thing that puzzles me is that we aren't seeing any nuclei.)

{{Ah, yes, of course! The two atoms are sharing the electrons in the outermost shell!}}

(But there aren't any electrons! All I see are these ribbons, and no nuclei.)

{{Perhaps that what electrons really are, O Scarlet One. The nuclei may still be too small for us to sense.}}

(We shouldn't be able to see any of this, not with our eyes anyway. How could we? Our eyes are made up of molecules. To see something this small, they would have to be made of something smaller. What's going on?)

{{Wheels within wheels.}}

(Huh? It does look sort of like that. Isn't that a quote from somewhere?)

{{The Christian Bible. The Old Testament as it is called. I think the prophet's name was Izikiryu.}}

(I don't remember us ever reading a Christian Bible, Scales.)

{{We never have. We remember it from one of Akane's favorite television shows.}}

(Oh, yeah! That goofy show about ghosts, UFO's, aliens and legendary monsters.)

One of the shimmering collections of ribbons slid by Ranma, appearing to descend.

(Hey, where's that one going? It has sixteen ribbons.)

{{Oxygen, perhaps?}}

(That would make sense. Can we follow it?)

Ranma began to descend, following the thing which had just slid by.

(More and more of these have sixteen ribbons, and look how close together they are! They're getting smaller!)

{{Hmm, so they are.}}

Ranma descended until he came to a place where there were so many ribbons so tightly tangled together that they formed an impassible thicket.

{{This would appear to be the surface of our object of meditation, don't you think?}}

(Scales, what temperature does oxygen boil at?)

{{Ah, something like one hundred eighty degrees below zero, if I recall correctly.}}

(And nitrogen?)

{{One hundred ninety or ninety-five below. I am not sure. Why?}}

(Look at what is happening. The oxygen, if we really are seeing molecules, is piling up all around us.)

{{Why it certainly is. It is filling all these gullies and caverns as well.}}

(You know what we haven't seen?)



{{We are well away from Tokyo, O Scarlet One.}}

(Yeah, but you'd expect to see some anyway, if for no other reason than having all this oxygen piling up. Wait! There's one! See? The outermost band is so faint you can barely see it.)

{{Ah, so it is. A triplet of twenty-four bands arranged about three central points. It is about to come into contact with the charcoal.}}

Ranma was blinded by an incredibly bright flash of light. Before his vision cold readjust, there were three more bright flashes and he was jostled around violently.

(Whoa! That's a little closer to the fire than I want to be, I think.)

{{That event seems to have started something, Scarlet One. See?}}

(You're right, Scales. They're vibrating!)


(They're vibrating a lot and they are rubbing against the charcoal!)


(Fascinating, hell! SAOTOME, GET US AWAY FROM HERE!)

Nabiki spied Ranma lying near the siding. He stopped thrashing while she was still running towards him. Fearing the worst, she tried to quicken her pace, but she had already been running too hard for too long. A misstep trapped her left foot between a crosstie and an oversized piece of ballast. She fell hard, but quickly regained her feet, unmindful of the pain that would have otherwise reduced her to tears.

"Ranma, no!" Nabiki screamed as she sprinted forward on a now very sore ankle. "No-o-o-o!"

She hobbled the last three, or four meters rather than running, then collapsed upon her knees beside Ranma's prone form without noticing what the gravel did to her expensive pants, nor the even more expensive skin beneath them. Not liking the bluish color of Ranma's face, she put an ear to his muscular chest.

"His heart's still beating!"

Nabiki scanned around, looking for signs of blood or trauma to Ranma's skull. Not seeing any, she ripped her heavy coat off, then rolled it up and gently placed so that the base of Ranma's neck was lying upon it. This caused his head to tilt back and straighten his windpipe. She first checked for blockage, then began giving him mouth to mouth resuscitation.

The first sign she got that he was breathing on his own came when he wrapped his arms around her and gave her a hug. Nabiki briefly wondered whether to kiss him or slap him hard enough to make his ears ring. She very badly wanted to do both. She decided that a kiss would do it all quite nicely. Much to her shock, he kissed back. Nabiki broke the kiss, sat up and stared down at him angrily. Ranma gave her one of his cocky grins, the one with the level five aggravation factor.

"Thanks, Nabiki-chan," Ranma said. "That was really nice of ya."


Ranma laughed at her. Nabiki furiously began to pound his chest with both fists. Ranma stopped her by wrapping his powerful arms around her and hugging her to his torso. Nabiki began weeping as her anger evaporated. She felt Ranma stir, then realized that he had somehow covered them both with her heavy overcoat.

"You're hurt," Ranma said in matter-of-fact voice.

"You're damned right I'm hurt, Saotome," Nabiki choked out between sobs. "I hurt every time you pull one of these damned stunts."

"I ain't talkin' about that," Ranma said. "I mean you hurt your ankle--and you cut your face. All I did was knock the wind out of myself."

"My face!" Nabiki cried out in alarm. She raised up a little and felt her cheeks with both hands. Her right hand came away with blood on it. "HOW BAD IS IT?"

"Not bad," Ranma said. "I think the scar'll go away after a month or so."

"A MONTH! A WHOLE FUCKING MONTH?" Nabiki asked, her voice cracking at the end.

Ranma gaver her a cocky grin and stared back at her.

"So you'll look rakish for a few weeks. No big deal."

Nabiki felt of her face and realized that Ranma had been pulling her leg. There was not enough blood for her face to be so badly injured. She glanced down at Ranma's face and suddenly found herself swimming in the stormy blue depths of his eyes. Capturing her eyes with his own was something Ranma had never tried to do to her before, and it had been something which she had been very careful to avoid in the past. Now she did not care. Today, she wanted to drown in them.

"Now you know why I'm marryin' Akane and not you," Ranma said.

"But you love me too, don't you?" Nabiki asked.

"OF COURSE!" Ranma said, sounding a little annoyed. "You took me in. Then you saw to it that I got fed and had a place to sleep. You put up with my old man and you even have a letch for my girl half! How could I not love you? Do ya really think I'm so stupid that I didn't figger out how things work around your old man's house?"

"So why Akane?"

"Because it's what you and me both want, that's why. And, I really am in love with her."

Nabiki narrowed her eyes, then asked, "How do you know what I want?"

"Hah! If ya had really wanted me, you woulda grabbed me the day I got here. Ya didn't do that and I figgered out why after a while."


"For the same reason you don't practice The Art. Ya don't like the risks."

"Are you calling me a coward?"

"Hell no! You take risks with people and money that scare me spitless. Together, we'd just worry each other sick day in and day out. That ain't no way ta live."

Nabiki lay back down on Ranma, savoring the feel of her breasts pressing against his muscular chest for several minutes.

"You love me," Nabiki murmured. "You really do love me."

Ranma sighed, then gently rubbed her back with both hands. He pressed her close in a gentle hug.

"I did everything I could to make you hate me," Nabiki said, fighting a catch in her throat.

"Didn't work. I'm a cold dragon. I know all about souls of ice. Nobody can keep that shit up forever, not even me."

Nabiki began to weep. She could not stop the tears.

"I'm sorry, Ranma."

"For what? For doin' what ya had ta do? Don't be silly."

"I'm sorry for thinking of you as a dumb jock."

"Hey, I reveal in that image."

Nabiki grinned, then said, "You mean revel, dummy."

"Yeah, revel, whatever."

"I hope you're able to carry me back, Ranma. I don't think I can walk all that way on this ankle."

"Oh, I'll be able to carry you. I just need a few minutes to recover is all."

"What the hell happened here anyway? What were you doing?"



"Yeah, meditatin'. I was tryin' ta grow a rock, only I used a piece of charcoal instead. It was more interestin' ta look at."

"Did somebody throw a bomb at you while you were preoccupied?"

"Nah, I kinda blew up the charcoal."

"Ranma, you are NOT supposed to blow things up while meditating. Meditating is supposed to be PEACEFUL, or didn't anyone ever tell you that?"

"It was an accident, okay? At least now I think I know how the Happodaikarin works."

Nabiki began cackling, then she began to roar.

"It's not that funny, Nabiki."

"Oh, you think not?"

"Well, okay, I guess it is pretty weird."

"No, weird isn't what makes it funny. What makes it funny is that it's perfectly normal for you."

Ranma smacked her bottom with his right hand. Nabiki wriggled.

"If you keep patting my bottom, Saotome, I'm going to take off my clothes."

"I guess I'd better get you home, huh?"

"I think you'd better," Nabiki said, sounding contrite. "I don't want to betray my baby sister. I really don't."

"We gotta find someone else for you, Nabiki."

"I'll find him, Saotome. You just worry about taking care of my little sister."

"I'll probably always need your help, you know, Nabiki."

"Oh, I figured that out the second day you were around the house, Saotome. My ankle hurts like hell."

"Lemme look at it."

Nabiki sat up, suddenly aware that she did not like being in contact with gravel. It hurt her everywhere it touched her.

"Oof! Nasty sprain," Ranma said as he gently pried her shoe off. "We need to get some ice on this."

"NO ICE!" Nabiki shouted, as she began shivering. "I'm freezing as it is."

Ranma gave her an evil grin, then cupped his hands near her ankle.

"Heeee!" Nabiki noised as she breathed in sharply. "That's freezing!"

"Sorry, Nabiki, but it's gotta be done," Ranma said, sounding determined. "Is some of the pressure goin' away now? Your toes were turnin' purple."

"Now that you mention it, yes. It does feel a little better."

"Let's get you back to the house," Ranma said. "We need Tofu to look at this as soon as he gets back."

Faster than Nabiki could follow, she found herself wrapped in her coat and was suddenly flying eastwards courtesy of "Air Saotome."

"He's already there, you know," Nabiki said loud enough to be heard over the passing wind.


"Yes. I came looking for you because Akane wanted you to come back to the house. I think she's feeling a little rough."

"Oh," Ranma said then quickened his pace. Nabiki buried her face in his shoulder as the freezing wind began to howl.

Nodoka Saotome was not about to entertain a male guest without her husband present. This meant getting him and Soun prepared for the visit as well as the house. Soun presented little in the way of trouble. Genma, on the other hand, was a handful. He hated formal clothing--until he saw himself wearing it. In this case a formal kimono in winter colors. He looked as imposing as any daimyo ever captured on film. She barely found the time to get herself ready. Her visitor arrived precisely on time.

Soun greeted him at the door and led him into the main room of the house. Nodoka noted that the Tendo patriarch seemed thoroughly rattled and was even more startled by Genma's reaction upon seeing the young man. Nodoka was suddenly very happy that she had not allowed Genma to wear the family blade.

"Lady Saotome," Soun said in his formal voice as he handed Nodoka Haabu's _bona fides_, "I bring you Prince Haabu, Lord and Heir of the Musk Dynasty, here from the Province of Qing Hai China, the Bayankala Range. Lord Haabu, I give you to Saotome no Mae, Mother of the Cold Dragon."

Nadoka was not at all prepared for the appearance of Haabu. He radiated cold menace without trying. He was the sort that set about battle with the calculated and dispassionate skill of a carpenter hanging a door. Yet, there was a wildness about him. An inner passion he held in check by deliberate choice. Nadoka suddenly found herself wishing she were nineteen again. Haabu bowed at the waist. Someone, Nodoka noted with interest, had taught the young man the proper degree of bow for this occasion. She accepted the proffered scrolls from Soun's hand, then returned Haabu's bow.

"We are honored by your visit, Prince Haabu."

"My humblest thanks, Saotome no Mae," Haabu said. His face was quite serious. His eyes, Nodoka noted were hard and quick to notice things. Nodoka took this to be a sign that he was a man accustomed to having power and unafraid to use it, even though he could hardly be more than twenty. She felt weak at the knees. Such manliness as this young man had was vanishingly rare.

"Please read these if you would, Husband," Nodoka said handing Haabu's _bona fides_ to the Saotome patriarch. Genma made a show of untying then carefully unrolling the scroll. He read it aloud, his voice rumbing like that of two great granite blocks sliding by one another. He used the sing-song technique Japanese men speak with when carrying out such formalities. His elocution was surprisingly good, which would have shocked the many who did not know him well.

The scroll declared who Haabu was and that he was the hereditary ruler of the Musk Dynasty because of his draconian lineage as well as his personal merits. It also gave an summary account of his last visit to Japan, including his clash with Ranma and why they had fought one another. It ended with Haabu's request to visit with "The Cold Dragon Residing Among the Wa," for the expresss purpose of sharing tea with Haabu's peer and Cousin.

Genma carefully rolled the scroll up, tied it off in the proper way, then presented it to his wife.

"Would you care for tea, Prince Haabu?" Nodoka asked.

"Yes, thank you, Lady," Haabu said. "I am very fond of Japanese tea."

Genma, with more grace than many who knew him might have expected, poured for everyone. Nodoka stared at the scroll, her mind racing as it struggled with what to do next. Thankfully, Haabu seemed to have guessed that this moment might be awkward.

"Your son is one of the most formidable men I have ever met, Lady Saotome," Haabu said. "If I may be so bold for saying so. I learned a great deal from him during my last visit here. Since that time, my debt to him has increased considerably."

"Oh? How so, Prince Haabu?" Nodoka asked, looking into Haabu's strange eyes. His draconian aspect was quite obvious when one looked into his eyes for more than just a moment. His aura was so strong that even Nodoka, by no means a ki adept, could feel as it penetrated the air of the room.

"His defeat of Safuron, King of the Hououzanjin, has freed the hands of my people. Where once we were separate squabbling tribes, we are again becoming united. I had despaired of such a thing happening in my lifetime. My people and I are now, properly, back in the service of the Joketsuzoku, commanded by the Honored Grandmother Ko Lon, Assistant to the Revered Grandmother Paama, Archivist of the Fleet and Historian of the Three Great Tribes."

Nodoka exercised all her will to shore up her outward calm as her heart hammered at her ribs. The First Fleet! They are of the First Fleet! This changes everything. EVERYTHING!

"Then I gather, Prince Haabu, that you and your people are the designated defenders of the Archives and those who keep them?"

"That is correct, M'lady," Haabu said as the faint traces of a smile played at the corners of his mouth. "You will, I hope, understand that I am not at liberty to discuss numerous details."

"Yes," Nodoka said, giving a Haabu a tiny smile. "I can understand that quite easily. I can also easily imagine why you would value an alliance with my son."

"You misunderstand, Lady," Haabu said with a hint of emphasis in his voice. "I wish no alliance with the Cold Dragon, other than what he would have of me. Whatever duties I have, they are my duties alone. I intend to offer him my friendship if he will have it, perhaps even my fealty. He is the nearest thing to a kinsman as I may hope to find in this world."

"Because he is become dragon?"

"And because of whom he is as well, M'lady. I meet a great many men, and very few of them are as worthy of respect as he."

"Why would you think of offering him your fealty since you already have a master?"

"I have no master, Lady Saotome," Haabu said, smiling. "I am a master already. I have duties in that capacity, but no master. My loyalty is to my mission, not to a boon granted a person."

"But you would encumber yourself in this way? Simply because you admire my son?" Nadoka sensed that Haabu was holding something back that he very badly wanted to reveal.

"Nay, Lady Saotome, I owe him my life! What other gift could I offer him which would match that?"

"Then I would be happy to arrange a meeting with my son for you, Prince Haabu. Will I be able to reach you at the Nekohanten?"

"Yes, Saotome no Mae. I thank you for your help."

"Will you walk with me a little piece, Haabu?"

"As you wish, Lady."

"Please excuse me if you will, Husband," Nodoka said.

Genma silently nodded his head.

Haabu offered Nodoka his arm once they reached the front door. Nodoka was pleased with him for that. It would allow her to set the pace of their walk. Besides, there was nothing wrong with being on the arm of a powerful young man such as this so long as she did not make a spectacle of herself. She glanced about to see that no one was near, then spoke in a low voice as she walked Haabu towards the front gate.

"You no doubt have suspicions about my son's status as a guardian, do you not, Prince Haaub."

Haabu shrugged. "I have never heard of a dragon without a treasure to guard, M'Lady."

"Or knowledge to impart?"

"Indeed, M'Lady, that is also true. Yes, many do believe your son could be the guardian of a great archive. Is he?"


"Then you are of the Second Fleet?"


"What knowledge I may share with him now, I will share. There is much that I cannot divulge and many will complain that I have revealed too much already in my conversations with you."

"This will cause you trouble."

"The Joketsu are notorious for causing me and mine trouble, M'Lady. It is just the way of things. However, I think that most Joketsuzoku Council of Elders will think it wise to leave me unmolested. All of them see your son in a harsher light. They greatly fear him, you know."

"Why should they fear him more than you?"

"It is a long story, M'Lady, but they have good reason for their fear. They know that I would limit my actions, no matter how angry I became. Your son is a different matter. I see this as a good thing. It is high time the Elders of the Joketsuzoku re-learned the art of compromise."

"I gather they have become rather high-handed?"

Haabu smiled coldly. "Know this, Saotome no Mae, my people need you and your son far more than you need them at the moment, despite the differences in our resources."

"You are faced with difficulties in China then?"

"Grave ones. I am compelled to relocate our libraries because of them. And I do not know Honored Grandmother Ko Lon well enough to trust her completely."

"She seems very wise." Nodoka had already come to respect Ko Lon, but now had even more reason to do so.

"Indeed, but she is also encumbered by Joketsuzoku politics."

"Hmm, do not be so quick to judge, Prince Haabu. She strikes me as a woman of considerable resolve. She will put her duty ahead of all else, I believe."

"Oh, and would she put her duty ahead of her great-granddaughter's interests?"

"I believe so," Nodoka said coldly as she stopped walking. "Just as I have put duty ahead of my son's life and well-being."

Haabu stopped and turned to face her. His cold, nearly immobile face was difficult to read, but he seemed vaguely upset.

"You disapprove?"

"Such is not my place, Lady," Haabu said, then bowed deeply. "Please forgive my impertinence."

Nodoka touched his shoulder with the tips of her fingers and he rose.

"Did you ever get to know your mother?"

"Only vaguely, M'Lady. She died while I was away training."

"I am sorry, Prince Haabu," Nodoka said. "It is a risk the Saotome share with the Musk. My husband, bless his black flabby little heart, saw to it that I fulfilled my duty. I would not have done so otherwise."

"Then he must be a truly formidable man, M'Lady."

"He will take risks when he must, Prince Haabu, even when the risks are terrible."

"Duty is a cold companion," Haabu said. "Be kind to your son when you can, M'Lady."

"That I shall, Prince Haabu."

"I must take my leave of you, Lady," Haabu said. "I have arrangements to make."

"Farewell, Prince Haabu."

"'Til we meet again, Saotome no Mae," Haabu said. He then did a startling thing. He smiled like a little boy. Nodoka had not thought him capable of it. After that, he swaggered out the gate as though he owned all of Nerima and none dare would dare to impede him. Nodoka watched until he disappeared down the street.


There was no reply.

"Genma, I know you are here."

Genma broke the Umisen-ken.

"You didn't have to tell him everything, Nodoka!"

"Hmmph! I told him nothing he has not deduced for himself, Husband."

"But now he knows what to ask Ranma, No-chan."

"And what will our son's answers be? Ranma knows nothing of all this--unless you told him."

"I have said nothing to the boy, Nodoka. You know that."

"Then what must remain secret is safe for the time being. What our son does not know, he cannot reveal. And, in the meantime, this young Prince will doubtlessly prove to be a great help to our son."

"We have to get that boy saddled with a wife and child, and soon!" Genma exclaimed, sounding very frustrated."He'll get his bit between his teeth if we don't."

"Patience, dear," Nodoka said. "Push him too hard now and he will defy even me."

"He defies us already!"

"Why don't you take Soun out for a few beers, dear."


"I think it best that he sleep well, this evening," Nodoka said with a coy grin, "for you will not!"

Genma blushed.

"Be back before six, dear," Nodoka said, "I am preparing something special for dinner this evening."

Genma stared at Nodoka obviously puzzled. Nodoka laughed and gaved him a peck on the cheek.

"Run along dear. Dinner will be most elaborate," Nodoka said, then leaned in close so that she could whisper in his ear.

Genma's eyes widened at what she said.

Ranma is singing the one Japanese song most often heard outside Japan, "Sakura! Sakura!" The melody has been used in nearly every film made outside Japan about Japan. It is, even in the minds of most Japanese, the one song most symbolic of Japan. The music for the movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!" is built around this simple little melody. The word "sakura" refers to both cherry blossoms and the tree upon which they grow. The rest of the words are translated below.

Sakura! Sakura! The springtime sky is filled with the smell. What fills our sight? Is it clouds? Is it haze? I can feel the fragrance. From whence does it come? Let us go. Let us go see where it comes from.

The Japanese often refer to Americans as "bei-jin." The word "bei" means uncooked rice. We sent shipload after shipload of rice to Japan after they surrendered in WWII. We brought so much rice to Japan that we became known to them as "rice-people."

One final comment. This is a long story involving Japanese characters in a cultural setting that is Japanese. I try very hard to create an atmosphere to match. Given that my audience is fond of things Japanese, I see no problem with the way I am doing this. However, there are a few readers who seem to think the author should hold their hands and explain every detail. Forget it! Some things translate easily. Other things translate only with difficulty. Many things touched upon in this yarn are wholly unique to Japanese culture and that, to my way of thinking, is a large part of its appeal. Things not easily found in standard references I have explained in context or by contrivance in the story. Once in a while, this cannot be done ruining a scene and I am forced to resort to footnotes. If this puts you off, go read someone else's work. I think the idea of writing a story about Japanese characters in a Japanese setting while at one and the same time bleeding all cultural color out of it so that the text may be English only is committing a kind of aesthetic crime. You wanna read my stuff? BE READY TO LEARN A LITTLE SOMETHING! IT WON'T HURT YOU. If this brands me as a curmudgeon in your mind, that is good! That's exactly what I am. Your instincts are right on target.

End of Chapter 12
Copyright © Don Granberry