Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 16

Copyright

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


Akane lay patiently in her bed for a while after Ranma got up. She knew that he and Haabu would want some time alone together. She also knew that this was to be expected under the circumstances and that she should not let it trouble her, but it did. The dream about Ranma leaving her on the beach and going out to sea with Haabu haunted her.

"They'll have plenty of time together after I'm gone," she muttered as she began putting on her warmest clothes. "The time I have with him now belongs to me, not Haabu!"

Once fully dressed, she trooped out into the hallway, only to meet up with Nabiki and Kiima. Kiima was in her cursed form. Akane fought off the urge to grind her teeth.

"Morning, Nabiki! Kiima."

"Good morning, Tendo-san," Kiima said in a soft voice. Akane was at first relieved to hear that she and Kiima sounded nothing alike, then she remembered how her recorded voice sounded to her own ears and shuddered, realizing that Kiima's voice was probably indistinguishable from her own in the ears of others.

"Morning, Akane," Nabiki replied. "Going somewhere?"

Akane let her face give her sister a silent answer. Nabiki's question seemed foolish, given that Akane was wearing far too much clothing to remain indoors.

"I thought so," Nabiki said with a grin. "Just can't stand to be left out, can you?"

Akane fumed. Kiima gave Akane a puzzled stare, but remained silent.

"I don't blame you," Nabiki said, "I'd like to go with you."

"What makes you say that, Nabiki?" Akane asked, struggling to keep her voice down. "I haven't said anything about where I'm going."

"Oh, Akane!" Nabiki exclaimed in an exasperated voice. "I know you too well. You're going to try to follow Ranma and Haabu so you can keep an eye on them."

"Hmm, I suggest you remain out of earshot of them, Tendo-san," Kiima said in a thoughtful voice. "I'm sure Lord Haabu would not mind it if you were to observe him and Saotome-dono training, but he almost certainly has things to say that must remain between the two of them."

"Hmph!" Akane snorted. She tramped down the hall, effectively putting an end to a conversation she did not want to have.

Nabiki and Kiima turned to watch Akane's departing back as she disappeared down the hall.

"How about that bath?" Nabiki asked Kiima.

"I am more than ready, Tendo-san!" Kiima exclaimed. "I haven't had a decent soak for so long that I have forgotten what it is like."

Once outside, Akane set about picking up Ranma and Haabu's trail. This proved to be a less than simple job. Haabu's men had been out gathering wood and water. She had to walk a fairly wide circle around Ono-ke before she picked up their tracks in the frost. They had gone toward the river.

She slowed her pace as she neared the riverbank, pausing once in a while to listen. After the fourth or fifth such stop, she caught the murmur of distant voices. They faded while she listened. There's no wind, Akane thought, so they must be moving away from me.

The track led Akane into a dense grove of magnificent old sugi. The heavy carpet of needles beneath her feet was damp, making it easy for her to move quietly. Even though the air was cold, the sweet, cypress-like smell of the sugi caressed her senses. She could catch the scent of damp earth and ancient moss as well. The light filtering in from above had a greenish hue with golden scintillations, as if she were walking along the bottom of the sea.

This has to be a sacred place, Akane thought. Maybe that's why Ranma and Haabu stopped talking. The quiet here is so perfect that you're afraid you'll wake a kami if you speak. Oh, there they are. I need to find a place to sit.

Ranma and Haabu were squared off as though ready to spar, standing along the bank of a deep pool. Upstream, to Akane's left, the river quietly poured over a tall shelf of rock into the pool. Akane settled to the ground between the trunks of two great sugi so as to watch the drama unfolding before her unnoticed. Ranma and Haabu were having a hard time getting their sparring session started.

This is just like one of the stories Dad liked to tell when I was little, Akane thought. It's going to be a battle of one blow, or maybe even none.

While Akane watched with intense interest, the two young warriors stalked around one another, each of them careful to take into account the surrounding terrain. Akane got caught up in it, trying to predict in advance what they would do next. Much to her amazement, she found that she could predict Haabu's moves with greater accuracy than she could Ranma's. Even so, her predictions of what would happen next were in error more often than not.

Looks like I have got a long, long way to go, she thought with a grimace. No wonder Ranma worries about me so much. He's afraid I might get into it with someone like Haabu--or even someone half as good as him. I would last for about as long as a candle in a taifun.

After several more minutes of watching the two dance about and take up different stances, it dawned on Akane why she was unable to predict many of Ranma's moves.

He's defending against two opponents instead of one! she thought. He keeps Haabu in front of him at all times, but then his stance is also guarding against a second opponent's attack from one side and up high. Shimatta! Is Haabu really that good?

A very faint wind drifted across the pool, carrying the warm scent of Ranma and his opponent to her. Akane was surprised by how much this stirred her. It made her feel much closer to the pair than she really was. She suddenly became very much aware that this was not a dream. This really was happening right in front of her. This was not just some story of great warriors from ancient times long past. Smelling the scent of warm flesh hard at work gave the scene a reality that sight alone could not supply.

"Ha! I see you have a long memory, Cousin," Haabu said suddenly. The unexpected sound of his voice jangled Akane's nerves.

"And, I can tell you have been thinking about meeting me again. I am flattered!" Haabu added as he gave Ranma a curt bow.

Akane watched as Ranma silently answered Haabu with a rueful grin. She realized then that Ranma had been wholly on the defensive during his non-fight with Haabu. Chills ran up her spine. Ranma on the defensive? Ranma Saotome had been UNABLE to take the initiative in an ordinary fight on the ground?

Giving Ranma a wry smile of his own, Haabu said, "I don't think I ever demonstrated this one for you, though."

A battle of no blows! Akane thought. It's over and neither of them ever found an opening.

Haabu bent his knees until the seat of his pants was almost in contact with his heels, then he sprang upwards and to his right. He sailed high into the air above the pool.

Akane was not surprised by the height of Haabu's leap, but she was shocked at the speed of his descent, or more accurately, by the slowness of his descent. He touched down lightly on surface of the pool, well past half the distance between its banks, and there he stood, calmly upright and dry on the surface of the water. Akane noticed that the water dimpled slightly in two broad dish-shaped areas around Haabu's feet. He was not simply standing still. He kept his knees slightly bent and was moving his feet in small circles to maintain his balance.

She had seen Ko Lon run across the water, but then Ko Lon was a tiny little old lady. Haabu was a man well over a meter-and-half tall and probably massed more than ninety kilograms without his armor, yet there he stood smiling at her. WAIT A MINUTE! He's smiling at me? He knows I'm here?

Haabu gave Akane a wink.

When you're caught, you're caught, Akane thought as she gave Haabu a deep bow from her seated position. There's no use pretending otherwise.

"That," Ranma said with genuine respect in his voice, "was a really good landing."

"Why, thank you, Cousin," Haabu replied.

"D'ya mind if I give it a try?" Ranma asked as he stepped toward the edge of the water.

Akane bit at her lower lip in anticipation. Slippery surfaces gave Ranma fits. They were among the very few things with which he had never really learned to cope. Happosai and Genma regularly tripped him up with something slippery, even if it was only a bar of soap. Akane knew nothing about walking on the water, of course, but she thought it safe to assume that liquid water would be at least as slippery as ice.

"Mind the current, Cousin!" Haabu called out.

To Akane's utter amazement, Ranma stepped onto the water without sinking, or floundering the way he did at the ice rink, and immediately began skating across the pool. The pool, however, was really just a wide spot in the river. A fairly strong current ran quietly down its length in the center. She had already noticed an occasional whorl where it ran.

"Ah, no problem! I'll just turn into it a...uh-YACK!"

Splash! Ranma hit the water face first with arms flung wide, quickly disappearing beneath the surface of the cold clear water. He had tried turning into the current and skating diagonally against it, but he tripped as though tackled at the ankles. Akane was no longer able to maintain her silence and giggled.

Haabu, Akane noticed, was highly amused. His boyish grin made him look almost normal, despite his red eyes and that shock of long flowing white hair. He had struck her as being the sort who had been born fully-grown when they first met, but now he seemed much more like his own age--full of impish fun.

Haabu turned to his right and skated upstream with practiced ease in the still waters of the far side of the pool. After two powerful strides, he leaned into a sweeping turn to his left, making sure to lift his left foot clear of the water as it crossed over into the moving stream. He did the same with his right foot. He sharpened his turn and straightened up so that he would then be skating downstream in the middle of the current. With a rapidly growing grin, Haabu crouched down low, holding his hands forward in anticipation.

Onna-Ranma popped to the surface about two meters downstream from where Otoko-Ranma had tripped. Haabu scooped him up out of the water and took him into his arms.

"Heek!" Onna-Ranma noised as he took in a deep breath. He coughed a couple of times.

Haabu swept to the left again, skating out of the current. Akane noticed that he was careful to lift each foot clear of the surface as he passed into the still waters.

He's been practicing this stuff for months, if not a year, Akane thought.

"Dear me, Cousin, I had been told that you had gained control over your curse."

"I didn't wanna be rude," Onna-Ranma answered. "Which is worse for you? Having me control my curse when you can't, or looking at my girl side?"

Haabu got an evil glint in his eye as he spoke.

"Well, I must admit, you are a pleasant little armful in this form."

Akane clapped a hand over her mouth as she gasped.

"Argh! Don't talk like that!" Onna-Ranma shouted.

Ranma did not, Akane noted with amusement, bop Haabu on the head the way he would have Ryouga or Oyaji-san for saying something like that.

"Controlling the curse uses up a lotta ki, too," Onna-Ranma added as he wiped the water from his eyes.

"I rather suspected it might."

"B'sides, there are some things that my girl-side learns faster than my guy-side. I gotta feelin' this is gonna be one of 'em."

Haabu's boyish smile was suddenly replaced by a troubled grimace.

"What's the matter?" Onna-Ranma asked.

"Oh, nothing really. See here, we are back in still waters, Cousin. Think lightly," Haabu advised as he lowered Onna-Ranma toward the surface of the pool feet first.

Akane noted that Haabu did this with great care, as if he were helping a girl he had taken out on a date for the first time. A wave of jealousy washed over her. Well, if he didn't do that, Akane silently admonished herself, Ranma would simply sink out of sight again. Neither one of 'em can help what it looks like.

Onna-Ranma immediately had trouble standing on the surface of the pool. Haabu held out his hands to lend support. Onna-Ranma clung to them tightly, giving Haabu a grateful glance while he struggled to get his balance under control.

The sight of this tore at Akane's heart. Poor Ranma, she thought, he can never admit to a vulnerability to someone unless he is in his cursed form. Why does he do that? Doesn't he understand that I love him? Wait! That's only part of what is upsetting me. The other part of it is that he looks so sweet and Haabu looks so protective. Haabu is treating Ranma the way Ranma treats me! So what of it? Haabu's teaching Ranma. He's supposed take care of his student. It's just that it ... it looks so...so damned romantic! She swallowed at the lump growing in her throat.

Onna-Ranma finally seemed able to stand on his own and let go of Haabu's hands. He skated backwards a meter or so and stopped as he did so.

"Hey, it's a little easier to stand once I'm away from your feet," Onna-Ranma exclaimed.

"I'm sure it is," Haabu said. "Once you are a few shaku away, the interference between our ki and the surface tension of the water lessens considerably."

"Didja learn to do this on your own?"

"Ah, mostly, yes. I had seen my father do this when I was younger. All of my line is expected to learn this particular skill; it is almost a badge of office. Unfortunately, by the time I was ready to learn it, my father was dead. I learned by reading scrolls and indulging in trial and error."

"Me and Pop picked up lots of stuff just that way. Ya can learn a lot from old scrolls if ya can figger out how to read 'em and understand 'em. Most of the time, the hard part is understandin' what it is they're really driving at."

"Of that I am certain," Haabu said with a grim smile. "It is a major worry for we of the Musk."

"Those archives you told us about, huh?"

"Yes."

"I gotta remember ta have a talk with the girls and Tofu. It wouldn't do for 'em to mention anything about ancient scrolls around my old man. So what was it I said that bothered ya?"

"Wha...Oh! Nothing, really!"

"Come on, Haabu," Onna-Ranma said with a rising note in his voice. He was having trouble maintaining his balance again and had started running in place. "It was somethin' that bothered ya bad. I could see it in your face."

"Well, it was nothing that you should worry about, Cousin."

"Whaddaya mean I shouldn't...oops!" Onna-Ranma paused as his left foot shot out to his left and his right foot shot off to the right, forcing him to do a Chinese split."

"You need to keep your knees bent just a bit more and you should try to relax, Cousin. You are over-controlling."

"Okay," Onna-Ranma said as he somehow managed to kip back up to his full height. He bent his knees a little and loosened the muscles in his legs. "Hey! You're right! It does help."

"Good."

"I worry because ...Whoa!... there's only two of us dragons in the world so far as I know, unless you have kin that I don't know about. I want us to be friends. If I'm gonna aggravate ya, I wanna know that's what I'm about to do, okay?"

"I can understand that you would want peace between us."

"I want more than just us not fightin'," Onna-Ranma said. "I want us to be...YIKES!"

This last outcry was because both of his feet shot forward and straight up into the air, thereby pointing the top of Onna-Ranma's head at the water. He slipped beneath the surface of the pool, making only the faintest of ripples as he plunged out of sight.

Haabu stared at the spot where Onna-Ranma went under and said, "Nice dive."

Looking directly at Akane he added, "I tried for days to do that and never did get it right."

Akane fell against one of the sugi, holding her sides. Haabu smirked as his eyes glittered with amusement.

Onna-Ranma came up sputtering in almost the same place as he went under.

"I want us to be real friends," Onna-Ranma said.

The tone of his voice renewed the ache in Akane's throat. Ranma did not have many friends. Acquaintances, a lover, potential lovers, enemies, he had plenty of those. What he desperately needed was a real friend, not someone like Ryouga. The fact that Ranma considered the eternally lost pig-person a friend at all spoke volumes about his loneliness.

Haabu crouched down by bending his knees, being very careful to keep his back straight, and offered Onna-Ranma his hand. Onna-Ranma took it with both of his.

"I very desperately need a real friend as well, Cousin," Haabu said, as he straightened his legs, thereby lifting Onna-Ranma out of the water.

"Then you'll level with me?" Onna-Ranma asked.

"Level with you? What will we be leveling?"

Onna-Ranma again lost his balance and slid into Haabu, who gently caught Ranma's female form in his arms. To Akane, Haabu's unintentional embrace seemed almost tender, while Onna-Ranma looked comforted by it. A flood of conflicting emotions ran through her. She was happy for Ranma, yet she was terrified that she would lose him. She was also more than just a little envious. She would have loved to been the one out there on the water with him.

"Sorry about that. I mean, tell me what it was that I said that bothered ya so much," Onna-Ranma explained as he gently pushed away from Haabu and stood on his own.

"Oh, now I understand," Haabu said. "The subject of my curse is rather disquieting for me."

"Lots of pressure back home, huh? Everyone expects you to be super-manly all the time, right?"

"I am the ruler of the Musk, you know."

"And my mom would make me slit my belly if she thought for a second that I could be the least bit girlish."

"Do what?" Haabu asked in a shocked voice. "I had no idea! Your own mother?"

"It's a long story, but it's true."

"I suppose we share yet another thing in common, then. The ruler of the Musk always has his life at risk, especially if he shows any sign of weakness."

"Well, I got worse news for ya, Cuz," Onna-Ranma said in a cutesy voice as he cocked his hips, thrust out his chest while delicately placing one hand behind his head. "The only way you'll ever get control of the curse is if you accept it.

Haabu's lower jaw sagged.

Onna-Ranma straightened his stance and added, "At least a little, I mean."

Haabu looked horrified for a moment, then lost his balance. He hit the water on the flat of his back, creating a huge splash.

Onna-Ranma stared at the roiling water where Haabu disappeared and opined, "I didn't know ya was gonna take it quite that hard, Haabu."

Then the waves caused Onna-Ranma to lose his balance and he went down face first.

"Well, I at least I don't have to worry about them killing each other on purpose," Akane muttered under her breath, "but their killing each other on accident might be another problem altogether."

The two of them did not come up right away. When they did surface, the two of them emerged laughing on the far bank of the pool.

"I suppose I should have had the foresight to remove this armor before beginning this exercise," Onna-Haabu said between chuckles. His voice had changed from a melodious baritone to that of a very sultry contralto.

"Yeah, it's generally a good idea not to carry a lotta weight around on the water."

Akane shook her head in amusement.

"I hate to admit this, but I would never have gotten the hang of walking on water had it not been for my curse."

"Oh, yeah? You pick it up hopin' to stay dry all the time or somethin'?"

"No, I learned it because it is expected of me. Had it not been for my cursed form, however, I would never have mastered it."

"Oh, so then the curse helps you too, sometimes."

"As much as I hate to admit it, yes," Onna-Haabu said as he removed the last of his heavy armor. Onna-Ranma was already wringing out Haabu's heavy cape. Onna-Haabu wiped some of the water from his brow before continuing.

"I at first tried to master this technique in my true form. I kept a fire going beside the great pool in my garden so that I would have a constant supply of hot water."

Onna-Ranma nodded his head and gave Onna-Haabu an encouraging grin.

"Hot-cold, hot-cold, hot-cold, I nearly made myself sick. Then one day it rained so hard that I could not keep a fire going."

"And you kept workin' out until your girl-side took over, right?"

"Ah, something like that, yes. I mastered the basics of the technique that same day."

"Stuff like that has happened to me, too, and my girl-side holds up to the cold better. 'Course, cold ain't a problem for me anymore."

"Gift of the Cold Dragon."

"Yeah, I guess so."

"It's very curious, Cousin. I know that I am considerably more fragile in this form, and am considerably less powerful, but I seem able to deal with pain far better in this form."

"Yeah, it's that way for me, too. Pain's easier to accept when I'm in this body."

Akane gasped at hearing this. These two had to be the toughest guys to be found anywhere on earth and pain bothered them less in their female forms? What in hell?

"Then there's that time of the..."

"PLEASE! Cousin, there are some things I will not discuss, not even with you."

"I don't blame ya. You wanna try this water walkin' business again? My legs are rested up and the pool is nice and calm again."

"Certainly, but remember to keep your knees just barely bent and do try to relax, Cousin."

"Ranma," Onna-Ranma said in an annoyed tone of voice.

"I beg pardon?"

"Ranma. My name is Ranma. Quit talkin' at me like I was royalty or somethin'."

"Very well...Ranma, but only when we are alone together. In front of others, certain rules of decorum are necessary."

"Oh, yeah?" Onna-Ranma asked in a challenging tone.

"Yes, I'm afraid so. Don't be so quick to kick at the points, Ranma my friend. Those rules are necessary to your safety and my own. After all, you ARE the Cold Dragon, whether you want to be or not."

"It's beginning to sound like a real pain."

"Are you saying that it hasn't been before now?"

"Uh, ya gotta point. Shall we?"

"You first, Ranma old boy. I'll follow along and play catch."

"Whee!" Onna-Ranma exulted as he slid out onto the pool.

Akane smiled and shook her head. Ranma was never happier than when dealing with a new challenge. This time was not and could not be an exception. How the hell do they do that? Akane wondered. I can't wait to learn it myself. Hmph! Listen to me. Miss Hammer-girl herself wants to walk on the water. Well, why not? If it can be taught at all, and if Haabu can wear his armor while walking on the water, why couldn't I learn it? But, what if I need a guy side? No, that can't be true. Both of them needed a girl side to pick it up. I'm already a girl--a real girl. I'm ALL girl all the time. Hmm...

Onna-Haabu easily followed Onna-Ranma out onto the water while he cut a few circles and even a figure eight or two. Onna-Ranma was doing pretty well, so long as he kept moving, but became quite wobbly whenever he tried to remain in one place.

It must be like trying to stay in one place while standing on stilts, Akane thought, remembering how she had to keep moving while wearing a pair. Oh, brother! Standing on stilts on ice. Now, there's a challenge for you, girl.

"Ready to try getting into the current?" Onna-Haabu asked.

"Sure!"

"Remember what I told you about lifting your feet! That's it. Feel the current?"

"Whee! I did it!" Onna-Ranma said with his little girl laugh.

Everything went quite well until Onna-Ranma tried to turn around and skate upstream. This did not work at all. He found himself looking up river while being carried along by the current, no matter what he did with his feet. His eyes widened in surprise. It was what Akane thought of as his "Uh-oh" stare.

"Wait! Where are you going, Ranma?"

"Oh," Onna-Ranma said, doing his best to look and sound casual, "I thought I'd explore a little of the river."

"May I join you?" Onna-Haabu asked, doing his best to suppress a laugh as Onna-Ranma rapidly disappeared from Akane's view.

"Oh, would you please?" Onna-Ranma called out, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "I thought you'd never ... Aiyaah! ...ask!"

Onna-Haabu hastened to catch up with the rapidly departing Onna-Ranma.

"I wish I could have gotten a picture of Haabu's face just then," Akane muttered to herself. "It should be against the law for anyone to have as much fun as he is having right now."

Akane rose to her feet and began brushing sugi needles from her pants.

"Rock! Big, big rock!" she heard Onna-Ranma's distant voice call out.

"Just stay with the current, Cousin!" Haabu's receding voice answered. "It goes around rocks, you know."

"Heek!"

"Ranma?" Onna-Haabu called out few seconds later.

"Over here!" Onna-Ranma's voice answered, now even more distant.

"I see!"

"Wha...wha...WATERFALL!" Onna-Ranma shrieked.

"Don't panic, Cousin!"

"Aiiiyaaah!"

Akane breathed out a sigh of exasperation, wondering how many of Ranma's more interesting training sessions with his father got off to this kind of start.

"I am not going to worry about him. I AM not. The man can make his own tornados," Akane said aloud. "There is no way this piddling little river can ever hurt him."

She stood still and stared after Ranma and Haabu, listening as their voices faded from hearing.

"Have fun, boys," Akane said. "Be boys while you still can."

With that she turned and stared down at the water. She reached out with her right foot and touched the surface tentatively with the toe of her shoe. A rapidly expanding ring of ripples raced away from the spot where she touched the water. Akane sighed.

"I wonder how many adventures like this I have ahead of me?" Akane asked her reflection.

She heard wind whistling through feathers before seeing Kiima's reflection in the pool. Akane looked up as Kiima made a diving turn over the water, flared out level a meter or so above the surface, then swooped upwards suddenly, touching gently down on the shore next to Akane, as though she were a ballerina on the wing.

"That was beautiful, Captain Kiima," Akane said.

"Thank you, Tendou-san," Kiima said with a short bow. "Saotome-dono is learning to dance on the waters, I see."

"Yes," Akane said rather absently as she looked downstream after Haabu and Ranma. "I just wish that I could have gone with them."

"I know the feeling," Kiima said with a wry smile.

"I suppose you have the same problem with water as I have, don't you?"

"Ah, we do have that in common," Kiima said, "but it's a fair trade. I also enjoy your extraordinary power musculature. Besides, a stroll along the bottom of a lake has charms of its own if you can hold your breath for a little while."

Akane giggled, then said, "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I wasn't joking. Besides, I brought it on myself."

"You were under orders."

"Orders I should have had the good sense not to follow. You were innocent of doing any harm to my people. It was wrong of Lord Safuron to give such orders and wrong of me to follow them."

"And what options did you have? Exile or worse? Besides, it must be a terrible thing to go from being light enough to fly to being so heavy that you cannot float in the water."

"Hmm? Not a bit of it! My cursed form isn't that heavy, just very dense."

Akane gave Kiima a hurt look.

"Oh, wait! Not that kind of dense. I mean...Well, muscle is very dense, you know. You have a great deal of it, just as my cursed form does. That's why neither of us can float in the water. It means you are extraordinarily healthy, is all."

"I wish I could believe that."

"Tendou-san, you don't know how much trouble there was over your escape from our prison."

"Oh?"

"The chief jailor and our smiths found themselves in a great deal of trouble over it, so we conducted some tests."

"Tests?"

"Yes. We locked the strongest man in our tribe in the cell next to the one you were in. He could not slide the door open. The lock held just as the smith said it would. Then I splashed myself with cold water and they locked me in the same cell."

"What happened?"

"I had a little trouble, but I opened the door. The lock failed, just as it had in your cell."

Akane found herself smiling despite everything.

"I guess a few jaws sagged over that, huh?"

"Oh, yes!" Kiima said, "I must say that I really enjoyed it, too. Women are looked upon with a little more respect among our people thanks to you."

The two of them giggled.

"So, how is Saotome-dono doing?"

"The truth? Terrible. He always has an awful time with slippery surfaces."

"Somehow, I think he will have overcome that weakness before today is over. Would you like to come along with me and watch?"

"How?" Akane asked. "I can't fly or swim."

"Oh, but you can fly with me."

"Huh?"

Kiima produced a harness made of red silk webbing from her pouch and held it out toward Akane.

"Put this on."

Akane accepted the harness and looked it over.

"The large ring goes in back, and we'll adjust the harness so that the ring rides up high between your shoulder blades."

"Oh, I see!" Akane said excitedly. "Then you have a harness as well?"

"Quite so," Kiima said with a smile as she produced another harness from her pouch. Unlike the first harness the second one was blue.

It did not take them long to get into their kits. Kiima adjusted Akane's harness with practiced ease.

"Now what?" Akane asked.

"We find a cliff," Kiima said with an evil grin.

"You didn't tell me that this would require a leap of faith," Akane muttered.

"Oh, don't worry. You are the only one who will need faith. I have a lifetime of practice behind me."

"I suppose a tree just isn't tall enough, huh?"

"Nope!" Kiima replied cheerfully. "Follow me, Tendou-san."

Akane did her best not to scream as she jumped in unison with Kiima, but as they plunged into the canyon, she could not help herself.

"Kuuuuusoooo!"

Kiima cackled in Akane's ear. The ring at the back of Akane's harness was linked to the front of Kiima's, and held them cheek by jowl while they were airborne. It was not much different from the training harnesses used by parachutists.

"That sentiment must be wired into every flatlander at birth," Kiima said. "Every one of you that I have ever flown with always screams the same thing, no matter what language you speak."

Akane's heart was still pounding and her stomach had flopped down around her ankles, even though her body was beginning to understand that it would not immediately die.

"Kuso!"

"Better yet?"

"This...this is...I LOVE THIS! You are SO lucky!"

"They always say that, too."

Akane was enjoying the flight as Kiima fought for altitude, but she was thoroughly frightened as well. Fear, she remembered her father telling her, is the first enemy you must conquer. She began humming an old tune she loved during childhood. It seemed a fitting song under the circumstances. Much to Akane's surprise, Kiima began singing the words. Her voice was surprisingly strong. She even had the notes down pat.

"Oh, I am the Eagle,

"I live in high country,

"In rocky cathedrals,

"That reach to the sky!

"I am the Hawk,

"And there is blood on my feathers,

"The time is still turning,

"They soon will be dry,

"And all those who see me,

"And all who believe in me,

"Carry the freedom,

"I feel when I fly high!

"Come dance with the west wind,

"And touch on the mountain tops,

"Sail o'er the canyons,

"And up to the stars,

"And reach for the heavens,

"And hope for the future,

"And all that we can be,

"Not what we are!"

"How did you come to know that song, Kiima?"

"A lost American," Kiima answered. "Who do you suppose inspired him to write it?"

"You knew John Denver?"

"We held him prisoner for nearly a month. I expected to be presiding over his execution."

"What happened?"

"He sang this song for Lord Safuron."

"And Safuron relented?"

"Partially. We placed him in a surikomi egg. I carried him to a distant village and waited for him to hatch, then told him that he was to never mention Hououzan to anyone. I haven't seen him since."

"I like that song," Akane said. "It speaks to something deep inside me for some reason."

"To me as well, Tendou-san. I am certain that his song changed me over time. It's a pity that it took so long to work its magic. "

"What do you mean?"

"Even though I could fly from early childhood, it took me a long time to discover what real freedom is. I would never have puzzled it out completely had it not been for your visit to Hououzan, let alone understanding what it meant to become all that I could be, not what I am. After that battle, I understood that pursuing the latter, implies the former as a given."

"Just like the song."

"Yes, child, just like his song."

"Then I too will do what he said we should do," Akane said with iron in her voice.

"I never doubted that from the moment you stood up to me at Jusenkyou. Look! There the boys are."

"Where? I can't see them."

"Not to worry, Tendou-san. I'll fly lower."

Akane's heart leaped into her throat and her stomach wrapped itself around her ankles again as Kiima stooped. She leveled them out as they dropped below the canyon rim, causing them to pick up even more speed. They rushed between winding walls of rock so fast that, for a moment, the stone became a long granite blur. Below them, the tumbling river ran, and on its surface danced Akane's man.

Well, he was trying to dance. It was more like a semi-controlled series of stumbling disasters. Thankfully, Ranma was being assisted by a laughing and hooting Haabu. It looked to be loads of fun just the same, and Akane could see that Ranma would one day master dancing on the water, just as Akane herself had learned to handle the ice.

The river tumbled and rumbled through an ever-deepening canyon in its headlong rush for the sea. Kiima and Akane would fly downstream to the crest of a bend and land. From such a high point they would watch Ranma and Haabu pass by, then fly to another such spot. Akane decided that while she may not have learned to dance on the waters, and even though she could not fly, she had certainly learned how to take off and land that day. Now all I have to do is sprout wings and I'm one up on Ranma, she thought.

At last they came to the mouth of the river. This turned out to be a place where the river made a ten-meter drop over a cliff into the Pacific. Large rocks broke up the fall of fresh water at the bottom. Akane became very concerned.

"What will they do here?" Akane asked. "They don't know about this fall and there is not a wash pool at the bottom of it, just boulders."

"I shouldn't worry too much, Tendou-san," Kiima replied. "Lord Haabu will have heard the rumble of the fall long before they near it, and he too can fly."

"Fly? Akane asked. "You mean fly the way you do? He doesn't have wings!"

"No, he doesn't fly the same way I do," Kiima said with a smile. "He uses only his ki, but he can fly, believe me. Your Ranma is quite safe, I should think."

"Look! Here they come," Akane exclaimed.

Onna-Haabu was as good as Kiima's word. He scooped Onna-Ranma up in his arms as they reached the fall and the two of them glided out toward the surf rather than plummeting to the rocks below.

"Whee!" Akane heard Onna-Ranma cry out as they passed by. He looked up and saw Akane and Kiima standing on the cliff above the fall. He waved. Akane waved back at him.

"The big dummy's having the time of his life," Akane muttered.

"Shall we join them, Tendou-san? Flying above the waves is fun."

"Yes, but lets jump from over there," Akane said. "That should keep us out of the spray."

"Good thinking, Akane-chan," Kiima said.

Three seconds later they plummeted down the face of the cliff and swooped over the beach before rocketing out to sea so fast that the passing wind made Akane's eyes water.

"Wheee!" Akane squealed.

Kiima cackled. Hearing the joy in Kiima's voice, Akane realized that Hououzanjin actually enjoyed flying around with a normal strapped to her bosom.

"Will you ever have to give up flying, Kiima?" Akane asked.

"Oh, sure!" Kiima answered with a laugh. "The day they pack dirt in my face."

"You took him flying, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did, but let's keep that a secret."

For reasons Akane did not fully understand, Kiima was able to find a great deal of lift over the sea. She seldom needed to beat her wings, even though she was lugging almost twice her normal weight. There seemed to be a kind of cushion of air near the water. They skipped along the top of it.

The water changed from deep green to a dark, translucent blue by the time they caught up to "the boys". Ranma was clearly having the time of his life. He was having no trouble at all dealing with the tall but gently sloped waves. He would slide down the running face of one wave, shoot up the back of the next and then launch himself joyously into the sky. The waves were regular enough that he was having no trouble landing on the face slope of the next wave so that he could start the process all over again. Akane could not remember ever seeing him bubbling over happy like this.

Kiima glided along behind the boys, suddenly dipping into a shallow dive as Ranma leaped into the sky. Much to Akane's delight, Ranma changed forms as he sailed up close enough to give her a quick peck on the lips before dropping away. He let himself go girl again as he slid down the flanks of yet another great wave.

"Show off!" Akane shouted at him as he touched down.

"Oh, you love it, Tomboy!" Onna-Ranma shouted back.

Akane noticed that both Kiima and Haabu were blushing at Ranma's display of affection, but both of them were smiling nonetheless.

Kiima began beating her powerful wings, gaining altitude while circling over Haabu and Ranma.

"It's getting late, Tendou-san."

"Oh! It is, isn't it? I didn't notice. You can't fly at night, can you?"

"I can fly at night all right. It's the landing without being able to see the ground that hurts. We can fly back now, or camp later along the shore somewhere for the night. Which would you prefer?"

"I don't know about you, but I need a bath and I'll bet you're starving."

"I would love another hot soak as well."

"Then we should go back."

Kiima beat her wings until they were several hundred meters above the sea, then set her course for shore in a shallow dive that let her glide.

"At this rate, we'll reach shore near the bottom of the cliff, Kiima. Do you want to land and let me climb up?"

"Thank you for your concern, Tendou-san, but that is unnecessary. I'll show you a secret about flying and cliffs once we reach shore."

"Secret?"

"The wind piles up when it hits a bluff face like that. As we near the cliff, we'll rise as though we are being pulled up on a string."

A short time later, Akane understood that Kiima really did know what she was talking about. They rose skyward as though they were on an express elevator to heaven while Kiima flew them in a figure eight pattern in front of the cliff.

Ranma and Haabu remained far out to sea. The last Akane could see of them, they were dancing with the late afternoon light on the cold blue waters of the Pacific. She made sure to fix it in her memory, knowing that she would want to relive it often in the years to come.

A few moments later, Kiima and Akane were up so high that Akane could not get enough air, even though she was breathing as though it were her own muscles bearing them aloft and not Kiima's.

"Something is wrong with my eyes!" Akane cried out to Kiima.

"What do you mean, child?"

"My peripheral vision is gone."

Kiima broke out of their climb and turned toward Ono-ke.

"Are you still with me, Akane-chan?" Kiima asked.

"Yes," Akane answered as she nodded her head, "but I'm ... I'm so out of breath!"

"How is your eyesight, now? Getting better?"

"A little. What's wrong?"

"I carried you up too high. It happens to us, as well, but at a greater altitude."

"Oh, I forgot," Akane said between pants for air. "Not enough oxygen."


Onna-Haabu noticed that Onna-Ranma's exuberance seemed to fade a little as Kiima flew away with Akane. He decided that a diversion was in order.

"Oi, Ranma!" Onna-Haabu shouted as he built up a ball of ki in his right hand. "Pass!"

Onna-Ranma looked over his shoulder in time to see Onna-Haabu hurl the ball of ki high and to his right. Onna-Ranma flashed a grin at him, then made a sharp turn down the slope of the wave he had just topped. He sliced through the trough, up the next slope and launched himself high into the air.

Onna-Ranma's timing was perfect, of course, but he did not satisfy himself with a simple catch and return toss. He had jumped high so that he could do a slow somersault and throw the ki back toward Haabu from an upside down position, smoothly completing his somersault in time to land gently upon the peak of the next wave. Onna-Haabu laughed and shook his head as he sped up and broke hard left to catch up with Onna-Ranma's cunning toss.

Leaping from the top of a wave, but not jumping nearly so high into the air, Onna-Haabu snagged the glowing ball of ki with his right hand, spun on his long axis and flung the ball back in a way that would force Onna-Ranma to cut a one-eighty in order to catch it.

"Nasty!" Onna-Ranma called out. "Get ready!"

"Do your worst, Cousin! I stay ready!"

Onna-Ranma obliged him. He had to skate like mad and commit to an exceedingly high jump to catch the returning ball of ki. Their game was drifting with the offshore wind, leading them farther and farther out to sea.


She was a small vessel and old. She had been roaming the Pacific now for several months carrying out research, and needed to put in at a yard for repairs. Her crew desperately needed some time ashore in a civilized place with decent amenities. Her next tour of duty would be a long cruise around Japan's Inland Sea taking water and bottom samples, but first she would spend two weeks laid up in Tokyo having her hull cleaned and patched.

While most of her crew would be availing themselves of Tokyo's sybaritic delights, her owner-captain would be using the time to edit film and to write the articles he had promised numerous publications around the world. He and his photographers would be busy trying to meet deadlines. As much as he had always enjoyed this lifestyle, he and the little ship had been at it for twenty years now. The effort needed to keep it all up was getting old, as were the captain and his ship. The time for them both to retire was drawing nigh.

The captain closed his log and rose up from his desk and stretched. Damned old age, he thought. I can't even stretch properly anymore without risking a catch in my back or breaking something else. He shuffled out of his quarters and made his way to the galley for a cup of strong black coffee. The doctors only allowed him one cup per day--well, not really--they had told him to give it up altogether, but he allowed himself one cup a day and normally took it earlier in the afternoon. Today was an exception because they would be pulling into Tokyo late and he wanted to be alert while taking care of the usual business.

The cook poured his deep mug two-thirds full of the stuff--one never filled a glass or cup completely full at sea--and the Captain made his way aft. He paused at the exterior hatchway, closed because they were in a following sea, and lit his pipe. Smoking was another medical verboten, but his life was already near its end. If a pipe a day shortened it by a month or year, what would it matter? He had already lived a long time.

Pipe safely lit, he walked out onto the fantail, closing and securing the hatch behind him. He took in a long pull from his pipe and sipped at his coffee as his eyes drank in the view around his vessel. The sun was already hull down on the horizon, and would disappear altogether as the stern of the ship dropped into the troughs between the waves. The light was still striking the wave tops, giving them an eerie greenish glow. He had seen this many times, but it still thrilled him as much as it did when he first saw it happen at age twenty.

Such sights were the reason a helmsman was never allowed to look aft. He might become mesmerized by what he saw, or he might be so frightened by the approaching mountains of water behind the ship that he would forget his job for a moment. It was much too dangerous for a helmsman to look aft, even on modern vessels of steel.

As the stern of the ship rode up to the top of a wave and paused, he took another sip of coffee, and caught the glimmer of something bright off to port. The captain turned to see what it was as he took another pull at his pipe. Somewhere out there he heard the happy voice of a young woman. Nonsense! he thought. No one would be out here in a small boat--not by choice.

As the stern of the ship dropped down into another trough, a coruscating mass of ball lightning passed overhead. It left a glowing trail a few meters long behind it that quickly winked out. The lightning itself passed out of sight somewhere well to starboard.

He would enter the event into his log, of course, but decided that he would not mention it in any of his articles. People always wanted photographic proof of such phenomenon, but such proof was invariably difficult to obtain. First, such events always occurred without warning and having a camera loaded with the right film and getting it set for a proper photograph was a matter of great luck, not preparation. There was also the fact that certain phenomena were notoriously difficult to photograph with even the most meticulous preparations done in advance. Film never did Saint Elmo's fire justice, or the Aurora Borealis, and the green flash occasionally seen at sunset was another damnably difficult thing to capture on film. He had tried hundreds of times and had only two useful photographs for all his efforts.

No, he would enter the event in his log with the hundreds of other strange things he had experienced at sea and mention it to no one else in print. He might talk with his crew about it. Most of them had been with him a long time and had seen many of the same things he had witnessed.

"Oi! Kono fune no namae ha Karipso desu ka?" an excited female voice asked in his right ear.

The elderly captain turned to his right and found what one of his American friends would have called "yore basic sweet young thang", perched on his port rail as if she were a seabird in need of a rest. She was sitting on her haunches and gripping the slippery rail with her toes as though it were a perfectly natural thing to do. Her eyes seemed wide with awe as she stared at him. She had an epicanthic fold, but her eyes matched the blue of the wine dark sea around her. The girl's hair was dark red and tied back into a loosely braided cue. She was wearing battered dungarees and a Chinese style shirt of heavy blue silk that had seen better days. She was doing an excellent job of filling out her shirt.

The captain felt his jaw flap uselessly a few times, which was an embarrassing thing for a Frenchman to do in the presence of a pretty young lady. He recovered gamely and thought to smile as he cudgeled his memory for the Japanese word he needed. She had asked if the ship was named Calypso.

"Hai, Calypso!" the captain answered.

"Aaraito!" the girl exclaimed in Japanglish.

The old captain laughed. The girl was obviously taken aback and pleased at having encountered the famous _Calypso_ and her widely known captain, but it was he who was very much more in awe at the moment. Where in heaven's name had she come from? And how, in the name of all that was fair and just, could she perch on that railing in this sea? She simply sat there as though she were safely hunkered down on a tree limb or something. Wind and wave seemed not to trouble her in the least.

The girl motioned at him with her hand a couple of times before he realized that she wanted him to move closer. He hesitated for a moment, but then decided that if she had any dark design on his person, it was as good a way to go as any. She gently grasped either side of his head with the palms of her hands and leaned forward so that she could give him a peck on the cheek.

"Arigatou," she whispered in his left ear. She then gave him a peck on the right cheek and whispered, "Okaeri!"

The stern of the ship was overtaken by a wave at that very moment, its peak coming to within a quarter meter of the top of the rail. The girl turned and stepped off the railing onto the water, and then slipped away into the gathering night, dancing on the waves as she disappeared.


(I can't believe you kissed that guy, Red!)

(Hey! He's a Frenchman! French guys do that to everybody! It's just their way of showing admiration.)

(I ain't no Frenchman! I shake hands with guys if I admire 'em.)

(Ki-dama, Saotome! Catch the ki!)

(Argh! Ya almost made me miss it!)

(Made you miss it? I pointed it out to you!)

(I sure hope Haabu didn't see that. He'd be pukin' his guts up.)

(Unlax, Saotome. He was a long way off and down in a trough while chasing our last pitch. He didn't have time to look our way.)

(Man! I sure hope so. You got really bad timing, you know that?)

(Bleah! It's called spontaneity, Saotome. Ooh! High one! Better hustle!)

(I'm hustlin' already. And you're givin' me spots all right. I'm gettin' 'em all over from kissin' that old man back there.)

(Oh, give it rest! How many times do we get a chance to be nice to someone like him? Have you noticed how much faster we can go on the water than we can on ice or snow?)

(Yeah, it's a lot like skatin' on ice, but it don't hurt near as bad when we screw up.)

(I'm starting to get snacky, Saotome.)

(Yeah, I know. I'll bet Haabu is too. Help me keep an eye out. We'll snag the next big fish we see.)

(You got it. Ki-dama!)

(I see it.)


"You will have to be my eyes as we near the ground, Tendou-san," Kiima said as she and Akane circled high above Ono-ke.

"Why?" Akane asked in surprise. "It's still very bright."

"Up here it is, yes," Kiima replied. "But not on the ground."

"What do you mean? I can see nearly everything."

"But the light level will not be the same as we near the ground, Tendou-san. The lower we go, the darker it will become. My eyes will not have enough time to adjust as we land. My depth perception will be very badly affected."

"So, what do we do?" Akane asked, with the first faint hints of alarm in her voice.

"We'll land in that open field west of the house. There should be quite a bit more light there. I will make a slow, shallow approach. You will have to tell me when to pull up."

Akane gulped, then set her jaw in determination.

"I can do that," Akane said with a confidence she did not really feel. "We've taken off and landed a dozen times in scarier places today."

"Prepare yourself then," Kiima said. Akane could hear the grin in Kiima's voice. "Here we go."

Akane gasped as Kiima did something odd with her wings. The wind made her feathers clatter as they began to sink in a wide spiraling fall toward the empty field west of Ono-ke. Once they were within thirty meters of the ground, Kiima changed the set of her wings and they began a smooth shallow dive at the ground. They were approaching the field from the north. A light wind from the east would rock them once in a while.

"Pull up a little, Kiima!"

"There! That's it."

"Pull up a little more, we're going too fast."

"That's good!"

"Almost there..."

"Now!"

Kiima pulled up sharply and Akane felt the balls of her feet touch the ground. Kiima gave a powerful flap of her great wings.

"Ack!"

"Oof!"

Kiima fell over backwards, pulling Akane along with her.

"Are you all right, Kiima-chan?"

Kiima cackled. Akane felt herself grinning for a second, then she too began to laugh.

"I should have had a little more faith in you, Tendou-san," Kiima said as she recovered her breath and pulled the release that tied Akane's harness to her own. "I planned to do a beginner's landing."

"A beginner's landing?"

"Yes. Beginners land flapping their wings, you know."

"But, you haven't done that all day!" Akane exclaimed as she levered herself up, taking care not to put her hands down on Kiima's flight feathers.

"True," Kiima said as she sat up. "So all you have ever seen is an adult's style of landing and taking off. Even so, I did not expect you to have the timing down quite that well. Had I not flapped my wings, we would not have found ourselves rolling about in the weeds."

"I don't know whether to apologize or say thanks," Akane said with as smile as she got to her feet.

"Do neither!" Kiima said extending her hands toward Akane. "Just help me up and let's go find something to eat. I'm famished."

"I'll bet you are!" Akane said as she took both of Kiima's hands and pulled her up to her feet. "I certainly am and I haven't been carrying me around all day."

Kiima fluttered her wings in an effort to free them of leaves and other debris,

"Wait, let me help," Akane said as she walked around behind Kiima and began to gently brush her feathers. Akane struggled valiantly to pick up the odd skill of preening feathers with her fingers, but after a few minutes, her jaw had tightened to the point that her teeth began making audible grinding noises.

"Oh, never mind, Akane-san," Kiima said with a smile. "Cleaning my wings automatically is one of the perks of my curse."

"You mean..."

Kiima nodded her head.

"Every time I become cursed and revert back, my wings are completely refreshed. I didn't even have to suffer through molt last winter."

Akane suddenly became very sober.

"What if it were to rain while you were flying?"

"I have developed a keen interest in meteorology," Kiima answered with a grin as the two of them began walking toward the house.

"I'll bet!"

Nabiki met them at the fence, holding two large tumblers of water.

"Sou Pa said that Kiima would be terribly thirsty after flying for so long," Nabiki said with a grin. "Did you have a nice jaunt? You're timing couldn't be better. You are just in time for dinner.

"It was wonderful!" Akane exclaimed.

Kiima merely smiled as she gratefully accepted the water.

"And the boys?"

"Headed out to sea, the last we saw of them," Kiima answered. "I wouldn't expect them back until well into the night, if not until sometime tomorrow."

Disappointment registered in Nabiki's face for a moment, but then she suddenly grinned.

"Oh, well. Boys will be boys. Where did they find a boat?"

"They weren't in a boat," Akane said.

"They went swimming?" Nabiki asked. "Out to sea?"

"Not exactly, Nabiki," Akane answered. "They were dancing on the waves."

Nabiki glanced at Kiima who nodded her head. Nabiki looked thoughtful for a moment.

"Haabu is teaching a Ranma a new technique, I gather."

"I think it was payback as well," Akane said. "You should have seen that big dummy going down the river. It turns out that liquid water is quite a bit more slippery than ice."

Nabiki got a huge grin on her face.

"I can just imagine. Too bad you didn't have a camera," Nabiki said. "Boy or girl?"

"Girls!" Akane said. "And Haabu's girl side is lovely--especially without all that armor on."

"Damn! I could have bankrupted Kuno."

"Kuno?" Kiima asked.

"He's this delusional idiot we go to school with," Akane explained. "He thinks Ranma's girl form is a different person from Ranma."

"So?" Kiima asked.

"So, he's deep in lust for her!" Nabiki said with an evil smile. "He buys every photograph of Ranma's female form that I can bring him."

Kiima cackled.

"And, he's got a major letch for baby sister here as well."

"Oh, no!" Kiima exclaimed.

"We have a lot of fun with him," Nabiki said with a smirk.

"You have fun with him, maybe!" Akane exclaimed. "He just irritates the hell out of Ranma and me."

"Do you guys want to bathe first, or eat?"

"Let's eat!" Kiima and Akane chorused.


They built a fire of driftwood on dry sand in the lee of a large rock that jutted up out of the beach. The beach itself was on the shore of a small, well-protected bay. Finding the inlet amidst the pounding surf with nothing more than moonlight had been quite the challenge. Both of them were more than a little fatigued. Even so, Onna-Haabu had made short work of cleaning and cutting up the big bluefin Onna-Ranma had caught while they were still well out to sea. Now the salt air was livened with the scent of grilled tuna. Onna-Ranma had fetched two buckets of fresh water from a nearby marina while Onna-Haabu cooked.

"How did you persuade the fellow to lend you these buckets, Cousin?"

Onna-Ranma gave his companion a coy smile as he put one finger to his lips and batted his eyelashes. "The curse comes in real handy sometimes, Haabu-chan."

"So I see. Please don't do that to me again, Cousin," Onna-Haabu said with a laugh. "Save it for the unsuspecting."

"Hey! You could knock their socks off anytime ya needed to, ya know."

"Please don't remind me."

Onna-Ranma shrugged his shoulders. "It's just another technique as far as I'm concerned."

"I suppose that's one way to look at it," Onna-Haabu said. "Doesn't it bother you at all?"

"Oh, sure! Ya know, I used ta go way out of my way to be as manly as I could any time I got wet. Then one day it dawned on me, when I'm in this form, there ain't no way to look like a guy, okay? And guys invariably wanna take advantage of a girl that looks like me when I'm cursed, so I just turn the tables on 'em."

Onna-Haabu found himself grinning even as he shuddered.

"With the looks your cursed form has got, and that sultry voice of yours, you could make 'em eat out of your hand," Onna-Ranma added with an impish smile.

Onna-Haabu went rigid.

"Hey, now wait a minute!" Onna-Ranma exclaimed, waving both hands at Onna-Haabu. "Don't take it the wrong way."

Onna-Haabu burst out laughing, then said, "I ordinarily let them get in close then give them a healthy blast of ki. I can see how you might enjoy beating them out of a meal, or even just a bucket of water or two. It must be very satisfying."

"See what I mean? Ya gotta work with the curse before you can learn to control it."

"But...but doesn't it ..."

"Make me want to act like a real girl?"

Onna-Haabu swallowed, then nodded his head.

"Yeah, it does, but ya know what else I found out? I'm still me, even when the curse is doing its best to take complete control."

Onna-Haabu took a deep breath and stared into the fire, looking deeply troubled.

"I'm not sure if I should ask this, Ranma. You may think me mad, but does it, the curse I mean, does it ever...talk to you?"

"Oh, yeah! You wanna know what's really bad? She speaks better Japanese than I do. I'm just glad that I fell into a spring that gave me a human curse. I hate to think what Ryouga has ta listen to all the time, or poor old Mu Suu."

"You definitely have a point there," Onna-Haabu said with a shudder.

Onna-Ranma passed his companion another filet and took one for himself. He took a bite out of it before threading it onto the end of a long stick.

"Do you actually like raw fish?" Onna-Haabu asked as he spitted his own steak.

"Don't knock it if ya ain't tried it, Cuz."

Onna-Haabu steeled himself before taking a bite out of the raw fish on the end of his spit. He chewed thoughtfully as he held it over the fire.

"See? It ain't half-bad, is it?"

"No, it isn't. Not once I get past the notion of eating raw flesh."

"Better get used to it, Cuz."

"Why?"

"'Cause when you finally go full dragon, you'll eat a lot of it. It's next to impossible to cook a full meal for a dragon."

Onna-Haabu stared into the fire and blinked thoughtfully.

"Hell!" Onna-Ranma added. "I even liked the bones and scales when it happened to me. It was swallowin' the rocks that bothered me."

Onna-Haabu's eyes widened with surprise.

"Rocks?"

"Yeah. Doc Tofu says it's 'cause dragons have gizzards. Ya don't chew much when you're a dragon, ya know. Your gizzard grinds it up. That's when you really begin to taste your food. Anyway, when ya first turn into a dragon, you'll get this irresistible urge to swallow rocks--big ones."

Onna-Haabu turned over his steak and scratched the back of his head.

"Should any of this ever happen to me, I'll be the first of my line to 'go dragon', as you put it, in several generations. I think the last to do so was my great-grandfather's father. That was a very long time ago."

"Well, I think you're gettin' mighty close. Your ki seems to be boilin', kinda."

"I have had some rather strange urges. For instance, I will feel hungry yet not really want to eat food. Fire is what I will want, but even I cannot eat fire. As much as I hate my curse, I cannot stay indoors when it rains. Something compels me to wander about when it rains. The more violent the storm, the stronger the urge becomes."

"I'll show you how to deal with that once the sun comes up. You ever meditate?"

"Not very often. My father considered it a waste of time."

"So did my old man. They were both wrong."

"If so, then there a number of scrolls that I should have paid a good deal more attention to, Ranma."

"Oh, yeah?"

Onna-Haabu nodded his head. "Much of what they say is nearly incomprehensible, but occurs to me now that this must be because I never spent much time in meditation."

(I'll just bet! How would you describe what we've seen, Saotome?)

(In writin' ya mean?)

(Yeah.)

(Ya got me, Red. I don't think it can be done.)

(Sounds like maybe it _has_ been done.)

"Well, meditatin' is kind of an adventure in its own right. I can see where a person might like it so much they wouldn't want to do anything else."

"An adventure?"

"Oh, yeah!"

"Surely you don't mean a real adventure."

"I'll let you decide about that."

Onna-Haabu took in a deep breath and blew out a loud sigh. He turned to face Onna-Ranma, then bowed very low.

"I beseech thee, O Lord Cold Dragon."

(Easy, Saotome! Let him talk the way he wants. This must be something he needs to do.)

(But he's a goddamned Prince! I'm just the son of a do-nothin' martial artist.)

(Hey! You're the one always tellin' me to go easy on Shit-daddy. There's a lot we don't know about him or Haabu.)

(Okay, okay! But I don't hafta like it.)

{{It is a time to be formal. Allow me.}}

((Huh! Scales?))

"I hear, O Noble Prince of the Musk. Rise and look on my face, proud warrior. What would you have of me?" Onna-Ranma said in a rumbling voice that was entirely too high in pitch.

Onna-Haabu raised his head and looked Onna-Ranma in the eye. His eyes glimmered with moisture at their corners as he pursed his lips.

(Oh, geez! I wish he wouldn't look at me that way.)

(He admires us, Saotome--even loves us a little. Why don't you like it?)

('Cause it ain't the real Haabu!)

(Ha! Sure it is! You just don't like it because you feel that way about him, but you don't want to show it.)

(Guys don't do that kinda thing!)

(Oh, sure you do! You just hide it all behind a bunch of formalities so you can save face.)

(You are really aggravatin' sometimes, Red.)

(Ooh, struck a nerve, didn't I?)

"I would ask to be thy retainer, Milord."

(Retainer! He wants to be my retainer? He can't do that! He's a prince!)

{{Yet, we are the Cold Dragon, Saotome.}}

"And why would so courageous and noble a warrior such as yourself ask to be in my service, Haabu? Are you not a prince? You are heir to your own kingdom."

"Nay, Milord, it is not a kingdom and I would never be king. It was the original Cold Dragon who founded the Musk Dynasty. It is now you, Milord, the Cold Dragon who guards the archives to whom we owe our fealty."

(Well, it looks like you're gettin' your way, Red. You're gonna get to pillow the whole community.)

(Saotome, you idiot! It's pillar, not pillow!)

(Ooh, struck a nerve, didn't I?)

(Will you be serious?)

(Why? Scales is bein' serious enough for both of us.)

{{Perhaps it would be best if we accepted our role for now, Saotome. Refusing it at this point would be as much of leap into the unknown as accepting it, while leaving us ignorant of events as they unfold.}}

(Yeah, okay. I remember what the old guy told us about handlin' unknowns.)

(To hell with this! I'm gonna hug him!)

(Red! Wait! He might not...Oh, man!)

"It shall be as you ask, Haabu," Onna-Ranma said with an underlying purr in his voice as he held the only man he had ever really feared in an affectionate embrace, "but you must hear and always follow this, the first of my orders."

Onna-Ranma let go of his companion and they sat back from one another a bit, looking into one another's eyes.

"You shall think of yourself as my equal. You shall always tell me what you truly think. And you shall always remind me that I must do the same for you. By tradition and by public demand you may be my retainer, but in truth, you are and shall ever be my equal, Prince Haabu, Lord of the Musk."

Onna-Haabu stared at Onna-Ranma with shining eyes, looking as though he might begin to cry. He bowed low then spoke.

"You honor me too much, Milord, but I shall do as you command."

"Good! Now tell me what the hell is goin' on! I'm about as ready for this as a year old pup huntin' a tiger."

Onna-Haabu laughed out loud.

"I do apologize, Ranma. I would prefer that it be otherwise."

"It don't look as though any of this is your fault. I mean, you didn't go out and conspire to get me into this position, did you?"

"No, not at all," Onna-Haabu said, shaking his head. "If anything, you have had more say in recent events than I have. You have done a great deal more than you can know about already, Ranma."

"You're talkin' about Safuron, right? But that was just me doin' what I know how ta do. For me, it had nothin' to do with politics or even tryin' to be a leader."

"I know, Cousin. Leadership is something you must necessarily learn as events unfold."

"I don't get it, Haabu. How do I fit into all this and why? I mean, as far as I know, there isn't a single one of my family that ever had anything to do with China, or even Korea for that matter."

Haabu shrugged his shoulders.

"It's because your ancestors and mine came from the same place and they were not from China."

"Wait a minute! Are you sayin' that my ancestors are from Karurisute?"

"If the lineages we have been able to trace are accurate, yes. The fact that you have become the Cold Dragon lends a great deal of credence to those researches."

"Then that would mean that there is an archive similar to yours here in Japan, right?"

"Yes. Given that you are the Cold Dragon, those archives are under you protection by our law. For that matter, the protection of our archives is also your duty--assuming you accept our law."

"Oh, man! I've been yellin' that Xian Pu has no claim on me all this time, and now I find out that she does have. This don't exactly make my day, you know."

"Oh, you needn't worry about Xian Pu's claim on you, Ranma."

"Huh? But, you just said..."

"Calm yourself, Cousin," Onna-Haabu said giving Onna-Ranma a wry grin. "In the first place, the Cold Dragon is exempt from such claims. You could claim the right to bed any and every woman in her tribe if you wanted."

"WHAT?"

"It would be foolish of you to do so, but you could."

"Foolish? Fatal would be more like it."

"Secondly, there is no power on earth that could force you to accept the title or the duties of the Cold Dragon if you chose to ignore them. You are a citizen of the Japanese Empire. Only your emperor could order you to assume those duties."

"I don't think the Mikado would so somethin' like that. I mean, all this stuff is important to us, but who are we?"

"Indeed, Cousin. I have been asking myself that question since the time of my last visit here. I found the Land of the Gods to be ... overwhelming."

"Ah, you're talkin' about the technology and everything, right?"

"Indeed, I am, Cousin. I took back as much as I could carry of things to read about Japan. What I discovered was shocking."

"Oh, yeah? Like what?"

"For starters, China is a very large but incredibly backward compared to Japan. Worse, several of your learned scholars maintain that the United States is even more advance than Japan is."

"Well, yeah, they are in lots of ways, so?"

"So, for all the power you and I can muster between us, what does it amount to?"

Onna-Ranma did not immediately answer.

(Yo, Red!)

(He's got a point, you know, Saotome.)

(Only because he's leadin' what amounts to a small country. Well, okay. It's a tribe that thinks of itself as a country.)

(Nation.)

(Huh?)

(A tribe that thinks of itself as a nation.)

(Yeah, whatever. Anyway, he's got a whole 'nother view of things from what we do. All we ever did was try to be good at the art.)

(But we are the Cold Dragon.)

(So? What does that change?)

(Maybe nothing, maybe it changes everything, Saotome.)

(It only changes things if we decide we hafta get involved in runnin' things, okay? I don't wanna run nothin'! 'Cept maybe a doujou.)

{{We may not have a choice in the matter, Saotome.}}

(What makes ya think that, Scales?)

{{People expect certain things of the Cold Dragon. What makes you think that your decision will change their minds? I would be surprised if they left us to our own devices.}}

(Scales is right, Saotome.)

(Aw, geez! I don't want this shit!)

{{Ironically, that may be what makes us perfect for the job.}}

(The story of my life. I'm always trapped between an oni and the deep blue sea.)

{{See? What better training could you ask for?}}

(How the hell should I know? I don't even know what a Cold Dragon does for sure, 'cept maybe guarding a bunch of old books and scrolls. How's that gonna put rice in our bowls, huh?)

{{I don't think we have a money problem, save possibly having too much of it, Saotome.}}

(He's right, Saotome.)

(Life with too much money is dangerous. We might end up like the Kunos.)

(Oh, come on, Ranma. How many rich people have we met?)

(Not that many, but every one of 'em that we've met so far has been completely nutty. I think I'd rather be broke--or nearly so.)

(Too late, Saotome! We are exceedingly rich already. How many people do you know who can dance on the waves? Or change their sex at will? How many people do you know who can make diamonds, for crying out loud? Do you really think blessings like this come without a price?)

(Okay, so maybe we are pretty well off.)

(Especially when Akane's in the mood!)

(But that doesn't tell us what to do about all this other stuff, okay?)

{{The problem lacks adequate definition.}}

((Bingo!))

"You know, Haabu," Onna-Ranma said looking up from the coals at Onna-Haabu's impassive face, "all you've done is show me more pieces of the puzzle. I don't suppose you have a solution in mind, do ya?"

Onna-Haabu bowed low and held it.

"At your command, Honored Dragon."

"Knock that off, Haabu!" Onna-Ranma exclaimed. "It's just you and me here!"

"I cannot, Milord," Onna-Haabu said. "You are the Cold Dragon. Therefore you command me and all the Musk."

"Sit up and look me in the eye, Haabu," Onna-Ranma said with an exasperated sigh.

Onna-Haabu sat up and looked Onna-Ranma in the eye.

(He isn't trying to fool us, Saotome.)

(Yeah, I can tell.)

"How far have you gotten with all this, and what were ya plannin' to do next?"

"The strategic situation is unsupportable, which means that sooner or later, the archives would fall into the hands of outsiders."

"Meaning Beijing."

"Yes. While we can do grievous harm to the PLA in any conflict with it, the combination of their vast numbers and modern arms cannot be resisted by us alone."

"And no other country on earth is gonna tangle with China to bail us out."

"That was my assessment. It would seem obvious, given the way Beijing treated with Tibet, but my father was never able to convince the Joketsuzoku or the Hououzanjin of the growing danger. Worse, the Han are digging vast complexes of tunnels all over northwestern China in an effort to hide their weapons from the Americans and the Indians."

"The Indians?"

"Yes, surprisingly few people realize what a powerhouse India is becoming. The wretches in Beijing have a little sense. They see India as a clear threat to their hold on power."

"I woulda never dreamed. Anyway, the only good solution is to move the archives to a place where they are less likely to be discovered, right?"

"Yes, Milord."

"And you have been planning to move them to Japan."

"It seems less problematical than moving them to the Americas or Australia."

"I kinda hafta agree with ya, there."

"The Korean situation has been and continues to be very unstable."

"Yeah, so I hear," Onna-Ranma said, looking grim. "Hardly a day goes by that old man Tendou doesn't mutter somethin' under his breath about Korea when he's readin' the papers."

"A war may break out there at anytime and while no one expects such a conflict to last for very long, it will be exceedingly nasty."

"There's Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, and Miyanmar. Didja think about them?"

"Unsuitable for a host of reasons in every case, and all of them share a border with the Middle Kingdom."

"Yeah, okay. I gotcha. Looks like Japan is it, if we can find the right site, then."

"Yes."

"Where in Japan?"

"I was thinking that perhaps I should ask you, Milord."

"Huh?"

"As it happens, you are almost certainly the hereditary guardian of the archives that belonged to the Fourth Fleet."

"Whaddaya mean?"

"The original archive was broken up into four separate blocks. The Musk guarded all of them, but had direct custody over only one. The fourth was carried away by your people when they left China."

"That would mean you expect to find an archive here, but you can't know where it is, right?"

"Yes, Milord."

"For all we know, it might've been lost at sea."

"That is possible, Milord."

"Haabu, I didn't know anything about any of this stuff until you came here."

"So I suspected, Milord."

"Chikushyou!"

"I do apologize, Milord."

"I really and truly ain't ready for this!"

"I am gratified that the whole of my assessment agrees with yours, Milord."

"Okay, that did it! Knock off the 'Milord' stuff for a while, will ya?"

"As you wish, Ranma. Within a few weeks, the Revered Grandmother of the Joketsuzoku will come to the Land of the Wa in order to formally pass on her duties to Elder Ko Lon."

"Oh-ho! So Ko Lon got a little promotion, eh?"

"Yes, although not the one she had been campaigning for."

"At least I won't hafta suffer alone."

Onna-Haabu grinned.

"I think that the picture will become somewhat clearer once Elder Ko Lon assumes her new duties. You do realize that the Revered Grandmother of the Joketsuzoku is chief archivist of all the tribes?"

"I guess I do now. Does that mean I'd be workin' for Ko Lon?"

"Not really. It does mean that you will need to work with her. By right, you could bar Ko Lon and all the rest of the Joketsu from visiting the archives, but I would advise against such a thing."

"That ain't so terribly bad. Even though Ko Lon's pretty damned crafty, at least I know her. I won't be dealin' with a stranger."

"Of all the Joketsuzoku I know, she and the current Revered Grandmother are the least prone toward self-aggrandizement."

"And, I got you and Nabiki on my side, right?"

"You certainly have me, Cousin. As for Tendou-san, I am not at liberty to obligate her--not yet, at any rate."

"I gather money ain't too likely to be a problem."

"Hiding the money and handling things quietly will be, Ranma. Secrecy must be maintained."

"Okay, so what about relocating the people?"

"I would advise undertaking that only after the archives are safely relocated, or that we conduct the two as completely separate operations."

"You would place the archives ahead of your people?"

"I am sorry, Ranma. I know that such an idea leaves you appalled, but our first duty is to protect the archives. Should they fall into the wrong hands, it could well mean the end of humanity altogether."

"What the hell is in those things?"

"From the descriptions I have read, things that make nuclear weapons seem no more important than the toys of children. My great fear is that someone will combine the knowledge in the archive with the technology of today."

"Too much power."

"Yes, entirely too much and not all of it having to do with war, either. Our ancestors knew how to grow things--new things. Things that had never existed before."

"Oh, shit."

"Have you heard of the Yakusai Mura?"

"Yeah, I met a couple of girls who live there."

"The Joketsu will not admit it, but they are closely related. The Yakusai-jin are a cadet branch of the Joketsuzoku."

"I suppose I should have guessed. Do they raise animals as well as plants?"

"Some rather peculiar ones."

"Oh, that figures! Geez! How many of them are there?"

"Only about three-hundred."

"And they'll wanna bring all their little experiments with 'em, I suppose."

"I think it reasonable to assume that they would, Milord."

"Smugglin' 'em out of China ain't gonna be near as much trouble as gettin' 'em settled in Japan, ya know."

Onna-Haabu gave Onna-Ranma a startled look.

"That had not occurred to me, Milord, but your point is well taken."

"And the poor Hououzanjin will hafta give up flying. What were ya plannin' for them? A Jusenkyou curse?"

"Of the appropriate sex, of course, but yes. That would appear to be the only workable option. I don't think many of them will want to leave."

"But we're gonna get their part of the archives, right?"

"Yes, Milord. That has already been agreed to."

"How did'ja pull that off?"

"It was not within the realm of possibility until you defeated Safuron, Ranma. I had resigned myself to starting a war with the Hououzanjin to recover their part of the archives."

(Man! He is worried sick about all those old writings, Saotome.)

(Yeah, he must be. Here's the thing, though. Is all that old stuff really so important? Or is it just a matter of Haabu's upbringin'?)

(Saotome, how many people do you know that can create a tornado?)

{{Indeed, Saotome. How many people have you known who could turn themselves into a kind of earthbound sun?}}

(Or grow all that stuff that Pinku and Rinku swamped Furinkan with?)

(Okay, okay! I guess we hafta lug all these clay tablets, or whatever they turn out to be, out of China, but we ain't gonna just leave those people there if they don't wanna stay. The tablets and whatever is on 'em belong to those folks, not us.)

{{(Agreed!)}}

"We can't just move the archives and leave the people, Haabu. We gotta move both. The tablets don't belong to you and me, ya know."

"Point well taken, Milord. Shall we conduct both operations simultaneously with different lines of control?"

"Yeah, I guess, but let's wait and see what the Revered Grandmother and Ko Lon have to say before we make any serious moves. I wanna talk to Nabiki about what to do on this end. Findin' places for all these folks to live ain't gonna be no picnic."

"I was thinking perhaps Shikoku or Kyushu would be better than any place we could choose on Honshu."

"I think you're right. There's lots of small islands in the inland sea that could probably be bought for a song. The people we are movin' are country folk anyways, right?"

"Indeed they are, Cousin. In the case of the Yakusai-jin, it would be particularly helpful to settle them in places little visited."

"I gotta go along with ya on that one."

"I cannot say with complete certainty, Ranma, but I suspect your mother probably knows where the fourth archive is."

"HUH? What makes ya think that?"

"Guessing from our records and from what you have told me about your father, logic suggests that your mother would know such a secret. Someone in your family MUST know. She seems the most likely candidate."

"Yeah, I gotta agree with ya there, Haabu. If Pop knew about it, all that stuff would have already been sold to a museum or somethin'. The sad part is, he's so bad at handlin' money that we would probably still be just as broke as ever."

"And I doubt that he would have trained you so assiduously."

"There you're wrong, Haabu-san. The old man has more than his share of weaknesses, but the one thing he values above all else is the art."

"Really?"

"I guarantee ya. He's the one guy I know of who's actually more dangerous than you are in a real fight."

Onna-Haabu grinned and said, "Ko Lon had already given me much the same warning."

(What do you think Haabu knows about buying land, Saotome?)

(How should I know? Can you buy land in China?)

(I can tell you what he knows about it, next to nothing, okay? If the Musk needed more land, they conquered it, right?)

(Probably.)

(So what do I know about buying land?)

(Probably less than Haabu knows.)

(Let's put Nabiki on this one. You know how much she loves to shop.)

(Ya gotta point there, Red. Besides, she can drive a better bargain and spot traps faster than the rest of us put together.)

(Now you're using our head, Saotome.)

"You were plannin' on going down south to look for property while you were here this trip, right, Haabu?"

"It would seem foolish not to, Cousin."

"Then I gotta suggestion to make."

"By all means."

"Let's get Nabiki involved."

Onna-Haabu looked dumbstruck.

"Why would we want to trouble her?

"You ever buy land in Japan before?"

"No, I haven't. Come to think of it, I have never bought or sold land anywhere."

"It ain't like buyin' groceries, ya know."

"It isn't?"

"Uh-hu!" Onna-Ranma said shaking his head. "Real estate is a complicated business here. The government gets involved 'cause ya gotta pay taxes and stuff like that."

"Is Tendou-san qualified?"

"Believe me, she's got the best head for money and bargaining of anybody I know."

"I suspected as much," Onna-Haabu said with a fond smile.

(Geez! He's got it bad and he only met her just yesterday.)

(It probably has something to do with that bracelet we didn't notice, Saotome.)

(Yeah, probably. That was weird, wasn't it?)

"The smart thing for us to do would be to get Nabiki to at least help find places for the folks comin' over here."

"What does she know about defensible positions, Milord?"

"I don't know. Probably more than either one of us would expect, but I don't think she would know as much about it as you or I would."

"In that case, I'll leave Captain Kiima here to assist her."

"That'd help a lot. Nabiki is kinda busy and she'll be behind on everything once we get back to Nerima."

"And, by your leave, I shall return to China directly with the men. I'm sure the Revered Grandmother would pleased if matters were expedited."

"Ah, does that mean gettin' stuff done faster?


End of Chapter 16
Copyright © Don Granberry