Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 17a


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.

"Looks as though the adrenaline is finally wearing off," Nabiki said, tilting her head to the right.

Kiima glanced to her left and saw that Akane was about to nod off to sleep where she sat at the table. Akane's chin was buried in her chest, and as she leaned forward, her nose dropped closer and closer to her soup. Kiima and Akane had polished off something like four liters of fluids, most of it water, and they had already eaten nearly two kilos of noodles and chicken. Kiima had done most of the drinking; flying was very thirsty work. She had also eaten a sizeable meal, but the amount of food Akane put away had been amazing.

"She's been working out a lot lately, I gather," Kiima said.

"Oh, you don't know the half of it," Nabiki replied. "Even before this latest round of madness started, she got in a lot of exercise. The last couple of weeks would make training with the Musk look like a vacation."

"I've heard that she and Ranma have always fought a lot," Kiima said. "How is it that he can train her if things are so bad between them?"

"Hah!" Nabiki exclaimed. "They haven't been fighting. That was just foreplay, isn't that right, Baby Sister? Akane?"

"Mmmrer...Baaka!..." Akane responded.

"Yep, she's definitely out of it," Nabiki said. "I'd better get her into bed. Ranma would be well and truly annoyed at me if I let her drown in a bowl of soup."

"I'll give you a hand," Kiima said.

"No, that's all right. She'll get to bed on her own," Nabiki said with a smirk. In a sharper voice she shouted, "Akane!"

"Huh, what?" Akane asked as she looked up just in time to keep her nose out of her soup.

"Go to bed," Nabiki said. "You're falling asleep in your food."

"No I'm not!" Akane said, rubbing her eyes.

"So you won't complain when I show everyone the pictures at school on Monday, then, will you?"

"Pictures!" Akane came fully to life. "You had better not!"

"Awake now?"

Akane looked around and blinked a couple of times. "I'll just drink some more tea."

"Don't be silly, Akane," Nabiki said. "You're coming down off of an adrenaline high. Go to bed."

"He hasn't come back, yet," Akane said with the steely edge to her voice that of all the people Nabiki knew, only Akane and Nodoka Saotome could generate.

"It's quite likely that Lord Haabu and Lord Ranma will be gone the entire night, Lady Tendou," Kiima said. "They have numerous problems to discuss."

"What's the matter, Akane?" Nabiki asked giving her sister a knowing smirk. "Can't sleep without your bundle bunny? What are you going to do when we go back home?"

"I can sleep without him!" Akane declared in a defiant tone.

"Then you should do it in bed, not out here at the table," Nabiki said.

Akane gave Nabiki an angry stare, before getting up and stamping off toward the house.

"You've been mothering her for a long time," Kiima opined once Akane was out of earshot.

"I'm more like a drogue chute or sea anchor to her than a mother," Nabiki said with a wry smile. "Akane has always been something of an adrenaline freak. She would never admit it, but she's addicted to excitement. I guess you were too, huh?"

"No, not really," Kiima said. "I've always had ambitions that eventually led me into stressful situations, but I never really sought them out deliberately. At least, not until recently."

"After you took a bath in Akane's spring, you mean?"

Kiima nodded her head. "I often worry about what it does to my decision-making process."

Nabiki suppressed a laugh. "Let me guess. You find yourself doing things the hard way now, just to show yourself that you can, right?"

"Sometimes, yes."

"That's my baby sister, all right. I'm looking forward to the day that Ranma gives in and lets his girlish side off of her leash. That's going to be some real entertainment."

"One might say the same thing about Lord Haabu," Kiima said with a pensive look, "but he can ill afford to do such a thing."

"That's interesting," Nabiki said. "He and Ranma have a lot in common, don't they?"

"Lord Haabu has had a number of advantages in life compared to Lord Ranma, but yes, they do have more than just the same curse in common. Lord Haabu's childhood was so difficult, that I wonder if it could be called a childhood at all. It's very hard for him to open up to anyone."

"More tea?" Nabiki asked as she lifted the insulated carafe.

"Yes, thank you."

"What was your childhood like?" Nabiki asked as she filled Kiima's cup. The winged blonde gave Nabiki a warm smile.

"Entirely too brief," she answered. "My eldest brother died before he could assume his filial duties and my younger brother was always something of a ne'er-do-well who eventually came to a bad end. I had to take over for my father."

"Sounds as though it might have been rough," Nabiki said.

"Yes and no," Kiima said with a shrug of her broad shoulders. " I was something of a scholar during my youth and loved working in our archives, but the most fun I can recall having was in learning to fly with my squadron."

"I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to fly," Nabiki said. "My first real flight of any kind was when Haabu carried me down to look at the waterfall. I've never even been on an airplane."

Kiima gave Nabiki a quick smile. "It's not at all the same."

"I suspected as much," Nabiki said. "You actually fly. Haabu just sort of drifts along by sheer force of will, doesn't he?"

Kiima laughed. "Haabu hasn't completed his training when it comes to flying. His progress has been hampered because his father and most of the Musk died fighting the PLA a few years ago."

"That's curious," Nabiki said. "Why didn't the rest of you fight?"

"To us it seemed hopeless," Kiima said. "Man to man, the three great tribes have many terrifying warriors, but against the huge numbers the PLA can muster and their firearms there is simply no way for us to win. Even so, we might have joined with Lord Haabu's father had he not been consumed with unbridled ambition. His real purpose in starting a fight with Beijing was to unite the tribes under his rule, you know. We have no love for China's rulers, and might have joined had we thought him trustworthy."

"Ah, now I see," Nabiki said. "It does explain some of Ko Lon's misgivings."

Kiima shrugged her shoulders. "There was a great deal of mistrust and friction between the Musk and the Joketsuzoku long before Chi Li declared himself a king. Lord Haabu spent a great deal of time trying to heal the old wounds when his father wasn't looking. That's another reason why Lord Haabu's training is not as far along as it might be. He and his father often found themselves at odds over policy."

"So the Musk and the PLA clashed and Lord Haabu was not there?"

"Oh, he was there, but Chi Li had put Haabu in charge of his reserves. Haabu had to decide between his father and the safety of his people. He chose his people and led his troops away from the battle, taking up positions that would have been so costly to the PLA that they refrained from pursuing the remaining Musk. All who witnessed the battle know that Lord Haabu made the right decision, but I think it haunts him just the same."

Nabiki closed her eyes and shuddered. "Haabu must really have it in for the PLA, then."

"If you worry that he is consumed by a desire for revenge, don't be. He counseled against provoking the PLA, arguing that it was best to let them break their teeth on American steel. Lord Haabu argued for many years that our wisest course of action was to get the archives out the Middle Kingdom."

"I don't think that the Americans want a fight with China."

"Tell that to the PLA. They are preparing for just such a clash, even though some of the younger leaders in Beijing have serious doubts.

"It's madness," Nabiki said in a horror-stricken voice.

"Indeed, it is. That is one of the reasons Lord Haabu chose Japan instead of the Americas. Beijing tends to become very alarmed whenever they learn of any connection between a group in China and the United States. Their plans for Japan, however, are quite different."

"How so?"

"They intend to absorb Japan by encouraging out-migration."

"Hmm, Japan is, perhaps, small enough to for such a strategy to work, but it would have to be a very long term strategy. It does not seem plausible."

"How hard would it be for your government to oppose Chinese interests, if thirty percent or more of your population favored a pro-Chinese policy?"

Nabiki's eyes widened at this thought.

"Why tender military opposition if all you need to do is to invoke the ire of your enemy's population against their government?" Kiima asked.

"It's too fantastic, Kiima! Surely you're wrong about Beijing's intentions," Nabiki said.

"It is what the elders of all three of our tribes believe Beijing's intentions to be," Kiima said with a shrug of shoulders. "If you think them in error, you should gather proof as quickly as you can and discuss the matter with Haabu and Elder Ko Lon."

"So your strategy is to make Beijing think you are playing into their hands, right? By coming to Japan, Beijing is far less likely to object to you sneaking your people out of China."


"You know, Kiima, there have been more than a few Japanese politicians making these claims about China. I've always chalked them off as radical xenophobes unworthy of my vote."

"I know, and they will make trouble for us if they discover that we are coming here in significant numbers. Fortunately, the whole of the three tribes is not a large number in relative terms. Even more importantly, we all despise the fools ruining China from Beijing. Any of us who settle here will be vociferously opposed to Chinese interests."

"I will check on these things, Captain," Nabiki said in a voice colder than she intended it to be.

Kiima nodded her head, showing respect for Nabiki's reaction. "I thought you might have reservations once you found out. I think it better you know now and have time to properly allay any fears this knowledge might engender before we begin moving the archives to Japan."

"You're actually more worried about those old tablets and scrolls than you are about getting your people out of China, aren't you?"

"The people will survive, one way or another, provided they are not opposed by a government that has gotten its hands on those archives, Tendou-san."

"Are the fighting techniques recorded in those archives really all that deadly?"

"You have not seen Lord Haabu go all out in a fight, have you?"

Nabiki stopped and thought for a moment. The fight between Ranma and Haabu had caused the destruction of an entire mountain. Between the two of them, they had reduced Houraizan to a stone stump surrounded by a pile of rubble. The destruction of that mountain had been collateral damage. Ranma and Haabu had been fighting each other, not working together on a road project.

"I've seen the results on television," Nabiki said.

"Fighting techniques and strategy are only a fraction of what is in the archives, Tendou-san. There are instructions for making very powerful artifacts that could cause horrible tragedies if they were misused."

Nabiki thought about that for a moment. It made sense. A lathe could be used to produce parts for tanks as easily as it could be used to produce parts for automobiles or baby carriages. It was all a matter of use. She had a sudden inspiration.

"Is there a technique for making diamonds described in them?"

Kiima laughed out loud.

"I take that as a yes," Nabiki said in a dry voice.

"Yes, Tendou-san, there is a such a technique. We have several tons of diamonds on hand. They are one of the few things that will let a craftsman reliably carve jade. However, I know of no living person who has mastered the technique of making diamonds."

Nabiki smiled at Kiima as she reached into her pocket and set the large blue stone that Ranma had made down on the table in front of the Hououzanjin.

Kiima did not react with a scream of delight the way many women would have. She picked up the stone and looked at it carefully. She took note of its crisp edges and sharp points by carefully feeling them with her fingers. "How did you come to have a diamond like this?"

"Ranma made it the other day. He stumbled across the method while meditating on a piece of charcoal."

"Has he started helping plants to grow yet?" Kiima asked.

"You mean he might be able to do that?" Nabiki asked.

Kiima nodded her head as she gently placed the diamond back on the table. "A small percentage of our ancestors were once capable of many strange things that were only distantly related to the martial arts."

Nabiki thought of Pinku and Linku and shuddered. These people, wait, MY people accomplished great wonders, just as modern people have. Only, my people had a very different technology in the distant past. There is no way to estimate what the combination of their technology and today's technology might accomplish. In making diamonds, Ranma is somehow able to distinguish between different molecules by observing them with his mind, or with some other, undefined form of sensation. What might a real chemist do with such skills? What if a Ranma Saotome had the help and guidance of a great theorist like Einstein? The possibilities are boundless, ne? It's about to rain soup. All I need to do is to find a bucket.

"I agree with you about the archives, Kiima," Nabiki said in the voice she used when she meant business. "All the other concerns are of little consequence."

Kiima cocked an eyebrow at Nabiki and asked, "All of them? Do you really mean that?"

Nabiki stared Kiima dead in the eye as she answered, "Oh, yes! We _will_ find a way to work things out."

Akane found herself in the middle of a vast desert. She stood on the rim of a great canyon that wound its way out of sight in both directions. Far away, out on her left, she could see the faint signs of mountains. The sun would occasionally glint off their snowy peaks. To her right, the ground dropped away into what seemed to be an utterly lifeless desert without so much as a trace of green to relieve its mottling of yellows, duns, ochres and browns. As far as she could tell, no river ran along the canyon floor. It seemed to be as lifeless as the desert.

"This heat is too much," she said to the vast emptiness around her. "I need to find some cooler air."

Akane jumped off the bare rock beneath her feet and into the empty space above the canyon. Her heart leapt into her throat as she plummeted toward its rocky bottom. After falling and flailing her arms for what seemed a lifetime, she remembered to spread her wings. The hot air rushing by her face began to whistle and hum as the gold and red feathers of her great wings caught the wind and bore her aloft.

"Hah!" Akane cried out with joy. "I almost forgot I had wings. How silly of me!"

Flying down the length of the canyon, she found rising air on the inside wall of a bend and began flying a series of figure-eight patterns. She gained altitude quickly. She longed to fly toward the cool mountains, but the glint of harsh sunlight on snow caught her eye. It lay far out in the lifeless desert, surrounded by shifting dunes of powdery sand.

"I guess I'll fly home first," she muttered. "Home? Since when did I start living in a desert?"

With a shrug of her shoulders and a shift in the set of her wings, Akane began a long slow glide over the parched soils below. As she progressed and her altitude decreased, she smiled to herself. She was over a badlands and, even though there was nothing but lifeless rock and sand below, it reminded her of flying over the waves of the ocean. The badlands eventually gave way to great dunes. The air above the dunes was turbulent, but afforded her many places to find much needed lift.

The dunes eventually gave way to an alkali flat. The air above it was intolerably hot and the windborne dust stung her eyes. She beat her wings to gain altitude, working hard for every centimeter.

"At least I'm almost there," she said between pants for air.

And, indeed she was. A few kilometers away, a lone butte jutted up out of the burning flat. In contrast to the lifeless flats, its flanks were covered with trees and other plants. Rather than climbing in a rising spiral, the way she would have done had she been riding a thermal, she held a course for the peak as she climbed.

It turned out that there was much more to the "butte", as Akane learned once she gained enough height to begin circling it. It was much longer than it was wide. She had been looking at it from its high end. It was actually a complex of ridges formed in the shape of a narrow "U". The rill down its center was choked with plant life and a tumble of large boulders. A sizeable stream of clear water ran down from the high peak and through the center of the rill. It formed numerous small pools and cascades as it ran its course.

The stream ran a little way out into the alkali flat before dissipating. Vile looking plant life surrounded this outfall. Akane got gooseflesh merely from looking at it. A vast tangle of thorny vines wrapped around great piles of cacti with long sharp spines intermingled with tortuously gnarled trees reminded her entirely too much of the poisonous forest that Pinku and Linku had grown on the grounds of Furinkan High School.

The source of the water was obviously snowmelt. The upper reaches of the peak were quite high, far too high for her to fly. Akane suspected that snow covered the mountaintop the year round. She circled lower, searching for a safe place to land. After several passes she found a large shelf of rock jutting out from the side of the mountain. It was just below the upper fringe of the tree line and had a clear approach from the air.

Immediately upon landing she realized with a start that the place had been long occupied. The shelf of rock led back into what had once been a natural recess in the side of the mountain. There were obvious tool marks on the face of the stone. Someone had made the recess larger and had covered its long opening with a set of sliding doors. The doors were heavy and made of wood. Akane counted ten panels in all.

"Well, of course it has been occupied, silly!" she said to herself. "This is my home. My home? Since when did this place become my home? And who built it?"

She ruffled her feathers and quivered from head to foot. There was a bright flash and she was suddenly aware that her wings and feathers had disappeared. There was also a distinct change in her vision. She was no longer able to pick out as much detail at a distance, even though her peripheral vision now seemed much greater.

"What did I just do?" Akane asked herself. "When did I grow feathers? For that matter, when did I start sprouting wings?"

Something bright and out of place tugged at the corner of her vision. She looked down to see a scarlet feather lying at her feet. She bent down and picked it up. She then realized that she was completely naked while standing out in the open. This discovery triggered an instinctive reaction in Akane Tendou. She tried to cover her body with her arms and hands while scanning around to see if anyone was watching her. If there was a hidden watcher though, he or she was very well hidden. Akane relaxed.

"I guess it's just as well. I could do with a bath and a long hot soak about now."

She walked over to the rightmost of the sliding doors and examined it. There was a large handle sticking out of the rock to the right of it. Acting on a hunch, she pulled down on the lever. There was a loud clank followed by a distant rumble. The doors began to slide to her left, revealing the interior of her aerie.

It was an amazing sight. The place had been beautifully finished out, a far cry from the bare walls of stone she had been expecting. One section of the place was much like the great room at Tendo-ke. The floor was covered with tatami and there was a low table made of ebony in its center. The table, she quickly noticed, was equipped with a kotatsu.

"Probably need that up here at night," she muttered.

To the left of the area covered with mats was a well-equipped kitchen, divided off from the matted room by a counter. There was a wall at the back of these two spaces, suggesting that there was much more to be seen further inside. The only thing she did not like about the place was that it was a bit too dark, even when the doors were open. She walked inside.

The ceiling was fairly low. She spied a vine about the same thickness as her wrist growing up out of the rock in one corner of the great room. It clung to the rock wall with tendrils that seemed some how capable of penetrating the rock. She followed the vine with her eyes. It ran up the wall and across the ceiling. In the middle of the room, the vine had a small section where numerous branches grew out of its main trunk. Each branch dangled down a short way. On the end of each branch was what appeared to be a perfectly formed quartz crystal. Akane reached up and touched one of the crystals with the tip of her finger, then gasped as it began to emit a soft, warm colored light.

"Maa!" Akane cried out as she touched several more of the crystals. Each of them began to glow as well. "Sugoi! What makes them do that, I wonder?"

She looked around the now well-lit room. Most of the stone had been covered with wood paneling. It was a blonde-colored wood with a wonderfully figured grain. Examining the paneling closely, she realized that the individual panels were not made from any kind of plywood. Each panel was made of a single board a little over a meter wide. The sight of them took her breath away. She had only seen the like of it at an ancient Buddhist temple in Nara, the oldest still in existence in Japan.

"How strange!" Akane exclaimed. "I didn't see any trees this big as I flew over, or at least, I don't think I did. Maybe they are further down the mountain."

Screwing up all the courage she could muster, Akane walked into the kitchen. The floor here was covered with red terra-cotta tiles. It was the perfect surface for a kitchen floor, she realized. The finish of the tiles was rough rather than slick, therefore unlikely to become a slip hazard, yet impermeable enough to reject stains, making them be easy to clean.

"This is the kind of floor Kasumi would choose," she said, then felt a sharp pang of sadness. "How long has Kasumi been gone now? Wait a minute! Kasumi isn't gone...or is she? Why do I remember her being so old and gray? What the hell is going on?"

Alarmed by her confusion and not being particularly comfortable at being in a kitchen to begin with, Akane made her way back into the great room. There was a long painting hung on one wall. It was of a place she had never seen, or at least, not a place that she could remember ever seeing.

It depicted a village crowded onto the cliffs near a rock-ribbed shore. The streets wound around and up and down, and were replaced occasionally by long, broad sets of stairs cut into the rock. There were towns like this one in Japan, to be sure, but the architecture was completely alien to her. She could not recall ever having seen anything like it. The people in the picture were dressed funny as well. Their clothing was not quite Asian, nor was it quite what she thought of as Occidental either. The boats tied up along the quays were not like any she had ever seen before. Surprisingly, none of them seemed to be made of wood, nor any other substance she had ever seen boats made from. They seemed almost to have been made from the same stuff seashells were made of.

"Maybe the artist is just pulling our legs," she muttered. She found a signature in the lower right corner. It read "Saotome Hitomi" in kanji.

Akane stepped back from the painting and decided to explore the rest of her "home". She opened the shoji in the back wall and found that it led to a hallway. Turning left she followed it to another large dimly lit room. It had several pools of clear water in it.

One of the pools was quite large, easily the size of an Olympic pool, but much deeper. Part of it ran beneath a set of sliding doors. Akane assumed that part of the pool was likely to be out in the open air. There was another, smaller pool of shallow water, as if someone had dug it into the rock with children in mind. The remaining two were about the size of a regular furo, just large enough for two or three adults to soak in at one time.

On the far side of the room she saw a set of bathing stations with stools and showerheads, much like what you would find in a public bathhouse anywhere in Japan. There were no dividing walls, suggesting that no one living here worried too much about who saw what.

The room was floored with large flagstones of pale colored rock that had a coarse surface. They felt much like hard sand beneath her bare feet.

"I'm beginning to think Ranma picked out the flooring for this place," Akane said with a giggle. "We need a little light in here."

She walked over to one of the furo-sized pools and tested the waters with her finger.

"Whoa! That's really cold!" Akane cried out with a shiver.

Staring down into the pool she could see that there was a kind of sump in the very bottom covered by what appeared to be a grating made of wood. Beneath the grating, lying at the bottom of the sump, was what appeared to be a large crystal. Strangely enough, the crystal seemed to be attached to a vine growing out of the rock.

"I wonder why the grating doesn't float," she said. Something on the periphery of her vision snagged her attention. She cast a glance upwards and saw that the vine she had seen in the great room grew on the ceiling of this space as well. Half a dozen crystals dangled from the vine above the soaking pool. One of them was orange in color. She reached up and touched it. The crystal chimed when her fingernail came into contact with it and then it began to glow. She was surprised by how much light it gave off at first, then realized that much of the light she was seeing came from the pool of water. Looking back down she could see that the large crystal lying in the bottom of the sump was now glowing with a warm orange light.

"Oh, I get it!" she said happily. "I guess I'll go make some tea while the water warms up."

She made her way back to the kitchen. The trouble was, as strange as all kitchens were for Akane, this one was especially mysterious. Everything in it was more or less recognizable insofar as identifying its function, but very different in design and appearance. The cups seemed far too large. Many of them were incredibly heavy. Some seemed so delicate that she was afraid to touch them. She found a drawer full of silverware, except it seemed strangely made, even for stuff from the Far West. The pots and pans were an even greater puzzle.

The pantry was the size of a walk-in closet and was loaded from floor to ceiling with rack after rack of spices and mysterious looking jars filled with what appeared to be special sauces and oils. Her eyes grew huge with delight. Unfortunately, she could not find anything that looked like tea.

Exasperated, she made her way back into the kitchen proper and began opening and closing all the cabinet doors until she finally opened one and a sign fell down in front of her. It was dangling from a string and read: "Akane, do _not_ heat water for tea on the griddle! Use the tea maker under this cabinet."

"Nani!" Akane exclaimed as her face reddened with embarrassment. "What's this all about? I can't use my own kitchen?"

"It's not your kitchen, sugar!"

"Ukyou?" Akane asked and looked around the room. "Where are you?"

"Oops!" the voice that sounded like Ukyou Kuonji said. "Wrong Akane! I forgot it was you that would be here today."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Akane asked sounding both annoyed and alarmed. "Where are you?"

"I'm not there, really, Akane, I'm...Oh! I don't know how to explain this. It's like I'm talking to you on a speakerphone--sort of. I'm not really there at the aerie with you. I wish I could be, though."

"Ukyou, what is going on? What is this place and where is it? How did I get here?"

"You flew there like you always do, silly."

"I know I flew here," Akane said in an aggravated voice. "But that doesn't explain anything!"

"Yeah, I know, sugar," Ukyou's voice responded with a conciliatory note. "But you'll understand before too terribly long, okay? Be patient for me, please, baby?"

This last sounded to Akane as though Ukyou were speaking to someone with whom she had long been a lover. It increased her level of alarm considerably.

"Where's Ranma?" Akane demanded.

"He's...he's at his place on the coast, Akane," Ukyou answered in a tight voice, "almost sixteen hundred kilometers west of where you are now."

"His place?" Akane asked.

"Yes, his place," Ukyou said. "Where you are now belongs to you and me...or...I guess from your perspective, it will belong to you and me."

"This belongs to us? You and me, I mean?"

"Yes, it does."

"Well where are you and why are you and I living together?"

"I...I'm in a kind of...well...a kind of hospital, I'd guess you'd say. We aren't living together right now because I can't come home."

"What is going on?" Akane demanded in a loud voice as the last fine filaments of her patience broke.

"Easy, girl! Easy!" Ukyou said. "Look, I can't stay on here much longer. I need you to promise me something, okay?"

"Promise you what? What the hell is going on, Ukyou?"

"Look I know it's hard, but you have to be patient. I know patience isn't your long suit. It isn't exactly mine, either, but that's what I need you to promise you'll learn to do, okay? If you and I had started early learning a little patience, we'd both be a lot happier today."

"Ukyou, what happened?" Akane asked, then decided she was asking the right question in the wrong way. "Better yet, tell me what is going to happen. This is the future, isn't it?"

"Yeah...sort of..." Ukyou said with a pause. "Look it's real complicated, okay? This is a possible future. We could have both had a much better one, even though this one isn't so bad."

"You aren't supposed to be talking to me, are you?"

A long silence followed Akane's question.

"Not really, no," Ukyou said in a contrite voice.

"Are you going to get into trouble?

Ukyou responded with a bitter laugh.

"I really have got to break this off, Akane. Promise me you'll try to be patient--for Ran-chan's sake if nothing else." Ukyou's voice sounded as though she were damming a flood of tears.

Akane wanted ask why Ranma wasn't here in her home where he belonged, but bit her tongue. Clearly, Ukyou was deeply worried about something. Taking a deep breath she answered, "Okay, I promise."

"Thanks, sugar," Ukyou's voice answered sounding greatly relieved. Akane could almost see Ukyou's approving smile, having seen the okonomiyaki chef wheedle Ranma so many times in the past.

"Oh, no! I gotta go right now! Love you, bye!"

"Ukyou?" Akane asked and waited in a deafening silence. "Ukyou! What do you mean you love me? That's crazy!"

After another prolonged silence, Akane realized that no answer would come. Unable to find the tea maker, she stamped out of the kitchen and back toward the bathing cavern, but decided to do a bit more exploring before taking a soak. Sliding open a door in the hallway led her into a sizable room with a thick carpet on the floor. There was a massive canopied bed set into a space made by a huge bay window. The bed was half again the size of what Westerners called a king-sized bed. There was a conversation pit around a fireplace with a glass front and the room was equipped with a wet bar.

On one wall hung a naginata crossing one of Ukyou's huge battle spatulas. Between them, on a rack designed for them, hung both of the Saotome family blades. Akane had no trouble recognizing any of the weapons. She had seen them all before. The naginata belonged to her father.

"Well, I guess we are already kind of rich," Akane muttered as she took in the rest of her surroundings. The luxurious carpet was dark brown and the rest of the room had been decorated in fall colors with lots of wood, glass and brass. It was both elegant and homey at one and the same time.

She found three chests of drawers made from fine mahogany, as well as three very lady-like dressers made of burl walnut. The dressers had large, cloud-shaped mirrors of thick beveled glass. The drawer pulls and knobs were made of brass. The drawer bottoms were made of fragrant cedar and had quarter rounds in their corners. The drawers were loaded with jewelry.

"Geez!" Akane exclaimed. "These dressers must have cost a fortune by themselves, let alone all the jewelry. Why have we got three of them? Wait a minute! We've got three of everything in here but only one bed!"

Akane looked around for a moment just to confirm her count and saw that there were three cased openings leading to three walk-in closets.

"Ranma, you pervert!" she shouted.

A quick scan of the makeup and perfumes confirmed her suspicions. Wait, it was even more complicated than she suspected. All three dressers had bottles of men's cologne on them as well as various perfumes and different kinds of make up. She decided to check the closets.

The, middle closet, the first one she walked into, clearly belonged to Ranma. She was startled, disturbed and vaguely jealous of the selection of women's clothing she found in it. Shaking her head, she walked into the closet to the right of Ranma's and immediately squealed with delight. Then she started finding women's clothing that made her blush--things that she simply could not imagine ever wearing, but then she started finding clothing for a man. A man who was very likely the same size as her father.

"Oh, shit," Akane muttered through clenched teeth. "Don't tell me!"

She quickly investigated the contents of the closet on the other side of Ranma's and yes, there were two sets of clothing in it. The woman's clothes, Akane realized, would really look good on Ukyou. Much to her shock and dismay, however, was that the collection of men's clothing was much larger than her own. Ukyou, apparently, enjoyed being a man.

"Okay, in this future I'm married to two rich perverts and we all sleep in the same bed. What does that make me?" Thoroughly fucked, she didn't say aloud.

Staggering out of the closet she noticed an odd looking gray panel on far wall. It had a wooden frame and was quite large, almost as though someone had removed a picture from its frame. As she neared it, she realized that it was a screen of some kind.

"Oh," Akane said. "I wonder how this works."

When she reached out and touched the lower part of the frame, a picture suddenly appeared. It was a picture of Ranma in his male form, with Ukyou and herself seated on either side of him. They were sitting on an elegantly made, wooden bench situated with its back to a cozy little harbor. Both she and Ukyou were comfortably cuddled up to Ranma. He, of course, had a very smug grin on his face--the one he always wore after winning a hard fight.

"I don't believe this!" Akane howled. "That pervert! He's grinning like Ukyou and I are trophies or something."

She stamped around the room a couple of times. When she looked back at the picture, it had changed. This time it was a picture of Onna-Ranma sitting between two tall, lanky men. One of them strongly reminded Akane of her father, except he had dark bluish hair with a white forelock. His haircut looked very similar to the way Akane wore her hair. The other man in the picture had long reddish hair tied in the back and the sort of whiskers a man with a heavy beard gets at about five o' clock every day.

"Who are they?" Akane asked the screen. Yellow kanji immediately appeared over the three people in the image. The screen claimed that the fellow that looked related to Soun Tendou was named Saotome Akane no Tendou. The other fellow, it claimed, was named Saotome Ukyou no Kuonji. All three of the people in the picture looked happy, but Onna-Ranma was positively glowing. And, Akane noted as her heart fluttered, Ranma looked victorious, just as any girl with a new husband would look.

Akane gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. The picture changed again. This time, the fellow that the screen had claimed was Saotome Akane sat on the right, with Onna-Ranma on the left. A girl in her mid-twenties sat between them. She was powerfully built and taller than either Ranma or this male Akane. Her dark blue hair was tied back into a braided queue, like Ranma's. The young woman had mischievous blue eyes and favored Onna-Ranma in the face. The girl had an air of arrogant confidence about her, not at all unlike that of the two people sitting on either side of her.

"Who...who...who...?" Akane stuttered but the screen seemed to understand her implied question. It obediently displayed yellow kanji over the people in the image. The girl's name was Saotome Zanma. The thing that disturbed Akane the most was that the screen claimed that Onna-Ranma was the girl's mother and that this male Saotome Akane no Tendou was her father.

"This can't be!" Akane cried out, feeling as though she needed to reach up and push her eyeballs back into their sockets. "It just cannot be! He'd...she'd...I'd never..."

When the screen changed images the third time, Akane collapsed to her knees. Akane saw a picture of herself, albeit a somewhat older version of herself sitting on the left side of the picture. On the right sat the guy that the screen claimed was Saotome Ukyou no Kuonji. Between them sat a boy and a girl. The girl was in her late teens and the boy looked to be perhaps two years younger. They were Saotome Hitomi no Kuonji and Saotome Ichiro no Kuonji respectively.

"No way!" Akane screamed. "I am NOT that big of a pervert!" But the picture did not change and there was no mistaking the kanji on the screen "Well, at least he has a decent shave this time," Akane added, wrinkling her nose. "Whiskers chafe. I hate it when Dad hugs before he's shaved."

The picture changed again, this time showing the male Akane seated on the right and a very proud looking and very female Ukyou on the left. Between them sat two darling little girls who were obviously twins of about age ten. They were dressed in matching kimono with their hair all piled up into formal hairdos, complete with turtle shell combs. The four people on the screen looked both happy and proud.

Akane leapt to her feet and shouted, "No more! I don't want to see anymore of this!"

Akane backed away from the screen making warding signs with both hands until her knees struck the edge of the bed and she fell over backwards.

"Oh, I suppose I should have _known_ we'd own a waterbed!" she exclaimed, then froze in horror at what she was staring at above her. The underside of the canopy was one great mirror, lit around its periphery with tiny little crystals attached to the vine that seemed to be growing anywhere a light might be needed.

"Why am I having that pervert's dream?" she asked, staring up at the mirror. Her reflection reminded her that she was not wearing any clothes. She giggled uncontrollably at the positively lewd image of herself in the mirror.

"This isn't a bedroom!" Akane squealed between giggles. "It's a dojo devoted to sex!"

She laughed some more. "Oh, I get it now. It's the Anything Goes School of Marital Arts, isn't it?"

She sobered as a cold chill ran down her back. The bed, as warm as it was and as wonderful as its velvet comforter felt against her skin, suddenly seemed chill and barren.

"So why I am I here alone?"

She rolled out of the bed intending to explore the rest of her mountaintop abode, and she would have, had her nose not come into contact with the harsh fibers of a tatami mat. The prickle of the coarse fibers in the mat woke her up.

Akane sat up, rubbed her eyes and then checked her surroundings. She breathed a sigh of relief once she confirmed that she was at Ono-ke. A mountaintop retreat would be wonderful, but not to live in alone. She took in a deep breath and quieted herself so that she could properly listen to her surroundings. The sounds of muted voices and the faint clink of pots from outside told her that the Amazons were stirring about.

"It must be near dawn," she mumbled to the empty room. She felt a quick stab of jealousy and anger in her chest as she realized that Ranma and Haabu had not made it back, then quickly forced herself to be calm. Ranma and Haabu are incapable of falling in love with each other, she reminded herself. Besides, she thought, I promised Ukyou I'd work on my patience. Wait a minute! That was just a dream. I didn't promise Ukyou anything. Well, okay, it was a very vivid dream, but so what?

"Maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me something, " Akane muttered aloud.

Surely I don't have those kinds of feelings for Ukyou, do I? No, no way! I'm not related to the Kuno bunch. Why did I dream about her then? Maybe it's because I needed to tell myself something, but I would only hear it if Ukyou said it? Maybe it's because I have let sex and jealousy become the center of my universe. I haven't really done that, have I? Okay, so maybe I have. I didn't mean to, but why else would I have dragged my most potent rival into such a wonderfully romantic setting? Why else would I dream that I was in such a lovely home isolated by barren desert? I have got to face the facts. I _am_ impatient about too many things. And, I do lose my temper too often. That wasn't Ukyou talking to me in my dream. It was me, pretending to be what I fear the most, a rival who could steal Ranma's heart.

Ranma is the Cold Dragon now and there are going to be lots of people in our lives. I'll have to learn to cope with that and I don't have that much time to learn how. I have to start keeping my cool. That's why I keep having these stupid dreams about losing him. I really am afraid I'll lose him, but I know in my heart that if I do, it'll be my fault. He's already mine to lose, not Ukyou's to win.

Akane giggled despite herself. "Ukyou's right about the two of us being impatient. We both tend to go off half-cocked." She stretched the sleep out of her back and legs and then got up for her morning bath.

"I _am_ going to give Ranma a bad time about neglecting my training, though," she muttered with a grin as she made her way down the hall. "That'll get his goat."


The sound of shattering rock rent the air as a huge cloud of dust appeared at the base of a sheer basalt cliff. As the wind caused the dust to drift away, a large hole appeared at the base of the cliff. Two men walked out of it. The jungle around them was hot, dank, hostile and unfamiliar to both of them.

"Where in hell are we now, Hibiki!"

"This isn't Hell, Jack!" a younger voice shouted. "This is Earth!"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure! I always know it when I'm here!"

"With you, here is a very relative term, Hibiki. Got any idea of where on Earth we are?"

"Aaah, well..."

"I didn't think so. At least, it _is_ Earth, right? The Earth we call home, not one of those other weird-ass places, right?"

"Yeah, I'm sure of that."

"Probably can't even drink the water."

"There's lots of places like that!"

"Yeah, I know. You manage to find most of 'em!"

"Hey! Look at this!" the younger man said, as bent down and picked fairly sizable piece of rock.

"It's a rock."

"It's jade!"

"Jade's green, you dipstick. That's blue--no, hell! It ain't even blue. It's more of a gray color."

"It's jade, I'm tellin' ya. There's two basic kinds, nephrite and jadeite. This looks to be nephrite, besides both types come in nearly every color you can imagine."

The older man turned around a couple of times, taking in their surroundings, then said, "Well, this ain't anywhere in the Americas."


"Yeah. I know the plants and animals there. I've driven all over it. Congratulations, Hibiki. You managed to find Asia this time. Your navigation is improving. If I had to guess, and I do, I'd say we were in Burma."

"You mean Myanmar. It could be Cambodia or Laos or Thailand, maybe. You better hope like hell we're not in Vietnam."

"Yeah, I know. They hate you guys worse than they do us."

"At least we're not all that far from Japan!"

"Yeah. Like I said, your navigation's improvin'. Keep it up, Hibiki! You might actually manage to find a bathroom without getting lost one of these days."

"Oh, hah-hah! You think I get lost like this on purpose?"

"Aw hell, kid! I know ya don't, but it's aggravatin' to beat the band sometimes, especially when you decide to get seriously lost, like you did this last time."

Ryouga involuntarily shuddered as he slipped his pack off his shoulders and sat down.

"Maybe we got lucky and that balrog thing lost our trail, Jack."

"You better hope so, Ryouga. We're gonna have enough trouble getting through customs with the stuff we got in our packs, never mind that pet of yours."

"It's not my pet!"

"Yeah, yeah, I know! It wants to marry you. The thing is, I don't understand what she sees in you," Burton said as he flopped down onto the ground. Ryouga followed suit, but buried his face in his hands as he did so. "Look at it this way kid, now you and your buddy Ranma finally have something in common."

Ryouga stared at Jack, his jaw dangling with disbelief and outrage, but he said nothing.

"Ya both beat some fire-breathin' bitch and now she wants to marry you. I think Ranma is a little better off, though."

"Oh, yeah? How do you figure that, Jack?" Ryouga asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm.

"Shan Pu doesn't usually carry a whip around with her."

"Hmph! Mu Suu told me she keeps one in her bedroom," Ryouga said with a snort.

"Into each life a little rain must fall, Hibiki."

"Better Ranma's than mine! How the hell are we going to get to Japan?"

"That's easy. All you gotta do, is stay _behind_ me, Hibiki. I lead, you follow, got it? So long as I lead, we don't end up in some weird-assed place where nothin' makes sense."

"Earth makes sense?"

Burton responded by giving his companion a bleak stare.

"Okay, so it was a stupid question. What do we do next?"

"That's easy, Hibiki. We find a river and follow it to the coast."

"Really? You can always follow a river to a coast? I never could get that to work"

"Ya gotta travel in the same direction as the water is movin', kid."

"Oh! Now I get it. The river always empties into the sea!"

"Eventually, yeah. Usually you run across a town or a bridge or somethin' before you reach the coast. Now, hold onto this," Burton said as he handed Ryouga a leather strap. "And stay behind me! Got it?"

"Yeah, I got it. Let's get goin' already. Akari's probably worried sick about me."

Burton turned and began walking downhill, Ryouga following him along by holding onto the long leather strap Burton had tied to his own backpack.

"You know," Burton said in a speculative voice as they made their way down the steep hill. "I'll bet she looks good in one of those brass bras and chain mail panties."

"Hey!" Ryouga shouted. "You stop talkin' about Akari like that!"

"Who said anything about Akari?" Burton said. "I was thinkin' about Shan Pu."

"Oh," Ryouga said, as his nose began to bleed. "That's different."

"Too bad about the whip."

"Oh, I don't know. I kinda like the idea of her usin' a whip on Saotome."

William Warden Westerlake was well known by those who had met him, and there were many who had met him more than once, as a certifiable madman. What they did not know, because Westerlake had been very careful to conceal it from them, was that he was fast becoming a comfortably wealthy madman. He would very soon be able to cease his adventuring around the more interesting parts of the Orient.

He had been very careful to cultivate his madman persona everywhere he went. It helped him explain some of his less than orthodox methods and practices, such as his habit of having his airplane, an old Lockheed L-100C, painted once a year by the worst paint shop in all of Asia. The paint always began to peel away after about three weeks of steady flying.

There was considerable method in this madness. People tended to ignore or, better yet, simply refused to take notice of things that were ugly. This suited Westerlake to a tee. The very last thing he wanted was for anyone to pay any serious attention to his airplane. He wanted them to ignore it, and they usually did. Most who saw the battered looking old crate would think it was simply an abandoned junker parked on the apron. If anyone who knew better asked about the paint job, Westerlake gave them a long spiel about how the metal of his aircraft had once been cursed by an angry old yamabushi and that it had since not allowed paint to stick to it from that day forward. The usual response of the curious individual was to beat a hasty retreat, which was exactly what Westerlake wanted curious people to do. Being a madman had many such advantages. Westerlake used every last one of them to the limits of their effectiveness.

This method of carefully deliberated madness also allowed him to avoid questions from his clients. None of them ever asked why he was willing to fly the old L-100 into places other pilots avoided like the plague, and they never bothered to try to dicker with him when he named a price, even though his rates were exorbitant. He always demanded to be paid in cash, half on his acceptance of the job and half on final delivery. His "madness" also got him out of explaining why he never allowed drugs aboard his airplane, or would seldom haul mercenaries or their arms. He only made those kinds of runs for very special clients--a very select list of certain Departments of State, which, oddly enough, did not include the United States. He pretended to hate all Americans and loudly refused any who tried to do business with him. Given that Westerlake was quintessentially American, this greatly enhanced his madman image. It had the added benefit of making most of his rather furtive clients feel safe. Westerlake figured that what some of them did not know would eventually hurt them very badly, and that was exactly how he wanted it.

Westerlake's method behind madness approach to doing business worked all the time, but its effectiveness was not entirely consistent. Sometimes it worked beautifully. For instance, it had gotten him his current charter. The University of Tokyo needed someone crazy enough to haul one of their professors of paleontology and his sizeable load of fossilized specimens out of the jungles of Myanmar, but was known to have a heartfelt hatred for drug trafficking. Ninety percent of Westerlake's business was like this, adventurous, but legitimate. The other ten percent was not legitimate, but Westerlake indulged in it as a profitable hobby more than anything else.

Smuggling jade and nephrite was not the sort of thing that would hurt other people. It might well one day get him and his crew killed or imprisoned, but it did no harm to others and fattened their wallets. Hell, half the time he declared most of the stuff and paid the taxes on it. The times he did not pay the taxes on any of it was because some tax collectors invariably informed pirates of who was hauling the really nice pieces. The rubies? Well, the rubies and sapphires were another story. He never paid the local taxes on those. The miners preferred to keep their operations secret, and Westerlake did not blame them. What many of the smaller Asian governments had written on paper as law, and what they did in actual practice, were two very different things most of the time. In Asia, discretion was usually the better part of valor, but not always. Today looked as though it might become one of those rare exceptions to all the rules Westerlake operated by.

The Japanese professor had found a lot of fossils, or maybe it was just a single very large fossil, Westerlake wasn't sure. What he had been sure of was that it would take more than one trip. The L-100 was a large, strong and easy to handle airplane, but it was fussy about being overloaded. Neither the professor nor the University had been all that happy with the expense of two extra trips, but they paid anyway. That was not the problem. The problem was one of the local drug lords. The guy simply did not understand why Westerlake refused to haul his opium for him, especially given that Westerlake had a nice legitimate cargo to mix his stuff in with, and was making more than one trip. The druggie had become loud and insistent. This was a case where the madness in his methods had proven less than entirely successful. Westerlake hated it when that happened. It was going to be a hectic day. Westerlake hated hectic. Mixing an old airplane with a small crew and hectic was always a bad idea.

"Okay, guys, gather round here a minute," Westerlake called out to his crew. He stood in the shade of the starboard wing of the L-100 while his men and his co-pilot, an Australian girl who went by the name of Sheila for some reason, to get into his huddle.

"We got everthang loaded?" Westerlake asked.

"Yep, we got it all, Bill," Teddy Borkman, Westerlake's chief mechanic and loadmaster said. Teddy was not actually Borkman's first name. Everyone called him Teddy because he seemed more of bear than a man.

"What about the engines?" Westerlake asked.

"Jojo and Monk finished putting that new starter on number three about fifteen minutes ago, Bill," Borkman answered. "It rolls over now just fine."

"You sure? You didn't start the engine," Westerlake said.

"It's okay, Bill," Sheila said. "I didn't fire it up because I didn't want the locals to think we were ready."

"Good thinking, Sheila," Westerlake said. "Where's the perfessor?"

"Got him and his slides, his microscopes and his papers comfortably stowed up forward," Borkman said. "I made sure that he took a crap before I put him on board. He's happily pecking away at that little computer thingy of his."

"Good!" Westerlake said. "What about fuel? How much did we find?"

"Enough to get us to Bangkok, maybe," Sheila answered.

"It'll hafta do," Westerlake said. "I figgered out how to get rid of those goons down there at the end of the strip."

Sheila stared her boss in the eye and said, "Why do I get the feelin' that I ain't gonna like this?"

"Because you aren't," Westerlake answered. "The local goombah is short on muscle that he can trust, okay?"

"Yeah, so?" Borkman asked.

"So I'm gonna make a deal with him to haul his shit. He knows we're short on fuel, so he'll be expecting us to land in Bangkok where his customer will be waiting for us."

"Bill, he'll hold you until his stuff is on board and he'll probably make us carry one of his goons with us," Sheila interjected.

"Yeah, well, he won't be able to hold me," Westerlake said. "I got a plan for dealing with that. You guys stick close to the bird and be ready to get it off the ground fast when I show up, you got it?"

"Oh, brother!" the man they all called Jojo exclaimed. "We're gonna get shot at again."

"Probably, yeah," Westerlake said, "but they'll be making goin' away shots instead of being at the far end of the strip. Better yet, once they load that truck with their dope, they won't have room for that Bophors."

Generally speaking, Westerlake hated it when people shot holes in his airplane, but it was especially bad when they used the forty-millimeter stuff. He really hated that.

"At least this time it won't be the cops shooting at us," Sheila said. "We're gonna be cruising on two engines again, aren't we?"

"Yeah, for a little ways," Westerlake said.

"Oh, great!" Sheila said. "This is gettin' better already. Now he's plannin' to land somewhere in this godforsaken hellhole to pick up fuel. We'll get shot at again, Bill!"

"Hmm, maybe," Westerlake said, "but I doubt it."

"Oh, come on, Bill! You're not thinkin' of landin' in Manerplaw!" Sheila cried out. "The Gingerbread Man is well and truly pissed at us. You know what he'll do when we put down there."

His crew groaned. Saw Bo Mya, the Karen guerrilla leader they had dubbed the "Gingerbread Man", was irascible on the best of days. Their last visit to Manerplaw had been very interesting.

"The Gingerbread Man gets unmad just about as fast as he gets mad and I figger he's gotten over that last little deal we struck with him," Westerlake said. "Anybody got a better idea? You want we should try to make a deal with the slorks?"

"Other than hauling this asshole's junk?" Borkman asked. "No."

"And the last thing I want to do is to deal with the bloody SLORC!" Sheila exclaimed.

"Then get this thing ready without making it look like it's ready," Westerlake said. "Jojo, you and Monk open the lower panel on number three and act like you're having a serious problem with it.

"Gotcha, Boss!" the two men chorused. Both of them were grinning.


"Yeah, I know, Bill! I'll put the Professor on a short leash. What do I do if he needs to take another crap?"

"Give him a bucket if you have to, just don't let him out of the plane. They won't pay us if we bring the cargo back without him."

Sheila held her nose and rolled her eyes.

"I'll be back," Westerlake said as he walked hurriedly toward the ancient and horribly battered Landrover their paleontologist client had rented.

"Oh, we're looking forward to that!" Sheila shouted at his back. Westerlake turned and gave her a grin, but kept going.

"Well, you know the score, guys!" Sheila said in a tired voice. "Let's get started with the monkey drill. If we get out of this one alive, I'll nevah come back to bloody Burma evah again."

"You've said that four times that I know of, Sheila," Borkman.

"Yeah, well, I mean it this time, Teddy!" Sheila said as she walked up the cargo ramp and into the L-100. "This place is gettin' to be entirely too hot for the likes o' me."

"You've got a point," Borkman said. He shuddered while watching Sheila take her whip off of its hanger in the cargo bay and tie it to her belt. "Why haven't you ever learned to use a proper sidearm?"

"If I'm ever mad enough to kill someone," Sheila answered through clenched teeth, "I'll want him to die slowly. Besides, if a bullwhip was good enough for my dad, it's good enough for me."

"Indy always carried a pistol too, Sheila Jones!" Borkman said with an exaggerated sigh, knowing that no argument he could muster would ever persuade her. "A great big honkin' Webley!"

Nabiki Tendou sat next to Kiima on a bench situated between the Ono house and the old potting shed. They watched in silence as Akane began going through the same kata for the fifth time. Akane had, earlier that morning, demonstrated three other kata for them. After that she had merely repeated the same kata, the first one taught to beginners in the Anything Goes School. Far from being bored, both Kiima and Nabiki were actually intrigued.

"So, what do you think?" Nabiki asked Kiima in a low voice.

"Not only is she much better than when I first met her," Kiima answered, "her power grows as she warms up."

"That's what I was thinking," Nabiki said. "It's a pretty good sign that she still has a way to go, right?"

"Yes, but she is already well advanced over the majority of warriors she will ever meet."

"That will never be enough for my baby sister," Nabiki said as she carefully studied Kiima's face. "She won't settle for anything less than her maximum."

"Mmm!" Kiima answered, causing Nabiki to smile.

"Sitting here next to you in your cursed form while watching Akane practice is a very strange experience."

Kiima gave Nabiki a lopsided grin.

"You even smile the way she does."

"I'm sorry," Kiima said in a contrite voice. "This body reacts in ways I cannot always anticipate. I do not mean to mock your sister."

Nabiki turned her eyes back to Akane. She was nearing the end of the kata.

"That's interesting," Nabiki said. "Have you ever practiced this particular kata?"

"No, this is the first time that I recall ever having seen it, but if you're guessing that it seems very familiar to me, you guess correctly."

"I haven't done this kata for almost five years now, but I did it so much when Dad was teaching us, I think I could make every single move," Nabiki said as Akane finished her work and came to a stop in the ready position.

"Really?" Kiima asked.

"Hey, Akane!" Nabiki called out.

"Yes?" Akane answered. Nabiki noticed with pride that her sister was not breathing hard at all, even though she had worked out enough that morning to work up a sweat in the cold air.

"Mind if we join you?"

"Kiima doesn't know this kata, Nabiki."

"Oh, I think you're wrong on that score," Nabiki said. "I want to see how much her body has learned and how much mine has forgotten."

Akane stared at them for a moment, then grinned. "You think I left all the kata I know in the spring?"

"That's what I want to find out, Akane," Nabiki answered. "You practiced a lot more than I did and I'm pretty sure I still remember how to do this one."

"All right then," Akane said, giving them both a delighted smile, "let's give it a try."

Nabiki and Kiima got up off the bench and joined Akane in the yard. Nabiki was wearing a gi, but Kiima was wearing a pair of dungarees much like Ranma's, as well as a shirt very similar to the ones Ranma preferred. Clothing for Kiima had become something of a real problem after she acquired her curse.

"You lead, Akane, but go slow, okay?" Nabiki implored. "Kiima has never actually performed this kata and I haven't tried for years now."

"We'll do it by the numbers the first time," Akane said as she nodded her head in agreement. "Then we'll repeat it at a medium pace."

"Okay," Nabiki said, "Just remember that a medium pace for you is just this side of lightning for us ordinary mortals, okay?"

"Have I really gotten that much better?" Akane asked.

"I think it probably has something to do with you finally getting laid, little sister. You're more relaxed."

"Oh, ha-ha, Nabiki!" Akane said in sarcastic voice. "READY!"

Nabiki snapped herself into the ready position and cleared her mind.


Nabiki slid her right foot forward and to the right, planted it firmly and remembered to press her knee out toward the right so that it was plumb above the edge of her right foot. This was move was designed to protect the knee from being damaged by a kick. At the same time that she was stepping forward, she threw an overhand right at her imaginary opponent and much to her surprise, her body remembered not to lock her elbow out at its fullest extension. Her fist felt as solid as a rock and the knuckles of her right hand were in perfect alignment. Nabiki grinned, remembering that she had always had trouble getting her left hand to do that.

Akane led them through the rest of the kata and Nabiki felt enormously pleased with herself at the end. Even though she had fumbled several of the moves, she still remembered them all in sequence.

"That was simply astounding!" Kiima exclaimed.

"Did you remember all of it?" Nabiki asked. She had intended to keep an eye on the Hououzanjin, but performing the kata had taken up all her concentration.

"Not quite," Kiima said, "but I think I could have done all of it had I not let my mind get in the way."

"That _was_ pretty amazing," Akane said. "Let's do it by the numbers again and see how much more of it she remembers. You remembered all of it, didn't you, Nabiki?"

"Yeah, I did, Sis."

"Ready!" Akane ordered. Everyone got into ready position, but Akane hesitated. Nabiki looked around to see what was wrong and gasped aloud. Ranma was standing at the corner of the house, staring at them with a speculative look on his face. He held a wooden bucket in his left hand. The bucket was stuffed full of clean clothing and bathing gear. He grinned at them as he walked out into the yard.

"I'll call the numbers, Akane," Ranma said, "that way you can concentrate a little better, okay?"

"Ranma, I'm sorry! I know I'm not supposed to teach, but-we-were-just..." Ranma cut Akane off with a wave of his hand.

"I know what you were doing and I'm glad Nabiki thought of it," he said in a calm voice. "This is a great experiment, Nabiki. I should have thought of it before now myself."

"Thank you, Sensei," Nabiki said.

"You're welcome," Ranma said, giving her a warm smile.

"Where's Haabu?" Nabiki asked, suddenly aware that her heart was beginning to race.

"Inside takin' a bath," Ranma said. "We both need one bad. Kasumi said there was just enough water left for one person to bathe. What happened to the power?"

"Maybe Kiima and I should go and offer to scrub his back," Nabiki said with one of her more evil smirks. "Do you think he'd freak?"

Kiima burst out laughing.

"I take that as a yes," Nabiki said.

"As grand a joke as it would be, Nabiki-san," Kiima said as she sobered up. "I dare not indulge. I am still under his command."

"I understand," Nabiki said. "May I be excused, Sensei?"

Ranma grinned and held out his hand.

"Ten thousand yen," he said.

"Well, hallelujah!" Nabiki exclaimed. "I finally hit him in the wallet enough times for him to learn something. May I run a tab, Sensei?"

"Sure, at the standard interest rates," Ranma said. "You're dismissed."

Nabiki left without another word. Ranma looked over to Akane and saw that she was staring after her departing sister in slack-jawed amazement.

"What's the matter, Akane?" Ranma asked.

"I can't believe she'd even think of...with..."

Kiima giggled.

"Oh, hell!" Ranma exclaimed. "She was just kidding, Akane! Ready!"

Akane and Kiima assumed the ready position. Ranma began calling out the numbers at a much faster rate than Akane had, forcing them to recall and execute the moves of the kata at a much faster pace. Kiima managed to do all of it with only one minor misstep. More importantly to Ranma, he could see that she already had that little extra something, the smoothness and control that he was trying to instill in Akane. The kata was coming to Kiima from her somatic memory rather than her cognitive memory. She was not thinking about it, she was simply doing the job. Akane was still thinking about each and every piece.

"Akane, you have got to start trusting your body," Ranma said. "You've done this enough by now that it knows what to do without you letting your mind get in the way."

"I'm trying, Sensei!" Akane exclaimed.

"I know," Ranma said. "That's what all this practice is for. Ready!"

He called the numbers and let them work through the kata step by step, paying particular attention to Kiima. It became clear that her body remembered what to do well before they finished the exercise.

"Okay, this time, do it on your own," Ranma said. "Ready? Begin!"

Akane whipped through the kata while Kiima flowed through the steps, easily keeping pace with the younger girl. The two of them put on an awesome display. Akane's still raw talent contrasted with Kiima's years of experience and confidence in what her body could do. The contrast between their essential grasp of the art was made all the more apparent by their similarities in physical appearance.

(Saotome, have you looked at them closely?)

(Yeah, Akane's changed a lot. Kiima still looks like Akane did before Jusendou.)

(Scary, huh?)

(A little, yeah. Are you thinkin' what I'm thinkin', Red?)

(Having them spar together?)

(Oh, yeah!)

(We have to do it if Kiima will agree. Not even sparring with shit-daddy would teach Akane as much.)

(Yeah, too bad we never got to spar with our mirror twins, huh?)

(No kidding!)

(I wonder if there is any way we could call them back out of that mirror?)

(Hmph! There might be three or four of them in there by now, Saotome.)

(Whaddaya mean?)

(Neither one of them suffered from terminal prudishness.)

(Oh. Oh, shit!)

(Didn't think about that, did you?)

(Why would I?)

(Geez, you are _such_ a prude!)

Akane and Kiima finished the kata.

"That was really good!" Ranma exclaimed while clapping his hands. "Really good!"

Both the girls bowed toward him and chorused, "Thank you, Sensei."

"Kiima, would you do Akane a favor later today sometime?"

"Of course, Sensei."

"Would you be willing to spar with her?"

Kiima and Akane exchanged wide-eyed glances, then a huge grin filled Kiima's face.

"That should prove most interesting for both of us, Sensei," Kiima said. "I would be happy to spar with Akane, provided she has no objections."

Akane's faced showed her excitement as she spoke, "I'd love that! Where I could I find a better sparring partner?"

"Careful what you wish for, Akane," Ranma said with a rueful grin, "you are about to get it."

Akane's face darkened for a moment, then she took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Her face brightened, "It's not like I expect to win, Sensei."

(Look at that, Saotome! She controlled her temper!)

(Yeah, I'm proud of her. That temper of hers was beginnin' to worry the hell outta me.)

"That's good!" Ranma exclaimed. "If Captain Kiima will excuse us for now, it's time for you to tackle a different challenge, Akane."

Of course, Sensei," Kiima said, with a nod of her head.

"What challenge, Sensei?" Akane asked.

"Swimming and scrubbing my back," Ranma said. "Come on, let's go down to the river."

Akane's features went rigid with fear, but she followed Ranma's lead.

"Oh, come on, Akane," Ranma implored as they walked along side by side. "I ain't gonna do to you what Pop did ta me."

"Why?" Akane asked, still looking deeply concerned.

"Because what worked with me won't work with you."

"You haven't come up with something worse, have you?"

"Of course not!" Ranma said. "I love you, silly."

"And, your dad loves you, Ranma, but he dropped you into a pit full of starving cats."

"I ain't nothin' like the old man, now am I?"

"Every once in a while you are a whole lot like him!"

"Well, thanks for the vote of confidence."

"You're welcome, pervert."


Akane pulled at the lower eyelid of her right eye with her middle finger. "Biii!"

"You owe me a kiss for that one!"

Akane happily complied, but wrinkled her nose as they broke their kiss. Ranma gave his fiancee a sheepish look as she stepped back from him.

"Whoa!" Akane exclaimed, holding her nose.

"I really need a bath, don't I?"

"You got that right! What did you guys do all night? Ride around in a trawler?"

"Mostly we just hung out and taught each other a few things," Ranma said with a shrug of his shoulders. "I tried to get Haabu started on getting in touch with his girl side."

"It smells like it!" Akane shouted, feigning her usual ire.

"Oh, ha-ha!" Ranma retorted. "Very funny."

"How many fish did you catch?"

"Two big tuna, the first time. Then I had to go back out and catch about three more. Haabu got really hungry."

Akane gave Ranma a surprised look. "Why'd he get so hungry?"

"I showed him how to absorb power."


"Yeah, you know, like the way I did from the power lines."

"Power lines? What are you talking about, Ranma?"

"Oh, that's right! I never toldja 'bout that, did I?"

"No, you didn't!"

Ranma explained what he had done while they were staying at Tofu's clinic.

"How come you never told me or Tofu about this?"

Ranma stopped walking and thought for a minute. "You know what? I didn't realize what I had done at the time. It wasn't until we were here for a few days that I finally figured it out."

"Well, at least now we know why there's been a major power outage."

"Huh?" Ranma stared at his fiancee in alarm.

"Yeah, all of Tokyo is down," Akane said. "The news reports are calling it a "power cascade" or something like that, I can't remember for sure now."

"Shit! That's why those helicopters kept buzzing us."

"Helicopters?" Akane asked. "They saw you?"

"Well, yeah, I guess so," Ranma said as he scratched the back of his neck. "Haabu and I didn't try ta hide or nothin'. They passed over us a dozen times or more."

"Did they try to pick you up?"

"Nah, they just waved at us."

"Which forms were you in?"

"Ah, we were girls at the time."

"I wouldn't worry about it, Ranma. There's no way they connected you and Haabu with the power outage."


"You know how guys are," Akane said, "They were just being their usual perverted selves is all."

Ranma started laughing.


"I told Haabu that without thinkin'," Ranma said as he stopped at the edge of the river, "then I had ta stop him from blasting the choppers!"

"I don't blame him!" Akane said with heartfelt rancor. "Hmph! Guys can be so disgusting".

Turning to Akane Ranma said, "Ya like me ta look atcha, dontcha?"

"That's different," Akane said, then gasped as Ranma began to undo her gi top. It fell off her shoulders almost of its own accord.

"Where did you learn that trick, Ranma?"

"From dealin' with Happosai," he answered, giving her a salacious grin. "Have I told you that you're beautiful today?"


"Yeah, but I'm your favorite pervert, right?"

"Oh!" Akane exclaimed. Ranma gave her a deep kiss while caressing one of her breasts with his left hand and undoing her pants with the other. She shivered as her britches dropped down around her ankles.


Ranma stepped back and gave her a long lustful looking over. Then began peeling his clothes off.

Akane gaze dropped below Ranma's waist. "Hey! You know we can't..."

"Yeah, yeah!" Ranma said as he scooped Akane up in his arms and walked out onto the placid surface of the river.

"I brought you down here to give you a swimming lesson--kind of."

"What do you mean, 'kind of'?"

"Ya gotta start learnin' how to float."

"You know I don't float!"

"Yeah, I have kinda noticed that," Ranma said. He glided out onto the water to a spot that he knew was a little over waist deep and stopped.

"You really learned how to do this!" Akane exclaimed. "You aren't having any trouble keeping your balance."

"Yeah, so? I heard you learned how to fly," Ranma said. "What was that like?"

"I really only learned how to land. I just wish I could fly."

"Was it scary?"

"I screamed my head off the first time we jumped. It took me a little while to realize that Kiima wasn't going to let me fall. I had a strange dream about it last night."

"That doesn't surprise me none."

"My being scared or having the dream?"

"Neither one. After I've been through somethin' really scary, I usually have a couple of dreams about it. Take a deep breath and hold it."

"Why?" Akane asked, suddenly alarmed.

"In case the water is deeper here than I think it is. It shouldn't be much over my waist if I remember right, but if I'm wrong..."

Akane cut him off by taking a deep breath and holding it. Ranma stopped extending his ki around his feet and plunged downward until his feet hit the bottom of the river. He had made a good guess.

"Is the water cold?"

"Oh, yeah," Ranma answered. He waded out further until Akane's back came into contact with the water. She took in a sharp breath.

"Now, don't get panicky, on me, Akane! I ain't gonna letcha sink."

"It's cold!" Akane squealed as she arched her back. This, of course, positioned her lithe body into an eye-popping pose.

(Aw, man! She is scared to death. No wonder she sinks like a hammer. She sure is sexy, though.)

(That's only part of it, Saotome. She's got so much muscle it's as hard for her to float as it is for you to float in our guy form.)

(Hah! It might be a little harder for her. The muscles around her body are probably stronger than mine.)

(Could be. Tendou really knew what he was doing, didn't he?)

(Got that right. Too bad he didn't understand what it'd do to her swimmin' though.)

"I have a lotta of trouble floatin' as a guy, ya know, Akane."

"You do?" Akane asked in surprised voice. "You? The Great Ranma Saotome has a hard time floating in the water?"

"Well, yeah! As much muscle as you and I have got, we hafta tread water, usually. Floatin' by just layin' back is tricky. Ya hafta relax, okay? That means ya hafta get a grip on your fear."

"I...I'll try, Ranma."

"Well, I ain't expectin' ya to learn to float today, ya know. Just try ta relax while I hold ya in the water. A lot of what ya need ta do is ta get use ta bein' in the water. I don't expect ya to do that in fifteen minutes."

"I took to flying pretty fast," Akane said. "If I try, I can learn to swim."

(Well, she's just as gritty as ever. Ya hear that, Red?)

(Yeah, I did, Saotome. Courage is a big part of Akane. It's one of the reasons we love her so much.)

"So take a long deep breath and think about flyin' instead of bein' in the water for a minute or two. I'll hold ya up, just like Kiima did, okay? Don't let out more than half your breath, it'll help ya float. That's it."

Akane took a deep breath and seemed to relax a little, then unexpectedly exploded. "How the hell do you relax in water this cold?"

"Practice, practice , practice, Akane!" Ranma answered with a laugh. "A martial artist's life is..."

"...Is fraught with danger," Akane finished for him in a sarcastic voice. "Right now, my ass is in danger of freezing solid just before it falls off."

"I was gonna say sorrow, but yeah, danger's a constant companion of ours. But no, your ass won't fall off," he said with a cheerful grin. "It'll get numb in a minute or two and then it won't bother you near as much."

"Oh, I get it!" Akane exclaimed brightly. "It won't fall off, but it'll feel like it's gone, right?"

Ranma laughed and said, "Yeah, somethin' like that. Be happy you're not a guy standing around in water this cold."

"I thought cold didn't bother you anymore!" she asked.

"It does if I let it."

"And you're letting it bother you now?"

"Sure!" Ranma said. "How else can I tell when you've had enough?"

"How will you know without being in your girl form?"

"'Cause when my guy side has had all it can possibly take, my girl side can stand about another hour, that's why. Weren't you listenin' when me and Haabu were talkin' yesterday?"

"You knew I followed you?"

"I'd a been disappointed if you hadn't. That was one of the best fights I've ever been in."

"You really didn't mind?"

"I woulda said somethin' if I had, Akane. You know how I am."

"That really was the best fight I have ever seen," Akane murmured. "You've changed a lot since Jusendou."

"Yeah, I suppose I have," Ranma looked down at Akane and gave her a smile. "I don't take quite as many chances now."

Ranma cradled Akane in his arms, holding her so that she could lie back in the water much in the same way she might have had she been doing the back float. He let her lie still for a few minutes before speaking again.

"So tell me, Tomboy, what have you learned over the last two days?"

"About the art?"

"What else would I be askin' about?"

Akane gave him a smart-alec grin and said, "I think I'll start pretending to be Kasumi for the next month or so."

(Saotome, don't you dare say one damned word about her cooking! She's serious about this! Ow! I didn't say you had to bite our tongue!)

"Kasumi, huh?" Ranma managed to choke out. "Why her? I like my Tomboy just the way she is!"

(Good move, Saotome! I didn't think you had it in ya!)

(She's startin' to relax, Red. I don't wanna mess her up.)

"Do you really mean that?"

"Hey! I coulda picked Kasumi if I had really wanted her, ya know."

"I have to do it, Ranma," Akane said as her face became serious. "At least for a little while."

"Why's that, Tomboy?"

"I have to get a grip on my temper and learn a little patience."

(Saotome, watch your damned mouth!)

(Well, what do I say to her now?)

(Tell her not to overdo it!)

"I guess I could put up with that for a few days," Ranma said in dubious tones. "Just don't overdo it, okay?"

"But I do need to make a few changes, though, right?"

"Yeah, just so long as you don't get carried away, Akane. Somebody's gotta keep me in line and that ain't no job for a powder-puff."

(I didn't think we had it in us, Saotome! Where'd you come up with that line?)

"Kiss me, you big unruly stud!" Akane exclaimed.

"I ain't so studly at the moment," Ranma muttered.

"Cold getting to you?" Akane asked.

"A little, yeah," Ranma answered. "So what brought on this war with your temper?"

"I...Last night I dreamed I was flying," Akane said.

"Yeah? Well, that's no surprise."

"No, I suppose not," Akane answered, "but I dreamed that I flew far out over a desert. "

(She's starting to float a little, Saotome.)

(Yeah, I know. I'm just barely holdin' her up.)

(Same old drill. She's fine if you don't give her time to think about it.)

(Well, it's not that good, yet. If I let her go now, she'd sink a little, then she'd panic and then she'd...)

(..sink like a hammer. I know.)

"Why a desert?" Ranma asked. "You ain't ever been in one before, have ya?"

"No, the closest I've ever been to anything like it was that beach we went to that time, remember? The singing sands?"

"Oh, yeah. That was a really weird place. We oughtta go back there and train sometime. If you can walk across one of those dunes without makin' any noise, you really are good."

Akane smiled up at Ranma and shook her head.

"I'm sorry, Akane. You were tellin' me about your dream."

"There was this forested mountain in the middle of the desert. It was so tall that the snow never melted completely away on the top."

"Yeah, I gotcha."

"We had a house there, carved into the side of the mountain."

"Sounds nice."

"It is, or could be, maybe," Akane said in a pained voice. "Only you weren't there. I had been living there alone for a long time."

(Saotome, do you think maybe she has a place? You know, like the one we've got?)

(That ain't a place, okay? That's just a dream.)

{{No it isn't, Saotome. It is indeed a place.}}

((Scales? Where have you been hidin'?))

{{Thinking and dreaming. You haven't really needed me for the last little while.}}

"So how didja know that, Akane? Have you had this dream before or somethin'?"

"No, I never dreamed of anything like it before, but as soon as I walked into our house, I knew that I had been living in it for a long time, even though I couldn't remember ever seeing it before."

"Boy, that _is_ strange."

"There was a seascape hanging on the wall in the main hall. One of our daughters had painted it."

"Daughter, huh?"

Akane gave Ranma an impish grin before continuing. "I found pictures of us and our other children in the bedroom."

"Ooh, what was the bedroom like?"

"Very well equipped. We had a huge waterbed."

"A waterbed?" Ranma asked sounding a bit alarmed.

(Yes! Yes! Yes! I knew we could get you over the hump, Saotome!)

(Knock it off, will ya?)

"Uh-huh," Akane answered, giving Ranma a naughty, come-hither stare. "It was a four-poster with a canopy."

"Sounds kinda nice," Ranma said, wishing he could scratch at the back of his neck.

"The underside of the canopy was lined with mirrors and could be lit up with tiny little lights around its edges."

(Ooh, I _like_ that idea, Saotome!)

(What the hell are the damned mirrors for?)

(Oh, come on, Saotome! Use your imagination a little!)

(Oh, man. One of these days I'm gonna find out that Happosai is my grandpa or somethin'. I just know it!)

(Ask her if it had retractable handlebars hidden in the headboard.)


(I'll bet it at least had attachments for a trapeze.)

(Will you knock it off?)

(Oh, look, Saotome! It's out by almost six sun already.)

"Mirrors?" Ranma asked, hating the squeak in his voice.

(There we go! It's all the way out now, and in this freezing-ass water, too.)

"Why are you blushing, Ranma?" Akane asked, reaching up to brush the palm of her hand on his cheek. "The only reason I dreamed them up is because it seemed like something you would want."

"I...She's the one that comes up with that stuff!" Ranma exclaimed. "Not me."

"She?" Akane asked. Ranma could hear the ominous notes of distant thunder in her question. "You mean Ukyou?"

"Ukyou?" Ranma asked in a shocked voice. "Of course not! Ukyou would never think of somethin' like that! I was talkin' about my...I was talkin' about Ranko."

(Oh-ho! She's not telling us everything, Saotome!)

(How the hell did Ukyou get mixed up in this? Don't tell me Akane has fantasies about me the way Kuno does!)

(Sounds like loads of fun to me, Ranma, but you'd never go for it. You're a born prude.)

(Prudy-ness ain't got nothin' ta do with it!)

"Oh," Akane said. "I suppose I should have realized that your girl-side would become interested first. You're basically prudish at heart aren't you? I never realized it before."

(Bwahahaha! Bwhahaha! See, Saotome?)

(Oh, shut up!)

"Ranko wanted to know if the headboard had handle bars hidden in it."

Akane looked briefly shocked, then giggled. "I didn't think to check."

"Thank goodness!"

"It turned out to be pretty sad, really," Akane said. "I laid down on the bed and stared up at my reflection in those mirrors and realized that I had been sleeping beneath them alone for years."

"Why? That doesn't make any sense."

"I know, but I got a hint when I went back into the kitchen."

(Easy, Saotome! Don't panic and for Pete's sake, don't mouth off about her cooking.)

"What happened in there?"

"Ukyou called me."

"Ukyou called?"

"Yes, she did," Akane answered suddenly looking contrite. "She told me that what I was seeing was a possible future and that I needed to start learning patience."

"Ukyou told you this? Not Kasumi?"

"Kasumi had already died of old age in my dream, Ranma."

"Old age? How old were we?"

"That was another weird thing," Akane said. "We didn't look, at least not in our pictures, to be as old as my dad is now."

"Well, crazy stuff goes on in dreams," Ranma said, shaking his head. "Sometimes they don't make any sense at all."

"This one did, I think," Akane said. "I think it was my subconscious trying to warn me that if I didn't change some of my ways that I'd...I'd lose you, Ranma. I had Ukyou tell me that because she's always...she's always..."

"Shhh!" Ranma admonished. "Don't worry about Ukyou takin' me away from you. It ain't gonna happen."

Akane put the back of her hand to her lips, as if there was much more, but she wanted to hold it back.

(Saotome, we had best change the subject.)


(Because whatever it is, it's about to throw her into a tailspin.)

(Yeah, she is startin' ta look kinda upset, ain't she?)

"I still smell pretty fishy, don't I?"

Akane sniffed the air a couple of times and wrinkled her nose before shuddering. "You smell a like a barnyard, too!" she exclaimed. "How did that happen?"

"Oh, yeah. I guess I got that from riding in the back of that guy's truck," Ranma said as he held Akane in his arms and waded back into shallower water. "Let's get you up on the bank so that I can bathe."

"You guys hitched a ride with someone?" Akane asked. "Ranma, you are shivering really hard."

"Yeah, I noticed, and yeah, we hitched a ride. Actually, I talked Haabu into doing the hitching part."

"While he was in his girl form?" Akane asked in a surprised voice.

"Yeah, I showed him how to pose and everything."

"You're incorrigible! He actually did it?"

"Yeah, I told him to just pretend that the driver was Nabiki and he took to it like a duck to water," Ranma said then laughed. "You shoulda seen the driver's face!"

Akane lathered up a washrag and began scrubbing Ranma's chest with it.

"I can just imagine," Akane said as she moved the rag lower down and worked on his stomach. "I'll bet that guy couldn't believe his luck."

"He's lucky Haabu didn't blast him all the way to Mars. What was really funny was that the guy kicked his little brother out of the cab and insisted that Haabu ride in front with him and his sister."

"Oh, no!"

"Yeah, so me and his little brother rode in the back with his field hands and cows. If it hadn't been for the cows, it woulda got colder than hell back there."

"Well, I bet the field hands got a kick out of your company, didn't they?" Akane gave him a conspiratorial grin.

(She's takin' this really well, Red! I can't believe it. You don't suppose her and Kiima switched places do ya?)

(Don't be silly, Saotome! Look at her aura.)

(But, but she's not mad at me.)

(She probably thinks she's talking to your girl side.)


"They weren't in all that good a shape, Akane. When the driver saw Haabu, he slammed on his brakes so hard that them and the cows all slammed into the cab of the truck. I sure wish I could've gotten a picture."

"Men are so silly!" Akane exclaimed as she started scrubbing Ranma's back.

"Yeah, we are," Ranma said. "That's what makes bein' a girl so much fun sometimes."

"Wait a minute!" Akane said with an edge to her voice. "Who am I talking to here? Ranma or Ranko?"

"Both of us, Akane. We're the same person, remember?"

"But which of you is in control right now?"

"I am."


"You really are talking to both sides of us, Akane."

"Oh!" Akane exclaimed. "I guess I never realized you could do that. This really freaks me out sometimes, you know?"

"Ten days ago you would have sent me to the moon over something like this, ya know."

"Ten days ago I would still not have been able to understand you, baka," Akane said as she handed Ranma the rag and soap. "Do your legs and rinse off. You're turning blue."


"You did bring more than one towel, right?"

"I brought you a change of clothes, too. They're in the bucket under my stuff."

(She sure is giving our tool a hungry stare.)

(What did you expect, Saotome?)

(Oh, no! It's standin' up again!)

(It IS supposed to do that, you know.)

"That's a relief!" Akane said, openly staring at Rama's condition. "I was beginning to think it would disappear altogether."

"Oh, come on! It never bothered you when cold water turned it into something else."

Akane giggled and said, "Hurry up and finish so we can get in out of this cold, you baka! I'm freezing."

"Yeah, okay! Okay!" Ranma said as his teeth began to chatter.

"Why don't you just start ignoring the cold again like you've been doing?"

"It wouldn't be fair to you."

"That's very sweet of you, Ranma, but will you please hurry up?"

End of Chapter 17 Part a
Copyright © Don Granberry