Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 17b


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.

Teddy Borkman watched as a stake-bed truck drove out onto the far end of their runway. Much to his relief, the local drug lord's gunners began loading their weaponry and themselves onto the truck. He turned around and ran up the cargo ramp and made his way to the cockpit.

"Get ready, Sheila," he said. "Whatever Bill had in mind seems to be working. The goons are leaving."

"Right," she replied. She opened the window on the port side of the cockpit and shouted, "Hold on a minute, Jojo! The batteries are down a bit. I want to start up number two and let 'em charge!"

Borkman slid open the starboard window and shouted, "Clear to starboard!"

Sheila hit the starter for the number two engine. The big turbine wound up very quickly and caught. She ran it up for a magneto check, then throttled it back to its lowest idle. "God I hate wasting fuel this way!"

"Gotta be done," Borkman said with a shrug of his shoulders. "You set the brakes, right?"


"I'm going to pull the chocks on the nose wheel."

"You did use the short chocks on main gear, right?" Sheila asked.

"Hey!" Borkman exclaimed, looking a bit offended. "This is Burma we're in right? What kind of dumbass do you think I am?"

"Just checkin', Teddy, that's all," Sheila answered as she gave him a friendly fist to the shoulder. "This place gives me the creeps."

Borkman patted her arm before making his way aft. Just as he stepped off the cargo ramp, two bedraggled and travel-worn figures came stumbling out of the jungle and headed toward him.

"Well, I will be dipped in shit!" Borkman exclaimed. "What in hell are you doing here, Jack?"

"Didn't like Hell all that much so I came back, Teddy!" Burton answered as he stuck out his hand. Borkman's great paw swallowed Burton's right hand. "By the way, Teddy, where exactly is here?"

"Good lord, man! You mean ya don't know?" Borkman asked in a shocked voice.

"Uh, well, we've been lost in the boonies for nearly two months," Burton answered. "By the way, my buddy here's name is Ryouga Hibiki. He can understand English if you talk slow."

"Pleased to meet you, Hibiki-san," Borkman said, offering Ryouga his hand. Ryouga grinned and took Borkman's hand in his own.

"Well, he's stout for a Japper, by gawd!" Borkman exclaimed as he and Ryouga tested grips.

"Yeah, he is," Burton said with a knowing smile. "Where'd you say this is?"

"We're about a hundred miles nor'west of Ho Mong, Jack."

"Oh, man!"

The big teenager shrugged his shoulders and said something in Japanese as he and Borkman broke off their contest. Borkman thought he caught at least one word of it.

"Did he say something about Barsoom?" Borkman asked.

"Yeah, he said the Shan State isn't quite as dangerous as Barsoom. I hafta agree with him."

"I thought Barsoom was supposed to be Mars?"

"It's really a different pla...nevermind, Teddy. You'd call me a liar if I tried to explain it all."

"Oh, you mean its another deal like that little fracas in 'Frisco?"


"Okay then, I won't ask, but you two had best plan on coming away with us."

"Oh, yeah?" Burton asked with genuine concern in his voice. Borkman understood why. He knew that Jack knew that Borkman could not offer free rides on Westerlake's airplane for no reason.

"Yeah, things are a little dicey around here about now."

Ryouga said something else in Japanese.

"Ryouga just said that he has always gotten along with the Shans so he's not that worried."

"Oh, it's not the Shans you hafta worry with, laddie," Borkman replied. "It's the bloodthirsty Slorks ya need ta be worried about. We're havin' a spot o' trouble with one of their allies right now."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah, Bill is over..." Whatever Borkman was about to say was cut off by the sound of a cracking whip.

"Burton, you sorry sodding bastard!" Sheila shouted as she whirled her whip overhead.



"Ow! What are you doing here?"

Ryouga fell to the ground laughing.


"That's none of your bloody business, you yellow sop!"

"Hey, now look! You weren't gonna give up your wings anymore than I was gonna give up drivin' a truck!"


"Yeow! Watch it, will, ya! That hurts!"

"Oh, the pain is just beginning for you, you two-timer!"

"I'm not a two-timer!"



"You ran out on me!"

"You were gonna..."


"...Ouch! Run out on me!"

"That's a lady's prerogative!"

"Lady? What lady?"


"Eee! Ow! Damn!"


"What are you laughin' at, Hibiki?"



Borkman clapped a hand to his brow and groaned out loud. Burton's timing could not have been worse!

"Stop it, you two," Borkman shouted. "We've got other problems, remember?"

A distant boom punctuated the uneasy silence following Borkman's outburst.

"See what I mean?"

"What?" Burton asked suddenly realizing that he should be afraid. "What's happening?"

"Get into the plane, dammit!" Borkman shouted. "We're about to leave!"

"She's in there!" Burton said pointing at Sheila's back as she ran up the cargo ramp.

"And the local asshole boss's goons are following Westerlake here!" Borkman shouted. "Now get onto that airplane!"

A mortar round landed nearby, rocking the L-100 on its landing gear. The concussion wave was strong enough to knock all three men off their feet. Ryouga recovered first. He jumped to his feet, picked Burton up by his backpack, grabbed Borkman by his belt, and then proceeded to drag both of them onto the airplane. The two mechanics were already on board. One of them raised the cargo ramp slightly as Sheila finished cranking the last of the L-100's turboprop engines. The L-100 lurched and bounced as it rolled over the illegally thin chocks Borkman had placed in front of its main landing gear. Sheila stamped on the rudder pedals, turning the heavily laden freighter so that it was facing down the runway.

"Let's just hope they don't think to shell the strip!" Borkman shouted. The scrawny little paleontologist plucked at Borkman's sleeve.

"Benjo ga, doko da?" he asked. Borkman clapped a palm to his forehead.

"Not now right now, you over-educated twit!" Borkman shouted as another mortar round landed a meter or so shy of the cargo ramp. The explosion filled the air of the cargo hold with dust and grit.

"Use yer goddam pants!" Borkman howled.

Nabiki double-checked the batteries in her camcorder before walking out to the field on the west side of Ono-ke. She stopped and stood next to Ranma and Haabu, both of whom were watching Akane and Kiima warm up. A few feet away, Tofu and Kasumi sat side by side on a quilt spread out over a couple of old tatami. Kiima was in her cursed form and wearing a gi she had borrowed from Akane.

"It's going to be hard to tell who's who the way they are dressed, Saotome."

"Nah, I put black tape on Kiima's collar," Ranma said nervously as he fidgeted about with his arms and pulled absentmindedly at his queue. "Besides, I don't have any trouble telling them apart."

"It'll be much harder to tell them apart on television, Ranma," Nabiki said. "Are you sure that the tape will last through the whole bout?"

"I don't expect this to last very long," Ranma answered in a grim voice. Nabiki thought the she saw the first faint traces of tears at the corners of Ranma's eyes.

"That's funny," Nabiki said as she panned around with the camera to make sure she would be familiar with the setting for the coming bout. "I was thinking that they would be a fairly close match for one another."

"Physically, yeah," Ranma answered in a querulous voice. "In fact, if they were both the same age, I'd give it to Akane."

"You look awfully nervous, Ranma," Nabiki said.

"That's because I'm having second thoughts, Nabiki," Ranma said, his voice nearly breaking. "Trouble is, it's too late to stop this. I'm worried about 'em gettin' hurt."

"It comes with the territory, Saotome."

"I don't hafta like it."

"Calm down," Nabiki said. "She's not exactly made out of glass, you know."

"But Kiima will be rememberin' all of Akane's moves once they get started," Ranma said in a worried voice, "and I don't want Akane hurt."

"This isn't Jusendou, Ranma. It's just a hard sparring match. Nobody is using weapons or external ki techniques. She'll be fine."

Off out in the field, Akane and Kiima finished their stretching exercises and got to their feet. The two of them looked expectantly at Ranma. He nodded his head. The two neared one another and bowed toward him. Then they bowed to each other. Each of them backed away until they were separated by six shaku, a little under two meters. The two look-alike girls assumed ready positions, eyeing one another warily.

"Begin!" Ranma shouted. Nabiki was already recording.

To the untrained eye, the bout got off to a boring start, but both Ranma and Nabiki were impressed. It was Akane, of course, who started the action by launching an attack on Kiima, but was forced to check her advance when Kiima changed her guard. Kiima responded quickly, but found herself stopping suddenly and backing away as Akane adjusted her stance. The two girls circled around one another, each looking for an opening in the other's defenses.

"Well, they are both on their toes today," Nabiki commented. "And you're right, I think Kiima has got a good feel for the way Akane fights."

"Yeah, and Akane's attacks leave her exposed" Ranma muttered. Nabiki spared a little of her attention to glance at Ranma. His eyes were as large as saucers and his brow was heavily furrowed with worry. "You're starting to look like my dad, Saotome."

"I started feelin' like him about an hour ago," Ranma answered with a quaver in his voice. Nabiki could not suppress a grin upon hearing Ranma choke off a sob.

Akane and Kiima closed with each other in a blur of flying fists and feet. They went at it hammer and tongs for a good thirty seconds before stepping back from one another. Kiima came away with a large red scuff mark of raw skin on her left cheek. The skin around Akane's right eye was red and swelling. Both of them now had a slight limp. Of the two, it was easy to see that Akane was the more fatigued and was having a more difficult time keeping her arms up in a proper guard position.

"Judging from the way they are holding up their guard, Akane is doing more damage with her blocks than anything else," Nabiki calmly announced. "And, little sister is using up way too much power."

"Yeah," Ranma muttered in a worried voice, "I noticed. Kiima doesn't normally use hard blocks. She relies on dodges and slips. Her natural form's too easy to hurt."

Akane launched a hap-kido kick. Kiima responded by calmly stepping to her right and blocking off Akane's kick with her left forearm as she dropped into kibi-dachi, the horse rider's stance. Akane immediately realized that her attack had failed and abandoned any foolish efforts to land on her feet. She took the fall gracefully, rolling away quickly enough that Kiima's powerful follow-up punch landed on the soft earth. Akane stayed low and tried to catch Kiima with a heel sweep, but the Hououzanjin leapt upward and back a shaku or so. Her backward motion caused the overhand right Akane launched as she rose to her feet to finish in mid-air, frustratingly short of its target. The two of them dropped back and once again began circling one another.

"Hey, that was some pretty good stuff!" Nabiki said, being careful to keep the camera trained on the two combatants.

"Akane might have gotten to Ukyou with that combination," Ranma said with a strong hint of pride in his voice. "She's learnin', but Kiima's already letting her body take the lead. Didja notice how she blocked that kick?"

"Mmm!" Nabiki noised in agreement, but she could see that Kiima's experience was definitely going to win the day. Akane was burning up too much energy. The effort to just hold up her guard was now taking a lot out of her younger sister.

Kiima smoothly switched to a right hand lead and let her left hand flow with her footwork, surprising Akane with a left jab to the mouth. She followed that punch with a strong overhand right that Akane deftly blocked with outside-in block, using her right forearm. Akane's answer to Kiima's assault was the very predictable left hook that Kiima avoided by pitching her head to one side as she stepped inside Akane's guard. Kiima hammered Akane with several stinging blows to the ribs and stomach before stepping back out of the younger girl's reach.

"Oof!" Ranma exclaimed as he put his hands on his stomach.

"You are going to be completely useless when she has a baby, you know," Nabiki said in her best know-it-all tones.

As the two girls circled around again, it was clear that Akane was in real trouble. Her breath was coming in huge gasps and she was soaked from head to foot with sweat. Even though Kiima was sweating enough to soak through the back of her gi, it was easy to see that she had plenty of fight left. Unlike Akane, Kiima was not allowing her nerves to waste her energy.

"Oh, man!" Ranma muttered. "This can't last much longer."

"Don't call it yet, Ranma."

"She's gonna lose, Nabiki."

"Yeah, I know," Nabiki answered. "That is exactly what she needs and you know it."

"I don't hafta like it!" Ranma wailed. "My poor little hothead is gonna get clobbered!"

"Yes, you do have to like it and yes, Akane is about to get clobbered," Nabiki told him. "That is exactly what your student needs, right?"

Ranma made no coherent answer. He blubbered instead.

"So, stop acting like a sissy, Mr. Cold Dragon," Nabiki ordered.

Ranma's aura flared angrily for a second, but collapsed. "This is just killin' me," he said with a sniffle.

Nabiki almost shook her head in disgust, but that would have spoiled her camera work. She gritted her teeth and stuck to her job instead.

"Men!" Nabiki snorted.

"You wouldn't have us be any other way!"

"That's the Ranma we all know and love. Welcome back."

Akane started to launch another attack, but faltered. Kiima was quick to take advantage by closing in once again. Akane, to her credit, quickly understood the tyranny of proximity and backed away. Kiima, however, did not let up and stayed in hot pursuit, flinging a series of combination punches at the beleaguered Akane's face and stomach. Kiima's hands were moving so fast that Nabiki wondered if the camera would catch anything more than a blur on tape. Akane, for her part, could only answer with a series of blocks. She had no energy left for counterpunches. Kiima managed to pry open Akane's guard and land a front snap kick with her left foot on the younger girl's chin. Once her left foot was back on the ground, Kiima pushed off of it, leaping back a meter or so.

Akane's dropped her guard and wandered about in a small circle, looking for all the world as though she had set out to search for something, but could not now remember what she was looking for.

"That's it!" Ranma called out in a relieved voice. "Fight's over!"

Kiima gave Ranma a quick nod of acknowledgement, but did not drop her guard and she kept a wary eye on Akane until the younger girl collapsed face down in the grass with a heavy thud.

"Ungh!" Haabu exclaimed. "I thought for a moment she might recover on her feet."

"So did I," Nabiki said.

"Extraordinary durability," Haabu said. "I am most impressed."

Nabiki flashed Haabu a quick smile, but kept recording. She knew that Ranma would find the tape invaluable later.

Ranma ran out onto the field and gently rolled his fiancee over. She tried to hit him with a weak and wildly thrown roundhouse right, but he blocked it.

"Whoa, Tomboy!" Ranma exclaimed

"Ranma?" Akane asked.

"Yeah, it's me, Akane."

"What...why are you interrupting my fight?"

"'Cause the fight's over, Akane," he told her. "How are you feelin'?"

"I...How long have I been out?" Akane demanded to know.

"Oh, not bad, ten seconds or so," Ranma said as he grinned at her.

"Why are you crying?" Akane asked.

"Never mind that, Akane," Ranma growled. "How are you feeling? You ain't seein' double or nothin', are ya?"

"Things are little blurry," Akane said, "but there is only one of everything."

Ranma breathed a huge sigh of relief.

"I lost, didn't I?" Akane asked.

"You were up against a very well trained professional that's been in more than one serious fight, Akane," Ranma said in firm tones. "You did a lot better than I expected."

"I did? How can she be so ungodly fast in my body?" Akane asked.

Ranma laughed. "Well, that should tell you something, shouldn't it?"

"I can't believe I got beat by someone in my body!" Akane gritted her teeth. "And she did it with my favorite kick, too!"

"I must say, Cousin," Haabu said as he knelt down next to Ranma, "you have picked a very worthy mate. Few women show as much spirit as this one does."

Haabu's proximity, Nabiki noted, seemed to have an immediate effect on her sister's temper. She watched with amusement as Akane checked her anger and swallowed a little of her pride. Good girl, Akane, Nabiki thought. Good against high school jocks isn't good against this crowd. In their eyes you're just showing potential, so be a good girl.

"Thank you, Haabu-dono," Akane said, as she tried to clear her vision by blinking several times in quick succession. "Ranma, I think I can stand up now."

"Are you sure?" Ranma asked.

"Yes, and I want to get up on my own," she said in an irritated voice as she pulled an arm out of his grasp. "I'm not made of glass, you know."

Ranma made a wry face, but let her go. He and Haabu stood up. Akane winced with pain as she rose to her feet. She looked at Kiima and bowed.

"Thank you for the lesson, Kiima-san," Akane said in a surprisingly cheerful voice. "It has given me great hope."

I think you really meant determination, Little Sister, Nabiki thought. I hope Kiima has sense enough to realize that you'll be gunning for her now.

"It is I who should be grateful, Akane-san," Kiima said as she returned Akane's bow. "I learned a great deal about the use of power this day."

Yes, you did, didn't you my fine feathered friend? Nabiki thought, But, mostly what you did was unlock Akane's potential speed.

"I _did_ notice that," Akane said with a rueful grin and the two of them began to laugh.

I wonder, Nabiki thought. Did you really notice what happened, Sister-mine? Do you know that you kicked your own ass today? I don't think so. I think we are going to have to show you. You look as proud and stubborn as ever, if confused.

Tofu clapped Ranma on the shoulder and said, "Ranma, you look as though you could use a drink."

Nabiki turned the camera on Ranma. Tears were streaming down both of his cheeks and his eyes were nearly bloodshot. She turned the camera off and lowered it so that she could do a better job of smirking at him.

"Indeed, I think I could use one as well," Haabu said in a hearty voice. "This little match took a lot out of me." Akane and Kiima shared amused glances with Kasumi and Nabiki. Ranma's eyes glazed over as he stared off into the distance.

"Well, come on then!" Haabu said, putting an arm around the distraught Ranma's shoulders as he gave Akane a wink. "I think the men have some sake warmed up for us. Let's go warm by the fire."

"I think you two girls could use a hot bath and some ice," Kasumi said "and we really should do something with Kiima's cheek."

"Thank you, Kasumi-san," Kiima said as she gently touched her fingertips to the abraded side of her face. "It does feel a bit raw."

Tofu and Haabu led Ranma away. His knees were threatening to fail him and both Haabu and Tofu helped him along from either side. Nabiki broke out into uncontrolled peals of laughter once the men were out of earshot.

"Ranma did look a lot like Father, didn't he?" Kasumi asked with a giggle.

"He sure did," Akane said. "That was scary!"

"He loves you deeply, Akane-san," Kiima said. "Training you must cause him a great deal of pain."

Nabiki smirked at Akane and said, "Nothing new there."

"I...I never thought of that, before," Akane said, sounding startled. "I hope he doesn't give up on me the way Daddy did."

"Let's get inside," Nabiki ordered. "It's cold out here and you two need to clean up."

The four of them headed toward the house.

"Oh, and I wouldn't worry about Ranma giving up, Akane," Nabiki said. "He considers your training a challenge. You know how he is about meeting challenges."

"Now _that_," Kiima said with a full-body quiver, "is frightening."

"Hello, Clayton!" Doctor Horatio Yeager said with a grin to hide his surprise and annoyance. Clayton C. Calhoun was the last person he expected or wanted to find in his office in the middle of the day. He had papers to review, several of them lengthy. What he did not get done during the day would have to be done at night, when he needed to be working on his real job.

"Look, Horty," Calhoun said. "I'm sorry to barge in on you like this, but something urgent has come up."

"Oh, I think I understand, Claytie, I do follow the news, you know."

"Can you help us?"

"With what? A disruption mission?"

"Yes. There's this nasty little man building nukes and we can't find all of his labs."

Yeager shook his head, "Sorry, Claytie. The assets aren't quite ready for that. They are all quite exhausted at the moment."

"I told the boss you'd say that," Clayton said with a nod of his head. "He wanted me to talk to you and make sure."

"Then you are keeping up with the rumor mill, or you have assets of your own in Nerima that you haven't told me about."

Calhoun grimaced.

"Don't get your feathers ruffled, Horty. I do have assets you don't know about, but they are perfectly legit. They work on the local police force."

"Ah, of course! I'm slipping in my old age. I should have realized that you would have seen those reports. Is this thing all that hot?"

"No, not really. Certain folks at State and CIA are eager to come up with a slick solution. It's the usual career-building thing. You know how that shit goes."

"Yes, I'm afraid I know all too damned well how it goes!"

Calhoun sighed in frustration.

"I also told the boss that you would react this way."

"Then be sure to tell the bastard that it was worse than you expected and tell him I said he should go fuck off!'

"You really want me to tell him that?"

"Damned right! These kids aren't ready. When they are ready, I'll let him know, but he won't hear from me before I think they are ready."

"Horty, are you sure you are not being just a wee bit too overprotective? We draft nineteen-year old boys all the time."

"Look, Claytie, we are _not_ dealing with your average group of teenagers, okay? These kids are never going to be soldiers of the kind State and the spook-pukes are dreaming about. They won't just take orders and carry them out. You'll have to convince them that what they are doing is the right thing. Betray them one time, just one time on anything, even something small, and the consequences will be so bad you don't want to think about it."

"You don't sound all that enthused about the program as a whole."

"I'm not! If you have those police reports, you must also know that the Mikado himself has taken an interest."

Clayton nodded his head.

"What does State think about that?"

"Ah, they put a very short leash on the boss. You know how he hates wearing a collar."

"Well good! That bastard needs to be kept on a short leash."

"I thought you two were friends."

"Were friends--past tense."

"And I don't need to know."

"No, unfortunately, you don't, at least not in his opinion and his opinion carries a good deal more weight than mine at the moment."

"When do you think we can start the next phase?"

"Late next year at the earliest, but I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't take longer than that. I'd say two years is the more reasonable time frame."

"Why? They'll be graduating by then."

"It's not so simple as all that. These aren't draftees for the Army or even the Special Forces. Their training is a lot more like a series of university courses than anything else."

"If it's that tough, will they be ready within two years?"

"Of that, I am fairly certain. They might be ready in eighteen months. One of them, I think you can contact fairly soon, but you had better be damned careful how you deal with her."


"Yes, her."

"We have reports that your main powerhouse has a psyche problem. What's up with that?"

"It's more than a psyche problem, but he'll be okay."

"The reports we got made for some rather interesting reading."

"I'm sure they did. You can tell the Hizzoner that those reports were grossly understated."

"Understated!" Calhoun exclaimed as he sat bolt upright.

"Yes, understated."

Yeager smiled as the color drained out of Calhoun's face.

"What about this visitor from China? The one with long white hair."

"Stay the hell away from him. If I had my way, he'd be guarded by a platoon of Marines just to keep the wrong people away from him."

"What? Can this kid light-off nukes or something?"

Horton Yeager snorted.

"A fifteen megaton county-killer is not nearly as dangerous as he is."

"That powerful?"

"That dangerous. We are not here discussing mindless, indiscriminate weaponry, all right? The boss and his entire chain of command, all the way up to POTUS, could find themselves unexpectedly breathing through their necks if they annoy that kid, get it?"

"Ah, maybe we should consider other options, then."

"Don't be a goddamned fool!"

Calhoun gave Yeager a narrow lidded stare.

"Uranium bothers nothing and no one, provided it is left in the ground," Yeager pointed out. "For the moment, we are not on that youngster's threat board. Tell those jackasses at State, CIA and NSA that we lose as soon as the Saotome boy or his Chinese friend thinks we pose a risk."

"No, I will _not_ tell them that, Horty," Calhoun said. His face became very grim.

"My gawd, Claytie, are you sweating?"

"Horty, you have no idea how goddamned flaky Washington is right now. You've been away from home for entirely too long. Were I to suggest that one of your kids could wipe out the entire US chain of command, they'd...they'd...I don't want to think about what they might do."

"So what are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking we had better terminate this little program before they get nervous. Then, if the next Administration is what I think it will be, we might bring it back to life."

"That's three years away."

"Yes, it is."

"That won't work. We'll need support assets before three years go by."

"Dig out your plan 'B', Horty," Calhoun said in a determined voice, "because when I walk out of here, I'm telling our friendly pointy-haired boss that this thing is a scrub."

Yeager reached down with one hand and opened his largest desk drawer. After riffling through the folders stored in it, he pulled out a one-page memo and handed it to Calhoun.

Calhoun's eyebrows climbed up into his hairline as he read it. "This is your alternative plan? You're resigning?"

Yeager gave Calhoun a cold stare.

"What's the rest of it?"

"You don't need to know."

Calhoun suddenly looked as though he had bitten into an apple and found half of a worm in it.

"They won't pay your pension until you come home, you know."

"That's my worry."

"Sooner or later, the red tape will unwind and someone will come to see you, wanting to know why the hell it is you haven't come back to the States for your mandatory five years. You could get into very serious trouble over this, Horty."

"Perhaps, but I doubt it. I'm not a direct hire. Haven't been with the company for nearly fifteen years now. I'm just another contract analyst, remember?"

"The boss knows better."

"The boss hates my guts and would love to see me suffer. I'm not too worried about him setting the dogs after me."

"Because of your kids or..."

"My kids," Yeager said with a snort, "have never even laid eyes on me. Our beloved boss has other reasons for wanting to bid me a very quiet good riddance."

"He's going to laugh his ass off when he sees this," Calhoun said.

"Yes, I'm sure he thinks it was all a fraud to begin with. So much the better!"

Calhoun rose to his feet and stuck out his right hand. "Good luck, Horatio. It's been good working with you."

"Same here, Clayton," Yeager replied as he took Calhoun's hand in his own and rose to his feet. "Will you be delivering that today?"

"Within the next hour."

"Good!" Yeager said as he released Calhoun's hand and gestured toward the door to his office. "Now get out of here! I have too much to do and no time to do it in."

Calhoun gave Yeager a crooked grin and let himself out of Yeager's tiny office. Yeager sat back down at his desk with a sigh, then picked up his telephone and dialed a number. After a brief wait, he said, "I am The Hunter. Plan B."

After another brief silence he dropped the handset into its cradle. He opened another drawer and dug through its contents.

"Ah! Here we go," Yeager said, looking relieved as he opened a bottle of aspirin. "It's going to be a very busy two years."

The path he had chosen would take longer and require near infinite patience, but by taking it, he knew that he could be more certain of the outcome. He was actually pleased to be rid of his former employer. The jobs he had done for them in Japan had often been operational successes, but administrative nightmares. Happosai had seen to that.

He shook two aspirin out the bottle, walked over to his water cooler and filled a paper cup. The water was distilled, of course. While it was a vast improvement over tap water, he still preferred the water of his native Arkansas. The distilled stuff tasted just fresh enough to make him homesick.

Rather than walk directly back to his desk, he opened the top drawer of his file cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Glenlivit and a glass. It was time to do some serious reminiscing.

After he poured himself a large drink he sat down at his desk and thought about the four bugs planted in his office. He knew that he at least six in his apartment. Maybe its time to disable them, he thought. Nah! Washington would have theirs back in place inside of the week. The Chinese and the Russians in another two. A week after that, the North Koreans would visit and he would have to report another burglary. Why did the silly bastards think it was always necessary to cover their tracks with a crime? He shook his head in disgust.

"Ranma, are you sure you want to do this right now?" Nabiki asked while hooking up the camcorder to the little thirteen-inch portable television that Tofu had dug out of a closet. It lacked a seventy-five ohm connector and she had to use an adaptor. The screen was loaded with dust. Nabiki picked up a rag and began cleaning the front of the old set.

"Ya never wait for an hour after a puppy makes a mess to spank it, Nabiki," Ranma answered. "Geez, I wish I hadn't drank that sake."

"Okay," Nabiki said. "It's ready. Are you sure you're up for this, Saotome? You look pretty drunk to me."

"I only had two cups," Ranma answered. "Dealing with that stuff is something I gotta get used to, I guess. And, there ain't no time like right now. Where's Akane?"

"Changing clothes."

Kiima, having bathed and doused herself with cold water, walked into the room and stared in fascination at the camera where it sat on the table next to the television. "Did this little thing actually make a visual record of our match?"

"Sure did, Captain," Nabiki said with a knowing grin. "Right up to the point where Akane fell on her face. How's your cheek?"

"The medicine Kasumi put on it stung rather badly," Kiima said as she gently touched her bandage, "but most of that is gone now. What was in that tea, by the way? It tasted awful."

"I have no idea," Nabiki said. "Probably something to ease your pain as well as something to help your muscles relax."

Kiima yawned and stretched. "I'm not so sure I needed all of that. It's making me sleepy."

"You can bet that Akane did, though," Ranma said. "Where is she, anyway?"

"Right here, Ranma," Akane said as she entered the room.

"Good!" Ranma said motioning for her to come over. "Sit right here," he added patting a cushion next to him. "Kiima, why don't you come and sit on the other side of me."

Kiima smiled and did as Ranma asked. Nabiki whipped out a still camera.

"Girl time, Ranma!" Nabiki said as she aimed her camera at him.

"Aw, man!" Ranma complained, but changed to his female form.

"Kuno's gonna flip his wig when he sees this one," Nabiki said with a smirk. Onna-Ranma quickly became male again.

"Is it really necessary to continue encouraging him, Nabiki?" Kasumi asked as she entered the room. "I shouldn't think we still need the money."

"We will need the money for yet another couple of months, Sis," Nabiki answered. "We aren't very liquid at the moment. Cash is going to be in short supply for at least another two months, maybe longer."

Kasumi gave out an exasperated sigh as she sat down behind Ranma and the two versions of Akane.

Tofu and Haabu entered the room, trailed by Sou Pa who was pushing a serving cart. It was laden with freshly baked shortbread and a large urn of coffee.

"Man!" Ranma exclaimed. "That smells really good!"

Sou Pa beamed as he hurriedly presented Ranma with a tray bearing a tall stack of biscuits. Akane and Kiima watched with large grins while Ranma tried one.

"Hey, man! These are great!"

Sou Pa bit at his lower lip and looked as though he might break out into tears, looking for all the world as though he had just won gold at the Olympics.

"I am deeply honored that you would say so, M'lord Dragon," Sou Pa said, giving Ranma a deep bow.

"Hey!" Ranma said sounding vaguely alarmed, "Ya don't hafta..."

"Here, Cousin," Haabu said interrupting Ranma as he handed him a steaming cup of coffee. "Drink this. You look a bit blurry about the edges."

"Thank you, Cousin," Ranma said, exchanging a significant glance with the Lord of the Musk. "I needed that."

Haabu smiled at Ranma as he clapped the great Sou Pa on the shoulder. "Thank you, Sou Pa. I know you are busy. We can handle the rest for ourselves."

"If you are sure, Lord Haabu," Sou Pa said. "I don't mind serving in the least."

"Not a bit of it!" Haabu answered. "You have better things to do. Please do see after them."

"Thank you, M'Lord."

"You are most welcome, Sou Pa."

The big man left and the beaming Haabu surprised everyone left in the room by serving them all coffee. Nabiki gave him a peck on the cheek as he sat down beside her. Haabu nearly spilled his coffee.

"You must teach me how to do that noblesse oblige thing, my Prince," Nabiki said. "You're quite good at it."

"Hmmph!" Haabu said with grim smile, "Even I am hesitant to offend a good cook, Nabiki-chan. The man earns such treatment every day."

Nabiki glanced at Kasumi, then nodded her head in agreement. "Believe me, I _do_ understand. Is everyone ready?"

"Roll 'em!" Ranma replied.

Nabiki reached over and pushed a button on the camera. Haabu and Kiima watched in slack jawed amazement at the images appearing on the screen. At the end of the fight's first phrase, Ranma had Nabiki stop the tape.

"Okay, nobody has hit anybody so far, but Kiima's attitude changed," Ranma said. "What were you thinking about, Captain?"

"I was thinking that the battle was all but over if I exercised caution," Kiima answered in a clear voice devoid of emotion.

Haabu and Tofu both grunted in agreement as Akane noticeably stiffened in response to Kiima's answer.

"Why?" Ranma demanded.

"I am not sure how to say this in Japanese," Kiima answered in the same analytical voice with all traces of emotion removed, "but Akane-san was self-bound."

"Yeah, 'self-bound's' a pretty good description," Ranma replied. Akane made a choking noise as he continued. "Why did you know for certain?"

"It was fairly plain to see, for one thing," Kiima said.

"Yes, it is. See how your elbows are turned in a little while you were holding your guard up, Akane? It's a sure sign that you were holding the muscles in your chest and back real tight. Also, look at how rigid your back is," Ranma said. "You were gonna say somethin' else, right, Kiima? Wait! Never mind. Rewind it a little, Nabiki. Let's look at it again first."

Nabiki obediently rewound the tape, then hit the play button.

"Whaddaya see, Akane?" Ranma asked.

"Well..." Akane responded sounding uncertain, but then suddenly saw what Kiima meant. "I _was_ way too tight!"

"You got it, Tomboy!" Ranma said. "How're ya feelin', anyway?"

"Like I got hit by a train," Akane said. "I'm sore all over."

"Uh-huh, I'll bet you do. You did most of that damage to yourself," Ranma said in a knowing voice. "What do you see at this point, Kiima?"

"I, uh, was having the same problem," Kiima answered. "I felt it during this part of the bout. It was what made me certain of Akane-san's plight."

Akane stared wide-eyed at the television.

"She really was too tight!" Akane exclaimed.

"Stop the tape, Nabiki. So what happened, Akane?" Ranma asked.

"She must have realized what was happening and relaxed," Akane answered. Behind her, Haabu and Tofu gave out knowing chuckles.

"What's so funny?" Akane demanded to know.

"Most of us here have been through the same thing, Lady Tendou," Haabu answered, treating Akane to a kindly grin. "You are most fortunate to have Saotome-dono and this marvelous technology to work with. You _will_ advance rapidly," he added making it sound like an order.

"You shouldn't feel bad about this, Akane," Tofu interjected using his best bedside manner. "I don't know what I would have done had I found myself fighting with myself. It must have been terribly unnerving."

"There is more, Saotome-dono," Kiima said.

"Go ahead and shoot," Ranma said.

"I beg your pardon?" Kiima asked, looking confused.

"Easy on the slang, Ranma," Nabiki said.

"Oh, sorry about that," Ranma said. "Tell us what's on your mind, Kiima."

"I am reasonably sure that my physical reactions while fighting in this form are the result of Akane-san's training," Kiima said. "I cannot simply turn them off. It is necessary for me to work with them. It would seem that Akane-san's sensei wanted her to be as durable as possible."

"That's what I...wait a minute. You wanna say something, Doc?"

"Well, I was just going to say that what Kiima says makes sense," Tofu said. "Being a sensei is not such a terribly different thing from being a doctor. As a sensei, your first order of business is to be certain that you do your student no harm. Therefore, you teach the defensive measures first, especially if the student is your daughter."

Akane squeezed her eyes tightly shut and interjected, "It's beginning to sound as though I'll have to unlearn everything I've been taught, so far."

"No way, Akane!" Ranma exclaimed. "I gotta hand it to your dad. He knew exactly what he was doing and he did it up right. All we hafta do now is complete your training."

"I don't get it," Akane said. "He's turned me into some kind of robot or something."

"What Daddy did, Akane," Nabiki said, "and correct me if I'm wrong, Ranma, is to make you into something as hard as a bronze statue."

"That's right," Ranma said. "He's been turning you into a rock so that you won't hurt easily. I never really appreciated his genius until today."

"What?" Akane exclaimed.

Nabiki nodded her head and grinned at her youngest sister. "It's true, Akane. Remember that hockey player that hit you with his stick?"

Akane rolled her eyes.

"Hit her with his stick?" Ranma shouted suddenly sounding angry.

"Oh, please, Ranma, give it a rest! You've been acting just like Daddy all afternoon," Nabiki said. "The guy may as well have been hitting a lamp pole for all it mattered. His stick vibrated so badly he looked like Elmer Fudd fighting Bugs Bunny. His teeth were still chattering when Akane knocked him out."

"That's my Tomboy," Ranma said, giving Akane the crooked grin he always gave her whenever she did something he admired.

"It didn't work very well today, though," Akane said with a frown.

"Yeah, well, you were up against an old pro, Akane, not a bunch of school boys," Ranma said.

Nabiki put the palm of one hand to her forehead while Kasumi covered her mouth and stifled a giggle.

"Ahem!" Kiima noised. "Are you referring to me as being old?"

" didn't mean that in a bad way..ah..heh-heh...Kiima," Ranma stuttered.

"Is he always this cute when he sticks his foot in his mouth?" Kiima asked Akane.

"Sometimes," Akane said. "Most of the time he just looks like a jerk."

"Hmm, then I suggest that you keep him," Kiima said, "but you really should keep a jar of honey handy."

"Honey?" Ranma asked.

"To go with all that toe-jam you eat, Saotome," Nabiki said dryly. "Are we going to watch the rest of this?"

"Please, let's do!" Haabu exclaimed, obviously captivated by the display of technological prowess in front of him. "I find it fascinating."

"You haven't seen it in stop action or slow motion, yet," Nabiki said.

"Ya mean this camera can do that?" Ranma asked.

"Sure," Nabiki said.

"Good, 'cause we need to show Akane what else she needs to learn. You won't be un-learnin' nothin', Tomboy, but you do hafta pick up some new habits."

"Is that our pilot coming? Ryouga asked Burton in Japanese as he pointed out a severely battered Landrover tearing across the field adjacent to the landing strip. It was being followed by a large truck a hundred meters or so further back. The truck was loaded down with heavily armed men and what appeared to be a small cannon of some kind.

"Yeah, that looks like him, all right," Burton answered in Japanese.

"Shit! He forgot to take out the truck!" Borkman shouted in English.

"What'd he say?" Ryouga asked.

"He said Westerlake forgot to take out the truck," Burton translated. "I'd imagine because of that anti-aircraft gun in the back of it."

"They could shoot us down with that?" Ryouga asked.

"Sure kid," Burton answered. "What do you think a gun like that is for?"

Ryouga ran out onto the cargo ramp holding his hands out in front of him. "Mokotakabisha!"

Burton scratched his head in puzzlement as a reddish-orange ball of energy shot away from Ryouga's hands. It narrowly missed the Landrover and slammed into the cab of the truck behind it. The driver of the Landrover yanked hard on the wheel of his vehicle, causing it to overturn.

"What'd he do that for?" Rouga asked.

"Probably because you scared the bejeebers out of him, Hibiki!" Burton shouted in Japanese. "What was up with that, anyway? I thought that was Saotome's trick."

"It is," Ryouga said with a helpless shrug. "I just wasn't feeling particularly depressed, that's all."

"Maybe that's why we're back on Earth," Burton muttered under his breath. Louder, he said, "You know, Hibiki, that pig of Akari's isn't getting any younger. It's liable to get defeated again before get back to the farm at the rate we've been traveling."

"Jack!" Ryouga growled.

"Well, its true, ya know," Burton told him. "We've been gone for months now."

Ryouga began to glow with a sickly greenish-yellow light. "Will you lay offa me?"

"Hey! Take it out on them, kid," Burton said, pointing to the truck. The men it had been carrying were getting their act back together and appeared to be loading the anti-aircraft gun.

"Shishihoukodan!" Ryouga shouted. A greenish-yellow ball of energy flew from his hands and slammed into the truck, scattering pieces of it all over the landscape. With a loud woofing noise, the truck caught fire.

"Nice shot, kid."

"Yeah, it was, wasn't it?" Ryouga asked as the ammunition for the anti-aircraft gun began cooking off.

"Don't get cocky, kid," Burton said. "This ain't over, yet."

"Well! If it ain't good ol' Jack Burton," Westerlake shouted as he stepped up onto the ramp. He was walking along calmly, still dusting himself off as if everything that was going on were just part of an ordinary day.

"Hiya, Bill," Burton said sheepishly in English. "Long time no see."

"Yeah, right!" Westerlake replied as he slammed an uppercut into Burton's chin. Burton went down hard. "But not near long enough!"

"Drag the worthless bum inside, kid," Westerlake said to Ryouga in Japanese. He carefully stepped on Burton's chest as he walked on by. "We haven't got a lot of time on our hands."

Ryouga grinned as he picked Burton up. "Man! He really whopped you one, didn't he?"

"Bastard caught me off guard is all," Burton complained as he rubbed his chin.

"Gee, I hope he didn't hurt his hand," Ryouga said as he dragged Burton up the cargo ramp.

Burton responded by giving Ryouga a hurt look.

"He does hafta fly this thing, right?" Ryouga asked.

"Oh, you're a regular barrel of laughs, Hibiki!"

The hydraulics whined as Borkman raised the cargo ramp, closing off the L-100's empennage. Ryouga listened as Sheila throttled up the turboprops and the big plane began lumbering down the rather too rough strip. He grabbed onto a strap fastened to a bulkhead and grinned. He was headed home at last!

As they became fully airborne, loud music began to blare from speakers mounted on the overhead of the cargo bay. It started off with a fuzzy base guitar repeating the same notes over and over. Over the top of that, a master of the rhythm guitar began to play in time. The base and rhythm were quickly joined by cymbals and snare, along with someone clapping their hands. A male voice began to sing as Ryouga gave into the irresistible urge to tap his foot in time with the heavy beat. The music fit perfectly with the low throb and thrum of the L-100's props.

"When I die and they lay me to rest! "Gonna go to the place that's the best! "When I lay me down to die! "Goin' up to the spirit in the sky!"

"Lemme guess," Ryouga shouted to Burton, "Biru-san named this thing _Spirit in the Sky_."

"Shit!" Burton responded with a snort. "Sheila named it. Westerlake thinks of it as just another airplane."

"Well, you're lucky, Jack!" Ryouga said with a laugh. "You've got a girlfriend with better taste in music than she has in men!"

"Oh, ha-ha!"

"And she's pretty darn good with a whip, too!"

Akane dreamed she was floating on the face of cold waters.

"I wish it was this easy in the real world," she said.

As she sank, she immediately realized two things at one and the same time. One was that this was the real world and the other was that water was not fit for breathing. Worse, this water wasn't even fit for drinking. She sat up and spat the nasty tasting water out of her mouth. Yep, I'm definitely back home and this is definitely water from the koi pond, she thought. Before she could finish coughing, her hands slid outward from her sides and her head went under water again.

I have got to remember to tell Ranma about the algae growing in this thing. She sat up again, being careful not to put any weight on her hands this time. He's been overfeeding the koi again. Kasumi and I both have warned him about that. They don't keep the bottom of the pond clean when he does that.

"Dammit, Ojii-san!" Akane tried to shout and cough at the same time. "I didn't oversleep this morning!"

"Oh, boo-hoo!" Genma's gravelly voice replied. "Listen to the poor little Tomboy! She wants to be a martial artist one of these days, but she's just _got_ to have her beauty rest!

The water in Akane's eyes made Genma's gloating face a good deal less attractive than usual. He was standing on the largest rock in her father's garden, leering down at her in the pre-dawn grey of early morning. Akane wanted to spring up out of the water and catch him on the jaw with a roundhouse kick, but realized that the bottom of the pond was entirely too slippery for that kind of move.

"Well, what about it, your most honorable un-cuteness?" Genma asked with a truly annoying sneer in his voice. "Are you going to spar? Or are you going to sit there and commune with the fish all day?"

Akane first carefully took note of how Genma had his right foot placed, then took a deep breath and fell back into the water. Using the momentum of her falling torso, she flung her legs upward, locking her ankles around Genma's lower leg. She placed her hands against the concrete wall of the koi pond for leverage, and then used all the strength she had in her legs and back to throw the big man off of his perch.

Much to her joy and satisfaction, her improvised move was at least partially successful. When she popped up out of the water, Genma was doing a handstand on one of the rocks on the far side of the pond. This at least bought her enough time to get out of the pond while the elder Saotome recovered. Much to Akane's disgust, Genma casually took his time by slowly lowering his feet to the ground on either side of his hands. In an effort to annoy Akane even further, he took his time rising up to a standing position. Akane used that time to scramble up onto the rock she had forced Genma to vacate.

She did not try to wipe the water out of her eyes and tried hard to limit her coughing and sputtering. Genma was always quick to take advantage of such things. Akane was pleased with her progress. The last time she had been wakened by the cold waters of the pond, it had taken her six or seven tries to get out of it. Genma had made sure that she went completely under every time he knocked her back into the pond.

"Not bad for a half-trained weakling girl," Genma said.

Akane gave Genma a lopsided grin. "And you're pretty flexible for a fat old goat!"

Akane was once again pleased with herself. Verbal sparring, as she had finally come to understand without having to be told, was part of the Anything Goes Style. Genma expected his students to be quick-witted and wary. He never told them that he expected that of them, of course, he merely tormented them until they figured it out for themselves. Anger, Akane had finally come to fully understand, was a bad thing if you let it replace your judgment.

"You _do_ know what is dangerous about us old goats, don't you?" Genma asked.

"Their smell?"

"Nope!" Genma shouted as he jumped into the air.

Shit! Akane thought, as she sprang into the air, I should've seen that one coming. Even old white goats can jump!

She and Genma exchanged a flurry of blows worthy of a meteor shower as their flight paths crossed. Much to Akane's chagrin, Genma tagged her at least six times and blocked every one of her punches. In many ways, sparring with the elder Saotome was a bigger pain than sparring with Ranma. Genma had no compunctions about hitting her, and seemed to enjoy inflicting pain on her person and her psyche. If she showed the least sign of feeling it, he did not hesitate to gloat. The longer she went without showing any sign of feeling pain, the harder Genma would hit her. Then, after he finally made her wince, he would gloat and make fun of her. The technique was infuriatingly effective.

This time Genma had given her a "love tap" on the top of the head that made her eyes water. Akane landed on a rock across the pond and turned to face her opponent, making sure her face showed no signs of rage or pain, even though she had plenty of pain to deal with. Having Genma Saotome block your punches was little different from having someone hit your arms with a piece of stove wood, and Akane had thrown a great many punches.

"Is that a tear in your eye, Akane?" Genma asked.

Akane ignored the question while trying to think of a way to pull something so sneaky that it would work on the grandmaster of sneakiness, Genma Saotome.

"Wouldn't you rather be cooking? Oh, I forgot, you can't cook, can you?" Genma asked as he leaped into the air again.

Akane anticipated Genma's leap and jumped at the same time only she jumped higher. Allowing your center of gravity to rise above Genma Saotome's was a very risky thing to do. He could do some truly nasty thing to you when you did that, but Akane thought she might be able to make it pay off this time. She tried to pop him on the top of the head and knee him in the solar plexus as they passed each other. Genma handily blocked her downward punch and the blow she delivered with her knee was too high. Banging on Genma Saotome's chest was less effective than kneeing a granite boulder. He didn't even grunt.

He made her pay for her courageousness by rapping the outside of her left ankle, giving her a terribly painful frog just above the right knee, and a stiff shot to the gut. She was barely able to stay on her feet when she landed. Once she steadied her stance, she realized that he had somehow also struck the ganglia just behind her left elbow. Her lower left arm felt completely numb, while her left palm seemed to have a coal of fire buried in it. Holding up her guard was next to impossible, but she did it anyway.

"Are you going to cry?" Genma asked, sticking his tongue at Akane. "Are you feeling a little weaker than usual this morning? Is it that time of the month again?"

Akane found herself gritting her teeth despite her vows to hold her temper in check. Those vows had been reinforced by two weeks of early morning sessions around, above and in the koi pond with Genma. Losing her self-control while confronting him, she had learned, was never a good idea. It was especially bad when Ranma laughed at her for going after Genma's bait.

"I was wondering if we were ever going to spar this morning, Uncle Genma," Akane said in the most sweetly irritating voice she could muster. "What's the matter? Afraid you might get hurt?"

"Ooh! Little Miss Tough-guy this morning," Genma said with nasty sneer in his voice. "As if you could ever be fast enough to really spar with me!"

Genma and Akane launched themselves into the air above the pond, exchanging yet another furious series of kicks, blocks and punches in passing. Akane's eyes were watering again as she landed.

"Just think, Akane," the youngest Tendou muttered to herself. "You'll get to spar with Kiima after school, and after that, you'll get to do the same old kata over and over until you drop."

"And," Genma called out, "if you've got anything left, Ranma will want you to practice falling down again." Genma gave her a nasty laugh before shouting, "Isn't that right, Son?"

"You got it, Pops!" Ranma answered in a loud and cheery voice. "Nothin's too good for my fiancee!"

Rather than wipe at her tears, Akane sharpened her focus on Genma's grinning face and attacked. They met face on in the air above the koi pond. Genma somehow checked Akane's momentum during their rapid-fire exchange of blows while using a kip-up to fling his own hundred kilograms of mass upwards. He made it to the other side of the pond while Akane plummeted downwards.

Realizing that the bottom of the pond was entirely too slippery for her to safely land on her feet, Akane did a half-twist and layout so that she would smash into the water flat of her back. She took in a deep breath, but was unable to hold it. The water may as well have been wet sand. Rather than wait until she hit the bottom, she hauled her legs upward and back-flipped out of the pond. She landed on her feet but they slipped out from under her when she landed. Rather than try to avoid a fall, she curled up into a ball and rolled backwards, straightening herself out as she came into contact with the garden's largest boulder. Without a break in her motion, she scrambled backwards to the top of the rock and regained her feet.

"Bravo, Akane! Bravo!" Genma said, as he clapped his hands. "Good recovery!"

Akane felt her jaw sag. At first she thought Genma had been mocking her again, but then she realized he really was offering her some praise for her efforts.

"Breakfast!" Nodoka called out.

"Let's go eat, daughter!" Genma said with a grin as he hopped down off the boulder and strode toward the engawa.

Akane waited and followed Genma's every move with her eyes before dropping her guard. She waited until he was well out of reach before hopping down from her perch. Ranma stood on the engawa holding a large towel for her.

"That really was a good recovery, Akane," Ranma whispered to her as he draped the towel around her shoulders. "Furo's ready if you wanna warm up first." Akane glanced over to the table. Kiima, Nabiki, Nodoka and Genma were already seated and digging in. She gave Ranma a dubious stare. Words were not necessary to get her concerns across to him.

"Don't worry, Akane. I'll guard your plate till ya get there."

"Thanks, Ranma," Akane said as she gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

She stumped tiredly down the hall, untying her gi as she went. She spent as little time as possible scrubbing down, eager to get in as long a soak in the hot water as she could. She had already endured a long and difficult fortnight and realized that she had yet to hit the full pace of her life to come.

The school had been pressuring them to begin attending classes immediately upon their return to Nerima, but Ranma had flatly refused. She had been annoyed with him over it at the time, but now she could see the wisdom in his decision. They had needed this past two weeks to get their routine down to a real routine before tackling Furinkan again.

Nabiki, of course, began attending class immediately upon their return. Akane worried about her. What little she saw of Nabiki was unnerving. She was beginning to look harried, not at all in keeping with Nabiki's usual Ice Queen persona. Still, everything that needed to be done was somehow getting done.

"At least now I'm grown up enough to appreciate what's being done for me," Akane muttered to herself. She had not realized how badly spoiled she was until Ranma began regimenting her life around their training. As tough as things had become for Akane, it had been almost as tough for everyone else, maybe more so in some cases. He did not know that she knew of it, but Ranma was getting up between three-thirty and four in the morning every morning to cook extra food for their lunches, while getting in an extra few minutes of badly needed academic study.

The day would be taken up with schoolwork and Ranma had, over the past two weeks, been adamant about them getting in a full six hours of academics every day. This had shocked her, but during it all, she had begun to notice what everyone else was doing to make it all possible. Just keeping up with hers and Ranma's laundry was a major chore, let alone cooking three meals a day, yet Nodoka was doing all of that without a word of complaint.

Genma had readily agreed to spar with her instead of Ranma every morning. If she failed to rise by the time he completed his stretches, Genma would gleefully pitch her into the koi pond, just as he had this morning. He was even helping her father keep up the house and yard, along with taking on a class or two of paying students.

Working with paying students was always a disheartening task. Very few of them lasted for long, and the ones that did stay, tended to treat the art as some kind of exercise class, or worse, thought of it as a license for them to act is if they were bad news in a fight. None of them had a real clue, of course, but both her father and Genma kept trying.

Nabiki had powered up her moneymaking skills by at least an order of magnitude and was now working as a go between for Nodoka and Cologne, as well as directing the search for the real estate the Three Tribes needed. While doing those things, she had not let up on her usual schemes at the school, was working with Kodachi to start up a bicycle factory, and conducting a discrete search for a buyer of their diamonds. Her poor sister had bags under her eyes.

All Akane had to do was study and train. A week ago, the whole situation had begun to make her feel like a pampered pet. A few days later, she realized that she was a pampered pet and had been for most of her life. The reason she could not cook was because Kasumi had always found it simpler and easier to do the cooking than to obligate Akane with part of that load. The same went for the sewing and Akane didn't know how many other things.

On reflection, Akane had been forced to admit to herself that she had previously enjoyed a rather easy life--too easy. Now the pressure on her to do more than merely succeed at the art was enormous. The effort now involved far more than her personal aspirations. Everyone was pitching in so that she could become a true master of the art. Her hopes and dreams had become the hopes and dreams of others. Anything less than perfection was now unacceptable to Akane Tendou.

Just to make the challenge more interesting on this cold gray Monday morning, they would be returning to school for the first time in almost two months. She was dreading it. All she really wanted to do was to lie here in the furo and let the hot water leech the aches out of her muscles and bones.

"Akane-san?" Kiima asked as she stuck her head in the door.

"Yes, Kiima?"

"I put fresh clothes out for you here in the changing room."

"Thank you!" Akane grimaced. That was another thing that nagged at her conscience. Kiima hovered around her all the time. She had been performing as a sparring partner, valet and, Akane suspected, as a bodyguard. The only time Kiima left Akane to her own devices was at bedtime. Kiima had been sleeping in Nabiki's room, a major concession on Nabiki's part. The truly frightening thing was, Nabiki had never complained nor demanded money in return for this unprecedented inconvenience.

"Ranma-dono said that I should remind you about your breakfast and that time grows short."

"Thank you, Kiima," Akane answered. "Tell him I'll be right out."

"You're welcome, Akane-san."

"And just call me Akane, will you?"

"Yes, Akane-san."

Akane shook her head as she heaved herself out of the furo. She hated being rushed, but Ranma had done nothing but rush her for two weeks now and she knew he was right. They had little margin for error. They had to make every minute of the next year count if they were going to meet Happosai's deadline. She just hoped they would have some time to relax together soon.

As much as she hated to think of herself as a pervert, she was beginning to miss the sex--not that she had been in any shape to think about sex after nightfall for the last two weeks. She had been going to sleep as fast as her head hit her pillow. Still, her body was beginning to make demands that were hard to ignore. Looking at Ranma all day without throwing him on the floor and having her way with him in front of the gods, the neighbors and the universe was not helping that any.

Once she was dressed, it was time for her next big trial of the day; eating while sitting next to her father-in-law. She had not eaten much breakfast during the past two weeks. It was one of the reasons Ranma had been getting up extra early to pack their huge lunches, if they could be called lunches. They were eating five and six times a day. Akane had put on weight, as well. Her uniforms no longer fit. Her shoulders had gotten to be too broad for them, as had her hips and waist. Even her bust was a little bigger--not that she could tell it by looking in the mirror. She was adding muscle rather than fat, especially in her upper body. Akane was filling out in places where most people never expected a girl to fill out.

Once she made it to the change room, she found a fresh pair of long tube socks, cotton panties, a heavy athletic bra, one of Ranma's heavy silk shirts, the green one, and a pair of his dark blue dungarees. Akane put the clothing on with a sigh of disgust.

"Why the devil does he want me to wear this?" she asked aloud in an aggravated voice.

"It was my idea, not Ranma's," Nabiki said as she opened the door. "Will you hurry up?"

"I'm coming, already! And why these clothes?"

"Patience, little sister!" Nabiki said. "Time to fight the fat man for you breakfast."

"That old fart is anything but fat, Nabiki," Akane said in a tired voice. "Try hitting on him sometime and you'll know first hand."

"No thanks," Nabiki said, wrinkling her nose in disgust. "He's not my type."

"I didn't mean it like that!"

"Are you sure, Akane?" Nabiki asked with a knowing smirk. "He is a Saotome, after all!"

Akane went rigid with her arms down at her sides and gritted her teeth. Nabiki laughed out loud and gave Akane an affectionate hug before leaving the change room.

Resigned to her fate, Akane sat down next to Ranma's father and played dueling chopsticks with him for her breakfast. By the time the food was all gone, she was beginning to wonder if she had gotten better, or if Genma was letting up on her a little. He let up on me this morning, she thought. I guess maybe he's cutting me some slack because we have school today. He'll make up for it tomorrow.

Once she got up from the table she noticed that Kiima, now in her cursed form, was wearing a Furinkan uniform--Akane's uniform to be exact.

"What is going on here?" Akane demanded to know.

"It's a surprise for Kuno," Nabiki said with an evil smirk.

Akane groaned. "I forgot about him. How could I have done that?"

"Because you don't like thinking about him, maybe?" Nabiki asked.

"I suppose you're right," Akane answered.

"Well, let's go," Ranma ordered. "I don't want us pullin' a fire watch on our first day back."

Standing "fire watch" was the faculty's favorite punishment for misbehavior at Furinkan. While holding two milk buckets full of water was not particularly difficult in a physical sense for Ranma or Akane, it was not particularly educational either. Ranma, much to Akane's pleased surprise, had begun taking a serious interest in their academic studies.

"Ranma?" Akane asked as the four of the walked out the gate of Tendo-ke.

"Yeah, Akane?"

"Why are you so concerned about school, all of a sudden? You did not seem to care about it all that much before."

"Ah..." Ranma said as scratched the back of his neck, "...I guess mostly because I'm tryin' to teach now. Everything I've done before in school kinda embarrasses me."

"Not so funny when the shoe's on the other foot, huh, Ranma?" Nabiki asked.

"No, it ain't," Ranma answered. "Besides, I finally figured out that they're teachin' stuff I need to know at Furinkan."

"Such as?" Nabiki asked.

Ranma looked embarrassed as he answered, "Well, science and English, mainly. And, I guess 'cause I have to have it, math."

Nabiki seems enormously pleased by Ranma's answer, Akane thought. I wonder why she's so interested in Ranma studying?

"Why science and math, Ranma?" Akane asked, hoping to garner a clue. "They haven't got that much to do with the art."

"I used ta think that, too, Akane," Ranma answered sounding more than a little abashed. "Now I know I was wrong. 'Sides, I think I might want to study medicine."

This last admission startled both Nabiki and Kiima. Akane bit at her lower lip as her brow furrowed with worry.

"Medicine, Saotome-dono?" Kiima asked. "I wouldn't have thought you would be interested in the craft of healing."

"Yep, medicine!" Ranma declared in a firm voice. "Can you think of anything that goes with the art better than medicine?"

Kiima thought about it for a moment. "No, now that you point it out, I cannot." She shuddered.

"Too bad you didn't spend ten years on the road with Tofu-sensei instead of your old man, huh, Ranma?" Nabiki asked.

"Nah! Wouldn't have been engaged to the Tomboy if that had happened," Ranma answered as he jumped to the top of a fence. "Come on up here, Akane. Time to work on your balance."

Akane leaped to the top of the fence easily enough, but muffed her landing. Ranma had to steady her.

"I got a letter from Haabu this morning," Nabiki said as they walked down the street that ran alongside the canal.

"Oh, yeah?" Ranma asked. "How's he doin'? Is he havin' trouble with his ki?"

Akane stepped onto a wobbly section of fence and nearly lost her balance.

"Watch it, Akane!" Ranma exclaimed as he steadied her. "You wanna get us both soaked or somethin"?"

"I wouldn't mind getting us both wet," Akane retorted.

"Erk!" Ranma noised in reply. Kiima's shoulders, Akane noticed, were shaking with silent laughter. Nabiki made a show of holding her nose, before laughing out loud.

"Yes, but not nearly as bad as what you were going through," Nabiki said, finally answering Ranma's question. "He said he's tried to soak up heat from a room, but can't do it the way you did and, as far as he knows, he hasn't frozen anyone to death while he was asleep."

"I told him to be careful about that," Ranma said. "He might still have a problem with it."

"You're still convinced that he is going to become a dragon, aren't you?" Nabiki asked.

Ranma shrugged his shoulders. "It's just a matter of time, Nabiki. I don't know for sure when it will happen to him, but sooner or later he's gonna make the change."

Ranma and Akane jumped down from the fence as their route took them away from the canal.

"Are you sure that you aren't just expecting it to happen to him because he's already part dragon?" Nabiki asked.

"No, Nabiki," Ranma said in a gentle voice. "It's something I can feel in my bones. The only thing that is holding him back from it is that he hasn't come to terms with his curse."

"Yeah, I found out how touchy he is about his curse in the bath," Nabiki said.

Akane gasped and felt her cheeks burn as the vision of her sister with Haabu in the furoba at Ono-ke flashed to life in her mind.

"Oh, don't be such a prude, Akane," Nabiki said in an irritated voice.

"What did you do to him?" Akane asked before she could stop her mouth. Oh, no! I'm starting to act like Ranma!

Kiima cackled out loud. "I know what I would have done to him!"

"All I did was scrub his back and his...never mind!" Nabiki said suddenly looking embarrassed.

"His never mind?" Ranma asked, clearly enjoying Nabiki's state of discomfiture. "I was kinda worried that he might have somethin' I ain't got, but a never mind?"

"Oh, give it a rest already!" Nabiki shouted.

"Well, here comes the main gate," Ranma said, looking down the street. Furinkan's main gate was only a hundred meters or so away. "I wonder if Kuno will be waiting for us?"

"Oh, don't worry!" Nabiki said. "He's been lurking around on the grounds like a shark on a reef for two weeks now. Get ready."

"Watcher eyes, everbody!" Ranma said. Akane tried to watch him change this time, but couldn't. The flash of light was just too bright for her to make out what happened to Ranma when he invoked the change without water. It was like looking at a welding arc. The change occurred so quickly that even her relatively trained eyes missed the transition.

"Okay," Nabiki said with the most evil smirk Akane had ever seen her produce. "We are ready for Phase One of Operation Bachi."

"Divine vengeance?" Akane asked, before looking up at the sky.

"Sure!" Nabiki said as a darkish aura flared around her. "The Vengeance of Heaven is slow, but sudden when it finally arrives, and strikes without warning. Let Kiima handle Kuno, little sister. You just stay next to Ranma and watch."

Akane pouted as she punched Ranma in the arm. "Aw! Just watching isn't near as much fun."

Akane walked along on Onna-Ranma's left while Kiima stayed near him on his right side. Nabiki brought up the rear, running her camcorder.

Akane was not amazed when, as they stepped through the gate and into the schoolyard proper, Tatewaki Kuno appeared in front of them. He had, as usual, appeared in front of them as if by magic, already in a gallant pose, his bokken held at the ready. Akane gritted her teeth as her vision reddened. The memory of what he and his sister had done to wreck her wedding came back to mind unbidden.

Kuno opened his mouth to spout poetry, but no noise came out of it. He squeezed his eyes shut and stood motionless. After a long pregnant silence, he opened his left eye and quickly squeezed it shut again. Another long silence ensued. Kiima giggled. Akane felt her face begin to crack into a smile despite her fury. Onna-Ranma began to laugh out loud.

Kuno opened both his eyes, gasped and immediately closed them again.

"Ooh, I like him," Kiima said in a sultry voice. "He's funny."

Akane leaned forward so that she could give Kiima a horrified stare. It was impossible for her to imagine that anyone who looked remotely like herself would see anything good in a Kuno. What was even worse was the tone of voice Kiima used in speaking of the demented bastard.

A crowd had already formed in anticipation of the return of the morning show, but at the rather safe distance of fifty meters or so. Now they were moving in closer.

"Two Akanes!" a male voice cried out in surprise.

"What'll it be next, I wonder?" another asked.

"Can you believe that guy's luck?" another boy said, sounding disgusted. "Saotome's already got all the best lookin' babes after 'im, now he's got a copy of the sexiest one."

"Nah, he's got a copy of the second best. He's the sexiest lookin' one himself."

"I didn't know Akane had a twin sister!" one of the girls exclaimed.

"First I knew about it, too," another girl replied.

"I'll bet she's a copy from that mirror thingy," another girl opined. "You'd think they would stay away from that, wouldn't you?

"Why is one of them dressed like Ranma?" another wanted to know.

"The one dressed like Ranma has longer hair," another girl pointed out.

"No she doesn't," another girl argued. "They're just alike."

Apparently, such confirmation was all Kuno needed to fully open his eyes and actually examine what stood before him. Akane began gritting her teeth in anticipation of an unwanted hug, but Kuno was so flabbergasted that all he could do was stare at Akane, Kiima no Akane and Onna-Ranma. His jaw went slack as drool ran down from one corner of his mouth and his eyes grew to the size of hubcaps.

"Oh...Osage..." Kuno croaked, unable to call out the pet name he had given Onna-Ranma.

Kiima strolled toward Kuno in full slink mode, causing Akane to stare in open-mouthed horror. She glanced over at Onna-Ranma who blinked at Kiima's gyrating derriere in wide-eyed wonder. Akane elbowed him in the ribs.

"Can't you do that?" Onna-Ranma asked sounding as if he might be annoyed because Akane never had.

Akane fumed in silence, offering her fiance no reply. I could come close, maybe, Akane thought. How the hell does she do that? Can the five or six year's difference in our ages make that big a difference? She elbowed Onna-Ranma again just to remind him of which version of herself that he was engaged to. A quick glance at him confirmed that the baka was grinning like a tanuki stealing corn. He's teasing me again, she thought. I don't really mind Ranma looking at me that way--so long as no one else is watching.

"Well, what got into her?" an outraged female voice in the crowd asked.

"I don't know," a male voice answered, "but I like it! Oof!"

"She's acting just like that mirror copy of Ranma's girl half!" someone shouted.

Akane's shoulders slumped as dismay washed over her. The entire school is watching! her inner voice screamed. I'll never live this down!

"Ten...Ten...Ten...dou...Ah...ah..." Kuno stuttered as Kiima approached. Kiima gave the delusional kendoka a seductive smile as she took a loose grip on his wooden sword. She stepped in close to him, and gently slid her palm up and down its length and making a show of caressing it with her fingers as she did so.

"Ooh," she purred, "what a nice long stick!"

Kuno, still frozen in place, began to cough uncontrollably. After a few choking coughs, the tall kendoka's eyes crossed. Akane clapped a palm to her forehead as Nabiki began to snicker. Akane whirled around to confront her sister.

"You planned this!" Akane exclaimed with an angry hiss.

"Only part of it, Akane," Nabiki said. "We knew up front that we'd have to play part of it by ear."

"Well, what is she doing?" Akane asked.

"Showing off your inner pervert," Onna-Ranma said out of the side of his mouth. Akane started to elbow him, but stopped herself and silently counted to ten.

"Rendering her opponent defenseless, silly," Nabiki answered. "What does it look like?"

Akane whirled back around. Kiima was still gingerly stroking Kuno's bokken with the palm of her hand and smiling up at him. "It feels so nice and hard," Kiima said. "You must have great endurance, ne?"

"I don't even wanna think about what it looks like!" Akane all but screamed.

Onna-Ranma's shoulders began to shake and he was making choking sounds. Akane rapped him on the back of the head, but all that did was to make Onna-Ranma laugh out loud.

"Tell me something, handsome," Kiima said in her sexy contralto, "are you really good with this stick of yours?"

"I...I...Aiyah!" Kuno exclaimed as he began to shake uncontrollably and weaken at the knees. Beads of sweat gathered into tiny rivulets at the corners of his head, before trickling down the length of his jaw.

Akane growled through clenched teeth.

"Why don't we try and see?" Kiima asked as she tightened her grip on the wooden shaft. Kuno got a silly grin on his face. Kiima gave the bokken a sharp shove, forcing the butt end of it into an area just above the lanky boy's pubic arch. Everyone watching made a face in sympathy as Kuno doubled over in pain. Kiima shoved the light end of the bokken upwards as he bent forward, causing it to collide with his forehead.


Kuno fell to his knees and bent over again releasing his grip on his weapon. Kiima stood over him triumphantly, holding his treasured stick in her left hand.

"Now that's what I call anything goes!" Ranma's buddy Daisuke exclaimed with heartfelt awe in his voice.

Kiima seized Kuno by the hair and jerked his head back so that he was forced look up at her. She bent over a little, bringing her lips close to his.

"You are taking me to dinner tonight, handsome," Kiima said in a soft voice dripping with promise. "Pick me up at seven."

Kuno tried to answer, but could not find his voice. All he managed to get out was a whimpering croak.

"Don't be late," Kiima warned, keeping her lips near enough to Kuno's face to invoke another shiver from him. "Or I'll be forced to discipline you. Understand?"

Kuno nodded his head as best he could. This was clearly painful because Kiima still had a tight grip on his hair.

"Good boy!" Kiima whispered as she gave him a light peck on the cheek. "We'll go someplace nice first, and then you can show me that nice big furo of yours. I have heard so much about it that I am dying to see it for myself."

Kuno tried to give her an enthusiastic nod, which caused him considerably more pain. Akane became alarmed as she realized that Kuno was enjoying Kiima's abuse. Even worse was what Kiima had said to the delusional samurai.

"Now then," Kiima said as she released her hold on his hair and stood up straight. "Get some rest!"

Kiima hit Kuno with an overhand right that snapped his head around. He stared off into space for a moment before falling forward onto the grass. "You are going to need it!" Kiima broke out into peals of cackling laughter that made Kodachi's laugh seem perfectly normal.

"Akane," Ranma said, pausing to shudder, " _please_ , don't you ever laugh like that."

"Don't worry, Ranma," Akane said in a stricken voice. "I don't think I can."

"Come along, kiddies," Nabiki said in a cheery voice. "We're almost late for class."

"What on earth do you think you are doing?" Akane demanded of Kiima as they made their way into the school building. Her voice was loud enough to make everyone around her wince.

Kiima gave Akane wicked grin and said, "Sometimes you can break a dog from chasing carts by allowing him to catch one, Akane-san."

Akane stopped in her tracks. The boy walking along behind her collided with Akane's back before he could stop. Several more students ran into him. All of them fell down behind Akane who remained standing. The boys may as well have run into a steel column. Akane stared at Kiima, taking no notice of what she had just done to the foot traffic behind her.

"You needn't worry," Kiima said with an even bigger smile. "I'll take care of his most intensive training in private."

"In private?" Akane shouted.

"He's taking me to dinner tonight. I'll give him his first lesson then."

"Nabiki!" Akane screamed in rage.

"Gotta run, Sis," Nabiki answered over her shoulder as she ran up the stairs. "Lot's to do today, ya know."


Morning classes went fairly well, even though their first instructor of the day had a hard time coming to grips with two girls who looked like Akane in the class. The problem was even more confusing for him and his students because it was Kiima who wore a uniform and it was Akane who had dressed in Ranma's clothes. Ranma watched the little math teacher's face closely, expecting to be sent out into the hall to stand fire watch, but it did not happen. Much to Ranma's relief, the man simply shook his head in disgust before starting his lectures.

By mid morning, just before the start of English class, Akane was showing all the warning signs of low blood sugar. Her skin had taken on a clammy look and she was pale earlier, now she was squirming in her seat, shifting her feet about, and had broken a third pencil point in the last six minutes.

"Yo, Akane," Ranma whispered.

"What?" Akane snapped.

Ranma grinned to himself as Akane began chewing on the rice ball he had popped into her mouth.

"Don't do that in...mmph!" Akane said. "Gon ged uz indrubble."

Akane was still chewing on her second ball of rice when Hinako Ninomiya walked into the classroom. Their problem-plagued English teacher was in her child-like form and looked more than a little irate.

She's hungry, too, Ranma thought as he stared at the dreaded English teacher. It's that little-kid body of hers that's doin' it. She burns everything up so fast she's hungry all the time, just like any other gaki. She probably confuses her need for food as a need for ki. Wait a minute, though, she has ta have ki before she can do anything with food. She could eat all she wanted, but it wouldn't do her that much good.

Everyone stood up and bowed as was the custom in Japanese schools. "Good morning, Miss Ninomiya!" they chorused in English. Ranma had a rice ball at the ready.

"Good morning, class!" Hinako-sensei answered.

Ranma fed Hinako a rice ball just as she finished her sentence. It was one of the better ones he had made that morning, having a sizable piece of roast chicken in the middle of it.

"Mmm!" the tiny teacher noised as she dealt with unexpected tidbit.

Ranma stared at her intently, studying her ki. Aw, man! he thought. I can't believe I've been so mean to her all this time. She's a lot worse off than Ryouga ever was, and probably every bit as lonely. He could tell that her body needed ki. He could feel the pull even though she did not have a coin in hand. She's got a five-yen piece in her pocket, Ranma thought. I can feel the pull on my ki already. She really needs a charge bad.

Hinako surveyed her class while chewing. Ranma watched with trepidation as she took note of Kiima and Akane, then stared hard at him. When she opened her mouth to speak, Ranma filled it with another rice ball.

"Mmmp!" Hinako noised, clearly irritated even as she enjoyed the taste of Ranma's treat. Someone in the class snickered. Hinako glared at Ranma and reached into her pocket.

(Whadda ya think, Red?)

(Man, I don't know, Saotome. She's going to drain us, that's for sure.)

(Yeah, but what should we give her?)

(You mean you aren't going to try and stop her?)

(Has that ever worked before?)

(No, but...)

(But nothin', Red! You know what her problem is, right?)

(No, not really, but if your thinking that she's been soaking up all the wrong kinds of ki since Happosai got his hands on her, I agree.)

(So we do our best to be very calm and let her have as much of the right kind of ki as she can handle, right?)

(Too much guy, Saotome.)

(I shoulda thought of that, Red. You take over.)


The room was suddenly filled with an actinic flash of light as Hinako brought her five-yen piece to bear on Ranma's suddenly female form. This did not slow Hinako down at all. She steadied up on Onna-Ranma, targeting him with her coin. This action did not surprise him one bit. The teacher-tot had drained him more than once while he had been in his female form. Hinako Ninomiya was no respecter of the fairer sex.

(Sugar and spice and everything nice!)

(I woulda never thought of that, Red.)

(I know, Saotome. Here we go!)

Onna-Ranma brought up her hands, as though she were about to fire a Mokotakabisha at Hinako sensei. Scraping noises made by students trying to hide under their desks could be heard while a fluffy ball of pink colored ki formed between Onna-Ranma's hands.

"Happo Five Yen Satsu!" Hinako-sensei cried out in her little-girl voice.

"Suugaa ando Supaisu Bomba!" Onna-Ranma shouted in Engrish at the same time. The fluffy pink cloud of ki grew to the size of large beach ball, then gently wafted and wended its way over to Hinako's five-yen piece. It disappeared into the coin's central hole with a soft sighing sound. Hinako's body changed from that of a ten-year-old to that of a seventeen-year-old. Everyone in the room but Hinako and Onna-Ranma gasped aloud.

(Oh, shit! What have we done, Saotome?)

(I don't know, Red, but I like it!)

(Oh, you would! I should have expected that!)

"Wouldja look at that, Dai?" Ranma's other buddy, Hiroshi, exclaimed.

"Yeah, no kiddin'! Daisuke said. "She's really hot!"

Onna-Ranma gave Akane a worried glance, but was relieved to see that his fiancee was entirely too shocked to be angry at this point. Across the room, Kiima was holding her sides and biting her at her lower lip. The teen-sized Hinako Ninomiya glowered at Onna-Ranma.

"What are you playing at, Saotome-kun?" Hinako asked. Her voice was not the deep sexy contralto everyone was expecting. It was, rather, the voice of a teen-aged girl who was about to slap the dog-do out of someone.

"Haato ando Furawaa Suturaiku!" Onna-Ranma shouted, once again using Engrish.

This time the ball of ki that formed between his hands was a deeper shade of pink, and had bright blue lines of coruscating energy flashing inside of it. The ki-ball quickly shot across the room, disappearing into Hinako's coin. Hinako seemed to age a couple of years, looking now as though she might be about nineteen. She stared at Onna-Ranma for a moment and shivered. The class had become so quiet that the drop of a pin would have sounded as though it were an avalanche.

"We shall discuss this later, Saotome-kun," Hinako said in a cool tone of practiced authority. "We've wasted enough ti...mmmph!"

Onna-Ranma grinned and asked, "Feeling better now, Ninomiya-sensei?"

"Yes, thank you," Hinako somehow managed to reply around an unexpected mouthful of rice and unagi. "Open your books to page 254, please."

Akane opened her mouth to say something, but Onna-Ranma cut her off with a fistful of rice.

"Later, okay, Akane?" Onna-Ranma asked, pleading with her eyes. Much to Onna-Ranma's relief, Akane's face softened and she nodded her head.

(That was close, Saotome!)

(Ya got that right, Red.)

(You want we should stay girl?)

(Yeah, I guess we better. If we change now it'll just mess everybody up again.)

(Lunch period is going to be a bitch!)

(Let's burn that bridge after we cross it, Red. Right now, I want to study.)

(Oh, you want to study! Since when did you ever want to study?)

(Aw, hell! I don't know. I guess you're finally startin' ta rub off on me.)

End of Chapter 17 Part b
Copyright © Don Granberry