Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 17c

Copyright

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


"Okay, Akane!" Ranma exclaimed as the two of them walked out of Furinkan's main gate. "Time to play follow-me. Think you're up to it?"

"Sure," Akane answered, "but where did Kiima go?"

"With Nabiki," Ranma answered. "She said something about getting ready for her date with Kuno tonight."

Akane suddenly looked nauseated.

"To tell ya the truth, I kinda feel sorry for Kuno," Ranma said.

"You have _got_ to be kidding!"

"Well, not too much," Ranma said. "He's got every bit of it comin' to him."

"Hah! It looks to me as if he's about live out every sick fantasy he's ever had about me," Akane said, sounding deeply aggrieved.

"Oh, it might start out that way for him," Ranma said, shuddering at the memory of what Kiima had done to him in China, "but, it won't last long. Kiima's older and she's a hell of a lot better fighter than Kuno. What makes it really bad is that she has your body to work with. By the time she's through with him, Kuno will never even want to look at you again."

Akane glowered at Ranma. "You sound as if you know about it first hand, Ranma."

"I do!" Ranma answered.

(Oh, that was good, Saotome!)

(Well, we did want her to play follow-me, right?)

(You had better move fast then, 'cause here she comes and she's pissed!)

Ranma leaped up to the top of the tall gatepost of Furinkan's main gate.

"What did you do with her, you pervert?" Akane shouted.

"Oh, wouldn't you like to know, Tomboy!"

(Saotome! You're going to get us killed!)

(Nah!)

Ranma stuck his tongue out at his red-faced fiancee, then leaped off the gatepost to the limb of a not-so-nearby tree.

"Come on, Tomboy!" Ranma shouted. "You're gettin' behind already!"

Akane got a ferocious grin on her face before jumping to the top of the gatepost. She muffed her landing and lost her balance, but turned that into a somersault, landing on her feet partway to the tree Ranma was in. She smoothly turned her landing into a jump for Ranma's tree.

(See that, Red? She's already gettin' a grip.)

(Yeah, I'm impressed. Let's go!)

As Akane leaped up into the tree Ranma was in, he jumped out of it and into another tree some ten meters away. From there, he jumped onto a rooftop and started running.

(Is she still with us?)

(Oh, yeah! She made that second jump without a problem.)


Kiima looked at herself in the full-length mirror and smiled. She liked what she saw, even though her cursed form was that of a flatlander. Being a teenager again definitely had its good points. It was especially fun to be a teenager again and know now what she had not known before.

The dress Nabiki had helped her pick out was more like something one would expect a woman in her twenties to wear. It fell all the way down to her ankles and its black cloth clung to her body. She had worn a thin bra that lacked padding, making her form seem very natural and, for all practical intents and purposes, nude beneath the dress.

"Oh, that poor little boy!" Kiima exclaimed and then laughed. Behind her, Nabiki shuddered.

"For someone who has never been on a date before, you seem to be quite at ease," Nabiki said.

"It's the same game, Tendou-san. The change in the rules doesn't bother me in the least. I like the rules you have here much better than I do the rules we have at home. Your rules give me much more room to maneuver!"


Ranma hopped over the wall at Tendou-ke and waited in the yard for Akane to catch up. Their little game of follow-me had gone quite well. Akane was learning, literally, by leaps and bounds.

(She's doin' good!)

(Yes, she is, Saotome. She's jumping higher than I've ever seen her jump before.)

(And she's a helluva lot lighter on her feet.)

(That too...Oof! What the hells was that?)

(Akane, what didja expect. She caught us daydreamin'.)

"What did she do with you?" Akane demanded to know.

"Oh, come on!" Ranma said in tired voice. "You ain't still worried about that, are ya?"

"Of course, I'm worried, you baka!"

"She walked in on me in the bath, is all," Ranma said.

"Is that all?"

"Well, mostly," Ranma said, sounding sheepish.

(You may as well tell her the whole thing, Saotome. She isn't going to let it go until you do.)

"What do you mean mostly?" Akane asked.

"Well, I guess she assumed that because you and I were engaged, that I wouldn't think twice about you joinin' me for a bath."

"Well, I bet you got a big thrill out of it!"

"It scared the shit out of me is what it did. She just walked into the furoba and said she wanted to join me."

"What did you do?"

"I started gettin' the hell out of your reach is what I did, but by the time I got to the door, I was startin' ta worry. It wasn't like you at all to walk into the bath on me with neither of us bein' dressed."

"And what did she tell you?"

"She dropped her towel and hugged up to my back before tellin' me that she had nearly drowned at Jusenkyou. Of course, she looked just like you at the time, so I assumed that you had been cursed."

Akane gave Ranma a crooked grin. "Would've been hell if I had fallen into the Spring of Drowned Cat, wouldn't it?"

Ranma shuddered.

(It's okay, Saotome. It looks like we might survive this one. She's getting the picture.)

(Maybe, maybe not, Red. Remember what I started to say?)

"She said...she said she was afraid I might hate her after what had happened."

"And then what, Ranma?"

"Ah...well...that made me kinda mad. I turned around and told her she was bein' an idiot. That it wouldn't matter. No matter what you turned into I'd...I'd..."

"You told her that you loved her!" Akane exclaimed with an ominously sharp rise to her voice.

"NO!" Ranma shouted back. "She cut me off before I could say anything!"

"What were you going to say, Ranma?"

"Well, I mean...first she was staring up at me with those big brown eyes of yours and...and...it made me really nervous, okay? I mean...I was havin' a really hard time comin' up with the right words. Before I could get it all out, she...she...hugged me really close."

"And neither one of you was wearing anything, right?"

"I was wearing a towel around my waist, but...well...it didn't really seem to matter very much. I fell over and we wound up sitting on the floor. I let go of the Kinjyakan when we did."

"Then what happened?" Akane asked. Her face changed, much like the summer sky clouding up for a major thunderstorm.

"Mu Su and Ryouga walked into the furoba while she was hangin' on to me. Ryouga got so mad when he saw us together that he punched the wall or something. He must've broke a cold water line. Kiima and I both got sprayed with cold water."

"So you changed and she didn't."

"Right. Kiima knew right then that the game was up. She grabbed the Kinjyakan and hopped into the furo."

"And the hot water changed her back into her natural form."

"When I wanted to know how in the hell it was that she looked like you, she told me that they had made a new spring, the 'Akaneniichuan'. That scared me spit-less. I didn't know if you were dead or alive. For all I knew, a spring would only become cursed if whatever fell into it drowned itself completely dead. All I could say for sure was that you really were in China. After that, everything that happened in China turned into a sickening nightmare. I started off worrying that I would never be able to cure my curse because of what Safuron was doing to the springs, but in the end, the only thing I could think about was that I might lose you."

Akane wrapped her arms around Ranma and held him close.

(Well, that didn't turn out so badly, now did it?)

(We're still breathin', Red and we ain't halfway to the Moon, so I guess it's gonna be okay.)

"Ranma?"

"Yes, Akane?" Ranma asked as he ran his hands up and down his fiancee's back.

"Did you really mean what you said when you thought I was cursed?"

"Every word of it, and then some, Akane. Why?"

"It's just good to know," Akane answered. "I have nightmares about drowning in that pool every once in a while. Sometimes I think we will never be free of Jusenkyou. No power on Earth will ever break the hold it has on us."

"No, I guess you're right about that," Ranma said, patting her back. "Now, go do your stretches. I have a special treat for you."

"A treat?"

"Yeah, I borrowed Konatsu for a couple of hours," Ranma said, giving Akane his best, you're-in-trouble grin. "He agreed to spar with you."

"Konatsu? Spar with _me_?"

"Yeah, and remember to watch that temper of yours. This is supposed to be a light contact bout, okay?"

"But, Ranma! Who in their right mind would ever want to fight with Konatsu?"

"Well, ya gotta point there, Akane," Ranma answered as reached around to scratch the back of his head. "It would be sorta suicidal, but you won't get to spar with somebody this good very often--'cept for me, of course."

Akane stared up at Ranma for a moment before saying, "You're serious, aren't you?"

"Well, yeah, Akane! We ain't got time to kid around. What are you thinkin'?"

"I...well...I guess it's just hard for me to imagine anyone wanting to fight Konatsu."

"Well, no, nobody with good sense would wanna fight him. He'd be a handful for me _or_ Haabu.


At precisely seven in the evening, a black Mercedes Benz limousine pulled up to the gate of Tendou-ke. The weather was turning nasty, light rain with bits of sleet in it, borne along on a biting wind. The driver of the limousine got out and opened an umbrella before running the front gate of the Tendou premises. It was cold enough that knocking at the front door hurt his knuckles.

"Oh, good evening," Nodoka Saotome said as she answered the door. "Is there something I can help you with?" she asked, clearly puzzled by this unexpected visitor.

"I am Tatewaki Kuno's driver," the man told Nodoka. "I'm here to pick up Akane Tendou."

"Akane Tendou?" Nodoka asked in a voice that put the driver in mind of a sword leaving its scabbard.

"It's all right, Aunt Nodoka," Nabiki interjected. "Everything has been arranged--upstairs."

Nodoka gave Nabiki a blank stare for a moment before putting one hand over her mouth. "Oh, that's right! I had forgotten." Turning to the driver she added, "Please come in out of the weather, Driver-san. Akane will be down in a moment."


In the dojo, Akane found herself soaking wet from head to foot. She may has well have gone swimming in her gi. Konatsu was, just as Ranma had promised, more than a handful. He did not block her punches. He gently deflected her limbs as though she were merely an infant reaching out to tug at his hair. He did not dodge her so much as he danced, flowing around her like water over the rocks in a streambed one moment, and like the wind sighing through the needles of a pine the next. It was as if she were fighting with a wisp of smoke.

The frightening thing was, Konatsu would occasionally stop being smoke and become a living flame. Seemingly without transition, he would become an unstoppable aggressor. Not only was Akane dripping wet with sweat, most of her body was stinging from the light punches he had delivered during their bout. The frail looking Konatsu did not, Akane realized with growing admiration, need to hit her to win. He needed merely to exhaust her as he was doing now.

Her arms were now so heavy that merely holding up her guard was agony. Her legs ached as if she had run the better part of a marathon. She had a cramp in her left foot that ached as if a nail had been driven through the center of her arch. Her headband had long since become useless. Sweat ran down into her eyes burning great blurry holes into her vision. The booming of her own heart filled her ears like the voice of the sea. Her breath came in long ragged gasps that seemed to do nothing for her starving lungs.

Akane circled carefully, struggling to stay focused on her opponent. He peered through his guard at her with a mild, almost sweet look on his face. To Akane's heartfelt disgust, he was not showing the least sign of fatigue. His color about his ears and lips, the places Akane knew to look at first, were showing only the faintest bit of pink, and his skin had that fine sheen of sweat a man gets just as he has finished with his warm up. She had thrown everything she knew at the frail looking ninja, and had yet to feel her knuckle so much as brush the canvas of his gi top.

Konatsu suddenly flowed toward her. His speed was such that he reduced the distance between them by half before the message her eyes were sending got to her brain. She managed to dodge, but the cramp in her foot caused her to misstep and she fell.

Roll! Keep moving! her mind screamed at her. Laziness will get you killed against this guy! She forced her leaden muscles to keep her body moving, ignoring the cramps in her lower back as well as the really nasty one that had leaped into existence between her right shoulder blade and spine. She found herself wondering if getting an arrow in the back could hurt any worse. Probably not, she concluded.

Akane popped up to her feet on the far side of the dojo, only to find Konatsu standing where she had fallen. He was smiling at her as though he were hugely pleased about something. She wanted to glance over at Ranma, but knew that taking her eyes off of her opponent would be a mistake.

"That was beautiful," Konatsu said in his innocent contralto.

Akane found herself wondering what he would sound like if he wanted to be sexy and quickly realized that Ukyou was never so unfortunate as she had thought herself to be. Konatsu was a great deal more than he seemed.

"Let's see if you can do that again," Konatsu said softly before rushing in on her like the incoming tide. He was swift, unstoppable and seemed to be all around her at once.

Knowing that her guard was useless, Akane waited until the gentle ninja was just barely out of striking range before dropping to the floor and rolling again. She tried to regain her feet, but it was hopeless. She had cramps in both calves now. Even if she got to her feet, she would not be able to resist. Fighting back tears of pain and frustration with herself, she got up anyway.

Konatsu was now staring at her with a speculative look in his eye. He was still serene, but now his eyes held a look of respect that Akane had not seen before.

"Try it," Ranma said in a soft voice.

Konatsu at first blurred, then suddenly came into sharp focus again. To Akane, it seemed as though the entire world had slowed to a crawl, as if time were pouring out of its bottle like cold molasses. Konatsu's fist was rapidly approaching her face. She could see that his two largest knuckles would come into contact with her upper lip. It was entirely too late for her to block. She tilted her head to the side instead. Konatsu's fist creepy-crawled past her right ear. She answered with a front snap kick aimed at his short ribs, but it did not land. Konatsu had somehow flowed around her foot in slow motion. It was a very eerie experience. Konatsu's answer to her kick was a reverse ridge-hand to her neck. She almost snorted as she blocked it with a knife-hand to his wrist. Stepping into left hand lead, she threw a left cross at his solar plexus and that was it. Her overworked muscles locked up.

Ranma, his father and Akane's own father were clapping their hands in admiration as she fell into a tangled heap of pain and quivering muscles upon the hard boards of the dojo floor. What the hell were they cheering about? Akane asked herself, suddenly feeling hurt in far more ways than one. Tears began pouring out of her eyes.

A wave of relief washed over her when Ranma took her into his arms and held her close. The other three men knelt down around her and began massaging the cramps in her calves while Ranma gently rocked her to and fro.

"Gotta give ya credit for guts, Tomboy," Ranma whispered into her ear. "And ya really got your speed up tonight."

Akane tried to reach up and caress Ranma's cheek with her right hand, but a painful new cramp seized her upper arm. It quickly spread into her armpit. She whimpered aloud. Ranma kissed her forehead.

"Is the furo hot, Pop?" Ranma asked.

"Yes," Genma said with a grunt. "And I think you're right. Hot water is about the only thing that will help this."

"You carry her, Son," Soun said to Ranma. The overhead lighting glistened on his wet cheeks. "I'll get the doors."

After that, everything became a blur until the hot water soaked through her gi. Akane cried out in pain. The water actually hurt. Akane's skin suddenly seemed unbearably sensitive.

"Shhh!," Ranma said as, seated in the furo with Akane still seated in his lap, he cupped water in his hands and poured it onto her shoulders and upper arms.

"Make it stop!"

"It's slowin' down already, Akane," Ranma said in a gentle voice. "Try to relax."

"I hurt!"

"I know, baby, but it'll stop soon," Ranma said in a calming voice. "Just hang in there for a few minutes."

Akane buried her face in Ranma's shoulder and wept.

"Have you ever hurt like this?" she asked.

"Twice," Ranma answered in a soft voice. "The first time I did what you did today and the day I thought I had lost you."

"Get this gi off of me."

"Okay."

Ranma removed her heavy canvas top first, then tugged at her belt.

"Never mind that," Akane said with a gasp. "Hold me."

Ranma maneuvered her body around so that her back could rest against his chest. Suddenly, the pain in Akane's limbs began to fade. She laid her head back against his shoulder and guided both his hands up to her breasts, then pressed his palms against her.

"I love you, Ranma."

Ranma kissed her neck.

"Shh, just relax, Akane," Ranma said. "It takes a while to recover from this."

Akane took in a deep breath, held it for a moment before letting it out as slowly as she could. He was right. Much of the pain was already gone, but she knew that she dared not try to move her limbs. This was going to take a while. She decided that she did not mind that too much. She felt Ranma's growing manhood pressing against her back and shuddered. She wanted him now more than she ever had, but knew that any attempt to take him would come close to killing her with pain.

"It's not fair," Akane complained aloud.

"Sure it is, Akane," Ranma said. "If it was easy, it wouldn't be worth doin'."

Akane giggled. "That wasn't what I was talking about."

"Huh?"

"Never mind, baka," she told him. "What happened to me?"

"Konatsu made you reach beyond yourself tonight, Akane," Ranma told her. "It was beautiful."

"I guess I owe him one then, don't I?"

"So do I, Tomboy," Ranma answered before kissing her on the mouth.


Kiima smiled across the table at the Kuno-child and watched him come close to having a heart attack. In truth, the boy had enormous potential as a warrior, if someone ever found a way to disabuse him of his illusions. The only person she had ever known to be as delusional as the Kuno boy had been Lord Safuron. Fortunately for the Kuno boy, his problems were not nearly so severe as Safuron's. The Kuno boy lacked the ancient memories Safuron hid behind and deluded himself with.

All that was really wrong with this boy was his money and his hormones. He had far too much of both near at hand. They kept him from seeing the real world. For instance, he had failed to notice that the brandy lacing the chocolate sauce liberally poured over her ice cream and brownie were not having the intoxicating effect on her that it was having on him.

He had ordered sweet mixed drinks for them prior to dinner and each of them had two glasses of wine with a main course of aged porterhouse steaks roasted over oak until just barely dead. The steaks had come from Kobe, of course. They also had asparagus in hollandaise sauce and another dish of mixed vegetables that Kiima had never seen before. All of it had been quite good. She had seldom eaten this well, even at the tables of Safuron and Haabu.

She decided that she would reward the boy for having good taste in wine, women, food and decor. The restaurant's decor and service surpassed anything she had ever experienced. Too bad she was also obliged to do something about Tatewaki's delusions. Of course, eliminating his delusions would pay him back rather nicely for the damned poetry he had spouted off and on all evening. Sometimes, life will turn around and hand you real prize, she thought. All you can do then is smile. The evening is still young and there's a lot more fun to be had before calling it a night.


At the nearby sentou, Nabiki settled slowly into the public furo with a gentle moan as the hot water began soaking the tension out of her body. It would have been less costly and less time consuming for her to have bathed at home, but that would have meant a shorter soak and she needed a really long, long hot soak. She had earned it. The other women in the bath seemed to sense her need for solitude and were careful to give her quite a bit of space. She had one entire corner of the basin to her self.

The past two weeks had been horribly busy, but almost entirely successful. She and Kodachi, much to both their surprise, turned out to be very effective partners. Kodachi had a good head on her shoulders once you got her to drop some of her pretentious crap. The fact that she now had a man over whom she had nearly complete control had helped with that a great deal. They would have bicycles rolling off the assembly lines in another month. The lines were small and too labor intensive, but it was a definite start. Nabiki had found it necessary to reverse only one of Kodachi's decisions and make minor changes to another. On the whole, Kodachi had proven herself worthy of her fortune.

Dealing with Ko Lon proved another matter altogether. Nabiki suspected that this was because the Amazon Elder was waiting to see how a number of things turned out in China. The real estate search had turned up a huge number of leads and she expected to be able to send Ranma, Akane and Kiima on a survey mission by spring break.

The day-to-day stuff was going the way it normally did, hectic enough to be challenging and insane enough to be constantly entertaining. This left her with only one problem to crack. How was she going to sell diamonds without starting a rush, or inviting the attention of every spy and adventurer from Tokyo to Antwerp and back? It had proven a great deal more frustrating than she had originally expected. The jewelers who were always so accommodating whenever she visited their businesses on a shopping trip quickly became taciturn, if not downright surly whenever she brought up the subject of suppliers and cutters.

She knew that a lot of this had to do with their concerns about security. She herself worried about that a great deal and she had the protection of some of the most powerful men on earth. Power was not everything, though. Very often, secrecy and discretion were the only tools that would work and this was one such instance. The problem was continuing to be a major headache for her.

Nabiki laid her head back against the rim of the basin and looked upwards at the skylights built into the roof of the sentou. They had been installed as retrofits after one of Pansuto Tarou's visits to Nerima. She looked up at them just to be certain of what was overhead, as did any Nerimaean of good sense. This time it saved her from enduring a shower of broken safety glass. She was under water and on the far side of the basin well before the first gravelly bits splashed down into the water where she had been sitting.

Shortly after the glass began hitting the water, a very embarrassed Jack Burton settled into Nabiki's spot with an even more embarrassed Ryouga Hibiki sitting across his lap. Their parachutes slowly drifted down onto the floor and into the basin. Nabiki, had, of course, remembered her towel, but decided it would be more fun to make Ryouga pass out. She stood up and placed her hands on her hips before saying, "Long time no see, boys. Have a nice trip?"

Ryouga immediately bled all over Burton, while Burton merely blinked at Nabiki a couple of times in obvious surprise. He gave her a low whistle before speaking.

"Not bad, Tendou. Not bad at all."

All the other ladies quietly departed the scene. They were not particularly alarmed, given who the intruders were, but had no desire to discover the details of this visit at close range. Nabiki threw Burton a smirk and slowly sat down in the water. She felt around on the bottom and found a small towel, squeezed it out, and then placed it on top of her head.

"So, what's up with you guys?" Nabiki asked. "Just dropping in to see me?"

"Well, you might find it surprising, but yeah we did," Burton answered. "We didn't mean to interrupt your bath, though."

"I'll buy that, Jack," Nabiki answered. "So why, exactly, are you looking for me?"

"This," Burton answered, holding out something between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. "Know what this is?"

"Hmm, looks like a diamond, Jack," Nabiki answered. "Good color, too. What of it?"

"I've got lots of 'em to sell, that's what."

"Rough is hard to move, you know," Nabiki answered coolly. "I'm not the person you're looking for."

"Yeah, you are," Burton answered. "I need you to be my go between."

"Go between?" Nabiki asked. "Between you and who, Jack?"

"Me and this cutter I know."

"You know a cutter?"

"Yeah, I do. He's not a real well known cutter, but he's a good one. He was an optician working for Sony at one time, but he left them to take up diamond cutting."

"How do I get in touch with him?"

"I'll leave his card right under this little rock," Burton said as he put the card down on the rim of the basin and placed the diamond on top of it. "Hibiki and I have got to get moving."

"Okay, Jack," Nabiki said. "What do you want for the diamond?"

"It's yours," Burton said as he slapped Ryouga's cheek. "Consider it earnest money and drive the best bargain you can for it."

"I'll do that," Nabiki said with a heartfelt smile. "How will I reach you?"

"Huh? What!" Ryouga exclaimed as he regained consciousness and sat up. He glanced at the blood on his shirt in alarm, looked over at Nabiki and nearly passed out again.

"I'll call you or something," Burton said as he stood up. It was then that Nabiki realized that he was wearing a heavy pack in addition to his parachute harness. He also had several satchels of various kinds strapped to him in odd ways. A closer look at Ryouga revealed that Ryouga was similarly equipped.

"Take care, Jack!"

"Yeah, thanks a lot, Tendou!" Burton said as he and Ryouga clambered out of the water and began to beat a hasty retreat. "Take good care of yourself. I need you like no other woman I ever met."

"I'll take that as a compliment this time, Jack," Nabiki said with a genuinely happy grin on her face. "It's been real good seeing you again."

"I know it has, Tendou!" Burton called out over his shoulder just as Ryouga blasted a hole in the back wall of the sentou. "I'll be in touch!"

"Give me two weeks to deal with this, Burton!"

"You got it!"

Nabiki rushed across the basin and carefully picked up the diamond and the business card. Of the two, the little piece of cardboard was far more important to her. The diamond was of the first water, far better than anything Ranma had made so far, but that did not really matter. High quality diamonds might as well be so much railroad ballast if you lacked a buyer. Now she had a way to move the stones or, at least, it looked as if she might have a way to move the stones. Burton was reliable in his own crazy way, but nothing was a hundred percent.

She hurried out of the furo toward the dressing room only to be greeted by a couple of bored looking cops as they entered the ladies' side of the furoba.

"Hi, guys!" Nabiki said cheerfully as she quickly concealed her assets behind a towel. Both of the cops politely averted their eyes. The elder of the two did the talking.

"Are you all right, Tendou-san?"

"Oh, sure!" Nabiki said. "I just stayed out of the way until they stumbled out of here."

"Any idea of who they were?"

"No, I didn't recognize any of them," Nabiki answered. She hated telling an outright lie, but had little recourse under the circumstances.

"Did you get a good look at them?"

"Sorry, just a glimpse," Nabiki said pointing upward. "I was a little busy dodging the falling glass. It nearly fell on my head."

The grizzled cop sighed with exasperation.

"Well, we know how to reach you, so I guess you can go. We'll be in touch if we have any further questions."

"Sure thing, Officer," Nabiki answered brightly. "Sorry I couldn't help."

"No, problem, Tendou-san."

All said and done, this was the best long hot soak I have ever had, Nabiki thought as she hurriedly dressed. I knew I was good, but making a ton of money while sitting on my ass in hot water is really good--even by my standards.


Kabuki theatrics, Kiima decided, were on a par with Chinese opera, but neither was a match for what was going on in real life this evening in Nerima. The Kuno boy was beginning to grow on her. Too bad there's such a great difference in my age and his, she thought. He'll be quite the catch after he has calmed down and rid himself of some of his silly notions.

Right now, he's more like a little boy in need of playmates than anything else, she mused. It's a shame that he's still so young in mind now that his manhood is creeping up on him. Perhaps I'll be doing both him and Akane-san a favor this night. Certainly he is in for a rather rude awakening. The world is much larger than his teachers have led him to believe.

Kuno took great pride in leading her around his family's rather palatial estate. When they toured one of the smaller gardens, she stopped him beneath a young sakura and gave him a deep kiss. The branches of the tree above them stirred, even though there was no noticeable wind.

"But what of this famous furoba, of yours?" Kiima asked as they broke the kiss. Kuno could not offer her anything in the way of a coherent response right away. Kiima watched with amusement as the scion of House Kuno struggled to regain control of himself and his blood pressure. Seeing that his efforts might well prove futile unless she intervened, she pulled a kerchief from his sleeve and placed it in his hand.

"Be a dear and wipe your chin, Kuno-baby," Kiima told him. "I hate to see such a handsome visage spoiled by such a childish response. It spoils the panache you will one day be capable of."

Kuno quickly complied with Kiima's request, but gave her a long puzzled stare as he did so.

"Is there something wrong, dear?" Kiima asked.

"Ah...er...yes...NO! Not really," Kuno stammered. "It's just that..."

"That what?"

"You're...you're...you're so..."

"Different?"

"Yes! You've never responded to me this way before."

"No, I don't suppose I have, have I?" Kiima whispered as she stepped in close to him. "I'd like to make up for it, though."

Kuno shuddered as though beset with malaria, but stayed in control of his faculties as well as he ever did.

"The furoba is this way, Akane-san," he finally choked out as he offered Kiima his arm. "I trust you will find it adequate."

"I'm sure I will," Kiima said, smiling up at him. "Your Osage no Onna has told me that it is most elegant."

Kuno stumbled, nearly swallowing his tongue.

"Did you enjoy your trysts with her?" Kiima asked with an amused note in her voice. "She is quite the treat for the eye, isn't she?"

"Aaah...er...well...She...uh...well..."

"Come now, Kuno-baby," Kiima said. "You needn't be so shy about her with me. She and I are _very_ close, you know."

"You...you...are?" Kuno squeaked out.

"Hmm-hm," Kiima noised as she nodded her head. "You might even say that I am almost as obligated to her as I would be a husband, more so, in some ways. You see, as matters stand, I would have to leave my husband's side in order to follow her orders."

Whoa! Kiima thought. That put images into his head. He looks as if he might have a stroke! I have never seen a man this young whose veins stood out so much at the temples. He's turning puce all the way down to his Adam's apple.

"How...Why...How can it be?" Kuno exploded. "Why are you under her orders?"

"Didn't you know, Kuno-dono?" Kiima asked. "Ranma Saotome and I are both enthralled to her."

"WHAT?" Kuno's screamed, his eyes nearly popping out of their sockets. "You and that cur Saotome are enthralled to my Pig-tailed Goddess?"

"I'm afraid it's true," Kiima answered. "Both he and I are victims of a training ground called Jusenkyou. It has tied our fates together in a way from which there is no easy escape."

Kuno stared at her in wide-eyed wonder.

"I can understand how Saotome might have become involved with a cursed training ground. He is not without certain talents and the evil of his sorcery knows no bounds. It is only just that he labor away the rest of his life under the curse of vile magicks, but what could he have done to bring the touch of such foulness upon one so innocent and fair as thee, Akane Tendou? And how can the fair and sweet Osage no Onna be behind it all?"

Kiima gave him a raucous laugh and asked, "Tell me, Lord Kuno, how could one be so innocent and consent, nay ask, to bathe with thee? Surely you must know that your Osage no Onna and I have been lovers for more than a year."

Well, that did it. I just handed him a paradox that even he will need time to rationalize away, Kiima thought. The mere touch of a feather now would reduce him into dust.

"I should very much like to freshen up before retiring, Kuno-chan," Kiima said, giving the boy's libido a beating with her eyelashes. She put a forefinger in her mouth as she burbled, "Pretty please?"

Kuno promptly turned puce again as he led Kiima back into the house and down a long hallway. He stopped at a large double door.

"Within you will find all that you may need, Akane-san," Kuno said, his voice quavering as he did his best to remain calm. "If not, there is an intercom you may use to fetch one of the maids."

"Thank you, Kuno-chan," Kiima said as she stood up on her tiptoes and pecked the boy on the cheek. "I shall meet you in the furo, then, yes?"


Ranma stood in the hallway outside Akane's room listening to his father and Soun Tendou with growing impatience. They were gleefully discussing wedding arrangements again.

(I thought they agreed to lay off of this bullshit, Saotome.)

(They did agree. Tendou-san insisted on it. He said Akane and I needed to get our other problems settled first.)

(Well, let's not just stand here attracting flies! Set 'em straight!)

"Pop! If you want that whisker, you had best cut the crap right now!"

(Ain't this some stupid shit? I inherit the command of three armies, but I gotta bribe my stupid old man!)

(I don't call him shit-daddy for nothing, Saotome.)

"But, son, what about your mother?" Genma asked. To anyone who did not know him very well, he sounded quite sincere.

"Mom and I have agreements of our own that ain't got nothin' ta do with either of you two or the dojou, so lay off!" Ranma shouted. The air temperature around him dropped perceptibly as he did it. "Either one of you turds starts this again and there's gonna be trouble like Happosai's Revenge, got it?"

"Shogi or go, Tendou-kun?"

"I think I'm in the mood for a round of go, Saotome."

(That took care of it, for now at least.)

(Yeah, but cha know, Red, this is gonna come up at least once a month, maybe more. It's harder on Tendou-san than it is on Pop.)

(He'll live through it. Girl?)

(Yeah.)

Onna-Ranma sauntered into his room and stripped.

(Whoa! These are really sensitive tonight.)

(Well, it's been a while since they've been kissed, Saotome. They should be a little achy.)

Onna-Ranma opened a drawer and withdrew the powder-blue negligee his girl-type's copy had left. He liked it because it emphasized the color of his eyes. He pulled on the lacy panties before donning the filmy top. The light material caressed his female form deliciously in all the right spots.

(Yeah, whatever. Why this see-through nightie thingy?)

(Because she likes it!)

(She likes guys, Red!)

(Yeah, especially sexy ones like me.)

(Are you horny all the damned time?)

(Hey! I have to be horny for two of us. It isn't exactly easy being me, especially when _you_ are such a damned prude!)

Onna-Ranma opened the door a crack and peaked out into the hall. Seeing no one nearby, he opened the door a little further and listened intently. Hearing Soun and Genma talking to his mother, he flitted down the hall to Akane's room, carrying fresh clothing across his arm.

Akane was still awake. The lamp on her bedside table was still on, dimly lighting the room.

"That one looks really good on you, Ranko," Akane said with a giggle.

Onna-Ranma struck some of the poses Nabiki had taught him.

"Do you really like it?"

"Yes. Now come to bed so I can take it off."

"I get to lick on you first this time."

"Okay." Akane giggled again.


Kiima took her time scrubbing down. She wanted the Kuno boy to stew in his marble lined furo for a while before she made an entrance. Additionally, she liked the idea of an eager male waiting for her to approach him. Even though this little boy fell far short of what she could find particularly desirable in a man, he was male and he was eager and she found that deliciously exciting. It was all the more exciting because she could put on as raunchy a show as she wanted without fear of offending him. Offending him was precisely what she had come here to do.

With her ablutions completed, Kiima studied the contents of the closet. A number of yukata were hung inside. She finally chose one with a subtle white on white pattern, knowing that the thin cotton would hide little or nothing of her form. Her cursed form was a just a little bottom heavy, but that was typical for a girl of Akane's age. The difference between her cursed form and the real Akane was already apparent to the discerning eye. Akane's upper body was filling out nicely as she entered into the final spurt of growth a young woman experiences in her middle to late teens.

The Kuno child, of course, had not taken notice. A minor reason for that was Nabiki having the real Akane dress in Ranma's clothing and making sure that Ranma arrived at school in his female form. Kuno's reflexes had done the rest.

Kiima examined herself in the mirror, taking joy in the sight of her cursed form's pert, youthful breasts. The yukata did a wonderful job of covering them so that you could not fail to notice them, following the upsweep to her nipples beautifully. Also, the thin cotton was not enough to hide the dark triangle between her thighs. Kuno would be transfixed by her appearance. She would have his full attention well before she disrobed. She glanced down at the stool she had sat upon while washing up and smiled an evil smile. Yes, the Kuno child would definitely be all eyes.

Kiima picked up the stool and a large towel before slinking her way through the cased opening that led to the furoba. Just as she expected, Kuno's eyes immediately locked onto her as she entered the larger room. He looks as though he were a hunter taking aim at dangerous prey, she thought, feeling a wicked smile play across her lips. How appropriate!

He shifted his position slightly, inadvertently revealing the tip end of his manhood in doing so. Kiima noted that he was indeed quite rigid with excitement and judging from the color, ready to go at the slightest touch. She walked as slowly and seductively as she could toward the basin, allowing the Kuno child to drink in the sight of her body beneath the flimsy cotton wrap. His eyes grew to the size of dinner plates. It's funny that Akane-san worries so needlessly about her appearance, Kiima thought. She could be a real manslayer and never need to throw a single punch.

Kiima set the stool down next to a place at one corner of the basin where showerheads on flexible tubing had been installed. These, of course, had been installed so that a bather could cool off a bit, thereby extending his or her soak in the furo. She bent over as she set the stool down, making sure to give Kuno a quarter profile view of her derriere with the yukata pulled tight across it. He gulped audibly, much to Kiima's amusement. Men are laughably predictable she thought, this boy more than most.

She carefully folded the large towel that she had brought with her and set it down on top of the stool. Then she stood fully erect and faced the Kuno boy. His eyes had never wavered from her and he was looking up and down the length of her body as though he were a tiger staring at fresh meat. Kiima returned the favor, tapping into her lust for his lean body and letting it burn brightly in her eyes. Her stare struck the boy like a physical blow. He winced.

She untied her belt and let the yukata slowly fall open. Kuno sucked in a deep breath and held it. Kiima made a quarter turn to her right so that the boy would see her body in partial profile as she let her robe slip off one shoulder. Kuno groaned as the flimsy garment fell away from her form. She finished removing it, but took her time folding it neatly before setting it down on top of the towel. Once again she made certain that Kuno got a good look at her derriere and everything else that was now exposed to the air. He began to whimper. Kiima felt her body respond in sympathy and that nearly wrecked her composure.

Has it really been so long that I could let this little boy shake me? she asked herself. I suppose it has. I must do something about that soon. Life is entirely too short for abstinence, she thought as she took a deep breath and held it until her presence of mind returned. I think now I know why Akane has always been so quick to reject men in such a violent fashion. She needs one, but she wants the right one and it would be entirely too easy for her to try and have them all. Having them all would mean having none in the end. Akane Tendou needed a hero and the gods blessed her patience by giving her one.

Kiima stood fully erect again and turned to face the quivering boy in the furo. He was shaking as though the waters around him were filled with chunks of ice. She smiled down at him, acutely aware that her nipples were now fully erect and that he was staring at them. It made her tingle elsewhere.

She strolled over to the steps that led down into the basin of hot water and slowly descended, fighting the change as much as she could. She could not stop it, of course, but she had found that she could slow its progress. She seldom fought the change. She had always found the transition unpleasant and it was much easier to tolerate if it happened quickly, but tonight she wanted this little boy awakened to a world larger than the one he had been taught to believe in.

Kuno's jaw sagged as the lovely brunette in front of him became a tall blonde with a statuesque figure and wings. Kiima batted her lashes at him seductively as she used both hands to cup her mature breasts. The warmth of the furo combined with the inner fires she had inadvertently lit, caused their creamy nipples to take on a pinkish hue.

"What's the matter, Kuno-baby," Kiima asked in a now much huskier voice as she released one breast and slid the palm of one hand down until it covered her navel. "Don't you like what you see?"

"Wha...wha...wha..."

"You mean you don't like the idea of having two girls rolled into one? I thought that was your fondest wish, to have two girls at the same time."

"Erk!"

Even as Kuno's face paled with fear and shock, she could see that his libido was about to again roar to the lead. As much as she enjoyed being lusted after, she did not really want anything to do with this young lout. He had too much to learn and she needed a real man. It was time to put this youngster in his place.

"You weren't expecting this, were you?" Kiima asked in a chilling voice. "You think I'm a freak, don't you?"

"Who...who...who...who...Who are you?"

"The same person I was when I walked in here, Kuno-baby. I did warn you that I was cursed, did I not?"

"You..You're...You're some kind of monster!"

"No, not really," Kiima answered him in an even colder voice. The erotic atmosphere she had enjoyed earlier evaporated like a fog burned away by the morning sun. She made her way back up the steps and bent down to pick up one of the showerheads; once again making sure that Kuno got an eyeful.

"I'm just as human as you are, perhaps more so," Kiima told him as she sprayed her breast with cold water and reverted to her cursed form. "It just so happens that Akane is my curse. Your Osage no Onna is Ranma Saotome's curse."

"NO!" Kuno screamed. "NO! THAT JUST CANNOT BE! NO! NO! NO!"

"You see the proof of it right here in front of you, do you not?" Kiima asked. "You never really got to know your Osage no Onna any more than you ever got to know Akane Tendou, so you never learned the truth. You were too busying living in your fantasy world to recognize the fantastic, even after your nose was rubbed in it. Did you not see two of me, standing side by side with your Osage no Onna today? That was me, Ranma, and another girl you saw, not an illusion."

Kuno whimpered incoherently in response. Kiima picked up the yukata and put it on as she spoke again.

"We are all real people, not the compliant characters you dreamed up for your erotic fantasies, Milord Kuno! We have wills of our own, desires of our own, dreams of our own. You are not the center of our existence."

Having made every point Nabiki said needed to be driven home, Kiima turned on her heel and stamped out of the furoba into the dressing room. She quickly donned her street clothes, and left Kuno-ke. Half of a block down the street, Kuno's limousine pulled up beside her and gave her a lift home. The driver had, apparently, been expecting her to leave in a huff.

Nabiki had a warm towel and a hot cup of tea waiting for her when she arrived home.

"So how did it go, Captain?" Nabiki asked as she freshened Kiima's tea.

"Quite well, actually," Kiima answered with a wry smile. "He saw the transformation take place. I made sure that he understood that Ranma has a curse that turns him into Kuno's 'Osage no Onna' and I did so without ever intimating that I was anyone other than who he believed me to be."

"So no major problems then, right?" Nabiki asked.

"No...well, there was one disconcerting thing," Kiima answered.

"Oh, and what was that?"

"Your little sister is rather easily aroused," Kiima said. "She enjoys being stared at, even though she keeps her joy in it well hidden."

Nabiki laughed. "Oh, that's not news. Having Ranma around here for so long without his paying overt attention to her for a year drove her right up the wall."


For Akane, events became a blur in her memory as the next two weeks went by. Kuno stopped greeting them at the gate to Furinkan and, more importantly, kept his distance. Akane did not miss his usual contributions to her overly eventful days the least bit. She had too many other things on her mind, most of them changes she had never expected.

One was the strange turn in the relationship between herself and Ukyou Kuonji. Of all her rivals for Ranma, Ukyou had always been the one she feared the most. It was easy to see why Ranma liked her so much, but it also became obvious why he never really considered her someone he would want to marry.

Ukyou was more than cute. She was vivacious and charming. Her cooking was something to die for, and she cooked a good deal more than just okonomiyaki. While she was not in Ranma's class as a martial artist, she was accomplished in that art as well. Akane found in Ukyou someone she could be fast friends with, but Ukyou was definitely the sort who had a compulsive need to lead. She and Ranma could never be anything more than friends or perhaps temporary lovers at most. Konatsu Kenzan was obviously the ideal man for Ukyou and Ukyou herself was confirming it by talking about him in nearly every conversation she had with Akane. Akane found herself becoming very fond of the girl.

The other change that disturbed her and, more importantly, disturbed her because she found it disturbing, was the change in Ranma's relationship with Hinako Ninomiya. Rather than being greeted by Kuno every morning, they were now being greeted by their English teacher. Ranma would launch a large blob of pink ki at Hinako's child form, and give her something to eat. Usually, this dose of ki would be only enough to change Hinako's form from that of a pre-pubescent little girl to that of a gorgeous nineteen year old, which Hinako invariably found frustrating.

She would often follow or chase Ranma around the campus demanding that he give her another blast of the bubblegum colored ki. He would never do that until later in the afternoon. Though Ranma's treatment only matured Hinako's body into that of a teenager, its effect on her lasted much longer. Ranma would not give her another ration of ki until she had reverted to her childlike form again.

Akane found this to be disturbingly erotic, and the fact that it struck her that way was even more disturbing. It helped matters not at all knowing that Hinako was still rather enamored of her father. The idea that she might successfully win her father's heart because Ranma was feeding his ki to her through a hole in a coin that she held in her hand shook Akane's psyche to its foundations. This newly arisen situation proved to be an acid test of her control over her quick temper and her tendency to become jealous. So, while Kuno had ceased to be a pain, he had been replaced by a very sore trial indeed.

Another disturbing element, though perhaps she could consider it fortunate, was her growing respect and fondness for Genma Saotome. Oh, he was an unreliable cuss to be sure, but he was an absolute marvel when it came to The Art, and he really did think that she was the perfect match for his son, Akane realized that now. Her engagement to Ranma had not been just another one of his schemes, of that Akane was now certain. Genma was actually going out of the way to show her what he had in his bag of tricks.

These things had been offset in large part by Akane's growing confidence in herself and her ability to grow in the art. She had long known that she had a much to learn if she was to be a martial artist that Ranma could respect, but now she was certain that she could learn. She had not always believed that she could, and had been more than a little resentful of Ranma at times because of it. Now he was treating her in the way she had long hoped he would.

He was always there with a dry towel, hot tea and a few words of praise every morning after her bouts with his father. He stayed near her on the way to school, encouraging her, telling her that she _could_ do things she had never tried before. Their game of "Follow Me" on the way home from school everyday had at first seemed nothing more than a harsh, physical trial, but now it was a challenge she eagerly anticipated by last period.

But the most thrilling thing about it all was the work Ranma did with her in the dojo, making her perform the kata over and over and over. He would often stop her and put his hands on her to correct some minor flaw in her form. It thrilled her to stand still and let him mold her into something better than she had been. For that was what he was doing. He was molding her into an artist worthy of bearing his name. His touch was always gentle and loving while they were in the dojo, sending chills up her spine every time she felt his hands on her.

She had sparred twice more with Konatsu since that Monday night, and both times, Ranma had spent the night in her bed as a girl. She had come to understand that watching her spar with someone else aroused him. Knowing that it did made her matches with the little ninja all the more thrilling for her. She put her entire being into the bouts, even though she knew that she was hopelessly outmatched. She did it because she knew that Ranma was watching her and that he loved to see her put her spirit on display. It helped a lot to know that he would share her bed with her after it was all over, and that he would be hot and bothered when he did.

And herein lay a rub. She had learned to love Ranma despite his curse. She had discovered that she yearned for him in both his forms. He was very cuddly and loving in his female form, provided no one seemed to be looking, and he delighted in the things she could do for him while he was in that form. The truth be told, Akane found it unimaginably thrilling to reduce Onna-Ranma to a helpless mass of delighted passion. She enjoyed having Onna-Ranma do the same to her, but it was not enough.

She wanted to feel Ranma's rock hard stomach against her skin. She wanted his manhood inside her. She wanted that hard flat chest of his pressed against the softness of her breasts and to taste the skin of his neck while they lay together. She missed the feel of him gliding in and out of her and how he throbbed inside her body. She wanted Ranma the Man, but he had not granted that boon to her since they had left Ono-ke.

The reasons were fairly simple. It was the lack of privacy at Tendo-ke. Ranma's male personality simply could not abide the presence of their parents in the house while being intimate with her. She suspected that he felt obliged to hold back too much. Akane could not blame him for that. She did not want him to hold back. When it came to love, she could take everything Ranma had to deliver and then some.

"Hah!" Akane exclaimed as she put her brush down on the dresser in her room. "Privacy is something I can arrange."

She made one quick check of her clothing as she got up from her chair. She was wearing another of Ranma's silk shirts. This one was made of heavy blue silk. She was wearing a pair of her own trousers though. She had somehow managed to squeeze in a visit to a nearby department store to buy several pair. They were much more comfortable than the pants Ranma had been loaning her.

Akane responded to a knock at her door. "Yes?"

"Almost time to leave, Tendou-san," Kiima said.

"I'll be right down, Kiima," Akane answered. "Where is Aunt Nodoka?"

"In the kitchen," Kiima answered.

"Good!" Akane said as she opened her door and walked out into the hallway. "I need to talk to her before we leave."

Kiima nodded her head.

"Today is Wednesday, right?" Akane asked over her shoulder as she and Kiima made their way down the stairs.

"Yes, Tendou-san, it is."

"Perfect!" Akane exclaimed with a sunny smile. "That gives me all the time I need."

"Time for what, Tendou-san?" Kiima asked.

"Dinner on Friday night," Akane answered with an even larger smile. "I'm going to cook for Ranma."

Akane heard someone gasp in the kitchen and her smile grew even happier than it had been before. Nabiki, who was just then getting up from the table, gave Akane a concerned look.

"Akane, what has gotten into you?" Nabiki asked.

"I just want to prove to Ranma that I can be the Woman among Women, is all," Akane answered, as her sunny smile suddenly became a sly grin.

Nabiki stared back at Akane for a moment and frowned as though she were puzzled, then gave her sister a knowing smirk.

"The Woman among Women, huh?"

Akane cheerfully nodded her head.

"Okay, Sis," Nabiki said, suddenly looking as if she might well laugh out loud. "I'll give you a hand with this one. We could all do with a break."

Kiima was the one who now had a puzzled frown on her face.

"But I thought..."

Nabiki cut Kiima off with an urgent wave of her hand.

"We have to let her try again sooner or later, you know," Nabiki said. "The wisest thing for us to do is to stand aside and let her have her way--with Ranma. WE don' t need to be involved, do we?"

"No, I suppose not," Kiima said, but the concerned look never left her face.

"What were you hoping to cook, Akane-chan?" Nodoka asked as she entered the room from the kitchen. Her face was pale and she was clutching her apron with both hands, doing her absolute best not to twist it, but failing.

"Oh, something quick and simple, but tasty," Akane said. "I'm not ready for anything complicated."

"I see," Nodoka said, her face becoming even more grim.

"Shrimp cooks fairly fast, doesn't it?" Akane asked in a hopeful voice.

"Yes," Nodoka answered has her eyes glazed over and seemed to become vacant. She stared over Akane's shoulder at the wall.

"Do you have any simple recipes for shrimp?" Akane asked.

"Yes," Nodoka answered faintly. "Shrimp cook very quickly and their delicate flesh needs little in the way of seasoning. Most of the recipes for them are quite simple."

"Stick to something really simple, Akane," Nabiki advised. "Stir fry would probably be your best bet."

Nodoka shuddered.

"Aunt Nodoka?" Nabiki asked.

"Yes, dear?"

"Could I speak to you alone for a second?" Nabiki asked. "I have an idea for the weekend that I think you might find intriguing."

"Yes, of course, Nabiki-chan," Nodoka said, as she visibly calmed. "Let's talk in the kitchen."

"This time we are going to have the kitchen remodeled," Nabiki said sotto voiced as she followed Nodoka out of the room. "I promise. Where did you say you wanted that island?"

Kiima looked over at Akane and got a surprised look on her own face. Akane was beaming as though she had just won a major tournament.

"Where's Ranma?" Akane asked.

"He is outside waiting for us, Tendou-san," Kiima answered. "He was practicing his punches on the posts in the yard."

"Let's go get him and start off for school," Akane said. "I can't wait to tell him the good news."

"Good news, Tendou-san?" Kiima asked. "How can you expect him to take this as good news? I mean no disrespect, but I know all too well what your cooking is like. I have had to deal with my own, you know."

"You have?" Akane asked in a surprised voice. "Your cooking is bad when you are in my form?"

"Well, to tell you the truth, my cooking was never anything to brag about to begin with, but since Jusenkyou it has become horrific."

Akane giggled. "Isn't it great?"

"Ah...Great?"

"Yes, great!" Akane exclaimed. "It is one of the things I have learned from Ranma's dad. To be a true master of The Art, you must find a way to turn even the worst of your flaws into an advantage."

"I suppose there is some wisdom in that, Tendou-san, but I cannot see how it will work to your advantage this coming Friday."

"And you never will, Kiima," Akane said, giving her look-a-like bodyguard another of her sunniest smiles. "You never will."

Kiima shook her head in dismay as she followed Akane out into the yard. Ranma had finished his drill and was waiting impatiently for them in the cold air beneath soggy gray sky.

"Weather's turnin' rotten," Ranma said as Akane and Kiima approached. "It's supposed ta rain from now through the end of the weekend."

"Good," Akane said as she rose up onto her tiptoes and kissed Ranma on the cheek. "That will make Friday night perfect."

"Huh?" Ranma noised and gave Kiima an alarmed glance. Kiima, already blushing about Akane's display of affection, merely shrugged her shoulders in response.

"What's up with Friday night?" Ranma asked.

"I'm going to cook dinner," Akane said, beaming at Ranma. She kept right on beaming at him, even as his face crumbled like a stale cookie.

"Akane, I thought we were going to wait on that until we could go on a training trip," Ranma asked as he put the palm of one hand to his forehead. "What did I do wrong?"

"Oh, it isn't what you have done, Ranma," Akane told him, still giving him a happy smile. "It's what you haven't done that is bothering me. Besides, taking one night off from our routine in three weeks isn't going to hurt anything."

Ranma stared back at Akane as though he was torn between crying and shouting at her. She waited until he looked as if he might do both before speaking.

"Trust me, Ranma," Akane whispered as she stepped in close and put her arms around him. "Please? It's a very simple recipe and I won't get mad at you if it doesn't taste good."

"You won't make me eat it?"

"No."

"You'll taste it first?"

"I promise."

Ranma wilted into full resignation. "Oh...Okay, Akane," he said in a soft sad voice. "I promise I won't say anything insultin' about it, either."

"Oh, I know you won't," Akane said giving him quick peck on the lips. "You are going to have the time of your life, is what you are going to do."

"Come on, guys!" Nabiki shouted as she stepped out of the house. "We're going to be late!"

The three of them hastened to catch up to the rapidly disappearing Nabiki.


The weather lived up to its forecasters' word. It turned thoroughly rotten by mid-morning on Wednesday and stayed that way. Ranma took full advantage of it that day and Thursday, leading Akane home from school in two exceptionally difficult games of "Follow Me". His father had also been exceptionally difficult during the morning sparring sessions. Ranma had watched with swelling pride as Akane accepted the accumulation of bruises and sore muscles with a fierce grin and nary a word of complaint. He woke up on Friday morning, planning more of the same, but immediately realized that something had gone awry with his plan when the sound of splashing water woke him up.

(Damn, this is cold, Saotome! What's going on?)

(We're layin' in the koi pond and we're a girl, that's what.)

(But why?)

(How the hell should I know? I woke up at the same time you did!)

(Would you look at that, Saotome? Akane's standing up there on that rock grinning down at us as if she were Shit-daddy!)

(Yeah, I guess he's startin' to rub off on her a little.)

(A little! What do you mean, a little? She just put one over on us. Big time!)

(Yeah, kinda makes ya proud, don't it?)

(Yes, it does, but you know the drill! Don't let on that she's done anything special.)

(But she has!)

(Yes, that's true, but you'd spoil it for her if you let on.)

(I'm never gonna understand women.)

(It's a good thing you've got me then, isn't it? This is one of those times when she wants to be treated like one of the guys, and she's earned it.)

(I still say the gods must be crazy, but yeah, you're right. It is a good thing.)

(Man! Just look at her. She's a lean, mean fightin' machine, isn't she?)

(Yeah, almost too lean.)

(And plenty mean.)

(That too, but she had that down pat before we got here.)

(True, Saotome, very true. Shall we?)

(Let's.)

Onna-Ranma sprang out of the water as if the pond inexplicably spat him at Akane. She blocked his punches as she abandoned her perch by leaping across the pond and onto a smaller rock on the far side.)

(Nice jump, huh?)

(Yeah, it was, Red. The old man has taught her a lot. Let's work on her speed.)

(Good idea.)

Ranma jumped out over the middle of the pond and Akane jumped to meet him only the barest fraction of a second later.

(Hey! Her reaction time is way, way down, Saotome.)

(Yeah, so pay attention to what you're doing, okay?)

(We don't want to overwhelm her.)

(No, but we do--Ow!)

(Ooh! I LIKED that. Now I'm wet inside and out.)

(Will you not talk like that!)

(Well it's true! Don't tell me you don't feel it. Besides, she got through our guard and tweaked my left nipple. She's improving a lot.)

(Jump, dammit! Jump!)

(Ooh! She got the other one! It's okay though. I got both of hers.)

(Yeah, I noticed!)

(Wishing you were a guy, yet?)

(Yeah, but let's not change. This is kinda fun.)

(Kinda, he says! I'll bet she's nice and wet now. Look at how her nipples are standing up.)

(Glarg!)

(Yeah, you just enjoy the ride and think about that for the rest of the match, Saotome. I'll handle this.)

(That's what I'm afraid of! We still gotta go to school today, ya know!)

(Oh, you're lovin' it, Saotome. You especially like it when she gets jealous about Hinako-sensei.)

(Erm...)

(Erm, indeed! You liked it whenever she got jealous over Shampoo or Ukyou, too.)

(Look out, Red!)

(Whoa, she's a lot quicker than she used to be!)

Onna-Ranma was pleased to discover that he had to draw upon a fair measure of his skill to hold his own against Akane. She had come a long way in a few short weeks. To end the bout, he snagged her by the ankle in mid-air, making sure that they both landed on the grass. He then enfolded her in a modified version of his father's "Hell-Cradle" hold and began tickling her. Akane, however, devised a surprisingly effective countermeasure. Though the "Hell-Cradle" hold was inescapable, Akane could still reach a rather sensitive part of Onna-Ranma's anatomy.

(That's not fair!)

(Hey, it's anything goes, Saotome. Remember?)

(Yeah, but that's just...just...Oh! bubeebeebeee.)

(See, it's not so bad when you just give in and enjoy it, is it Saotome?)

"Okay, Akane," Onna-Ranma said in a whimpering voice. "You win."

"I do?" Akane asked in a surprised voice. "You are going to admit that I won?"

"Well, you're finally learning to...Oh, that felt good!"

"You want me to do it some more?"

"No, we had best get ready for school."

"Ranko?"

"Huh? How did you know?"

"Where's Ranma?"

"He...well...he..."

"Never mind," Akane said with a smirk frighteningly similar to Nabiki's. "I think I know what happened. Race you to the bath?"

"Nah, I'm going to walk," Onna-Ranma answered as he let go of Akane and tried to stand on wobbly legs. "We still have a long day ahead of us."

"Yep! Ranma is definitely out of it!" Akane exclaimed. "Do you need some help?"

"Yes, please."

Akane put her arm around Onna-Ranma and the two of them made their way into the house. They were greeted by unmitigated cacophony. Soun and Genma were rushing around the house fetching things while Nodoka and Nabiki barked orders and asked each other questions in loud voices. There was a pile of luggage in the great room. Akane took it all in and smirked. Onna-Ranma toed a piece of the luggage and then scratched the back of his neck.

"What's goin' on here?" Onna-Ranma asked. "We movin'?"

Akane giggled. "I'm cooking tonight, remember?"

"So? I mean...well...uh..that is..."

"It looks as if we'll have the house to ourselves for the whole weekend," Akane said with that special smile she ordinarily reserved for Ranma when no one was looking. They made their way into the furoba and began undressing.

(Holy shit! The whole weekend! Did you hear that, Saotome?)

(The...the...weekend? Two nights and two days?)

(Yeah! Think you can handle it, big boy?)

(Ah...well...uh...that is...)

(That's okay, Saotome! Whenever you get tired, I'll take over. Everything will be just fine.)

(Will you please at least have the decency to blush?)

(Like this?)

(Oh, no! She's doin' it to me again!)

(Ooh, yeah! She knows just how much to bite, doesn't she?)

Their soak in the furo consumed rather more than their budgeted time allowed, but not quite enough to make them late for school. Onna-Ranma changed into his male form as they stepped out of the changing room into the hallway.

"You guys had better eat fast," Nabiki chided, "or you'll be late for school."

"Hah! Look who's talking," Ranma said looking Nabiki up and down. She was wearing a nice pair of gray slacks and a black pullover sweater. "Where's your uniform? You aren't going to where that to school, are you?"

"Of course not, Ranma," Nabiki said. "I'm not going to school today."

"Oh," Ranma answered with a puzzled look on his face. "Why not?"

"One of my people found an interesting piece of property across the channel from Hiroshima, so everyone but you and Akane are going to go down and have a look at it."

"Have ya said anything to Haabu about it?" Ranma asked.

"He knows about this place and several others, but he's waiting for a detailed report on them," Nabiki told him.

"Have Pop and Kiima look it over and take lots of pictures," Ranma instructed. "That'll be real important to Haabu and me."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Cold Dragon, sir!" Nabiki said, throwing Ranma a mock salute.

Ranma gave Nabiki a dumbfounded stare.

(Saotome, did you just give Nabiki an order? Nabiki?)

(Yeah, I guess I just did.)

(And she took it, right?)

(Looks that way. Who knows how she'll follow it though.)

(Hey, we'll just settle for what we can get for now, okay?)

(I don't think I like givin' orders, Red.)

(Better get used to it, Saotome. We haven't got any choice, remember?)

(I don't hafta like it and I ain't ever gonna.)

(We wouldn't be you if you did, Saotome.)

"Come on, Ranma," Akane said in an impatient voice. "I'm hungry."

"Now there's a change!" Nabiki exclaimed. "A Saotome that has to be told to sit down at a loaded table."

((FOOD!))

Nodoka had overloaded the table that morning. There was a platter of dried sweet fish sitting right next to the fried bacon, a huge bowl mounded high with golden scrambled eggs, a pitcher of orange juice, hot tea and even coffee. Akane and Ranma dug in with abandon, demolishing two hours of Nodoka's work in less than fifteen minutes. Then, they were off to school.

Hinako Ninomiya was waiting for them, of course. Ranma could feel the diminutive teacher's presence well outside the gate.

(Yo, Saotome. Since when have we gotten this sensitive to ki signatures?)

(Gee, I dunno. I never really paid any attention, did you?)

(Nope. It's a shame, too. We need to start keeping a diary or something.)

(Diaries are dangerous, Red. You can never tell who might get their hands on one.)

(True. Maybe we should write it in some obscure language.)

(Like fifteenth century Japanese, maybe? We could almost pull that off now without much study.)

(It's not the best of options, but better than modern Japanese or English, I suppose.)

(Yechh! I hate English. Too hard to spell anything and the rules are so stupid.)

(Old Japanese it is then. Girl!)

"You're getting better at that, Ranma," Akane commented. "There was hardly any flash that time."

"You won't believe why," Onna-Ranma answered.

"Try me."

"All I hafta do is slow down the change a little bit and there's no flash."

"How could speed have anything to do with the flash?" Akane asked.

"Dunno," Ranma answered with a shrug of his shoulders, "and I don't know who to ask, either."

"Why do you change into a girl and then throw that funny colored ki at Hinako-sensei every morning?" Akane asked in the voiced that she used when jealousy was making her angry.

(Watcha gonna do now, Red?)

(That's easy, Saotome. Just tell her the truth.)

"'Cause she's sick and she needs the right kind of ki from a...a...a..." Onna-Ranma began to stammer rather than finish his thought out loud.

(A WOMAN!)

(Hey, you were being the doc, Doc! Remember?)

(Well, yeah, but...but...but...)

(But what? Afraid to admit that you're a woman among women?)

(Mom'll kill me!)

(No she won't!)

Akane began giggling and nudged Onna-Ranma's shoulder.

"Has he passed out again, Ranko?" she asked.

"No, but he'll have to go guy again real soon or he may fall to pieces," Onna-Ranma answered sounding a bit confused.

"Are you going to be all right?" Akane asked, now sounding concerned.

"I...I don't know, Akane," Onna-Ranma answered. "This is kinda weird. It's worse than findin' out I could get pregnant, but I don't know why."

Akane stared at Onna-Ranma with an alarmed look on her face.

"Can you change back into a guy?"

"Huh? Oh, sure! It's just that I didn't realize how deep the curse runs until just now, Akane. I don't remember the curse ever affecting the way I practice the Art, at least not on this level."

"Change, Ranma!" Akane exclaimed. "I want my man back, right now!"

Onna-Ranma stared up at his somewhat taller fiancee. The look on his face went from one of puzzlement to hurt.

"He's still here, Akane," Onna-Ranma choked out. "He really is. It's just that when...whenever something new about the curse turns up he goes into a tailspin."

"And you take over?" Akane asked in a worried voice while looking as if she might start crying.

"What else would you have me do?" Onna-Ranma asked. "Leave a body like this defenseless?"

Much to Onna-Ranma's surprise, Akane giggled.

"What's so funny?"

"You are definitely Ranma, whether you know it or not, Ranko," Akane answered. "Only Ranma would say something like that. There really is only one of you."

(Saotome?)

(Hey! It's usually just you that keeps me confused about who I am. Now ya got her doin' it!)

(Guy?)

(Yes!)

Akane's gaze stayed locked upon Onna-Ranma's eyes as the transformation took place. She tilted her head back as Ranma gained height.

(Whoa, look at her, wouldja?)

(Yeah, she's really turnin' on the sex appeal, isn't she?)

(Well, ya don't hafta sound bitter about it!)

(I'm not, it's just that...)

(Yeah, I know. It _is_ kinda hard to deal with, ain't it? Too bad she can't change into a guy, huh?)

(Did you just think that or is my hearing going bad?)

(Nah, I hafta admit it. There's times when you're in control that I can understand why you feel the way ya do. I can see the same thing in Akane right now.)

(Well, it's the same for me, Saotome. She's changed a lot, especially in the bust.)

(Yeah.)

(And those legs!)

(Yeah.)

(Even her face looks healthier!)

(She's beautiful, Red, and she becomes even more beautiful with each passing day.)

"Ranma?"

"Hmm?"

"You can undress me for real after dinner tonight instead of just using your eyes," Akane said with a smug grin on her face, "but right now, we had best head for class."

"I'm thinkin' maybe I should just throw you over my shoulder and take ya home!"

"Don't tempt me. We have a math test today, remember?"

"Shit!"

"Besides, you haven't given Hinako-sensei her treatment this morning."

"I thought you didn't like me doing that," Ranma said.

"I wouldn't like it if you took up petting cobras for a hobby, either, but you are what you are and I love you for it."

(Saotome, why do I get the feeling she knows something about us that we don't?)

(Why are you surprised?)

(Since when did you start answering questions with a question? Am I rubbing off on you or something?)

(Well, duh!)

(Girl!)

Ranma watched Akane's eyes as his form changed.

(See, Red? She loves us both. Nothin' to worry about, right?)

(Yeah, but I guess there's times when she wants us to be manly worse than Mom does.)

(Oh, so it's "Mom" now, is it?)

(Yeah, even if she does look at me funny.)

(She's gettin' used to me, Red.)

(Yeah, a little at the time. Too bad she can't be like Akane and just love me for what I am.)

(Hmm, maybe we should get Akane to talk to her sometime.)

(Good idea, Saotome.)

(Let's go take care of business so we can give Akane a thrill or two.)

(I'm on it, Saotome.)

"Let's go, Akane. We're wasting time."

Onna-Ranma linked arms with Akane and the two of them made their way through the gate. Hinako Ninomiya was waiting just inside, her favorite five yen coin at the ready. Onna-Ranma never got the chance to form his usual cloud of pink ki. Instead, a hot pink bolt erupted between him and the diminutive English teacher. She immediately changed into her adult form. Onna-Ranma, Akane and Hinako-sensei stared at one another in shock.

(What the hell just happened, Saotome?)

(Ya got me! Check on Akane!)

"Are you okay, Akane? You didn't get drained, didja?"

"Only a little," Akane answered. "It wasn't nearly as bad as touching that staff was."

(A staff, Red! That's what Hinako-sensei needs!)

(We should've thought of that one before now, Saotome!)

(It would have to be pre-charged and it would take her a while to learn how to use it, but it might work.)

(Let's think it through and do some testing first, Saotome.)

(Yeah, and we gotta talk to Doc Tofu about it.)

(Agreed.)

"Thank you, Saotome-kun," Hinako said in the sultry contralto of her adult form. "That was very good."

(Yeow! Akane's hair practically stood on end! Did you feel that, Saotome?)

(Oh, yeah! Guy!)

Ranma bowed to his English teacher and said in English, "You are quite welcome, Miss Ninomiya."

"Until later then, Mr. Saotome," Hinako-sensei said, giving Ranma a radiant smile before walking away.

"That...that vamp!" Akane hissed.

"She's not a bad person, Akane," Ranma said in a quiet voice as he began leading her toward the school building. "Come on, we're runnin' out of time."

"It's Happosai's fault, I know," Akane said with sigh. "but she gives me the creeps just the same. You do realize that if you cure her, she'll be after my dad again."

"And it would be a bad thing for your dad to have a babe on his arm?"

"Ranma!"

"Akane, give the poor guy a break, will ya? He's gonna be all alone soon, 'cept for my old man and Mom. What kinda life would that be?"

Akane gave out an exasperated sigh. "I suppose you have a point there, Ranma, but why her?"

"'Cause she likes him. She's good lookin' and..."

"She was another student and victim of Happosai's?"

"Yeah, somethin' like that. It's not somethin' that can be kept in the family so we may as well keep it in the school."

"You think she might be a powerful ki adept, don't you?"

"Yeah, what happened this mornin' kinda proves that, doesn't it?"

"I don't like it!" Akane exclaimed. "She's infantile."

"Hey! Your dad can handle that, believe me."

Akane gouged Ranma in the ribs with her elbow, or tried to, but Ranma felt it coming. Using the technique had so carefully developed while staying at Tofu's clinic, he scooped her up into his arms and kissed her full on the mouth. Cheers broke out all across the schoolyard.

"Have you lost your mind, Ranma Saotome?" Akane shouted as he broke the kiss. Her eyes blazed with anger. "Everybody can see us!"

"Yeah, well they need to see us," Ranma snapped, letting his blue eyes turn stormy. "US!" he shouted. "Ya got that? Ranma and Akane! It's about time they all got the message. You belong to me and I belong to you! If any of 'em's gotta problem with that, I'll turn dragon on 'em!"

(Whoa! She just went completely limp, Saotome.)

(Yeah, and that fire in her eyes just turned into somethin' else.)

"It took you long enough, dummy," Akane said in a near whisper before pulling his head down for a lingering kiss. Ranma slowly set Akane back on her feet after they broke the kiss, but held her close for a moment and stared into her eyes. The students around them began cheering again.

"Let's get to class," Ranma said in a soft voice.

Akane silently nodded her head in response. Ranma took her by the hand as they entered the school building and walked down the hall.


During the last class of the day, Akane became increasingly uncomfortable in Ranma's clothing and was having a hard time understanding why. She had long ago gotten past the near pathological need most Japanese schoolgirls have to wear a uniform. That was not the problem. She had grown accustomed to being different. Life with Ranma and his father had given her little choice in that respect. Something else about what she was wearing bothered her. If only she could put her finger on it.

She glanced over at Ranma, hoping he would not notice her looking at him. She needn't have worried. Ranma's attitude about school had changed completely. He was giving their teacher his full attention. She studied him for a moment, and suddenly realized that Ranma had changed. He was bigger.

His shoulders were wider now, testing the material of his shirt across his back even though he was perfectly relaxed. His upper arms, always strong, were now more massive, filling the normally loose sleeves of his shirt. His forearms were larger as well, and the rolled up cuffs of his shirtsleeves were held tight against his skin. He's hard, she thought. He's hard all over. He probably hasn't realized that he is outgrowing his clothes yet. He must have learned to ignore that kind of thing while he wandering around Asia with his father.

Akane let her gaze wander down the length of Ranma's body. Though alert, he was relaxed. He sat with his legs extended out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. His trousers were becoming too small for him as well. The tied-off cuffs of his britches were riding high above his ankles.

He's so like a cat, Akane thought. When he relaxes, he relaxes completely--almost as if he were completely boneless. The memory of him purring while he cuddled up to her back at night came to her unbidden and she had to stifle a giggle. He was not the least bit shy about purring while in his girl form, but he had to be half-asleep or exhausted before he would purr in his male form. The deep rumbling purr of his male form was both sexy and comforting. She found herself wishing he would do it more often.

Of course, she thought, I can make him growl when I really want him to. He does that without realizing it while we make love. She shivered uncontrollably as she remembered how his steely buns felt against her calves while his thick manhood spread her open and forced its way deep into her body.

I know what is wrong with these clothes, now, she thought. They are too loose on me. I can't show off my body to him when I'm wearing this stuff. I want to make him want me. The other boys don't look at me quite the same when I am dressed this way either, and I like it when envy burns his skin as if it were a whip.

He loves me. He fell in love with me the day he arrived: at the very moment I asked him if he wanted to be friends, but I did not think that he would ever admit it. It's that damned pride of his. I had to stand with him against an angry kami before he could admit that I owned him, but I knew it all along. He owns me now. He owns me in a way I never thought any man ever would--heart, body and soul.

The teacher began writing their homework assignments on the blackboard and Ranma turned to look at her. Their eyes locked. Akane felt her heart stop for a second and then it began to race. She could see the deep-lying fires of desire burning in Ranma's stormy sea-blue eyes and knew that the same fires were burning in hers. Then she saw the faint lines of worry cross Ranma's face and his left eye got that little squint at the corner whenever something was bothering him and she almost giggled. She held his gaze and gave him a wry grin.

I know what you're thinking, Ranma, Akane thought. You are thinking that you are going to get me home and drag me off to the furo and into bed before I can try to cook. Well, I have a surprise in store for you, my love.

The bell rang. It was loud in both their ears, Akane knew because she watched Ranma flinch at the same time she did. This time she did giggle aloud.

"Follow me, Ranma!" Akane exclaimed as she reached beneath her desk and seized her book bag by its strap. "I'll bet you can't do it!"

Ranma's jaw slackened for a moment and then tightened up again as he gave her the grin he gave anyone who challenged him.

"Lead on, Tomboy!" he answered. "I'll give you a head start."

"As if!" Akane answered as she slung her books over her shoulder. "You won't catch me today, Saotome."

"Get movin', Akane," Ranma said. "You can't outrun me and there's no place you can hide from me."

"We'll see about that, Ranma," Akane said, giving him a lascivious grin. "Winner gets to cook dinner."

Ranma's jaw went slack again as Akane quickly rose from her desk and bolted for the classroom door. Ranma stared after her for a moment, unable to move.

(Did she just say what I thought she said?)

(She sure did, Saotome! What the hell are you doing? We're just sitting here while she's out there making tracks, dummy!)

(That's okay! Ya know she's headed for the market to buy shrimp.)

(She said "Follow Me", Saotome! We gotta do everything she does or we lose, remember?)

(Shit!)

Everyone in the classroom broke out into peals of laughter as Ranma Saotome blurred into a long red and black streak that streamed out the classroom door. Even Ukyou Kuonji cheered him on as he left.

He began catching up to her as she burst out of the main doors and flew down the broad steps leading up to the entrance of the school. Akane did not head for the schoolyard gate. She leapt up onto the wall instead, and sprinted down its length.

(Whoa! She's graceful!)

(Ya got that, Red! Didja she see how far away from the wall she was when she jumped?)

{{Nearly four meters, Saotome. Our treasure is proving to be fleet of foot.}}

(And she didn't wobble when she landed on top of the wall, Saotome. It's almost as if she can fly.)

(Maybe she can, Red.)

{{She is learning to make effective use of her ki.}}

(She's been doin' that for a long time, Scales. Ya just hafta make sure she doesn't get time ta think about it.)

(She was thinking about it today, Saotome. I'll give you long odds she's had her route planned for days.)

(Yeah, I think you're right, Red. This whole thing with dinner tonight was just a set up. She just wanted us to have the house to ourselves.)

(Heh, I think I'll encourage her to make a habit of it.)

Akane did not lessen her pace as she approached the corner of the schoolyard and the wall turned. Instead, she leaped upwards and outwards, as though she intended to land on the sidewalk on the far side of the street.

(Holy smokes, Red! She's gonna make it all the way to the eave of that house!)

(She did make it, Saotome. You'd better hurry if you don't want to spend the night worshiping at the porcelain altar.)

(Yeah, yeah! I'm hurryin'! Man, that was a long jump!)

Akane did not hesitate or falter upon landing on the roof, but kept her momentum by racing upwards until she reached the ridge and turned to sprint down its length. Ranma reached the ridge just as she jumped off the far end, making a dainty landing on the ridge of the next roof.

(We'll reach the market in no time at this pace, Saotome. Stay close, but don't catch her until we land in the square.)

(I gotcha! Man, this is fun!)

{{Courtship _is_ fun! We needed to do this. Our treasure needs to know that we love her for herself.}}

(Ya got that right, Scales.)

(This is a hell of a lot better than all that fussing and fighting we were doing before.)

(No, kiddin'!)

Ranma continued to follow as Akane flew across another half-dozen rooftops. His heart froze in his chest when she jumped down from the last one, obviously intending to land on the fence that ran beside the canal. He found himself stifling a scream as she made a perfect landing.

(That scared me spit-less, Saotome!)

(Yeah, me too!)

{{Our treasure is learning confidence.}}

((Too much confidence!))

{{Tut, tut! Now is the time for concentration, not irritation.}}

Ranma made an unsteady landing on the canal-side fence, but managed to keep his balance. By then, Akane was nearly a hundred meters away. He had to sprint to begin catching up to her again. They ran on for perhaps another half-kilometer when she suddenly leaped off the fence, landing on the top of a passing bus.

(I'm gonna chew her out for that one!)

(Easy, Saotome! She's just trying to show off a little. She's earned the right.)

(Yeah, but that was dangerous as hell! Besides, we gotta try to catch the same bus.)

{{Make haste, Saotome. The bus stops at least four times between here and the shopping district. We can catch it if we do not hesitate.}}

(Speed it is, Scales!)

Ranma called to his body for more power and, as always, it answered faithfully. He jumped off the fence and landed on its top just as it pulled up to the third stop. Akane made no attempt to get away, but simply sat still and grinned at him.

"Hey, you two!" the bus driver called up to them from the door of the bus. "Get down here, buy a ticket and take a seat like everybody else!"

"Yeah, okay!" Ranma answered without taking his eyes off of Akane. "We'll be right down."

Akane did not give Ranma time to help her down. Instead, she grabbed the drip edge and swung herself through the door of the bus. Ranma followed suit, pausing to pay the driver before following Akane to where had already sat down. The bus driver shook his head and grinned at Ranma with amusement as he sat down beside Akane.

(Whoa! She smells good, Saotome!)

(Yeah, and look at that face! I don't think I have ever seen her this happy before.)

(It's definitely going to be a guy-type night for us, Saotome. She's really hungry for you.)

(Really?)

(Of course she is! She's hungry for you like I get hungry for her.)

(Oh.)

Akane snuggled up to Ranma and relaxed, even though neither of them was cold.

(Ooh, she is so soft.)

(Yeah, she is, Saotome.)

(And so tiny! I'm almost afraid to touch her.)

(She wants you to touch her, Ranma.)

(Ya sure?)

(YES, I'M SURE! Now put your arm around her before you hurt her feelings, dipstick!)

(Okay, okay!)

(Feel that heat?)

(Yeah.)

(What does that tell you?)

(That I need to be alone with her for a while. I need to be a guy and nothin' else, right now.)

(I know, Ranma. I know. I'll talk to you later, okay?)

(Keep an eye on me, though.)

(Oh, don't worry about that! Her guy side will come out again sooner or later, but maybe not tonight.)

(Guy side? She has a guy side?)

(Everybody's a little bit of both sexes, Saotome. Akane has a little more guy in her than most girls do, that's all.)

(I guess it's a good thing, huh?)

(Yeah, we got lucky. See ya later.)

The bus was by no means empty, but Ranma was only aware of Akane and no one else. Her shoulders felt fragile, even though he knew better than most men that they weren't. His own, he knew all too well, were of much the same size whenever the curse was upon him and he knew that he remained quite powerful while in that form. Yet, it made no difference to him now. He wanted to be gentle with her, as if she were made of fine crystal. He wanted to savor the softness of her and delight in her scent.

Akane seemed to sense his change in attitude and somehow became even softer and more feminine. Ranma's heart began to race. Akane placed the palm of one hand on his chest and smiled up at him. She was leaning against him with one cheek on his left shoulder. He bent his neck and kissed her lightly on the lips. She gave him a warm smile and buried her face in his shoulder.

"I love you, Ranma Saotome," Akane said in soft voice.

Ranma held her close, trying to tell her how he felt by the way held her. Hoping that she would understand that he would never let her go.

"I love you, Akane Tendou," Ranma said in a whisper. "I'll never let you go."

Akane's response was to press herself closer and take one of his hands in her own. She stroked his thumb with hers. Ranma gave out a contented sigh and relaxed. Quiet happiness was something completely new to him and he took the time to savor it.


End of Chapter 17 Part c
Copyright © Don Granberry