Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 18a

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.


Ko Lon felt the Saotome Childe's agitation long before he neared her restaurant and domicile. She was reasonably sure she knew what had troubled the young man she had come to love as one of her own grandchildren. She had felt the passing of a loved one several days ago and had already begun grieving. There was little question in her mind that it had been the Revered Grandmother of the Joketsuzoku whose passing she had felt in the night. Ranma would soon bring her confirmation. Everyone's fate was now sealed. Fortuna had spun the wheel and not even the Cold Dragon could elude the outcome.

She made no move to leave her room. There was no need for her to. The men Haabu had left with her were both experienced and dutiful, unlike Shan Pu and Mu Suu. Shan Pu, of course, was most dutiful, but lacked the experience Ko Lon needed on hand at the moment. Mu Suu was too wrapped up in his own troubles and was devoted to Shan Pu before all else. Both of them needed time away from Nerima and time to say goodbye to the land they were born in. They would not be staying there. The Land of the Wa would soon be their permanent home, even though their new home would be well away from Tokyo.

Ko Lon was grateful for that. Tokyo had its conveniences, but it was not a good place for her people to raise their most important crop--strong children. No, they would settle in a place that the locals did not prize and turn it into a region that would be envied by all who saw it. Many of her people would be disgruntled by it all, but the majority would adapt quickly enough. Life would be better, far better, for them here than it could ever have been in China. Besides, they had become complacent and unimaginative. There was no better cure for that than to be confronted with new problems and new opportunities. Ko Lon had no qualms about enjoying the memories of her past, but did not pine for times gone by either. She was like everyone else who was alive and living. She lived in the eternal now. Now was all she had and now was that with which she would work.

She felt the peculiar tingling on her skin she always got when someone with very powerful ki was very near. She knew that it had to be Ranma. I'll have to have a word with him about this, she thought. He needs to be aware of how he broadcasts his movements when he is preoccupied. Even a dragon needs to know how to be discreet and should be discreet of out of habit. He should be noisy only when it suits his purposes. Fortunately, he does usually listen to me, even though he often pretends not to. A grin lighted Ko Lon's wizened face as she continued thinking about the young man. His insolence is almost always calculated as well. He learned that trick at a very early age.

There came a knock at her door.

"Show him in," Ko Lon said without asking who was disturbing her or why.

"At once, Honored Elder," the man on the other side of the door replied.

She did not hear his footsteps, but then Ranma was habitually careful of his steps on wooden floors. She did feel his presence, however. It was strong and agitated, but there was no hostility that she could detect. He opened the door without knocking.

"Hello, Revered Grandmother," Ranma said in a surprisingly deep, but gentle voice. He set a heavy leather satchel down at Ko Lon's feet. "I have messages for you."

"Thank you, child," Ko Lon answered. "Would you stay and have tea with me?"

"Of course, Grandmother," Ranma answered and the note of genuine love and respect she heard in his voice struck Ko Lon to the quick. "I would enjoy that very much."

"You have news for me, Ranma?" Ko Lon asked as she poured tea for the two of them.

"Something you probably already know about," he answered. "The Revered Grandmother died on her way here."

Ko Lon sadly nodded her head. "I felt the passing of someone close to me several nights ago," she said. "I assumed it was her."

"Everyone that matters has approved of you as her successor," Ranma said. Ko Lon noticed hesitation in the boy's voice.

"I see," she said. "Does that include the approval of the Cold Dragon?"

"You know it does."

"I do now."

Ranma responded with a derisive snort. "Who am I to defy all those people, including Haabu?"

"You are the Cold Dragon, Ranma," Ko Lon answered between sips of her tea. "You might well find it necessary to defy them all and overrule them one day."

"It's crazy," Ranma said, almost whispering. "Why me?"

"Life is very often crazy, Ranma."

"But not on the important stuff!"

Ko Lon laughed. Her laughter was hard and bitter. "The more important it is, the madder it is likely to be!"

"It doesn't make sense!"

"It always makes sense once you know the causes, Ranma, but very often you cannot learn of all the causes."

Ko Lon watched with amusement as Ranma studied his hands for a moment. He changed into his female form and studied his hands again.

"Yeah, maybe you're right. I'll probably never know why Pop took me to Jusenkyou, or why it was that I fell into the Spring of Drowned Maiden instead of some other one."

He changed back into his male form and studied his hands again.

"Your father took you to Jusenkyou hoping that you would become better at The Art."

"Yeah, but why Jusenkyou?" Ranma asked. "Now that I am teaching, I figured out something about my old man that I had never realized before."

Ko Lon could not help herself. She began to guffaw.

"Go ahead and laugh," Ranma said sounding annoyed. "I got it comin'! But now I know for a fact that the old man almost never did anything at random. He always planned in advance. We had accidents and things went wrong, but he had to have known more than he has let on about Jusenkyou!"

Ko Lon wiped a tear from her eye and tried her best to stop laughing, but failed.

"And, you knew what you were doing when you took Xian Pu there. I'll bet you even chose the spring you wanted her to fall into!"

"So...so I did, Ranma. That's very true."

"Did the old man choose a spring for me?"

"I doubt it," Ko Lon said. "Knowledge of the springs has always been limited to a select few. You simply got lucky, that's all. You fell into the spring with the curse that was the most difficult for you to deal with."

"Huh?"

"Think about it, child! What could have been more your opposite? The animal curses are relatively easy to cope with by comparison."

"How can that be? I'm never cursed to be as helpless as Ryouga or Mu Suu or even Xian Pu!"

"True, you are never as physically vulnerable as they are because of your curse."

"Then how is it that my curse could be so much more difficult than theirs?"

"Because of who you were at the time, Ranma," Ko Lon said. "The change from male to female would have had a devastating effect on any young man, but for you, being raised the way you had been raised, it was especially difficult, even tragic."

Ranma stared in silence at Ko Lon. She could see that he was busy trying to assimilate what he had just been told.

"Everyone mistakenly assumes that changing from one human form to another is easier to deal with than say, becoming a duck or a pig and I suppose it is in several superficial ways."

"Yeah, like not bein' able to open a door when ya need to, or havin' someone mistake you for his next meal!" Ranma exclaimed.

"But those are mostly just physical hazards, Ranma," Ko Lon said. "Facing that kind of trouble is something that every warrior expects to deal with as a matter of course."

"What about the urges animals get?" Ranma asked. "That ain't normal!"

"Isn't it?" Ko Lon asked, giving her student and colleague a knowing smile. "We all have an inner animal, whether man or woman, Ranma. Everyone is accustomed to dealing with those kinds of urges. The priorities behind them are the same for everyone."

Ko Lon was delighted to see from watching the boy's face that he was giving her words some serious thought. Ranma suddenly changed to his female form and studied his hands again. Much to her surprise, he pressed the palms of his hands to his breasts before changing back.

"I think I know what you're driving at," Ranma said, "but I'm not at all sure how it helps you learn more of The Art."

"Aren't you?" Ko Lon asked. "Would you be nearly so resourceful as you are now if you had not been required to adapt to the curse?"

"No, but I could have learned that kind of thing by becoming a weasel or a lion."

"Not really," Ko Lon said. "You would have learned something else altogether and would never have become so terribly deadly as you are now. Humans, my boy, female or male, are the most dangerous creatures on earth."

Ranma suddenly got a fierce grin on his face. "And it's always the female of the species ya gotta watch. Pop told me that a long time ago."

"Your father is nothing if not a born survivor, Ranma."

"So I don't suppose it would do a girl much good to get the opposite of my curse, would it?"

Ko Lon cackled as she changed into her cursed form. Ranma's chin fell into his lap just before he fell over in a dead faint.

"Well, now, I wouldn't think the sight of a bald old man would bother you that much!"

Ranma leaped to his feet and shouted loudly enough to rattle the windows, "You knew all along!"

"Yes," Ko Lon said, "we did know. I recognized you and your father for what you were the second I laid eyes on you."

"And you didn't try to stop Xian Pu!"

Ko Lon cackled. "Of course I didn't! Why would I have passed up the chance of having the Cold Dragon in my family?"

"You knew that...that..."

"I did not _know_ anything at the time. I only suspected it. We had to do a great deal of research before we could be certain of anything. There were a number of ancient prophecies about you, but prophecies are notoriously unreliable. What I was absolutely certain of at the time, was that you were a formidable martial artist and that you were a man with a Jusenkyou curse."

Ko Lon found her breath coming a bit easier once she saw that Ranma was calming down.

"Okay, I guess that made sense--everything considered. Would you do me a favor, Grandmother?"

"What would you like for me to do, Ranma?"

"Change back, would you? You look too much like a certain pervert I know in that form."

Ko Lon gave him a playful whack to the side of his head with her staff as she changed back into her natural form.

"Ow!"

"You may be the Cold Dragon, Grandson, but that does _not_ give you the right to be insulting."

"I didn't mean nothin' by it!"

"Hmmph!"

"So when did you pick up this curse?"

"A year after my first husband died. He had been caught in an avalanche and we were never able to recover his body. I wanted to die so that I could be with him, but there were children to care for."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It was long before you were born."

"Why the Spring of Drowned Man?"

"Because I couldn't bear the thought of having another man take my late husband's place and I needed a mate to help me with his children and our land."

"Oh," Ranma said. "I guess it was pretty rough on you."

"Not at first," Ko Lon said. "Being an Amazon gives you a perspective that the girls you've grown up with lack. The problems with being a man took a while to catch up to me."

"Really?"

"Indeed."

She watched his face while he ruminated in silence.

"Didn't the other Amazons give you a hard time?" he asked after a lengthy silence. "About being a man but being a leader of the tribe?"

"Not at first," Ko Lon said, "but it did eventually become a problem after a year or so."

Ranma took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"You know, I think it's the way other people treatcha that makes the curse so hard to deal with."

"I suspect that is most often the case for a man cursed to become a woman. In my case, it was how I treated others that made things difficult."

Ko Lon watched with amusement as Ranma started to say something and thought better of it, quite literally biting his tongue to stop himself from speaking. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then asked a reasonable question.

"So what did you do to mess things up?"

"I started acting like the typical male from outside the tribe," Ko Lon answered. Ranma looked surprised for a second, then turned thoughtful again.

"How could anyone tell the difference?"

Ko Lon had another good laugh. Ranma possessed the rapier wit of the guileless.

"That's a good question, Ranma," she finally told him. "I myself did not think I was behaving any differently than I had before I had acquired the curse."

"So you were just being your usual self, only it didn't sit well with the rest of the tribe because your plumbing had changed, right?"

"Yes and no," Ko Lon said. "I was being myself all right, but I was not the same as I was before the curse. It did have an effect on my judgment as time went by. I had always been assertive and tended to lead, but after the curse I grew impatient with the way things were normally handled. I became, well, arrogant in the eyes of many."

"Mmm, you started orderin' people around, didn't ya?"

"Very perceptive of you, Ranma."

Ranma looked worried and scratched at the back of his neck.

"I don't like givin' orders," Ranma said. "I think because I never liked takin' 'em."

"Perhaps now you know why you were chosen by your predecessor. Your personality and prowess both suit the job you've been given."

"Checks and balances," Ranma muttered.

"Yes, indeed," Ko Lon said. "Not quite what the Americans have. Their system is a bit too inflexible in some places and too loose in others to suit our culture, but the underlying principles are the same."

"And all of it aimed at protectin' what's in these archives, right?"

"Yes."

"How can stuff that old be so terribly dangerous?"

"Taken by itself during these times, it probably would not be too terribly dangerous," Ko Lon said, "but combine it with what scientists have already discovered and it could have overwhelming consequences."

"Kinda like the old problem of archery versus the first firearms, right?"

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"Well, it takes years to train an archer, but only months to train someone to use a musket, right? So the big difference was in the numbers of trained and effective men you could put in the field."

"Ah! I see what you are driving at. Yes, it is a similar situation. Many of the things in the archives could be used in lieu the machines or chemistry or some other such modern technique or process, but the ancient methods cannot compete in terms of scale. However, it is as I said. Should someone ever sit down and start finding ways to combine the ancient knowledge with the new, the results would likely be both spectacular and dangerous."

Ranma sat back in his chair and stretched his legs out in front of him. He then crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the floor, lost in thought.

"You have doubts?"

"I'm thinkin' we survived the Cold War and, so far, we've outsmarted and out-survived many, many evil people over the years, Grandmother. Are you certain that keepin' all this stuff secret is the right thing to do?"

"You're thinking about the good things that might come of it, aren't you?"

Ranma looked her in the eye and nodded his head.

"Well, I am not completely certain that total secrecy is the best idea either, but we definitely need to remain cautious."

"Maybe we should try to figure out what might be too dangerous and what might not be before we act."

"That sounds wise to me, Ranma," Ko Lon said as she nodded her head in agreement.

"Is there anyone working in the archives now who could start looking at such possibilities?" Ranma asked.

"I would be very surprised if that were the case, Ranma."

"We need people young enough to have modern knowledge, but skilled in the old ways. And, they would have to be very, very patient."

"That, Milord Dragon, is a very tall order."

Ranma took a deep breath and sighed.

"Then we'll keep right on treating the stuff in these libraries as if every bit of it might lead to somethin' like the atomic bomb or worse."

"I agree with you on both points," Ko Lon said, happy to let a fair measure of respect show in her voice. "Once the archives are safely relocated, we should start thinking about what can and cannot be used."

"We're gonna be damned lucky if we manage to keep their existence a secret, ya know. There's way too many people involved in all of this."

"We won't keep it completely secret, so we'll lie."

"Huh?"

"We'll lie in the best way possible. We'll tell the truth in such a way that no one in his right mind will believe it."

"I gotcha. We take advantage of the stuff Doc Tofu runs into with regular doctors all the time."

"Exactly."

"When will you be ready to start moving things?"

"We are working as hard as we can on that. The tablets, scrolls, and such are being prepared for transport even now."

"Any idea how long it will take?"

"Several months, possibly another year. Fortunately, my predecessor has been preparing to relocate for almost ten years now."

"But we have to have a place to move them to, right?"

"Yes, and people on this end to handle the arrival of the archives in an orderly way."

"And the stuff has to be smuggled out of China. That can't be done very fast, so it will take several more years, right?" Ranma asked rubbing his temples with the fingertips of both his hands.

"Oh, certainly."

"It doesn't leave me a lot of time," he complained.

"You have some rather important personal matters, correct?" Ko Lon asked.

"Yeah, you could say that," Ranma answered in a tired voice.

"How is Akane's training coming?"

"Better than I expected," Ranma answered. "Her dad did a pretty good job of weaving the basics into her soul. I'd say that she is quite a bit farther along than I was when you taught me the Chestnut Fist."

"Are you thinking of Jusenkyou for her?"

"I considered it," Ranma said as began staring at the floor again, "but so far I've been careful not to even hint at it."

Ko Lon gave him a sympathetic smile. The pressure on the boy was enormous and the timing could not be worse. Clearly, he had reached an extremely critical point in the training of himself and his student, who was becoming his wife. Ko Lon remembered all too well what that meant. Becoming a spouse required much more of person and their partner than a civil ceremony. Ranma's bowl was more than a little full.

"Manage your time as best you can, Ranma," Ko Lon said. "You have a great deal more personal time now and will have for the next year than you will in the decade that follows. Give your training and that of your student priority. You are about to come face to face with the most formidable opponent you will ever meet."

Ranma quickly perked up at this news. His eyes locked onto Ko Lon's face. "Oh, yeah?" he asked. "Who is it?"

Interesting, Ko Lon thought. He asked "who is it" not, "who is he", the boy is definitely growing. Ko Lon gave him her sunniest smile and held up her favorite mirror so that he would see his own reflection in it.

"Think you can defeat him?" Ko Lon asked, fighting off the urge to laugh.

"I don't know," Ranma answered in a sober voice. "He's the toughest son-of-a-bitch I ever met."

"But not necessarily the best, right?" Ko Lon asked.

Ranma took a deep breath and let out a long sigh before answering. "He's one of the very best, but I don't know about being _the_ best. Maybe I don't want to know."

"And your student, what of her?" Ko Lon asked. "Would you hope to see her become better than you?"

"If she can do it without getting hurt or killed," Ranma whispered.

Ko Lon put the mirror down and whacked him on the side of his head with her staff.

"Ow!" Ranma cried out and gave Ko Lon an angry glare, but the anger in his eyes quickly died. "I had that coming, didn't I?"

"Yes, you most certainly did!"

"Thank you, Old Ghoul!"

"You're quite welcome, Son-in-Law."

The two of them had a good long laugh together over that one.

"Let Akane decide about the waters of Jusenkyou, Ranma," Ko Lon said as she sobered. "Your predecessor knew what he was doing when he made those springs. The waters call to those in need of them. You should not encourage her if you want her to face the challenge and you will not be able to stop her if she chooses to accept it."

Ranma nodded his head and looked apprehensive. Ko Lon sympathized with him. She remembered all too well what it was like to be young and worried about the things you could not control. She remembered how much worse it had been when she was not entirely certain of herself, or what she might really be. It had taken her almost a decade to cope. She had already been down the path that Ranma now followed. Where Ranma lacked confidence, Ko Lon would do her best to supply it. Life was, when you boiled it down to its essentials, nothing more than a system of checks and balances.

"Go on, get out of here," Ko Lon ordered. "You're the Cold Dragon, not Atlas. Spend as much time as you can with your woman while you have it to spend."

"Thank you, Grandmother."

"You're welcome, Grandson." Ranma surprised her with a hug before leaving. Ko Lon found herself wiping at the corner of one eye.

"You should have said something to him about damping his ki," an all too familiar voice said in her ear.

"What the hell are you doing here, Happi?"

"Checking up on our student's progress, of course," Happousai said as he patted Ko Lon's bottom.

"Stop that!"

"Why? I thought you'd be flattered."

"I am, but you gave up those privileges more than a century ago."

"Oh, come on! Surely you've forgotten about that by now."

"Not likely."


Akane stood in front of her new practice post and took a deep breath, wishing that she had taken it a little easier on the way home from school. Every day for the last four weeks Ranma had insisted that she take the lead in their little game of "Follow Me". She had found this far more challenging than playing the game by following Ranma. I've been pushing myself a lot harder by trying to find something he can't do than I would have trying to do the things he can do, she thought as a smile played across her lips. Every time I think I'm starting to figure him out, he comes up with a new twist. He's a lot smarter than anyone gives him credit for.

She stopped her reverie and sighed. It was time for her to focus on the task at hand. She had yet to make that damned bell sing out with a single prolonged note and she knew that she would not succeed in doing so tonight. She was too tired to even come close. She decided that pain and fatigue did not matter. She would make the best attempt she could anyway. Sooner or later, the damned bell was going to sing for her rather than ring for her and tonight would be just another step in the right direction.

"Go get 'em, Tomboy!" Ranma called out from the engawa. "You get a little closer every time!"

Akane glanced over at her sensei and husband-to-be and flashed a grateful smile at him, before striking the post with a left jab.

Ding!

Everything felt good. The two largest knuckles on her left hand had struck the post with the bones in her hand and wrist in perfect alignment. That alignment was crucially important at this level of performance. One minor flaw in her technique would result in yet another painful injury that would hold up her progress for days or even weeks.

Di-ding!

Her left-right combination landed perfectly. She threw three more such combinations in quick succession and was rewarded with six closely spaced rings of the bell.

"Pattern!" Ranma shouted.

Akane nodded to acknowledge Ranma's warning. The very last thing she or any other practitioner of the art wanted to do was to develop a predictable pattern. Allowing a pattern in one's attacks to become so pronounced that one's opponent could recognize it resulted in things you did not want, even if only to allow one's opponent to anticipate and better absorb one's blows. Ranma gave her hell every time he caught the faintest whiff of a pattern.

She started punching again, this time pouring on all the speed she could muster. The ringing of the bell never quite became the solid wall of sound she was seeking to create, but the intervals between the individual rings were so closely spaced that that most fire alarm bells would have sounded slow by comparison.

"Whoa! That's enough for a day, Akane!" Ranma shouted.

Akane stopped throwing punches immediately and let her arms drop down by her sides. The pain did not strike until she turned and took a step toward the engawa. It hurt so badly that she nearly fell to her knees.

"Aah!" she cried out.

Ranma was already on his way to her.

"Upper arms, right?" Ranma asked.

All Akane could do was nod her head. She was in too much pain to speak.

"You were really putting a lot of power in those punches, Akane," Ranma said as he massaged her upper arms.

"Speed?" Akane asked in pained voice.

"Down a little, but that's no surprise," he answered. "You really went all out on our way home today."

"You tired?" she asked in a squeaky voice.

"A little, yeah," Ranma said. "How about you?"

"Bath...bed..."

"Yeah, sure. Right after we get some liniment rubbed in."

"Hurts!" Akane squeaked between deep breaths for air and gasps of pain.

"Don't I know it!" Ranma said.

Akane looked past Ranma to where her father and Genma sat playing shogi. Her father was staring at her with tears running down his face. He looked fiercely proud. Their eyes locked and he gave her a little bow before returning his attention to the game.

"Worth it," Akane gasped out.

Ranma gave her quick peck on the cheek. "Yeah, it is. Let's get inside and put some ice on those hands."

"Aw!" Akane cried out. She hated sticking her hands down into the bowl of ice water. "Really hurts!"

"Yeah, I know," Ranma said in a gentle voice, "but it'll let ya try again tomorrow. You do want to do that, right?"

Akane nodded her head as tears came into her eyes. She had insisted on skipping the cold water one night and it had been three days before she could try the post again. Her hands had hurt so badly that even simple kata proved difficult. She sat down with her legs dangling off the edge of the engawa and jammed her hands into the large bowl of ice and water Ranma had waiting for her. Tears ran down her cheeks as she gritted her teeth, but she did not cry out in pain.

Ranma stripped off her gi top and began rubbing liniment into her upper arms, shoulders and back. She did not care about him removing her top. She was wearing a heavy sports bra that looked like the top of a bathing suit. Besides, the fiery salve on her upper body and the ice encasing her hands made for an incredibly sensual combination. Even though it was painful, it gave her a great deal of pleasure.

She worried that her reaction to such sensations was sick the first time she experienced them, but then she realized why she enjoyed it. Most importantly it was something Ranma was doing for her. It was a certain sign of his love and, more importantly, his respect. Secondly, it was proof that she was going beyond anything she had ever done before: a sure sign that she was indeed following the path of true kami like Ranma and Haabu. Even Genma Saotome had begun to look at her with genuine respect in his eyes. That was the most gratifying thing of all, now that she knew Genma better. She was earning her place among the great practitioners of The Art.

"Okay, Akane," Ranma said, "take your hands out of the water."

Akane gratefully complied while continuing to savor the things Ranma's strong but gentle hands were doing to her overused muscles. Nodoka came over and began patting Akane's hands dry.

"Congratulations, Akane-chan," Nodoka said, "no breaks in the skin this time.

"Thank you, Obaa-san," Akane said putting as much feeling into her voice as she could. She and Nodoka had their differences, but Ranma's mother had, here of late, gone well out her way to be supportive of Akane and her efforts. Akane knew that Nodoka had become supportive because Ranma's future as a Master of the Anything Goes School was at stake, but she was the direct beneficiary of Nodoka's considerable skill. More than a little gratitude was in order.

Ranma's hands suddenly stopped moving just as Akane felt a stirring deep in her chest. She and Ranma both reached for her gi top at the same time. Akane looked around and saw that whatever it was, it had also gotten the attention of Genma and her father.

Ranma took in a huge breath and made a deep rumbling noise in his chest. It was incredibly loud. He was smiling.

"Haabu?" Akane asked.

"Oh, yeah," Ranma said as his smile broadened. "He's about ta come sailing right over the middle of the west wall."

Akane took in a deep breath and held it, desperately trying to re-establish the sense of contact with Haabu that she had just experienced. She felt it again just as Haabu sailed over the western wall of Tendo-ke. A bright ball of ki ignited in Ranma's right hand. He laughed and pitched it right at Haabu who was just then descending toward the middle of the yard. Haabu smiled happily as he caught Ranma's fiery essence and flung it high over the roof of the house. Ranma jumped out into the yard, landing with knees bent. He spun on the balls of his feet and jumped skyward, disappearing above the eaves.

"My goodness!" Nodoka exclaimed as both Genma and Akane's father grunted with surprise.

Haabu flashed Akane a quick smile before he too suddenly jumped up and away, quickly disappearing from sight. Behind her, Akane heard the rapid thump, thump, thump of someone sprinting down the stairs. She felt a smile play across her lips. It was Nabiki.

"Where did he go?" Nabiki asked.

"He and Ranma are horsing around," Akane told her. The look on Nabiki's face caused Akane to wince.

"Ranma Saotome!" Nabiki shouted, "You come back here this instant!"

As the echoes of Nabiki's shout died, Akane heard both Ranma and Haabu laughing. Nabiki stood on the engawa with her arms wrapped across her bosom, tapping the boards with the ball of her right foot. Akane made a wry face and looked up at Nodoka. Ranma's mother had a prim little smile on her face. Akane shook her head. Only Ranma could be so powerful and get himself into so much trouble.

Nabiki's ill temper evaporated as soon as the two of them came sailing over the wall. Haabu lightly touched down and made a second leap so that he landed on the engawa in front of Nabiki. She seized Haabu by his ears and gave him long kiss. Akane found herself smiling up at the two of them. She heard a choking sound and looked toward her father and Genma Saotome. Her father's mouth was hanging open.

Without a word after he and Nabiki broke their kiss, Haabu scooped Nabiki up into his arms.

"Ack! Haabu! What are you doing?" Nabiki asked, sounding concerned.

Haabu said nothing in reply, but instead turned and leaped up and outwards from the engawa.

"I shall return day after tomorrow, Cousin!" Haabu said to Ranma as he passed over the yard.

"Later, man!" Ranma replied, looking vaguely envious.

Annoyed by the way Ranma looked after the departing Haabu, Akane seized the bowl of ice water and flung its contents at her fiance. Ranma promptly assumed his female form. This made her even angrier. He changed! she thought as her temper caused her to visibly fume. Even though he's got full control of his curse he changed!

"What did you do that for?" both Onna-Ranma and Akane demanded to know at one and the same time.

"Because you looked at him that way!" Akane shouted.

"Because you surprised me with a bucket full of ice!" Onna-Ranma shouted at the same time.

"You're supposed to have control over that now, right?" Akane asked.

Akane and Onna-Ranma exchanged glares for a moment.

"Whaddaya mean because of the way I was lookin' at him?" Ranma asked.

"You know what I mean!" Akane huffed.

"Hah!" Onna-Ranma snorted as he scooped Akane up and carried her inside toward the furoba.

"What are you doing?" Akane shouted

"Givin' you a chance ta soak your head!" Onna-Ranma answered in an aggravated voice.

"I saw what I saw, _Ranko_," Akane growled.

"What are you talkin' about, Tomboy?" Onna-Ranma demanded to know.

"You know what I'm talking about!" Akane shouted.

Onna-Ranma carried Akane into the furoba and set her down on the floor before sliding the door shut. He turned around and gave Akane a sheepish look.

"Look, I'm sorry, okay?" Onna-Ranma said. "There aren't too many guys that I like to look at."

"Oh, really?" Akane asked being careful to keep her voice down. "Which ones other than him?"

"Well, okay, it's just him," Onna-Ranma said. "He's the only one that could ever earn the right and he's a handsome bastard to boot."

"He is kind of a hunk, isn't he?" Akane asked. "I guess Nabiki really lucked out."

Onna-Ranma shivered. "It still almost makes me sick at my stomach though."

"Ranma, I'm sorry," Akane said. "I shouldn't have reacted that way."

"Neither should I!" Onna-Ranma exclaimed. "It's...it's..."

"Perverted?"

"To the max."

Akane giggled. "Let's get cleaned up."

"You're not mad anymore?"

"What is there to be mad about?" Akane asked. "He'll never make a pass at you and you'll never make a pass at him."

Onna-Ranma wiped at his brow. "You got that right!"

"So let's get cleaned up. I'm starving."

"Yeah, I could do with a little to eat myself."

"Oh, you're going to eat all right," Akane said as she seized Onna-Ranma by either side of the head and kissed her on the mouth.

"Come on," Onna-Ranma said as they broke their kiss. "I'll scrub your back."


Later that night, Akane got up and turned on the nightlight in her room. Onna-Ranma remained fast asleep while Akane simply sat and looked at him. She smiled at him. As Ranma had gotten older he had lost his little-boy innocence while asleep, but in his female form he still looked angelic and always had. Akane giggled softly. He was anything but angelic. Well, it depended on the circumstances. He had always worn his heart on his sleeve, but it was far more obvious when he was in his female form. She bent down and kissed him on the cheek and he smiled without waking up. Akane felt such tenderness for him that tears came into her eyes.

Sure, she was looking at a man who was almost certainly the single most powerful individual on earth, yet here he lay next to her looking as innocent as a newborn baby. Perhaps it was Ranma's astounding lack of guile that had allowed him to become what he now was, who could say? What she did know and understand about him was that he loved her and that she loved him. Not even death itself had been able to part them. Ranma had somehow reached out and plucked her from death's grasp, bringing her back to life and taking her home.

Akane turned the light back off and quietly slipped beneath the covers next to her betrothed. Onna-Ranma giggled in his sleep before rolling over and cuddling up to her back. She found herself wishing that Ranma were in his male form so that she could cuddle up to his back. The thought of it made her wince inwardly with guilt. What must it be like for him in his female form? she wondered. There was no man for Ranko to cuddle with at night. Certainly there was no one who could do for her what Ranma did for Akane.

Akane tried to banish the thoughts that came to mind, but failed. What must it be like for that part of him? she asked herself. To have that terrible aching hollow feeling and know that there was no one who could ever fill it. How long could Ranma hold out? How long would I be able to hold out? I couldn't and I wouldn't. Sooner or later I would have had to accept someone, even if it were only for a single night. How could Ranma be any different? It must be a lot worse for him now because he's been having sex with me. That could only be making the yearning of his female body grow with each passing day.

She thought of the last two times she had seen him around Haabu and shuddered. They admired each other and it was only logical to assume that Onna-Haabu would be suffering, if he hadn't already, from the same torment that Onna-Ranma suffered. They would try to keep it a secret from themselves, but how long can that go on? He and Ranma are a natural for each other. Nabiki will never be the power that Ranma is and neither will I. Nabiki left this path long ago and I am far, far behind. It may be that I'll never catch up to them. Jusenkyou has given to them, but only taken from me, and it might well take Ranma away from me in the end.

She choked back a sob and tried hard to think things through. It's not true. Jusenkyou gave me Ranma to begin with. He might never have become someone I could love without the curse. Not because she preferred his female form, of course, but because it had forced Ranma to change his perspectives on life. It had forced Ranma to broaden his skills in The Art and set him on the path to greater control over his ki. It's done the same thing for Ryouga and it will likely do the same for Xian Pu. I wonder if it will turn my hair red.

This is a major decision and I should talk to Ranma about it first, but he's always so damned protective of me. He doesn't want me to suffer the way he has, but if I am to continue following the path I am on now, I have to master Jusenkyou. I'll talk it over with Nabiki. If she is going to settle down with Haabu, she needs to know what I do about Ranma's curse. Besides, she's finally back to being a help instead of a hindrance and I'm going to need all the help I can get for this one.

Onna-Ranma stirred in his sleep and rolled away. Akane rolled onto her back and found his hand with one of hers.

"I love you, Ranma Saotome," Akane whispered. She lay very still and listened to him breathe. After few minutes went by, she fell into a deep dreamless sleep of her own.


Nabiki Tendou shivered as Haabu flew across the rooftops of Nerima, heading northwest for the heavily wooded hills on the fringes of the kanto. He touched down just a short distance from Tendo-ke to wrap her in his cape. Nabiki teased him about it.

"You're wrapping me up the way a veterinarian wraps up a cat," she told him.

"I'll give you an injection later," Haabu quipped. "This should keep you warm and me unscratched until the time is right."

Nabiki nipped him on the neck when he picked her up again.

"Ow! Stop biting, Princess," Haabu complained. "I needs must concentrate on my flying."

"Very well, my Prince," Nabiki said kissing him on the neck again. "I love flying."

They arrived in the little spa town of Kusatsu about two hours later. A party of Musk and Joketsu warriors were waiting to meet them. The Amazons were women this time rather than being an all male contingent. One of the Amazons was quick to drape a heavy velvet cape around Nabiki's shoulders and offer her a large cup of dark tea. Nabiki gratefully accepted both.

"I am Fa Shan, Princess Tendou," the tall Amazon said. Nabiki had to turn her chin up to look the woman in the eye. The woman had sky-blue hair and eyes to match. Unlike the voluptuous Xian Pu, Fa Shan was willowy, perhaps even whipcord lean for all Nabiki could tell. She was wearing brightly polished chain mail over a carefully tailored tunic made from what seemed to be the hide of a white tiger. Her britches were made of soft leather and were adorned with fancy embroidery and beadwork. Her boots were hard soled with high tops that laced up in front. She also wore a leather cape over her armor and carried both a bow and long lightweight sword.

"I am pleased to meet you, Fa Shan," Nabiki said. "Isn't that an unusual name for an Amazon?"

"Not at all, Princess," the woman answered giving Nabiki a warm smile. "It pleases me to inform you that I shall be your maidservant while you stay with us. If you need anything at all, just call out my name."

Remembering Haabu's habit of showing noblesse oblige, Nabiki took the tall woman's left hand in both her own and said, "I thank you, Fa Shan. I am sure my time with you will be most pleasant."

"You are quite welcome, Princess," Shan said. "Shall I show you to your quarters? The waters here are quite hot and the men have only just begun stirring your bath. It will be several minutes before it will be cool enough for you."

Nabiki quickly recalled what she could about the town of Kusatsu and remembered that the waters here were much too hot to bathe in at their natural temperature. Most tourists bathed in water that had been diluted with fresh cold water, but the more expensive baths had crews of men to stir the water in order to cool it. She really was being treated as though she were the member of a royal house.

"I'd like that," Nabiki said, "from the feel of the air, I'd say that it will snow soon."

"According to the forecasters, it should have started snowing here about fifteen minutes ago," Shan said. "Follow me if you would, please."

Nabiki followed Fa Shan through the neat and orderly camp to an incredibly palatial tent. It was about five meters on a side and at least two-and-a-half meters tall, perhaps a bit taller. It had been set up on a low wooden platform. The platform had three steps leading up to what amounted to a small porch beneath a fly set out over the entrance of the tent. Nabiki tested the fabric of the tent with her fingers. Much to her surprise it was made of felt, rather than oiled canvas or Dacron.

"Isn't this thing a bit heavy to move around?" Nabiki asked Fa Shan.

Fa Shan gave Nabiki a grin before answering, "Yes, it is something of a problem to carry about, and our company hates setting it up, but Prince Haabu insisted on bringing it this time. I suppose he had your visit to our camp in mind all along."

Nabiki found herself smiling back at Fa Shan. She would have ordinarily preferred a first class hotel to even the best of tents, but this was wildly romantic and she just knew that the service would be vastly superior to that to be had in even the best of hotels. Certainly the food would be beyond reproach. It had been before. "It is very sweet of him," Nabiki replied.

"I am happy to hear that you like it, Princess," Fa Shan said. "Shall we go inside?"

Nothing, absolutely nothing Nabiki had ever seen prepared her for what she found inside the tent. The first thing that struck her was that it was warm. The second thing was that there were none of the smells she would have ordinarily associated with a camp: no kerosene or charcoal fumes and no hissing from a pressured lamp. The third thing that got her attention was that the tent was so brightly lit. It was only then that she could begin to appreciate just how richly appointed it was.

The first appurtenance to catch her eye was the canopied four-poster bed, dressed in light blue satin sheets and blankets made with the hides of white chinchillas. It was made to look old fashioned, but it was queen-sized. At the foot of the bed was what she at first thought was a blanket box, but a closer examination of its contents revealed that there was a large furry animal of some kind inside it.

"Oh, don't worry about that thing," Fa Shan said. "It is what the wealthy members of our tribes use for a heater. Not many use them because they must be fed quite a bit of wheat each day."

"A living heater?" Nabiki asked. "How odd."

Fa Shan smiled and asked, "Have you taken notice of the lights?"

Nabiki looked closely at the lighting directly over her head and gasped. What appeared to be quartz crystals somewhat longer than her fingers dangled from a vine as if they were flowers. They were glowing from within. The vine itself was rooted in a rather large pot set near one of the walls. Her jaw sagged as she traced the vine back to its pot and realized that it was a living plant.

"Shimatta!" Nabiki exclaimed. "I can't even begin to imagine what this might be worth!"

"These plants are not used as often as you might expect, Princess," Fa Shan said. "They grow to great lengths and require a great deal of care and pruning before they can be useful, and then only after they are twenty years old."

"Twenty years, huh? That is a drawback, but think of the possibilities!" Nabiki said as she felt of the crystals dangling from the vine. There was no detectable heat coming from them.

"Would Milady like to change?" Fa Shan asked. "Your bath should be ready by now."

"Yes, thank you, Fa Shan," Nabiki said. "Where is Prince Haabu?"

"He sent word that he would meet you in the spa, Princess," Fa Shan said as she began laying out a robe and other bath things, "there were some things he needed to look after."

Nabiki quickly peeled off her clothes. Much to her amazement, her Amazon attendant and bodyguard was already out of her armor and wearing a robe. She let Fa Shan slip a heavy terry cloth robe around her shoulders. It was surprisingly warm, as though it had just recently been removed from a dryer. She thought about asking how they had pulled off such a trick, but decided it could wait. She'd ask Haabu later if it came to mind. She doubted that it would. The two of them had other priorities and not nearly enough time to take care of them.

Fa Shan led her out of the tent and through a long alleyway made up of canvas screens. It led from her tent to the sentou. Nabiki was grateful for the screens, even though such a setup struck even her as being a bit too ostentatious. They reminded her of her new status. I really am a Princess now, she thought. I never thought I'd have any trouble getting used to being treated this way, but it's more complicated than I imagined. The screens are as much for Haabu's protection as they are mine. I can't be seen in this state by the eyes of commoners. No wonder he is so eager to change the way his people are governed.

The interior of the sentou itself was quite warm. It had no floor per se; the building had been erected right on top of the native rock. The stone beneath her feet was warm, almost uncomfortably warm. She was somewhat surprised when Fa Shan stayed and helped Nabiki by scrubbing her back and helping her with her hair. Nabiki wanted to do the same for Fa Shan, but the tall Amazon refused.

"I am very flattered, Princess," the tall Amazon had stammered, "but Prince Haabu is almost certainly waiting for you."

"Next time, then," Nabiki said. "I owe you one."

"If Milady wishes it."

"I do," Nabiki said as she picked up a towel and headed for the furoba. Haabu was indeed waiting for her. He was seated in the basin nearly up to his shoulders in almost unbearably hot water and blushing. He was in his female form.

"Are you all right, Haabu?" Nabiki asked.

"I am rather embarrassed, my love," Onna-Haabu said in his sexy contralto, "I am temporarily stuck in this cursed body."

Nabiki gave him a wanton smile as she dropped her towel and waded into the pool. Why is it that Jusenkyou gives men such a lovely bust even when their body fat is under five percent? she wondered. No matter. It's time to bolster his confidence. This kind of thing always shook Ranma up rather badly. It's probably worse for Haabu.

She paused just as her pubic region touched the surface of the water, and stretched. That did it, she thought as she sneaked a glance at Haabu. He looks ready to eat despite his little problem. She waded over to him and sat down in his lap.

"Relax, my Prince," she whispered as she laid her head on his shoulder and kissed his neck. She could not help but smile when he shuddered. "You know I find you sexy in this form."

"But it's not...it's not natural!" Haabu exclaimed.

"Who cares?" Nabiki asked. "Kiss me."

Haabu stared at her in silence, as tears of frustration built up in the corners of his eyes. Rather than repeat the demand that he kiss her, Nabiki cupped his face in her hands and kissed him. It took him a few seconds, but he responded as his passion for her finally rode rough shod over his inhibitions.

"See?" Nabiki asked with an impish grin. "That wasn't so terribly unnatural, was it?"

"No, it wasn't," Haabu said. "I love you even when I am in this form, it's just that...that ..."

Nabiki cupped his left breast with her right hand. She was delighted when she felt his nipple stiffen against her palm.

"Aah!"

"It's just that you get some very strong feelings in this form, right?" Nabiki asked. She cut off any chance for him to make a reply by kissing him on the mouth. He responded eagerly and the kiss lasted a long time.

"Now you know what I feel every time I see you," Nabiki said.

Haabu shuddered, then gave Nabiki a kiss. His taking the initiative destroyed her self-control and she let the rising tide of passion take her. It was quite some time before either of them felt like using words again.

"I'll change in a few minutes," Haabu said.

"What happened?" Nabiki asked.

"I've been trying to teach myself to control the curse by resisting the change when I am exposed to cold water. When I fail to get it right, it takes the hot water an hour or so to do its work."

"Good!" Nabiki exclaimed. She had no doubts about the level of Haabu's arousal. His body was ready even if his psyche was hesitant. "I have enough time to show you a few things."

"Things? What thi...Oh, my!"

"Having a woman's body does have certain advantages, my love," Nabiki murmured. "You should learn to enjoy them--with me at least."

"Ooh, don't!"

"Don't what?"

"Don't stop!"


On Friday, Tendo-ke was not quite as empty as it had been in the few preceding weeks. Nabiki, Haabu and Kiima "stayed for dinner" with Ranma and Akane. Ranma and Haabu did the cooking, or most of it. Ranma had built a small fire in the yard and put Akane in charge of roasting the corn. Much to her surprise, it turned out quite well. Even more surprising was the fact that no one else was surprised that she had gotten it right.

Just as the sun turned the horizon gold on Saturday morning, Akane stood on the engawa with Ranma and kissed him goodbye.

"Are you sure you don't want to come with us?" Ranma asked. His tone of voice all but begged Akane to go with him.

"I'm sure, Ranma," she told him. "You will need to cover a lot of ground and I wouldn't be able to keep up."

"You aren't that slow anymore, Tomboy."

"No, but I'm not in the same league as you and Haabu," she said, "and I certainly can't fly the way Kiima can. Go get your work done and hurry back."

Ranma stared at her and she could see the reluctance in his eyes.

"Ranma, the only way for me to ever be able to hold my own is to keep training, right?"

He nodded his head.

"Then let me stay here and train. It won't be long before I'll be able to pull my share of the load."

"I love you."

"I love you too. Now get out of here and get to work! You'd think you turned panda when you got splashed."

Ranma laughed and gave her one last peck on the cheek before joining Haabu and Kiima at the gate. Nabiki closed the gate and came over to Akane.

"Why the gi, Nabiki?"

"Are you going to work on kata this morning?"

"Yes. Do you want to join me?"

"If it won't bother you."

"I'd love to have the company."

"Good! Let's get started."

After two hours, Nabiki all but collapsed. Akane was only just then working up a decent sweat, but she decided to take a break anyway. It seemed the perfect time to talk to Nabiki about her decision. She handed Nabiki a dry towel as she sat down beside her.

"Thanks, Sis. I needed a fresh one. This one is soaked."

"Why the sudden interest in the Art, Nabiki? I thought you'd be too busy to take it up again."

"Let's just say that I definitely need to improve my stamina, okay?"

Akane giggled. "Couldn't keep up with him?"

"He's a goddamned machine!"

"So is Ranma!" Akane replied and the two of them shared a good laugh together.

"It's okay, though," Nabiki said. "I take my revenge on his girl side."

"He lets you do that?"

"I don't give him any choice!"

"Ack!"

"That's what you did to Ranma, wasn't it?"

Akane giggled and nodded her head. "He goes completely to pieces every time."

"So does Haabu, but he has a really hard time accepting it."

"Hah! Ranma loves it."

"So does Haabu, he just doesn't want to admit it."

"Have you thought about what it must be like to have sex as a man?"

"I've wondered about it, yeah," Nabiki said as she studied Akane's face. "You're worried about something. What is it?"

"Ranma's girl half."

"Why?"

"Nabiki, what if you woke up one day and discovered that you could never have sex with a man? How would that make you feel?"

Nabiki froze. "I don't know. I never thought about it before now."

"It wouldn't be very pleasant, would it?"

"No, but then I don't know that it would be such a terrible thing for Ranma or Haabu, Akane. Both of them were born male. It's not like they can't have sex at all."

"I think it's a little more complicated than that, Nabiki. I don't know about Haabu, but Ranma's girl type is far more feminine than he lets on."

"You're kidding me, right?"

"No, I'm not."

"Has it always been like that for him?"

"I don't think so," Akane answered shaking her head. "I think he was so afraid of losing his masculinity that he suppressed his girl half altogether."

"But he isn't now?"

"He hides it from everyone because he's afraid they wouldn't understand and I think he's right."

Nabiki bit at her lower lip and said nothing. Akane could see that she was lost in thought. She waited patiently, knowing that Nabiki's keen mind would be examining everything she knew about Ranma and Haabu in detail.

"So when did this start happening, do you think?" Nabiki asked, breaking their prolonged silence.

"I can't remember for sure," Akane said. "I think he must have started accepting the curse sometime well before the Battle of Jusendou."

"Well, there were some signs all along that the curse affected him in more ways than just changing his shape. I guess it must affect both of them that way, huh? I mean, it can't be just a change in anatomy. There must also be a change in hormones and everything, right?"

Akane nodded her head. "Ranma menstruates if he stays girl long enough. What about Haabu?"

"I haven't asked, but judging from the way he acts, he must have. I think it scares the hell out of him."

"It's hard for me to imagine Haabu being frightened."

"A lot of people would say the same thing about Ranma, Akane."

"They don't know him the way I do."

"Threats to you scare him spit-less, don't they?"

"He worries about all of us, Nabiki."

"No surprise there, Akane. They were both bred to become protectors."

"They...they love each other," Akane choked out.

Nabiki smiled at her. "I know."

"Doesn't that worry you?"

"No, but then I'm not like you, either. I think I can understand why it worries you."

"What do you mean you're not like me?"

"Akane, when it's all said and done, I will live a normal life compared to the one you have already led, okay? I'll never be what you are becoming. Being loved by a kami, or what could pass for one, is more than enough for me."

Akane stared for a moment while she tried to understand what Nabiki was implying.

"You think I am going to become one of them."

"No, I don't think you will. I _know_ you will, Akane. Ranma would likely spend a lot of time on your training no matter what, but for his dad to take an interest and for Happosai to take an interest and for even Haabu to take an interest, it all says that you are one of them. A kami in potential if not in fact."

Akane looked away from her sister and settled back against the wall. She stared at the ceiling in silence, trying to decide if it was true. Wondering if Nabiki really meant it.

"So, when are you going to try visiting Jusenkyou again?" Nabiki asked, shattering Akane's reverie.

"What?"

"That's what you are thinking about, isn't it?"

"Is it that apparent?"

"No, it's that logical, Akane."

"I know I have to."

"Have you asked Ranma about it?"

"No, and I'm not going to."

"Yeah, it's that born protector thing, right?"

Akane silently nodded her head.

"I have news for you, baby sister, you have the same bug."

Akane covered her face with both hands and hung her head. "I know."

"And you're growing up fast."

"Am I?"

"Yes, you are."

"How do you know?"

"Your confidence is much higher than it ever was."

"What do you mean?"

"You refused to go to Shikoku this morning, for one thing."

Akane opened her mouth to offer a retort, but the honesty in Nabiki's eyes silenced her.

"Don't bother with Jusenkyou."

"I have to, Nabiki!"

"No you don't."

"I thought you understood!"

"I do, but you needn't risk a trip to northwestern China when what you are after is sitting in the storage room at the Nekohanten."

"What?"

"Yep! Water from the Spring of Drowned Man. Haabu told me that he brought several casks of it with him on his second trip to Japan."

"Then why hasn't there been a stampede on the Nekohanten?"

"Hmm, maybe because Ranma proved that you can control the curse if you try hard enough?"

"Oh, my!"

"Uh-huh! Besides, I think Uncle Genma likes his curse. It's really useful to him."

"That pig Ryouga probably hasn't heard about it yet."

"Probably not."

Akane started shaking. She had decided to take this particular plunge, but had made that decision thinking that she would not have an opportunity to act on it for a long time. Now the reality of it was staring her in the face.

"I should prepare for it first," Akane said. "Do you think Ko Lon will allow it?"

"You won't know unless you ask, Akane."

"But if I ask and she says no, I'll have to go to China."

"So? You were planning on having to do that anyway, right?"

"Shit! What am I going to do?"

"Steal a gi from Daddy before you go," Nabiki said, "and wear some of Ranma's clothes over there. Hmm, I wonder if it will turn your hair red."

"You think that's all I need to worry about?"

"You aren't going to ask Ranma's permission before you do it, right? What else is there to worry about? You can't know any more in advance about what it is going to be like than you do now, can you? You already know that a Jusenkyou curse is hard to live with and difficult to master. You won't know what it's like to live in a man's body or a man's world until after you take the plunge."

"Maybe I should talk to Ukyou, first."

"And learn what? How to pass yourself off as a teenaged boy? It would take you months to learn enough from her to gain anything from it."

"You're trying to push me into this."

"No, I'm being supportive, Akane. If you really want to do this, the only thing stopping you is you."

"Will you come with me?"

"What? You want me to stand next to you and hold your hand while you splash cursed water all over your body?"

"Ah, no, that probably wouldn't be such a good idea."

Nabiki started laughing.

"What's so funny?"

"Because I'm tempted to join you, that's why! If I thought there was a ghost's chance in hell that I could ever learn to control the curse, I'd do it."

"For Haabu."

"And I am not going to do it anytime soon for that exact same reason. Haabu isn't ready for that."

"I see what you mean. Maybe I should wait."

"You really are growing up, Akane."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"You're thinking ahead and thinking about what effect your actions might have on someone else."

"Oh. Up until now all I have worried about is how Ranma might take it."

"His reaction is the one that matters, Akane," Nabiki said after another long silence between them. "The rest of us will be satisfied with feeling sorry for you and Ranma."

Akane giggled. "Everyone except you, right?"

"Well, there will always be the instant stuff for me if I ever need it, right?"

"We had better check on that."

"Yes, I suppose we should."

"Let's go see Ko Lon this afternoon."

Nabiki took in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh before speaking. "Okay, but let's be sure to pay attention to what she might have to say about it."

"She is pretty wise, isn't she?"

"More than either of us can imagine, I think."


End of Chapter 18 Part a
Copyright © Don Granberry