Comes the Cold Dragon

Don Granberry

Chapter 18b

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.


The Revered Grandmother Ko Lon of the Joketsuzoku was not feeling particularly revered. She was too damned busy to feel revered. Saturdays were almost always one of her better days for business, but this one turned insane at about eleven in the morning and had not let up until well after two in the afternoon. Now they were down to two customers and she could start thinking about catching a bite to eat. It wasn't to be. A gaggle of housewives came stumbling in just as she was about to beat a retreat.

Being careful not to sigh or show any other outward sign of distress, Ko Lon put on her best smile and went out to take orders. They took up four tables with four to a table. Not a bad bit of business for a cold Saturday afternoon. Of course, the sun being out for the first time in nearly two weeks probably had a lot to do with the number of customers she was having.

Just as she was finishing with taking orders she felt the presence of a young warrior. "Well I'll be," she muttered to herself as she made her way back to the kitchen. "You've come a long way haven't you Akane? You're stronger than ever and much more stable than you were in the past."

Why are you coming here, I wonder? Ko Lon silently asked. Are you ready to eat of the bitterness only Jusenkyou can supply? You were quite the worry for us, you know.

Ko Lon gave the orders to Sou Pa and sat down to catch her breath.

"Your food is getting cold, Honored Elder," Sou Pa said.

"Did you cook too much again, Sou Pa?" Ko Lon asked.

"Perhaps, Honored Elder, but you needn't worry about it going to waste," Sou Pa answered. "Ha Pin will be back from the market in moments."

Ko Lon smiled to herself. If Sou Pa had a flaw as a cook, it was that he almost always cooked too much. Ko Lon did not find this surprising. His mother had taken three husbands and Sou Pa had grown up with eight siblings. After leaving home, he enlisted in the service of the Lysimache as a cook for her troops. All of them loved him dearly for completely understandable reasons. Today she found herself grateful for a habit of his that she had previously considered annoying.

"It is just as well," Ko Lon said to Sou Pa, "I am about to have unexpected guests."

"Your table in back is already set, Honored Elder."

"Good! Oh, there you are, Ha Pin. You've been dawdling again. Did that girl you're so sweet on give us a better price this time?"

"Of course, Honored Elder! Why do you think I am sweet on her?"

"Good man!" Ko Lon said in a considerably less gruff voice. "Get that chicken into the cooler and take the front. I am famished."

"Yes of course, Honored Elder."

"Order up!" Sou Pa called out just as Akane and Nabiki came walking through the front door.

"Well hello, Akane Tendou," Ko Lon called out as she threw a shuriken at Akane's face. Akane seized a nearby tray and blocked. The shuriken caromed off the tray and embedded itself in one of the posts holding up the Nekohanten's ceiling. "How are you today?"

"Quite all right, Obaa-san," Akane replied, looking both pleased and flattered.

"Would you mind helping me with something?"

"Not at all, Obaa-san," Akane answered, looking somewhat taken aback as chopsticks appeared in her hands and napkins were suddenly draped over her forearms.

"Thank you, dearie," Ko Lon said, giving Akane a nasty grin. She began throwing large bowls of ramen at the young woman. Akane managed to catch them all without spilling anything. She had to balance three on chopsticks in each hand and had two more on the napkins Ko Lon had draped over her forearms. "Be a dear and carry these out to the tables for me, would you please?"

Nabiki blinked and rubbed her eyes.

"She has grown up a great deal, hasn't she?" Ko Lon asked Nabiki in a quiet voice.

"Yes, she has," Nabiki replied, "a good deal more than I ever expected her to."

"Three months ago she would have made a mess of my place and stamped out of here in a rage," Ko Lon said. "Today she takes it all in stride as if it were perfectly natural for me to put her to the test. I am most impressed."

"So am I," Nabiki said.

"Have the two of you had lunch?"

"No, we haven't," Nabiki answered.

"You are here on business, I gather," Ko Lon said.

"Yes, we are."

"Come on into the back when you finish there, Akane dear," Ko Lon called out.

"Yes, Obaa-san!" Akane answered cheerfully.

"Shall we, Nabiki-chan?" Ko Lon asked.

"Yes, please," Nabiki said. "I'm tired and peckish."

"Extra workout this morning? Ko Lon asked as she gave the older of the two Tendou daughters a studious glance. Nabiki was showing all the signs of one specific kind of fatigue.

"Working on my stamina," Nabiki said.

Ko Lon smiled to herself. It was the rare man indeed who could do what Haabu had done to Nabiki. Lucky girl!

"Hmm, I have a recipe for a tonic that will help with that, dear," Ko Lon said to Nabiki as they sat down at Ko Lon's private table. "I'll give it to you before you go, but you will need to keep up the exercise."

"I just knew you were going to insist on the exercise," Nabiki said in a dry voice.

"Seriously, Tendou-san, there is a regimen of diet and special exercises you can incorporate into your daily life that would help a great deal."

"How long will it take me to learn it?"

"Hmm, how much have you studied?"

"First dan."

"Oh, well! Not more than a day, for the basics, I should think. I'll have a copy of the scroll made for you."

"Thank you, Honored Elder."

"Any word from Ranma yet?"

"No, but you know how he is. I don't expect to hear from him until he returns and maybe then he won't say anything to anyone until he's had time to think things over."

"So it seems unlikely that the two of you came here today hoping to find a cure for newlyweds' fatigue."

Nabiki giggled. "No, we didn't."

"She's decided to take the plunge, hasn't she?"

Nabiki silently nodded her head. Ko Lon sighed. "I've been expecting this."

"I was hoping you would at least talk to her about it."

"You don't want me to talk her out of it?"

"Do you think you could?"

Ko Lon laughed out loud. "Let's eat first."

"Excellent idea, Honored Elder."


Ranma stood at the mouth of a narrow canyon leading up into the hills of northwestern Shikoku. He had been told that this area had once been heavily farmed, but there was little trace of that activity now. Ranma could see that the place had not always been completely wild, but only because he knew what to look for and looked very carefully. What had once been a vast complex of terraces for growing rice was now covered over by forest.

Behind him, the sea rumbled as it thrashed away at a distant breakwater sheltering the small bay into which the river running through the canyon emptied. The water of the bay took on a lovely shade of turquoise in the shallows, rapidly shading off into midnight blue where the depth of the sea plummeted to something like four hundred feet, a kilometer or so off shore.

"Nabiki and I did take a look at this place," Kiima said, "but the realtors said that the owner would not sell it and advised us not to waste our time."

"Well, they were right," Ranma said. "There's no way Mom would sell this place. Who was trying to buy it?"

"A consortium of pearl farmers," Kiima said. "They wanted to own the land so that they could be certain that this little river would never be polluted. From what I can gather, the least bit of pollution greatly hampers their production."

Ranma and Haabu exchanged glances and nodded. They needed no words between them to know that they were in agreement with the pearl farmers. Pearl culture in the bay would fit everything in nicely with the nearby community of Uwajima while giving them an excuse to set up tight security.

Ranma reached around to his hip pocket and pulled out a hand drawn map.

"According to this map Mom gave me, we'll need to work our way up this little river about six kilometers. There may even be enough left of the old road that we can find and follow it to where the old village was."

"How big was this village, Cousin?"

"Mom said that as many as four hundred families once lived here. I guess that would have been something over a couple 'a thousand folks."

"Not all of them in the village, though," Kiima said.

"No, probably not," Ranma said with a nod of agreement. "Most of 'em probably lived along this river so that they could be near their fields."

It took them the better part of two hours to find the village. There was very little left of it. Fires and rot had collapsed all of the wooden structures, leaving no sign of their previous existence beyond piles of roofing tiles. The old jail and part of the local daimyo's residence were still standing. Both of them had been partially built of stone.

"Hmm, they chose a good place," Haabu commented. "It would have been easily defended. They had three bridges that could have been easily cut and there are two places where the road could have been easily blocked with an avalanche if it became necessary."

"The shrine should be up that way," Ranma said pointing toward the top of a steep hill. "The entrance is supposed to be near where the shrine was, but it was never marked on any map, according to Mom."

They set out at once, but found it to be difficult going. The hillside had grown thick with scrubby little oaks and a hideous tangle of wiry vines, some of them nearly as thick as a man's forearm.

"Perhaps I should take the lead, Cousin," Haabu suggested as he formed a ki blade on his right hand.

"Geez! I forgot you could do that," Ranma said. "You'll hafta show me how to do that trick one of these days."

"There is indeed a trick to it, Cousin," Haabu said, "and I would be happy to show you once we have found the archive."

"Thanks, I'd like that."

"Perhaps I should reconnoiter, from the air, Saotome-dono," Kiima suggested.

"She has a point, Cousin," Haabu said. "We might clear this entire hillside before we find the site of that old shrine."

"Okay, but don't fly too high, Kiima. Do you still have hot water on you?"

Kiima produced a thermos and poured its steaming contents onto her head.

"If I see the old shrine, I'll land there and call out to you."

"Take this," Haabu said as he handed Kiima a goat horn. "Sound it at regular intervals, perhaps a minute or so apart. The Cold Dragon and I will come to you."

Kiima slung the horn around her neck by its lanyard and launched herself into the sky. Haabu extinguished his ki blade and sat down on a rock. Ranma wordlessly joined him. There was little point in them moving about until they knew if Kiima could spot the shrine precincts from the air.

They sat in companionable silence for about ten minutes until they heard a toot from the horn Haabu had given to Kiima. Haabu ignited his blade as he rose to his feet and Ranma fell in behind him. It turned out that the shrine was half way around the hill; they would have otherwise been able to pick it out by sight from the village. The shrine building itself was gone, having rotted down around the stone box in its holy of holies, but its grove of sugi was still healthy and quite tall.

"Milord Dragon?" Kiima asked as Ranma and Haabu made their way into the clearing where she sat. "What would have been kept in this box?"

"Ah, I don't know. Usually it's just a bronze mirror or a scroll. Sometimes there are some funny lookin' jewels in 'em. The jewels are valuable only because their considered sacred. Most of the time they're carved out of quartzite or something. Why?"

"I was wondering if we might not find a map in it," Kiima said.

"Good thinkin, Kiima," Ranma said. "I should have thought of that myself."

"It would be taboo for you to open the box, would it not, Cousin?"

"Yeah, I guess that's why it didn't cross my mind."

"Then I will remove the lid," Haabu said. "Captain, you will retrieve the contents."

"Hang on a second," Ranma said. "This shrine was devoted to my ancestors. You had better let me say a prayer to them before we do that."

Kiima and Haabu exchanged glances.

"Hey, ya never know, right?" Ranma asked. "Let's just hope they weren't all like my dad."

Ranma clapped his hands and muttered a brief prayer. Haabu lifted the lid from the stone box and set it on the ground. Kiima looked down into the box.

"There is a mirror, a scroll and a string of jewels just as you described, Milord Dragon," Kiima said.

"Don't touch them, Kiima," Ranma said as he stepped forward. "I'm the one who should bear the responsibility."

Ranma reached down into the chest and gently picked up the scroll, handling it very carefully. He had seen more than one such scroll turn into dust at the lightest touch, but this one turned out to be different. It was made from a kind of paper he had never seen before, and whoever had made it had glued the paper to a piece of heavy silk cloth. It unrolled without a problem.

"It's a map," Ranma said sounding relieved. "The entrance is farther around the hill."

Kiima and Haabu came over so that they too could look at the scroll. The three of them studied it for a moment.

"Got it memorized?" Ranma asked.

"Yes," Haabu and Kiima chorused.

Ranma rolled up the scroll and tied it off. He carefully put it back in the chest. Haabu replaced the lid. Ranma clapped his hand and muttered another quick prayer of thanks.

Haabu's face began to show some distress as he spoke, "I hate to ask this of you Cousin, but I think it unwise to leave that map where it is now. Someone else may find it."

"Let them," Ranma said. "It won't do them any good."

Haabu and Kiima exchanged glances before looking askance at Ranma.

"According to my mother, the family had a prophecy," Ranma explained with a shrug of his shoulders. "This prophecy said that only the last heir of three family lines would be able to open the door."

Haabu continued to look uncomfortable.

"You think it's hokey, right?" Ranma asked.

"Prophesies are not always reliable, Cousin."

"This one is," Ranma said. "If you need proof, I'm standing right in front of you. Let's go."

They worked their way around the hill, following a trail that eventually followed a wide ledge, perhaps a little over a meter wide in places that ran along the side of the hill a hundred meters above the river. When they came to the place that had been marked on the scroll, all three of them were baffled.

The ledge had petered out. The only way to continue was to cling to the rock. There was no discernible entrance of any kind, just a tree clinging to the face of the cliff as though it had been planted espaliered long ago. Now it had an unruly tangle of limbs growing outwards over the ledge and drooping down below it. Its upper branches were at least fifty meters above the ledge and it had sprawled out over much of their side of the hill. Its trunk was over a meter thick where its roots dug into the rock.

Exasperated at not finding the entrance, Ranma sat down and leaned back against the rock face with his legs sticking straight out in front of him. Kiima and Haabu sat down on either side of him.

"Well, what do you think, Haabu?" Ranma asked.

"We are missing something," Haabu said.

"Yeah, like an entrance to a cave, right?" Ranma asked in a sarcastic voice.

"Perhaps the entrance is not here and there is something else we are meant to find," Kiima said.

"What? A key maybe?" Ranma asked, "or another map? I haven't seen any place or anything where you could hide such a small object and count on it being there for another hundred years."

They sat and rested for a while without saying anything. Ranma began taking in the scenery. They had a lovely view of the valley below from the ledge. He got up so that he could look straight down at the river. The river came around the base of the hill from his left and pooled behind a low but wide waterfall directly beneath them.

"I see it," Ranma said. "This weird lookin' tree is a marker."

Haabu got up and joined Ranma. He chuckled when he saw the waterfall and turned to look at the tree.

"This is not a tree, Cousin," Haabu said.

"It ain't?"

"It's a vine."

Kiima gasped aloud. "It's so big that I did not realize what it was!"

"It's a vine?" Ranma asked.

"A very special kind of vine, Cousin," Haabu said. "Ours are the only people to know about them. They are very rare."

"What's so special about it?" Ranma asked.

Kiima started to answer, but Haabu waved for her to be quiet.

"Let's make our way into the archive, Cousin," Haabu said. "You'll understand as soon as we are inside."

"Nuts!" Ranma exclaimed. "Now we hafta find a way down to the river."


Otoko-Akane sat in a wooden tub in the back of the Nekohanten and wept. Ko Lon's warning about how traumatic it would be had not helped. Knowing that hot water would make her whole again did not help. Even after watching Ranma for so long and knowing how badly he hated the curse had not prepared her for having a curse of her own. Fish take no notice of the water in which they swim. Akane had never taken complete notice of what it was to be a woman until the cursed waters streaming off her skin made her into something alien--alien but terrifyingly similar. The intimate links between her mind and her body recoiled in horror falling into complete disarray.

Her intellect fled as the emotional part of her being took complete control. The only thing running through her mind at the moment was that she had lost the things that made her Akane Tendou. Her breasts were gone. Her womb and ovaries were gone. Nothing felt the same. The nerve endings in her skin were dull and insensate. Her hands were now oversized monstrosities. She felt ponderous and there was that...that revolting _thing_ between her legs. Her self, her real self was gone, never to return. She howled in dismay.

"No-o-o-o-o! No! No! No!" Akane cried.

"Come now, child," Ko Lon said in a soothing voice. "Get out of the tub so that we can help you."

Akane started to get up, but the act of moving her limbs reminded her of her loss. She closed her eyes and screamed out her revulsion.

"Come on, Akane," Nabiki said, in a quavering voice. "The sooner you get out, the sooner you can go back to being yourself again."

"I can't!" Otoko-Akane screamed. "I just can't!"

"Come now, child!" Ko Lon snapped. "Why can't you?"

"Because I'm a monster!" Akane screamed hating the very sound of her own voice. It was too deep and it felt funny whenever she spoke. "This isn't me! The real me is dead!"

"Don't be silly, child," Ko Lon said. "You are still very much alive."

"But I'm not me!" Otoko-Akane shuddered with grief over what she had just done to herself.

"What would Ranma think, Akane?" Nabiki asked. "What would he say if he heard you flipping out like this? You're panicking like a damned coward."

Thinking of Ranma helped. Remembering that he had already been through this same nightmare and had held on to his true self gave her courage. Knowing that he would have laughed at her tears made her angry enough to stand.

"There, now that's better, isn't it?" Ko Lon asked. "Be a good girl and step out of the tub so we can make a woman of you."

Otoko-Akane's legs were shaking uncontrollably and her knees were weak. She felt off balance. Her body seemed much too top-heavy to ever be stable. She bent over and gripped at the side of the tub before carefully stepping out of the tub one leg at the time. Ko Lon wasted no time in pouring hot water over her.

Akane sat down on the hard floor and covered her face with both hands.

"Are you okay now, Akane?" Nabiki asked.

"What have I done?" Akane asked in a whimpering voice. "What _have_ I done?"

"Give her a few minutes to calm down, Nabiki-chan," Ko Lon said in her gentlest voice. "The first time is always a horrible shock. It will take her subconscious a little while to realize that she hasn't been completely ruined."

Akane continued to sob without looking up.

"We could use some tea, don't you think, Nabiki?"

"I'll go get it," Nabiki said.

Akane began feeling of her body with both hands, first cupping her breasts, then feeling of her abdomen and her legs.

"It's me!" she exclaimed. "It's really me!"

Ko Lon cackled. "Yes, dear, it really is you."

"That was horrible!" Akane shouted.

"Yes, I know," Ko Lon said. "I remember it all too well."

"Everything was gone!" Akane exclaimed. "All of it and I knew it."

"It _is_ rather disconcerting," Ko Lon said.

"Tea anyone?" Nabiki asked as she entered the room with a tray.

Akane nodded her head and rose to her feet. She took in a deep breath and let out a long sigh. Everything at last looked normal again. She gratefully accepted the bathrobe that Ko Lon offered her and put it on. Nabiki handed her a cup of tea.

"Are you okay now, Akane?" Nabiki asked.

"I'm better," Akane answered. Her knees weakened suddenly. Nabiki quickly moved to Akane's side and held her arm. Akane forced her weakness aside out of concern for her sister.

"Let's get away from that damned tub!" Akane said before leading Nabiki across the room. "You don't want to do this until and unless you have to do it."

Nabiki rested her head on Akane's shoulder and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "That's my baby sister. Always the protective one."

Ko Lon gave them both a sunny smile.

"This is one hell of a bad way to spend a Sunday morning," Akane complained, "but I guess it had to be done."

"If it is of any consolation to you, Akane," Ko Lon said, "you seemed to have handled it better than I did."

"You have my sincerest sympathies, Honored Elder," Akane said. "I don't know how Ranma coped with it. He must have been terrified."

"Yes," Ko Lon said with somber look on her face, "you can bet he was terrified. He did not know that the curse was reversible."

Nabiki put both hands to her mouth as tears came into her eyes. Sadness seemed to have suddenly overwhelmed her.

"Nabiki-chan?" Akane asked. "Are you all right?"

"I...I...can't...I can't believe all the things I've done to him!" Nabiki cried. "I had no idea!"

"Calm yourself, child," Ko Lon said, "the boy was well accustomed to his curse by the time he met you."

"But I was so cruel!" Nabiki cried out.

Akane's face suddenly became somber as well. "I suppose it's only right that I walk a few miles in his shoes, isn't it? Both of us said and did things we shouldn't have, Nabiki."

"How will we ever make it up to him?" Nabiki asked.

"Oh, I'll make it up to him," Akane said with a wan smile as she clutched at her breast, "but I'll need a few days to get used to my guy side first."

Ko Lon giggled. Akane giggled. Nabiki blushed until her face turned bright red. Ko Lon and Akane looked at Nabiki and started laughing. Nabiki finally joined them.

"I could use some chocolate about now," Ko Lon said. "Would the two of you care to join me in an indulgence?"


"I know it's there," Ranma exclaimed as he dropped the big arm-load of driftwood next to the fire. Haabu looked up from his cooking and flashed Ranma a smile. They had spent nearly all of Saturday wading and swimming around the falls, looking for the entrance to the archive, but had yet to find it.

"The only part that we have not carefully examined, Milord Dragon, is that stretch where the water is so turbulent," Kiima said.

"Well, you always find what you're looking for in the last place you search," Ranma said with a bit of irony in his voice.

"How do you propose to search that spot, Cousin?" Haabu asked as he handed Ranma a steaming bowl of noodles. "We tried yesterday and nearly drowned."

Kiima sat down near the fire and Haabu handed her a bowl of noodles before serving himself one.

"Oh, I got one more trick up my sleeve," Ranma said in an annoyed voice. "I didn't wanna use it because it'll keep me out of school for a week, but I guess finding the archive is worth it."

Haabu gave him a puzzled look for a moment, then his look changed to one of comprehension. "You are going to change into your draconian form, aren't you?"

Ranma had a mouthful of noodles. He nodded his head.

Kiima stopped eating and stared at Ranma. Ranma finished working down his noodles and flashed a grin at Kiima. He couldn't help it. She was in her cursed form and her incredulous stare was more than a little familiar.

"I can hold my breath for an hour or more in that form and I'm much, much stronger as a dragon," Ranma said in a matter-of-fact voice. "The only problem is that I have to stay dragon for almost a week afterwards."

"Why is that necessary, Cousin?" Haabu asked.

"It takes too much ki to change back," Ranma said.

"You could borrow my staff," Haabu suggested.

"I hadn't thought of that," Ranma said. "I should have brought mine, but I haven't ever carried one before and didn't think of it."

"We'll have to get you into the habit of keeping it with you," Haabu said.

"I gotta remember to take all my clothes off before I invoke the change," Ranma said. "They get torn to shreds if I don't."

"I'll remind you, Milord Dragon," Kiima said sweetly as she waggled an eyebrow at him.

Haabu broke out laughing at this. Ranma grinned, even though the offer made him blush. "I owe ya one now, Kiima," he warned.


Otoko-Akane walked down the street next to her sister, or tried to walk. She was having more than a little trouble with this particular chore.

"That's at least the sixth time you've tripped, Akane," Nabiki said with growing concern in her voice. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm too tall. I'm too top heavy! My legs are too long. My feet are too big, and I've got this damned thing between my thighs that keeps getting in the way!" Akane said in an exasperated voice as she regained her feet. "Other than that, Nabiki, I'm fine."

Nabiki giggled as they walked on down the street. "The thing between your legs keeps getting in the way?" she asked.

"Well!" Akane exclaimed. She was extremely flustered. "It's not that so much that as it is me having a hard time ignoring it."

"Oh, you mean it's kind of like when you get up in the morning and take notice of your nose."

"Worse!"

"Kiyaa! At least now we know why guys stay horny all the time."

Otoko-Akane tripped and fell.

"Nabiki!"

"What's the matter, Sis? Feeling a little stiff are we?"

"You...are _not_...helping any!"

"Incoming!"

A ladleful of water splashed across Otoko-Akane's back.

"Dammit! Can't you see that I'm already a guy?" Akane shouted at the little old lady who had splashed Ranma at least a hundred times.

"Beg your pardon, dear?" the old lady asked in the sweet kind of voice that only little old ladies with ladles could use very well.

"Oh, don't pay any attention to him, Obaa-san," Nabiki said, doing her best to choke the words out between laughs. "He's just a little stiff this morning, that's all."

"Oh, the poor dear! I hope it isn't arthritis!"

"Oh, don't worry!" Nabiki chortled. "It's just a little stiffness between his thighs. He'll get over it."

"Stiffness between his thighs, eh?"

"Yeah, he got some treatments this morning and it's an all new experience for him!" Nabiki said.

"Oh, I see! Congratulations, young man! And don't worry, dear," the sweet little old lady said as she patted Otoko-Akane on the shoulder. Her eyes were wide with delight. "There's a very old cure for _this_ condition and it works _every_ time!"

"Why me?" Otoko-Akane asked with a groan as Nabiki fell down laughing.

"Well at least it didn't turn your hair red, Akane!" Nabiki said, laughing some more.

"I don't know that dark lavender is that much of an improvement over the red," Akane muttered, "and these oversized feet are not much help at all."


Ranma stood naked on a large flat rock at the edge of the river, surveying the waterfall just a short way upstream. Haabu watched him attentively while Kiima kept her back to Ranma.

"Watch yer eyes, Cuz!" Ranma shouted.

There was a bright flash and what seemed to be a few flakes of snow fluttered around. Where once a young Japanese man once stood, there was now a blue-green dragon with crystalline spines. The sight of him took Haabu's breath away.

"Give me at least an hour before you start worrying, Haabu-dono," Tatsu-Ranma rumbled. "If I find the entrance, I'll come up to let you know before going inside."

"Good luck, Cousin," Haabu said, giving Ranma a short bow. "You are a beautiful dragon, by the way."

"As I'm sure you will be, Haabu," Tatsu-Ranma replied. He walked out onto the surface of the river until he neared the part of the waterfall that they had not been able to search, and then sank out of sight.

"Hmm, Akane is a very lucky young woman," Kiima said.

"You peeked," Haabu said with an amused look on his face.

"Just the tiniest of glimpses, Milord," Kiima replied.

"Indeed! A tiny glimpse, but you got to see a great deal, correct?"

"I'll never tell, Milord."

"I should hope not," Haabu said in a dry voice. "Would you like some tea? It would seem that..."

"Oi! I found it!" Tatsu-Ranma shouted. He had popped up out of the water thirty meters or so downstream of the fall.

"Wonderful, Cousin!" Haabu shouted back. "Are you certain that it is the real entrance?"

"I'm going to go inside!" Tatsu-Ranma answered. "If it is the right one, I might not be back for a few hours. I'll try to find another way in and out of the place."

"Good idea, Cousin!" Haabu shouted. "I'm sure that there must be an entrance other than this one."

Tatsu-Ranma disappeared beneath the surface of the river again. Kiima and Haabu exchanged glances.

"Do you think that he really has found it?" Kiima asked.

"I'm relatively certain that he has, Captain," Haabu said. "I'm beginning to think that we might actually survive this ordeal."

"I stopped doubting our success months ago," Kiima said.

"Oh?" Haabu asked. "What inspired this new-found faith?"

"Frankly, Milord, the alternatives are too distasteful to contemplate, so I decided that failure would not be an option."

"Always a wise policy, my dear Captain," Haabu replied. "Tea?"

"Yes, thank you, Milord."


As they approached the gate at Tendo-ke, Otoko-Akane suddenly became weak at the knees and leaned against one of the gateposts. Watching her, Nabiki realized that something was very wrong.

"What's the matter, Akane?" Nabiki asked. "You look as though you just saw a ghost."

"Curse me for a fool!" Otoko-Akane hissed. "I thought about how everyone but Aunt Nodoka might react to this."

Nabiki rolled her eyes to the heavens. "She'll get over it, Akane."

"Even if I tell her I did this on purpose?"

"It's part of your training, remember?"

"Well, this part of my training is scaring me spit-less."

"Don't worry, Sis. I'll be standing right behind her. If she reaches for her katana, I'll tackle her. If she passes out, I'll catch her."

"If she passes out, I'll grab her katana and hide it."

"I don't think you'll have to," Nabiki said with a smirk. "Uncle Genma will grab it."

Otoko-Akane shivered, but stood up straight.

"Ready?" Nabiki asked.

"No, but let's try to get this over with before Ranma gets home."

"That's my girl," Nabiki said as she took Akane by the arm. "Let's go."

They marched side by side into the foyer and started taking off their shoes.

"We're home!" Nabiki called out to the rest of the house.

"Welcome back, Nabiki...who's your guest?" Nodoka asked. "My, there is such a strong family resemblance. Are you a cousin? Where's Akane?"

"Ah...er...well..." Otoko-Akane stammered.

"I think we are going to need some hot water, Aunt Nodoka," Nabiki said.

Nodoka promptly passed out. Genma Saotome appeared as if out of nowhere and snagged Nodoka's katana while Nabiki broke Nodoka's fall.

"I'll be back with some smelling salts after I hide this thing," Genma rumbled. "Lookin' good there, Akane."

"Thank you, Uncle Genma," Otoko-Akane said, in an amazed voice.

"Nabiki, did you talk this over with them?"

"No, Akane, I didn't."

"Then why..."

"Because it was the logical thing for you to do under the circumstances, Akane," Nabiki said. "You know what a fanatic Uncle Genma is when it comes to The Art."

"Yes, but..."

"Akane?" Soun Tendou asked. "Is that really you?"

"Yes, Daddy. It's me."

Nabiki watched her father as he struggled to maintain his self-control and failed.

"My poor brave daughter!" he blubbered. "Are you all right?"

"Other than being a little clumsy, Dad, I'm just fine."

"Come on in here and let me get a good look at you!"

Nabiki looked from her father and over at her sister. "Go ahead, Akane. I'll see to Aunt Nodoka."

As Otoko-Akane and Soun disappeared into the house, Genma arrived with smelling salts.

"Here, hold this, Nabiki-chan," he said as he handed her the tiny bottle. "I'll carry her in."

"Do you think she'll ever get over this?" Nabiki asked.

"I've been expecting something like this," Genma said as he carried his wife into the great room. "It was a logical step in Akane's training. I warned Nodoka that it might happen."

"She didn't believe you, did she?"

"She didn't want to," Genma said as he gently set Nodoka down on a futon he had already prepared.

"Nabiki?" Soun Tendou called out. "Come look at this!"

Nabiki sighed. "They're probably standing in front of that full length mirror of Mom's."

Genma smirked and nodded his head. "Go on and visit with your dad and your ancestors. I'll take care of Nodoka."

"Okay."

"Tell Akane to be ready to run, though."

"We've already talked about that, believe me."

"You've always had a good head on your shoulders, Nabiki. Well done."

"Thanks, Unka Genma."

Nabiki made her way to the master bedroom, trying to remember the last time she had been in it. Almost a month, maybe more, she thought. Just as she expected, her father and Akane were standing in front of the large mirror her mother had kept in one corner of the room.

"Well, you definitely look like father and son," Nabiki said with smile, even though she could see that Akane was not holding up very well. She gave both of them her best smirk and said, "Congratulations, Daddy. It's a boy--sort of."

Nabiki could see out of one corner of her eye that Akane shuddered at her announcement. Soun remained oblivious to Akane's plight. He put one arm around Nabiki's shoulders and the other around Akane's.

"Your sister did a very brave thing today, Nabiki," Soun said. "You should be proud of her."

"I always have been, Daddy," Nabiki replied, suddenly wishing that she could give Akane a hug.

"Daddy, why were you expecting this?" Otoko-Akane asked. Her voice was shaking as badly as her knees.

"It seemed the logical thing for you to do under the circumstances. When I discovered that I had a gi missing this morning, I guessed that you must have decided to take the plunge."

"Why am I always the last one to figure these things out?" Otoko-Akane asked.

"Because you're still a student," Soun told her. "A brilliant student, but still a student."

Akane gave out an aggravated sigh. "You guys have been talking about this whenever I wasn't around, haven't you?"

"Yes, that's true," Soun said.

"Did you talk it over with Ranma?" Akane asked.

"No," Soun said shaking his head, "we didn't. We wanted to leave it up to you and him. Did you discuss it with him?"

"Not yet, " Akane answered, looking glum.

Soun rolled his eyes. "Don't be surprised if he is a bit put out with you over that, Akane. He's your betrothed as well as your sensei. You took a major step without discussing it with him first."

Nabiki slid over close to Otoko-Akane and gave her a hug. "Ranma won't mind the curse itself, Akane, and you know he never holds a grudge."

"Come over here, girls," Soun said in a cheerful voice as he opened the family shrine. "We must explain all of this to your mother."

Nabiki exchanged glances with Otoko-Akane and the two of them smiled. Their father was a very sincere worshiper of Shinto and there was no dissuading him when he wanted them to commune with their mother or their ancestors. Nabiki immediately understood why this occasion was important to him. Her father wanted his late wife and the rest of their ancestors to be able to recognize Akane in her newly acquired form. It simply would not do for her baby sister to become a stranger to them.


Tatsu-Ranma surfaced inside a large cavern, very grateful that he had not attempted to swim through the long hairpin tube that led from the waterfall to the archive in his human form. He would never have made it. Not only had it been a very long tunnel, but it had been very deep and filled with a network of roots intertwined around some rather sharp stalagmites and stalactites. He doubted that divers equipped with modern SCUBA equipment could have successfully traversed the thing. It was nothing short of a death trap.

The cavern was well lit, much to his surprise and joy. The flashlight he had brought with him had not survived the trip through the tunnel. Water pressure had ruined it. He craned his neck in an effort to get a look at the ceiling and was shocked by what he saw. Overhead, perhaps by as much as fifteen meters, was a large white flower. It had seven large petals, each one being perhaps half of a meter long and perhaps a little over a quarter of a meter wide. At the center of this flower, where one would have expected a flower to have pistils and stamens, there was a cluster of what appeared to be quartz crystals. Some of the crystals were as long as his human forearm. All of them were glowing from within.

(Lookit that, Red!)

(Yeah, I see it, Saotome.)

{{Rather efficient lighting, wouldn't you say, Saotome.}}

(It beats the hell out of havin' to pay an electricity bill.)

(Look, there's another over there, above that staircase.)

(Yeah, I see it. Looks like they're growin' off of some kind of vine.)

(A vine?)

{{Now I understand what Prince Haabu meant about that great vine on the hill.}}

(How long do you think we took to get through that underwater tube, Scales?)

{{About forty-five minutes, Scarlet One.}}

(Let's see what we can find and get back to Haabu and Kiima before they start to worry. We don't have a lot of time.)

(Yeah, you're right, Red. Somethin' like an hour at best, I'd say. Scales?)

{{That seems to be a reasonable estimate, Saotome. I do agree that we have little time to waste.}}

(Well, then! Let's not stand here with our fangs in our mouth. We've got some serious scouting to do!)


Nabiki was deeply concerned about her lower lip. She was concerned about it because she was biting it. She had no choice about whether she bit it or not. The problem stemmed from her acute lack of self-control. She could not stop herself from listening to Genma and Nodoka Saotome. And, because she was listening to them, she dared not stop biting her lower lip. If she stopped biting her lower lip, she would make some kind of noise that would interrupt the conversation between Genma and Nodoka, and Nabiki positively, absolutely had to hear the end of that conversation without fail. She might die if she did not hear all of it. If, therefore, the price of life was her lower lip, Nabiki would pay it now and bitch about it later, but she was definitely going to hear the end of this conversation.

"But you saw him, Genma!"

"Yes, Nodoka, I did get a good look at her."

"You saw how handsome he was!"

"Yes, I did. She is a most attractive girl. Always has been. Half the boys at her school fought with each other and with her in the hopes of getting a date with her. All of that ended when our son arrived."

"You saw how incredibly manly he was!"

"Yes, I did, Nodoka, but that is the product of Jusenkyou. It's no diff..."

"He's a Don Juan with lavender hair!"

"Well, she doesn't look Iberian to me, but if you..."

"A boy like that could have grown women swooning at his feet!"

"Wait a minute, Nodoka. Are you sure you aren't just speaking for yourself here?"

"And if I am, how in the name of all that is sacred can you even dream of letting that boy come anywhere near our little girl!"

"Because it couldn't cross my mind and never has, Nodoka. We don't have a..."

"He'll seduce her!"

"Well, I suppose turnabout is fair play, but you have to understa..."

"Oh, Genma you horrid, despicable unfeeling beast! Do you have any idea what a boy like that could do to our child?"

"Er...well...You know, Nodoka, there are certain things that are best left..."

"I simply cannot believe that you would condone--Nay!--Encourage this...this...incubus to have his way with my baby!"

"Nodoka, look! You're making something of this that it ..."

Shing!

"Nodoka! You put that thing away this instant!"

"Oh, I fully I intend to sheath it soon--right up your ass!"

"Eeyaah! Be careful, Nodoka! You're going to hurt somebody with that damned thing!"

"Those are my intentions, Darling!"

"Give me that! Yeeowee!"

"He'll get her pregnant!"

"That's been the idea all along! I thought you wanted grandchildren!"

"Not that way, I don't!"

"Don't get me wrong, Nodoka. I have always expected a great deal from our son, but an immaculate conception isn't in the cards. He's not quite that much of a kami. He and Akane do have to..."

"Genmaaaa!"


Tatsu-Ranma made his way up the wide staircase. It ended in a long hallway or, perhaps, gallery that led way into the heart of the hill. He lost count of the rooms and tunnels attached to it. Some of the rooms housed thousands upon thousands of clay tablets inscribed with writing he did not recognize. Others were filled with large clay pots that had been sealed. All of them appeared to be labeled with the same curious writing he had found on the tablets. He did not open any of them.

These things alone were worth millions. Curators and archaeologists would pay huge sums of money for them alone, but there were also a great many objects made of bronze, silver, gold, and jade. He found bronze and copper ingots and coils of precious metal wire, but the most fascinating thing he found was the room of pearls.

It was not the number of pearls that was so astounding. There were only about a hundred of them, perhaps less.

(Good grief! They're over fifteen centimeters in diameter!)

(You sure they aren't softballs, Red? They're the right size.)

{{Four-and-a-half to five-and-a-half sun, most of them. Look at this pretty grey one.}}

(Try not to scratch it when you pick it up, Scales.)

{{I shan't...Oh!}}

((Put it back! Put it back!))

But it was too late. Tatsu-Ranma collapsed as ki poured out of the bluish-grey pearl he taken up and with it came images, thousands of them. They were not moving pictures so much as they were memories and emotions. They invaded his mind, his body and his soul as an unstoppable flood. For all of his power and all of the self-control he had learned over the years, Tatsu-Ranma was helpless against it. He lay upon the stone floor and whimpered, unable to release his hold on the thing even though he feared that it might well kill him.


Ultimately, Nabiki's lower lip was rescued by the ringing of her cellular telephone. It did a number on her nerves, as usual, but it did save her lower lip from permanent harm. It stopped her from following Genma and Nodoka outside and she could no longer hear them.

"Tendou!"

"How are you this evening, fair Princess?"

"Haabu!"

"Yes, it is."

"You figured out how to use the phone?"

"Don't be silly, my dear. Kiima operates it. All I do is talk into it."

"Somehow, I'm not surprised. We are going to have a little training session for you when you get back."

"An excellent idea, but I fear we will need to delay it."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing is actually wrong, it's just that Ranma will need to rest for a day or two before he can move."

"What happened to him?"

"He turned dragon for one thing. It was necessary for him to do that in order to get into the archive."

"Oh, okay. Yeah, he had to rest for a while the last time he did that."

"But that's not all, I'm afraid. He found something we thought existed only in legends. He found a Pearl of Wisdom."

"He found a what?"

"A Pearl of Wisdom. Actually, he found over a hundred of them. He also made the mistake of picking up one of them."

"What did it do to him?"

"It instructed him."

"Uh-huh, so why the delay?"

"Well, the instruction process is a rather taxing. He needs time to recover a bit."

"I see. He isn't sick or anything, is he?"

"Ah, well, I'm not certain. The legends say that a man might behave oddly for weeks, even months after touching one of the pearls. Ranma actually picked this thing up and held it."

Nabiki found a cushion and sat down.

"So he's alive and he seems to be healthy, but he's behaving oddly, is that what you're telling me?"

"That's a fairly accurate description, yes."

"So how is he behaving?"

"At the moment, he is behaving like a dragon."

"Like a dragon, huh? What's that like?"

"Think of him as an exceedingly intelligent crocodile and you would have a fair idea."

"So he's a little more charming than usual."

Haabu laughed. "You could say that, yes. I have no interest in receiving one of his love bites."

Nabiki sighed. "I can just imagine. Have you been able to talk to him at all?"

"Oh, yes. He spoke to us briefly when he first emerged from the archive, but then he demanded to be left alone and swam out to a rock in the middle of the river."

"Any idea how long this may last?"

"No, I'm afraid not."

"I wonder if Doctor Tofu might know anything."

" Whether he knows anything or not, a visit from him might do some good, but I suggest we wait a day or two and see if Ranma doesn't recover on his own."

"All right. I'll try to explain this to Akane. Do you have any idea what kind of instructions this Pearl of Wisdom thing gave him?"

"Not really. He has great difficulty in communicating when he tries to speak of it."

"Damn! I miss you."

"And I you, Princess."

"Come home as soon as you can."

"I will. Before you go, Ranma wanted to know what happened to Akane. He seems to be worried about her."

"Tell him that she's perfectly healthy and that she needs to see him as soon as he can come home."

"I'll do that."

"And don't let him bite you."

"I won't, Princess."

"Farewell, my Prince."

"Farewell, my love."

Nabiki closed the phone and dropped it before holding her head with both hands and groaning.

"How the hell am I going to explain this one to anybody? Maybe I should just make something up out of whole cloth for the school. I am not about to tell his teachers that Ranma is missing school because he found a Pearl of Wisdom."


Soun woke his daughter Akane with a bucket of cold water on Monday morning. Akane was furious, not so much because of the rude awakening, but because it soaked her bed. Intellectually, it was just a wetted mattress easily dried. Emotionally, it was another matter altogether. She trooped downstairs with the intentions of teaching her dear old dad a lesson. She quickly discovered that the lessons were hers to learn.

She was also shocked to find that her father knew as many dirty tricks as Genma Saotome. The next thing she learned was that he could be every bit as ruthless as Genma Saotome. From this she inferred that fathers were willing to inflict more pain on their sons than they were on their daughters, which struck her as extraordinary because she also learned that pain really was more difficult to deal with in her male body, just as Ranma and Haabu said it was. Just to round things out, she discovered that being angry with her father was even less useful than being angry with Genma.

She next learned that the only thing worse than having Genma Saotome trying to steal food from her plate was to have both him and her father stealing food from her plate. Fortunately, Aunt Nodoka decided that she really liked Akane's guy-side and kept bringing more and more food out or she might well have left for school hungry. But, having Aunt Nodoka dote on her while she was in her male form unnerved her for some reason.

Preparing for school led to the discovery of another problem. She dared not wear her own clothes to school; her cursed form would ruin them. Ranma's clothing fit her cursed form's waist, but his trouser legs stopped short of her cursed form's ankles. She decided to wear one of Ranma's shirts, but borrowed a pair of her father's seldom worn dungarees to go with it. Tying the dungarees off at her ankles so that they would not become a trip hazard for her natural form made their bagginess far more pronounced, but there was no help for it.

"Akane," Nabiki said, "you look like a refugee from a rag factory."

"I guess that gives us an excuse to go shopping," Akane snapped. "Have you heard anything about Ranma yet?"

Nabiki shook her head. "No, I haven't, but look on the bright side, Akane. At least now you'll have a little more time to adjust to your curse. We aren't going shopping, either. We are going to go see a tailor."

"Why?"

"Because we'll never find anything on the rack that will work for you."

"Let's find some things on the rack that I like, and _then_ take them to a tailor."

"That will cost...She never misses, does she?" Nabiki asked while Otoko-Akane fumed over their elderly neighbor's unerring aim with a ladleful of water. "We'll do it. We'll find some things you like and then go see a tailor."

They walked on for a few blocks in silence. Akane had taken out a thermos of hot water out of her book bag and put it back in, unable to decide about when to change back into her natural form. She eyed the sky suspiciously. The clouds were low and heavy looking.

"Aren't you going to change back?" Nabiki asked.

"No, I may as well let everyone become acquainted with my cursed form first," Akane said. "The rumor mill is going to run wild for the next few days. We may as well encourage them and let 'em get it out of their system while Ranma is away."

"Hmm, yeah, you're right," Nabiki said. "That will save a few cracked skulls--maybe."

Upon reaching school they learned that Nerima was having a flu epidemic. This was good because it gave them a perfect reason for Ranma's absence. It was bad because Akane's steadfast gal-pals, Yuka, Sayuri and Ukyou were absent. This enervated Akane even further. She really needed the emotional support. Akane quickly discovered that her masculine form was very attractive to a several of her female classmates and one or two of her male classmates. Both groups approached her with high hopes. Complaining to Nabiki only made matters worse.

"Well, be happy, Akane. At least you'll never have to worry about whether you could get laid. Most guys can't even get a whiff of perfume."

"You're no help at all!"

By the time lunch break rolled around, Akane was thoroughly miserable. It was pouring down rain and everyone had to eat inside or find shelter outside of the main building. Desperate to be away from her newly acquired admirers, Otoko-Akane went outside and found a spot that seemed perfect. It was the little shed the school used as a concession stand during sporting events. It was empty when she sat down and she had no idea that it was the favorite hangout of some Furinkan's shadier characters. Four of them walked in just as she started to take the first bite of her lunch.

"Who the hell are you?" the group's leader demanded to know. "Scram! Get out of here."

"My name is Akane Tendou and I'll leave when I am good and ready."

"Akane Tendou, huh?" the leader asked. His buddies all laughed. Two more of them arrived at about this same time and started grinning in anticipation of having some fun with a new student. "Well I'm Ranma Saotome and seein' as how you're Akane Tendou, I get to fuck you in the ass, right?"

Otoko-Akane calmly placed her chopsticks inside her bento, then set the whole thing down on the counter.

"If you can beat me," Otoko-Akane said in a voice so cold and hard that it startled even her, "I'll bend over for you."

Thirty seconds later, Otoko-Akane sat back down and finished luncheon while her erstwhile opponents twitched and moaned. One of them was sobbing. He had a broken forearm, but then he had pulled a knife and Otoko-Akane was not the least bit sympathetic to his plight.

Just as she finished eating, the leader forced himself up on his elbow and spoke.

"Look, I gotta know. Who are you for real?"

Otoko-Akane pulled a thermos out of her book bag and emptied the contents on her head by way of answer. The boy groaned and fell on his back.

"He's gonna kill us!"

"Maybe you should think about moving," Akane said as she walked out of the shed. "No one really wants the likes of you around here anyway."

Nabiki caught her as she walked back into the main building.

"Where have you been, Akane?" Nabiki asked. "I've been looking all over for you."

"Looking for a little peace and quiet," Akane answered.

"In Nerima?" Nabiki asked, giving Akane a hard stare.

"Yeah, okay! I should have known better. What's up? Why were you looking for me?"

"I got permission for you and I to cut fifth and sixth period so you could take care of your clothing problem."

Akane gratefully nodded her head. "Thanks, Nabiki. I really could use a break from this place."

Nabiki looked down at Akane's badly mangled shoes. "I guess we need to squeeze in a visit to a cobbler, too, don't we?"

"Is there a cobbler in Nerima?"

"Yes, and he is one out of ten in all of Tokyo. He makes most of his money making shoes for gaijin."

"I hope he's ingenious. My shoe problem could get expensive."

"Yeah, no kidding," Nabiki said. "You won't be losing a pair every once in a while. You destroy them."

"And it hurts like the devil."

"I'll bet!" Nabiki said as a sad look played across her face. "We had no idea how bad it could be for Ranma sometimes, did we?"

"No, we didn't."

"Gotta run, Sis. It's almost time for class."

"I'll meet you at the main exit."

"Okay!"

Fourth period class proved fairly uneventful except for the huge pile of notes that appeared on Akane's desk. Fortunately, their history teacher was a fairly understanding fellow and did not make her stand a fire watch, but Akane was more than ready to leave school by the time fourth period ended.


It was so late by the time they left the cobbler shop that Akane and Nabiki decided to have dinner at the Nekohanten.

"Oh, dear me!" Ko Lon exclaimed. "He picked one up?"

"That's what Haabu tells us," Nabiki said.

"Will he be all right, Obaa-san?" Akane asked.

Ko Lon did her best to think the matter through while pouring more tea for her guests and herself.

"It's hard to say for certain," Ko Lon said, "the records we have on them are sketchy and the stories about them are, well, bizarre."

"Oh, that figures!" Nabiki exclaimed.

"What exactly are these things, Honored Elder?" Akane asked. "I always thought 'Pearls of Wisdom' were sayings on important subjects."

"And so they are, child," Ko Lon said, "but there has always been more than one type. This gem that Ranma picked up is indeed an actual pearl--a very special kind of pearl. It would have been produced by a tree."

"A tree?" Akane and Nabiki asked in stereo.

"Yes, a tree," Ko Lon said. "We even know what species of tree and have been careful to plant new saplings every year."

"A tree that produces softball-sized pearls instead of fruit?" Nabiki asked.

"In addition to its normal fruit, Nabiki-chan," Ko Lon said in a dry voice. "Inducing the trees to produce these pearls appears to have been a powerful ki technique that only a few people ever specialized in. Their line and craft died out well before I was born."

"What happened to all the pearls that were produced in the past?" Akane asked.

"Oh, quite a few of them are reputed to be still around, most in private collections of wealthy individuals."

"So why haven't we heard reports of wealthy men or women having encounters like Ranma's?" Nabiki asked.

"What makes you think you haven't?" Ko Lon asked. "You have had some rather interesting encounters with Kuno-ke, have you not?"

Akane and Nabiki gasped in unison.

"Are you ready to listen now? I will tell you all I know about them."

Both girls nodded their heads.

"As I said, the Pearls of Wisdom were produced by a particular species of tree that is still extant to this day. Inducing these trees to produce the pearls, however, was the work of one particular clan. That clan died out a long time ago and no one outside that clan had full knowledge of their secrets. However, we do know some things. The trees were always planted near places of learning, or, in the case of, say, a craft that needed to be handed down, near where that craft was practiced. As best as we can tell, the trees absorbed the ki generated in these places, and this somehow stored the knowledge you could garner by observation of the place within the pearls the trees produced. Unfortunately, I do not have copies of the surviving illustrations of this process.

"The drawback to the Pearls of Wisdom was that not just anyone could avail themselves of the knowledge they stored. From what we have been able to gather, a putative recipient needed to be a powerful ki adept to touch one of them and remain sane. Some people actually died after having held a Pearl of Wisdom. They had to be handled in much the same way that a ki staff must be dealt with."

Akane shuddered at the mention of a ki staff.

"So you think some of the crazy rich people we've heard about or have read about in the papers are people who handled one of these pearls, right?" Nabiki asked.

"Only some of them, not all."

"Why do you suspect House Kuno?"

"Their behavior is a close match of the things reported in our records."

Akane began to cry.

"Shush, child!" Ko Lon exclaimed. "Ranma is uniquely equipped to handle this sort of thing. His flexibility of mind is extraordinary. There is no reason to assume that he will suffer any long-lasting effects from his exposure."

"Knowledge is power," Nabiki declared. "He may not go mad, but he _will_ be affected, Honored Elder."

"In that sense I must agree, Nabiki-chan."

"The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge," Akane said in a soft voice. "Maybe we are going back to Eden."

"Since when did you become such an optimist, Akane?" Nabiki asked with humorous smirk.


Akane woke up of her own accord just before dawn on Wednesday morning. Nodoka had insisted that there be no more soaking of futons for the sake of The Art. Akane had sparred with Genma on Tuesday morning and her father supervised her evening workout after school that day. Enough of a pattern had emerged for her to realize that the "old farts" had worked out a schedule to cover for Ranma. She was more than a little grateful to them for it. Staying busy helped relieve the pain Ranma's absence caused her. Going to bed completely exhausted was an especially big help.

She started off being annoyed with her father for taking such a sudden interest in her training. She had at first thought that he had not worked with her more often in the past because he thought it a waste of time to train a girl. Now she finally realized that her father had, like Ranma, always been loathe to hurt her. Her curse, as inconvenient as it was most of the time, was proving a blessing by allowing her to become closer to him. It just annoyed her that they could not have become closer without it.

Of course, bein' close to your dad doesn't mean that it's all peaches and cream. Sometimes a little roughness is in order, Akane thought as she made her way to the furoba for some cold water and a change of clothing. She exited the furoba and stamped down the long hallway toward her father's bedroom.

"Mornin', Pop!" Otoko-Akane shouted as she dragged the covers off the bed. She seized Soun's collar and shouted, "Time to rise and shine!"

"Glugh?"

"Kyaaah!" Otoko-Akane shouted as she pitched her half-asleep patriarch out of his bedroom window.

"Heeee! Oof! Oof! Yaah!"

Splash!

"Hah! Perfect double bank shot!" Otoko-Akane chortled as she ran back down the hallway to the great room. Once there, she opened the outer doors of the engawa expecting to find her father sitting in the koi pond. He wasn't there.

"Dad? Heeeyaaah!"

Otoko-Akane suddenly found herself sitting in the koi pond spitting out foul tasting water.

"That was sloppy, Akane! You should have felt my presence long before I got near you!"

"Where were you?"

Soun grinned at her and pointed up at the soffit above his head.

"I didn't know you could do stuff like that!"

"Never underestimate your opponent, little girl!"

"That was a really dirty trick!"

"Why, thank you, Akane."

Otoko-Akane leaped out of the water and the two of them went at it, hammer and tongs, for the next hour. Genma Saotome came out to the engawa and sat down to enjoy the show. He had brought along the karaoke machine and took huge delight in playing the role of announcer. Most of his humorous barbs and color commentary were aimed at Otoko-Akane, of course. She took it all in stride, grateful that he and her father were at last taking her seriously.

More hard news came at breakfast. She arrived at the table just in time to hear her father and Genma discussing it.

"Hmm, that is bad," Genma rumbled. "That foolish boy of mine should have spotted it before now."

"I do find it surprising, Saotome, especially given the way he has always worried about her," Soun replied.

"Well, we can't allow it to go on," Genma said. "The boy is stuck in Shikoku for a while so it's up to us."

"Agreed," Soun said in the voice Akane knew he only used when he was deadly serious. "We should begin correcting this oversight at once."

"What oversight, Dad?" Akane asked as she sat down.

"Your apparent lack of danger sense, Daughter," Soun said. "It is most worrisome."

"I thought it was a talent you had to be born with," Akane replied

Both her father and Genma laughed nastily at this.

"Not really," Genma said.

"It can be and often is taught, Akane," Soun said.

"But it isn't easy on the student," Genma said, giving Akane a grim smile.

"No, it certainly is not," Soun said.

"Fortunately, you learn fairly quickly," Genma said.

"Well, how do I learn it then?" Akane asked.

"Oh, don't worry, Akane," her father replied.

"This is one of those rare techniques that is taught to you by your teachers and fellow students rather than your learning it," Genma said.

Akane felt a huge lump of ice form in her stomach. "Why do I get the impression that you two are enjoying this just a wee bit too much?"

"Because we are!" Soun and Genma chorused.

"Here, have some breakfast," Genma said as he began piling food onto Akane's plate.

"Indeed, Akane, eat up. You're going to need your strength," her father added.

The lump of ice in Akane's stomach rapidly grew larger. "You guys are trying to make me paranoid!"

"Do you really think I'd do something like that to my little girl?" Soun asked.

"It's for your own good, Akane," Genma said, giving her another cold smile.

Akane gave the two of them a hard stare, but all that accomplished was to make them laugh in her face. Nabiki arrived at the table while they were still laughing.

"What's going on?" Nabiki asked.

"Ask Akane," Genma said. Soun nodded his head in agreement and then picked up his newspaper.

"I'll tell you about it later, Nabiki," Akane said as she cautiously began to eat.

Neither of the men at the table tried to interrupt her or take her food, which Akane found unnerving. Her hands began to shake and continued to give her trouble through the remainder of breakfast.

Once they were outside the gates of Tendo-ke and headed for school, Nabiki demanded to know what was going on.

"Oh!" Akane exclaimed in frustration, "Dad managed to surprise me this morning so now he and Uncle Genma think that my danger sense needs to be trained."

"You let Dad sneak up on you?"

"I woke him by throwing him out into the backyard this morning and he was clinging to the ceiling of the engawa when I started to go outside."

"And he dropped down behind you."

Akane nodded her head.

"They're right," Nabiki said as she moved away from Akane until there was about a meter between them. "It needs work."

"But I had no idea Daddy could do something like that!"

"Makes no difference, Akane," Nabiki answered. "You should have sensed his presence."

"Why are you doing that?" Akane asked staring at the distance between herself and her sister.

"Because..."

Akane gasped as cold water hit her full in the face. There were ripping noises as her newly tailored pants adjusted to her larger size. Her new shoes made popping noises as they split at their breakaway points, painlessly releasing her feet from their confines.

"I wanted to keep my clothes dry when Daddy splashed you."

"He got me!"

Nabiki nodded her head.

"He got me and I never saw it coming!"

"Yes, he certainly did," Nabiki said, "but look at the bright side. At least now we know your shoes work they way they are supposed to."

"You knew he was there!"

Nabiki nodded her head.

"I didn't notice him!"

Nabiki nodded her head again.

"Is he gone?"

"Yes."

"I can't believe it!"

"You have to believe it, Akane," Nabiki said in a dry voice. "You're standing there dripping water."

Otoko-Akane let out an exasperated sigh as she opened her book bag and pulled out a larger pair of shoes. She dropped them onto the sidewalk and stepped into them before picking up her new shoes and putting them into her book bag.

"Why am I having a problem with this?"

"Because you haven't practiced it," Nabiki told her. "It's not like there's something inherently wrong with you."

"How come you don't have trouble with it?"

"I'm one of those rare people who was born using their sense of caution, Akane. You, on the other hand, were born aggressive."

"Was not!"

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Look, Akane, until you learn this lesson, Dad and Uncle Saotome are going to make you miserable, okay? Caution is a habit that can be learned and you have _never_ learned it."

Otoko-Akane stared down at Nabiki in dumbfounded silence.

"It's one of the reasons Ranma has always worried about you so much," Nabiki said, as her face grew hard. "Now let's get to school before we're late."

They walked halfway down the next block in silence before Otoko-Akane broke it.

"I was being stubborn, wasn't I?"

"And blind."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Nabiki said flashing smirk up at Otoko-Akane as she stepped away from her. "You're paying for it."

"Wha..."

Ko Lon popped out from behind a wall and tweaked Akane on the nose with her thumb and forefinger. The old woman cackled with mirth as she quickly pogoed out of reach and out of sight.

Nabiki laughed and handed Akane a handkerchief. "Here, wipe your nose."

"Howd do you do dat?" Otoko-Akane asked as she wiped the smudge of cup grease off of her nose.

"You have to make a conscious effort at first, Akane," Nabiki said sounding amused. "After you've done it for a few weeks, it becomes second nature."

"This handkerchief is ruined."

"Yeah, I'll have someone pick up a bundle of shop towels for you," Nabiki said. "I get the feeling you're going to need them. Oh, I almost forgot! You're on your own after school this afternoon. I've got to go see a man about some diamonds."

"You found a buyer?"

"Yeah, he's a local cutter."

"Here in Nerima?"

"Way up on the north side, yeah."

"That's good news."

"Yes, it is," Nabiki said as they walked through Furinkan gate. "It's _very_ good news. I'll see you late this evening."

"Will you be all right going alone?"

"Sou Pa!"

"Oh, okay! Bye!"

Otoko-Akane sat down at her desk and sighed. Sitting in class all day had long since stopped being a joy for her, but now that she was male half the time it had become agony. Her body was constantly restless, yearning to be up and about. Making matters worse were the surreptitious glances a number of her female classmates kept giving her. Not only was it embarrassing to have girls look at her that way, her body responded to the stimulus they were providing in a very healthy manner.

Thanks to the ongoing flu epidemic, she lacked even the support of Ranma's buddies, Hiroshi and Daisuke. It would have been interesting to get to know them from a different perspective and they would have tried hard to cheer her up. The whole situation made it difficult to concentrate on her schoolwork, let alone her training in the Art. Another long, irritating day at school ensued.

Her prolonged agony was punctuated by several surprise assaults sprung on her in the hallways by Genma and her father. Not only were these attacks unnerving, they were embarrassingly successful. Her schoolmates laughed and cheered every time. The topper, though, was the sneaky tickle attack from behind by none other than Tofu Ono.

"Not fair!" Akane shouted. "Not even Ranma can detect you!"

Tofu chuckled as he gave her an affectionate hug. "But I have to be extra careful to sneak up on Ranma, Akane."

"Grrr!"

By the time school let out she was a bundle of nerves, checking every corner before she turned it, giving every bush, every tree, and every overhang of every kind a long suspicious stare, no matter where she went. Genma still managed to surprise her two more times as did her father. She decided not to take her usual route home and hoped that speed would prove a successful counter against ambush. She took to the rooftops and headed for the shopping district.

Soun got her with a bucketful of water from the top of a big tree just as she touched down on the third rooftop. Otoko-Akane, reluctant to resort to a stream of profanity, gave vent to her frustration with a series of inarticulate screams. Her father laughed at her behavior, making her feel even worse.

"Now, now, Akane! That's not very ladylike!"

Akane looked up to flame him with a fiery retort, but he had already disappeared. Still fuming, she bent down to pick up her new shoes, but because she was not really paying that much attention to what she was doing, one of them got away from her. It slid down the backside of the roof and dropped into the alley. This, of course, did nothing to improve her mood. Heaving yet another sigh of frustration she carefully made her way down to the eave of the house.

The alleyway was an unholy mess of small stones, pieces of broken glass and sharp-edged lids cut free from tin cans. She decided that she would have to put on her larger shoes before jumping to the ground. Growling with frustration, she swung her heavy book bag around so that she could retrieve her shoes. Once again, she had failed to pay adequate attention to where she was and what she was doing. The steep slope of the roof was behind her, and when she swung the book bag around, it pulled her forward just enough to play havoc with her balance.

Still not accustomed to the top heaviness of her male body, she fell face forward and had to commit to a somersault to avoid landing flat on her face from a height of four meters. She had just enough time and just enough presence of mind to try and choose where to put her feet as she landed. She missed the broken bottle with her left foot and the tin with the partially removed lid with her right foot, but did not quite miss the marble-sized stone under her left heel.

It hurt like hell. Otoko-Akane cried out in pain as she fell on her butt, clutching her injured foot with both hands. Giving in to pain this way was something she would not have done, she noted, had she been in her natural form. While her male body was much more powerful and far more durable in many ways, it was also prone to feeling pain much more sharply and was much more reactive to it. She rolled around holding her foot.

"Great!" she shouted. "This is all I need! A damned stone bruise!"

There was a crunching noise beneath her back while she rolled around and she quickly concluded that rolling around in an alleyway littered with trash was not one of the brightest things she had ever done. She sat up and looked around for her missing shoe. It had fallen into a puddle of sticky sour-smelling goo and was lying on its side. The awful stuff in the puddle had found its way inside her expensive new shoe. Otoko-Akane gave out a manly growl.

"How could I be so stupid?" Otoko-Akane asked aloud. "How _could_ I be so stupid?"

Without warning, an Amazon male, who she vaguely recognized as "Ha Pin", darted out from behind a nearby dumpster and tweaked her nose with his thumb and forefinger. He disappeared down the alleyway laughing. Otoko-Akane tiredly reached up and felt of her nose. Yep. Cup grease.

The full import of what she had been as opposed to what she wanted to become then settled down upon her shoulders, grinding her into the dark depths of an emotional abyss that she never knew existed. She was seeing her real self for the very first time and she hated what she was seeing. She had failed to think ahead. Hell, why bother thinking ahead? she asked herself. When I do, I let my temper spoil it all. And if it isn't that, I fail because I didn't take notice of things I should have. How is it that I miss seeing so many things? Am I that self-absorbed? Me and my damned temper! I've been charging through life oblivious and unthinking, like an angry bull in a china shop. No wonder I'm in this fix. How could I be so stupid?

It went on and the more it went on, the angrier she became. She began beating on the pavement of the alleyway with both fists until it finally began to break up beneath her blows and the sharp edges of the shattered tarmac cut through the hardened calluses on her right hand. The pain only briefly cooled her anger. And that's another stupid thing I did. Getting myself cursed without talking to Ranma first--without trying to think through all of the consequences. I knew this body would hurt more easily. I _knew_ that this would not be easy to live with! Why did I do it?

I did it because I'm in love with her, and because he is in love with me. If he can love me, then I must be worth loving. And then, suddenly, Otoko-Akane's anger began to abate. Anger is a pretty useless emotion, especially when I use it on me all the time. Mother had no choice about dying. She didn't want it. She didn't die just to be away from me. She loved me. I am worth something, even if I don't always do things perfectly every time. Ranma saw past all of that. He saw the real me and loved me. I am his treasure and he is mine. This is no way for the soul mate of Ranma Saotome to behave.

Otoko-Akane found her book bag and opened it. She took out one of the shop towels that Nabiki had acquired for her and cleaned up her face. She started to get up, but then remembered that she needed to put on shoes first. She would begin toughening her feet in someplace other than this unsanitary alley. Right now, she would put on shoes and protect herself. She would one day bear the heirs of her families and her school. Taking care of herself was her duty. Being angry with herself over having gotten things wrong in the past would help nothing. Only more training would correct her errors.

She took another shop towel out of her book bag as she got up and retrieved her shoe. It took both of the towels she had already gotten out plus two more before she dared try to stow her errant footgear. As she worked to clean it, she became more and more aware of what was around her. Her hearing began picking sounds that she had always ignored before. The faint click a streetlight made just before it came on; the half-hearted agitation of a dog barking not too far way and, off in the distance, the much more sincere bark of a housewife berating her husband. Otoko-Akane's sense of smell was sharper as well.

Wait, no, not sharper, she thought. That's not it at all. I'm paying attention to what my nose has been telling me for years and that is different from having a better nose. Yeesh! Looks like I picked a bad place to start, but training is training. It's time I learned to use my talents and my senses properly. She sat very still and tried to figure out what her nose was telling her about the alley. Okay, it's telling me that this is an alley, but what kind of alley. What sorts of people live around here?

It was then that she realized she had a much larger problem than she initially thought she had and she understood why developing a keen danger sense was such a sore trial. How can I understand what my senses are telling me if I have never really paid that much attention to the information they gave me in the past? The key to spotting an attack before it occurs is to notice something out of place. How can I know if something is out of place unless I first know what belongs? I can't, can I? That's why Nabiki is so good at it even though she gave up The Art years ago. She already knows what belongs!

Realizing the true scale of the problem she had been given intimidated her for a moment, but then she thought of how Ranma would respond. It was just another challenge and they both lived to face challenges, the bigger the challenge, the better. This one was large enough that she would have to tackle it one small piece at a time. There would be no overnight solution to it. Conclusion, she might as well get busy dealing with it and keep dealing with it until it became second nature. Just as Ranma was so fond of saying, everything is training. And, there was never a better time to train than right now.

Her father, Genma Saotome, Ko Lon and the men working for her, even Doctor Tofu were going out of their way to give her an opportunity. She'd be damned unto all the hells if she would let them down because she felt sorry for herself.

She stood up straight, brushed off her clothing as best she could and swaggered out of the alleyway and out onto the sidewalk. It was already dark; the wintertime sun had already set, but it was still early for all of that. The shopping district was still glutted with people stopping to pick up something before going home. Rather than trying to spot a lurking attacker, she simply began to pay attention to everything around her, hoping that some part of her mind, that part that remembered details that she could not readily recall on demand, would spot that which was out of place. Perhaps it would warn her in time to evade the next assault.

Much to her surprise, her off-the-cuff improvisation worked--sort of. She spied Genma Saotome lurking at a bus stop. He had positioned himself between a telephone pole and the sign for the bus stop, thus breaking up his outline. He was also trying very hard to look as if he were merely waiting for the bus, but something about him had snagged Akane's attention. Genma realized he was caught, looked her right in the eye and grinned.

"That's better, Akane, much better!" Genma exclaimed.

"But not good enough," Soun Tendou shouted as he sprang from a nearby doorway and squirted Otoko-Akane with a water pistol.

The two men laughed at her discomfiture and ran away. Otoko-Akane quickly damped her flaring temper. It's anything goes, she silently reminded herself, and if they are double-teaming me, I should take that as a compliment. There is nothing to be hurt or angry about. It's training. It's very good training. It is helping me overcome a shortcoming.

She evaded another attack from her father a few blocks further along and suffered another defeat at Genma's hands a few minutes later. Then Ko Lon surprised her with more cup grease. Otoko-Akane decided it was time to seek out a restroom and clean up. The damned stuff was terribly difficult to remove from her skin and she worried about what it might do to her complexion.

The traffic in the shopping district was now markedly thinner and she debated with herself about visiting the sentou, but decided to ask a fellow at an automobile repair shop what would be best for removing cup grease. He grinned and wiped her nose with a rag soaked in transmission fluid.

"This is the best stuff in the world for removing grease of any kind, kid," he said. "If you ever get anything in your hair that you can't get rid of, buy a half-liter of this stuff and rub a handful of it in before you shampoo."

Otoko-Akane thanked him for his help and for the information he had so freely given her, even though she thought it to be of dubious quality. One thing was for sure though; it did a good job of removing the cup grease from her skin and left no residue.

As she walked toward the sentou, she spotted someone she had not expected to see. It was Ukyou, obviously headed back to her restaurant after having taken a bath. She was alone, but not wearing a surgical mask. She must be feeling a lot better, but Konatsu is still sick or just got sick, Otoko-Akane thought.

She felt a pang of guilt for not having paid Ukyou a visit, but the last time she and Ranma had tried to help out when she was ill had turned into a string of expensive disasters. Then, of course, there had been the wedding fiasco that Ukyou had played such a large part in and Otoko-Akane was not at all sure how Ukyou might react to her self-inflicted curse.

She stopped and watched as Ukyou made her way down the street, admiring how lithe and trim the girl looked. Otoko-Akane had always admired Ukyou, even while the girl was her most dangerous rival for Ranma's affections. The girl had such a love for life and living that it was nearly impossible not to like her. As she watched, something began to nag at Otoko-Akane's consciousness. Something was not right. Something, Otoko-Akane could not say what, was definitely out of place. She decided to follow her old rival and friend at a safe distance, just to find out what that something might be.

The first thing she deduced was that Ukyou was not quite fully recovered. Ukyou did not have the usual spring in her step and her innate happiness just did not shine through the way it ordinarily did. The next thing Otoko-Akane began to realize after a few blocks of walking, was that Ukyou was being followed several people she did not recognize. So far she had spotted four of them and suspected a fifth, all of them male.

Where will they make their play, I wonder? Otkoko-Akane asked herself. Are they after money or are they up to something worse? She eyed Ukyou again and had a horrifying thought. If these guys had robbery in mind, they would have to take Ukyou back to her restaurant. Ukyou obviously was not carrying any significant amount of money on her. Since when did creeps like these start hanging around in Nerima?

Otoko-Akane's mind raced ahead, desperately trying to recall the terrain ahead and failing. The way Ukyou's trackers were moving suggested that they had a plan. Otoko-Akane did not want to be in on the start of the fight. She wanted to be nearby so that she could step in if Ukyou needed help.

She remembered all too well how much she resented overly protective males, even if it was sweet of them. The best outcome for this would be if Ukyou put these assholes down without help. Then Otoko-Akane could come along and impress upon them the need for a new hunting ground without Ukyou ever knowing about it.

Then she saw him, the fifth guy. He was standing in the pool of light cast by a streetlight a block ahead of Ukyou. Ukyou stopped suddenly. Otoko-Akane, realizing that Ukyou was about to turn and check behind herself, stepped into the shadow of a gatepost and held her breath. The four men following Ukyou merely froze in place. Two of them were carrying ball bats. Otoko-Akane began to wonder if any of the five would-be assailants had noticed her presence. Probably not, she decided. Their attention was focused on their prey and, likely as not, they had no idea that they themselves were being stalked. Otoko-Akane felt a crooked grin grow across her face.

Don't get cocky, Akane! she silently admonished herself. These guys are armed and don't really care whether they hurt anyone seriously or not. We're still too far from the restaurant for them to have robbery in mind. They are up to something truly nasty. Her hearing told her that Ukyou had finally decided to start moving again. She took a slow five-count before stepping back out onto the sidewalk. The four guys following Ukyou began to close. Otoko-Akane deliberately slowed her pace so that she could trail along behind them. The only one of the gang likely to spot her was the number-five-guy standing under the streetlight, but from what Akane could see, the whole of his attention was on Ukyou.

Otoko-Akane decided that caution would be the better policy in this situation. She started staying close to the walls and using the light poles for cover as much as she could. These guys were older than she had first thought. They all looked to be in their twenties. She decided that it did not matter. They weren't going to get away with it. Ukyou was a friend of hers and Ranma's. These guys were going to pay for playing their evil little games on the Cold Dragon's turf. Nobody messed with one of Ranma's women.

Did I just think that? Yes, I did. She is one of Ranma's women, every bit as much as Kasumi is. Ukyou is as much under our protection as Nabiki or even Nodoka. When you mess with me or mine, I break your faces, assholes.

Number Five started his play by stepping in front of Ukyou as she tried to walk by him. He seemed to be playing at innocence by asking Ukyou for a light. Ukyou didn't buy it for a second. She seized the man's wrist, trapping it in a painful lever hold while simultaneously kicking his knee hard enough that Akane could hear it pop. The man screamed as he went down. Ukyou dropped her bath things as she whirled to meet the rest of her assailants. She stumbled badly and nearly fell down.

Otoko-Akane immediately realized that Ukyou was in trouble. She had seen Ukyou make that move a hundred times or more without bobbling. The other four boys surrounded Ukyou, brandishing ball bats and knives. Number Five grabbed Ukyou's ankles. Otoko-Akane asked her legs for speed and got it. One of the boys stabbed Ukyou in the belly with the blunt end of his ball bat. Ukyou winced, but did not bend over, which surprised all of her assailants and bought her some more time.

One of the boys swung his bat at Ukyou's head, forcing her to duck. There was no way she could simply block a blow like that without a weapon of her own. The other boy armed with a bat raised his weapon high above his head with the intentions of hitting the back of Ukyou's head with it. Otoko-Akane seized the thick end of his bat and gripped it tight. The instant the boy tried to bring his bat down on Ukyou, Otoko-Akane kicked him between the legs from behind.

He released his hold on the bat and collapsed in agony. She rapped one of the boys armed with a knife on his forearm with the small end of the bat. The boy dropped his weapon and ran away. Ukyou stamped on Number Five with both feet as Akane lunged at the other bat-wielding assailant, poking him in the belly with the small end of her commandeered ball bat. He bent over double and started throwing up. Otoko-Akane tapped him behind the ear with the handle of her bat and he went down.

The last boy standing seized Ukyou from behind by wrapping one arm around her throat and drew back with the other hand as if he were about shove his knife between Ukyou's ribs. Otoko-Akane seized his knife arm by the wrist and squeezed. The boy screamed in agony as his hand opened. Ukyou stamped on his foot just as Otoko-Akane hit him on the jaw with an overhand right.

"Nighty-night!" Otoko-Akane said as the last of Ukyou's assailants went to sleep.

Ukyou tilted her head back so she could look Otoko-Akane in the eye. "You look awfully familiar somehow. Have we met befo..."

Otoko-Akane took Ukyou into her arms to stop her from falling. The girl was as limp as a dishrag.

"Ukyou? Ukyou, can you hear me?"

"Ah...Yeah!...Just a little dizzy...zats all."

Otoko-Akane looked around. Ukyou's assailants were now limping, crawling, or creeping away.

"Think you could stand on your own for a second? I want to gather up your stuff."

"Huh? Oh, yeah sure," Ukyou said as she made a valiant effort to stay upright.

"I'll tell you what," Otoko-Akane said suddenly very much aware of how deep and rumbling her voice sounded, "let me take you home first. I'll come back for your things."

"Okay," Ukyou said as her legs gave out altogether. "Sorry to be such a bother."

Otoko-Akane gathered Ukyou up into her arms and started walking. Damn, she feels nice! Otoko-Akane thought as a blush began to heat her face. She's so soft and warm and she seems so fragile. No wonder Ranma acted the way he did sometimes. I don't know that I could hit a girl when I'm like this. It would be cheating.

"That's okay, Ukyou. What else are friends for?"

"Friends?" Ukyou asked as she put an arm around Otoko-Akane's neck. "I don't even know your name!"

"Uh...well...It's like this..."

"But you look so familiar!" Ukyou exclaimed before letting her head rest against Otoko-Akane's shoulder. "Give me a minute and I'll remember your name. I can't believe I forgot it."

The annoying thing between Otoko-Akane's thighs suddenly seemed to take on a life of its own, becoming uncomfortably large and stiff. The feel of her clothing rubbing against the end of it was more than she could handle. She groaned out loud.

"Am I too heavy?"

"No! No, that's not it," Otoko-Akane quickly replied. Her mind raced around in circles trying to think of a way to cover her tracks. "I forgot to pick up some things I needed at the drugstore. It can wait until tomorrow."

Ukyou laid her head against Otoko-Akane's shoulder and relaxed. She remained silent the rest of the way back to her restaurant. Otoko-Akane was overjoyed to see it and Konatsu.

"Ukyou-sama!" he cried as Otoko-Akane slid open the front door. He was still wearing a surgical mask and looked pale.

"She's okay," Otoko-Akane rumbled in a much stronger voice than she meant to use. "Just a little weak from the excitement."

"Follow me," Konatsu said. "I'll get the door for you."

Otoko-Akane followed Konatsu up the stairs. He opened the door to Ukyou's room and Otoko-Akane gently lay Ukyou down on her futon. Ukyou roused herself a little as Otoko-Akane let go of her.

"Thanks for helping me out," Ukyou said as she gave Otoko-Akane a kiss on the cheek. "I really appreciate it."

"Think nothing of it," Otoko-Akane rumbled. She looked down at Ukyou and realized that the girl was beginning to shiver. She helped Konatsu pull the covers up over her.

"I'll stop by and check on you guys tomorrow," Otoko-Akane said. "Do you need me to bring you anything?"

Konatsu immediately produced a list. Otoko-Akane accepted the list from him and then pointed at the door to Ukyou's room. Konatsu nodded his head and the two of them went back downstairs.

"I should have come by here and checked up on you guys sooner, Konatsu," Otoko-Akane said. "I'm very sorry I didn't."

Konatsu gave her a puzzled stare for a moment. He stepped in close to Otoko-Akane and sniffed.

"You're a Tendou," he said, "but I've never seen you before."

"Yes, I know," Otoko-Akane said, suddenly so desperate to get away that Tendou-ke was all she could think about. Her knees were beginning to quiver and strange things were going on between her legs. She felt as though something was crawling around in her stomach. "I have to go now," she added over her shoulder as she ran for the door. "I'll be back by to see you guys after school tomorrow, okay?"

By the time Otoko-Akane reached the street, complete panic had set in. "It's taking over!" she exclaimed. "The curse is taking over! I'm turning into a guy!"

She jumped to the nearest roof and made a beeline for Tendo-ke. "I've got to get home. I've got to get a bath and get back into my room. I want my things. I want to feel like me again. This isn't me! The only girl I love is Ranma."

Otoko-Akane ran and jumped as hard as she could, doing her absolute best to ignore what was happening to her male body. She dropped into the backyard of Tendo-ke and sprinted for the engawa, only to brought up short by the sight of Onna-Ranma leaning against one of the support posts. He was grinning and held a steaming kettle in one hand.

"Which do ya want first, Akane?" he asked as he struck a sexy pose. "Me or hot water?"

Otoko-Akane fell to her knees. The thing between her legs surged and quivered and her testicles crawled upwards. The sensations emanating from her groin were taking her breath away.

"Ranma, please forgive me," Otoko-Akane said in a pleading voice. "I desperately need to be a woman right now."

Ranma chuckled as he poured the hot water on her. When she looked up he was in his male form and looked more than a little sympathetic. Before she could get back to her feet, he picked her up and carried her inside the house.

"I really missed you, Tomboy," he told her as he sat down and settled her into his lap.

"Kiss me, Ranma."

"Feelin' a little more normal now?" Ranma asked after they broke their kiss.

Akane pressed herself to his massive chest and cried.

"You should have talked to me about this first, Akane," Ranma said. "I could have warned you about the worst of it."

Akane sobbed.

"Don't worry," Ranma whispered. "It never really takes you over completely."

"I was so scared! It was like drowning."

"Yeah, I guess it is a little like drowning sometimes."

"Oh, Ranma, I'm so very sorry!"

"Don't be, Akane. It's at least half my fault, probably more. I just hate to see you goin' through all this. I remember how bad it was for me at first."

"We...I...had no idea, Ranma. None whatsoever."

"I should've told you."

"But you couldn't have, could you? I wouldn't have either had I been in your shoes."

Ranma sighed. "I guess maybe not."

Akane hugged him tight.

"You need a bath, Tomboy."

"I know."

"You want me to scrub your back?"

"Only if you promise to stay male. I very much need to feel like a woman right now."

"Okay."

"And no cold water!"

Ranma laughed as he rose to his feet with Akane in his arms. "No cold water. I promise."

"I'm sorry for all those times I hit you."

"All of 'em?"

"Well, most of 'em. Especially for all those times I hit you because Shampoo rubbed herself on you."

Ranma laughed again as he set Akane on her feet in the changing room. "Is there something you want to tell me?"

"Maybe later," Akane said as she stared up into Ranma's eyes. "Right now, I want you to undress me."

"No problem!"

Akane was pleased to see that his hands shook as he fumbled with her buttons. Now I know that the curse hasn't cursed _us_. We are still very much _us_.


End of Chapter 18 Part b
Copyright © Don Granberry