Chapter: 26
Ge an guan huo
(Watch the fires burning across the river)


Low-pressure sodium street-lights clicked on with a
harsh humming sound, casting puddles of yellow light on the
rain soaked streets. Akane's bare feet splashed through
puddles as she jogged lightly down the center of the sidewalk,
head swiveling as she searched for a sign of her husband. An
old man on a bicycle peddled past, two kittens and a puppy
sitting in the basket.

They looked like they were enjoying the ride and
Akane smiled at the old man, her face turning pink at his pop-
eyed stare.

*I am _completely_ dressed*, she thought, tugging
down the hem of Ranma's shirt. *except I'm not wearing any
underwear* she tugged harder on the hem, gulping when she
heard a seam pop in the shoulder. *Nothing to see here!* She
glared at a young couple walking by. The boy stopped dead in
his tracks, mouth falling open. His girlfriend looked where he
was looking, then smacked him across the head, dragging him
down the street by his ear.

"Good for you!" Akane muttered to herself, flinching
slightly as more and more shop lights came on, illuminating
what small shadows remained with blue, red and orange neon
light. *Nothing to see!* She thought fiercely, then caught
sight of her reflection in a shop window and felt her face heat.
*H . . .how interesting. Silk is transparent when it's wet.*
Swallowing hard she tried to concentrate on sensing Ranma,
who was waiting somewhere in ambush. *I might as well be
naked!*

Part of her wanted to run home and hide under the
bed until everyone who had seen her was dead or moved to
another country. It was hard to keep her mind on looking for
Ranma, which was exactly the reason he made her dress this
way. One of the reasons, she thought, feeling her nipples
harden.

But she couldn't give up, this was 'Training' to
improve her 'Situational Awareness', or as Ranma put it:

'Ya see th' other guy before he sees you - - _you_
win. He sees you first, you get a real pretty funeral'.

She had to make it to Furinkan, find a 'token' he had
hidden and make it home, all without letting Ranma ambush
her. If she made it back, Ranma would give her a lesson in the
'Chestnut fist' technique. If she lost . . . memories of Ranma's
_other_ training made her knees buckle and she stumbled,
almost crashing into a outdoor stall.

"Whoa there, young lady," An elderly man in a crisp
white apron shot out a hand to steady her."

"Gomen!" Akane said, blushing. "I'm very sorry. I
wasn't watching where I was going."

"Thinking about that husband of yours, I wager."

"S . . .sir?" Akane gulped. Then she got a whiff of a
delicious smell and her stomach growled.

"Would you like some," The man asked kindly,
handing her a stick with wedges of very-sweet, chilled
pineapple.

Automatically Akane's hand went to her pocket, but
met only skin.

"I . . .I don't have any money," She said, flushing
slightly.

"Nabiki-san would have my liver if I charged her
baby-sister," the man grinned, handing her the treat. "Tell her
that Amatoyo said hello, and the pachinko machines are doing
_very_ well."

Startled at the mention of her sisters name, Akane
looked into the back of the shop, where she could indeed see
a row of the gambling machines, surrounded by a cluster of
sallarymen, all of whom were devouring sweets and sake as
they played.

"Nabiki-san asked us," he waved had to encompass
the entire neighborhood, "to keep an eye on you."

*I am _not_ a baby!* Akane groused, touched and
embarrassed at the same time by Nabiki's concern.

"And don't be embarrassed," Amatoyo easily read the
emotions flashing across her face, "the women all wish they
_were_ you, and the boys . . ." he chuckled, "well, your
husband is a very lucky man."

Akane felt a flush start at her toes and creep up her
entire body. Glancing covertly around she realized that
everyone was starting at her, the women with knowing looks,
and she flushed even harder, wondering if this was also part of
Ranma's training. Another few months of being married to
him and she was going to lose the ability to blush entirely.

"Thank you," she said, starting to bow, jerking to a
stop at a shrill wolf-whistle behind her. Gathering her tattered,
not to say non-existent, dignity around her she jogged off in
the direction of Furinkan, wondering if it were possible to die
of embarrassment, half-hoping it was.

*****
*****

*Where are you?* Akane glanced around, searching
for some sign for Ranma, while trying not to look like she was
looking around. She'd made it to school and found the
'token' at the top of the flag-pole. *My panties and bra! The
pervert!* She started to fume, then forced herself to relax. At
least she was dressed now.

Hastily donning her undergarments had given her the
idea, and now she was wearing a slightly baggy set of sweat-
pants and shirt. She'd been halfway down the street on her
way home before it occurred to her how effortlessly she'd
gone over a locked gate, into a locked building and then into
a secure locker.

*I've got to talk to Ranma about some of this
training.* Akane thought, feeling a pang of guilt at having
'cheated' by 'borrowing' some clothes. Sternly she reminded
herself of Ranma's lesson:

*Cheatin'!* he laughed derisively, *There ain't no
second place winners. Th' winners bury the losers!"*

Akane felt a little twinge of unease. Intellectually she
understood what he meant. That was the difference between
'dou' and 'jutsu', practice and combat. But something about
the _way_ he said it. Almost as if Ranma felt contempt for the
entire concept of honor, justice or mercy. She'd tried to voice
her concerns a couple of times, but then he would touch her,
until she forgot about everything but him.

Akane shook off her feelings of unease. Ranma had
led such a hard life, a much different life than she had. Of
course he saw things differently. And his training _worked_!
After just a few weeks she was already a much more
dangerous fighter, faster, more precise, more alert.

*Where _are_ you!*

This was the closest she'd ever gotten to winning. The
last time she'd actually gotten her hands on the 'token', a
small stuffed animal, and he'd ambushed her while she was
detracted by feelings of elation. She'd spent the next two
days in _training_ of a very different sort. Akane's knees
turned to rubber and she leaned her face against a stone wall
to cool her heated skin. God, she ought to hate it when he
got all macho and arrogant. She ought to _hate_ the things he
did to her, the things he made her _beg_ for him to do to her.
But, somehow, it was Ranma, and that made it alright.

Besides, she grinned to herself, pushing away from the
wall, she'd made him beg a time or two, and not simply
because she was pounding him with a blunt object.

*Ranma-no-baka!* Muttering to herself, she tried to
remain casual as she went home by a very circuitous route.
The sneaky bastard was probably going to wait until she
actually had her hand on the door, before he tackled her. She
cracked her knuckles. *Not this time, baka-o-mine* She'd
give up too easily before, surrendering when she was found.
This time he was going to have to _work_ for it.

Changing tactics, she headed directly home, pausing
now and then to look in a shop window or exchange a
greeting. She moved into the light and added a little arrogant
strut to her walk, trying to lure him into attaching her. Maybe
she'd even throw him off balance so she could ambush _him_!
She swallowed a gleeful cackle at the thought of actually
turning the tables on the arrogant so-and-so. Not in this
lifetime, she knew realistically, but a girl could dream.

She was within a few blocks of home and her skin
prickled like she was in an electric storm.

*He _has_ to make his move soon.*

Her entire body trembled from an adrenalin rush as
she strained to see, hear, taste something in the air that would
betray his presence.

*What was that!?* She halted, back going up against a
wall, ignoring the stares of the people on the street. *There!*
A faint mewling sound. And . . .rough cloth brushing against
skin. The scrape of leather against stone. That couldn't be
Ranma. Almost she dismissed it and turned toward home. But
that other sound, almost like a sob . . .

*A martial artists duty . . . *

Tendou Souun had been her teacher far longer than
Ranma.

* . . .is to protect the weak.*

Some lessons stayed with you forever.

*****
*****

Silently Akane edged her way down the alley, her
unease growing with each cautious step. Her foot hit
something that made a faint tinkle and she halted. When
nothing happened she felt around in the shadows, finding a
sliver of glass. Looking up she could see a broken light above
her. If she didn't know better, and she didn't, she'd think
someone had shot out the light with a sling or a pellet-gun.
Which made the hard-eyed men muffled in long coats
lounging casually at the entrance of the alley all the more
ominous. On the one hand, she could hardly wait to tell
Ranma how well she'd done sneaking past two obviously 'bad
men'. On the other hand, she had the sinking feeling that she
was getting in way over her head. Maybe she'd better go find
a policeman and - - the meaty sound of flesh hitting flesh,
was followed by a sharp cry of pain.

"HEY!" So much for stealth, she thought as her mind
caught up with her body which had leapt instantly toward the
sound. "What's going on?"

Two of the biggest, ugliest men she'd ever seen stood
in a small pool of light at the end of the blind alley. One held a
tiny kitten, mewling piteously, in one ham-like fist. The other
held a limp figure, arms twisted savagely in the small of the
back. Akane's sudden appearance startled him and he moved
so that light spilled across the figure in his arms.

*Ranko!*

A blue-black bruise marred the side of her face, the
imprint of a very-large hand visible.

"Let her go!" Akane moved toward Ranko's captor
and the other one moved to block her, a huge hand slicing
knife-edge for her throat. Akane shifted aside fractionally,
letting the lightning strike actually skim her body. Her right
hand grabbed his arm just in front of the elbow, twisting and
pulling him forward. At the same time her left fist, starting
somewhere below her waist and accelerating hard, slammed
spear-point into his solar-plexus, emptying his lungs with an
explosive sound. Without stopping Akane kicked him hard
behind the knee, which separated with a satisfying crack, and
snatched the kitten out of the air before the man hit the
ground like a bag of dirty laundry. Akane spared a moment to
put the kitty on the ground, then braced for another attack.

The second man threw Ranko against the wall and
Akane heard her head hit the hard brick with a crack, after
which she slid limply to the ground. Then he was upon Akane
in a rush, shouting something in a gutteral language. There
was an answering call from the other end of the alley and the
sound of running feet. Akane had a brief look at rough hewn
features, nose mashed against one cheek from an old break,
before the man slammed into her, striking with a bewildering
combination of kicks and circular blows. Her body responded
automatically and she realized that Ranma used a similar style
at times. Except he was faster and hit harder.

Deciding she didn't have time to fool around, with at
least two more coming up behind her, Akane moved in close
with a sudden lunge, grabbed the big fellow by the belt and
collar and slung him into the wall.

It wasn't fancy, but it got the job done, as he hit the
wall with a groan and lay still. Turning to face the
newcomers Akane realized two things. She was barely
winded, after taking out two big men. And, as three more
individuals moved into the light she discovered these big ugly
men, were actually big ugly women. Really, really ugly
women. Risking a glance at the two she'd downed Akane
saw, as she hadn't had time to see before, they also had chests
that were too lumpy to be masculine.

The three newcomers moved toward her with a
curiously sinuous motion and Akane went cold as she saw a
glint of steel, from a knife held low and half hidden.

She couldn't abandon Ranko, and she couldn't win
unarmed against three knife-fighters. Not pinned in a blind
alley, if they were even a little good. And watching the three
spread out, moving with a grace belied by their size, she knew
they were better than merely 'good'.

Stepping back Akane ripped off her sweatshirt,
wrapping it around her right arm. It wasn't much of a defense,
but it would buy her a little time. Taking a deep breath and
letting it out slowly she dismissed any thought of living
through this fight. Instead she focused all of her energy on
attack; taking out the three women in front of her. Hitting
them hard and fast. Killing or crippling them, so that Ranko
could escape.

There was movement in the shadows and Akane felt a
wave of despair. They just kept coming and coming. The
newcomer was _tiny_, almost a head shorter than Akane, but
the three giants froze at it's appearance. Half hidden in the
shadows Akane could make out only the outline of a hooded
shape that silently examined her, as if she were an unusual
bug.

Akane felt her skin start to prickle, then heat, as if she
were standing under a burning sun. The unseen force
increased and now Akane felt as if she were drowning and
falling, burning and freezing and the conflicting forces left her
sick and disoriented. She was driven back a step, and then
another. She was being forced away from Ranko! Gritting
her teeth Akane braced herself, refusing to budge another
step.

A giant fist grabbed Akane, squeezing her chest in a
vise. Her heart thundered in her ears and there was a roaring
sound like a storm crashing against the shore. Blackness
closed in around and the world contracted to a tiny pinpoint
of light as she fell gasping to her knees. She couldn't see,
couldn't breath.

Dimly Akane heard feet crunching through the debris
on the alley floor. Blindly she groped around until she felt
Ranko's arm and grabbed hold tight.

*Let go!*

Did she imagine that voice in her head?

*Let go. Let go, or you will die.*

The pain increased. There was a mountain on her
chest and her heart was going to explode. She was going to
die, but she wasn't going to let go. She wasn't. She - -

*stars*

Akane blinked, dazedly trying to figure out why she
could see stars. *I'm on my back? Looking up?* Sluggishly
she remembered . . .an alley. Ranko. The ugly women.

"Ranko!" She yelled, but what came out was a
strangled squeak. Struggling to sit up, she realized one hand
was holding Ranko's arm in a death grip, holding so tightly
her fingers had gone numb. A slight sound got her attention
and Akane looked around, moving like an old sick woman.
Standing in the alley were five huge women, two of them
leaning heavily on companions. And the tiny shadowed figure.

Staring, Akane felt an instant of connection, as if she'd
stuck her finger into an electric outlet. There was a bark of
laughter, then a sharp command in a surprisingly musical
voice from the tiny shadow.

Akane blinked. Then blinked again, looking at empty
space. She was going to live? She thought that was probably
a good thing, but at the moment she hurt too much to care
one way or the other. Summoning all her will, she
commanded her body to get up off the ground. And her body,
honed by years of training and discipline responded:

*No friggin' way. Codine and a doctor, please!*

"Ranko?" A frightened whimper was her only answer.
Groaning Akane managed to roll over on her stomach and
began forcing her cramped hand to release it's death grip.
"Ranko, it's alright. They're gone now."

With a wail of despair, Ranko began scrabbling a the
concrete lining the alley floor, as if trying to dig a hiding
place. There was a look of such abject terror on her face that
adrenalin blasted Akane to a sitting position, looking wildly
around for what fresh danger was approaching.

"Mewww?"

"Hi, kitty." Akane pulled the tiny feline to her, ruffling
it's fur with the tip of a finger as she looked around, failing to
detect anything else in the alley. "It's alright, Ranko. The ugly
women are all gone. And look," she held out the kitten,
cupped in the palm of her hands. "I found a - - --"

*Ranko can fly?* Akane thought dazed, from where
Ranko's shriek of terror had thrown her. *Not very well.* she
decided, watching Ranko slide down the wall, then attempt to
scramble up it's smooth side. She looked at the kitty in her
hands, playfully batting at her fingers. *Maybe Ranko is afraid
of cats?*

*****
*****

"Do you want to explain what just happened," Akane
asked settling down beside Ranko at the back of the Alley. It
wasn't an ideal spot for a conversation, but a short trip to the
end of the block and back to find a home for the kitten had
exhausted her. Fortunately she'd found one of Nabiki's
pachinko customers and had also managed to get a couple of
steamed buns and some tea, which she and Ranko had already
devoured.

"Is . . .is it gone?" Ranko asked, knees drawn up to
her chest, eyes firmly closed.

"Yes the ca . . .yes it's gone." It hadn't taken long to
figure out that even the word 'cat' could set Ranko off into
hysterics.

"I . . .I'd better be going now." Ranko started to rise,
then squeaked in surprise when Akane grabbed her by the
ankle and dragged her back.

"Oh, no! I want to know what just happened? Who
_were_ those people? How did that little one half kill me
without even touching me. And . . ." Akane paused, trying to
think of how to ask a question about cats without actually
mentioning the creatures. "What's with you and . . .what
made you terrified of a little . . . uhhhh . . .thing that's like a
dog, but climbs trees and doesn't bark?"

"A . . .amazons," Ranko said dully, still dazed from
her brush with her deepest terror. " They wanted me to tell
them where to find my old . . ." Almost Ranma said too much,
but ten years of Genma and a length of knotted rope were
enough to penetrate even cat induced terror. " . . .my old
Uncle Genma."

"Amazon's? Like on Xena?" Akane asked skeptically.

"C . . .chinese. Amazons. Powerful martial artists with
lots of control over Ch'i. They . . .they think Uncle Genma
has something that belongs to them."

"They _think_?" Akane rubbed the bridge of her nose,
feeling a headache coming on. Okay, Uncle Genma and
Chinese Amazons. Unfortunately that actually made sense.
But the other . . . "What about you and . . .?"

Ranko made a feeble attempt to get away, but settled
back when it was apparent Akane wasn't letting her go until
she got some answers. Rule thirty-six, Ranko thought: *Part
of the truth is better than a whole lie*

"It . . .it's the Neko-ken, the lost art of . . .

@@@
@@@

" . . .The Cat Fist, boy," Genma slurred, wavering
slightly on his feet.

"Yes papa," Ranma said carefully, wondering where
his father had gotten a bottle way out here. Ranma thought
he'd dumped all the liquor in Dien Ben Phu. That might have
been a mistake, since Genma would drink shoe-polish or
Sterno if he got desperate, and that always made him crazy.
Crazier.

" . . .ultimate technique of the Shaolin Animal forms."
Genma paused as if inviting comment.

"Uhhh . . .that's nice." Rnama said noncommitally,
wondering what he'd missed while he'd been daydreaming.

"Nice!" Genma's ruddy face was suffused with purple.
"I'm offering you the world's ultimate fighting technique and
'that's NICE!'!!!"

Ranma bowed his head, shoulders tensed for the rope.
Saying anything would only make it worse.

"C'mere boy!"

Ranma's head shot up, not because of his father
command, but because - -

*Food!* His saliva glands opened up like a flood gate
and his stomach clenched as a _marvelous_ odor reached him.
*Fish!*

His last meal had been some wasp larvae, late
yesterday. They were better fried, mixed with boiled rice,
sugar and soy sauce. But he hadn't seen rice since they'd
crossed the Pearl River on their way out of China, twelve
weeks ago. And _sugar_?

Ranma's mind clicked like an abacus as he reviewed
every meal he'd ever eaten since age three. Sugar had been
North Korea. Almost two hundred grams of coarse brown
lumps that he'd hoarded and guarded like the Imperial
Regalia. Genma still bore a semi-circular scar on his hand
from when he'd tried to take it to trade for beer and Ranma
had latched on like a snapping turtle. Genma had almost lost
the last two fingers of his right hand, Ranma had collected
two black eyes and a hair-line fracture, but he'd kept his
sugar.

"Here, boy, catch."

Rama's eyes went wide as Genma tossed him a string
of fish sausage. He almost dropped it, so stunned he was by
the sight . . .the touch and smell of more food than he'd ever
seen at one time. Recovering instantly Ranma crammed an
entire sausage into his mouth, forcing his jaws so wide he
couldn't chew. Backing away from his father he crammed the
rest of the sausages into his pockets, inside his shirt and down
his pants. Forcing his jaw closed with his hand Ranma felt
shooting pains as his jaw popped from the strain, but nothing
could overcome the sheer bliss as oil and blood from the raw
fish trickled down his throat.

"Okay boy. It's time to start . . ." Genma took a step
toward his son, then halted at the feral snarl that forced it's
way past Ranma's hard working jaws. "Start training."
Genma finished, staying very still, feeling a sudden ache in his
right hand.

"The sausage are yours." For as long as you can keep
them, Genma thought. "Just come with me." He turned and
walked away, without looking back. It never occurred to him
to wonder why Ranma always followed him. Just as he
would never believe that Ranma followed out of love.
Followed because Ranma was afraid his father would die
without someone to take care of him.

"Right in there," Genma pointed to a naturally
occurring hole that Genma had enlarged and prepared over
the last few days.

Ranma hesitated, looking at the heavy frame of logs,
lashed together with new rope, next to the pit opening. He
had a small knife hidden, so he could cut the frame apart, or
dig his way out. But . . .

"It's training, boy," Genma growled, out of patience.
And out of time. He had to get Ranma into the pit before - -

Years of training, of the knotted-rope and, little
thought Genma knew or cared, of hoping for his father's love,
prompted Ranma into the pit, even though every instinct was
screaming for him to run.

He dropped into the dark, knees flexed, body relaxed
to take the impact. He fell farther than he expected, and had
an instants fright that Genma had decided rid himself of an
unwanted burden. Then he slammed into the ground in the
dark, rolling with the impact, coming to his feet with the smell
of cool rich earth in his nose.

"Fight boy!" Genma called from above, wrestling the
heavy log frame over the pit opening. "Make me proud!" His
voice cut off, and with it the small circle of light.

Feeling blindly Ranma searched for the wall of the pit,
wondering what hair-brain scheme his father had in mind. This
was actually kind of nice. Cool, quiet. Lots of food. Better
than some of Pop's ideas. Like the time Genma had tried to
speed-train him by throwing a hornets nest at him.

Ranma stumbled over something in the dark and fell,
his hand hitting something soft and warm. Something that
woke with a groggy snarl. Around him in the dark, Ranma
could sense movement, slight rustling sounds of things
restless in sleep. Of other things, stirring with muttered
growls. As Ranma's eyes adjusted, it wasn't completely dark
at the bottom of the pit. Like stars at twilight, all around him
tiny lights appeared and vanished and he realized with a shiver
they were eyes. Hundreds of eyes, blinking, moving, staring
eyes.

Hungry eyes. Of domestic cats gone feral and jungle
cats that had never seen a man, all half mad from Genma's
drugs and starvation. And the only thing at the bottom of this
pit that smelled like food, was Ranma.

@@@
@@@

"What happened then?" Akane's voice was high and
strained and her fisted hands trembled in her lap.

"Don't know." Ranko's shrugged. "I don't . . .Ranma
didn't remember."

"And that made him afraid of cats?"

"Not then, but after 'bout th' tenth time, yeah."

"That's a _training_ technique!" Akane was so angry
she could hardly speak.

"Well, Pa . . .Uncle Genma was drunk when he copied
th' manual at th' Shaolin temple. I . . .Ranma got a look at th'
original years later." Ranko gave a tired sigh, "The cat part
was the last stage of about a twenty year training ritual.

Instead'a the ultimate technique, he got a cat-phobia
and a psychotic berserker when the fear gets too big. Seems
like P . . .Uncle Genma missed a few steps."

"A FEW!" Akane thought of something. "But why are
_you_ afraid of cats."

"Oh . . .me" Ranko thought quickly, "heh . . . uhhhh
. . .well, Uncle Genma thought he'd try again with a fresh
subject and see if he could learn how to fix his mistake with
Ranma."

"I'm going to have to talk with Uncle Genma."

Akane's voice was so soft and calm that it took a
moment for Ranko to realize what Akane had said.

"Uhhhh . . .that's not a good idea." She started to say,
reaching out to touch Akane. The arm under her hand felt like
an iron bar, and Ranko could fell the other girl vibrating with
suppressed emotion.

"I think it's a very good idea," Akane's voice was
even. "An excellent idea." A piece of broken roadway
disintegrated with an explosive crack as her hand closed
around it. "I think I'll go look for him, now."

"NO!" Ranko lunged for Akane as she started to her
feet. "No, you can't!"

"What he did was unforgivable. To you, to . . ." She
imagined her Ranma, a small helpless boy in the hands of a
drunken monster and a thundering fire began burning in her
brain.

"Akane," Ranko whispered, frightened by the look in
her eyes. "Just . . .just let it drop. Forget it."

"Forget!" Akane glared at Ranko, "Forget what a
sadistic bastard Genma was. IS! I can't forget something like
that."

"Please," Ranko pleaded, "You'll get hurt."

Akane snorted in disbelief.

"Genma . . .Genma is good. Ranma is teaching you?"
Akane nodded. "Well, Genma taught Ranma everything
Ranma knows, but he didn't teach him everything _he_
knows."

Akane didn't look convinced and Ranko hurried on.
"Genma is strong. And fast. Ranma can beat him. Sometimes.
But only sometimes. And Genma fights dirty. No, he's not
that honorable. ANY advantage. Attack from behind, while
you're sick or asleep. He'll rob you, an' use the money to
pay someone to stab you in the back and be a thousand miles
away when it happens. And never miss an hours sleep. You
don't stand a chance."

Ranko was frantic. Akane going against the old man?
A sleek, pampered show-dog going against a broken toothed,
bloody old wolf. Who got to _be_ an old wolf by never letting
anything get in the way of winning.

"Please, Akane. It's long over and forgotten."

"There's no time limit on justice." Akane said simply,
a little saddened at Ranko's lack of comprehension.

"He'll kill you," Ranko said, desperate to make Akane
understand. "Or leave you crippled."

"Maybe. But he won't touch you again. Or Ranma."
*Or our children* Akane thought grimly. "A martial artist's
duty is to protect the weak."

"Oh . . .crap." Ranko muttered. "Who's going to
protect _you_?"

*************************************************

 

1