Chapter: 16

 

"Senpai is resting." The shorter of the three Seiki-Juka
guarding the hospital door said pugnaciously. "No visitors."

Wordlessly the stranger extended a small pasteboard
rectangle, it's pristine whiteness broken by an embossed cherry
blossom.

Daisuke's eyes widened in alarm. "It is an honor to
have a visitor from 'The Society of Patriotism'," he began,
"but senpai is sleeping now. If you could please come
back----"

"Open the door," the stranger rumbled with quiet
menace, lumbering forward.

One of the trio, braver or more stupid than the others,
stepped in front of the bear-like man, trying to block the door.
The big man simply kept walking and the young tough
suddenly slammed against the wall and slid to the ground,
blood trickling from his mouth and ears. Stunned, Daisuke
and his remaining companion watched the stranger enter
Kuno's hospital room.

"Kuno-san," the big man wiped his balding head with
the silk-handkerchief he'd used to open the door. "I have
instructions from The Society. There is a package----" The
door closed behind him with a click as the lock engaged.

*****

This girl stuff was gettin' complicated. Onna-Ranma
lounged in the corner of the doujou, pretending to study.
Ukyo could show up again, anytime.

Lookin' for Ranma.

And that mad monk was still hangin' around.

Lookin' for Ranma.

He'd had run across him the couple of times he'd
tried going out as a guy, and he'd only managed to shake him
by changing.

*I wonder if there's any chocolate in the house?*

But, bein' a girl was starting to weird him out. He
could see things, hear things, that he didn't see or hear as a
guy. Food tasted different, even the clothes he wore _felt_
different if he was a girl, than if he was guy. He flexed his
fingers, shivering as the slender alien digits moved at his
command. He felt uncomfortable in his own skin-----

*Wasn't there some Rocky-Road in the freezer?*

-----uncomfortable in 'both' his skins. An' the didn't
like it.

Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself. Soon, soon
he'd be going back to China and everything would be fine. He
just had to hold on a little longer. Just a little-----longer.

*Some Pocky would hit the spot.*

Trying to distract himself, he watched Akane workout
with a 'wooden man', and had to fight an urge to join in.
Especially when she made a mistake and he knew he could do
it better. Maybe Ranko could do a _little_ martial arts?
Shaking his head he sank back down. Ranko was most useful
by being as different from Ranma as possible and not calling
attention to herself. He thought about Hiroshi's pop-eyed look,
just before he cannon-balled into Kunou. Well, not _too_
much attention.

*The big double fudge Pocky, with the dark chocolate
filling. Mmmmmmm . . .*

But it was kind of hard for Ranma to seduce Akane, if
he was never around.. Well, he was around, just not as a boy,
which put a crimp in pop's plans to scam the doujou . . .he
rubbed his temples wearily. This whole thing was getting just
a little out of hand. Normally he didn't have any trouble
staying in character during a con, but this girl-stuff was more
difficult than any scam he'd pulled before. He just hoped he
didn't start doin' weird stuff.


Eyes tight with a building headache, onna-Ranma slid
his unread books aside and started wandering around the edges
of the doujou, idly playing with various bits of exercise
equipment. Spying a coiled piece of steel he picked it up and
turned it around in his hands. Finally he took one of the
knurled grips in each hand, pushing back and forth,
experimentally. Getting a glimmering of it's use, he tried to
push the handles together, grunting at the effort it took.
He really hated how weak Ranko was compared to Ranma.
Being faster and more flexible didn't make up for being weak.

Setting himself, onna-Ranma pressed hard against the
two ends of the steel-coil. Sweat beaded his brow as the coil
slowly compressed----- if only his girl-form had more upper-
body strength----but, dammit, if Akane could do this so could
he, or rather she, or . . .oh the heck with it. He was starting to
get another headache just trying to keep who he was, straight.

Once----twice----three times onna-Ranma forced the
steel coil three-quarters closed, then stopped, chest and
shoulder muscles burning with strain.

"Oh, there it is," he turned to see Akane looking at
him. "Could you throw that to me please, Ranko?"

He tossed it to her, curious to see how many repetitions
she could do.

"Thanks." She grabbed the coil one handed. "Kasumi
is always trying to teach me to be neater." Onna-Ranma felt
his jaw drop as Akane took an identical coil in her opposite
hand and begin to rhythmically open and close them, pressing
the handles of the coils together with a small click.

"How----" he swallowed hard and tried again. "How
many times can you do that?" Fascinated he watched the
muscles of her forearms bunch and relax, like the flexing of a
giant anaconda.

"Hmmmm . . ." Akane was fast sinking into the
endorphin bliss common to weight lifters. "Oh . . .about two
hundred reps with light resistance to warm up." She indicated
another, thicker, set of hand-grips on the floor at her feet.
"Then I double the resistance to three-hundred pounds and do
half as many reps, for strength training. I alternate by doing as
many reps as possible in one minute, every other day, for
speed training." She closed her eyes, concentrating on her
workout.

Onna-Ranma curled his lip in disgust at his tiny female
hands, then continued his exploration. Keeping an eye on
Akane's workout as he wandered around, he idly speculated
on the best way to counter her moves. She was a grappler
alright. Bulky, dense bone and muscle structure. He watched
the hard round globes of her buttocks shift and flex under her
unitard as she limped across the floor to the heavy-bag.

Not very fast or maneuverable. That made her
vulnerable to punches and especially kicks, anything long-
range. He watched her shake the five-hundred pound bag with
short, vicious jabs. Strong, though, with quick reflexes, he
reminded himself, recalling how she'd countered his
takedown. She could probably take a lot of punishment too----
the thin material of her worn unitard stretched tightly over a
hard-sculpted belly and iron-muscled thighs, like young tree
trunks----but you couldn't armor eyes or throat with muscle.
And that knee was vulnerable. He imagined a quick side-kick,
shearing muscle and tendon, splintering bone. The shriek of
pain and spray of blood as she went down.

Shuddering he quickly pushed that image away.
Seduction and pain didn't go together. An image of a Spanish
Diplomat's wife in Algeria with a fetish for spandex and riding
crops popped up and was quickly suppressed.

And broken bones would definitely put a damper on
the whole marriage thing. On the other hand, she wouldn't
respect a guy who couldn't at least hold his own against her.
He didn't have any doubt he could beat her to pieces in an all-
out fight. As Ranma, he was faster with more reach and skill,
which meant he could deliver his power more effectively.
Ranko was even faster, and if not as strong, more than made
up for it in technique and versatility. Akane was too limited
with her hard linear style.

And no matter what form _he_ was in, Akane still
believed all those fairy-tales about honorable samurai, while
he'd forgotten more dirty tricks than she could learn in three
lifetimes. The _real_ trick, though, would be to stop her,
without hurting her.

He'd have to go in fast and hard, keep her off balance.
Close in, hook behind the weak leg and do a twisting take-
down so she landed on her face. Quickly tie-up those powerful
legs with a modified Python-Kills-Young-Goat, wrapping up
her legs with his, forcing them apart so she didn't have any
leverage.

If she got her feet under her, she'd kill him.

She had tremendous power, so he'd have to counter
with soft-styles, use her own strength against her, make her
exhaust herself. It wouldn't be easy----he could imagine the
titanic struggle as he pressed her down into the ground,
superior technique against brute muscle . . .it would be like
trying to ride an earthquake as she bucked and heaved, trying
to throw him off. He's just have to take the battering as she
slammed him around.

And her hands. . .he couldn't forget her hands, like
hydraulic clamps. Arms and shoulders like a mountain gorilla.
She'd hammer him to pieces up close, so another joint lock
was his only chance. Mu Tau or maybe something from India,
that she wouldn't know. Couldn't counter.

It would be his speed and technique against brute force
and stubbornness. He'd have to accept that he'd get hurt, take
some punishment and hold on. No matter how she struggled, if
he had the endurance, he could hold her until she was forced to
submit----

He felt an electric shock as the material of his silk shirt
suddenly rasped like sandpaper against a too sensitive chest.

*Cripes.*

This girl stuff was gettin' complicated.

*****

Nabiki's fingers flicked rapidly over her abacus,
totaling up figures in a ledger. "Ok, I think that does it."
Counting out bills and coins she paid off her assistants. "I've
got a line on some refurbished machines that may come on the
market at the end of the week." There were signs of interest all
around at that. "There may even be a few of last years Delphi,
the all electronic one."

Soft whistles and eager looks greeted that
announcement.

"So, who gets 'em boss?" Noriko looked around at
the five other girls.

"I think it should be based on seniority," offered the
oldest of Nabiki's helpers.

"Bull," Ayane snapped. "Whoever's got the most
profitable set-up should get the new machines."

"How about a lottery----"

"Ladies, ladies," Nabiki held up a hand to still the
babble. "I've made up an information packet on all I know
about these units," she passed sealed envelops down the table.
"But you should know that these units have a _very_ spotty
record. Most placements have done very well, at least initially,
because of the novelty. But pachinko players are a
conservative bunch and most of these units gathered dust after
the first few weeks. That's why they're on the refurbished
market so soon." She waited for that to sink in. An unused
machine was a dead loss, especially since they would still have
to pay rent on space for the machine, even if no one ever used
it. "You know your areas best," she continued, "so I'll want a
written proposal from each of you on the risk benefits of using
the new machines in your area. And, because of the risk, I'm
upping the normal rake-off to fifty percent for the first year on
the new machines."

There were gasps of delight, then one or two of the
girls frowned as they realized what that meant. More profit for
them if things went well, but a much greater loss if things went
wrong. And Nabiki still got her ten percent off the top, no
matter what.

"No hurry," Nabiki smiled as she watched various
thoughts chase around inside her helpers heads. "The
machines won't be available for inspection until next week, so
you have at least that long to think about it."


"Nabiki?" Noriko paused for a moment after the
others left.

"Yeah?" Nabiki replied absently, stuffing papers into
her book bag.

"My sister works at the hospital . . ."

It took Nabiki a moment to understand, then she
snapped to alertness. "Yes?" She said more carefully.

"Kuno-senpai has left. No one knows where he
went," she hastened to answer Nabiki's next question. "He just
left in the middle of the night, without even checking out."

"I called the hospital today, and they just said he was
improving," Nabiki murmured, wheels turning furiously as
she tried to figure out what this meant.

"A lot of the Seiki-Juka were absent today as well."
Noriko added.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because Kuno scares me," Noriko admitted, "and
he doesn't scare you or your sister. I don't know if it means
anything, but I wanted you to know about the hospital."

"Thanks," Nabiki watched the other girl leave the
coffee shop. "I won't forget this."

Kuno didn't scare Akane, because she was too naive
to see what a bastard he was. And, Nabiki admitted, because
she could twist the head off a water-buffalo with her bare
hands.

Nabiki saw herself as the intellectual type. As a child
she'd watched a student fall wrong in the doujou. His arm had
snapped like a rotten twig, splintered bone piercing the flesh
and splattering her with blood as he screamed in agony. Ever
after, the thought of getting punched or punching someone else
had nauseated her. She'd never been able to understand how
Akane could spar with broken bones or keep on training when
her body was a mass of bruises----but it made her ashamed of
her own weakness, and angry as well. She'd learned to hide
both.

Regardless of what Noriko thought, Kuno _did_
scare her. Ukyo too, she thought, shuddering as she recalled
the effort it had taken to hide that fear when she'd faced him
down. And how she'd emptied her lunch into the toilet
afterwards.

Shaking off her morbid reflections she tried to
imagine what could be going on. Kuno's leg was so badly
broken he was going to undergo months of rehabilitation. Not
only that, there was such a danger of blood clots that he
wasn't supposed to leave critical care for another three weeks.
She couldn't imagine what had led (or driven) Kuno to leave
the hospital, but it couldn't be good.

Nabiki decided to swing by the Kuno estate. If
Kodachi was home, and living in the twentieth century
(although Nabiki was willing to settle for any period that at
least had her speaking Japanese) she could probably find out
what Kuno was up to.

If she hadn't been so preoccupied with her thoughts
she might have sensed that she was herself of great interest to
other eyes.

Almost within sight of the Kuno estate she was
literally snatched off her feet as she passed behind a concrete
berm, left over from a make-work flood-control project.

She had time for one startled squawk, before she
landed face down in a ditch, a hard knee in her spine, pressing
her into the dirt.

"Where is he?"

Shaking in fear, it took a moment before she could
answer. "Where . . .where is who?"

"WHERE!" A cruel hand yanked her head back,
bringing tears to her eyes. "IS!" Another hand grabbed her by
the throat. HE!!"

The pressure left suddenly and she rolled onto her side,
gagging and gasping for breath. Looking up through her tears
she could make out a blurry figure with something large
strapped across . . .

"Ukyo?" *oh shit.* She felt her bones turn to jelly
and she would have wet herself if she hadn't already gone at
the coffee shop.

"Where is Ranma? Or Genma. I'll settle for either."

"If I knew . . ." A cold shudder wracked Nabiki as she
tried to curl into a ball, *Damn you Ranma. This is all your
fault*

"If I knew were Genma was," She shivered as she felt
Ukyo's hands on her. " I'd buy you a ticket" her normal air
of bravado was melting like a shadow in the noonday sun. "
And see you off at the train station." She shivered again,
violently, trying not to vomit.*Please don't hit me. Please
don't hit me.* "But I don't know . . .don't know . . . they both
took off."

"Liar!" Ukyo grabbed Nabiki and dragged her to her
knees.

"Please . . ." Nabiki hated the way she sounded. Hated
begging. Hated the way she would do anything to make him
go away. "Please . . .I don't know anything."

"I don't trust you," Ukyo grated. "You all lied to me
last time, helped that fat bastard and his son get away," his
hands tightened on her shoulders and Nabiki bit back a gasp of
pain. "And you sicked that nut-case principle and those goons
in pinstripes on me. So, tell me what I want to know, or I'll
break your arm."

*He has beautiful hands.* The thought came to her
involuntarily, even as he increased the pressure, sending
shooting pains through her arms and neck.

"Please----don't hurt me anymore," she gasped, face
twisted in pain as she twisted helplessly in his grip. "I'll tell
you . . .I'll tell . . ."

Ukyo relaxed his grip slightly and bent to help her
up. As his head came down, reflexes long forgotten took over;
something Soun taught all of his daughters, making them
practice hour-after-hour, until their bones ached and their
fingers bled from striking the head of the wooden-man.

Nabiki's left hand snaked behind Ukyo's head and
pulled, while her right hand skimmed upward along his chest
and rammed, stiff fingered, into his eyes. Ukyo fell back with
a scream clawing at his face. His screams were cut off
abruptly as Nabiki scrambled to her feet and slammed her
book bag into the side of his head. She took a moment to kick
him in the back of the knee, recalling another lesson----never
show your back to an enemy who is faster than you are----
before running like hell for home.

Sprinting down the street, a broad grin split her face.
She was bruised, filthy and scared, but---- reliving the
satisfying thud her bag made as it hit Ukyo's head----she felt
_wonderful_!

*****

Branches rustled where there was no wind as two
shadows met and spoke.

"I have found them, or at least I have found where they
were."

"How long ago?"

"A week, perhaps a little more since the wild horse
was seen."

"The father?"

"Well hidden, for one so large. One that matches his
build was seen talking to the sword-fool at the hospital. That
one rests with friends now and there is much going and
coming for one so sick. I thought to visit him and----"

"Leave that to me," answered the smaller shadow, "It
could be a trick, that the fat-one let himself be seen. If the
sword-fool knows anything, he will tell me all."

"Then I will question those that have given them
shelter. One among them may know where they lie hid, or may
have some clue to what we seek. It may even be----."

"You will _watch_," the small shadow snapped in a
voice of unchallenged command. "This is not our land, nor is
our fight with _any_ other than our prey." The tall shadow
shifted uneasily at the rebuke.

"Watch and listen," the small shadow commanded. "If
you learn aught, do nothing. Come tell me at once. Do you
understand!"

The tall shadow made a gesture of acknowledgment
and the small shadow trickled away into deeper shadows and
vanished. The tall shadow waited a moment more before
leaving. The fat-one was almost within their grasp and to let
him or his devil-spawn escape because they stepped too lightly
around these barbarians was intolerable. Fortunately,
understanding was not the same as obedience.

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