Chapter: 17


"I . . .I appreciate you letting me stay with you while
father is gone," Ranko said softly.

"It's not any problem," Akane finished making up the
spare bed and plumped the pillow. "Especially with that
Ukyo running loose." She beat a clenched fist against her
thigh in frustration, remembering the bruises on Nabiki's arms
and shoulders. If she ever caught that guy, she was going to----

"A . . .are you alright?" Ranko asked in concern.

A shudder passed through her body and she made
herself to relax. She had to be careful of her temper."I'm fine,"
Akane forced a smile for her guest. "Let's go to sleep."

Listening to Akane's soft even breathing, Ranko
smiled in the dark. If Ranma couldn't be around, it was up to
Ranko to prepare the ground. And girls trusted girls the way
they would never trust a boy. This was almost too easy. . .

"Ranko? What's wrong?" Akane stirred as a sound
penetrated her consciousness.

"N . . nothing," Ranko bit her pillow to stifle a sob.

"It's not, 'nothing'," Akane said, snapping on the
light. "What's----you're crying?" Akane slipped out of bed
and went to kneel beside the other girl. "What is it?"

"Y . . .you'll think I'm silly," Ranko buried her head
in her pillow. "I'm sorry I woke you up. Please go back to
sleep."

"Don't worry about that! Are you sick?" Akane put
her hand on Ranko's cheek to feel for fever. "Should I get
Kasumi or----"

"mn scrd uko gt m" Ranko mumbled into her pillow.

"What?" Akane leaned closer. "I couldn't hear you.
What----"

"I'm scared Ukyo is going to get me!" Ranko wailed,
throwing herself into Akane's arms. "He was mean to me at
school and he was mean to Nabiki and now he's back and----"

Akane's arms tightened protectively, and she was
startled at how tiny and helpless Ranko felt.


"You just let him try," She growled, "and I'll fix him,
good. Now don't worry and go back to sleep." She tried to
pull away but the smaller girl only sobbed harder and clung to
her like a limpet.

Akane awkwardly patted Ranko on the back, feeling
wretched. She didn't know how to handle this and wished
Kasumi was here. Thinking of her sister inspired her.

"I've got an idea," She gently pulled the girl free and
sat her on the bed. Grabbing the frame she heaved, lifting bed,
Ranko and all, to shove them up against her own bed. "Scoot
over," She pushed Ranko onto what had been her bed, then lay
down on Ranko's bed. "If anybody comes in, they've got to
get by _me_ first." Her tone indicated she hoped someone
would be stupid enough to try.

Ranko smiled tremulously, then turned to face the
wall, curling into a little ball.

Sighing, Akane lay back down, but sleep wouldn't
come as her knee began to ache. *Stupid showoff* she thought
disgustedly. *You could have just slid the bed across the floor.
But you _had_ to lift the bed with her on it. You are such an
idiot.* Her knee indicated agreement with a stab of pain and
she shifted restlessly. Another sharp jolt brought tears to her
eyes and she stifled a moan. This was going to be a long night.

Two small, warm hands clasped her leg and she barely
stifled a small shriek.

"Cousin Ranma showed me a little trick," Ranko said
shyly. "Maybe I can help." Before Akane could protest,
Ranko stripped off her pajama bottoms with one swift move,
leaving her in only panties and shirt.

"You really should be more careful," Ranko cupped
Akane's knee in her left hand and began making tiny circles
around the edges with her other hand. "You can cause a
permanent injury if you don't take care of yourself."

"I . . .I'm OK," Akane stuttered, feeling shy and
flustered. "You . . .you can go back to sleep . . .now." She
gasped as Ranko's fingers moved dangerously far up her leg,
then back down again. Over and over again, strong clever
fingers traced a path along her flesh. A languorous warmth
spread up her leg and through her entire body, leaving her
weak and limp.

"Ooops, did that tickle?" Ranko trailed the back of her
fingers up the inside of Akane's leg, feeling the muscle quiver.
"I'm sorry."

" 'S a'right,"Akane slurred, voice heavy with sleep.
"I'm not tic'lsh."

"Well, that's good," Ranko said, shifting her grip so
that she held Akane's leg in both hands, with the thumbs close
together at the top and the fingers underneath. "I'm ever so
ticklish myself," she lied, pulling her thumbs apart briskly,
working her way down the leg, past the knee to the ankle, then
starting at the top again. "My friends all used to gang up on me
at slumber parties and stuff," Onna-Ranma continued
ministering the leg while recounting stories 'Ranko' had heard
at Fuurinkan. "And tickle me until I cried. It was awful." She
continued with relish, delicately checking Akane's knee.
"Don't you just hate that?"

"D'no," Akane mumbled. "N'vr h'ppn."

"You've never been tickled?" Ranko gently drew the
covers back over Akane, being especially careful not to jar her
leg.

"N'r been sl'mbr party."

"Never?" Ranko listened to Akane's soft snoring for a
moment. "Every girl should have a slumber party." Ranko
wadded up Akane's pajama bottoms and chucked them
through the dark into the trash can. She wouldn't need those
anymore.

*****

"Don't eat so fast, it's bad for your digestion."

"Sorry."

"Here, have some more ham."

"Alright, but I want you to try some of this, first."

Nabiki shuddered as Ranko accepted a bite of
asparagus-cauliflower-beet log rolled in molasses- soy-
oatbran, and seemed to _enjoy_ it!

This was just too weird. Other than a weakness for
brutally hot peppers, Akane normally ate as if she were fueling
a machine, quickly and efficiently, so she didn't waste time
she could use for training. To watch Akane sit quietly while
Ranko scolded her about her eating habits was . . . What in the
world could have happened between them in just two days?

"Do you want me to help with the dishes?" Nabiki
came out of her reverie to see Akane looking at her
questioningly.

"No, they'll keep. We can just put them in the sink 'til
later."

"Where's daddy this morning?" Akane asked as she
piled dishes in the sink. "Wasn't it his turn to fix breakfast?"

Nabiki bit her lip wondering how to answer that one.
Soun had listened very carefully to her story when she'd come
running in the house after escaping Ukyo. He'd looked at her
torn dress, dirty face and run gentle fingers along her bruises.
Then he'd kissed her on the forehead, and walked out the
door.

"Yes, but the council is arguing about where to put
new recycling bins" she lied, "and daddy wanted to get there
early to round up support."

By unspoken agreement, over the years she and
Kasumi had conspired to keep the baby of the family ignorant
of how troubled their father really was. It wasn't entirely
unselfish. Watching Akane's unspoiled interaction with Soun,
helped them both pretend they had a happy, normal family.

"Oh good," Akane said in relief. "He looked so mad
the other day I was afraid he might do something dangerous,
like go looking for Ukyo by himself."

Nabiki hadn't thought of that----

After their mother died, Soun had spent all of his time
teaching, crying and drinking. Then, crying and drinking, and
finally, just drinking.

She could still see Kasumi laying at the bottom of the
stairs, her leg bent at an odd angle, with Soun on the floor next
to her, an empty sake bottle still clenched in his fist. At first
she'd thought he was dead, and felt relieved. Then she realized
he was only dead drunk, and she got angry at him because he
couldn't even get that right.

He'd sobered up to an empty house and his three
daughters at the emergency ward.

Kasumi's leg healed.

Akane learned that you didn't microwave whole eggs.

Soun stopped drinking and started crying again.

Nabiki stopped trusting and stopped crying, both.

He hadn't taken a drink in years and Nabiki had
almost forgiven him for loving sake more than he loved them.
Then Saotome Genma had shown up.


-----she hoped Soun had done something dangerous,
and not something stupid.

"Kasumi's studying for her exams, so we're going to
have to make some more changes in the chore schedule,"
Nabiki said to head off any more questions about their father.
"Do you have any preferences?"

"Uhhh . . .no, just whatever you want me to do."
Nabiki didn't miss the way Akane had glanced at Ranko
before answering and wished Kasumi were home. She thought
briefly about calling her, then dismissed it. The Tendo
finances didn't come close to covering medical school, and
Kasumi's scholarship depended on how well she did on her
exams. And how well she did, depended on peace and quiet,
which was in short supply at the Tendo home lately.

"That's fine, just be sure to check the list when you get
home."

She poured a final cup of coffee as the other two girls
headed to school.

"What's in this?" Ranko grabbed Akane's bag along
with hers on the way to the door. Or tried to. Nabiki was
impressed to see the smaller girl actually shifted it slightly
from the floor.

"Ummm, books. Mostly." Akane muttered.

"Mostly?" Ranko's eyebrows came together in a slight
frown, then she bent and pulled the bag open. "Mostly?" She
repeated, pulling a small, heavy sack from the interior. "Most-
ly??" She pulled two more from the interior. "What's in
these?"

"Uhhh, just a little . . .lead." Akane, said the last
almost inaudibly, reaching for the sack in Ranko's hand, only
to have her drop it out of reach.

"Why do you have lead in your book-bag?" Ranko
asked mildly.

"Training?" Akane replied in a small voice.

"Not until the knee has completely healed." Ranko
snapped, looking harassed. "What did we talk about
yesterday?"

"Reconstructing the Bok Hok Pai test of courage in the
garden?"

"NO!" Ranko bopped Akane on the head.

"Overtraining is bad?"

Ranko smiled. "Now, empty the bag."

"But-----"

"No," Ranko nudged the bag with her foot and it fell
over with a metallic thump. "Now, get rid of 'em." She
watched as Akane pulled fifty kilo-grams of weight from her
bag, then started to shrug into the straps.

"ALL of them," Ranko stopped Akane with a hand on
her arm. Akane looked shamefaced, then dumped five more
sacks of lead.

"Now, the rest of it . . ." Ranko stared at Akane,
tapping one dainty foot impatiently as Akane removed weight
belts from her waist, wrists and ankles.

"Is that _everything_?"

Akane bit her lip and removed another ten kilograms
from her pockets and added it to the formidable pile that
surrounded her book-bag.

"You need a keeper." Ranko berated as they finally
headed out the door.

*****

"The dog ate my homework!"


No, Nabiki thought, too cliched.

"I lost it when I used my book-bag to beat off a crazy
man with a giant spatula . . ." ummmm, better stick with the
hungry dog. A good lie beats a bad truth.

She'd never missed a homework assignment in her life
and now this! If she ever caught up with that Ukyou guy
she'd----

"You forgot this, the other day."

"Aaaaaak!" Nabiki jumped back, pressing her hand to
her thundering heart. "Ukyo?"

He looked terrible. His face was all puffy and had
turned an interesting shade of yellow-green as the bruises
aged. Two black eyes completed the picture, making him an
altogether pitiful sight.

"You look terrible." She glanced down at the school
bag he dangled from one finger, keeping a careful distance."
What's this?"

"Your bag." He thrust it toward her and she gingerly
took it.

"What's the deal," she asked suspiciously, "you try to
break my arm, and now you're returning my stuff? Why?"

"I'm not a thief," the pony-tailed boy muttered surlily,
falling in step with Nabiki. "I just want to kill Saotomes."

"Well, it's certainly refreshing to meet a nice virtuous
boy," Nabiki said blandly. "There are so many ruffians around
now."

Ukyou grunted, but refused to be baited.

"UKYO! Prepare to DIE!"

"Oh, hi Akane!" Nabiki watched her baby sister
lumber down the street at her best speed, considering the
double handicap of a bad leg and the attached Ranko who was
digging in her heels and pounding Akane on the back in a
futile attempt to get her attention.

"Ukyo," Akane spat, shrugging of Ranko, who
immediately reattached to her arm like a limpet, "I'll kill you
for what you did to Nabiki!"

Ukyou fell into a ready stance, a small bladed weapon
appearing in each hand.

"Knives?" Akane snarled, catching a glimpse of steel.
"Great, I can use them to carve you a new-----you look
_terrible_!" she exclaimed, stumbling to a halt as she got a
good look at her opponent. "What in the world happened to
your face?"

Ukyo flushed and looked down at the ground,
suddenly finding his toes unbearably fascinating.

"I do good work, don't I," Nabiki patted Ukyo on his
battered face, moving to stand between the two combatants. "I
appreciate your concern, baby-sister, but I've got things under
control." Looking at Ukyo's face she felt strong, really
strong, not just the shell she'd always hidden behind.

"I don't need your help!" Ukyo objected.

"Don't worry, I'll protect you," Nabiki cooed, feeling
a thrill of triumph as Ukyo flushed, angry and embarrassed.
She wondered if Akane felt like this when she won a match.

"Listen you," Akane took a heavy step forward, "I'm
going to----owwww!"

Ranko grabbed her by the ear and yanked. "We're
going to be late if you don't come on. Sorry about that," she
apologized, "but she was _really_ looking forward to breaking
your arms and legs." Ranko bowed politely, as did Akane,
albeit only because Ranko had a firm grip on her ear.

"Owowowow!"

"You are such a big baby," Ranko chided. "You're
just going to have to let Nabiki beat up on her own
boyfriends."

"B...b...boyfriend?" Ukyo stuttered in horror.


"I dunno," Nabiki said doubtfully, "I think I can do
better."

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