Chapter 18

"Do you understand what you are to do?"

The six men looked at one another, then at their leader
who nodded and turned to their employer. "We understand. It
will be done as you command."


Their employer eyed them narrowly, then motioned for
them to go. Working with such people carried certain risks.
Descendants of North Korean laborers left in Japan after the
final bits of the Japanese Empire were broken up, they were
stateless people. Unable to obtain Japanese citizenship,
unwelcome in the North, distrusted by the South, they and
others like them lived a shadowy non-existence on the fringe
of Japanese society. Doing jobs the Japanese did not or would
not do, they were the 'invisible men' that even the burakumin
looked down upon.

Recalling their filthy pinched faces, and hungry feral
eyes, he could see that they had all the compassion of Nazi
camp guards and the instincts of sharks in a feeding frenzy.
Best of all, they didn't . . .like the Japanese.

Checking his watch, he made a phone call, waiting
patiently as the phone rang, satisfied after one full minute
without an answer.

****

Panting slightly Kasumi put down the groceries and
grabbed the phone.

"Moshimoshi? Is anyone there?" There was only the
buzz of a disconnected line. Oh well, they would call back
later. She started putting away the groceries.

Renting a hotel room had done wonders for her
studies. But it had been lonely as well. She missed her sisters,
and father. This morning she'd even found herself missing
Kodachi and her bad poetry. When _that_ happened, she
realized it was time to come home, even if it was a few days
early.

Nabiki and Akane had been so good about doing her
chores while she was studying she decided to make them a
special dinner and had picked up some things on the way
home.

Could it have been father, she wondered, pouring oil
and seasoning into a pan and starting water boiling. He quite
often would go off to visit friends or just to be by himself,
especially each year on the anniversary of----- especially when
under stress.

There _was_ a place he could be, his refuge from the
pain of the world.

She hadn't said anything to Akane of course, but she
knew Nabiki shared her fear. At the hotel, she'd picked up the
phone seven times, and seven times put it down, unable to
make the call. Not knowing was bad, but knowing might be
even worse, and if she called . . .if they told her Soun was
drinking in the bar . . .

She looked at what she'd bought. She could make
eel . . .grilled perhaps? No, better to make yanagawa-nabe.
She had burdock root and eggs for the mild eel-casserole that
was one of Nabiki's favorites. She had that in common with
their father, the thought came unbidden. And she'd grill some
white-fish for Akane, and make sure there was plenty of
wasabi. She nibbled on her lower lip for a moment, thinking
about their guest. She wasn't sure what Ranko liked, but the
young girl seemed happy with whatever Kasumi fixed. She
even liked Nabiki's cooking. And Akane's, which might just
indicate how desperately lonely she was.

Poor little thing. No mother and father gone on
business all the time. Kasumi felt a pang of sympathy,
knowing exactly how she must feel.

She'd fix a nice sweet for her, mashed sweet-potato
with chestnuts or maybe pancakes with sweet-bean filling?
Humming to herself she started pulling mixing bowls from the
cabinets.

*****
Performing a last minute check to make sure his men
were in position the leader glanced at his employer, then gave
the signal. Silently, with the expertise of long experience the
'invisible men' slipped over the wall and flowed across the
ground into the house. Their orders were specific. The entire
operation should take less than half of an hour.

*****

"Boyfriend?" Nabiki glanced sideways at Ranko as
she and Akane walked her home after school. The wind was
swirling cherry blossoms across the rode and she idly watched
the patterns they made. She hadn't seen any 'funny' stuff
between Akane and Ranko while in school, maybe she'd been
over-reacting that morning. "He threw me down in a ditch,
tore my blouse and bruised me all over. Does that sound like a
boyfriend?"

"Sounds like love to me." Ranko grinned.

"Huh . . .then what's left for marriage. A pine-box and
a hearse?"

"I don't think he's right for you." Akane put in
suddenly. "You're too young to be dating, anyway."

Nabiki stifled a laugh. "Well, thank you grandmother-
Akane. Any other words of wisdom?"

"What do you know about his family?" Akane said
seriously. "Where is he from? What are his hobbies? Do you
even know his blood type?"

She couldn't help it. Dropping her bag she bent over,
gasping with laughter.

"I'm glad you think it's funny," Akane groused, hands
fisted on her hips. "But you've got to think about these things
before you get into a relationship."

"Oh . . .oh . . .I can't stand it," Nabiki whooped with
laughter. "You've never even held hands with a boy----"

"I have _too_," Akane corrected this base calumny
indignantly, "it was at Nerima stadium----"

"That was during the semi-finals," Nabiki countered,
"and you broke three of his fingers."

"I was holding them," Akane insisted stubbornly, "so
it counts. Anyway, we're not talking about me. I'm concerned
about you," she ended virtuously.

"Ukyo's not my boyfriend," Nabiki repeated, trying
to relieve Akane's fears.

"But, Ranko said-----"

"It was just a joke," Nabiki answered and Ranko
nodded agreement.

Akane just looked bewildered and Nabiki sighed,
picking up her book bag and leading the way home. Akane
had the social awareness of a gladiola. Less, since flowers
were pollinated at least once a year. Akane laughed at
something Ranko said and Nabiki watched them carefully
from the corner of her eye.

They looked . . .right, together. They weren't even
touching, but there was an intimacy . . .Nabiki felt a surge of
something and realized it was jealousy. There was always a
little reserve, a hidden spot that Akane didn't let anyone
touch, not even her family. And now this stranger---- She
hadn't seen Akane so open since . . .since Thailand. She was
briefly amazed she felt only a twinge at remembering that
time.

A cold breeze seemed to flow past as Nabiki had a
sudden epiphany. Kasumi was head of house in all but name
and she had her studies, friends. Nabiki had friends, clubs, her
own little business empire . . .

What did Akane have? She was captain of the
swimming club, class president. Her grades were always good.

When was the last time Akane had friends over?

Nabiki thought back over the past several weeks,
months, then years. Two years. It had been two years ago,
when Akane brought some friends home from school. They
hadn't stayed long, and they'd never come back.

Could Akane be lonely? She would have said
something, wouldn't she? Nabiki and Kasumi always looked
out for her. Her grades were good, she was class president.
Captain of the swimming club.

Just because she didn't bring friends home, that didn't
mean anything. She could be going to their house in her free
time. When she wasn't doing chores. Or school work, or club
activities. Or training-----in the doujou before anyone else was
awake, training after school until the house was asleep.

Her grades were good, she was class president. Captain
of the swimming club. She had to know lots of people.

Who knew Akane?

Her grades were good, she was class president. Captain
of the swimming club. She did her chores, volunteered to help
around the neighborhood.

Who helped Akane?

Her grades were good, she was class president. Captain
of the swimming club.

No, Nabiki shook herself. This was silly. Surely she
would have noticed something. Or Kasumi. She watched
Ranko say something to Akane and Akane shake a fist in
mock-threat.

*What do you know about him? Who is his family?*

She'd thought it was hilarious when Akane asked it,
but now it didn't seem so funny. What did they really know
about Ranko, other than what she'd told them. What did they
know about Ranma and Genma, for that matter.

An old friend of father's? Her stomach cramped at the
thought.

It had seemed kind of silly at the time. An arranged
marriage was something out of a bad samurai movie, not
something to take seriously.

She suddenly realized what it would mean if her baby
sister got married, and it left her with a cold feeling in the pit
of her stomach. Marriage, the marriage _bed_ . . .oh hell no,
not her baby sister. Maybe when she was older, say forty, but
not now. She was much too young. For boys or-----she listened
to Ranko laugh again and cringed, recalling her teasing
remarks of the day before. Surely Ranko hadn't taken her
seriously? She'd better talk things over with Kasumi, even if
she had to interrupt her studies. She'd call her at the hotel once
they got home.

The wind blew Ranko's long hair around and Nabiki
watched Akane brush it out of her face in a gesture that was
almost painfully intimate because it was completely
unconscious.

Fifty. Or maybe sixty. Sixty was a good age. Mature,
stable, sensible. Akane could start dating when she was sixty.
In the meantime, she would enjoy living in Tibet. In a
Monastery.

*****

They were just outside of the gate, when a piercing
scream blasted through the tangle of Nabiki's thoughts.

"What was that?" Ranko's head snapped around, body
quivering with suppressed tension.

"Nobody's home, unless father's back," Nabiki
answered, standing stock still. "But that sounded like a woman
and Kasumi's not supposed to be back for another three
days."

"Oneesama!" Akane hit the gate like a runaway
freight train and rumbled into the house, without stopping to
open the door.

*Cripes.* Onna-Ranma thought, as the gate bounced
off the wall and hung skewed on a broken hinge. Sprinting
hard, he was only a couple of steps behind, and bitterly aware
of the damage Akane was doing to her knee and hip. After all
the work he'd done on it, he felt it was really _his_ leg, and he
was just lending it to her.

Akane, Ranko and, several paces in the rear and badly
winded, Nabiki skidded to a halt, just outside the kitchen. The
house looked like a war zone. Floorboards had been ripped up,
wall panels knocked out and the televison lay dying in a
hissing, sparking tangle of electronic entrails.

Worst of all was the crowd of filthy ragged intruders,
like rats who had learned to walk on two legs, crowded into
the kitchen, surrounding and pressing against two taller
figures. The tallest was unfamiliar, swathed in dark concealing
robes. The other----

"NEESAMA!" With a scream like a castrated buffalo
Akane plowed through the rat-people, scattering them like
pebbles and slammed into the robed figure.

*No finesse* Onna-Ranma sighed, instantly moving to
back her up. He wasn't about to let some bunch of street thugs
queer his scam. This was _his_ doujou! At least it would be if
nothing happened to it or the Tendo sisters before he could
consummate the deal.

Using a variation of 'Drunken-Monkey-Steals-an-
Apple' Ranko 'accidentally' knocked Nabiki clear of the
action, then turned to the four or five ragged men blocking his
path to Akane. If they were just good, he could take them out
with 'Drunken-Monkey' style and not blow his cover. If they
were better than good? He had to think about that for a
moment. He did have a couple of spare Tendos, so he could
afford to lose one. 'Course, he didn't want to wait around until
the end of a mourning period before gettin' married, gettin' the
doujou and heading back to China.

Sighing, he moved to face the thugs-----wishing he
were Ranma right now. Then he could really score some
points playing the hero-----only they weren't there to face.
Like a morning mist, or more like a covey of startled quail,
they vanished. Spinning quickly to cover his six, onna-Ranma
discovered he was alone in the room, except for Nabiki,
Kasumi, Akane and-----

"BASTARD!"

-----the new guy.


Akane drove a short jab to her opponents heart and felt
her fist crunch against something hard.

Her fist was harder.

Akane knew she was slow. When she managed to hit
someone, she wanted it to count.. Hitting an iron plate ten-
thousand times in the morning and again at night made sure it
would.

Her opponent was no weakling and blindingly fast. He
twisted with her blow to rob it of power and countered with a
Cobra-Fang strike that should have shattered her fore-arm like
cheap pottery.

Instead it felt like he'd hit an iron pipe, and his fingers
went numb. During his instant of confusion Akane grabbed
him by the throat with her left hand and began punching with
the right, each blow ringing like a hammer on an anvil.

Onna-Ranma watched Akane, a sour look on his face,
then shrugged fatalistically. She was too linear in her attacks,
and that was going to be her downfall one day.

That day was now, as her opponents hands darted
inside his robes and came out with two scythes attached to
chains.

"AKANE!" Kasumi saw it first, and lunged to protect
her sister. Distracted by the scream, one of the wicked blades
missed, and Kasumi crumpled, bleeding from the temple.

Akane had been merely angry. Her opponent realized
the difference when she tore his weapons from his body,
hardened steel links parting like soft aluminum, forged steel
shafts crumpling like tinfoil. There was madness in her eyes
and death in her hands as she reached for him and he decided
he had business elsewhere. A slashing blow across her eyes to
break her concentration, a swirl of robes to make her think he
was moving left, when he was actually going right and he was
free.

For a one-legged girl, Akane moved incredibly fast. He
was _almost_ to the door when she was on him like a striking
panther, and the blows she landed were jack-hammer hard. If
she'd had a fraction of self control, she'd have ripped his head
from his spine and been done with it, instead of trying to
smash through his chest and crush his heart.

"Stop her!" Nabiki cried from where she cradled
Kasumi's head in her lap. "She'll kill him."

*Stop her?* From where he stood, it looked like Akane
was doin' pretty good. His heart had almost stopped when
he'd seen those damn knives, and he'd been within a milimeter
of snapping the son-of-a-bitch's neck, when Kasumi had
intervened. Looking at the eldest Tendo's bloody scalp, he
was only sorry Akane wasn't going to leave anything for him.

"No," Kasumi roused feebly from where she lay.
"Don't let her . . .please . . ."

*Oh hell," Onna-Ranma thought in disgust. Akane
looked like she was having fun, and he didn't see any sense in
stopping her from pounding the son-of-a-bitch like a bowl of
rice, but . . .Kasumi's eyes begged him to do something.

*Oh, hell*

"Ok, Akane-chan, that's enough," he put a hand on
her shoulder and she growled at him like a wild animal. He
could _feel_ it down in his bones.

*Uh oh.* Moving so he could see her face, he rocked
back in shock. Foam flecked her lips which were drawn back
from her teeth in a death's-head smile and her eyes were filled
with blood.

*eeeeep!*

With every blow the figure jerked and flopped like a
rag-doll and it wouldn't be much longer before Akane
punched through whatever armor this guy was wearing under
his robes. Onna-Ranma thought about his _own_ little
problem and what sometimes brought him out of the madness,
and decided to take a chance. He only hoped to hell it worked,
or he was fast enough to get out of the way if it didn't.

Trying not to think about how stupid he was being
onna-Ranma threw himself at Akane, knocking her clear of
clear of the idiot-in-robes, wrapping himself around her like a
living straightjacket.

It was like riding an earthquake. One that screamed as
it tried to batter you to death. Slamming into furniture and
walls, watching floor and ceiling swap places, onna-Ranma
made a mental vow to _never_ again, under any
circumstances, grapple with this girl. As his head slammed
into the wall for the fourth, or was it sixth time, he promised
he'd never make her angry. Feeling his ribs begin to separate
he swore to burn incense at the [fill-in-blank] shrine for twenty
years if the kamis would get him out of this alive.

Despite the beating he was taking, he held on,
maintaining an endless stream of nonsense sounds and words.
The same you would use to sooth a frightened child or a
wounded animal. With shocking abruptness, the storm died
and there was only silence.

"R . . .Ranko?"

*Who?* Onna-Ranma wondered, watching the pretty
flashing lights.

"A . . .Are you alright, Ranko?"

*Who th' hell was . . .oh yeah, _he_ was Ranko.* If
only the rooms would stop spinning. Why would anyone want
three stoves, anyway?

"I'm fine," he lied. "How're you doin'."

"Ok," Akane rasped in a small voice.

With a groan he unclenched his cramped muscles,
giving thanks for the extra padding of his female form, and
creakily got to his feet. He hurt in places he never knew this
body had. Reaching to help Akane up, he was shocked to see
tears streaking her face.

"I . . .I did it again, didn't I?" she whispered, eyes dark
with some unnameable emotion.

"It's Ok, sis," Nabiki assured her shakily, "see,
Kasumi is fine. I'm fine. Even that guy----LOOK OUT!"

Incredibly the robbed figure had gotten to his feet.
Even as he reached inside his robes Akane threw Ranko to one
side and launched herself at him. But her berserker rage had
left her and she was too slow to stop him, but fast enough to
block his attack, catching the glass balls he threw on her
forearms. They exploded in a cloud of dust and Akane's
scream of agony covered his escape.

*Amazons!* Something about the figures movements
brought an instant's shocked recognition. That meant-----

"DON'T BREATH!" Covering her face with one arm
Ranko yanked Akane out of the cloud and dragged her to the
sink and ripped off her clothes, being careful not to touch any
of the tiny spines embedded in her clothing and skin. "Hot
water, quick!"

"What?" Kasumi gasped, bewildered.

"Crap! Call an ambulance!" Ranko yanked a pot off
the stove and poured the steaming water over the screaming
girl. "Dammit----MOVE!" Ranko yelled. "Tell them it's
Stone-Fish poison."

****

"That was quick thinking, young lady," Dr. Chou
addressed the worried group in the waiting room. "You saved
her from a very bad time."

"How is she doctor?" Kasumi asked, having a horribly
clear idea of what the cloud of poisoned nettles could have
done to her baby sister. "Her eyes?"

"There is some involvement." Kasumi whitened at the
doctors bland statement, "But, her hands and arms took the
worst of it," he patted Kasumi on the shoulder. "And our chief
of ophthalmology thinks there's no permanent damage."

"Her hands! " Nabiki exclaimed jerkily. "Will she . . .I
mean will there be any problems?" She was worried sick. If
anything happened to Akane's hands. If she were crippled-----
she didn't know how Akane would handle that.

"Stone-Fish toxin causes a great deal of pain, but we
got anti-venom into your sister very quickly. Unfortunately,
there were other toxins mixed in as well," The doctor, grimly
furious with memories of the Doomsday Cult, had whipped
the Tokyo police into a frenzy to catch a dangerous lunatic,
"and those are causing some problems."

"P . . .problems?" Nabiki felt the room start to spin.
"But, she's going to be Ok? I mean you can give her a shot or
a pill or something?"

"Oh, yes." The doctor assured in the breezy manner of
someone who'd never been seriously ill. "She has an excellent
constitution and there is every reason to believe she will make
a complete recovery. Unless there are complications." He
cautioned, whipsawing Nabiki's emotions to the point she felt
ill.

"But that ain't likely, is it doc?" Ranko interjected
quickly, starting to get worried by Nabiki's lack of color.
"Akane can come home today, right?"

"Not quite that soon. We want to observe her for a
few days, but there is every reason to be optimistic. The pain
should subside relatively quickly, but she's going to itch very
badly for several weeks, I'm afraid. And she's not going to be
able to use her hands at all until the swelling goes down and
the outer layer of skin grows back----" Nabiki had steadily
grown paler as the doctors list grew. Kasumi even paler, if that
were possible.

"We've covered her eyes to protect them from the
light. And you've got to keep her from scratching the affected
areas or there's risk of scarring or infection." As he talked the
doctor gave them a list of instructions and several prescriptions
to be filled.

*****


"Ummm . . .it's none of my business," Ranko took a
sip of tea, "but, what exactly happened. With Akane, I mean."
The girl in question had been left under sedation at the
hospital and now onna-Ranma and the two eldest Tendo
sisters were sitting around the kitchen table.

"Who were those guys, Kasumi? What did they
want?" Nabiki added.

"I don't know," Kasumi replied a little shakily,
gripping the mug of tea for warmth. "I was starting dinner
when I heard noises in the other room. I thought it was Akane
at first-----you know how enthusiastic she gets sometimes,"
Nabiki nodded and Kasumi continued. "Then these funny
looking men came in the kitchen and----- "

"Kami-sama!" Nabiki sat bolt upright, spilling some
of her tea. "I forgot," She moved to her sister, running her
hands over her, "are you alright? Should we call the doctor?
Are . . .did they . . .did they _hurt_ you?"

"Hurt?" Kasumi raised a hand to the bandage that
covered the right side of her head. "No, I'm fine,"

"Not that, the scream." Nabiki explained and Ranko
nodded vigorously.

"You can tell us, 'neesama."

"Oh," Kasumi looked down embarrassed. "That
wasn't me."

"Wasn't? Then, who?"

"Well, I was heating oil to cook the eel------oh, I had
such a lovely dinner planned," Kasumi's face crumpled.

"We'll get take-out," Nabiki dismissed dinner. "The
scream?" she prompted.

"Oh, well, I had the pot of boiling oil in my hand . . .
and he startled me!" Kasumi blushed daintily. "I'm afraid I
spilled it on a . . .a rather delicate region."

"Oh man," Ranko guffawed, "I'd scream to-----ummm
I mean I can imagine he would scream," Ranko covered
hastily as the two sisters looked at her strangely.

"Errrrr . . . what happened with Akane," onna-Ranma
repeated his original question, hopping to distract the sisters
from his slip and trying to force himself back into character.
"She looked very . . .strange."

"Strange?" Nabiki said blandly. "I don't know what
you mean. Did you see anything strange sis?"

"N . . .no, not a thing."

Ranko closed her eyes for a moment, then looked
directly at the two sisters. "Thank you for the tea." She made
as if to leave. "If anything 'strange' does happen, please let me
know. Maybe I can help."

"Wait!" Kasumi put out a hand to stop Ranko, then
looked questioningly at Nabiki.

"You're the eldest." Nabiki said resignedly. "I'll go
along with whatever you want."

"Akane was very frail as a child," Kasumi began,
seemingly apropos of nothing. "It's true," she smiled at
Ranko's snort of disbelief. "she nearly died of Scarlet Fever
and it affected her heart and joints.

"Her heart?" Ranko paled. There wasn't anything
wrong with Akane's heart, was there?

"She went from being a very active, healthy little girl,
to being bed-ridden and in constant pain."

"But, she got better, right? I mean, she's healthy as a
horse now." Ranko said insistently. *A really bad tempered
horse.*

"It was a very hard time. Mother died, Akane almost
died and father was . . .unwell." Kasumi's eyes were
unfocused, looking at something only she could see.

"I tried to . . . _we_ tried to take care of her," she
looked at Nabiki, who ducked her head. "but Akane was so
young. She didn't understand how sick she was. Only that
mama was gone. Papa was . . . 'sick'. And she couldn't leave
her room anymore . . .


@@@@@@@@@@@

"I want to go see Ayumi," Akane pleaded. "She's got
a new puppy!"

"Maybe latter," Kasumi replied, feeling a little
harassed. "I've got to go get Nabiki from school and then fix
dinner." Not quite ten, Kasumi was already accomplished in
the kitchen and at household management, thanks to her
mother's notebooks. "Why don't you read for a while, and if I
have time later we'll see about siting in the garden after
supper?" But it was too much to expect a child to be able to
raise two other children, especially a very sick child.

"I want to see the puppy," Akane repeated, almost in
tears. "Ayumi drew a map and-----"

"NO!" Kasumi snapped, snatching the map from
Akane's hands and crumpled it in her pocket. "You're too
sick to go anywhere by yourself, and I don't have time to take
you. I've got to get Nabiki, shop for dinner, clean the house,"
Kasumi dashed angry tears from her eyes. "And take care of
you! Stop being so selfish. I have to do all the work! Now,
read your book quietly or I won't let you sit by the pond after
dinner!"

Akane sat, stunned, in the middle of her bed as the
door slammed and her sisters foot-steps pattered down the
stairs. As the shadows crept across the bed covers, her book
lay untouched, where Kasumi had flung it.

*****

"Nabiki," the middle Tendo daughter looked up from
her homework. "Please go up and help Akane come down to
dinner." Kasumi watched her sister leave the family room,
twisting her hands beneath her apron. She had been tempted,
shamefully, to have Nabiki take a tray up to Akane's room.
She'd made some bean-jam buns as a treat, but she still
dreaded facing her little sister. Maybe Akane would be asleep
and she could avoid-----

"Neechan? Akane's not in her room. Neither is her oh-
two bottle." Nabiki sounded a little aggravated at having
climbed the stairs for nothing. "Can I have a bean-jam bun
while the rice is cooking?"

"You'll spoil your dinner," Kasumi said
automatically. "Go out to the garden and bring Akane in. It's
to chilly for her to be out." Kasumi felt a guilty sense of relief.
She could 'forgive' Akane for going out without permission,
which would allow her to avoid the whole 'puppy' situation.
She had a happy thought. In fact, she would take Akane to see
the 'puppy' tomorrow. Maybe they could even get a puppy or
at least a kitten. That would be company-----

"She's not out there." Nabiki sounded a little puzzled.

"What?" Kasumi snapped out of her daydream. "What
do you mean? She's got to be out there."

"I looked!" Nabiki said, indignantly. "She's not in the
garden."

"Of course she is . . .unless she's playing a trick,"
Kasumi's earlier thoughts of treats for her sister vanished.
"Nabiki, go look upstairs. I'll check outside."

"Oh boy. Akane's in trouble, ain't she?" Nabiki said
gleefully.

"She is as soon as I find her."

Thirty minutes later Kasumi stood white-faced in the
kitchen while Nabiki munched contentedly on a bean-jam bun.
The house and grounds weren't that big and the two girls had
searched twice, even checking the tiny crawl-space and attic,
under the beds and in the closets, the doujou and the roof.

Pots and pans and containers of thawing food lay
scattered around the kitchen, proof of blind desperation as
she'd emptied the cabinets and cupboards and ripped
everything out of the refrigerator, unable in her fear to dismiss
any possibility, no matter how absurd.

Her body shivered uncontrollably and tears streamed
down her cheeks. Akane was gone. She'd yelled at her. Akane
was gone. Over and over that single thought chased itself
around her mind. Akane was gone.

Papa was out getting more 'medicine'.

She'd yelled at her.

Could the neighbors help . . .she cringed, remembering
how Papa had yelled at Mrs. Oson when she'd tried to talk to
him about his 'medicine.'

Akane was gone.

The police . . .she knew what papa would say if she
called the police and her tears fell faster.

Akane was gone.

Mama was gone.

Papa was gone.

Akane was gone.

And she didn't know what to do.


"Can I have another bun?" Nabiki had learned to grab
what she could today, because tomorrow might not come.

Mechanically Kasumi moved to get another bun and
something crinkled in her pocket. Reaching inside she pulled
out a crumpled paper. Smoothing it out revealed a map.

*The puppy!*

"Get your coat," Kasumi commanded, reaching for her
own. Nabiki shrugged and grabbed her coat, pausing to stuff
the remaining buns into the pockets.

"Where we goin?"

"To get your sister." *Please Kami-sama.*

*****

It wasn't a very good map, done in a childish scrawl
on the back of a scrap of clinic stationary, but it was all she
had. She didn't even know Ayumi's last name. Only that she
was a girl Akane had met at the clinic, and she had a puppy.

"I'm tired," Nabiki whined, again. "I want to go
home."

"Not until we find Akane," Kasumi said patiently.
Nabiki was too young to be out this late, she thought guiltily,
never considering she was only two years older.

"Wait here a minute," she walked across the street and
bought a strawberry crepe and some tea, describing Akane to
the vendor and asking if he'd seen her. Getting a promise from
the man to have Akane wait by his yatai if he saw her, Kasumi
re-crossed the street and handed the treat to Nabiki.

"Wrr eee tmk buff?"

"Don't talk with your mouth full." Kasumi said
automatically, desperately scanning the streets.

"Why don't we take the bus?" Nabiki asked, washing
down the last of the crepe with some tea.

"Because the map isn't drawn with bus directions."
And because Akane had never traveled by bus before. She
fingered her own transit-pass nervously. The system was
confusing, even for seasoned travelers, which is why she had
to take Nabiki to and from school. If Akane _had_ managed to
get on a bus somehow, she could be anywhere. She might not
even be in Nerima, anymore.

"We just have to keep walking, until we find her." Or
find someone who had seen her. A little girl pulling a bottle of
oxygen shouldn't be hard to remember. But even if someone
_had_ seen her while she was walking (if she was walking)
they were long gone. Kasumi's best chance was someone who
would be on the streets and in one spot, like the man with the
yatai. But those old-fashioned vendors were few and far
between.

"I wanna go home." Nabiki dragged behind Kasumi,
really tired now. Kasumi was getting tired herself. Maybe she
should have left Nabiki at home, but the thought of letting
Nabiki out of her sight was too terrifying to even think about.

"It's not much further now," she coxed, not really
knowing herself far it was. "There will be puppies and cakes
and tea . . ." she enumerated all the treats in store.

"I'm tired." Nabiki said simply, not even caring about
snacks and Kasumi knew she was in trouble.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart. But just a little farther," she
pleaded, almost in tears. "Just a little bit, I promise." A chill
ran through her body as she caught a movement out of the
corner of her eye.

Across the street a samurai-in-miniature pulled a green
bottle of oxygen in a cart.

Step-drag-step-pause.

In her other hand she dragged a mesh grocery bag,
almost as big as she was, and much too heavy for her to lift.

Step-drag-step-pause.

A small step, drag the mesh-bag a pace, a tiny step,
then pause to rest.

"Akane?" Prayerfully.

"Akane!"

Dragging Nabiki by the hand Kasumi raced across the
street, heedless of traffic or pedestrians. "AKANE!"

"N . . .nee . . .sama?" Akane gasped, smiling in glad
surprise. "I . . .got . . ." her face was grey with exhaustion, and
the small bottle of oxygen had run out hours ago. " . . .gro . . .
ceries." She smiled hopefully. "I . . .help . . .too?"

Dazed, Kasumi looked in the shopping-bag, which she
recognized as her mothers. Inside was a package of rice, two
cups of instant ramen and an onion. And Akane's Lucky Kitty
purse.

"N . . .neesama?" Akane's hand went to the little
wooden sword at her waist as Kasumi fell to her knees,
sobbing. "Don't . . .cry . . .eesama. I . . .tect . . .you."



*****
*****

"Why can't I go too?" Akane complained.

"Because it's too dangerous," Tendo Soun, said
patiently. "And you're too young.

"I'm almost nine," Akane objected, indignantly. "And
Kasumi----"

"Kasumi is heir to the Musabetsu kakutou
Tendo-ryuu," Sound explained, not for the first time. "It is
her duty to compete in tournaments."

"But I want to watch! Nabiki gets to go."

"I'm the manager," Nabiki replied with the lofty
superiority of an older sister. "I have to take care of equipment
and hotels and paperwork and stuff."

"The trip would be too stressful for you," Soun
worried, "and this is a major competition. There will be a very
rough crowd there."

Nabiki rolled her eyes. Kasumi was in a girls twelve
and under competition. They wore padded armor, strikes to the
head and below the waist weren't allowed and the rounds
lasted three minutes with a one minute rest between. The
roughest fighters there would be some of the parents, and they
weren't allowed onto the mat. But Tendo Soun thought his
girls were made of spun sugar. When he was sober, at least.

"There really isn't much to see," Kasumi offered
softly.

"I want to watch you win, 'neesama." Akane cajoled,
hoping to win over the real head of the house.

"Oh, I'm afraid you would be disappointed. You've
won many more competitions that I have." She waved a hand
at the rows of trophies lining the wall.

"Swimming," Akane dismissed scornfully. "Power-
lifting. I'm a martial artist too!"

There was a moment of silence, then Soun exploded.

"NO! Absolutely not. I forbid it. Martial arts are too
dangerous for you." He would have said more, but Kasumi
intervened.

"We have to go now," She kissed Akane on the
forehead, "but Mrs. Oson has promised to look in while we're
gone. There's food in the kitchen and the emergency numbers
are pinned to the message board." A quick hug and she hurried
her father and Nabiki out the door, before they could agitate
Akane further. It wasn't good for her to get excited. Kasumi
had been reading about a new therapy in the magazines at the
doctors office that might help the inflamation in Akane's hip.
She'd have to make a trip to the library when they got back
and do some more reading.

Akane watched them walk down the street toward the
bus stop until they were out of sight. "They treat me like I'm a
baby," She muttered, limping back upstairs to her room where
she dragged her already packed suitcase from the closet.
Patting her pocket to make sure her money was secure she
headed out the door, ignoring the oxygen cylinder gathering
dust in the corner.


*****

Looking around the huge auditorium Akane
swallowed a little nervously. The train ride had been exciting,
although she'd missed a stop and had to double back, but that
meant she'd arrived a little late. It was so noisy and so big she
couldn't even see the other side. And there were two other
buildings! How was she ever going to find where 'neesama
was competing?

"Doujou?"

"What?" Akane jumped as a man sitting behind a
table spoke to her.

"What doujou are you with?" He gave a friendly smile
to the broad shouldered boy in jeans and sweat-shirt. Kid
looked like a weight lifter.

"T . . .Tendo. Musabetsu kakutou Tendou-ryuu!"
Akane stuttered.

"Tendou . . .Tendo . . .oh, here it is." He looked
down the list. "You only have Tendo Kasumi registered,
though." He pulled out a thick packet of papers. "You'll have
to fill these out first. Boy's Middle Division is in building
two-west."

"B . . .boy? But I'm -----" then the rest of his sentence
registered. "Competition?"

"You are here to compete?" He hesitated, the brown
envelope poised half-outstretched.

"Oh . . .oh YES!" She practically snatched the
envelope from his hand. "I'm here to compete!" Wouldn't
papa be surprised. He wouldn't teach her, but she peeked
through the door when 'neesama was doing kata and then
she'd practice on her own when no one else was around. This
would be her first chance to actually try out what she'd been
learning.

She looked at the papers in the envelop and frowned. It
had a lot of Kanji that she hadn't learned yet. She shrugged
and carefully printed her name at the top, filling out the parts
she understood and guessing at the rest. She really _meant_ to
ask someone to explain all the big words to her, but in the
excitement of her first ever martial arts competition, she
forgot.


*****

"You did very well, daughter," Soun told Kasumi
gruffly. "I am very proud of you."

"She was eliminated in the sixth round," Nabiki
complained, a bit peeved since she'd placed bets on the
assumption Kasumi wouldn't make it past the fifth round.

"But she didn't get hurt," Soun replied. "That's the
most important thing. You didn't get hurt," he asked
anxiously, "did you?"

"I'm fine papa," Kasumi assured him, a little sadly.
"I'm sorry I didn't win. I'll try harder next time."

"It's the fault of those judges," he complained. "I don't
know where they get these people."

"Yes, papa." Kasumi was too dutiful a daughter to
contradict her papa. But she just wasn't very good at sparring,
it was too noisy and competitive. She much preferred the
gentle quiet of 'Forms'.

A sudden roar attracted their attention.

"Hey," Nabiki looked at a sign on the wall. "Boys Full
Contact, Middle Division. Let's go take a look."

"Full contact," Soun said doubtfully. "I don't think it's
very proper for you to be seeing something like that."

Kasumi tended to agree. But Nabiki would like it,
which Kasumi always thought strange. Her sister couldn't be
coaxed onto the mat under any circumstances, but she enjoyed
watching martial arts. She saw Nabiki pull out her wallet and
check the contents. Of course, it might just be the betting she
enjoyed.

"I'm going to check out the suck . . .errrr . . .the
competitors. You get some good seats and I'll meet you in a
few minutes." Putting on her most innocent little girl face,
Nabiki prepared to hustle some proud, yet undiscriminating,
parents.

Edging their way down the isle Kasumi and her father
found two seats together and one across the isle, which
Kasumi claimed for Nabiki by resting her gym bag on it.

"This isn't good," Soun measured the competitors with
an expert eye, forgetting his earlier objections. "that smaller
boy's stance is all wrong." He pointed to a, dark haired boy in
a plain cotton gi. "His weight is too far forward, and the
placement of his left foot is all wrong."

"He does seem a little awkward," Kasumi agreed. "But
he _did_ make it to the finals." She watched a tall, whip-cord
lean boy in metallic-gold silk, glide forward with panther-like
grace. His opponent shuffled sideways like a lame bear. There
was something vaguely familiar about that clumsy movement,
and she wished they weren't sitting so far back.

"It's a disgrace," Soun muttered. "Having someone so
obviously unskilled competing. Probably political connections.
Just like your opponent."

"Oh, father."

"The only connection that guy has is at the end of his
arm." Nabiki showed up, arms full of snacks. At Kasumi's
chiding look she reluctantly shared some of her bounty with
father and sister. "That guy screwed up all the odds," she
informed them disgustedly, around a mouthful of chips. "No
one's taking any bets on anything now. Don't know much
about him, name's Kenny or Kaneda or something.
Latecomer," she washed down the chips with some cola, "not
on the program. But he's been blasting through the
competition. Not much style, but he's supposed to have a hell
of a left." Soun gave her a dark look, and Kasumi mouthed
'language', both of whom she ignored.

In the ring, the boy in gold lashed out with a spinning
high-kick which caught the dark-haired boy on the shoulder,
tumbling him across the matt.

"Not going to do him any good now, though." Nabiki
tapped her program with an index finger. "That's Yamoto
'Super Foot' Kenjiro. Age sixteen and he's won the
championship every year for four years. This is his last year in
the Middle division and he's a chinch to win this one." She
hated being at the mercy of 'wild cards' when she was betting.


And indeed it seemed to be over quickly, as Kenjiro
controlled the fight completely, hitting the other boy when and
where he willed. In a few short moments his opponent was a
battered, bleeding wreck and the referee halted the fight.

"Is it over," Kasumi asked hopefully, eyes closed
against the carnage.

"Only if he quits, can't continue or is knocked out,"
Nabiki replied ghoulishly. But, even when this guy got his
head broken, it wouldn't put money in her pocket. Gambling
on sports was profitable, but she needed something that would
pay off no matter who won or lost.

The smaller boy shook his head at something the
official said and the referee held up his right hand, indicating
the fight was to continue.

Kinjiro lashed out with a bewildering combination of
kicks and savage strikes, some of which his opponent caught
on his forearms, but many of which he blocked with his face.
Six times the dark haired boy went down, and six times he got
up. Twice the fight was stopped, and once a doctor came into
the ring to check his condition. His nose was mashed to one
side, his lips were split and bleeding and he peered through
two eyes that were black and swollen to mere slits, but he
wouldn't quit and he wouldn't stay down.

Kenjiro, untouched as yet, was feeling the effects of
his continuous all-out attack. He was drenched in sweat, his
uniform was disheveled and he was smeared in blood, albeit
all his opponents. Worse, some of the audience were beginning
to boo him. Why wouldn't that stupid boy stay _down_!

But Kenjiro hadn't progressed as far as he had by
being careless. Centering himself, he started his slashing
attacks, once more. It would take time, but eventually his
opponent would go down, or the officials would stop the
match and award it to him on points. It was less satisfactory
than a submission or knock-out, and there was a reluctance to
decide a full-contact match on points. But right now, he'd take
what he could get.

Half an hour later, Kenjiro was getting worried. He'd
never fought a match that lasted longer than fifteen minutes,
and fatigue was slowing him down. His opponent was still
slower , but the difference between them was narrowing ,
because his opponent continued to move in exactly the same
awkward but powerful manner he'd started the match. Time
was working against Kenjiro.

Putting some distance between them, Kenjiro
considered his options. He was nearing the end of his strength
and starting to get sloppy. A mistake could cost him the
match. He had to end this quickly.

Contrary to his trademark spinning high-kicks, he
went in fast and low, feinting with a savage side kick to his
opponents leg to force an opening, following with a spear-hand
to the belly that should have collapsed him like a burst
balloon.

Instead, it felt as if he'd hit a bag of wet clay. The
other boy looked at him for an instant, as if to ask 'is that
all?', then a rock hard fist hit him just below the heart.

A fireball exploded and Kenjiro felt his chest collapse
against his spine. The matt spun crazily and then he was
looking up at the ceiling while his brain bounced around in his
skull. Moments later blurry shadows blocked his view of the
ceiling tiles as the referee and doctor bent over him, mouths
moving. But he couldn't hear anything over the thunderous
pain, couldn't breath, couldn't scream-----


"Wow!" Nabiki came out of her seat, along with the
rest of the spectators, as 'Super Foot' flew through the air,
limbs flopping like a rag doll, hit the edge of the mat, and
bounced. There was a moment of stunned silence, then a roar
from the crowd as the doctor and referee ran to the fallen boy.

A few more moments and the referee held up his hands
for silence.

"Yamato Kenjiro, being unable to continue . . ." he
glanced questioningly at the doctor, who shook his head,
giving the official an 'are you crazy' look, " . . .being unable
to continue, this match has been decided by a knock-out! The
winner of the Boys, twelve to sixteen Full Contact Martial
Arts Competition" he took a deep breath " . . . representing the
Musabetsu kakutou Tendo-ryuu" He held up the dark haired
boy's hand----

"Tendo!" Soun shot out of his seat like a samurai-in-
the-box "What is this," he stormed down onto the mat. "I am
the Head of the Tendo-ryuu and this imposter----

"-----Tendo Akane!"

Soun skidded to a halt, a stunned look on his face,
similar to that of a toad under the wheels of a truck.

"My baby!" He whirled on the referee. "How could
you let this happen to my little girl!" he wailed.

"G . . .girl?" the official fell back a pace, stunned.
Looking at the powerfully built figure who had blasted his . . .
uhhh . . ._her_ way through the entire division, he stifled an
urge to ask Soun what made him think this was a girl. After
the first two wins by knock-outs (and one hasty forfeit) the
referee had decided the name Akane was some bizarre training
gimmick, like that American song about a Boy Named Soo.

"Hi papa!" Akane's battered face lit with a broad grin.
"Didja see me?" she slurred through puffy lips. "That was
_fun_! Kasumi?" Her face fell. "Oh no! Is your match over
already? I wanted to see you win."

"That's alright, Akane-chan," Kasumi said faintly.
"Your match was much more . . .interesting."

"So . . ." Nabiki's conversational tones carried over
the murmur of the crowd as she spoke with one of the judges.
"I'm thinking of writing this essay for Asian Martial Arts
Quarterly, about a nine year old girl who whips the boy's
middle division champion." She smiled cutely. "But, I thought
I'd offer you first option to buy it."

*****
*****

"Are you alright, Akane?" Kasumi looked worriedly
at her baby sister. At almost eleven years of age Akane's body
fairly glowed with energy and her densely packed
musculature was more powerful than many grown men.
Despite these outward signs, Kasumi still saw a frail child
who was left weak and gasping after a walk up the stairs.

"Hmmm," Akane's head swivelled excitedly back and
forth, afraid she might miss something. "What did you say?"

"I wondered if you were feeling ill. You look a little
flushed."

"She's just excited," Nabiki drawled, wondering if she
could sneak away long enough to lay down some sucker bets.
It was a sure thing that she could find a lot of people who'd
never seen Akane fight and would take long-odds on her sister.
"There are weapons to buy, bones to break, sweaty, muscular
half-naked boys to wrestle into submission."

"Nabiki!" Kasumi scolded. Sometimes she didn't
know what to do with that girl.

"Yeah, it's great," Akane enthused. Nabiki sighed as
Akane, once again, missed the point entirely. "I've seen some
really strong looking fighters. There's even an expert in Thai
Boxing."

"Well, this is Thailand," Kasumi murmured.

"Oh, yeah," Akane grinned sheepishly. "Anyway, he's
amazing, I watched him balance a stick on his foot, snap-kick
a twelve-inch thick oak plank in two, then catch the stick with
his toes before it hit the ground. He broke three bones in his
last fight!"

"His, or the other guys?" Nabiki asked, suppressing a
shudder. She didn't mind blood too much, as long as it was
someone else's. But breaking bones . . .she shuddered again.

"His opponents," Akane replied, seriously. "Thai
Boxing was supposed to be invented by King Naresuen of
Siam, that's modern Thailand," she said, face alive with
enthusiasm. "and it's got really strong high-kicks, but I'm not
very good at those," she admitted.

Shifting her weight, she lifted her right leg parallel to
the ground, pointing to a line of yellow callous just forming
along her shin. "And you build up your bones by smashing
them against trees and things until you can shatter your
opponents bones with a leg sweep-----"

"That's alright," Nabiki held up a hand. "I don't need
to know all the gory details."

"Oh," Akane sounded disappointed. "But it's a really,
really neat technique."

"Are you going to have to fight this . . .neat person?"
Kasumi asked, faintly.

"No," Akane kicked at the floor in frustration. "He's
in the senior heavy-weight division and they won't let me."
Kasumi hid a sigh of relief, knowing Akane wouldn't
understand her worries. "But he said he'd spar with me
tomorrow afternoon." She added, brightening up, not noticing
the sudden shadow that darkened Kasumi's eyes.

"Sorry I'm late," Tendo Soun came puffing up, a
large duffle clutched under his arms. "But the airport finally
found Akane's bag and I got us checked into the hotel."

"That's alright, father," Kasumi answered, gifting him
with a large smile. "Akane has had fun exploring. Would you
like some help with that?" She shifted one of her crutches to
her other hand and reached for the bag.

"NO," Soun flushed slightly as several people looked
his way, then said again in a more normal voice. "I mean, no,
I'm fine, Kasumi." He smiled, but couldn't meet her gaze, his
eyes instead straying in horrified fascination to the lightweight
cast on her left leg.

"Are you _sure_ you don't need any help?" Nabiki
asked in a carefully neutral voice. "You might slip and fall
down."

The blood drained from Soun's face and he looked
helplessly at his eldest daughter, afraid he would see
condemnation in her eyes, more afraid he would see
forgiveness.

"Are you mad about something, Nabiki?" Akane
asked worriedly, looking between her sister and her father.

"Nabiki is just a little tired from the trip," Kasumi
explained. "Why don't she and I get something for everyone
to eat while you and father go take care of registration."

"Yeah," Nabiki had the grace to look at her sister a
little shamefaced, "I'm just tired. "but her eyes held no
forgiveness for her father. "I'll see you two in a little while."
She hugged Akane. "Let me know if you see any good
prospects that might have been overlooked." She grinned at
her sister. "There's a new dress I've got my eye on, and if I
can play some short odds, I can clean up." She stood watching
her sister disappear down an escalator. Soun looked back over
his shoulder at his middle daughter, but she turned away,
refusing to meet his eyes.

"You should show more respect to father." Kasumi
chided gently as they started to explore for restaurants.

"Respect?" Nabiki snorted, " _him_!" She saw the
real hurt in Kasumi's eyes and instantly relented. "I'm sorry."

"He is trying, you know."

"I . . .Ok, he's trying." Nabiki was constitutionally
unable to understand how Kasumi could be so forgiving. At
least Akane got mad at people. Of course she got over it
almost instantly and neither she or Kasumi ever held a
grudge.

She, on the other hand, held a grudge until it died of
old age, then had it stuffed and mounted, "I'll try, too."
Nabiki linked arms with her older sister and together they
headed for the office complex. "Why don't we pick up some
beef bowl for Akane and father," she made a peace offering, to
Kasumi if not her father.

*****

"I think we're lost." Nabiki looked around in
frustration, balancing a stack of Styrofoam containers in her
arms.

"I think you're right," Kasumi searched for something
familiar, but all the signs were in Thai, which didn't help."but
we'll find our way back eventually," she added cheerfully.
"after all we can see the main concourse." She pointed over
the railing at the noisy throngs, two stories below.

"Yeah, great," Nabiki said sourly, juggling the hot
food containers. "now if we just had a couple hundred feet of
rope, we'd be in business." She could see tiny lines of strain
around Kasumi's mouth as her broken leg began to ache.
"Why don't you have a seat, while I scout around for a way
out." She'd tired to follow their footprints in the dust, back to
the elevator that had brought them to this floor, but somehow
she'd gotten them all twisted around.

"Oh, no. I'm sure we'll find a working elevator or an
open stairway soon."

"It's my fault," Nabiki said miserably. "I thought I
could save you from having to take the stairs, if we cut straight
across from the other building."

"Just think of it as an adventure," Kasumi patted
Nabiki on the shoulder. "Let's try that way," she pointed down
a corridor "maybe we can find our way back to the
restaurant."

*****

*Oneesama?* Akane watched the figure disappear into
the shadows, two levels above her head. *What are they doing
up there? Maybe they got lost.* she thought, limping toward
the fire-stairs. The door was unlocked, and the 'Under
Construction' sign was in Thai.

*****

:Well, well, and who are you?:

"E . . .excuse me," Kasumi said, bowing politely.
"But, we're lost. Could you please tell us how to get back to
the main concourse?" she spoke slowly, hoping she could
somehow make herself understood.

"Lost?" The man, thin to the point of emaciation,
twitched his coat into line. "Well, that's easy to do in this
maze. All the construction, exposed wiring, blocked stairs,
elevators not working. You could wander around for months
without seeing a living soul."

"Oh, you speak Japanese."

"Also English, Dutch, French and Mandarin." he
smiled, holding out a business card:
'Rim of Fire Import/Export. J. Pang, Pres.'.

"Jonathan Pang, call me Johnny. Let me help you with
that," he relieved Nabiki of her burden. "I think we can help
you find your way out."

"We?" Nabiki asked suspiciously.

"Just some friends of mine." Jonathan Pang smiled,
green eyes twinkling merrily as three men, one of them a giant,
stepped out of the shadows. "We were discussing some
business, when we heard you talking."

*****

"HaaaaCHOOO!" Gasping, Akane fumbled a
handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her streaming eyes.
The dust was terrible, but at least she had a trail to follow.
She just wasn't positive it had been made by her sisters. She
was trying to decide if she should go right or left, when the
faint murmur of voices made her pause. A sudden terrified cry
hit her like an electric shock and she sprinted down the
corridor toward the sound, ignoring the sudden burst of fire in
her leg.

*****

"Leave me _alone_!" Nabiki kicked futilely at the
giant who held her. "Let me go!"

Johnny Peng was in a good mood. He'd gone from a
shortfall, to being one-up, and his overhead on the deal was
zero.

He liked the looks of Nabiki. About twelve or
thirteen he judged. Young and frightened brought good prices.
Pity she was Japanese, though. European and American
brought the best money. The other one might be a problem.
The fetish market was difficult to judge and he wasn't sure if
he'd get more from a client who liked to play with cripples or
one who preferred to make them. He looked Kasumi up and
down, uncomfortable with the way she just stared into the
distance, as if he weren't there. If she went catatonic, she was
no good to him.

:Aaaaa! You bitch!:

Johnny whirled toward the scream to see the giant,
Qui, jerk away from Nabiki, who had sunk her teeth into his
wrist. One of the two men holding Kasumi started forward to
help him. As soon as he dropped her arm, Kasumi spun one
crutch as if it were a naginata, dropping the man holding her
other arm with a solid blow to the head.

"Nabiki, RUN!" She shifted her grip on the crutch and
threw it like a spear, catching the giant in the temple, forcing
him to release Nabiki entirely. Grasping her remaining crutch
as if it were a fighting-staff, he made a halting advance on
Peng, attempting to force him away from the door. Behind her
the other guard quickly reversed course, pulling a collapsible
baton from under his coat.

:Crap! I don't need this shit.: Easily avoiding
Kasumi's clumsy lunge, he glanced over his shoulder to see
the giant snag Nabiki by the arm and yank her into the air, one
huge hand drawn back to smash in the teeth that had drawn his
blood.

:NO, not the face!: Johnny yelled, seeing his profits
about to vanish under Qui's massive fist. The giant shifted his
target at the last minute and Nabiki folded around his fist,
falling to the ground, gasping and vomiting.

Satisfied that at least part of his profits were safe, for
the moment, he looked back to see Kasumi fall to the ground
as Chong clubbed her behind her good leg.

"KASUMI!"

*Ah, shit,* Johnny turned to see a dusty, disheveled
girl-child standing in the doorway, dress still swirling around
her legs from her run. *What is this, cripples on parade?* he
thought, looking at the heavy knee brace with revulsion. Well,
maybe she'd clean up nice and he could get a few dollars for
her. He opened his mouth to order Qui to grab her, and then
Jonathan 'Call me Johnny' Peng started to have a very bad
day.

The first thing Akane saw was Nabiki, curled in a fetal
position on the floor, sobbing. Then a man hit Kasumi. She
heard the meaty thwack of metal on bone, saw Kasumi's eyes
go dark with pain, the crutch fly from her hand. In slow
motion, she watched her sister crumple and fall to the ground,
like a broken butterfly. A loud screaming noise was coming
from someplace. Then it got very quiet and a red fog closed in
until all she could see was the man standing over Kasumi with
a club. She took a step------

With a scream, like a boiler explosion in hell, fifty-
three kilograms of fury burst into the room. Chong lashed out
reflexively at the shrieking thunderbolt, but his steel club
bounced off a rock-hard shoulder. He never had the chance for
a second blow, as iron-strong fingers grabbed him by the
throat and crotch and hurtled him through the wall. Or,
halfway through. Midway, he stopped a four-by-six with his
face and decided to take a little nap.

Qui was a master of Musti-Yuddha, Indian Boxing.
Six foot six, two hundred eighty pounds of meanness, he'd
killed nineteen men in single combat and once wrestled a ton-
and-a-half of Brahma-bull for a fifty-dollar bet, breaking it's
spine with a single blow.

He casually reached for Akane with a shovel sized
hand, unable to take an elementary-school girl seriously. Until
the school-girl twisted under his grappling hand and struck a
savage one-two combination into the nerve bundle under his
arm, a blow that would have stunned or crippled a normal
human. Qui only bellowed in pain and slammed back with a
Red-Tiger-Fist.

The blow spun her into the wall, snapping her collar
bone with a sound like a pistol shot. Qui grinned in
anticipation, waiting for the look of fear and pain he liked so
much. But Akane's look only said, *is that all you've got?*


Qui had a brief glimpse of fierce eyes, red with blood
from capillaries burst under an adrenalin surge, and then she
crashed into him like a wave breaking on the shore. He fought
back desperately, slamming her with body blows that would
have killed a man twice her size, but she shrugged it off and
came back for more, kicking, punching and tearing at his
flesh, until he felt like he'd stuck his head in a meat grinder.

Qui had a price on his head in three countries, he'd
finished off two knife fighters one-handed, holding his guts in
place with the other. He still carried three bullets in his chest,
from a Pakistani policeman who'd tried to arrest him, and a
two-dollar hooker in Jakarta had bitten off his right ear when
he'd tried to leave without paying. He still had his head on his
shoulders, his guts in his belly and he wore the ear on a chain
around his neck. He'd pistol whipped the cop with his own
gun.

Three minutes after Tendo Akane entered the room
he was crying for his mother and a minute after that, he hit the
ground, looking like something the cat threw up.

Johnny Peng dragged himself upright, from where
Akane's initial rush had thrown him, wanting nothing so much
in life as to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. He might have
made it too, if in his haste to escape he hadn't tripped over
Nabiki. Her cry of fright attracted Akane's attention, and
Jonathan 'Call me Screwed' Peng's last sight, before he woke
up in intensive care six weeks later, was of Tendo Akane
coming for him like a starving wolf after a rabbit.

@@@@@@@

"Things got a little . . .hectic after that. They could
hear Akane down in the main concourse----"

"They could hear her in Hokkaido," Nabiki
interjected.

"They heard her," Kasumi persisted, as if Nabiki
hadn't spoken. "And some people came. And then some more
people. And then the police and an ambulance-----"

"Photographers,"Nabiki added, "and souvenir hunters.
Don't forget them."

"A lot of people came," Kasumi continued doggedly,
"and took us all to jail."

"Jail!"

"You're presumed guilty until you can prove your
innocence in Thailand. Plus we were foreigners."

"Not just foreigners. Japanese foreigners." Nabiki
added with some remembered bitterness at their scornful
treatment.

"They eventually decided that Akane, Nabiki and I
were guilty----"

"Guilty!" Ranko exclaimed, "Guilty of what?"

"Apparently we lured Mr. Pang and his friends into a
secluded room in order to rob them."

Ranko laughed involuntarily, then stopped at
Kasumi's serious look.

"It does seem absurd now, but it wasn't very funny
when we went to trial."

"That's crazy!"

"Mr. Pang had some powerful friends. Friends who
would have been embarrassed if our story were believed."

"But, you won the case, right?"

"No," Kasumi said slowly, with remembered pain.
"We were found guilty and sentenced to thirty years, each."

Ranko shook her head in disbelief. "But, you got a
pardon or-----"

"Akane took the blame, for all of it, for all of us."
Nabiki said heavily. "That son-of-a-bitch was going to sell us
like whores, and our baby sister gets ninety years in jail for
saving us."

"Papa started calling in favors from old friends, from
the days before mo-----before he got sick."

"Kodachi helped," Nabiki added. "Tatiwaki too, he
wasn't quite as crazy then. Plus he wasn't about to let a 'pure'
Japanese girl rot in a foreign jail."

"Under Thai tradition, the King grants amnesty on his
birthday. Every five years." Kasumi pressed her fingers
against her temples. "We were really quite fortunate. Akane
only had to spend fifteen months in jail."

Onna-Ranma wanted to throw up. He'd once spent
three _days_ in a Burmese jail, which were considered holiday
resorts compared to their Thai equivalents. He'd sworn an
oath to God, to kill Genma and feed his body to wild pigs if
he _ever_ did anything that even looked like it would land him
in a Burmese jail again.

"Akane was . . .different when we finally got her back.
She didn't like to be touched."

Ranko gasped, the blood draining from her face.

"NO!" Kasumi correctly interpreted Ranko's reaction,
having had the same nightmare. "She was never . . .that is we
don't think----"

"She wasn't raped,"Nabiki said baldly, and with
absolute conviction. "Or they'd still be trying her for murder,
assuming they could find any body parts big enough to use as
evidence against her. But I don't think they were very . . .nice,
to her."

"I think almost the worst part was when they banned
her from competition." Ranko shook his head in disbelief.
"Because of her prison record," Kasumi explained. "But she
was reinstated last year."

"As long as she stays out of trouble." Nabiki added
bitterly. "I suppose we should all apologize for not letting
ourselves be raped and murdered."

"It doesn't do any good to hate," Kasumi said gently.

"Oh yes it does," Nabiki disagreed hotly. "And one of
these day's I'm going to cut that bastard Peng's balls off and
make them into earrings." Kasumi put a calming hand on her
arm and Nabiki subsided, breathing heavily.

"Akane was always . . .well, she really believed all the
stories father used to tell her about Martial Artists protecting
the weak" Kasumi continued, "and heroic samurai defeating
the evil shogun, protecting the oppressed villagers . . ."
Kasumi paused a moment, trying to find the right words.
"After she . . .after she was home, it was as if nothing else was
_real_ anymore, except the doujou. And us. It was months
before she'd let us out of her sight. "And she was a little, over
protective."

Nabiki's lip curled at that understatement. "A little?
Some salaryman groped me on the subway . . ."

"He was just a little drunk," Kasumi explained.

"He sobered up when Akane broke all his fingers and
three ribs. And what about the gas man?"

"Oh dear. I don't think . . ."

"We weren't able to pay the gas bill one month and the
meter-man tried to take it out in 'trade'."

"I don't think Ranko wants to hear----"

Ranko did, and nodded vigorously for Nabiki to
continue.

"Akane and I walked in the door just as he put his
hand up neechan's skirt." Kasumi moaned in embarrassment.
"It's really amazing how he learned to feed himself with his
feet." Nabiki grinned nastily.

"But she's _much_ better now," Kasumi said, though
Ranko wasn't sure who she was trying to convince. "She's
captain of the swimming team, class president and she gets
good grades."


Nabiki felt a little chill at Kasumi's words.

"Akane has been doing so well lately, and she's so
excited about competing in the next All Japan
Tournament . . ." Kasumi pressed her hands together beneath
the table to still their trembling. "She's been doing so well.
Things are going to be just fine. Just fine."

"Hey," Ranko chirped, using the 'I'm a pal you can
trust' smile Genma had beat into Ranma over a sixth month
period. "I think she's doing great." Kasumi and Nabiki looked
at her with expressions of mixed disbelief and hopefulness.

"She's a martial artist, right? These guys broke into
her home, attacked her sister . . .and she took care of business.
End of story."

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

1