Chapter: 20


"I've got a surprise for you," Ranko said as Kasumi
unwound the bandages from Akane's eyes.

"Oh?" Blinking, even in the dim light of the doujou,
she looked around at her sisters, whom she hadn't seen in a
week. "what kind of surprise?"

"Just wait right here," Ranko grinned, "I've got to run
some errands and take care of things at home," Ranko said,
trotting toward the main gate. "So I'll see you later."

The Tendo sisters watched her turn the corner as she
passed the gate.

"You took your time getting here." They heard Ranko
berate someone out of sight.

"Sorry," Ranma answered. "I lost track a' time. See ya
later."

"Where have you been?" Nabiki asked as the pig-
tailed martial artist trotted into the doujou.

"Oh dear, you're all wet." Kasumi exclaimed,
reaching for a towel.

"Yeah," Ranma accepted the towel with a brief word
of thanks and started rubbing his head vigorously. "Some ol'
lady was washin' down her sidewalk an' I got splashed." He
tossed the towel in the corner and turned to Akane, missing
Kasumi's slight moue of displeasure at his carelessness. "I've
been tryin' to track down that crazy monk," he answered
Nabiki. "an I didn't want him showin' up around here.
Haven't seen him for a while, an' Ranko asked me to stop by
if I thought it was safe." He ruffled Nabiki's hair in passing,
which she enjoyed, much to her own annoyance, then stopped
in front of Akane, who was still heavily bandaged, long strips
of skin peeling from her face and chest as if she'd had a bad
sunburn.

"Boy, you look like crap," Nabiki and Kasumi both
bristled at Ranma's derisive tone, but Akane seemed to take it
in stride.

"I got careless," She admitted. "I'd have been in real
trouble if that guy had counterattacked."

"Nah," Ranma circled her, making a close
examination. "Ranko tol' me all 'bout it. Stuff like 'Dragon's
Breath' is just as dangerous to the user. Ya only use it when
you're neck deep in shit an' there's a elephant with diarrhea
headed your way."

"Are you saying I'm fat?" Akane glared at Ranma
with mock fierceness.

Ranma looked at her blankly for a second, then
backpedaled as understanding dawned. "No, no. I didn' mean
nuthin like----" he stopped abruptly as he saw the twinkle in
Akane's eyes. "Very funny. I mean that guy wouldn't a used it
if he hadn't been afraid of you. Anyway, I thought you might
like to work out a little."

"Really!" Akane's face lit up like a neon-sign. "That's
great!"

"I don't think-----" Kasumi began, doubtfully.

"Oh, please, 'neesama!" Akane turned pleading eyes
on her older sister. She slapped her stomach with a sound like
hitting an oak barrel. "I'm starting to get soft with all this
laying around."

"Why do want to work out with Akane now," Nabiki
asked suspiciously. "You think you can beat her now and that
will take care of the engagement?"

"Huh?" Ranma looked at Nabiki, genuinely puzzled
for an instant. "Oh, that." He waved his hands dismissively as
he suddenly understood. "Nah, this is just training. If I'm
gonna be a sensei someday I need to be able to teach."

"Why Akane, why now?" Nabiki persisted.

"Well," Ranma tilted his head to one side. "She's
bored enough that she might actually listen to me, an' she's
got a lot of bad habits to unlearn; so if I can teach her somthin'
I can teach anybody."

"HEY!" Akane stomped up to Ranma, fairly glowing
with anger. "What do you mean by that crack?! I'm a martial
artist. A good one and you can't-----"


"Hit me." Ranma said mildly. Akane looked at her
bandaged arms for an instant, then lashed out at Ranma's
midsection.

"Not full power," Ranma chided as he slid away from
the blow. "You're liable to hurt yourself while you're still
healin'. Try again', but jus' tap me."

Akane's lips curled in a snarl, then, with a shuddering
effort she relaxed. "Just a tap." Her bandaged fist shot out like
a pile-driver, impacting Ranma's chest with the force of a
butterfly's kiss.

"Hold it," Ranma ordered, circling her statue-like
pose, examining her for faults. "Ok, take your stance again."

Akane settled into her favored Mountain-Bear stance,
flinching slightly as Ranma began to reposition her feet.

"Not bad," he kept up a running commentary as he
moved her like a puppet, "but you're not gettin' full power,"
he slid her trailing foot back a fraction, "an' you're a little
over-extended at th' end." he regarded her forward foot,
altered the position a fraction, then resumed his place in front
of her.

"How's that feel."

"It feels funny," Akane complained. "like I'm going to
fall over."

"Good," Ranma nodded in satisfaction. "you were
too . . ." he searched for the right word, "stable, before."

"How can you be _too_ stable?" Nabiki wanted to
know.

"A statue is stable," Ranma answered, "but it can't
punch worth a shit." He looked at Akane. "Now try again."

"Hey!" Akane looked startled as her fist impacted, as
lightly as before, but Ranma grunted slightly. "Hey, that's
amazing."

"Heh. Bein' strong ain't enough. I can show ya a
buncha other stuff, if you're interested."

*****

"O . . .Oh . . .kay," Akane panted, body drenched in
sweat. "I . . .give . . .up." She staggered over to the wall and
sank awkwardly to the ground.

"Se . . .ee. Sp . . .speed. Speed is . . .ev . . .everything,"
Ranma sucked air in great gulps.

"I . . .I knew I was . . .slow," Akane wiped her face
with a towel Nabiki threw her, "but I never . . . knew how
slow."

"Ya . . .ya didn' . . .thanks," he smiled at Kasumi as
she handed him a cup of water, "didn' do too . . .bad." He
shrugged off the coat he'd borrowed for speed training Akane
and it hit the ground with a clank.

Akane eyed the fifty-kilo garment and her face twisted
in a sour smile. "Not _too_ bad? If . . .if you had . . . hadn't
had . . .handicap . . ." She puffed breathlessly for a moment,
trying to get her breath. No one had ever worn her out before.
"If you hadn't been carrying that weight . . .," she spread her
hands, palm upwards with a shrug.

"You just need to retrain your muscles," Ranma
replied, recovering more quickly than his opponent. "Your
bulk is slowin' you down. You need to work on your
technique, stop bein' so sloppy. And . . .," he jerked a thumb at
her brace.

Akane stared at him, eyes dull with disappointment.
"The knee is about shot. I guess I can improve my technique,
but . . .the rest?"

"Can be fixed," Ranma said with complete confidence.
"Technique just need a lot of hard work. Retrain for speed,
and you'll still be strong. Stronger, 'cause the same punch will
hit faster." He sank down beside her, resting a calloused palm
on her knee. "An' I know a few tricks that will help this." He
grinned a cocky grin, and was rewarded by with a shy smile in
return.

*Piece o' cake,* he thought, smugly. "by th' time pops
gets back, it'll be th' Saotome Doujou, an' we'll get enough
cash ta head back to China.* He stole a glance at the girl
resting beside him, eyes closed, head resting against the
hardwood wall. Watching the pulse beat in the vulnerable
hollow of her throat he felt a brief and unaccustomed twinge of
pain as his long unused conscience stirred briefly. He soothed
it with the sure knowledge that Akane could never run a
doujou. No one would take lessons from a freakishly strong
cripple, no matter how many prizes she won. And her
technique was rudimentary at best, and so sloppy that he was
really doing a service for her future students and the art itself,
by taking the doujou from her.

*Pop will be really proud,* he unknowingly voiced
the most important argument. *when he gets back and sees
what I've done. Pop will be proud of me.*


*****
"You are Fukubashi Nodoka?" The melodious voice
cut through the babble of the restaurant.

A woman looked up from scrubbing the floor,
brushing back a strand of prematurely grey hair with the back
of her gloved hand.

"Wife of Saotome Genma? Mother of Saotome
Ranma?" The questioner persisted, reaching to pull the
woman from the floor.

"G . . .Genma?" A look of hope, mixed with dread
from too many years of disappointment fluttered over her face.
"Ran-ma?"

"What's going on here?" Nabetoyo Saburo, owner and
manager of 'Autumn Flower ' bustled into the back, flabby
cheeks suffused with anger. "Get back to work!" He snapped
at his floor scrubber. "The honorable foreigner would be more
comfortable in another establishment, perhaps." He suggested
without even a pretense of apology.

Saburo only hoped none of his regular patrons had
seen this person enter. Chinese by the manner of dress, and
therefore marginally acceptable, but Saburo had made his
reputation by aggressively maintaining the purity of his
clientele and workers. Even his floor-scrubber, he sneered
slightly as she cringed away from him, was of the highest
bloodline, though fallen on hard times.

"The honorable customer," a slender hand emerged
from long flowing sleeves, "wishes not to be disturbed by the
grunting of pigs," and gestured. Four husky men instantly
appeared, grabbed Saburo and hustled him out the back door.
His angry squeals of protest were beginning to carry into the
front of the restaurant when a heavyset man wearing dark
glasses, stepped from the shadows and flashed a gold stylized
chrysanthemum blossom. The Imperial Seal shut Saburo's
mouth as if someone had garrotted him and brief snatches of
conversation from Dark-Glasses could be heard as the door
closed behind them . . . "imbecile . . . diplo . . . immunity
. . .every courtesy . . .immun . . . prosecut . . .if . . . cut off
your . . ."

"I have a car outside, Nadoko-sama. Perhaps we could
discuss your husband and son over tea?"

The prematurely aged woman flushed with pleasure at
being so kindly addressed and allowed herself to be lead to a
waiting Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, bearing diplomatic plates.

*****
"Would you quit following me around?" Nabiki
glared at Ukyo, slouching along beside her, steroid-enhanced
spatula bobbing slightly in the sheath strapped across his back.

"Uhuh," he smothered a yawn with the back of his
hand, "I figure if I stick about you long enough, I'll run into
Ranma or Genma." He'd spent all night crouched on a
rooftop, watching the doujou in case either of them showed up.

Nabiki wondered which kami she'd so offended in a
previous life that she would get stuck with this idiot in this
one. "Look, if I knew where Genma was, I'd gift wrap him for
you."

"And Ranma?"

"I'll throw him in for free." She flushed at Ukyo's
look and continued a little defensively. "Ranma's cute, but
he's not worth the trouble. You, that crazy guy in the monks
outfit, some guy in robes and a bunch of street people and
Kuno's bunch." Ukyo looked amazed at the litany, since he
was only peripherally aware of even some of these events.

Nabiki shook herself, like a dog coming out of the
water. "Akane could have been killed, Kasumi was hurt, our
house trashed and father . . .father's not feeling well." Or that
was as good an excuse as any, since no one had seen him in
days. "So, yeah, I'd give them both to you, or to the monk or
I'd just toss them in the recycling-bin. 'Cause they're not
worth the hassle."

"What happened to 'he's a guest' and 'a fight with a
Saotome is a fight with a Tendou'?" Ukyo mimicked.


"You have me confused with my sister," Nabiki
shifted her bag to her off hand, furthers away from Ukyo so
she could get a good swing if she decided to smack him, "she's
the one still living in the middle-ages."


"Yeah, I hear you're a very modern girl. Pachinko and
slot machines, a little book-making, some vending machines,
even a few 'art' pictures of your sisters." Ukyo looked
thoughtful. "So, how much for you to sell out the Saotomes?"

There was a pile of broken concrete lying next to the
drainage ditch and Nabiki wondered briefly how Ukyo
would look wearing one of the larger chunks.

"Here," she came out of her daydream to see him
holding out a jagged lump of concrete, a big grin on his face.

"What's that for?"

"You wanted to brain me with it, didn't you? No?" He
tossed the lump into the air. At it's apex there was a flash of
light and the stony material exploded in a cloud of dust.
Bemused Nabiki watched him wipe the large paddle-bladed
pole arm with a square of silk, then re-sheath it on his back.

"You must be a riot at parties," Nabiki groused,
mildly impressed in spite of herself. "can you do card tricks?"

"Don't underestimate me, just because you got lucky,
once." The rounded the corner of a building, almost perfectly
in step, and saw the clock-tower of Fuurinkan High School in
the near distance. About fifty yards in front, Ranko and
Akane were slowly making their way toward the school gates.

"You look like hell," Ukyo broke away from Nabiki
and moved alongside the two, with Ranko on the far-inside,
nearest the fence that ran alongside the drainage canal, leaving
Akane sandwiched in the middle. "what happened?"

"None of your business," Nabiki smacked him on the
back of the head as she caught up with them. "What are you
doing out here?" she directed at her sister. "The doctor told
you not to come back to school for at least three more weeks."

"I was getting bored, sitting around the house all day."
Akane peered at her sister through the sunglasses that had
replaced the bandages. "And I'm only going by to check on
the swimming club and grab some class notes so I can catch up
on what I've missed."

"Looks like the Tendo watch-bitch is toothless right
now," Ukyo ran a finger along the bandages that swaddled
Akane's left arm. "what would you do if you had to fight
someone?"

"I couldn't fight." Akane said simply.

"Oh?" Ukyo reached for his uber-spatula, intending
to tease the girl a bit, when Nabiki grabbed his arm, nearly
yanking it from the socket.

"Well, you two have fun," She called over her
shoulder. "Don't let her overdo it," she instructed Ranko, "and
make sure she takes her medicine."

"What was that for," Ukyo groused, rubbing his sore
shoulder.

"Don't you know anything?-----If I am strong, I beat
my enemies," she quoted, "if I am weak, I must kill them."


"What does that have to do with-----owwww!"

"Idiot!" Nabiki tried to shake some feeling back into
her hand.

"My head is _not_ a punching bag."

"Well, it's not good for much else. Look stupid,
Akane's injured. So she's not going to feel like she has the
latitude to take chances with you."

"Huh? But I was just teas-----"

"I know that, but she's still living in the feudal ages
and she sees herself as the loyal samurai retainer. If you'd laid
hand on that damn blade, she'd have broken your back in
three places, ripped your head off and played soccer with it."

"Oh, come on. No one would-----" his voice trailed off
at the deadly serious look in Nabiki's eyes. "would they?" he
finished weakly.

"Didn't you notice how she moved to keep herself
between you and Ranko? And how she dropped back, just
slightly, into your blind spot when I came up on your other
side?"

Ukyo shook his head, blankly and Nabiki resisted the
urge to smack him again. "How do you expect to beat Genma
and Ranma if you miss simple stuff like that? Akane could
see you move, and you'd lose time trying to find her, if you
attacked. That gave her a big advantage." She thought for a
moment. "How come you haven't been arrested for . . .that?"
she jerked a thumb at the uber-spatula.

"I have a permit to carry it."

Which meant he'd bribed someone, or knew someone,
or knew someone, who knew someone. Nabiki understood
how the game was played, she played a little herself.

"Well, aren't you the clever little boy," she was
pleased to see Ukyo flush at her tone, "now, why don't you
look over at the corner?"

Ukyo followed her pointing finger, to see a roasted
sweet-potato vendor, set-up just outside the gates to
Fuurinkan. Which was strange, since this wasn't the season
for roasted sweet-potatoes. He thought he saw a flash of colour
at the man's cuff and collar.

"Yakuza?" The tattoo's were an almost certain
giveaway, but he wanted to be sure. "What makes me believe
that the Yakuza would pay any attention to a school girl like
you?"

"They wouldn't," Nabiki answered candidly. "But his
grandmother," Nabiki explained, "went to school with my
grandmother . . .and his mother went to school with my
mother," Ukyo was beginning to look a trifle uneasy. "So,
you might want to avoid doing anything that would upset
grandmother or mother." She smiled sweetly, as she left
Ukyo at the gates staring sourly at the sweet-potato vendor,
before he turned away from the school and vanished into the
crowded streets.

"Hi Nabiki!" Kimiko came running up, braids flying
in the wind. "Have you seen the roasted sweet-potato vender?"
She pointed at the heavyset man. "I've never seen one this
early in the year. I wonder who he is?"

"Never seen him before." Nabiki answered. "We'll
have to buy something from him at lunch, to make him feel
welcome."

*****

"How was that?" Akane stepped back from the heavy
bag, wiping the sweat from her brow with the back of her
sleeve. "My high kicks have always been weaker than I would
like, but . . ." she slapped her knee brace lightly, then
shrugged.

"Ummmm . . ." Ranma, watching silently from the
sidelines while Akane went through her repitoir of attacks,
unfolded from the floor with cat-like grace. "Well . . .it's
kinda hard to say. Ya see, we've got different styles." He
moved to stand in front of the bag, automatically settling into a
relaxed Black-Tiger stance. "I like speed," his arms blurred
into action, hitting the tough canvas so quickly that it sounded
like a continuous dull rumble, until the side burst open and
sand spilled onto the floor, "an' technique. You," he walked
back to Akane, who he noted was staring at the ruined bag
with gratifying admiration, "like brute-force an' meanness."

Akane tore her gaze from the slightly scorched hole in
the bag and looked at Ranma. "Hey, my technique's pretty
good. I've won-----" her voice trailed off under Ranma's
steady gaze. "Ok, what's wrong with my technique?"

"Some people," Ranma said judiciously, "_say_ they
want to hear the truth, but they really want someone to tell
them how good they are."

"I want the truth!" Akane snapped.

"A'right," Ranma ticked points off on the fingers of
his right hand, "you're overextending when you punch or
kick, ya got sloppy recovery." Akane's face tightened with
anger, but Ranma ignored the signs of an incipient storm.
"Ya're not reloadin' right, so your follow-up strikes are slow
and weak, cause you're off balance. Ya ain't got no defense at
all-----"

"That's not true!" Akane stomped forward. "My
defense is plenty good."

"Yeah?" Ranma's look made her flush angrily.
"Which style teaches ya to block a punch with your face?"

"I get the job done," she muttered angrily, looking
everywhere but at him.

"I can show ya how to get th' job done faster an'
better."

"I don't need your fancy stuff." the muscles in her jaw
bunched. "I almost had you when we fought last time."

"Alright," Ranma shrugged, turning toward the door.
"why don't we see what's in the kitchen for dinner." He
stepped past her and slouched in the direction of the house.

"Wait." The single syllable was dragged out of her,
like a barbed-wire breach-birth.

"Yeah?"

"Maybe . . .maybe I do have a few problems. Would
you," Akane struggled to get the words past the noose that was
suddenly strangling her, "please give me some-----help."

"Ok."

With that single, offhand comment, Akane felt the
noose relax from around her throat.

Ranma watched a variety of emotions chase
themselves across Akane's face, before she finally settled into
a neutrally friendly expression. But he could see a soft ember,
warmly glowing deep inside her eyes.

*I am _so_ good,* he thought smugly. 'Course it
didn't hurt that girls were so gullible.

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

1