I hate the jungle. It's hot, humid, there's a million bugs and it's wet. All the jungle missions my special ops team had gone on had been pure hell, with me trying to keep from getting soaked by monsoon showers, waterfalls or just an occasional payload of water down my neck if I happened to be walking under a broad-leafed tree after rainfall.
Sure, at least here and now I didn't have to hide my curse from anybody, but the bugs...
I slapped a mosquito to a bloody splat on my neck as I stared down at Akane and Dr. Tofu slumped on the ground, huddled together like two survivors after the storm. Akane seemed to be unaware that her cheeks were shiny with tears, soaking into the shoulder of Dr. Tofu's thin tunic. Or if she knew, she didn't care. For just a moment, her shoulders sagged, her expression was peaceful, and I had the oddest sensation that a great weight had been lifted from her. The sensation was odd because until now, I hadn't realized that weight was there- invisible, but riding her like a demon.
It made me wonder what else I'd missed. It wasn't a feeling I liked.
I had to hand it to her, though, Akane didn't rest on her laurels long. She took about a minute to absorb that she'd really found Dr. Tofu, then drew back to look up at Kalia, determination in her eyes, and said, "We still have to find Jain."
I couldn't help the reluctant smile that curled my mouth. Attagirl.
One of the tiny village women stopped in the doorway, and rattled off something in their native language. I took one look at her and hastily raised my eyes to the grassy roof of the tiny hut. All these women walking around in loincloths left a lot of skin uncovered, and I could tell by the warmth in my cheeks that I was flushing.
I was starting to get an inkling of why Akane had bashed me over the head all those years ago in high school every time I'd skipped wearing my tank-top and let the girls hang out. They were an awesome distraction, but extended exposure could fry the male brain.
"Breakfast?" Dr. Tofu repeated so the rest of us could understand. The bespectacled object of our search hadn't changed all too much, which said something about the man, considering all the crap he must have gone through with that Brazilian bastard Djavan.
He'd sat back from Akane, which relieved the part of me that didn't like her too close to any other guy, regardless of who it was, and stared up at the woman, kind of a tough feat considering that even kneeling, he almost came up to her eye level.
She chattered again. "They want you to stay and have breakfast," Dr. Tofu translated."The Corvu have now determined that you're guests, and you can't be allowed to leave the village without partaking of their food."
Akane sent me a frustrated glance, like she thought I had some sorta magical solution. I snorted, dispelling that idea immediately. "Do I look like the Ann Landers of Amazonian Village etiquette?"
Akane shook her head. "We can't afford to lose time," she said worriedly. "Jain is still out there."
"Who is Jain?" Dr. Tofu asked, looking puzzled. "Is he one of your martial arts friends?"
"He's just a kid!" Akane replied sadly, just as Kalia chimed in, "He's my son." The monk looked calm as ever, but he had to be worried on the inside. I knew we all were.
I pitched in the point I thought was most relevant. "Djavan has him." And wanted to use him like a human map. And what did you do with maps once you didn't need them any more? You crushed them and tossed them in the nearest waste disposal unit.
Dr. Tofu drew a deep breath. "Do you know where he is?"
Kalia, Akane and I looked at each other. "Not really," Akane confessed.
Dr. Tofu looked thoughtful. "If he's with Djavan, I may be able to help, but we should think this through carefully, and it couldn't hurt to do it over a meal."
I took a deep breath and switched my attention to Akane and Kalia. "Dr. Tofu's right. We have no idea where Djavan and his crew are right now. Dr. Tofu's probably our best link to them, and we need to have a plan to get him back. But..." I looked at Kalia, at the hidden tension in his normally serene face. "Kalia, man, the final choice is yours. If you wanna go after him right now, I'm with you. You saved Akane's life back in the river, and I owe you for that." I could see Akane's eyes widen with surprise out of the corner of my eye, but I continued to stare at Kalia.
The monk looked down at his folded arms, deep in thought. Then he looked up, his tiger eyes glinting. There was a new emotion there- hope. "We monks of the Green Tiger temple believe in certain wari- signs, and I believe this," he indicated the hut around him with a palm, "is a sign. That one in my group has succeeded in her own mission gives me faith that I'll succeed in mine." He bowed his head towards Akane. "If it's all right with you, Akane, we will eat and plan."
Akane nodded wordlessly, and the village woman chattered at Tofu again, this time slanting a glance up at me. Dr. Tofu switched his attention to me. "Ranma, Alinga here would like your help in preparing for breakfast."
I started. "My help? Doing what, spearing piranhas?" What did these people eat for breakfast anyway?
Akane scowled. "Just go with her, Ranma. Kalia and I will fill Dr. Tofu in on everything. The faster we eat, the faster we can leave."
"Fine." I huffed and followed the woman, Alinga, out of the hut into the sunshine. She was about the height of your average, run-of-the-mill Japanese obaa-san, which meant the top of her little bun just about hit me at shoulder level. She collected two more young women as she walked, both of whom stared at me with fascination and chattered away between themselves.
I felt another presence to my left, male. "They wonder how you went into hut girl and came out man," said the presence, and I turned to see a brown-skinned village man, not much taller than Alinga, walking with us. Weirdly, he was talking Japanese, not great, but passably. "And why the other woman's hair so short. Wonder which of you is real woman."
I burst out laughing at that, surprising all of them. "Oahhh, you wouldn't...haha...understand...why that's...funny," I gasped, remembering all my battles to prove myself a 'real man'. For some reason his comment had struck me as hilarious. I gave a final chuckle and straightened. "Don't worry, sometimes I wonder that myself." I turned and winked at the women. "For right now I'm all man, ladies." Although they didn't understand my words, the two younger ones giggled at my smirk, and Alinga scolded them.
"How is it you speak Japanese?" I asked my translator. He spat in disgust, startling me with the vitriolic reaction.
He glared up at me. "Is because of the Hyena. Ikoko and his men, none want to speak our language, but attack our village and force us to serve them. Then few of us forced to learn their language. I, Mandu, learn also."
I frowned, walking along with them in silence. That whole crew of Djavan's had just about gotten on my last nerve. And I blamed myself for letting them take Jain. I should have anticipated an ambush, but I'd been distracted by his mercenary interest in my female body. We could have been on our way back to Manaus with in tow by now. If only.
"How does Djavan get around this place?" I asked, looking around the deep green jungle. As far as I could tell, the place was a maze of swamps and hidden waterways. If it weren't for my training, I would never have even guessed there were people in the jungle, back when Akane, Kalia and I were walking along the river.
"He has local guide," Mandu replied, and turned to spit again. "Boy from other village, far away. Taught Djavan how to live with the river."
I pondered that as we walked. If Djavan had a local guide, would that guide be better able to understand the map on Jain's back? I was about to ask more, when everyone stopped. I looked around. We were in front of a tall tree with no branches. It just went straight up like a telephone pole.
"What are we doing here?" I asked.
Mandu pointed up at the tree, and I followed his gaze. A hornet's nest was nestled against the bark half way up the tree. A few hornets crawled outside it, but not many. "You're kidding me." I stared.
One of the young women slipped a woven grass blanket off her shoulder and offered it to me, gesturing up towards the nest. I shook my head at her. "Wait, you want ME to bring down the hornet's nest?" I backed away slightly. Hornets were unpleasant. The buzzing nest stirred up unpleasant memories of doing my best to stun bees as part of my training back in Nerima, and...Wait, what were they going to do with them? Were they going to eat them? I gagged.
Alinga chattered at me. Mandu smiled and translated. "You are tallest. It is easiest for you. You climb tree, throw blanket over nest."
Yeah, well...I may be tall, but I damn sure didn't like creepy little insects with stingers. I took a deep breath. Okay, no need to panic. It really wouldn't be that hard. And it wasn't.
I grabbed the blanket and stepped back a few feet. Alinga and the rest looked askance at me, but I just stared up at the nest. "Okay, here goes." I leapt from a standing position, not easy, but I'd been training for years after all...ten feet, fifteen feet, twenty feet...there! I'd judged it exactly. I bent catlike in the air as I snagged the blanket around the nest at Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken speed, and fell back to the ground to land lightly, holding the bag as far away from me as possible.
A single hornet escaped the blanket and began to buzz towards one of the young women. My index finger whipped forward in reaction, and the hornet fell stunned back into the blanket.
"For you." I returned the bag with a short bow to the girl who'd given it to me. She took it from me, wide-eyed. Mandu looked too astonished to talk. I smiled at them. "Anything else?"
Akane stood beside me and watched in horror as the village women tossed the contents of the blanket into a large cast-iron pan on an open fire. A few hornets escaped and flew around dizzily, but the smoke from the fire soon enveloped them. The toasted bits of hornet and nest were then broken up with giant pestles, and then further crushed.
"That's breakfast?" Akane asked faintly, looking green.
"Of course not, Akane!" Dr. Tofu said robustly beside her. As she exhaled, he added, "It's a small part of breakfast. They'll grind that into a paste which is a condiment to various roots which they dig up and steam. Quite tasty really."
Akane turned on her heel and stepped away hastily. Dr. Tofu and I shared a grin of male cheer over her quickly disappearing head.
Dr. Tofu was right. The meal actually wasn't unpleasant.
"It's kinda like…hm, crunchy guacamole," I said, consideringly. I chewed a little more. Yeah, I'd had worse.
Akane glared at me. "I don't want to hear your commentary on my food, Ranma," she ground out between bites. I grinned at her, and she made a face back at me.
"Okay, then," I said, "let's talk about how to get Jain back. I assume you filled Dr. Tofu in on what we've been up to for the past few days?"
Akane nodded, as did Dr. Tofu, a small frown between his brown eyebrows. "Indeed, Ranma, and it's all been a lot to take in. Everyone back home in Japan thinks I'm dead. And I've been working for a druglorddrug lord for the past three years!" He shook his head, clearly baffled by it all. "Nevertheless, yes, it's clear we must rescue Jain. I don't know how to find Djavan, but I know who does." He glanced at Akane and Kalia, who were watching him hopefully. "We've discussed this. I have a contact in Djavan's camp. However…" He paused and looked up. "I'm only supposed to contact him if I ever come up with the potion of youth for Djavan."
"Hmm," I muttered, working through it. "So you're planning to call this contact and tell him you have the potion? You're hoping Djavan wants it so badly that he'll drop everything, including his treasure hunt, and come get you?"
"You don't know mad he is after over this potion, Ranma." Dr. Tofu took off his glasses and wiped them on the edge of his sleeve. He replaced them on his nose and focused on me. "His contact checks in with me every week. Djavan himself comes by every month, asking about my progress. And he's been looking…unhappier, lately. I got the feeling that if I didn't produce results soon, he might end up looking for another doctor, and my …employment….would be terminated."
There was a moment of silence. None of us had any illusions about how Djavan might terminate an employee. Any terminations of that nature would probably be of the permanent kind.
"So what will you give him when he actually shows up here?" Kalia asked.
Dr. Tofu dug into his tunic and produced a small bottle filled with black liquid. "This was filtered from the rare silver orchid. It provides the user with a burst of energy, much like the rush from an energy drink, but only quicker. Djavan has never seen this. I saw no point in showing him something he hadn't ordered. However, if I can trick him into thinking this is the potion, that the energy rush is actually his body becoming younger, then perhaps that would give us the time we need."
"What if he suspects you're trying to poison him so you can escape?" I asked. I'd actually seen that happen in a previous op of mine. It hadn't turned out well for the poisoner.
"Two things- first, he doesn't know you're here and he and I both know I can't escape the Amazon on my own. It's too easy to get lost." The doctor smiled bitterly. "And secondly- Ikkoko has standing orders to shoot me if Djavan drinks something I give him and dies."
Hm, suspicious son of a bitch.
Though a part of me whispered, yeah, you don't get to live that long by trusting people. It was the part of me that had kept me alive in all the years between Nerima and now, the part that had awakened as I did my best to survive. Yet the longer I was with Akane, the more I wanted to trust her. I just didn't know if she deserved that trust from me yet. But I knew what I did trust her to do.
I sighed, and pushed my empty bowl away, and grabbed a bowl of water to rinse out my fingers. "Okay, so Djavan and Ikkoko and a few of his men are the ones likely to come. The best way is to isolate Djavan and Ikkoko from the rest of their men. I think Kalia and I can take it from there," I said with a brief glance to the monk, who nodded.
Akane glared. "What about me? I can fight too!"
I smiled inwardly. Right on cue. I already had my argument ready. "Jain's gonna be right next to Djavan, I doubt he's gonna let the kid out of his sight right now. You need to grab him and run."
Akane paused, thinking, then nodded reluctantly. I leaned forward. "I trust you to keep him safe, Akane," I whispered. She nodded and swallowed. That much at least was true. I'd seen the lengths she'd gone to, to keep the kid safe. And even now, after reaching her objective, he was all she could think about.
I leaned back. "Okay, let's talk about our plan."
Dr. Tofu tried calling Djavan's men from his satellite phone, but the call didn't go through. He tried for twenty minutes before giving up in frustration.
"Sometimes the signal here can be unreachable for hours," he said. "I'll try again in an hour. We may have better luck then."
With some time to kill, Akane, Kalia and I stared at each other.
Kalia swiped a hand across his forehead. "I am too full of emotion," he muttered. "If you'll excuse me...this is a chance for me to catch up on my daily prayers."
We watched sympathetically as he strode away. Having Jain gone for so long was obviously a strain for even him. No doubt some meditation would help him find his focus again.
Akane pulled at her sweaty t-shirt. "Is there a place to get a shower around here, Dr. Tofu?"
I chuckled. "You're looking for a shower in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, while we're on a rescue mission?"
Akane gave me a half-hearted swat across the shoulder. "I'm too hot and sticky to hit you properly."
Dr. Tofu smiled. "We don't have a modern shower, but we can give you the next best thing."
A few minutes later, Akane and I stared at the ten-foot waterfall thundering down into the valley above us. Mist from the waterfall coated our faces even at this distance.
"He wants us to bathe there?" Akane squeaked. "He can't be serious!"
Ahead of us, Mandu turned and grinned. "No, haha...of course you can't bathe there. The stream becomes much smaller and calmer further downstream. It's much better for bathing."
He was right. Almost immediately, we turned a corner and reached a large, calm and tranquil pool, fed by a four foot high waterfall that fell much more gently.
Akane walked up to the edge and tested the water. Black mud squished between her bare toes. She turned. "Are there any...you know...leeches in here?" she asked Mandu uncertainly.
"No," he reassured her. "The pool is safe to bathe in." There were two or three other villagers swimming around in the pool as well, so I figured it couldn't be too bad. I shucked off my shirt and pants and took a running leap, diving into the cool green water.
My head broke the surface and I shook water from my eyes and looked around to see Akane staring at me, open mouthed.
"What?" I asked. "The water's great."
Akane shook her head slightly, like she was getting rid of unwelcome thoughts, and closed her mouth.
She hesitated on the bank, then made a what-the-hell motion with her shoulders, and shrugged off her top and shorts. She quickly waded into the pool in her bra and panties, looking anywhere but at me.
I grinned. "Are you shy?"
She blushed. For some reason, I suddenly remembered the kiss I'd given her after Kalia had saved her from the anaconda. It had been completely impulsive, I remembered, no thought, no plan behind it whatsoever. When I'd seen that gigantic snake, all I could feel was relief that Akane was safe, and I'd had to express that relief somehow. And the look she'd given me after...like she thought it might be a good idea to do it again...
Akane coughed, and I realized I'd been staring at her. Damn.
She opened her mouth to say something, but I beat her to it. "Water's nice, huh?" Ok, Saotome, not the coolest line you could have used...
To my surprise, Akane started giggling. "Which water do you mean, precisely? The river water we were tossed in, where we nearly got eaten by a giant snake, the pounds of water that've been soaking us every time we pass under a tree with big leaves, or all the humidity in the air that makes it feel like I'm breathing through a water-soaked t-shirt?"
I smiled. "Speaking of water soaked t-shirts, it seems kinda pointless to take a bath when we're just gonna go back into our wet clothes, doesn't it?"
Akane shuddered. " I know," she said. "But I just wanted to feel clean for a little bit."
I was about to reply when something caught my eye above her. I raised my gaze to meet wild green eyes glaring down at us from the top of the waterfall. A jaguar. For a moment, my blood froze, and the cat-phobia reared its ugly head. Sure, I was a world class martial artist, and no jungle animal was gonna make me do more than sneeze, but any feline still put the fear of Bast in me.
Akane turned to see what I was staring at, and I saw the back of her bare shoulders start to squeeze together as she drew in breath for an involuntary scream. I clenched my teeth to overcome my own paralysis, and swiftly crossing the distance between us, had my hand wrapped around her mouth to stifle it.
"Don't scare the others," I whispered in her ear. The other villagers were still oblivious.
She stiffened, then allowed herself to slowly relax. The jaguar stared down at us for a moment longer, then quietly slipped away.
Akane and I sighed together. I released her and we moved apart.
She looked up at me. "Thanks, Ranma. I'm glad you stopped me from screaming. It might have attacked if it heard me." She stared at me as though she could see how much it had cost me to move past my own fear.
I was startled. No yelling at me for touching her while the two of us were in our birthday suits? No screaming about inappropriate behaviour?
Hmm...being thanked really was a new sensation for me.
Nearly three hours later, I crouched high above Dr. Tofu's hut, on the branch of a huge mango tree. Akane was situated behind the hut, and Kalia had found his own hiding place, but I sensed him close by.
Dr. Tofu had managed to make the call on the satellite phone he had. The phone emitted so much static it was a wonder he could even hear the guy on the other side. He'd managed to communicate his 'find' to his contact, however, and there was a lot of excited chatter from the other end.
"Stay put, we'll be there shortly," he'd been told and then the line was abruptly disconnected.
How long was 'shortly'? I did a visual sweep of the jungle, absently swatting another mosquito. I'd been up here for over two hours now. My silk shirt, great for a night out on the town, didn't cut it so well here in the jungle, thought my cotton pants sufficed well enough.
My eye caught a gigantic orange and black caterpillar inching its way sinouslysinuously down the trunk I was leaning my hand on.
"Ugh!" I yanked my arm away. Hairy and ugly, just what I needed as a neighbour.
My mind returned to Akane, crouching behind Dr. Tofu's hut. I'd walked her to her hiding spot after lunch, wondering what she planned to do once we caught the first plane out of this bug-ridden country.
"What's on your mind, Ranma?" she asked finally, kicking aside a piece of vine on the path.
"You've been staring at me for a while now. You stared at me all through breakfast. And at the pool. I know I didn't suddenly sprout horns, because I checked..." she mockingly rubbed her fingers through the top of her silky hair and grinned up at me. "So...what are you thinking about?"
I stayed silent for a moment, then shrugged. "Just wonderin' what you thought about finding Dr. Tofu, is all. It was pretty unexpected."
Her grin changed to a frown so quickly that years of conditioning nearly made me duck, but she looked away.
"It's great," she said.
"Wow," I said. "Let's not hold a parade for it."
She stifled an involuntary chuckle and turned back to me, her eyes lightening. "I am happy that we found him. You don't know what it was like, dreaming about him so much, and wondering why. Actually...they were more like nightmares...But now..."
I didn't have to guess to know what she was going to say next. I'd lived with her family for too long. "You're worried that Kasumi's gone too bonkers to want him back."
"You saw her, Ranma!" Akane cried. "She's always been so cheerful, but now she's gone over the edge into Alice in Wonderland- Mad Hatter style!" She looked away. "To be honest, she's been that way since shortly after Dr. Tofu disappeared. " More quietly, so that I almost didn't hear her, "That's why I hadn't been back to Japan in so long. I couldn't help her, and I couldn't bear to see her that way."
I reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "Hey, let's cross that bridge when we get to it. We've still gotta get out of this evergreen hellhole and make it back home with the monk, the kid and the doc." No point worrying about Kasumi's feelings until we got to her cute little Japanese doorstep. After all, Akane hadn't had dreams about marriage counseling, now had she?
"I know, Akane." For just a few moments, I relaxed and let myself forget about our history together. I knew what it was like to have crazy relatives. My mom alone was enough reason to spend about a year on a couch spilling my life to a professional psychologist. "I know you're worried about Kasumi." And all of a sudden I had an absolute blinding moment of knowing. It came so suddenly that it spilled out of my mouth before my brain could step in and yank it back.
"You thought if you brought Tofu back, that'd fix Kasumi."
Akane gave me such a stricken stare that I knew it was true, though that no less made me want to kick my own ass for allowing my mouth to outspeed my brain. "I thought..." she started, then stopped. "I don't know what I thought! But I know I have to take Dr. Tofu back. After that, I don't know what happens."
I shrugged. "Same here, sweet. So how about we focus on getting him there and worry about afterwards...afterwards?" She had a long appointment with me, for starters, whether she knew it or not. And this time I'd keep her handcuffed to the bed.
With that pleasant thought, I settled back in my tree to wait.
It wasn't another ten minutes before I heard the sound of a motorboat stopping in the distance. I tensed. This was it. They'd really come! Time to make a move.
I watched from the tree as two gunmen emerged from the river path. They strode into Dr. Tofu's hut. I hung back, wondering where Djavan was. I waited..and waited. HAD he sent just the two men? Well, we'd considered that possibility as well. It was just a matter of grabbing the men and forcing them to tell us where their hideout was. Eventually, I swung down from the tree on silent feet, and inched forward to the entrance of the hut, trying to extend my hearing as far as possible.
"...the potion?" one of the men asked in a rough voice. Closer up, I recognized him as one of Ikkoko's men.
"Yes, this is it," Dr. Tofu was saying. "But where's Senor de Castilho? I thought he would come for it himself."
"Senor de Castilho is occupied at the moment," said the other one. He had a smoother voice. For some reason, he sounded more dangerous. "All you need to know is that we have been instructed to bring you to him."
"Or at least to a meeting place," added Rough Voice. "He will wait till it's safe and then come out to..."
His partner smacked him with his gun. "Cale a boca, Louis! The good doctor does not need to know all our arrangements..."
I backed away before I could hear the rest, because Kalia had approached silently behind me. He was very good, but I was better, and I stopped him with an outstretched hand just as his body tensed to rush the hut.
He scowled at me. I put a finger to my lips and motioned him away from the hut around to where Akane hid. Her eyes widened when she saw us.
" We can't attack these men," I whispered to them. "They're going to hand Dr. Tofu over to their buddies at a pre-assigned meeting place, and my bet is if they don't see them, they'll never show themselves."
"But we have to follow them," Kalia insisted.
We looked at each other. "The boat!" We sprinted for the river, just as the men began to usher Dr. Tofu down the path with their guns.
We reached their boat quickly, and groaned at the size of it. The dam thing was tiny. There was just one locker, which would fit one of us.
We heard voices coming down the path. I swore and swiftly shoved Kalia into the locker, slammed it shut, grabbed Akane by the wrist and jumped overboard. Her surprised shriek was swallowed by the water covering our heads as we sank. I didn't need to feel the change to know it had happened. When my head broke the water it was red and I had breasts. A few seconds later, Akane's head broke the water as well and she glared at me furiously.
"What do you think you're...!"
I grabbed the rail on the side of the motorboat that normally functioned as a stepladder. "Shut up and grab on!"
Akane stared, then shock blossomed on her face. "You've got to be kidding me, Ranma!" she hissed. "You want us to hitch a ride with a speedboat? And why did you shove Kalia in the locker?"
"You have shorter hair," I explained. "I didn't want his damn long braid catching in the motor fan and alerting those jerks."
Akane scowled, then hushed as the men approached and shoved Dr. Tofu onto the boat. The motion made the boat rock slightly, and Akane grabbed the rail as well.
The motor started with a loud whrrr, startling us both. The damn thing sounded like thunder when you were right next to it.
"Hold tight!" I whispered, and then couldn't resist adding, "This ride is about to get bumpy."
Akane's scornful eye roll was the last I saw of her face before white surf covered us both.