It'd been three days. Three days of them both refusing to talk about what had happened. As if it hadn't happened at all. Akane wondered if maybe she'd imagined the entire thing. She tried to act casual, as though it hadn't been anything important enough to mention. But she thought about it all the time, and would blush at random moments.

It. Like it's something too embarassing to even think about. Geez, all he did was walk in on me taking a bath, right? Not like it's the first time that's happened!

But even as she thought the words, she could feel her cheeks heat up.

I'm such an idiot. He probably doesn't even notice...

Then again, he'd been oddly nervous for the past few days, and every so often she'd catch him staring at her with a very strange expression on his face.

Okay, so maybe he does. She scowled. Why couldn't things have stayed simple?

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

Validation
A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic by Ashfae
Chapter Three

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

It didn't really matter if she blushed; the fog bank they'd been slogging through for the past half an hour was so thick that they could barely see each other. Or, more importantly, where they were going.

"Where in the heck did this stuff come from?" Ranma grumbled under his breath. Akane bit her lip, forcing herself not to snap at him. He'd been complaining about the fog ever since it had sprung up, and her temper was wearing thin. Despite all the...things...that had happened between them lately, they hadn't had any real fights since the trip started, and she wanted to keep it that way.

Even if he was being a jerk, and she'd nearly bitten her tongue in half trying not to tell him so.

She distracted herself by looking as best she could at their surroundings. Even with the view misted over by fog, there was something familiar about them...even about the fog itself. The back of her mind itched, trying to remember.

...walking in the fog, listening to the odd, low noises the forest made around her...the crunching of sticks beneath her feet made louder by the fear she felt...expecting that any minute, the monster they'd heard rumors about was going to come out and eat her, and she was lost so nobody would ever know what had happened...

It came back to her in a rush, and she snapped her fingers. "Ryukenzawa!"

"Eh?" Ranma looked at her.

"We're on the edge of Ryukenzawa, Ranma. Don't you remember? There's a ring of fog surrounding the entire forest. Normal animals don't go past it, and the giant ones don't go outside of it. That must be where we are. I can't believe I didn't realize we were heading in this direction, I didn't even think about it..."

"Yeah," Ranma said, a bit sourly. "Me neither."

She looked over at him. "Something wrong?"

"No!" he said quickly--and defensively. He was scowling hard enough to bore holes through walls.

Is he...jealous?

Akane thought fast. "I'd kind of like to avoid Shinnosuke and his grandfather, if you don't mind. It'd be nice to see them again sometime, but I don't really want to meet up with anyone else we know just yet." She saw Ranma visibly relax, and smiled to herself. He is jealous! "But this would be a good place to train, for both of us. All those giant animals keep you on your toes."

"It's kinda dangerous, though, Akane," Ranma pointed out. "This really ain't a good place for sleeping outside. We look like bugs to some of the things in here--there's no way to prepare for that."

"True. On the other hand, if we got some of the Water of Life, my cooking would be edible!"

Ranma grinned, the first she'd seen in days. She smiled back; slamming her own cooking was worth it, to have some of the tension between them lessened. Even if it hurt a bit to think of how little progress she'd made.

He thought for a minute before answering her. "How 'bout this. We'll stay outside of the forest for now, and circle around. The giant animals won't cross the fog bank, you think?" Akane nodded. "Then it's easy. We camp on the safe side, and during the day we can train in the forest. Though really, I don't think giant piranas are gonna help you with the Amigurikan technique."

"Hah. Just you wait 'til I learn it, Ranma. I'll get you!"

"Suuuuuuuure you will. I'm quaking in my boots here."

"Why you....ooooooohhh, Ran-ma!" She pretended to try and hit him with her backpack. She didn't really want to hit him; she was too busy being glad that they were talking normally (for them) again, instead of walking around in silence. She knew he didn't mean it, that he really believed she would learn the Amigurikan technique. He wouldn't try to teach it if he didn't think she could learn. He was just teasing her.

She stopped dead in her tracks. Is that it? she wondered, looking at him walking a few steps ahead of her; he hadn't noticed yet that she'd stopped. How many times has he been teasing me, and I took it seriously? I always thought he was insulting me, but what if he was just playing? He grew up knowing only his father, and I've seen how they act around each other. It's always fights and insults and a show of strength. Is that it? Why didn't I think of that before? The thought was a shock.

Guys haven't ever teased me before. They either fell for me immediately or never noticed I existed, and I don't know which was worse. No one ever took me seriously as a martial artist. Not my sisters, not Dad...not even those stupid jerks that I beat up every day at school. I always thought Ranma meant it, that he really thought I was unsexy and uncute and would never be a real martial artist.

But he's here. He followed me all the way out here, he agreed to come with me instead of dragging me back to Nerima. And he's training me. So he must think I'm a martial artist, even though I'm not as good as he is. If he didn't, he wouldn't waste his time to help me improve. And even if I'm unsexy or uncute...he's still here, and he was blushing like hell when he saw me bathing in the lake, so he must've seen something he liked!

Maybe I was wrong. Not about all the insults, but at least about some of them. The thought brought a smile to her face. Maybe he likes me a little bit after all.

Ranma noticed that she was no longer walking, and turned to see her still standing there. "Yo, Akane, what's up?"

She bit her lip, her sudden euphoria replaced by guilt. It hurt whenever he insulted me, but I always went so far...I can't count how many times I've bashed him. He was right in calling me violent, that's for sure. I didn't want to believe it...I never was violent before he showed up and all that chaos followed him. Well, except towards those guys before school...but still, maybe I've changed more than I thought. The thought was sobering.

I think I owe him an apology.

She looked down, cluching her hands together in front of her. "Um, Ranma, I, um..." He waited expectantly, curious. She took a deep breath. "I'm--"

A loud crashing sound reverberated through the forest; Akane nearly jumped out of her skin, taken completely by surprise. Ranma looked immediately towards the direction of the sound, his brow furrowed. "C'mon, we should see what that was."

He started running. Akane could only follow, muttering under her breath, "Wouldn't it make more sense to run away from the weird booming noises?"

Ranma looked over his shoulder and grinned at her. "You're the one who wanted to train here!"

She would have glared at him, but just then a shadow fell over both of them, and she looked up to find...

...what in the hell IS that thing?!!

Even Ranma stopped to stare. Coming towards them was a giant lizard, fairly ordinary except for the fact that it was the size of a bus. Running in front of it was a man-shaped figure covered in dark, spiky things. It was making a strange, high-pitched "Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!" noise, and waving its arms frantically. The figure and the lizard both ran right by Ranma and Akane, who could only watch in stunned amazement.

Akane blinked. "Did you see that?"

Ranma was staring after them. "Uh...yeah, I think so."

"What was that thing? The spiny one?"

"I dunno. I've never seen anything like that before."

***crashcrashcrashCRASHSLAMYEOWWTCHH(weirdanimealcry)BOOM!***

Akane looked at Ranma and shrugged. He inclined his head towards the crash, and they both started running in that direction. The lizard had left a trail of bent trees and broken branches behind; it was easy to follow. The trail ended a few hundred feet later in a huge clearing. Akane stopped at the edge of the trees, Ranma just behind her. He muttered "What the..." under his breath. She just blinked.

In the middle of the clearing was a pile of rocks with two black, spiky arms waving furiously above it. The giant lizard nosed at the pile of rocks for a few minutes, then wandered off, obviously bored now that the game of chase-the-weird-spiky-thing had ended. Akane could hear muffled shouting. "Melp! Melp! Met meef moutta mferemph!" She resisted the urge to giggle and went forward to start undigging the creature, who she now was pretty sure was human.

With Ranma's help, the rockpile rapidly diminished. A head emerged, along with shoulders and the top part of a torso. Akane stared. The person they were helping was covered in a black, sticky substance. There were grasses and weeds stuck to him everywhere, as well as...

...feathers?!?

"Eh now, that wasn't supposed to happen at all. How strange, how strange. Thank y'kindly, young feller," the man said as Ranma helped pull him out of the trap. "I'm much obliged. I am Professor Shintai from the University. Oh dear, I believe I've ruined this suit, what do you think?"

Akane looked dubiously at the older man. He was trying to scrape the black substance--what is that stuff, tar?--off of his clothes, but was not having much luck: the stuff was so sticky that his hands kept getting glued to his sides. "What are you doing out here, um, Professor?"

"Shintai, Shintai, please. Research. Yes, I have definitely ruined this suit."

"Research?" Ranma said the word as though it tasted bad in his mouth. Akane almost giggled. Considering how much he hates homework, it probably does!

Shintai nodded. "Yes indeed, research of a most important nature."

Ranma looked suspicious. "What kinda research?"

Shintai crossed his arms over his chest (where they promptly stuck) and looked very serious. Or at least, as serious as an old man tarred and covered with grass and feathers could look. "Why does the Water of Life cause animals to grow large? Why doesn't it also affect humans? Where did these animals come from? Do the rumours of an eight-headed-dragon living in this area have any basis in reality? Why does a fog bank surround the entire forest? What is the best way to distract a giant chipmunk?" He assumed a noble expression. "It is my solemn duty to answer all these questions, and indeed, to solve all the mysteries of this forest!"

Akane had nearly bitten through her lip trying to keep from laughing. Between Shintai's tirade and Ranma's dumbfounded expression, it was difficult to keep a straight face.

"How'd you end up lookin' like that?" Ranma wondered.

"I was exploring the tar pits when the lizard startled me. Very foolish. I'd wandered off, you see. I backed away and fell into one of the tar pits. I managed to pull myself out, but was temporarily blinded. I was trying to find my way back home but kept hitting trees and things. That's certainly where the leaves came from. I fell down a lot, hence the grass. And then I must have tripped over a herd of wild midget chickens, which would explain the feathers." He looked smug. "There, you see? It all makes perfect sense."

Ranma sweatdropped. "Uh...sure. Why were you shouting out 'Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!'?"

"Oh, that was just to let Miyo know where I was."

Akane blinked. "Miyo?"

"My wife." Shintai beamed.

"You're married?" Ranma sounded incredulous.

"Why, certainly. It would hardly be proper for us to travel together if we weren't. Aren't you two married?"

Ranma immediately turned bright red. So did Akane. "Um, er, um, er, we're, um...engaged," she stammered, so surprised that she couldn't think of anything else to say.

Shintai nodded sagely. "A little inappropriate, but these are modern times." He finally managed to unstick his arms from his suit. "Come along now. Miyo will like having someone else to talk to." He started walking purposefully off to the left, towards the center of the forest, obviously expecting them to follow.

Akane looked at Ranma. He shrugged, and off they went.

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

"Really, Shintai, how did you get into such a mess?"

Miyo turned out to be middle-aged woman with long brown hair that fell down her back in a braid. She'd barely glanced at her errant husband and his two followers before taking control of the situation. Shintai had been delegated into a corner, where he couldn't make too much of a mess, and Ranma and Akane had been ordered to sit down and make themselves comfortable. Every inch of her radiated warmth and practicality--which was a good thing for her errant husband, whose coat she was trying in vain to clean.

"I told you, Miyo, there was a giant lizard--more of a gila monster really--and then the midget chickens--"

"I should never have let you go out alone," Miyo said with exasperated affection. "We might as well burn this thing. At this rate, you won't have any clothes left by the end of the month."

Akane smiled to herself, wondering how many other suits the professor might have ruined...and what reasons he'd given for how they'd been damaged. Miyo had heard his story without blinking an eye, so she had probably seen stranger things.

Akane looked back at their erstwhile hostess. Unlike most housewives, Miyo opted for trousers and a loose shirt rather than a dress. Her body was lean and muscled, and Akane could tell just from watching her walk that the older woman had studied martial arts at one point in time or another.

But then, thought Akane wryly, just about everyone I've met since Ranma has.

"Ummm, we're not in your way or anything, are we?" Ranma asked nervously, eyeing their hosts with a wary eye. Akane sighed. She'd also wondered if they were imposing by following Professor Shintai home...but she was hoping to offer something in exchange for use of the kitchen and the bathroom, at least. It'd been ages since she'd eaten rice, or really gotten her clothes cleaned, or had a bath...

That thought led immediately to the memory of what had happened when she'd tried bathing in the lake, and Akane blushed. Again.

I really wish that hadn't happened. Or at least that I'd stop thinking about it!

"For goodness' sake, Shintai, go take a bath. You're not allowed at the dinner table until you're clean."

"With guests here?" Shintai protested. "I wouldn't dream of it. Besides, I haven't had a chance to ask them yet why--"

"I," Miyo interrupted firmly, "will see to our guests. You will go take a bath. Now."

"Yes, dear," Shintai sighed, meekly slipping off of the stool he'd been sitting on--which was now almost as tar-encrusted as he was--and leaving the room.

Miyo smiled after him, shaking her head. "Now, let's see..." She turned her smile on the two nervous teenagers. "Ranma and Akane, yes? I do apologize for my husband; he can be rather thoughtless, and has no sense of manners. If I hadn't sent him off he'd be asking for your entire life stories."

"We don't mind, Miyo-san, truly," Akane said. "And we're very sorry for imposing."

"Not at all. Would you like some dinner?" She gestured at a pot above the fireplace. "We have plenty. Please feel free." Without waiting for an answer, she snagged two bowls and filled them with vegetable stew, handing them to her guests. Akane accepted gratefully, feeling her stomach rumble at the idea of eating something other than fish.

"Man, this is fantastic." Ranma had already bolted his food down and was holding out his bowl for seconds. "You sure can cook!"

"Ranma!" Akane chided. "We're guests here. Don't be such a pig."

Ranma grumbled, muttering something like, "Ryouga's the pig, not me."

But Miyo just waved a hand, dismissing Akane's protest. "Don't worry, don't worry. It's a pleasure to have visitors; we don't see many people out here."

"I guess the man-eating lizards scare would most people off," Ranma said.

The woman smiled again; she smiled almost as much as Kasumi. She also kept her hands busy as she talked, scrubbing the tar-encrusted coat with an efficency that would have impressed even the eldest Tendou daughter. "You get used to the giant animals after a while." She must have seen doubt in their faces, because she laughed. "Well, not really, but it does keep life interesting, even if Shintai is always chasing or being chased by them."

"He seems nice," Akane said, meaning it.

"Oh, yes. And very, very intelligent; don't let his absent-mindedness fool you. He's always been like that, for as long as I've known him."

"How did you meet him?"

Miyo smiled wryly. "After nearly getting killed on several of his expeditions, he decided that it would be prudent to hire a bodyguard. I applied. Eventually we became attached to each other and decided to marry."

"You're a bodyguard?" Ranma looked surprised.

"My father was an important businessman many years ago. Attempts on his life were made regularly, so when my brother and I were born, he decided to have us both trained in the martial arts, for our own protection." She shrugged. "I enjoyed it, so I eventually made it my career. Father wasn't happy, but there wasn't much he could do to stop me."

"How good are you?" Ranma asked. Akane could hear eagerness in his voice, the anticipation of a possible challenge, and felt her heart sink. He must be getting bored, working just with me...

Miyo eyed him seriously. "Not nearly as skilled as I would guess you are, young man. And I'm willing to bet that your fiancee can give you a better fight than I could, when she sets her mind to it."

"Yeah, she's pretty good," Ranma said offhandedly, as though Akane weren't sitting right next to him. Akane felt her cheeks heat up again, and stared at him in open astonishment. He blinked at her. "What?"

I don't think he's ever complimented my martial arts skills before. Definitely not to somebody else.

"Um, anyway, we should probably be going," Akane said quickly, trying to cover her embarassement.

"Why?" Miyo asked bluntly. "Where are you headed?"

"Well, nowhere really, we're just on a training trip..." Akane's voice trailed off as she realized there was no way of explaining the full series of events that had brought her and Ranma here.

"Would you like to stay with us for a while?" Miyo offered. "We truly would like the company, and there's no need for you to sleep in the forest if it's not necessary. You can't train every hour of the day, after all."

Well, maybe Ranma could. Akane smiled ruefully. But I'd rather not. She had to admit, the idea was appealing. Miyo and Shintai's house was neatly built beside a rocky area in the middle of the forest, near the lake where the Orochi slept. Most of the giant animals tended to avoid the area, preferring to live in the trees. It would be much safer than sleeping out in the open, but there would still be a lot of action. Thanks to the stream, there was plenty of water. There was no electricity, so the facilities were still fairly primitive, but the living conditions would certainly be easier than camping.

And it would be nice to have some other company... Akane thought wistfully. Someone who isn't going to want to kill or marry us!

Miyo watched emotions play across the girl's face with an understanding smile. "I'll leave you two to discuss it," she said, turning to leave. "Besides, I should check on Shintai. By this point he might have drowned himself, for all I know."

Ranma chuckled, but as soon as the woman was gone he looked quzzically at Akane. "Do you wanna stay?"

"Yeah...I kinda do," she admitted. "Would you mind?"

He shrugged. "Makes no difference to me."

"Then let's stay," Akane decided. "For a while, anyway."

"Speakin' of which...Akane, when were you plannin' to go back, anyhow?" Ranma's voice was serious. "We've already been gone a couple a' weeks, and nobody there knows where we are."

"You don't have to stay," she fired immediately, annoyed. He's not missing Ukyou or Shampoo or something, is he? "If you miss Nerima, you can leave tomorrow for all I care."

"Geez, Akane, you know that's not what I meant. I said I'd stick around, didn't I? But your family's gonna be worried sick."

"Sorry." Akane's shoulders sank. "I don't know, Ranma. I really don't. I don't want them to worry, but you know what'd happen if anyone even got a hint of where we are..."

To her relief, he shuddered. "No kiddin'. They'd runnin' all over each other to get here."

"Exactly." Something occurred to her. "You said my family...won't your dad be concerned about you?"

Ranma just snorted. "Hell, he's probably proud. They wanted me to chase after you, remember?"

She groaned. "Yeah, that's true. They'll probably have a wedding planned within a week of us getting back if we're not careful."

"They'd better not."

That stung a bit, but Akane knew it wasn't personal. She didn't want to get married either. Definitely not right now. "We can deal with that later. For now, I refuse to think about it." She grinned at him. "After all, I can't go back until I've learned the Tenshen Amiguriken."

He grinned back. "Or how to cook."

"You don't know how to cook?" Miyo walked back into the room just then, catching the tail-end of their conversation.

"Nope. Her cooking stinks. She could bring down an elephant with that stuff."

Akane bit her lip and forced herself not to be annoyed. He's not trying to be mean. He's not trying to be mean. I know he isn't. He's just not thinking. I'm not gonna bash him. Not until next time we spar, anyway.

"Really?" Miyo looked curious. "Would you like me to teach you? I haven't got much to work with out here, but I'm sure we could manage."

Akane's eyes nearly popped out of her head. Who is this woman? She feeds us dinner, invites us to stay, and now wants to teach me to cook? She must be some kind of goddess! "You wouldn't mind?" she asked timidly. "I'm really not very good--"

"That's an understatement."

"Ranma, hush," Miyo said firmly. "I wouldn't mind at all, Akane. It'll be fun."

"Then...yes, please!" Akane answered, beaming. "Ranma's not such a great cook either, so it'd be nice to have someone around who knows what they're doing."

"Hey!" Ranma protested. Akane just stuck her tongue out at him.

Miyo smiled. "Then it's settled. We can begin tomorrow morning."


The "Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!" is an obscure reference to a comic strip called "Where the Buffalo Roam," which probably no one outside of Boulder, CO has read. The rest of you can wonder. =)

This seems like the best place to apologize. Yes, it's well over a year since I worked on this. I truly don't know if I'll complete it or not. I do promise that if I haven't put out another chapter in the next few weeks, I'll just post every snippit I ever wrote (including the ending, which is complete) up on my webpage. And yes, I know that I'm very evil. I'm sorry. I just lost track of Ranma fanfiction in favor of new and interesting other things, and I've never quite gone back. I do still like this story, though, and I hope I'll finish it.

ashfae@technicaldetails.org
http://www.ashfae.net