On the Road Again

Chapter 6

Ranma, uncharacteristically, was thinking.

This was something that many of his acquaintances would not have given him credit for; Ranma Saotome didn't think — he acted! But a significant part of his winning ways was strategy on the fly. He just didn't start using his brain until he had achieved a certain threshold of stress.

His first instinct, if you could call it that, was to begin imposing a series of ridiculous trials to determine the limits of Akane's strength and skill, and test her commitment as his student.

Then common sense and bitter experience took hold. He had never taught before, but he was not his father.

"Not this time, Pops," the redhead muttered. The panda, after all, was the only sensei Ranma had encountered who seemed to consider dropping toddlers off roofs to teach them to fall was a reasonable teaching method. And that wasn't mentioning that c-c-c, that feline thing with the pit.

"What?" Akane asked.

"Just working out how best ta train ya, Akane."

"I'd love to be able to dodge the way you do."

"Hunh!" Ranma nodded abstractedly, his mind following that tangent. Akane's father had focused primarily on attack and counterattack – how to apply the hard techniques of Anything Goes to an attacker. He had drilled her in the fastest and most devastating methods of landing a blow where it would count the most and would end a fight quickly. All offensive moves geared toward a fast-paced and violent fight. Her defense was almost entirely offensive preemption of her opponents. Her blocking, though, was almost entirely self-taught, extrapolated from her experiences and observation of her opponents.

It would completely alter her style. Akane almost always attacked first and struck first, even if her attacker was the first to initiate hostilities. Had any of her opponents been fast enough to dodge or durable enough to persevere, she would have been in trouble. Her footwork was very linear, following the cardinal points set firmly on the ground. It was impressive, when you thought about it, how well she had done. To add his dodging abilities to her aggressive style… He'd have to introduce her to the Pit and the Pendulum routine and the box-step, among others.

Akane had been dojo taught, and incompletely at that, then dumped into a world of untrained and semi-trained opponents, and one main opponent who was deliberately holding back. This had inhibited her big time. She had potential…

Suddenly, Ranma was almost excited. In almost frightening clarity, he could sympathize with the forces and motivations that had driven his father; the thought of molding such skills and producing…

"Uhhh… Ranma, you're giggling; and it really sounds disturbing," the dark-haired girl informed the redhead at a somewhat greater distance than she had been before.

Ranma came back to Earth. Affronted by the concept, she growled, "I was not giggling." She added to herself 'And I am not my father, dammit!'

"You were going 'Ee-hee, hee, hee…' and your hands were opening and closing," she growled back. "I swear if you turn into a pervert at this point, I'll kill you!"

Ranma snorted and tried to hide a blush. Was that what he looked like? How embarrassing! The very thought helped free him from the remaining grasping tendrils of megalomania. Waving impatiently at her concerned glare, he began to plan a training regimen. He was gonna make Akane the best!

Well… maybe the best after him…

oOo

Akane had been deeply and profoundly relieved. Ranma had accepted her as his student! Instead of merely shepherding her around the various schools, he was going to train her as well!

Of course if he planned to giggle like that while he was teaching, it would be a bit unnerving; but since Ranma already had a good grasp of her strengths and weaknesses from their daily sparring, she felt real confidence in her eventual success for the first time since leaving home.

Ranma had been whistling while gazing at the horizon thoughtfully. Suddenly the redhead stopped and laughed, turning to Akane and bringing a fist to slap into her other open hand. "Hey! That's right! If you're my student, then you have an obligation to take care of me as your sensei."

Akane blanched. To her horror, the only thing that came to mind had her doing rather perverted things with Ranma. But… she could… trust… her …him. Right? "uuuuurrrRRRHA!"

Ranma blinked at Akane's sub-vocalized shout and her aura's brief flirtation with the visible spectrum. "What I mean is," the redhead added carefully, "you can take over more of the camp stuff, like cooking."

Akane felt in quick succession, relief, horror, excitement, then sliding from hopeful anticipation to resignation. Relief – that he wasn't planning anything perverted. That was good. Horror – that she was expected to cook. Her? Cook?? "AHAHAhahaha…" Excitement – Well, technically, he was a captive audience. Hopeful anticipation – surely, with the limited simple ingredients they had available with their meager budget, she couldn't screw things up too badly. Resignation – That kind of thing hadn't stopped her in the past and she didn't have Kasumi running damage control.

Ranma moved along silently, eyeing her brand new student. Had he acted like that back when his father had first suggested the training voyage? He couldn't remember.

Akane tried to calm down and center herself. She checked her breathing, adjusted Ryoga's pack and hopped off the rails with Ranma onto the path back to the clearing. Wasn't a student, she reminded herself, traditionally expected to be doing basic chores as part of their apprenticeship? Now that she thought about it, she remembered her father speaking in hushed tones of tasks set by his nameless Master of the Arts to strengthen their skills and test their loyalty. Except for waiting on their 'Dread Master' hand and foot, and providing for his daily fare, these tasks had remained nameless.

She supposed this was due to typical nonsense about not revealing the purpose of a lesson to a student who had yet run that gauntlet. She felt confident that, if their luck with the temporary jobs held out, she could manage to earn enough to pay for the essentials. Arriving at the campsite, she jumped at the opportunity to delay the inevitable. Demanding that Ranma relax for a change, she quickly and competently set up the tent. She almost stowed their packs though, before Ranma reminded her that their food was in them.

She tried to laugh normally at her 'error', but it came out as a nervous titter that caused her sensei's eyebrow to twitch, once.

When Ranma moved to get water, Akane jumped to do that little service. She even managed to get the fire started on the first try and set the water on the flat rock they used as a sort of hot-plate. Desperately, she looked about for something else that could 'competently' do before attempting dinner. She froze. Ranma was reaching for the packs again.

"No, no, no! I said I'd do that, Ranma!" she found herself insisting, retrieving the pack and delving in for supplies. 'What am I doing??' she thought. 'I don't even have a cookbook! Kami help me; I'm really going to have to channel Kasumi!'

(Elsewhere, Kasumi Tendo suddenly had an inexplicable rash of clumsiness that was quite upsetting. The Tendo's decided she was channeling her little sister and ate out that evening.)

The distant heirs to the Anything Goes Styles were not so fortunate. Bemused, Ranma just sat back out of the way and waited for the water to heat. The pigtailed one remembered his apprenticeship under Genma Saotome and considered the current predicament. He had been five or six when he'd learned the basics of field cookery from a drifter family, as his father wasn't good for much more than cabbage and rice. He vaguely remembered being nervous and excited, but compared to Akane, he had been a rock of calm and reason. What was it about cooking that had her all riled up?

Ranma's brows creased faintly as she watched Akane scramble to prepare their meal. It would, by necessity, be a simple one, due to the limited supplies on hand. But from the energy the girl was putting into it, you'd think she was preparing a multi-course meal for a head-of-state – one that demanded to be fed yesterday.

And did the aqua-transsexual not remember someone commenting less than enthusiastically about Akane's cooking? Who had that been? And when and where? Hmmmm…

Ranma reached for the hot water that was finally steaming, though Akane hadn't noticed in her furious search for ingredients. Grinning at P-chan as the little black pig, in fascination, watched each move that Akane made, Ranma deliberately stepped out of the animal's line of sight to change, sighing as he transformed. No sense having P-chan make the connection between the Jusenkyo curse and Ranma's real self. The little pig didn't like men and considering what Cobra and his goons had planned, he couldn't blame him. Now, what had he been pondering?

Oh, yeah! That Yuri girl… Or was it Yuka? She had commented that the school needed a hazardous materials emergency crew on call due to Akane's bizarre…

FOOOOOOSH!!!! Ranma's pigtail stood up like a ca- feline's tail at the sound and wash of heat of a missile engine going off behind him.

Akane had fortunately turned away just before whatever she had mixed together in their largest remaining pot ignited. The pillar of flame licked at the leaves overhead for several long seconds before guttering to a subdued flicker hidden in the clouds of black smoke ascending from the abused cookware.

Akane had scooted away from her culinary experiment to sit beside her companion. "Dammit! Why does this always happen?" she shrieked. She turned to Ranma and paled. His visage looked almost demonic in the flickering light of the flames.

"This… always… happens?" Ranma blinked at her.

Akane grimaced. Behind her, P-chan quivered in mortal terror. He hadn't seen something like this since he last nearly fell in a volcano – or maybe it had been hell.

"Well… some times?" Akane offered, mortally embarrassed.

Ranma decided maybe he ought to cook dinner 'one last time'. He fixed her with an enraging smirk and said, "After we eat – it's time for special training."

Akane brightened up. Special training is what she'd been dreaming of!

oOo

Akane got the first inkling of why the phrase 'special training' was a term too vague for trusting students of a sensei of Anything Goes.

After dinner Ranma decided the first thing to do was to reconstruct exactly what Akane had done up to the 'ignition point'. Akane was to consider it a 'learning experience'. He was thinking along the famous lines of 'what didn't kill you, made you stronger'. They were still alive, so…

Ranma had her run through what she had done. She had been attempting a rice dish, though not one based on the glutinous white rice considered normal to Japanese cuisine. In the past, she had always gotten that wrong. So, she thought she'd try something different. Her first step in this case had been to brown the rice. So she had dumped her rice, rather haphazardly and without really measuring it, into their largest pot. Next she had added some lard as they didn't have cooking oil…

"We don't have lard," Ranma commented. "And if yer browning rice, don't the lard or butter go into the pan first?"

"I know! I just forgot! And it really didn't matter because I added it right after the rice went in."

"It really didn't matter, 'cause the rice blew up!" Ranma snorted. "But what did ya use for lard? Like I said, we didn't have any."

"I must have gotten it out of Ryoga's pack?" she decided after a moment.

Ranma frowned. "And why were you mucking around in Ryoga's junk?"

"Maybe," Akane retorted with some heat, "because we didn't have any lard?"

"That makes sense – sort of," Ranma groaned. "But you shouldn't mess with someone else's gear. And that doesn't explain what blew up."

"Maybe it was the ground chili peppers?"

Ranma stared.

"Well something blew up! And the last time I remember something like this happened, I had added way too much ground chili pepper."

"She wasn't kidding?" Ranma muttered before commenting. "We don't have that either. When did you add this ground chili pepper?"

"I didn't!" Akane paused. "At least I think I didn't. I couldn't have, really, if we don't have any."

"Then let's check the 'lard' first, that we didn't have," Ranma decided, "before we go looking after the chili pepper that we didn't have either. What did you use that ya thought was lard?"

Akane fumbled around her pile of ingredients rather fruitlessly. "Ummm…"

P-chan actually found the item first. It was a little ¼ liter can of jelly-like substance. Akane brightened when he squealed and presented their find to Ranma.

"Jellied gasoline," he read from the label.

"That's not lard!" she blurted, paling.

"Definitely not lard." Ranma agreed. "This is fuel for a camp stove. But at least we know what blew up."

Akane winced. "Ummm… Oops?"

"Big oops!" They exchanged glares for a moment. "Okay, first things first," Ranma said dryly, deciding to move on. "Have you ever fixed any food item? Successfully, I mean."

Akane broke eye contact and looked at the ground.

Ranma stared for a bit. He'd never met a girl who couldn't cook, at least a little.

Akane began to sniffle.

Ranma turned chicken and waved his hands frantically, as if he were preparing an escape to a convenient tree. "Oi! Oi! That don't mean ya can't learn! Don't cry!"

"B-b-but everybody I know can cook… except me!! Why?!"

"We'll figure it out! I promise!!

oOo

At lunchtime in town the next day, Ranma presented Akane with a package wrapped in brown paper and grinned wickedly. As cars meandered past on the nearby street he proudly flourished his gift and declared, "Welcome to Martial Arts cooking 101!"

Akane ripped open the package to reveal a very stained and decrepit cookbook that maybe came from a third-rate 'used' bookstore. She flipped through the pages.

"First lesson: always follow the directions. Do not ever substitute or deviate without first getting the approval of a more experienced cook."

"You mean these aren't just suggestions?"

Ranma slapped a hand to his face and groaned. Recovering, he struggled to keep the ball rolling. "No. They are not 'just suggestions'." He thought a moment. "Look, Akane, when you're a beginner in the Art, you learn in a certain pattern in order to do it right."

"Kata."

"Right. A recipe is a basic kata for making food. You'll notice in this book that they give you a list of all of your ingredients and how much of each thing you'll use?"

"I understand that. I've used cookbooks before."

"But only for 'suggestions'," Ranma lightly tossed her words back in her face.

She pouted and glowered at him.

"You do realize that you just begged me for additional temper-control training while you work on this?"

Her pout vanished instantly. "Ranma!!" she complained.

He tapped the page she had opened the book to. "Now take a look at the instructions below the ingredients."

Akane grumpily read the instructions to herself. "So?"

Ranma let that slide. "Also, maybe some people can get away without it, but the next thing we gotta do is organize yer cooking preparation."

"Huh?"

Ranma considered how to explain what he meant in a way she would accept as the noon-day crowds they scurried by. A waitress at the little cafe' finally got to their table and they ordered tea and dango, which was one of the cheapest things on the menu. Even then, they couldn't afford to do this often. An advertising truck rumbled by with scenes of some new samurai epic gave him an idea. "Answer me this, Akane: Does yer dad have old family weapons? And do ya help maintain them?"

Akane blinked. "Of course! Dad took me through all the steps of caring for his daisho and the… How does this relate to cooking?" she finished, suspiciously.

Ranma shrugged. "Think about it. When you go to clean an old blade like that, there's only one right way to do it, and ya have to treat it with respect. Ya don't treat a sword like a kitchen knife."

Akane giggled. "Although I suppose you could treat a kitchen knife like a sword. I think my sister does." She thought of Kasumi and wondered if Ranma was really on to something. "And she is the cook in the family…"

"If you say so. But I mean you don't just pull an old sword outa its saya (scabbard) and pour oil over it, then wipe it off with a paper towel. It just ain't done, not if ya have any respect for it at all."

"No," Akane nodded agreeing. "Daddy started teaching me how to care for real weapons when I was five. He told us to treat the blade with respect…"

flashback--

Soun knelt across from a five-year old Akane and six-year old Nabiki as he prepared to clean the longer of the family's daisho – the pair of swords that were part of their family's history as samurai. The sword lay on a pad, still in its ornate lacquered wooden sheath, between them. On the other side of the dojo, Kasumi and their mother were inventorying the other equipment, preparing to pass it to Soun for removal from their cases, inspection and maintenance.

"This blade has been carried and used with honor by our ancestors and that alone should make you treat it with respect. Act as you would when greeting an older and beloved family member on a formal occasion. Bow to it with respect, regard it with a careful eye, and care for it with gentle, reverent intent." His eyes twinkled as they glanced from him to the sword. They were obviously trying to equate this with the far less formal greetings they gave aunts, uncles and grandparents.

end flashback—

"Dad showed us how to examine a sword and maintain it," Akane said, remembering. How to hold it with the left hand as you examined the fittings, how to draw it slowly, pulling the sheath from the blade, pausing as you reached the tip, but refraining from examining the blade until it was fully drawn. How, using a soft cloth as a rest, you could sight down the blade's length like sighting a rifle…

"Everything was done in a certain way; and it had to be done exactly that way, right?"

Akane nodded at Ranma's interruption of her reverie. "Traditionally speaking…"

Ranma snorted. "I ain't much for 'tradition'," he admitted. "I'm more a practical kind o' guy. But I learned that traditions usually happened when someone had an idea that worked." He grinned as Akane tried to look scandalized but failed.

"Now, when yer dad cleaned the sword, didn't he have everything he needed in a particular place in easy reach?"

"Of course!" Akane nodded. "But that isn't tradition; it's only common sense!"

"When you work on a sword, don't you need some soft cloths, limestone, an uchiko (a small ball for applying limestone powder), oil…"

"Clove oil," Akane corrected firmly and quickly.

Ranma grinned and shrugged. "That's the best, but getting all those things out and setting them up in easy reach is also part of the whole deal of maintaining the sword, ain't it?"

"Yesss…"

"Cooking's the same. Before ya cook, ya prepare. Divin' right in just wastes time and causes ya to make mistakes." He pointed to the pile of discarded cooking gear beside the blackened pot. "If you were cleaning a sword, ya wouldn't be jumping up and down getting' stuff then cleaning it partway before ya decided ya needed something else."

"Of course not!"

"Now, how did you start fixing the meal?"

Akane blinked, looked thoughtful.

oOo

They left early, to return to camp on Ranma's insistance. Unfortunately for Akane, cooking was still the topic of special training. He asked Akane to prepare to cook dinner - but not to start prparing it. He observed her as she started out slowly, but then began to speed up, making little noises of frustration. His strong hand reached out and captured her wrist as she began to line up with their largest cooking knife on some yams they had picked up on the way back.

"Ah- ah-ahhh! What was I sayin' before?" Disarming her carefully, he began to gently and efficiently slice the yams into even pieces. "Ya really don't need toa kill yer food before ya eat it - or at least not these." He took her through the steps of the recipe, demonstrating each step before handing the tools involved back to her to duplicate his movements. "I think, maybe you should make a really detailed note saying what you plan to do and check with me ahead of time. Ya know - sort of fill in teh gaps of how you would actually make teh meal using the recipe. And don't change anything once we both agree and it's down on paper." Ranma grinned as Akane glowered slightly, mirrored by P-chan who had surprisingly stayed at the campsite all day. Ranma nodded at the blackened pot. "Hell! Ya don't wanna do that again, do ya? Though I suppose it would help if we could skip winter… I guess if we time it right, your pot-rockets might push the whole planet closer to the sun…"

"Ranma!!"

He grinned as she — barely — restrained herself. "Ya know, just for fun, we're gonna try 'Wild Game Surprise' starting first thing tomorrow."

"Wild Game Surprise?"

"Yeah! We gather wild food! Plants, maybe a cony or a pheasant... Then we see if we can match it up to one of teh recipe's in the cookbook."

Akane blanched. "And if its edible, it's a surprise?"

Ranma shot her a dirty look.

oOo

"Why Wild Game Surprise, Ranma?" asked Akane first thing in the morning. "I mean, won't I have a harder time with food I've never tried to cook before?"

Ranma finished his stretches and prepared for their early morning spar. "You need incentive. I think you'll appreciate it more if ya hafta work for it." They faced off and bowed, then began searching for openings. "When ya do wild cooking, (dodge, feint) you hafta gather everything fresh and plan on what you want to use. Anything (punch, block, punch, sideslip) you gather will SPOIL (ranma leapt a leg sweep) since we don't have a refrigerator, and wasted work will teach faster than a punch! to the gut…

Akane coughed, as she staggered away from a carefully calculated blow to the diaphragm. She kept her guard up though.

"Man, yer spunky," Ranma grinned admiringly. "Not a girly-girl at all!"

She grinned and came back at him with a pair of rapid-fire snap kicks aimed at his chin and then his knee. Ranma leaned away from the first then turned it into a handstand walkover to avoid the second. "If game is scarce, you learn to either eat what ya find on the spot."

"Oh?" Akane jerked up short as she avoided a little trap he had prepared for her expected rush then slipped and fell as a set of toes rocketed at the bridge of her nose. She rolled to one side to gain distance, cursing.

"Man, what a mouth! Definitely not a girly-girl!" He trapped her arm when she tried to punch him as she rose to her feet, flipped her and put her in a submission hold. He released her as soon as he felt her tighten up – she definitely didn't like grappling – and added, "You might screw up once or twice; but after you've taken a whole day to gather the ingredients for a meal, and then have to go to bed hungry… Once or twice is all that it'll take."

"You just watch my special cooking!" she snapped, her adrenaline making her brave.

"Gotta be better than yer swimming was," Ranma quipped. He made a show of ducking when she swung at him again, then grabbed the crescent kick she aimed at his breadbasket to hurl her through the air into the suggested activity. There was a huge splash, followed by the sound of churning water, accompanied by cursing. "And yer swimming's coming along just fine."

oOo

Later, they prepared to go a-gathering. Ranma promised to bring back the meat, and Akane, using samples of plants and roots Ranma wanted her to find, was to take care of the produce. It wasn't quite that simple, because Ranma had a bright idea. "Hey! Pigs are supposed to have a good sense of smell and can eat the same things humans can. Why don't we have P-chan lead the way?"

Ranma was in male form, so P-chan was less than cooperative for him when he tried to stick some chive in his face to give him 'the scent'. To Ranma's amusement, Akane sat the little pig down and explained in cutesy little terms just what they were trying to do. To Ranma's amazement, P-chan seemed to get the idea right away.

After being put down, he quickly located wild onions along the verge of the clearing. Instead of eating them, he went into point like a bird dog. Ranma tried to congratulate the little animal, which it dodged, followed by P-chan making a determined run at Ranma's ankles, which he 'mostly' dodged. Hopping quickly out of reach, Ranma watched Akane harvest the onions and scritch P-chan behind the ears with a look of (almost) jealousy.

"Heh!" Ranma controlled himself and evidenced a mask of coolness. "I'll leave you guys to that and come up with the main course."

Ranma had been hunting — poaching, many would call it — for the last five years of his young life. He had gotten very good at living on wild bounty, as his father had never been interested in working at any job for longer than it took to replace some necessary piece of equipment, and Ranma started objecting to his less than legal means of supplying their larder. Genma, after his initial objections, had acquiesced, mainly because Ranma was very good at hunting and food was, with only a few regional exceptions, more plentiful and far less trouble than stealing it. Ranma was a self-taught opportunist. He focused on whatever wild meat was most common in an area.

In this region, he had a wealth of choices.

Their stream ran merrily along its banks, under the railroad and emptied out into a sizeable lake only a few miles away. There were plenty of waterfowl, fish, and other wildlife, ready for a hunter of Ranma's skill to partake. And Ranma had developed a system for hunting under circumstances like these.

Most westerners would not think of hunting without some sort of projectile weapon in hand. The most primitive they might go would be the bow and arrow, highly refined by scientific method and material. That's fine for someone with the cash to spend on a needless hobby, regardless of their consumption of the result.

Ranma dealt with the problem on a more primitive level. He could, of course, have made a bow and a set of arrows. He was competent in the use of the Japanese long bow, as well as the short re-curved horse bow some people on the Asian mainland used. He was however unwilling make the investment of time and energy in such a tool when a simpler one would do as well.

In his hand was a device a casual observer might mistake for a homemade fishing rod. Made from a slender whip of sun-cured bamboo about three meters long, the far end had firmly fastened to it a cord somewhat heavier than one would expect for a fishing rod, about the twice the thickness of string used to tie up a parcel or fly a kite. The cord was perhaps half again as long as the pole. At the line's end, was a small weight; in this case, a heavy stone with a slightly narrow spot in its center that led itself to be restrained by a few loops and a tight knot on the cord. Ranma tentatively thought of it as a hunting whip. He was rather proud of it, as it was, as far as he knew, uniquely his creation.

Ranma trailed this contraption extended behind him as he silently stalked through the brush at the edge of the lake. If he could get within six meters of his selected target, he could lash out with deadly accuracy with his device, sending the weighted end at near supersonic speeds in any direction, horizontally or vertically, and at need, strike several times in quick succession. At the moment, his choice of prey was one of the fat ducks feeding on the grasses near the water's edge of the lake. Showing a natural inclination to stalk in a fashion that he would consider disturbingly catlike, he prepared to lash out at the nearest waterfowl.

Then he had a disturbing thought… They had seen Ryoga on and off since teh little incident in town, but never long enough to have any meaningful discussion. He was certain Ryoga had a Jusenkyo Curse. He was certain, Ryoga was in the area. The problem was:

What was Ryoga's curse?

oOo

Akane and P-chan were making arcs through the woods searching for edible vegetation. They had found more wild onions and, at P-chan's urging, Akane had gathered a fair amount of a succulent leaf, which she considered might go into a salad. Eventually, they discovered a half-dozen finger-long wild carrots. Akane was satisfied that they had, at least, contributed something to the celebratory meal.

She looked about then and realized something important.

"P-chan, do you know which direction the camp is?"

oOo

Ranma was getting irritated. He had let three different ducks come within range, and then depart, because he kept seeing some odd resemblance to the lost boy. The first one had wandered close in peculiarly circular arcs, as if it was unsure of where it was going. The second had been moody and aggressive, chasing other ducks away from choice bits of food. The third had been solidly in his sights… until it had looked left, then right, then reared up and flapping its wings cackling out a squawking gaggle that sounded to his ears as a duck-like "Where the hell am I now!"

Muttering imprecations, he waited for his chance while keeping an eye on those already called into question. Finally, a fat lazy-looking duck meandered close to where he was concealed. If that duck reminded him of anyone, it was his fat, panda-cursed father. No hesitation here, Ranma grinned ferociously. It would take a bloody act of the kami for this one to get away. Crouching faintly and leaning forward to better stabilize his strike, he kept his wrist and hand loose and flexible to maximize his accuracy. Power, as he so often reminded Akane, was not the issue here. Proper form would yield the desired result…

Then the 'hunting whip' was yanked from his grasp.

"What the hell?" The words were surprised out of Ranma's mouth and sent his selection of waterfowl scattering. Looking over his shoulder, he took umbrage at an energetic duck savaging his whip's trailing line, like a crow tugging at a worm. Suddenly, he knew… just KNEW... it couldn't be an accident! He recognized this duck! "Ryoga!!"

At his final exclamation, the duck finally noticed him, did a double-take, then lit out for the thick underbrush, quite intentionally retaining hold of this ridiculously long, tough worm he had found. Ranma dove for the whip and missed. "Dammit, Ryoga! Give me back my whip!" He dove after the retreating waterfowl.

oOo

Akane stamped her foot. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" She looked frustrated and a little scared. None of the trees looked particularly familiar, and they had moved away from the stream some time ago. "You sure you can't like… sniff your way back, P-chan?" She looked hopefully at the little black pig.

P-chan blinked, then cast about. After circling a few times, he sat down looking grumpy. 'Damn! 'You'd think I'd gain something by being a pig, but noOOOooooo!' he whined to himself sarcastically.

Akane perked up suddenly. "I think I can hear a train. This way, P-chan!" She charged off, pushing through the undergrowth trying to find a familiar landmark before the train's passing allowed her to get disoriented again. As she ran, the sound of the train seemed to fade and change pitch, then cut off. 'What th…?' She slowed to a jog and stopped, P-chan at her heels. She listened carefully and could faintly hear the train, but it seemed to be from a completely different direction. She had no idea that she had been following the echoes of the train off a bare cliff face. Nor did either of them realize they had been traveling uphill. They were now at the wrong angle to the rock face to catch the fading echoes of the passing train, and even further from camp than they were before.

oOo

Ranma thrashed her way furiously through the underbrush. Though she hadn't been in the lake yet, the borders abounded with opportunities to get wet. The duck, smaller and full of the need for personal survival, would normally have escaped by now, but for some perverse reason it seemed determined to hang on to this extra-large super-deluxe 'worm' it had found. As it was, the drag of the line and pole behind it slowed it down to a speed comparable to the angry water-challenged teen.

Their progress was easily visible to the lone fisherman who sat quietly on his boat out in the lake, his eyes following the progressive meandering path of disturbed head-high underbrush. He sweat-dropped and decided it was none of his business.

"Damn you, Ryoga!" snarled Ranma as the branches whipped at her face and arms. "Is this your pay-back?!" She whined viciously in mockery of Ryoga: "Ran-ma! Because of you, I've seen hell? Loser!!"

Three times she almost caught the shaft of her hijacked weapon. Three times the duck put on a burst of speed or dove into thicker brush that slowed its pigtailed pursuer down. In one instance the duck suddenly doubled back, flying in Ranma's face and pecking her as it came abruptly to a dead end. By the time the pigtailed girl had recovered, the duck was heading back the way they had come. Suddenly the fractured light and shadow of the thickets thinned as they neared the lake edge, and the duck found enough open space to take wing. Ahead of it, the thicket thinned to nothing at the lake's edge.

"Aaaaaaaahhh!!!" Ranma put on a burst of speed and leaped for the pole of her device. "Gotcha!!" she cried, just as it swung into space above a rather abrupt, five-meter drop-off to the water in the lake below.

"Awww, crap!!"

oOo

Akane pelted through the woods at high speed. If Ranma were here, they would probably be having roast pig for dinner, but she did not feel up to taking on the large hairy boar that pursued P-chan and herself. She held the little piglet tucked under her arm like an American football player and was making very good time, stiff-arming tree limbs out of their path. The boar was getting whipped by the branches as they sprang back, which was not alleviating its foul temper at all. They burst out of the woods into an immaculate oriental garden, with groomed lawns and carefully cultured trees.

The wild boar quickly gained on the sprinting girl, its heavy hooves tearing up sod like a cultivator. Akane used every bit of terrain to impede her pursuer and gain a few meters of space. Almost as if it had leaped in front of them, a tall fence of lacquered bamboo obstructed their escape.

So Akane jumped.

She didn't think about it; she simply did it, clearing the three-meter high obstacle like a deer jumping a fallen tree. As she cleared the barrier, she quickly noticed the small, kidney-shaped pool full of churning opaque water which was about to become her landing point. She vaguely noted the older man and woman, wrapped in towels who were about to enter said pool and the sharp bite of mineral salts in the warm moist air. Behind her, she heard the fence splinter under the impact of a large irate boar. "Awww, crap!!" she shrieked.

"BWEEEEEE!!" agreed P-chan, who noticed the water had steam wafting from its turbulent surface.

oOo

Ranma briefly tried to fly, then, considering her current cursed state, gave it up as a lost cause. She irately jerked on her 'hunting whip' the other end of which was held by 'that greedy duck, Ryoga' trying to make his getaway. This had the unintentional consequence of snapping the duck back into her face, where it defended itself, vigorously.

oOo

The boar charged as Akane desperately tried to escape the trap of the man-made onsen. P-chan was strangely heavier and didn't fit as neatly under her arm. The little pig didn't seem so little anymore and it was keeping her from maneuvering past the edge of the tub. Even with 150 kilograms of destruction leaping at her, she had to glance aside to make sure she wasn't hurting the little animal she carried. Eyes met eyes. 'Yes, P-chan…' she thought. 'He looks pale. Funny what you think about right before you die…' She tensed and screamed.

Ryoga whipped her aside and uppercut the raging boar into the stratosphere. "Leave Akane alone!" he roared. "Feh!" He turned away from the vanishing dot, once more reassured he was a man. "Kami! How I hate pigs!"

He turned and examined Akane where she sat, wide-eyed and stiff, half in and half out of the tub. "Are… are you alright, Akane?" he asked in hushed tones.

Her eyes suddenly snapped to focus and she shouted…

oOo

Ranma rose out of the knee-deep water, cursing like a sailor. Then she saw the feathered form floating lifelessly nearby. Her eyes went wide in horror and she shouted…

oOo

"RYOGA!!!"

Birds, resting in the trees, burst forth in panicked flight. A tiny intense dust-devil wafted grit and leaves in swirling patterns, bringing tears to one's eyes. A cloud briefly obscured the sun. The moment was an endless tragedy.

oOo

"You're P-chan…"

Ryoga backed away, nervously stuttering, "Wha… what do you mean, Akane?" He glanced at their unintentional hosts and muttered, "A little help, here?" He quickly accepted a towel and climbed out the opposite side of the spa from Akane.

Akane, glaring, swung out of the spa and stood up, the water pouring off her to form a puddle beneath her feet, clothes clinging to her form. She stood there just a moment, fists clenched at her sides and, strangely to Ryoga, counting to herself while she took deep cleansing breaths. Her eyes flashed and she marched around the tub. Ryoga backpedaled, but not fast enough. She caught him by his bandanna.

"You. Are. P-Chan."

As he spluttered, she snatched up a chilled drink from a nearby table and doused him. "But wait! Akane, no! But – BwEEEEEEEEeeee!"

Akane gazed at him as he seemed to shrink all of a sudden, leaving the towel to drift unattended into the spa. "Ryoga," she said grimly. "You little pig…" She glanced up at their audience. "I'm terribly sorry for barging in, but we're lost. Could you point me in the direction of town?"

The man and the woman both wordlessly pointed east, further down-slope. Akane turned and caught just a hint of a high-rise and roadways a few miles in that direction.

"Thank you!" She smiled prettily and, turning, almost skipped in the direction they had pointed. She cleared the other side of the privacy fence with no problem and sped away, a little black pig dangling by its bandanna from one hand.

Behind her the couple finally found their voices. "Always said hot water made me feel human after a hard day's work."

"Yes," the woman nodded. She regarded the remaining drink suspiciously. "However I'm not sure I would be willing to test the opposite theory at the moment."

"I'll get fresh drinks," the man replied, picking up the remaining frosty glass and emptying it carefully through the new hole in the fence.

"I'll call Murimaki-san in the morning," the woman added. "Perhaps a bamboo-surfaced concrete privacy fence would be more appropriate?"

"Sounds good to me," replied the man.

oOo

Akane made good time to the railway and followed it back to the stream. Without pause she marched back the well-worn path to their clearing. She set the little black pig firmly down, jarring him something fierce, and began preparing the fire pit. All the while she glared at Ryoga.

Ryoga was beginning to shake. What the hell was she going to do? Cook him? It was possible. He began to hope as she was proving unable to start the fire in her state of mind.

"ARRRRRRRrgh!?" Akane stopped mid-howl. Snapped a look of 'Don't you go anywhere' at the little pig, then found his pack. She dug through his things and finally pulled out his little propane gas stove. She fit one of the innocuous cans of fuel she had misappropriated the other evening and applied a match – Phomph!! She took his coffee pot to the pool, filled it and set it on the portable stove. Then she sat down to wait.

oOo

Ranma staggered along in shock. In her arms lay the corpse of the duck that had so bedeviled her. In her heart was a deep burning pain.

She'd killed him. Killed her friend. He was a dead… duck. She had to get some hot water – had to! It wasn't right to lay him in the earth in his cursed form. It wasn't right…

oOo

Akane turned away as she dumped the steaming water over Ryoga. It was warm enough, not boiling yet, but as they were at a higher elevation, water boiled at lower temperatures, anyway. He changed and dove for the clothes in his pack blushing furiously. "It's all Ranma's fault," Ryoga accused as soon as he had his pants fastened. He yanked his shirt over his head in time for it to be used against him.

"Oh, really?" Akane had him by the collar, and he hadn't gotten his arms in the sleeves yet. "Did he tie you up and drag you with him to Jusenkyo?"

"Jusenkyo?" Ryoga was stunned. How did she know…? "He was there? That bastard! How dare he hide from me?"

Bonk! He frowned at her, rubbing his head from the smart hammer-fist she'd delivered.

"Ryoga, I swear… He's in the same boat as you! Give him a break!"

"Same boat as… He's cursed?" Ryoga gawked for a second then looked smug. "Serves him right! What does he turn into? A slug? A baboon?" He laughed raucously till she thumped him again.

"You are not gaining much sympathy from me with an attitude like that, mister." Akane glared some more. "And when I tell him about your curse…"

"You can't!" Ryoga blurted, paling. In his mind's eye was Ranma, his cursed form rising out of ankle deep water, a huge talon reaching for the helpless little black pig. 'Looks tasty…' the apparition moaned.

"Huh?" Akane's wordless question broke his nightmare.

"It… It would… violate the warrior's code to reveal a weakness like that to an enemy!" finished Ryoga desperately.

"Ryoga? Warrior's code?" Akane was honestly puzzled. "But he's my sensei."

"B-b-but you have no idea what he's like!" Ryoga's eyes grew wide. "You and Ranko, out here alone… Oh, kami! The perversions he might attempt on your innocent bodies-!" (Ahhh… Let's not go into his imaginings here.)

Akane's eyes narrowed. "Speaking of which…" BAM! "…That's for snuggling up against my chest when I was holding you, you pig!"

Ryoga blinked away stars and pondered the depression he was reclining in. "I-I-I snu-snuggled against your…?"

He passed out, leaving Akane irritated and frustrated for lack of information. She knelt down and began slapping his cheeks, letting each blow get progressively stronger as he didn't respond. Finally…

"Ow! Enouvb! Enouvb alwedy!"

Akane sat back as he struggled out of his comatose state. His face was swollen, but he was conscious again.

"Pervert," Akane snorted.

"Ah yam noh a perverh!!" Ryoga protested, gingerly touching his tender balloon-like cheeks.

"Hmph!" Akane was obviously doubtful. She turned a steely gaze on him. "Now…"

Ryoga flinched. "Wha?"

"You are going to help me find more veggies for dinner," she said, then added leaning close and focusing her glare to laser-like intensity. "Right?"

"Okay," he squeaked. Then realizing how embarrassing that sounded, he tried to pitch his voice deeper and attempted a more masculine (and assertive) tone. He set himself, took a deep breath, looked her in the eye and said… SPLOOSH! "Bweeeee!"

Pig and girl stared at one another.

Akane smirked. "Be good and your secret's safe."

Ryoga/Pchan sighed and threw in the towel. It was for her dinner, after all.

oOo

Ranma stumbled into an empty campsite, the bedraggled duck cradled in her arms. She staggered drunkenly over to the kettle on the camp stove, not even vaguely curious about why it was set up, or why the water was still warm. She ignored the pain from the hot metal and poured it liberally over the deceased bird. It did not transform. The splash of hot water soaked the redhead's shirt and trousers, transforming her to 'him', but did nothing for the duck, as, after all, water runs off a duck's back.

Reigniting the little can of fuel, Ranma impatiently waited for water to boil in their biggest remaining pot, then attempted to squeeze two-kilograms of bird into a liter can of water, just to make sure that he overcame a duck's back's natural aversion to said element. But it was to no avail. "Dammit!!" He yanked the duck back out of the can and shook it. "Why don't you change back? Why?" He knelt there, trembling, face contorting into patterns unused for years.

"No… I will not…" he gasped, chest tightening. Convulsively, he lurched over to the pool and slapped the cold water in his face.

"Dammit…" the redhead staggered back over to the dead duck. "It's not any easier this way. D-Damn you, Ryoga…"

Ranma in his female form began to silently weep.

oOo

Akane stopped and looked about. She carefully fixed the landmarks in her memory and kept one eye on the wayward Ryoga/P-chan, who was casting about looking for additions to the menu. But it was getting late and they would have to retrace their steps or get lost again. She grimaced. They had enough for garnishing whatever Ranma provided, but not much else. Rats.

Ryoga suddenly sat down and cocked his head. His head turned left then right and he 'bweed' in alarm.

"Behind you, Ryoga!" exclaimed Akane sharply. The little black pig turned his head and looked over his shoulder. She could almost see the embarrassed look that passed over his face. "Did you find something?"

The little black pig cocked his head and swiveled back to face the other way. His ears seemed to quiver.

Akane shivered. "It's not that boar again, is it?" She watched his little head shake in the negative. "Okay… What is it, then?

Ryoga shrugged and moved forward, cautiously. Akane followed. Soon they saw the flicker of flame through the gathering darkness. The tiny fire haloed a shadowy lump in a nimbus of loose red hair.

"Ran-?"

"OH, AKANE!!" The last thing Akane had expected was the sobbing mess of a redhead that staggered toward her.

"Oh, MY!!" Akane grabbed the forlorn Ranma and steadied her. "What happened to you?"

"I… I…" She stared, huge-eyed, at Akane from the horror of it.

"You… You weren't… Were you?" Akane had her own horrors, and only one really fit the expression before her. Somehow, despite his… her skill, Ranma had been…!

"I killed him!"

Akane was almost relieved. Then she did a double-take. "Who?"

"I k-killed hi-hi-himmmm…"

"Who?"

"KIIIIILLLLLL-ed him!"

"WHO, dammit?"

"Hi-hi-himmm…"

Akane slapped her. "GET A GRIP!!" she screamed. WHACK!!

"Wh-wh-who?" asked Ranma, shocked as she attempted to reposition her jaw.

"That's what I was asking, baka!!" Akane growled.

"Hoo-Hoooo!" came the call of an owl.

"Don't you start!" Akane snapped, looking into the darkness. She turned back to Ranma only to find the redhead huddled by the fire again, mumbling to herself. "Now, who did you kill?"

Ranma whispered in a tiny voice, "Ryoga…"

Akane fell over. Extracting herself from her face-plant she shot a glance at 'P-chan' who was staring at the redhead in horror. She settled herself and asked gently, "And why do you think you killed him?"

"Ki-ki…"

"Don't make me slap you," the dark-haired girl growled. Ranma swallowed and composed herself. "I repeat myself: why do you think you killed him?"

"The d-duck!" Ranma choked out. "It was… He was… I'm pretty sure that was Ryoga." Suddenly both fists punched the ground between them, creating a crater. "And I couldn't even change him back!"

Akane composed herself, brushed off the clods of dirt thrown up by Ranma's action and rose. She walked around the small crater and bopped the distraught gender-swapper on the head.

"Owww!" Ranma cradled her head. "Wadja do that for?"

"You didn't kill Ryoga."

"But…"

"Trust me. You didn't kill Ryoga."

Ranma glared. "Wadya mean I didn't kill Ryoga?" The redhead pointed to the dead duck. "He's right there!" The fact that P-chan was sitting in the same direction didn't help.

Akane dithered for a second, trying to hide a smirk at the pig's wide-eyed look. "The duck," she carefully emphasized, "is not Ryoga. Trust me on that."

"And how would you know?"

"I, uh… met him while I was gathering vegetables."

Ranma went totally silent. Her blue eyes seemed almost too large for her face. She began to sputter, as if, Akane suddenly realized, her sensei suddenly had to justify her emotional investment and tears.

"Bu-bu-but," Ranma waved her arms around, her face twisting with a mixture of hope and horror. "He might have left you and shown up…"

"No, Ranma. I even know what his curse is; and he's not a duck."

"He's not?"

"No." She smiled as the reply seemed to momentarily stifle the other girl. Kneeling again, she beckoned P-chan over.

Suddenly Ranma began to sputter and curse sounding almost like an overlarge housecat dunked in a rain bucket. "You mean I spent hours worrying…! And I was cuh, cuh…"

"Crying?" the brunette asked pleasantly.

"No! Worried! I was worried I had killed the baka by accident! Yeah!"

"Uh-huh…"

"It's true!"

"Really now?"

"Damn straight! I mean, if I had meant to kill him, it would be one thing," Ranma half-boasted.

"I see."

Ranma cast about for a change of subject. Getting emotional was not what she had been brought up to consider a manly attribute and 'his' masulinity felt distinctly threatened. The hot water was spilled all over the ground. Finally the redhead picked up the duck. It dangled bonelessly from her hand. "You know how to clean one of these?"

Akane grimaced. "Feel free to show me, sensei!" she said, bowing from where she had knelt back down. The lesson continued.

oOo

As the moon rose high, Ranma, who had returned to his birth-form, Akane, and a little black pig sat around the fire as the duck carcass roasted over the fire. The herbs and vegetables were nestled inside the duck as a sort of stuffing and the two human participants took turns turning the spit to maintain an even heat on the meat.

Ranma growled at the pig as it had once again taken a cheap shot at him when it realized that 'Ranko' had disappeared. "You just keep that up, smart boy, and I know where you'll be," he threatened, pointing to the spit.

"Ranma!" Akane chided as Ryoga retreated behind her. "And right after you were so upset about 'killing' Ryoga!"

"Yeah, yeah… Ya know I don't really mean it." They were by unspoken mutual agreement, silent for a while.

"So…" Ranma said carelessly. "What is he?"

"What is who?" prevaricated Akane. The night was quite peaceful and she wanted it to stay that way. Her cooking, with major aid from her sensei, looked like it was about to bear fruit, and she was very hungry.

"You know. Ryoga is who. So what is he?"

Akane sighed deeply. "Alright…"

Behind her Ryoga jerked and whimpered. 'She's gonna tell!! I'm dead!!'

Akane looked down at her hands. "You're my sensei, so I'll have to ask your guidance on this."

Ranma stared, almost stopping his turning of the spit, but quickly recovered. "Um… sure. If I can. I suppose…" He kicked himself mentally for fumbling the issue.

"Ryoga asked me, on my honor as a martial artist, not to reveal his weakness to his rival." She clasped her hands together. "And while I don't entirely agree with his reasoning, he did help me out of a bad situation when a wild boar came after me."

"Really? A wild boar?" Ranma was interested. "How big?"

"Big enough to be really, really scary!"

"So you feel an obligation?"

"Yes," Akane admitted softly.

"Alright." They had been catching the drippings from the roasting bird and reapplying them to keep the meat moist. "I'm cool. It's only right that rivals fight man-to-man." He nodded almost nobly, his features chiseled by the light of the fire. He reached out and tested the meat, poking it with his knife. "And I think we're finally done."

"Finally!" echoed Akane with a sigh, as he lifted the bird off the uprights and carefully slid it onto the grass mat he had shown her how to weave for that purpose. "I never realized how much effort went into making dinner."

The pigtailed boy snorted. As he quickly extracted the vegetables and broke down the carcass, the moon rose high in a sky above them only partly obscured by clouds and the haze of lights from the nearby city. "Damn near freakin' midnight," he grumbled as he finished. "Itadakimasu!"

"Itadakimasu!" Akane repeated as she picked up her chopsticks and set to. Beside them, P-chan fed as well, relieved at having cooked food for a change, even if he was a little pig at the moment. The veggies were a little overcooked, the meat was dry and tough, but it tasted wonderful! And, at least in part, Akane's work. Life was good.

Then Ranma asked, wheedling, "About Ryoga… Can ya give me a hint?"

"NO!!"