(Yes. I am alive. And still writing… just not writing fanfiction. Fortunately, someone reminded me that commitments are to be honored, and that if you post a story you really should feel obligated to either continue it, or formally end it. I've opted, as is evident, for the former.)

STICKS AND CARROTS

Part One: Sensei

Chapter Twelve

                He was wise. He was powerful. He was a great teacher who had raised his student to an incredible pinnacle of skill and ability, and continued to push that student to rise. He had created powerful martial arts forms, forms and techniques so powerful that, like His terrible fire-burst attack, had to be sealed away for the good of the world. He had even survived long and painful training under Him for years, and then sealed Him away with the minimal aid (so he thought) of his fellow student.

                "Growf!"

                He was also, at the moment, due to conspiracy by the universe against him, a panda.

                "You'd think he'd have learned by now that dumping cold water on himself is not the way a person with an animal-type Jusenkyou curse cools off," Nabiki said, without even trying to hide her amusement.

                A stream of hot water transformed the sulking panda into a sulking and very upset man in a disheveled gi. "HOTHOTHOT!"

                "What troubles you, Saotome?" Soun asked, setting up the shogi board.

                Genma fanned the steam away desperately and glared at his old friend, but Soun was a long-time master of ignoring such unpleasantness. With ill-grace, Genma plonked himself down on the other side of the board.

                "This is going too far, Tendou," he said, diving directly into the subject as was his wont. (Well… so long as the subject in question didn't involve undue duress on his part that would follow as a consequence. He had his standards.) "That… that old creature seems to believe that I will simply hand my son over to her without hesitation or question!"

                Soun looked up (and Genma kicked himself for not holding his response until the game had started; that would have been a perfect opportunity for a Ghost's Hand Relocation technique). "Old creature? …Ah. The Amazon girl's great-grandmother." Looking back at the board, he moved a Fu forward. "I don't understand your concern, Saotome. All she has done is teach him a few techniques and present him with challenges that cause him to improve. She has not mentioned the spurious 'engagement' of Shampoo recently, has she?"

                Genma scowled and moved a Fu of his own forward, knowing that Soun was keeping a careful watch on his move. "She thinks she can train the boy, despite the years of suffering I have devoted to his skills!"

                Soun shook his head and moved his Kaku. "But is this not to your advantage, Saotome?" he asked curiously. "The boy will only improve, and become a better heir to the Masubetsu Kakutou Ryuu. Are not our primary tenants absorption and adaptation?"

                Genma growled and made a countering move of his own (palming a piece as he did so – just in case Soun took his eyes off the board). He'd forgotten how… laid back Soun could be. "Perhaps… but she has a plan, I can sense it." He shuddered.

                Soun looked up as he placed his piece, and Genma quickly moved the piece back and moved a second, useless one forward. Standard tactics, really. A true Anything Goes shogi game didn't start until enough pieces were scattered that alterations didn't stand out.

                Fortunately, he had the advantage at the moment – he was the leader of the conversation. "And I am not simply paranoid, Soun…"

                "Only mostly," Nabiki said quietly, with a smirk. Still, she was content simply to listen in. She was rather pleased with the Saotomes at the moment – Genma for negotiating the 'free ramen for a year' deal and Ranma for winning the race that gave them it. Granted, the family would swiftly get sick of ramen if they over-used the deal, but at least they had it – food bills were going to be lighter than expected this year.

                Genma turned his nose in the air, then caught himself and quickly returned his attention to the board. That sly Soun! How dare he use his own family as a distraction!

                Ranma dashed through the room, shouting something about survival and ducking a few flying objects. Genma quickly switched the board again. All was fair in Anything Goes, right?

                "Saotome, old friend, perhaps you should simply explain yourself more clearly…" Soun said, a hint of concern on his face. "What troubles you so about the old woman? Surely you aren't objecting to your son's increase in skill!"

                Genma thought hard (yes, he can do that… sometimes…) as they exchanged several more moves. 'I must get him to understand! But if I speak His name… I must do this in a round-about manner, then.' "Tendou-kun, surely you have noticed the… resemblance she bears…"

                Soun looked sharply at his old friend, no doubt alarmed by the uncharacteristic care with which Genma was choosing his words. "Resemblance…?"

                Genma sighed. 'Must I always be the one with the brains?' "To a certain figure in our shared past which we disposed of over ten years ago, shortly before I set out on my mission of training."

                Soun shook his head in confusion… hesitated… blinked… blanched…

                While his friend's eyes were blank and unseeing with shock and terror, Genma quickly turned the board around, having intentionally timed his statement to a point where he was only a few moves from losing. He calmly moved a piece (granted, not in the direction it was supposed to move, but Soun didn't say anything!) and waited for Soun to snap out of it.

                Finally, Soun gulped loudly and leaned in close. "Surely… you don't think…?"

                "We cannot be certain…" Genma said, his tone implying the opposite.

                Soun shook his head violently. "Saotome-kun, this is madness! However withered and… old, the old woman is still that – a woman! Surely no female would ever join forces with… Him."

                Genma didn't look up from the board as he moved his own piece. "But she is old and withered, Tendou-kun. Old and withered enough that He would leave her be… especially if she should tempt a new apprentice to Him."

                Soun simply shook his head in disbelief. Then he frowned. Then he began to break out in a cold sweat.

                Then the building tension broke, and Soun surged to his feet. "SAOTOME! WE MUST STOP THIS TRAVESTY BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE!"

                Genma remained seated in a pose of solemn contemplation. "We must not act too quickly, Tendou-kun," he said calmly, wishing that Soun had made his move before overreacting like that.

                'Hey… wait a minute… I know he didn't have two Kaku!' Grrr! The shame, that Tendou was cheating on his old friend Saotome!

                "Surely, you must have some plan, Saotome?" Tendou asked in a pleading tone, sitting again and making a move.

                Genma nodded solemnly. "Indeed I do, Tendou-kun. This old crone may be withered and evil, but she will never be a match for the 'Dance of the Fish' technique!"

                Soun and his daughter Nabiki both looked up, curious, and Genma made his own move in response. "Dance of the Fish?" Soun asked. "I have never heard of it, Saotome. What manner of technique is it?"

                Genma smiled smugly and crossed his arms as he waited for Soun to move. "A cunning and nearly unbeatable technique." Seeing that their curiosity was not assuaged, and more than happy to give them an opportunity to marvel at his cunning, Genma settled into story-telling mode.

                "Once, years ago, a fish was caught and served as a fillet to a great scholar. Now, this fish was still alive as they carried it out to the table and the scholar began to eat. With a cunning and mighty leap, the fish flipped into the air and landed in a platter awash with juice and blood from another course, and this concoction splashed everywhere, including over the snow-white garb of the scholar's wife. Aghast by this ill omen, the cooks quickly carried the fish away, and it was no longer doomed to be eaten alive."

                "Interesting story," Nabiki commented, arching a brow sardonically. "I assume it had a point somewhere?"

                Genma glared. Had no one taught this girl to be quiet when her elders were speaking? Had no one taught her not to interrupt while a story was being told?

                "The technique is that, like the fish, one must seek something in the surroundings to sully an apparently clean outer surface to reveal the wickedness wishing to feed off one's accomplishments beneath, and in the same action be removed from the area of danger. Cunning and yet simple, no?"

                Nabiki rolled her eyes and strolled out. "Whatever. See ya, 'Uncle' Saotome."

                Genma shook his head in disdain and turned his attention back to Soun, who had the appropriate look of concentration on his face.

                "So… how will you accomplish this, Saotome?" his old friend asked.

                Genma shook his head and eyed the board. Excellent. "I must watch her," he said. "Study her movements, her surroundings. As with the fish, a single mistake could be terrible at this point." He moved a piece. "Oh, by the way – I win."

                "Huh – wha…?" Soun looked down at the board, then leapt up, raging. "SAOTOME! YOU CHEATED!"

                "I? I would never do such a growf!" He turned and glared. [Boy! How dare you?!]

                "Feh, c'mon, oyaji," Ranma said with a little smirk, putting down the pail. "If y' ain't cheatin', then how come y' dropped all these?" He picked up some of the shogi pieces that had fallen out of his father's sleeve when Genma had transformed.

                "GROWF!" WHAP.

                "Oyaji…!"

                Genma barreled out of the house to meet his now feminized offspring's attack.

                Ku Lon sipped the ramen broth and frowned in concentration, before shaking her head and returning her attention to her loose-leaf book of theoretical recipes. With the restaurant down for the day, she had decided to take the opportunity to experiment with the bizarre idea of dessert-ramen that Akane had mentioned.

                "Where is Shampoo?" Nabiki asked curiously, tilting her head to the side and inhaling deeply. "By the way, whatever you're making, it smells good."

                "I sent her to pick up a shipment; she should be back in a few days," Ku Lon replied absently, picking up a pencil and jotting down possible variations to the recipe.

                "I hope you told her exactly how much to pay," Nabiki said with a smirk.

                "She doesn't need an explanation. Now, did you have a reason for being here, or will I have to chase you out with a stick?" Ku Lon brandished a wooden spoon teasingly.

                "Oh… I just happened to overhear something you might be interested in…"

                A few minutes and several thousand yen later, Ku Lon was clutching her staff desperately and wondering frantically if her dignity as a Matriarch could withstand the damage of having an outsider see her rolling-on-the-floor-kicking-her-legs-in-the-air laughing. "He's planning to what?"

                Nabiki smirked. If she'd had any worries of this situation getting messy (in a serious way, at least), then plainly Ku Lon's reaction had assuaged those fears. "To 'splatter you', or something of that sort. I already told you what they said."

                Ku Lon finally managed to regain her center without outwardly losing too much of her appearance of being calm and un-ruffled. "I see… and, out of curiosity, why did you chose to inform me of this?"

                Nabiki shrugged with her patented 'why should I care? I'm in this for the amusement' manner. "To be honest, I was curious and wanted to know if there was anything to this 'He' they kept mentioning. It was really quite impressive, the way Daddy reacted."

                Ku Lon shrugged. "I'm afraid I can't help you," she said.

                Clatter.

                Soun gasped. "The family altar…!" Looking down at the scattered plants and splintered wood, he shook his head. "An ill omen…"

                Genma laughed and hoped Soun wouldn't notice that he'd inadvertently caused the crash. "Ha-ha-ha! Who knows – maybe a demon's awakening!"

                Soun twitched. "D-demon…?!"

                Then he blinked and grinned with forced cheer. "Oh! Right! 'Demon'! Hahaha!"

                Genma laughed as well – a little too loudly.

                Soun grabbed his gi and dragged him in close, the tentative beginnings of a demon's head masked by the virtual rivers of cold sweat running down his face. "DEMON, Saotome?!"

                "J-just a joke, Tendou-kun!" Genma said quickly, making calming motions with his hands. "Just a joke!" He carefully ignored the cold sweat that was currently soaking the handkerchief on his own head. Not as bad as Soun, but…

                Okay. It had been a very bad joke.

                Nabiki looked up from her ramen as thunder rolled. "Good grief – more rain coming?" Quickly finishing off her noodles, the girl got to her feet. "Your ramen is as excellent as ever, Matriarch. I just wish it were cheaper."

                "It would be, if you had simply come when the restaurant was open," Ku Lon said serenely. She waved goodbye as the Tendou girl trotted out the door, then returned to her kitchen-craft.

                Meanwhile, her mind was at work. 'So… the panda has decided that the passive approach will not get rid of me,' she thought, tasting her experimental broth again. She'd already found one recipe that would be excellent in the winter, when people would be looking for hot foods, but she wanted at least one that would make a good summer treat. 'Well, it will be interesting to see what he comes up with.'

                She wasn't particularly worried by this new development – Genma at his best didn't have a chance of keeping up with her in any manner on her worst day, for one thing. For another, she'd seen this coming a mile away. Genma wasn't just going to lie down and let Ku Lon take away his son and prize student. That he was planning on including the Tendou patriarch in his scheme was unfortunate, but also predictable.

                'Still… just because his track record is against him doesn't mean that he is always ineffective. It would be humiliating to ignore him as being a harmless dolt, only to be taken off guard because he happened to get a lucky break.'

                Scribbling down her observations of this particular recipe, she continued to think. 'Nabiki tagged the main source of concern, I think – this 'Him' that they kept referring to.' Not so much a concern that the mysterious person would show up, but if they convinced Ranma that she was indeed in league with an undesirable figure, her progress would be seriously hampered. It was extremely difficult to prove a negative, after all.

                'If I were Genma, what would I do?' she thought. 'Well, since I can't depend on this mysterious 'Him' to conveniently show up…'

                "AKANE!"

                "Akane… do you know this… person?"

                "Ummm… do I know you?"

                "Y-you don't remember m-me?" A sniffle.

                "W-wait! Don't worry – just give me a minute, I'll try to remember…"

                "D-Don't trouble yourself… just please… LET ME HAVE A GOOD CRY IN YOUR BOSOM!"

                '…the only logical course of behavior would be independent action.' She ignored the little chill down her spine for the moment. 'That shouldn't be too hard to defend against; it's not like I have anything to hide.'

                Setting the problem of Genma aside for the moment, she began considering the other half of the equation – his son.

                She'd been making progress with Ranma, but it was slow. At least he didn't immediately go combat-ready whenever he saw her. That was something. But she was still a long way from having his trust, or even respect.

                Ku Lon scowled down at her latest concoction (really, a shame. It didn't deserve that look, it was in fact quite passable). Two hundred years of practice in the arcane art of patience were wearing thin rapidly. Some kami had decided to have a good laugh by dangling a tantalizing prize right in front of her and forcing her to run in circles to get it.

(               In an ironically simultaneous but not-related-nope-nope-not-at-all-what-made-you-think-of-THAT? course of events, a god of mischief was dragged home by his mother and given a spanking for playing around with her Bait Box of Temptation (intended to be an accessory to the Koi Rod, but a flop due to the un-classy name).)

                Ku Lon decided she'd done enough cooking for the day and set her ingredients aside. She wanted to concentrate on her progress with her carrot-campaign.

                She wanted Ranma's full respect, both as a teacher and as a person. What she had, thus far, was his respect as a martial artist. A nice beginning, but not really what her goal was. The grudging respect of one fighter to another was a little too competitive. What she wanted was trust.

                'I had a good start,' she thought to herself, starting in on the dishes. 'The fact that he was willing to approach me on the topic of the Neko-ken demonstrates that. On the hand, my miscalculation with Ryouga probably set things back. Hopefully the apology started mending things.'

                Ku Lon shook her head, putting away a pot. She'd been keeping herself in the background recently, letting Xian Pu have a chance to make her own progress with the boy. Unfortunately, the most progress she'd made was during the Miss Martial Arts Takeout competition, and competition was not necessarily the relationship she wanted to establish.

                The repercussions of that particular fiasco were interesting. Xian Pu had come home fuming, and it had taken all of Ku Lon's two centuries of experience and control to get the girl to calm down and come off the warpath, and a good fifteen minutes before Xian Pu explained herself, and managed to explain that for once, it was not the fact that she had lost the competition that incited her wrath.

                "Xian Pu know she not able to beat Airen," the girl explained huffily. "She second behind Airen and beat pervert-girl, is what is important."

                Instead, what had her angry was what Akane had done. Apparently, after the contestants had fallen into the trapdoor (and why, exactly, did that boy have a set of giant trapdoors in his yard, anyway?), Xian Pu had managed to disqualify Akane from the competition by feeding Ranma part of the teriyaki eel. (Ku Lon rather suspected that there was a bit more to what had happened than that, given the way Xian Pu fidgeted and tried to avoid the Matriarch's eyes when she got to the part about the disqualification, but the girl hurried on before Ku Lon could press her for details.) Akane had been displeased, to say the least, and instead of being a good sport and leaving, she had sought revenge. With a bucket, and a hose after that failed.

                "And I suppose," Ku Lon said wryly, "that you did nothing to encourage that reaction?"

                Xian Pu at least had the grace to blush. "Xian Pu might have… gloated some."

                Ku Lon sighed. Well, at least the girl admitted to her actions. That was some progress, at least. "'Might have', Xian Pu?" she queried. "You are not helping things by stalling. Did you, or did you not?"

                Xian Pu hung her head. "Xian Pu tell Akane 'go home with tail between legs'."

                "Ah. So, Akane was being a poor loser, but you were comporting yourself equally badly." Ku Lon had rubbed her forehead and meditated on a bottle of Asprin.

                Ku Lon made a face, remembering that conversation. It had taken her a good hour to get the story out of Xian Pu, largely because the girl was embarrassed by her behavior. The short version of the story was that Akane, in a fit of pique, had attempted to transform Xian Pu to her cursed form. Ranma had, naturally, intervened. Both Akane and Xian Pu had chosen to misinterpret his actions as protecting Xian Pu, rather than his sanity. Even though (as she had shamefacedly confessed) Xian Pu had been perfectly aware that Ranma's reasons had nothing to do with affection for her and everything to do with his fear of cats, she'd chosen to intentionally misinterpret them.

                The result had been a furious Akane and an equally frustrated and angry Ranma. Xian Pu had won herself no points on that day. On the other hand, neither had Akane. Ku Lon could only hope that the fiasco had done no harm to her own point-tally.

                'Listen to me. Calculating points like a little child in a competition!' And never you mind the page in the back of her book with names and columns of tally points.

                (Hey, I said never you mind!

                Oh, forget it.)

                Ku Lon tapped the side of her head. 'Stupid deux-ex-machina voices.'

                The matriarch bounced up to her room again, after a quick pause to retrieve the mail. 'Bills, bills, politician pamphlets – save that for scrap paper, it really should serve some useful purpose before being recycled – Ramen Vendors Associated newsletter, Neighborhood Watch announcement (and shameless begging for money), Jusenkyou Products catalogue…' The last she set aside for Ranma. He had reached the level of experience where simply reading would provide good practice, and she figured that this catalogue had plenty of items that would hold his interest.

                'Perhaps I should not be simply leaving Xian Pu to her own devices,' she reflected, returning to her earlier train of thought. 'She has yet to adapt to the paradigm shift between the village, where everyone knows everyone else, and metropolitan Japan, where quite often the people down the street are total strangers.'

                Yes, that was a useful plan. And so, when Xian Pu returned, Ku Lon would begin her induction into the intricate steps of the arcane ritual known as dating.

                But that would have to wait for when the girl came back in a couple days. For now, however, Ku Lon saw no reason for running up an energy bill running the furo for herself when it would be much cheaper to simply go to the public baths for the duration…

                That evening was ordinary. The following day was ordinary. Unfortunately, that winning streak of blandness broke very, very, very late the following evening.

                Just as well, really. If Ku Lon wanted ordinary, she'd have stayed home.

                A shadow moved through the alley, as silent and sure-footed as a cat. The restaurant was dark and quiet, uninhabited for the moment. With the help away on some errand or other and the proprietor at the baths, all was clear for investigation.

                The lock on the back door was simple, as he had expected, given that the door was locked and unlocked at least twice a day. After a moment or two of work, the tumblers clicked into place. Smirking, he oiled the hinges and carefully eased the door open, every sense alert for the slightest hint of a trap or an alarm. He was almost disappointed when nothing happened and he closed the door behind him. He'd anticipated more of a challenge!

                'Patience, Genma! Don't jinx yourself. This is the common door. The true challenges will be here, in the interior.'

                Adjusting the black handkerchief wrapped around his head and tied under his nose, Genma peered about nervously, wishing (not for the first time) that he could use his panda-form for work like this. What was the point of an alternate form if you couldn't use it as an alternate identity? Unfortunately, there was only one panda (even if he was only a part-time panda) in Nerima. There was no way, if by some terrible freak chance a master survivalist (read: burglar) such as he left behind anything like tracks, that Ku Lon would not know who he was – not if he was in panda form.

                And besides, the panda-body didn't fit very well in the typical indoors setting. He got stuck in doorways. So Genma had planned ahead, and come as a human.

                Ryouga looked around, trying very hard not to panic. Somehow, without paying any fare or even launching, he was on an airplane. Several thousand feet in the air. Going kami-knew-where. And everyone was speaking what sounded like English. Which he didn't know very much of, and at the moment couldn't speak even if it had been his native language.

                "{Hey! Someone smuggled a pet on board!}"

                "{Maybe it escaped?}"

                "{Forget that, just catch it!}"

                "{Grab the b-oof! Good god, how is it dragging that thing?}"

                Ryouga dashed about, desperately trailing his really heavy backpack as he did his absolute best to get lost again – fast! "BWEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"

                Yes, a pig was flying. Not willingly – but he was flying.

                "BWEEEBWEBWEBWEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" (No, this will not be translated. Young children might be reading.)

                Genma scanned the dark hallway, checking for windows. Seeing none, he reached into a pocket, pulled out a small flashlight, and clicked it on. Not proper style for Sneaky Fu, of course, but tradition sometimes had to take second place to pragmatism. At least, it did when convenient for Saotome Genma, though of course he never thought of it in those terms. No, of course not!

                Hey, stop laughing!

                Genma noted three doorways in the hall. One would lead upstairs, another to the kitchen, and the last probably to some sort of living room. There would be nothing in the living room – too public. In fact, the old woman's room would likely be where she kept her secrets hidden.

                Genma made for the kitchen. Fortunately (or perhaps not), the first door he opened led to the stairs, and he'd already entered and closed the door before he realized his mistake.

                The big man ascended the stairs nervously. By the fifth step, he was relaxing. By the time he reached the top, he was shaking his head. That was it? A few creaky stairs? No booby-traps, no Pits of Death, no trip wires, no spears shooting out of walls?

                'If this is how well these crazy Amazons protect their secrets, then the boy and I left China much too early!' Genma then paused to examine the narrow, cramped hallway at the top and the two doors leading off of it. Neither had any distinctive markings, save that the one on the left looked as though at some point it had been knocked off its hinges, and replaced by someone who didn't really know what they were doing and didn't particularly care either way. Repeatedly.

                At first, the man tensed, his normally remarkably unathletic mind making all sorts of bizarre contortions in order to imagine a horrible trap, a great trap, a terrible monstrosity of a trap that would compensate for the lack of security thus far. He also inserted the random wondering about where that ungrateful boy was when his father needed him for a bit of light-handed scouting.

                At that point, his poor brain, having failed to do stretches and warm-ups in advance to compensate for the unexpected exercise, tripped and fell on its metaphorical nose. The thought it had tripped over, pulled up from the depths of his mind to see what all the fuss was about, provided the memory of the Amazon girl's… unusual preferred method of entry. If she was so blasé about the walls of other people, why should she be any more careful about her own door?

                If that thought were correct – and Genma, slightly dazed by the barrage of logic, couldn't imagine what else it could be – then logically the other room would belong to the Matriarch. He slipped over to stand to the side of the door and carefully examined every centimeter of his surroundings before turning off the flashlight. Then he reached over and tested the latch.

                Genma frowned. He tested the latch again. He very carefully – very tentatively – ran his fingers over the wood of the door, searching for a hidden keyhole or the irregularity in the wood that would indicate a place where a trap had been hidden. Finally, frustrated and confused, he simply opened the door.

                The room inside was fairly small – understandable, given the old woman's size – and dark. Very dark. Genma attempted to sidle inside, and found himself tripping over things that had somehow hidden unseen in the dark. The martial artist had to constantly remind himself that creatures of the dark fed on fear, and thus he must not show it to them!

                Hand shaking, he pulled out his flashlight again and clicked it on, to find that he'd been stumbling over a small chest tucked into a corner. The wood was weathered and the clasps were bronze. Genma looked at it and tried to think. His past exploits had always been with the Master or into kitchens. He wasn't entirely sure where to look for incriminating secrets.

                He tested the lid of the chest, and felt oddly relieved to find that it was locked. At least something was happening as expected! He carefully checked it for traps – none – and picked the lock, then opened the chest.

                Hmmm. The flashlight wasn't very bright – all he could make out was a pile of cloth. Deciding to save the chest for later, he snuck to a nearby bookshelf and began playing his light over it. After all, even if he couldn't find incriminating secrets, perhaps there were scrolls of secret techniques hidden there! That would keep the boy properly respectful.

                After a few minutes of peering squint-eyed at the books, Genma was thoroughly put out. Why couldn't these blasted Amazons write in Japanese like normal people? Did they expect people to just naturally read it? What arrogance! Seeing a rolled up slip of paper, he snatched it up. Perhaps he could find a translation somewhere – and it had the weathered look of ancient mystery around it that suggested it contained an ancient technique.

                At that moment, he heard something, a sound, a terrible sound that made his blood run cold.

                (Which in a way is good. If he had heard a terrible color that made his blood run cold, we'd be in an interesting situation, wouldn't we?)

                Ku Lon blinked. How peculiar. She could have sworn that she'd locked the door before leaving. And what had been with all the damage done to the public baths this past week, anyway? She'd needed to plug three holes in the furo before she'd even begun her soak!

                Stepping inside, she yawned, stretched, and climbed the stairs – then paused at the top. Odd. Hadn't she left her door closed? It was habit from the village, where curious little great-great-great-grandkids were all over the place, poking their noses in places that might be happy to take those very noses off. Shrugging, she walked inside, then blinked again. Why was her laundry chest open?

                With a slight chill, she stepped over and peered in the chest, breathing a sigh of relief when she noted that her underclothes were still there. For a moment there she'd worried… well.

                Shaking her head at her own foolishness, Ku Lon tugged off her robe and went to the closet to retrieve her sleeping clothes. She opened the door, and blinked yet another time, as everything finally clicked into place in her sleepy mind.

                "Poor Uncle Saotome," Kasumi said soothingly, placing another cold compress on the balding man's head.

                Genma twitched and spasmed as his lips formed sounds that might, if one were feeling quite imaginative and forgiving, be interpreted as, "Aaaaaaaack urgle yoick…!"

                Soun just wailed, although someone had retained the presence of mind to move him away from his Jusenkyou-cursed friend.

                "Sheesh, Oyaji," Ranma said, shaking her head in disgust as she watched the spectacle and waited for the kettle to heat. "What were y' doin' in there, anyway?"

                Akane just shook her head in disbelief. "I refuse to believe this. No one is that perverted." She shivered, and added softly in an aside, "But… Ranma, look at him! She… she didn't even have to touch him!" Wonder shone in the girl's brown eyes. "Now that is incredible…"

                And Ku Lon… well, if she were not a two-hundred year old Matriarch, she'd have sulked. She'd never felt so irritated and almost humiliated in her life. Because she hadn't had to even lay a finger on Genma to totally defeat him.

                No – the sight of her clad in nothing but her underwear had done that job perfectly.

                Nabiki was smirking – a smirk was better than rolling on the floor clutching her belly as she laughed. "I guess he discovered what happened to the fish."

                Everyone looked at her curiously.

                "It made a last debut at the table… as the soup."

(A.N. – Well, that took forever. My deepest apologies. I made an interesting discovery this summer: the more free time I have, the less I write. Go figure… _ Regardless, this was in many ways just a filler chapter – and I had to get that fish story in somewhere. Yes, the fish story is a real event – it happened to a co-worker of my mother when he and his wife were in China.

                I really have no idea how long it will take me to write the next chapter. First of all, I left my Ranma manga at home. Second, I'm in college. There are some distinct differences from high school intrinsic in that statement. Third, I've been getting interested in original fiction recently. On the other hand, first of all, not having my Ranma manga will force me to be more original even if it is slightly at the cost of characterization. (I can't believe I said that…) Second, my job at college involves sitting at a computer and entertaining myself (and answering various computer questions – usually with 'I don't know… let me ask someone'). Thirdly, my current original story (if I can keep my roommate from convincing me to switch to an alternative one) is rather dark, and I need something cheery to lighten the mood periodically.

                Heh. Genma got what was coming for him. But what happens next? Will Soun decide to take up his friend's cause? Will Ku Lon's attempts to teach Xian Pu about dating help her, or dig her in deeper? What will Ku Lon's next carrot be? And what the hell is going to happen when Happosai runs into this much-more-prominent-than-in-the-original-manga Ku Lon?

                And what's Ranma doing with that magazine, anyway…?

                If anyone has any further ideas, I am all ears. I really don't have any particular scenes or escapades in mind from here on out (well… except for one, but it will come after this next chapter). Do you think that maybe I should have the whole Hiryuu Shouten Ha escapade happen that much earlier? Ranma's gaining skill and power much faster than in the manga…

                Ahem. Anyway – read, review, comment, critique – remember: Feedback makes the chapters come! It was, in fact, only several e-mails sent to me asking when I was going to finish this that reminded me to get off my rump and start working.)

(PS: See that last comment? This one's for you, Cory D. Rose, and you, Cute Kitsune Kaydee.)