THE BET: A STUDY IN SCARLET "The Bet" Original idea by Gregg Sharp Original Bet Entry: "A Study In Scarlet" by Gregg Sharp (used with permission) Continued by Dave Menard (catthouse@lweb.net)

DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fanfiction produced for entertainment purposes only. No monetary compensation has been received for this work, and no copyright infringement is intended. All characters copyright their original owners, including, but not limited to: Rumiko Takahashi and Wizards of the Coast.

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

Toltiir was bored.

The Bet was over. Titania had taken the honours, everybody was just pleased as punch with the way the faerie queen's timeline was playing out, and all was right in the multiverse-

Except for the rather salient fact that Toltiir was still bored.

The God (who sometimes, but not always, happened to look like a member of that most noble of species, felis domesticus,) stretched and yawned. For one brief, sweet moment in the eternity of his existence, the other Gods had paid attention to his little corner of the multiverse. Oh, sure, he still got invited to all the best parties, but... He sat up, paused a moment to scratch fitfully behind a pointed ear, and padded over to the Well.

To his surprise, a small black spider was perched at the lip, peering into the waters with all the intensity eight eyes could muster. The swirling waters of the Well displayed a rather late period of Toltiir's favorite timeline, the one with that always-entertaining Ranma kid.

Toltiir ahemed politely, and nodded as the small arachnid turned to look.

"Fun mortal, hmm? That Ranma kid's a hoot..."

With a small flash, the spider disappeared, to be replaced with a ravishing vision of feminine pulchritude; curves in all the right places, (If you happened to be of the humanoid persuasion, that is.) blue-black skin, long flowing silver hair and delicately pointed ears. She smiled pleasantly at him and scratched that little spot just above the tail he could never reach.

"Hey-ya, Lloth-baby..." Toltiir purred. "What brings you to my neck of the woods? That Do'Urden guy getting boring?"

"Tsk... Now, now, little tricky-kitty. No need to mention that particular nuisance..." Her eyes flashed menacingly once before returning to their pleasant gaze. "I've been busy, and I only just heard about your amusing little wager. Is there still time for me to play?"

Toltiir's ears perked up at the thought of his boredom being relieved, if only temporarily.

"Actually, the Bet's over. Titania won..."

"TITANIA?!! That jumped-up little pixie?! I can do a better job than her!!!" Toltiir gave a feline smirk as his words had the desired effect on the Sidhe-hating goddess.

"We-ll, the OFFICIAL contest is over, but... You up for a little side bet?"

"Interesting... " Lloth said pensively. "What're the stakes?"

"Same as always. You game?"

"All right, but I think I deserve a handicap. Happy-sappy endings aren't my forte..."

"Well, I guess since this is a side-bet, I can bend the rules a little... What did you have in mind?"

The Demon-Queen of Spiders leaned over the well and stirred the waters with one tapered finger. "Observe..." ******************

"Oh, man... Ucchan... " Ranma breathed sadly as he looked down at his sleeping friend. She lay on the hospital bed, machines beeping and sighing as they laboured at the difficult job of keeping Ukyou Kuonjii alive. Unnoticed, a tear trickled down Ranma's cheek. Akane reached out to gently squeeze her iinazuke's hand, but he pulled away, gently touching Ukyou's face. "Why'dja hafta listen to the old freak, anyhow? You shoulda known he'd slip you a mickey..." A tiny voice inside his head whispered to him: Yeah, Ranma, and if you'd just made a damn decision about this whole fiancee mess, she'd never have gone to the old creep for help in the first place...

"Ranma..." Akane said softly. He turned to face her, a questioning frown on his lips.

"Akane, not now, okay? Ucchan needs me."

"She needs her rest, Ranma. The rape crisis counsellor said that he'd be in to talk to her soon... We should go... " Ranma's eyes flashed angrily.

"Like you care, Akane! I know you've always hated Ucchan, but she's one of my _oldest friends_! I can't just leave her!"

"She's my friend too, Ranma!"

"Yeah, right," he said scornfully. "You're always callin' her Spatula-bimbo 'n stuff! You 'n your stoopid jealousy..."

Akane stood, restraining her impulse to mallet him out of respect for Ukyou's state.

"Fine! BE that way! I'm going home!"

"Go ahead. Y'don't see me stoppin' ya."

Akane flinched at the dismissive, cold tone Ranma addressed her with. He hadn't even looked at her! Hurt, she stormed out. Ranma spared the doorway a glance, before returning his attention to Ukyou.

Stoopid kawaiikune tomboy... He thought angrily. Why can't she stop bein' so damn selfish? Ukyou's gonna need all the help she can get to make it through this. I owe her. It's my damn fault she's in this mess...

A soft curse escaped his lips as he thought of Happosai. Killing him once hadn't been enough; the old freak deserved a thousand times worse for what he'd done...

****************** "Whoa, hold on a minute! Lloth, that's nuts! No WAY would the kid take out Happi! The kid doesn't kill-"

"Now, now, Toltiir. He brought down Saffron, didn't he?"

"Well, yeah... in most timelines, anyway... But that's because he though Saffron- Wait. What did you have Happi do?"

Lloth leaned over and whispered in the Cat-God's ear. A shocked and appalled expression grew on his feline features. Were it possible, he would have blanched. As it was, his hackles stood on end and he hissed reflexively.

"THAT'S your handicap? Lloth, you ARE evil..."

"Well, duh..."

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

Akane walked slowly back towards the Tendou-ke, her eyes on the ground. Anger at Ranma's harsh words warred with sadness over what had happened to poor Ukyou. She hadn't forgiven the okonomiyaki chef for the role she'd played in disrupting her wedding to Ranma last month, but she wouldn't wish THIS on anyone... She shuddered.

I suppose I can't fault Ranma for wanting to stay by her side, she thought. Things were going so well up until the botched wedding, and now... Now, it seemed they were back to where they'd begun last year; Ranma insulted her, she whacked him with whatever was handy. Ukyou's always made a point of wanting to be there for him. I guess it's his turn to be there for her...

Did he have to be so damn cold to her, though? The look on his face... Tears rose in her eyes as she thought about it. It was like he hated her...

These grim thoughts and others accompanied her down the path and back to the house. Instead of going out to the dojo to break some cinderblocks, she resolved to do something constructive with her anger for a change.

She responded to her sisters' hellos with a nod, and headed upstairs to the attic, to the room once occupied by Happosai. The room was a shambles, boxes and sacks filled every corner. Slowly, methodically, she began to sort through the detritus accumulated over three hundred years of perversion.

Women's undergarments she sorted into a pile for burning, even those she recognized as belonging to herself or her sisters. She didn't want ANYthing the old bastard had touched anywhere NEAR her from this point on.

Everything else she found, including scrolls, jewellery or assorted other items she didn't even WANT to identify, she sorted into a second pile for later disposal. She'd take them down to Cologne at the Nekohanten in the morning. She'd know what to do to destroy them safely.

Several hours later, she was halfway through the second pile when she heard Ranma's familiar "Tadaima!" as he came home. She stood, brushed off her skirt, and went downstairs to meet him. Placing a foot on the staircase, she heard him speak to Kasumi. She froze as she heard her name mentioned.

"... Akane's not helpin', Kasumi. It's like she don't even care about what happened to Ucchan."

"Now, Ranma-kun, that's not fair."

"Ain't it? I dunno... All's I'm sayin' is that she got all uncute and jealous again. I'm just tryin' to look after my friend an' she gets all possessive 'n stuff. D'ya believe she almost went all 'Ranma No Baka' on me? In a hospital no less! I swear, that tomboy's unstable or somethin'..."

"Oh, I'm sure it wasn't anything like that..." Kasumi said in a worried tone. "She wouldn't have..."

"You didn't see the look in her eyes, Kasumi. Trust me, I know what her 'whack Ranma' face looks like after all this time. She's drivin' me crazy!"

At the top of the stairs, Akane snarled. He thinks I'm unstable? I'm making HIM crazy? Her knuckles went white as she clenched her hand on the banister. The wood broke off in her grip with a loud crunch.

The sound brought Kasumi and Ranma running.

"Akane?" Kasumi said worriedly as she took in the sight. Ranma desperately tried to extract his foot from his mouth.

"A-akane! I didn't mean-"

"So... That's how you really feel about me?"

"No! I-"

"FINE!" Akane screamed, whipping the chunk of banister at her iinazuke and rapping him soundly off the head. She stomped off back upstairs to the attic, Ranma quick on her heels.

"Akane! Wait a minute!"

"SHUT UP RANMA!!!! YOU CAN GO TO HELL FOR ALL I CARE!!!"

"Akane..."

"NO! YOU JERK!!" She reached around for something, anything to throw at him. Her hand found a black rod about a foot long covered in strange runic script. Hefting it, she wound up to pitch. "I WISH YOU WERE DEAD!!!!!!!"

Akane disappeared in a flash as an explosion rocked the attic, blowing Ranma off his feet.

"AKANE!!!" He found his footing and staggered forward, waving his arms to clear the smoke. "Akane...? Where are you?!! ANSWER ME!!!"

No answer came.

"OhNoOhNoOhNoOhNoOhNoOhNo....." He searched frantically through the clearing cloud, finding nothing in the attic but a pile of smouldering underwear, and a scorched silhouette of Akane on the wall.

"AAAKAAAAANEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

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

"Hmm." Toltiir said, putting the Well on fast-forward to watch the subsequent events. "So Ranma's devastated, blames himself, and goes into mourning. Eventually, with Ukyou's help, he comes to terms with his loss. The Tendous adopt Ukyou into their family registry and Ranma marries her three years later, thus uniting the schools. They have lots of kids and live happily-ever-after, more or less. I don't know, Lloth-baby. Ranma and Ukyou... It's been done before. Akane gettin' blown up like that's new, but I still think you lose. You owe me a Coke."

"Tsk. I'm not through yet."

"Well, the timeline plays out on a pretty average track thereafter, so I fail to see the big change. Game, set and match to me."

"For an omniscient being, you don't pay much attention to details, do you? Here..." She stirred the waters, rewinding the scene and focusing in on the rune-carved rod Akane picked up. "Doesn't that look familiar to you?"

"Hey... isn't that a Wand of Wishes? Wait a sec, shouldn't Ranma have died, then?"

"Well, it's more like a Wand of Monkey's Paw Wishes, actually. Fast forward... oh, about seven thousand years give or take, to Aramar, in the Seventh Age."

"Hey! I didn't say you could play in MY pool. I stay out of Oerth and Toril..." "I promise I won't break anything..."

"Oh, all right... You MIGHT let me know what you've got in mind, though..." Toltiir fretted. Maybe letting Lloth play WAS a bad idea...

"Wait and see, kitty-cat, wait and see. I'm not done weaving my web..."

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

__/Cliffs Of Athaq, Aramar, 543 7th Age\______

She was old, older even than Cologne had been back in the unimaginably distant Furinkan days. Bent but not broken by her years, she had given up on finding what she had sought for her first century of life here. Until just under a week ago, when Baron had brought her a bit of news.

A deep rumble brought her attention to her travelling companions. The dragon was moving back, giving her time to be alone now that her quest was finally at an end.

"You needn't do that, Baron," Akane addressed the dragon. "I might as well say goodbye now. I've been formulating the wording for this for weeks."

*Careful, child,* the dragon's mental voice was surprisingly gentle for a creature of his size. *Wishes from the djinni are difficult to fix, this is a thousand times a thousand more so.*

"Well, if it didn't have that sort of power output, it wouldn't be able to accomplish what it needs to, ne?" Akane looked back at one of the few still-living friends she'd made in this world. A misfit, much like herself, and a dragon- one whose life span was normally measured in centuries instead of decades. "I shall miss you, old friend."

*And I, you, child. Don't you go and forget your friends now.* The dragon turned to face the entry to the cave, the red-gold of his scales catching the flickering light of the guardian beast's pyre. *Best to get this over with, and try not to end up back here. This particular method will only work once, you know.*

"Ah yes," Akane reached out and laid her palm on the crystalline shape before her. Wishes were a tricky thing in the best of circumstances, as she well knew. After all, it had been a casually expressed wish that had gotten her into this mess.

"I invoke the sacred contract, and in the name of the nine gods of this world do make my wish be known." This part was required, a sort of magical access code. "I wish to travel back along the paths of time and space, to my plane of origin, to the time when I was still enrolled in Furinkan Senior High School, knowing then what I know now, but to be the age I was when I was there originally, with minimal disruption to the timestream from my entry."

*Nicely worded,* came the dragon's thought. *I think you forgot something though. Oh well, too late, maybe it'll work out anyway.* Baron's tail lashed in irritation. He had to get moving soon anyway, Akane had developed many enemies over her long life, and no doubt one or two would show up before long.

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

Akane briefly saw an image of herself, though much older and with a sad air about her. Then came a feeling as if she were shoved aside by an irresistible force.

Akane looked about herself, smiling a little as she took in the old dojo.

She could barely remember it, so many years and so many events had passed. A pile of bricks were stacked nearby. With a quick grin she picked the top one up and crushed it in her grip.

"There you go again, Akane, no wonder the boys think you're so weird."

Akane stared, tears coming to her eyes. "Na-Nabiki?!"

Nabiki took a step away. "Akane, what?"

Akane moved so quickly that Nabiki only saw a blur before she was swept up and swung around in her sister's embrace.

"NABIKI! By the Seal, it's been so long!"

"Uhm, right, Akane. It's been at least a couple of hours." Nabiki wondered exactly what Akane was going on about, when she noticed how odd Akane's embrace felt. There was no give, as if she were being hugged by a statue.

"Is everyone here? Is Ranma here? Oh, kami, I've missed you!"

"Who's Ranma?"

Akane blinked at that. Her face went blank as she worked out the possible ramifications of that question. Funny, she had been working out how to get here for so long that she'd never considered what to do when she actually did get back.

"Anyway, Akane, Father's got some sort of announcement he wants to hit us with, so he's called a family meeting."

"It's THAT day?" Akane slowly grinned. "Oh, kami, there are things I've wanted to change about that day..."

Nabiki began to look worriedly at her sister. "Sis, you okay?"

"Let's go have that family meeting, Nabiki. I haven't felt _this_ good in ages."

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

It HAD been a long time, and Akane didn't remember a lot of the things that had happened way back when. *Or should that be, way back now,* Akane pondered.

Nabiki's constant poking of the little girl's breasts, with her being quite upset about the fiance not being a boy after all. It would be enough that the two would never get along thereafter.

Kasumi was mainly polite, but would never consider Ranma due to the incredible gulf of three years difference on their ages. Akane inwardly chuckled at THAT. If Kasumi knew how much older her younger sister was now, she'd flip.

"Nabiki," Akane gently chided, "Ranma is our guest whether he's a boy or a girl. Ranma, would you care to join me in the dojo? I'm Akane, do you want to be friends?"

Ranma seemed a little intimidated, that smile wasn't a cute little girl grin, but the sort of smile that usually accompanied phrases like "paybacks are a bitch." Still, what harm could it be? She nodded.

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

Akane was aware of Nabiki following them. She was pretty sure that hadn't happened the first time, so she must have done something to throw Nabiki's natural curiosity into high gear.

It had been so long, so very, very, long, since she'd made that first wish. An odd item from Happosai's "treasure trove" in her hands during one of the usual arguments, and she'd wished Ranma was dead. The rod was of the djinni, and it worked by altering the wielder. So it merely moved her forward in time, to a time where not only Ranma but any of Ranma's lineage were long gone in their graves. The Seventh Age Of Man, where she'd done things that made even Ranma's life look tame.

"Uhm, you okay, Akane?" Ranma was looking at her curiously. "You seemed to go asleep there for a minute."

Akane blinked and shook her head. "I'm fine, Ranma. You've studied kempo, right?"

"A little," was Ranma's response as she turned her attention to the dojo.

"Well, then, let's have a little match." Akane noted Ranma looked a little uncertain. "Just for fun. Don't worry, I won't go all out on you."

"Uhm, yeah, sure." Ranma stopped and her eyes widened.

Akane realized that Ranma was reading her stance, like any martial artist would, and was revising her opinion of Akane's skill level accordingly. Ranma shifted into a defensive stance immediately.

Akane's grin was like a wolf that had just found fresh prey.

Akane sent a couple of quick jabs towards Ranma, nothing fancy. Ranma blocked them and jumped over the legsweep. Each getting the feel for the other's skill level.

Akane cranked the speed up a notch. "You can fight back now, or don't you take me seriously?"

Ranma was still dodging. "I don't hit girls..." Well, there WAS that fight with Shampoo.

"Oh, really? You know when I said I wouldn't go all out?" Akane spoke in a calm voice that didn't match the double circle kick she had just executed. "I lied."

Nabiki's eyes widened as the already fast battle turned into something she'd never expected. Akane launched one attack after another, moving more fluidly than she had ever done in her life, and this Ranma was just barely dodging them. As it was there were rips appearing in Ranma's clothing from the near misses.

"Think that's bad, Ranma, check this out," Akane thought this would give Ranma reason to stay on her good side. "Black Rose Torture Fist!"

Ranma flew across the room, slamming into and through the dojo wall, going down and twisting in agony as she did.

"Hang on, Ranma, I'll be right there," Akane smiled. This ought to knock some sense into him early on in their relationship. He'd take her skills seriously if nothing else.

"What did you do?!" Nabiki stared at the figure out in the yard. She'd heard the phrase writhing in pain before, but had never seen it. This certainly fit.

Akane walked over to the nearly unconscious figure and struck three times in very precise locations. "Black Rose Torture Fist, a nerve strike technique that causes excruciating pain to the target, often stops a fight without actually causing permanent damage."

Ranma shuddered and gradually uncurled, looking at her hands as if surprised that they were still intact.

"I'm getting a bath, Ranma, don't you dare walk in on me," Akane called out as she walked back to the house. Things were getting better already. She'd have Ranma's respect from the very beginning this time.

Nabiki watched her sister go back into the house, then turned back to Ranma. She didn't think there was ANY chance of Ranma walking in on Akane. The look of fear on the younger girl's face was just too clear an indication of that.

Noting how pale Ranma was, and the sweat and shaking muscles, Nabiki felt a sudden wave of a foreign emotion to her. Pity. Ranma had not only been beaten, but thoroughly humiliated in seconds.

Nabiki didn't exactly know how to comfort, TLC wasn't one of her strengths, but she knew whose it was. Nabiki went to the kitchen. She needed Kasumi.

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

"I'm Genma Saotome," Genma gestured at the boy next to him. "This is my son, Ranma."

"Are you really her, the girl we saw earlier?" Kasumi watched carefully. Nabiki was right. Ranma wouldn't even look in Akane's direction and seemed very nervous.

"I am," Ranma's voice was soft in reply.

"It's such a long story," Genma said after a moment. "I don't know where to begin. Well, then," he threw Ranma into the pond.

Ranma, now a girl, spluttered up and began to run back and confront her father when she caught sight of Akane's smirk. She froze.

"Father, you certainly have some unusual friends," Kasumi said in the silence that followed. She saw fear briefly in the young girl's face. A quick glance confirmed that she was looking directly at Akane.

"Told you," came a whisper from Nabiki managing to look as if she had just accidently brushed Kasumi as she got up.

Kasumi absent-mindedly nodded. She wasn't sure about Nabiki's story about how Akane had acted in the dojo, but her initial reaction of sibling rivalry was beginning to look a little less likely.

Soun continued on with his explanation of Jusenkyo and its curses, oblivious to what was going on around him. Even Genma had realized something was up at this point, just seeing his son fail to react as he normally would, had given him pause.

"Well, your problem isn't so bad, is it?" Soun went out into the yard and guided girl-type Ranma into the house, not noticing that Ranma was trying deliberately not to look in a particular direction again.

Akane frowned briefly. What was wrong with him, anyway? He had never acted like this before. Ranma didn't even seem to want to look in her general direction.

"This is my oldest daughter, Kasumi, she's 19. This is my middle daughter, Nabiki, she's 17. This is my youngest daughter, Akane, she's 16. Pick anyone you like, she'll be your new fiancee."

"I'll marry him," Akane jerked her thumb at herself. "Hell, maybe we can even give your old man a rest and you can spar with me every morning. Wouldn't that be great?"

Genma felt a flash of anger and concern as he saw Ranma cringe at that.

"Uhm, no, I'm sorry, I really don't think that would...I mean I've got to go back and find a cure for my curse."

Nabiki exchanged a glance with Kasumi. The way the boy's father was looking at him was sufficient indication that Ranma normally didn't act like this.

"I'm sorry, Akane, but I have priority in this instance."

"Kasumi?!"

Kasumi shrugged. The look of pain and anguish on the young girl's face called out to her maternal instincts. Besides, she could always step out of the way later when she knew more about what was going on.

Nabiki caught the glance that Kasumi discreetly shot her and wiped a smirk from her face. She didn't know if she could survive Akane giving her a lesson, but Kasumi would be safe.

Akane closed her mouth. What were they doing? Why was Ranma acting like this? What had prompted Kasumi to step in? This wasn't how she had thought it would go.

"Well, I don't really care which of you marries him," Soun said with a smile. This was going even better than he had planned. "Well, Ranma, which will it be, Akane or Kasumi?"

Ranma glanced at Akane and restrained himself. He was still feeling muscle cramps from the spasming, and nausea from the amount of pain he'd endured less than an hour ago. "Uhm, Kasumi, I guess. Nothing personal, Akane."

Akane blinked and stared at her tea. He'd chosen...Kasumi?! After hundreds of years trying to get back here, Akane had lost her fiance. He'd never even said that he'd chosen her, even up to that failed wedding attempt. He'd only said that he'd loved her when he thought she was dead. Now he'd actually chosen a fiancee, and it wasn't her?

Akane clenched her jaw. She was NOT out of the running yet.

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

"Hmmm... I think I see where you're going with this one, Llothy! Should prove, er... interesting..."

Lloth smiled sweetly. Somehow, it made her look even more dangerous. Toltiir sweatdropped.

"I'm glad you think so, kitty. I always thought that girl had potential... What a Priestess she'd have made..."

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

Later that evening, Genma and Ranma sat in the dojo, balanced on their heads in an upside-down lotus position. Despite the fact that he'd performed this exercise thousands of times over the last ten years, Ranma couldn't find his center. Oh, man... That Akane girl... His face contorted in a wince of remembered pain. She's so much better'n me it's scary! And that move she used- "Black Rose Torture Fist." What kind of sick, twisted person uses an attack like THAT?! In a sparring match, no less... A muscle spasm hit, and he toppled forward onto his face.

Genma growled something unintelligible at the sound, and opened his eyes.

"Ranma! What on Earth is the matter with you, boy?!" He reached out and cuffed his son across the back of the head. "How do you expect to carry on the Saotome Ryu if you can't even perform this simple an exercise?!" He rolled out of the upside- down lotus and stood before his son. "Do I have to retrain you from the beginning?!"

"Lay off, Pop. I'm not in the mood for one of your stoopid lectures. I got stuff on my mind, okay?"

Genma opened his mouth to burst into a classic rant, (one of his personal favourites, about how a true martial artist doesn't let anything distract him from the task at hand,) when he thought back to the day of his Omiai with Nodoka. A wistful smile crossed his face and he sat down again, facing his son.

"Ranma m'boy, your old father knows exactly how you feel. Why, I remember the day I met your mother for the first time... I wore black, she wore white... Truly a beautiful creature; It was love at first sight. Hey, that rhymed..." He shook his head to clear it. "Never mind that now. What I mean to say is, you made a fine choice m'boy. Tendou-kun tells me that Kasumi-chan is an excellent cook and housekeeper. And an older woman to boot! Oh, Ranma, you sly dog..." Genma smiled proudly. "What a chip off the old Saotome block you are, m'boy. You do your father proud!!!" A brief frown crossed his features before clearing. "Of course, Tendou-kun informs me that Kasumi hasn't been seriously training in the Tendou Ryu for some time, but that's no trouble. I'm sure Akane-chan will be able to teach you all you need to know about THAT..."

Genma didn't miss the brief look of anxiety that crossed Ranma's face at the mention of Akane's name.

"What's the problem, boy? I noticed you looked odd this afternoon after your match with Akane-chan. Is the Tendou Ryu that impressive? Tendou-kun said that Akane-chan was his best pupil..."

"Pop, I... Gomen, it's just hard to come out and say this... She almost killed me! And the move she used..." He shivered and whitened. "It was terrifyin'! You should'a told me the Tendous were a ninja clan!"

Genma blinked. Ninja clan? What was the boy talking about? Ranma continued.

"She had this LOOK on her face... I guess you could call it a smile, but she looked like she wanted to eat me for lunch! I ain't NEVER seen anybody fight like that, not Shampoo, not nobody! She's a killer, Pop, and she enjoys doin' it..."

This didn't make sense, Genma thought. Tendou-kun had said that Akane trained for an hour a day at MOST. Had Tendou's skill, passed on to his daughters, surpassed his own by THAT much in the last ten years? They'd been rough equals while they trained under the Master (may he rest in peace, he fervently prayed)... This bore further investigation.

Nevertheless, it was his duty as a father to upbraid his son for cowardice.

"Ranma! Your whining makes me sick! She's only a girl! Show a little backbone, boy!!"

Genma's goading words had the desired effect as Ranma flipped to his feet and slid into an aggressive fighting stance.

"Backbone?! I'll show you backbone, you stoopid old man!"

Ranma lunged at his father with a rapid series of blows. Genma parried most, but a few pierced his defenses. He returned the favour with interest as the battle moved back and forth across the dojo floor. With every blow struck, Genma taunted Ranma further, driving the boy to greater heights of exertion.

Quicker than Genma'd expected he would, Ranma gained the upper hand, and the older man was now purely on the defensive.

"How's THIS for backbone, y'old fart? Take that! N' that! Some'a this!"

Finally, a crescent kick sent Genma flying into the corner, where he landed head first in the fire bucket. In moments, a giant panda with a steel bucket jammed over his head staggered aimlessly about the room. Muffled Growf-sounds came from under the pail.

"Whassamatter, old man? Can't see where yer goin'? Aw, that's too bad..." Ranma dusted off his hands and walked up behind the blinded panda. A swift kick in the rear sent Genma flying head-first back across the room into the doorframe, crumpling the bucket and freeing him. "That enough backbone for ya, old man?"

Genma-panda growfed affirmatively, and promptly lost consciousness.

Ranma chuckled once before sighing. No, he hadn't lost it. He could still beat the old panda. His thoughts turned back to the youngest Tendou sister.

"Good thing old man Tendou gave me a choice... I'd hate to be engaged to a psycho like that..." Not that I'm scared'a her or nothin', he added mentally. Nope, not frightened in the least...

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

From her place of concealment, Akane watched Ranma pound the tar out of his father, a wave of nostalgia washing over her. Here was the cocky young warrior she'd fallen in love with. Even after all she'd seen and done in her centuries of life, the sight of him in battle still took her breath away.

She'd taken men to her bed several times over the years, more to ease the loneliness than anything else, but she'd never given her love to anyone but this man. And now, she thought, he hates me. Me, his One True Love...

Ranma's words echoed in her head. "She's a killer, Pop, and she enjoys doin' it." A killer? Yes, she'd killed. More times than she could count. But the 7th Age of Man was no place for luxuries like civilized morals and ethics. You did what you had to do to survive. She'd never enjoyed killing, but it was a necessary evil.

"I'd hate to be engaged to a psycho like that..." That brought back unpleasant memories; memories of their last argument, of him calling her unstable... Well, after nigh on three centuries, she was pretty certain she wasn't crazy. A little obsessed, perhaps. But the object of her obsession was right in front of her now. Mentally, she kicked herself for overplaying her hand during the sparring bout. This Ranma wasn't as tested and tempered as the one she remembered. He'd been scared instead of challenged by her superior skill in the martial arts. Despite her initial mistake, she was confident she could make a comeback, show him that she wasn't some slavering maniac. All she had to do was prove to him she was a desirable mate,and she knew just how to do THAT...

She smiled, imagining the night to come. So many nights she'd dreamed of him, of one night of passion with her Ranma. She looked forward to making the dream a reality...

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

Kasumi hummed to herself as she did the dishes, doing her small part to restore the "wa" of the household. She tried to bring an untroubled mind to her domestic tasks, but concern for her new iinazuke kept disrupting the ordered flow of her thoughts.

He was so... Young. Both in age and spirit. He'd seemed so small and quiet during dinner, she'd hardly known he was there. Still, the food on his plate disappeared rapidly, so he must have enjoyed her cooking. Hadn't he?

She sighed to herself. She certainly liked the boy, he seemed very nice, but... Well, he didn't need a fiancee now, she judged, he needed a Mother. She must remember to ask Saotome-san about his wife. Was she still alive, she wondered? Perhaps she should look into contacting her if that was the case. The poor boy would benefit from a little motherly love.

Love. She'd always hoped she'd marry for love, that some handsome stranger on a white horse would come, sweep her off her feet and carry her off into the sunset, just like in the romance mangas she'd read as a girl. Lately, she'd even begun to contemplate asking Father to set up an Omiai for her, just so that she might meet an eligible man. She didn't think that her standards were terribly hard to meet; all she wanted was a pleasant-looking man, who made a good living, and who would take the time to engage her in intelligent conversation once in a while. Talking with Nabiki was one thing, but she longed for more companionship than her sister could provide.

She thought for a moment. Since graduating High School, she'd been on, what? Two dates? That Kensuke lout, and that gaijin martial artist who'd stayed at the dojo for a while, Terry Bogart. Both had been unmitigated disasters. At least Terry had tried to show her a good time, but all he'd managed to do was talk about his ex non-stop. Kensuke had been far too forward for her liking, and Father had given him a thorough pounding when she'd complained about his behavior.

But, she supposed, that was all out the window now... No more dates for Kasumi Tendou. No, her future was already planned out by Father. She'd be cooking and cleaning in this house for the rest of her life...

"Hey, sis! You washed that one already..." Nabiki had entered the kitchen and leaned against the counter. Kasumi had been so lost in thought she hadn't noticed the new arrival.

"Hmm? Oh, hello Nabiki. Would you mind lending me a hand?"

"Sorry, no can-do," She held up her hands and wiggled her fingers. "Just did my nails... So, how're you holding up?"

"Oh, just fine, Imotochan, you know me..." She laughed wanly.

"Yeah, right Kasumi. Not having second thoughts about jumping on the grenade, are you?" When Kasumi didn't answer, Nabiki sighed and smiled sadly. "Look, I'm sorry about this, sis. I know I was the one who was all excited about the engagement, and I go and stick you with the guy... It's just... Well, Akane gave me the heebie-jeebies, the way she almost pounced on him. I hate to say it, but I think little sister's finally gone off the deep-end. It must be the Horde o' Hentai attacks every morning, they've driven her bananas."

Kasumi sighed and hung her head.

"Imotochan, explain to me again why you didn't step in? He seems to be more your type than mine..."

"My type? Ranma? Puh-leeze. A wandering martial artist? I want a man with pros-pects."

"And don't I deserve one too?" Kasumi snapped, a rare display of pique that caused Nabiki to step back a moment.

"Of course you do, Oneechan, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply... Look, it's only for a little while, I promise, okay? Just until I can talk Daddy out of this whole thing. There's no way Akane's the girl for him. She scares the bejeezus out of the guy, and believe me, he's got good reason to be freaked. That move she used- Brrrrr! No WAY Daddy taught her THAT one..."

"I understand... I wonder where she might have learned it? If it's as cruel as you say, I doubt they're teaching things like that in her self-defense classes at Furinkan."

"Nope, not unless the teacher is a raving psychotic, and last time I checked, Garuda-Sensei was steady as a rock. A little intense, maybe, but what do you expect from a gym teacher?" She gave a quick laugh. "Anyway, I promise. I'll talk to Daddy, you know he can't say no to me." She leaned over and gave her big sister a quick peck on the cheek. "I'd give you a nice hug, but these nails of mine..."

"It's all right, Nabiki. Thank you."

"No prob. And I won't even charge you!" She added with a wink.

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

Later that night, Ranma lay on his back on the tatami mat that Kasumi had laid out for him, staring up at the ceiling. Genma, still a panda, snored away beside him. The fact that the old man had ended up in the Spring-of-Drowned-Panda-with-a- Deviated-Septum somehow didn't surprise Ranma. It merely demonstrated the truth of Ranma's Law, an ongoing theory he'd been developing. There is no situation, no matter how dire or how banal, that cannot be made worse by a Jusenkyo curse.

His father's earlier words came back to him. An older woman... To be honest, he didn't know how he felt about that. Kasumi seemed very nice, but... Three years. That's a BIG difference. Pop said it wouldn't matter once we're both adults, but it sure mattered NOW. He didn't know where to begin when it came to striking up conversation with her. What did HE know about housekeeping, or cooking, or any other girly-stuff... He'd never even given a thought to what kind of woman he wanted to marry, but it sure wasn't a shufu... not that he had anything against Kasumi, he amended mentally. She sure is pretty, and a good cook. The Kami KNEW he hadn't eaten this well since the old days hangin' around Ucchan. I wonder what that guy's up to these days? He'd probably get a kick out of THIS fix.

One thing he DID know is that he wanted nothing to do with that crazy Akane chick. Uncute tomboys who'll torture you for kicks are NOT my thing, he thought. It'd be different if she was just better at the art than he was, but taking that kind of joy in offhanded cruelty was too much. 'Sides, he added with a shudder, she's damn creepy!

As he finished that thought and made to roll over, he heard the door slide slowly open. He glanced over, and his jaw dropped. There, standing silhouetted in the doorway, naked, was Akane! *********************************** END PART ONE. TO BE CONTINUED!!!!

AFTERWORD: No, this isn't turning into a lemon. Limey bits at most, but not anytime soon. (All the Hentai in the house say: Awwww....) NEXT TIME: Akane and Kunou- together again! The Horde o' Hentai see a whole new side of everyone's favorite Kawaiikune tomboy! And what happened to the "original" Akane? All this and more, comin' atcha soon!