When the bell signaled the end of classes, Ranma and Akane packed up their books and bentos and headed down to the Art Room. Inside, Akane noticed several girls who seemed nervous. (Strange, she thought, I've taken cooking class with most of them.) But she was distracted by the smells: paint, wet clay, hot metal, fresh-cut wood.
Kinomoto-sensei bustled up to them, wearing a shop apron with many pockets. His hand swept around the room. It was large, and cluttered with workbenches, easels, storage, and supplies. He spoke to Akane. "As you can see, we're set up for many different arts and crafts." He pointed to a sturdy mid-size bench with many strange hammers in a rack to one side. "Over here is the metalwork area."
He opened a small locker. "This is assigned to you, so you can keep your projects and materials separately, like most artists prefer. In turn, don't use anybody else's materials without asking." He pointed to several shelves of copper in sheets and rolls. "Bjorn-sensei gave me a budget for your materials, so here's a starter stock. If you want something more or larger, I'd like a week's warning to get hold of it."
He took out two rolls of copper strip, maybe half a millimeter thick and several centimeters wide. "These are both copper, but the two strips have been treated differently. Unroll maybe a decimeter from this one." Akane did; it unrolled easily. "Now this." The other roll was a lot stiffer.
He lit a wide-mouth burner at the center rear of the bench. Holding the stiff copper with tongs, he passed it through the flames until it glowed red; then he dipped it into a small tank of water. There was a hiss of steam. "Bend it now." It was soft.
"That's half the trick right there," Kinomoto-sensei said. "Now here's the other half." He put on hearing protection, handed some to Akane. "You can go deaf from hammering metal," he said. Then he took the sheet of copper that had started out soft, and a hammer with a rounded, polished head. He began hammering the copper gently against a small, polished anvil, and soon had a dimpled area a couple centimeters wide. He handed it to Akane. "Feel that."
Akane did, and snatched her hand away. "Hot! Hot!"
The teacher smiled. "It works that way. The hammer's been moving the copper around inside this strip. That takes a lot of work, which means heat." He dipped the metal into the cool water, then gave it back to Akane. "Now try bending it."
"It's a lot stiffer where you were hitting it," she said.
He heated it red, then quenched it. He handed it back to her.
"It's soft again," she said with raised eyebrows. "Is it supposed to work that way?"
"That's called 'annealing'. Most metals soften. When the first ironsmiths came along, imagine their surprise when the iron got harder." He handed her the copper strip and the hammer. "Now you try it, on the other end."
Akane place the copper on the anvil and took a mighty whack. Instead of a smooth pattern of dimples, the strip had a crater, precisely in the center. The teacher looked warily at it. "Good aim, but you should use lighter blows, and more of them."
"Akane," Ranma said. "You and the copper are on the same team. Don't kill it." When Akane glared at her, she went over to her own locker, took out some tagua nut and a pair of magnifying glasses, and sat at a small bench with a bright light. She began sketching away, then started to draw on the nut itself. Akane suspected she could have heard purring, if only art labs were quieter; but the potter's wheel was rumbling as it turned, somebody was hammering nails, and there was a low murmur of conversation.
"Let's try again…" the sensei said, handing her fresh copper.
Walking home after the club, Akane was grumbling. "I though I'd make something," she said.
"Now, now," Ranma chided. "You're beginning a high calling. Throughout history, kings and pharaohs and emperors have honored warriors, smiths, and poets. The warriors win battles and glory, the smiths make the swords the warriors need, and the poets tell everybody about it.
"None of these are easy. We're warriors now, but we started as martial artists. And how do you start as a martial artist? Your sensei knows what the human body can do. He teaches you what you can do, and he teaches you to do it. Only with experience can you start doing it well yourself. Kinomoto-sensei is just giving you those first lessons in what copper can do. Then come the first katas. After that, you make."
"Nobody taught you carving," Akane said. "You just started."
"I had to learn the neko-ken first, though. With regular carving tools, I'd be a beginner."
"Why are all the things you make so small?"
"Life on the road, Akane. Big stuff doesn't travel well. And there's tradition to netsuke."
They walked towards home in the chill breeze, deep in thought. Akane smelled her hands, and could detect metal on them – or at least a smell that had always meant metal to her. She held them out to Ranma for an opinion.
"Smells like oil and wax, scorched from the heating you did. Probably they put a thin layer on to protect the copper until it was used."
After an early dinner, Akane went over to the Cat Café for her evening shift. Ami was already there. The evening rush was going strong – they bustled about taking orders, bringing them to tables, and running the cash register. Shampoo and Cologne were in the kitchen cooking furiously to keep up with the demand; and occasionally, Shampoo would rush off on her bicycle for a quick delivery.
"Teaches you to keep track of ten things at once," Ami said, as she caught her breath during a lull.
Akane nodded. "And set priorities, and plan the safest route across the battlefield, er, room." Some stranger to Nerima had tried patting her fanny. She'd only given him a hard stare, and was very proud of her self-control. Cologne had seen, congratulated her, and assigned her to the cash register to cool down. On balance, Akane figured it was a win.
As the dinner rush was beginning to clear out, Nabiki and Kodachi came in. They took a small corner table. Akane went over. Nabiki gave her the family 'later' look, and ordered white tea and cookies for two. When Akane went to get the order, Cologne raised an eyebrow at her and turned to Ami. "You take care of that table." Then she motioned for Akane to stay in the kitchen.
"She's hurting," Cologne said gently. "You and Ranma are getting married. She might not like frequent reminders. Ami got along extremely well with the two of them, Saturday evening. If you get a chance before I do, tell her that table is her first priority tonight."
"Nabiki will appreciate the help. She's been working hard to keep Kodachi's spirits up. It has her frayed around the edges – not enough sleep, too much coffee."
"That bad? When you're alone with Nabiki, ask if she thinks Kodachi would accept soothing herbal teas. That girl has never been quite right in the head, and piling heartbreak on top of it is bad. But Amazons, too, have to deal with heartbreak. We have medicines that help. I'll prepare some special tea, just in case."
Akane went out to the cash register, and watched. None of the customers seemed to need anything at the moment. Ami was talking with Nabiki and Kodachi (she heard murmurs about roses) and all seemed well. After a few minutes Ami went back into the kitchen, and Akane could hear Cologne talking quietly with her. Then Ami came out to stand at the counter.
"I don't know her history," Ami said. "What was Kodachi like before this happened?"
"When I've seen her she's been aggressive and hyper. But Nabiki says, now that they're getting close, that Kodachi is depressed a lot. She stays home when she's that way, if she can."
"Oh dear," said Ami. "That sounds bipolar. I wonder if there's some way we could have her evaluated."
"If she trusts anybody these days, it's Nabiki," Akane said. "Kodachi loves plants, so herbal medicine might be the way to start."
"That's what Cologne suggested, too. I think I'll go over and talk with them about it." Ami rose, went over to the corner table (grabbing a loose chair along the way) and sat down. Soon the three were talking. After a while, Ami went into the kitchen and returned with a cup of tea, which she gave to Kodachi. When she had a chance, Ami smiled at Akane, and nodded. Akane didn't have a chance to respond, because she was dealing with several groups at the register.
After two more cups of the special tea, Kodachi was looking much happier, and the conversation seemed upbeat from where Akane sat. Kodachi got up and went to the rest room, and Nabiki gave Ami a high five. When Kodachi returned, she and Nabiki paid their bill and left.
There were only a few customers remaining, and they all had their orders, so there was time for Ami and Akane to have a quick huddle with Cologne. "That tea works fast!" Ami said. "It was almost night turned to day after the second cup."
"Come, student," Cologne beckoned. "It is time for you to learn to make that preparation. Akane, you and Shampoo have the café for the rest of the evening." Cologne pogoed off to her sanctum, with Ami following close behind.
"Aiyah, shield-sister," Shampoo said. "Tea work too too good. Love my sisters, but I need help from tea, too, after Ranma become shield-sister instead of husband. Glad ribbon-girl get help."
Akane gave Shampoo a quick hug. "Life is better with sisters and friends."
The remaining hours went quickly. The four of them closed the café down, sat at a table, and had a quick bowl of ramen together. Then Akane walked Ami to the subway station, and Cologne and Shampoo cleaned up for tomorrow.
"Those two are intelligent," Ami said at the entrance to the station.
"True," Akane agreed. "They could be useful, helping us think about monsters. But I'm still not sure how much we can trust either of them. My sister is mercenary, and Kodachi is unstable. We might be able to get them on board with the Amazons, without letting them find out who you are. And Kodachi is a good fighter, too."
"No hurry," said Ami as she heard her train approach. "So far, we're keeping ahead of the daimohns."
The next few days were stressful. There are a thousand things to do for even a small wedding. Ranma and Akane had to pick up their wedding garb, have a final fitting, and get it over to Kuno's mansion without being seen. They had to make sure of the hours for the City Offices, and the exact details of papers and payments involved. Kasumi and Tatewaki took care of most of the details in Okayama (bless them). They talked with their respective parents about swordmaster Katsuhito, and the 7 a.m. departure of the bullet train.
And they tried to sleep. Ranma was fortunate – a cat can sleep any time. Akane didn't sleep well, but she compensated with caffeine and adrenaline. It gave her a bad temper, but she was trying to maintain that image. And it kept Soun from hanging around asking questions.
Nabiki was cheerful, at least. The Amazon tea had worked wonders for Kodachi. The next night the two had gone down to the Cat Café and bought a supply; and while they were at it, had taken a table and some conversation that evening too. They were becoming regulars.
Friday morning dawned. Ranma got up early, and helped Kasumi with breakfast while Akane took her morning run. When Nabiki came downstairs, she handed her coffee. She brought in the newspaper and set it at Soun's place, but separated out the business section for Nabiki. Then, fortified with tea and bearing hidden papers, Ranma and Akane set off to Bjorn's hotel to have breakfast with him and Mao.
"It's a big day," Bjorn said. Mao looked over her teacup with a smile. "Going to have a big meal to keep you going?"
Ranma shook her head. "Not much room in my stomach – it's full of butterflies." Akane agreed. They both ordered rice, and miso soup with ginger.
"We can get more food after we take care of the paperwork," Akane said.
"It's too bad you couldn't make it to that battle on Monday," Ranma commented as they waited for their breakfast. "It's the biggest monster we've fought so far. You would have enjoyed it."
"I tried, but I couldn't keep up with Shampoo. So I went back and finished my lunch at the Cat Café. Kasumi made it there fast enough to keep the place open.
"I wish Cologne hadn't left – she's a great conversationalist, and I can't believe what a good fighter she is at her age. By the way, do you know how old she is?"
"She says Shampoo is her great-granddaughter. That makes her at least sixty. An' she hints she's over three hundred. Leaves a lotta room for guessin'."
Akane nodded. "She likes to keep people wondering. If you talk with her long enough, she'll give you a dozen different numbers."
Mao shook her head. "I hope I look that good at three hundred. But I suspect I won't."
Ranma looked askance at her. "I thought Weres lived almost forever?"
"That's vampires," Bjorn said. "We don't talk to vampires. Nasty bunch, and they smell almost as bad as zombies."
"I don't think I want to know," Akane muttered.
"Believe it," Ranma said. "A were knows a bad smell. Intimately. So do cats. Of course, we may not all agree. The Cat and I like the smell of dead fish, but that's a minority taste."
Mao giggled. "Some of the wolves roll in it."
"Ick!" Akane shuddered.
"Indeed," Ranma said firmly. "That'ss a waassste of a perffectly good dead ffissssh."
Their breakfasts came. There was a dead fish on Mao's plate. It was fresh, and had been nicely grilled, so that didn't count.
After breakfast they went up to Bjorn's suite. Ranma used the warm water to change to a boy, then swapped into the clothes in his knapsack. The two of them used the disguise pens – in a side room out of sight – to change their appearance. They didn't want to be recognized, just in case there was any trouble looking for them.
"Amazing," Bjorn said. "You even managed to change your scent."
"You hang around with cats, you gotta watch that sorta thing." Ranma and Akane hugged Bjorn and Mao. "See you tomorrow morning," they said, and headed out onto the street. They caught a bus, and after ten minutes or so, ended up near the city offices. They got out to walk the last block.
Over the noise of the city, they heard a "moo" coming from above. They looked up and saw a minotaur with tentacles flying by.
"Not our business today," Ranma said, shaking his head.
"But wouldn't it be fun seeing the look on a daimohn's face if Tarou started stomping it?"
"Some other time, Akane. We don't need the complications right now."
"I was teasing, silly."
Hand in hand they walked into the building, and checked the directory. Then a quick detour into a dark corner, and they were themselves again. They headed for the proper office.
The whole affair was surprisingly easy, and didn't really take that long. They presented their identification, they showed the clerk the permissions Genma and Soun had signed, and they paid their money.
"Which family register will you be going into?" the clerk asked.
"Oik!" said Ranma; and "erk!" said Akane. They hadn't considered that. But when they thought, it wasn't all that hard to decide.
"I'm th' only Saotome in my generation," Ranma said. "There are three Tendos. It'd be nice to be named Tendo – that'd go with the dojo – but it'd really bother my mother."
"So we're Saotomes, then," Akane said. They nodded at the clerk. He filled in and shuffled a few more papers, then handed them a form. They looked it over, and took deep breaths. Ranma stamped the form with his hanko, then Akane with hers. They looked at the crimson marks with their hearts in their throats.
The clerk bowed to them. "Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Saotome. May you have many years of happiness together." He made a copy, and handed it to them. They carefully tucked it away into Ranma's knapsack. Their day's work was done.
In the same dark corner, they resumed their disguises. Ranma held his hand out to Akane. "Well, wife, what do we do now?"
"Not that, I'm afraid. We have a Shinto wedding tomorrow. You're supposed to be abstinent the day before a Shinto ceremony." Akane made a small face.
"There's abstinence – and then, there's abstinence. I don't think Shinto says anything about ice cream." Ranma was willing to look at the silver lining.
"Ice cream is a kami, with a powerful influence on human affairs."
"Let's go to the temple of the ice-cream kami, then, and worship." Ranma Saotome took Akane Saotome by the hand, and the two began heading for Sakura, in Shinjuku. That place was strong in the ways of the Cream.
Ranma, Akane, and Soun were up well before dawn. Kasumi and Nabiki were still in their rooms. Ranma had spent time out with the cats the night before, and had gotten home at the right moment to start breakfast. Now he was bringing it in: rice and pickles, miso soup, and grilled eel.
"What? More dead fish?" Akane grumbled. Ranma turned away to keep Soun from noticing the grin on his face. They ate in relative silence, not yet awake enough for conversation. Then the three were out the door, headed to meet Bjorn, Mao, and Nodoka at the subway station.
Once they were out of sight, the lights went on in Tendo-ke. Kasumi and Nabiki were frantically getting ready to travel. They nipped down to the kitchen – Ranma had left food for them, including coffee for Nabiki. In just a few moments, a limousine was at the gate, with Tatewaki, Ukyo, Cologne, and Shampoo. Sasuke was driving. They sped off for the airport.
Dawn was breaking as Ranma, Akane and Soun arrived at the station. They were the first there, but Nodoka came shortly after. She seemed relieved to see Ranma as a guy. Bjorn and Mao completed the set as they got out of their taxi. With Bjorn along, even on a weekday they wouldn't have needed pushers to get into the subway car. Soon they were at the Tokyo train station, boarding the Shinkansen for Okayama. The weather was pleasant, and if forecasts could be trusted, it would be even better at the shrine.
Ranma insisted Bjorn and Mao take seats by right-side windows. "You show me great landscape in Minnesota," he said. "Now you see great landscape of Japan."
The Kanto plains near the track were heavily built up – that happens with railways – but nicely landscaped. Bjorn and Mao were astonished by the train's speed. "I've never gone this fast, close to the ground," Mao said.
After an hour or so, they were leaving the Greater Tokyo area for mountains. "Now you see what I mean," Ranma said. The air was clear, and there was a small cone of snow ahead and to the right.
As they continued, the cone of snow got larger and larger, and grew a mountain beneath. "Fuji-san, sacred mountain," Ranma said.
"It's even more beautiful than the photos," Mao breathed.
Bjorn was staring, fascinated. Ranma's senses prickled. Finally Bjorn spoke. "You called Northern Minnesota the 'bones of the Earth'," he said slowly. "There, I think, is the blood of the Earth, flowing beneath a layer of stone. This, too, is a place of power."
Mao translated for the rest.
"There's a place in Minnesota that reminds you of Fuji-san?" Akane asked Ranma.
"Only a bit. Japan is a young land, born in fire. Northern Minnesota has some of the oldest and hardest rocks on Earth," Ranma said, his eyes seeing a distant land. "The kami there are just as strong as our kami. But they're not the same."
After that, Ranma's night caught up with him. He found a sunny seat, curled up into an improbably small ball, and purred a bit before going to sleep. Nodoka was taken aback.
"He was out last night with the cats," Akane fumed. "I don't know what he does with them, but sometimes he comes home reeking of fish."
Mao snickered, and whispered in Bjorn's ear. He chuckled. Soun and Nodoka looked at each other with questions on their faces, but a glimpse of Akane's sulfurous mood kept them silent. Soun wondered: Is that what she was complaining about when she said 'More dead fish?' at breakfast?
The train sped into the day, heading for Okayama.
In the Bayankala mountains of China, Genma had found hot water and was back to his old self. He still wore the cloak – it was chilly in the mountains – but at least he could throw the hood back and face the world.
He was tired of being chased. Maybe he wouldn't steal the truck after all.
He'd found a hatchet lying in the road. Could he trade it for a phone call? He walked into the mountain village where the trucker lived, found the tavern by smell and memory, and went in. Maybe if he was fortunate, he could trade for a phone call and a mug of beer?
For a wonder, one of the gaffers in the tavern knew Japanese. The average Chinese doesn't like the Japanese at all – bad blood left over from the War – but then, the average Tibetan doesn't like the Chinese very much. And the Bayankalas had been Tibetan until China annexed them. What with this and that, the old fellow was willing to help Genma. He even bought him a drink.
The Tendos didn't answer the phone.
Nodoka didn't answer the phone.
Genma didn't have anybody else to call.
The old Tibetan coughed a bit, and cleared his throat. "You look like a strong young fellow. I need help repairing a stone wall. You do that for me, I'll feed you until next Tuesday, when the truck from Xining is due. Do it well, I'll put in a good word with the truckers."
Genma swallowed his pride. Honest work? He supposed it was better than being chased through a mountainous wilderness. He sat down, and shook the man's hand. But even as Genma settled into his chair, the old man was standing up.
"Let's go, young man. I'd hate to see you slacking off. Lazy kids, these days, mutter mutter …" He headed out the door, and Genma had no choice but to follow.
In Heaven, Inari and Nanibozo smiled and took another drink. Then they started to plan their cold-water games. Genma might stay himself, but he was due for a lot of close calls.