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A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. This story based on the anime, not the manga.

Chapter 8: Riding the Winds of Change, Part 2

'It still doesn't seem real,' Akane thought distantly. 'I wonder how much longer until it does?'

Once again she got to her feet and paced around the room, as if the motion might help still her circling thoughts. Once again it didn't work. Her mind continued to tumble and spin, trying to come to grips with everything that had happened already this afternoon, and everything else that would once Ranma finally came back.

She glanced down at the outfit she wore. It was her favorite yellow sundress, the one that — Ranma's comments notwithstanding — she thought really did make her look nice. She had been in the middle of a workout, trying to burn away her irritation at Genma's skipping their afternoon session, when Kasumi had come bustling in. The sight of her normally unflappable sister in such a state had been the start of her current mood, seed for the confusion that had grown much larger since then. Her older sister had only had a few words of explanation to give her, telling that Nabiki had called, that she was on her way back and who was with her. As quickly as that, Akane had had to abandon her workout, hurry in to take a bath, and dress nicely for their unexpected, critically important guest.

The youngest Tendo paused in her pacing. She sent a quick, anxious glance toward the kitchen, straining her ears and picking up the clinking of pots and pans, and underneath that the soft, pleasant hum of conversation between Nodoka and Kasumi. It was one silver lining, at least; Akane had been on the verge of panic when Nodoka first arrived, uncertain how she could possibly handle the conversation that was sure to follow. Nodoka always took a special interest in her, which was only natural since Ranma was her fiancé, and whenever Nodoka wanted to discuss her little boy it had never been easy for Akane to navigate the verbal minefield. With all the things that had happened lately, she honestly didn't know whether she could have kept from blurting out the wrong thing to the Saotome matron.

It had therefore come as a very pleasant surprise when Nodoka didn't settle down for a long eager chat with her, but rather asked Kasumi if she might help out with dinner tonight. Nodoka had explained, with a wistfulness that made Akane's own heart clench unpleasantly, that she so wanted to have a hand in preparing this meal, the first that she would share with her son after so long. Nodoka had invited Akane to help as well, but the youngest Tendo had politely bowed out, hiding her relief at the reprieve as best she could. Things were still terribly uncertain, but so far at least Akane Tendo hadn't made them worse.

On that note she turned on her heel and stalked back to her original seat on a cushion. She settled down on it and fired a piercing stare across the room, doing her best to silently pull Nabiki's attention away from her manga. Her middle sister was lounging in a bean-bag chair, her presence here in the family room rather than up in her bedroom her sole nod to propriety and hospitality. She'd even changed clothes, leaving behind the modest, pleasant outfit she'd been wearing when she came back with Nodoka and donning a more usual halter top and short shorts combo.

When five minutes of the stare achieved exactly no results, Akane cleared her throat. "Nabiki, could we talk?"

Nabiki didn't look up from her manga. "Sure thing, Akane," she returned in a voice pitched just loud enough to reach her sister. "Just as soon as we can do it without screwing everything up for Ranma when we get overheard."

"But… Nabiki, I don't…"

This time Nabiki did look up from her manga, firing back a cool stare that nonetheless took most of the wind out of her sibling's sails. "Little sister, I know you don't know what to do." 'The only thing unusual about that is you admitting to it.' "The answer is simple — just sit back and keep quiet. Let Ranma and his mother get back together without trying to get involved. Too many cooks spoil the miso and all that."

Akane frowned at her. "And I suppose you've already done just what you wanted, and you don't want anyone else taking a turn with the electric mixer?"

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "May I please remind you that now is not the time to discuss this?" She jerked her head toward the kitchen, using the gesture to ensure that Nodoka was still well out of earshot. "Yes, I deliberately met her and told her Ranma was here and she could finally meet him today. Yes, I also gave her plenty of details about her son's life over the last year, exercising a certain… shall we say, discretion as to what I told her. Ranma and his dad did a wonderful job digging their own graves with Auntie Saotome, and I've worked very hard to undo the worst of that. And unless you want to screw up everything I've worked for, I suggest you just sit back, smile nicely, and let Ranma tell her the stuff I told him to." With that, Nabiki turned back to regard her manga once more. The set and rigidity of her posture made one thing clear: as far as she was concerned, this conversation was over.

Akane, meanwhile, was gaping at her older sister. 'Let Ranma… the stuff she told him to say?' Her mouth went from a gape to a bitter grimace. 'So he didn't even bother to tell me he was planning this? Working everything out with Nabiki so that he could finally see his mother again for real? I wanted to see that too, I wanted to help them get back together. Guess that doesn't matter to that jerk, though. Guess he doesn't think my help would be worth anything at all.'

The thought was painful, not as bad as his declaration that she'd always be second best to Shampoo, but bad enough. 'Fine, Ranma. If you don't want me to get involved, I'll keep as far away as…' Akane's mental monologue trailed off as a new thought struck her. The idea that had been slinking around the back of her mind ever since Nodoka arrived had finally moved into full view. 'That's how it's going to be anyway, isn't it? Mrs. Saotome has her own home. Now that the Saotomes are going to be back together, won't that mean they'll all be living there?'

The pain was only getting worse with each successive thought. Akane clenched her eyes shut, drew her knees up to her chest and buried her face in them, and tried to shut her mind down. It refused to comply, though, summoning a cascade of phantom images of her home, her life, empty of two people who'd become such a great part of it, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but undeniably important to her. And now Ranma was finally walking away without a backward glance, taking his father with him… she wouldn't even be able to learn all the things Genma had promised he'd teach her, she would lose the one trainer who had told her she could be more than she currently was…

Akane's eyes flew open again, as shock from a new surmise shoved the pain off to one side. 'Mr. Saotome… but that's… how could…?'

"Sis? You really need to pull yourself together here," Nabiki advised, eyes wider than normal and her manga lying forgotten to one side. "What's wrong with you, anyway? You look like you swallowed a sea urchin… and I don't mean one that's been cleaned and cooked first. Might I point out that if you go in to dinner with red eyes and blotched cheeks, it's going to lead to some awfully awkward questions from Mrs. Saotome?"

"That's a good point, Nabiki," Akane shot back. "We wouldn't want any awkward questions from her, now would we? So what do you think's gonna happen when Mr. Saotome gets back tonight and gets splashed in the first thirty minutes of saying hello to Auntie?"

Nabiki shrugged. "Seeing as how he'll already be wearing waterproof soap at that point, and there's enough soap to keep him protected until his real cure gets in, I don't think it's much of an issue." The earliest possible date for the arrival of the Nyannichuan had already passed. Nabiki was certain that either the water would get in before the current supply of soap ran out, or the additional bars she'd placed a rush order for would arrive. She wasn't quite sure which possibility she preferred — if the soap came first, she'd be able to charge Genma for it, but that would ultimately leave Ranma with more of the stuff, more safeguards against his new curse causing him the kind of trouble he deserved. If it was the water that won the race she'd take a financial hit over the soap, but Ranma would never catch so much as a glimpse of it.

That answer had washed away Akane's earlier shock. She might have known the answer would be something like that. "Oh. I guess you and Ranma've got this all figured out, huh?"

The middle Tendo's reaction to this suggested that if she'd been drinking, she would have done the greatest spit-take in the history of the universe. "Me… and Ranma? Little sister, I thought I made it clear that the situation we're in right now requires careful thought and delicate handling. You honestly think Ranma had any part in that?"

Akane's brow wrinkled in puzzlement. "So… what? You're saying you did all this, all on your own?" When her sister gave an impatient nod, she continued, "Why, Nabiki?"

Nabiki shot another guarded glance toward the kitchen, reassuring herself once more that Nodoka was still tied up and oblivious to the conversation that really shouldn't have been happening here and now. She turned back to face Akane, leaning conspiratorially forward and motioning for her sister to come closer. Akane did so, getting up from the cushion and scooting over to a mere arm's length away. Nabiki dropped her voice to a dramatic whisper and stated, "Now that… is a secret!"

The youngest Tendo crashed to the ground in the most profound facefault she'd executed in a month. She had barely managed to get back to her hands and knees by the time Nodoka had appeared in the doorway, anxiously searching for the source of the noise. "Oh dear, Akane, are you all right?"

"F-fine, Auntie Saotome," Akane managed to reply. "Just lost my balance."

Nodoka fussed over her for a few more moments before returning to the kitchen. "I trust I made my point," Nabiki murmured dryly. "Later, Akane. This isn't the time or the place for this discussion."

"Fine," Akane grumped as she retreated to her original seat. She clamped her lips shut against the desire to fire off more questions, determining to consider all angles of this in the privacy of her own mind and be ready when Nabiki deigned to open up.

She very quickly came back to one that had already occurred to her, the pain returning as the last of her distraction left her. Surely Mrs. Saotome's reappearance meant that this time when she left the Tendo home, her son and husband would go with her. Didn't Nabiki realize that? Didn't she care at all? Maybe the Saotomes would stay for the next few days; she supposed there wasn't much chance of them leaving before Genma got his hands on his cure. But like Nabiki herself had said, that would only be a little delay. Her sister had arranged all this, gone to such lengths on her own initiative, and for what? Why would she…

Akane gasped, a soft sound that Nabiki heard but chose to ignore. Had she looked up, she would have seen her sister staring wide-eyed at her with no color left in her face. 'I don't believe it,' Akane thought numbly, though that wasn't true at all — she merely wished it were. 'Of course Nabiki had to know what was going to happen. It's what she wants! It's got to be! She knows that Ranma's too stupid and stubborn to give up his new curse, and she also knows what that means.' In a nutshell, it meant that he couldn't be counted on to win his fights any more, not even the rematch he was sure to demand after a loss. In Nabiki's eyes, that had to make him worth much less as an asset.

The farther she traveled on this train of thought, the more sense it made. There were a lot of ways that Ranma had fallen woefully short of dependability in the past, but everyone had always been able to count on him to come through in a fight. In that arena, at least, he never lost or screwed up when it really counted. That wasn't, couldn't be true any longer, though… and all the negative aspects of having Ranma Saotome as a houseguest were still firmly in place. Shampoo's poisoned gift hadn't changed any of that. To a mercenary like her sister, Akane could imagine all too well that the most logical course of action would be to cut her losses and the Saotomes loose. She'd even found the perfect way to do it, a way that would leave Ranma owing her a huge favor. Akane bitterly wondered how Nabiki would collect, what avenue of repayment her sister would find that Ranma's new curse didn't interfere with.

As the thought of what was to come began to really sink in, bitterness was replaced by rising panic. She didn't want this to happen! She couldn't let it happen! Ranma and his father couldn't just walk away, not now, not like this! Not… not when she hadn't…

'Not when I've still got so much to learn from Mr. Saotome!' Akane decided, seizing upon the inspiration. 'He promised to teach me real Anything Goes. It's a matter of honor, of family honor since these are our family styles! Mrs. Saotome will accept that, we all know how important honor is to her. If I just tell her that when she tries to drag Ranma and Mr. Saotome away, she'll have to agree and let them stay after all… I hope…' She took several deep breaths and began reassuring herself of the certainty of this, thinking back to what she'd seen of Nodoka before now. If the woman had been so lonely for so long, then she shouldn't think it would be such a terrible hardship to stay here with her son and husband, rather than taking them with her back to her own house. 'It's not going to happen. I won't let it happen. Nabiki can just live with disappointment,' she thought fiercely, firing another glare over toward her sibling.

The middle Tendo didn't look up from her manga, but she sensed her sister's displeasure nonetheless. 'What on earth has got Akane's panties in a twist now? Ranma was handed to her on a silver platter, and she was still managing to lose him. You'd almost think she realized that I got Mrs. Saotome here to make up for her own incompetence and that was what was pissing her off.' She turned a page, not bothering to focus on the story told in ink on paper, too busy pondering a different tale that would soon be told. 'Not that I can tell her that, of course. Let's see, what's the best yarn to spin for my dear, clueless baby sister?'

Kasumi looked on in silent wonder as Nodoka began on her next dish. The two of them had started out by sharing the work more or less equally, Kasumi with a scaled-back version of the menu she had already planned for the night, Nodoka preparing a couple of dishes that were particular favorites of Genma's. Kasumi had thought at the time that their combined efforts weren't really going to be adequate to the kind of celebration that this ought to be, but she was too kind to say so.

As it turned out, though, those were just the opening strains of an anthem, the first few shots fired in a war. Nodoka had finished the sukiyaki and takoyaki and kept right on going. By now the Tendo kitchen was nearly filled with various dishes kept either warm or cool, all of them waiting for the menfolk to return and find themselves facing the biggest feast the Tendo home had ever seen. At least now the eldest Tendo daughter understood why Nabiki and Nodoka had been lugging all those groceries with them when they arrived earlier today.

Those hadn't quite been used up yet, but Kasumi still felt that it might be a good idea to call a halt. "Oh my, Mrs. Saotome. Everything looks wonderful… but don't you think we have enough now?"

"Mmmm…" Nodoka murmured, staring around the kitchen with speculative gaze. "I don't know, Kasumi dear. Doesn't Ranma have the same hearty appetite as his father? Genma dearest told me that's an inherited trait in his family." No matter how many years should pass, Nodoka would never forget the first real meal she'd prepared for her husband, and the mistaken certainty she'd felt that he must be using some kind of martial arts trick to dispose of the food when she wasn't looking. But she had learned otherwise, and had quickly come to enjoy the challenge of cooking for someone who appreciated her effort as much as Genma did, and could eat so much of it in one sitting. "I want there to be leftovers, even if it's only a single plateful." Leftovers meant she was the victor, rather than Genma. Nodoka wasn't, couldn't be, sure that she was ready to take on the combined might of both her husband and her son, but she was certainly going to try her best!

It was Kasumi's turn for speculation, taking into account the fact that Genma, at least, always ate more when he was nervous. "Well, perhaps a few dozen more spring rolls wouldn't hurt," she allowed.

"Spring rolls it is, then," Nodoka agreed, turning toward the severely-reduced cache of ingredients. "What sort would you say my son likes the most, Kasumi? Vegetarian? Chicken? Beef?"

"Hmmm… I can't think of a time he's ever shown a preference," Kasumi replied. At least, not at speeds her eyes could follow. "Really, Mrs. Saotome, he'll think whatever you pick is wonderful. There are some dishes Ranma particularly likes, but any meal prepared for him with love and gentle care is something he'll be truly thankful for."

"I… yes, that's what I want…" Nodoka said, the words emerging not much louder than a whisper as she looked around the kitchen and the feast it was straining to contain. "I realized that while I was talking to your sister this afternoon. I just want to do everything I can to make this meeting go perfectly. I want to show them how much I love them, how much I've missed them, and this, this is the best way I can think of…"

Kasumi gave her most cheerful smile. "Well, it might have been a while since you've seen them, but you certainly haven't forgotten how to bring a smile to their faces. They'll love this, Mrs. Saotome. Both Ranma and Mr. Saotome will."

"I'm sure you're right, dear." Nodoka dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her apron. "I just want this dinner to be the best it can be. It's been so long, so terribly long since I've seen my husband and son… I don't even know what Ranma looks like, though I'm sure I'll know him when I see him!"

"I could go fetch a picture of him for you," Kasumi offered, remembering something Akane had told her about Nodoka's first visit.

"No, Kasumi. Thank you, but no. I want the first time I see him to really be my son, right there before me in the flesh where I can hug him and tell him I never want to lose him again."

'Oh well, it's not like there'll be any other teenaged boys wandering into our home tonight for her to mistake for Ranma,' Kasumi mused. Fortunately for everyone involved, she was the only Tendo with enough positive karma not to bring down disaster by thinking something like that.

"I'll know him when I see him. I'm sure of it," Nodoka repeated. Then, her voice sinking down toward a whisper again, she continued, "But… but do you think he'll know who I am?"

To Kasumi's credit, neither her smile nor her eye twitched as she replied, "Oh, yes, Mrs. Saotome! I'm quite sure of that!"

Nodoka smiled herself, relieved by the absolute certainty she could hear in the younger woman's words. "Thank you very much, dear. I hope you're right. How much longer do you think he'll be gone? Have you any idea?" She had already asked about her husband, but Kasumi could only guess that he'd be back in time for supper, as she hadn't known where Genma and Soun had vanished off to. Nodoka hoped that they might be patrolling the streets in an effort to uphold decency and dignity; even in her isolated, lonely life she had heard rumors of how active the panty-thieves of Nerima were. Probably if Genma and Ranma hadn't taken so many training trips away from the Tendos, they would already have solved the problem! It was definitely something worth mentioning to her son somewhere down the line. After all, she already knew he was special, Nabiki had drawn a broad enough picture of Ranma to assure Nodoka of that, but there was always room for growth, improvement, and more thankful female admirers!

"It probably won't be much longer," Kasumi said. His latest flight had so far kept him away for four hours, which was longer than usual even when considering that those jaunts had been increasing in length over time. Kasumi had even started to become a little bit concerned by that fact, but his mother's appearance today had laid those worries to rest. Ranma would undoubtedly still take to the skies from time to time, but now he had even more reason to come back swiftly. Then the eldest Tendo daughter blinked, as her attunement to the household wa revealed something to her. "In fact—"

"I'm home!" The cry was unmistakably that of a teenaged male, and it acted on Nodoka as would the starter's pistol at the hundred-meter dash. The Saotome matron hurried from the kitchen at her best speed, constrained by her kimono but still moving at quite a respectable clip. By the time she reached the entranceway he had only had time to step out of his shoes. Both Nodoka and the newly-arrived young man froze, each staring at the other, both visibly nervous as they drank in every detail of the person staring at them across those few feet of space.

He was handsome enough to be a man among men-among-men, was Nodoka's first thought. This young man stood just the right height, not undersized by any means, but not freakishly tall either. He had the perfect fighter's build as well, or at least what she thought she remembered Genma describing as the perfect fighter's build — not too bulky, not too thin, his muscles toned for equal grace and power. His hair was as black as his father's, and his eyes were a deep, beautiful blue. In fact, one tiny corner of Nodoka's mind noted, even as the rest focused on propelling her across the space to hug her manly son, he looked awfully familiar.

"Oh, Ranma my son, it's so good to see you!" she exclaimed without even realizing she'd done so, her voice throbbing with emotion and sorely-tested self-control, her arms tightening around him with all the force of her years of loneliness and pent-up motherly instincts.

'Shouldn't he be turning blue right about now?' Nabiki wondered. She had wandered over to view the proceedings, as well as be in a position to step in if Ranma looked like blowing his lines. 'A hug that fierce… oh, wait, this is the guy who's survived the best squeezes Shampoo can throw at him. Never mind.'

"M-Mom?" The words were spoken softly and hesitantly, the embrace returned much more carefully than it was offered, but they were enough to move Nodoka past that first extremity of emotion, going from mingled joy and sorrow to pure joy. He had remembered her! He had recognized her! Her only child, lost to her for so long, had still known her right away! Her arms tightened yet again, actually managing to approach the point where Ranma might almost have felt some slight physical discomfort. Then, heaving a long, happy sigh, she loosened her grip and stepped slightly back. She kept her hands on his shoulders, unwilling to fully relinquish contact just yet, but needing to get a longer and better look at him.

"It, it really is you, isn't it?" he continued. Nodoka and Nabiki both felt sharp pangs at the words, so halting and awkward. Nodoka because they reminded her again of how long her son had been waiting for her, how long she had been waiting for him. Nabiki merely noted that even the critical need to make a good first impression, which she had carefully spelled out to him on the note left with Junko, had apparently not sharpened Ranma's acting skills. Fortunately his mother seemed about as observant of such nuances as Ranma himself.

"Yes, my son. It really is." Nodoka blinked away a tear, and smiled tremulously at him. "Oh, Ranma, you look just like I imagined you would! So strong and handsome, such a wonderful son for me to be proud of… so…" she blinked, as the thought percolating at the back of her mind finally managed to rise to the fore, "so familiar." She scrutinized him more closely, comparing each detail of his appearance against a memory she'd cherished for months now. "Yes… yes! It really was you I saw that time!"

"What time was that, Auntie Saotome?" Nabiki asked smoothly, cutting into the conversation while mentally promising Ranma much pain for never revealing whatever this was to her. "You say you've seen him somewhere before? It wouldn't be terribly surprising; your son has taken down a lot of strong fighters over the last year. I think a few of his matches have even found their way into the media." Of course those had been the matches that resulted in truly exorbitant levels of property damage, and the 'media' in question had been the local news, but she didn't see any need to go into that much detail.

"Oh, no, Nabiki, that's not it," Nodoka assured her. "It happened when I was going home after an earlier visit, when your sister tried to arrange a meeting for me with Ranma. The cap over a hot spring burst, I believe; in any case, I was thrown high into the air by a waterspout. As I was passing out, I caught sight of a blurred figure leaping in to save me through the curtain of hot water; a wonderful, heroic, strong, handsome young man that I was certain was my son! I lost consciousness then, and when I woke up again we were safely on the ground and I realized it was only your cousin Ranko who had saved me." She sighed for a moment, feeling an echo of the remembered disappointment. Then, brightening again as she returned to the present, she continued, "But I was right the first time! Well, not that it was my son rescuing me, but it was him that the Kami allowed me to see!"

'It's almost too easy,' Nabiki thought, smiling outwardly and smirking on the inside. 'She's so ready and willing to believe good stuff about him, not to mention desperate, that I just have to keep anything from hitting her head-on that's too big for her to deal with. Saotome, your feathered butt is as good as chained down.'

"Y-you were in danger, Mom?" Ranma asked, rejoining the conversation. "I… I wish I coulda been the one to rescue you. To catch you an' keep you safe."

"Well, perhaps you'll have a chance to again, dear," Nodoka reassured him. "During the time Genma and I were getting to know one another, there were several of his rivals who tried to get to him by kidnapping me. Sometimes they even took my little sister and brother too. If Mother and Father had still been alive, I'm sure Genma dearest would have had at least a few chances to show them how wonderful he was by rescuing them from a hostage crisis."

None of the listeners quite knew how to respond to that, not Ranma, not Nabiki, not Akane who'd come to see what was taking so long. 'Is she serious?' Nabiki wondered. 'Is that possible? Did Mr. Saotome really have anything remotely like the life Ranma's living right now?' She mused on this for awhile, even going so far as to ignore the conversation as it started up again between the other three. 'If he really faced challenges like that, and even triumphed over them, how could he have turned out like he is today?' As far as Nabiki could tell, the man was a lazy, greedy, unprincipled sloth-in-panda's-clothing who only ever cared about a few things. True, he was prepared to go to great lengths in pursuit of those things, such as training and guiding his son. True, he put more honest effort into parenting than Nabiki could remember seeing from her own father (even if Genma was just as apt as Soun to let the younger generation clean up his own mess). True, the damage he did seemed to come primarily from boneheadedness rather than apathy or malevolence. But all that was faint praise indeed for someone who'd lived the kind of youth that Nodoka seemed to be indicating. What had happened?

One quiet corner of her soul submitted the hypothesis that perhaps he'd married someone who loved him, but didn't know how to help him grow past the flaws of youth. The rest of Nabiki promptly ignored it.

"Remind me again whose idea this was," Genma growled. He was tired, hungry, frustrated, angry, disappointed, and worst of all, stone cold sober.

"Well, Saotome, if memory serves, after I picked it up and you ambled over to see what had grabbed my attention so hard, we each stared at this… unfortunate document," Soun paused for a few seconds to relieve his own feelings, generating a Demon Head that howled and screamed at the paper still clutched in his hand, "for who knows how long. Eventually you said, 'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?' And I was."

"Right," Genma replied. "And are you thinking what I'm thinking now?"

"That if we ever find out whose sick, twisted idea of a joke this was, we feed them to the Master?"

"Absolutely. It's got to be some new rival out to challenge my boy," the elder Saotome declared. "I've never seen anyone with such a talent as Ranma for calling trouble down on himself and every poor, innocent, unfortunate soul who dares to get close to him."

Soun couldn't quite stifle the 'like father, like son' comment that rose to his lips, but he was able to turn it into a loud cough. "Er, well, perhaps, Saotome. But your son doesn't drink. Why would a rival try to lure him away to a nonexistent bar? Surely that wouldn't appeal to him no matter how good the so-called promotional prices were?"

"Which is why I said new rival," Genma riposted. "Someone who hasn't been around long enough to learn better. Someone who just went with the first plan that popped into his head." He patted the pockets of his gi, searching for something. "Need a cough drop, Tendo?"

"Yes, thanks." Soun popped the pastille and sucked moodily on it. "I suppose you could be right, but somehow I'm not convinced."

"Well, what do you think is the explanation, then?"

Soun blinked. "That's a good question." He pondered it for the next few moments, at which point the lingering anger disappeared from his face, along with the majority of his composure. "It could have been the Master himself," he uttered in a hushed whisper.

"I like my idea better," Genma said flatly.

"Well, so do I, Saotome, but think about it! He disappears from time to time, but he doesn't usually stay gone this long. We've been living on borrowed time these past two weeks and you know it. Something like this would probably seem like a fine joke to him."

Genma shook his head forcefully. "I don't think so. If it really were the Master, he would've taken it even further. He wouldn't have left that flyer in the yard for you to find as if the wind had blown it there, he would've showed up in the flesh and handed it to you, and told us to go to that bar and buy him a few dozen bottles of sake." He glared at the paper. "Not much of a burden at the prices listed there. But after we spent the afternoon and early evening trying to track down the place, only to discover that it never existed at all, we would still have to go somewhere else and buy his sake at the full price. That's the Master's idea of a good joke."

"Hmmm… you know, I think you're right," Soun allowed after mulling it over for awhile. He then eyed his oldest friend askance. "It's a little disturbing to see how well you understand the Master's mindset, Saotome."

"In the interests of our long friendship I'll overlook that remark," Genma snapped, making a mental note to use something really horrible for his next shogi distraction ploy. Maybe Nabiki selling Kasumi to the Yakuza.

The two walked in silence for a while. "Are you sure you want to head back now?" Genma eventually asked, breaking the silence that had stretched over the last four blocks. He gestured ahead and to the right, where a much narrower street crossed the path they were taking back home. "If we turn here it'll take us into the back alleys, and sooner or later some dumb punks are bound to try and mug us. We could work out a few frustrations and liberate enough yen to pay our way at a regular bar."

This wasn't the first time Genma had made such a suggestion. Usually Soun shot them down quickly and unequivocally, pointing out in no uncertain terms that he, and by extension his houseguest, had an image to keep up with the upper-class of Nerima. Today, it was much more difficult to resist the temptation. After a silent minute, though, he replied, "No, Saotome. Let's just go home. I'm sure Kasumi's dinner will be enough to put smiles back on our faces."

Genma grumbled but acquiesced. 'If I'm still feeling like a little excitement, I can just spar with the boy. He'd better be home, not off gallivanting through the skies as if he didn't have a thing in the world to worry about. At the very least he'd better have stuck around long enough to pass my message on to Kasumi, about where Soun and I were going…' He blinked as he followed that train of thought to its logical conclusion. 'Wait a minute… if he did that, Kasumi would think we weren't going to be back for dinner at all!' Stopping dead in his tracks, he scanned the skies, searching desperately for the sight of a blue-and-black falcon soaring overhead. Nothing to be seen, and even if there had been it wouldn't prove anything, he remembered. "You're absolutely right, Tendo! Let's pick up the pace!"

Soun blinked, at first in surprise, then to clear his eyes of the dust cloud raised by his friend's departure.

Tatsuki checked his watch. He grimaced at the result; he'd been out here for three hours now, with no end in sight. Afternoon had shifted into evening, dusk was edging on toward full night, and regardless of whatever arrangements Nabiki might have made with the other students sharing this vigil, she certainly wasn't paying him by the hour. He stared away down the street for a few moments more, straining his eyes for any hint of an approaching burly figure in a white gi, or an oversized panda walking erect. Neither version of Genma Saotome was anywhere in sight. He turned and looked the other way, regarding what would be Genma's destination, the area he and his fellow Furinkan freshmen had to keep the elder Saotome from entering unprepared.

According to his world history class, European gaijin had once been fond of putting 'Here be dragons' on the unexplored places on their maps. In Tatsuki's opinion, any map of Nerima should include something similar blazoned over the Tendo dojo. Except it wouldn't say 'dragons'. 'Pains in the neck', maybe, or perhaps 'weirdness made flesh, blood, and bone'. 'Way too much concentrated power' — he'd support that legend in a heartbeat. He'd worked hard all his life to become a strong martial artist, he'd even been happy to go to Furinkan since he'd heard the tales of strong combatants there, and it had earned him nothing but the chance to possibly be the strongest person outside of Ranma Saotome's social circle. Ranma himself was so far ahead of Tatsuki that the only way he could possibly hope to scrape a win would be exploiting the upperclassman's curse.

And even if one ignored the super martial artists, there was still Nabiki. This close to her house he didn't feel safe enough even to think his opinion of her.

Tearing his eyes from the Tendo home, and pushing away a fantasy wherein it — and all that it represented in Nerima — were nothing more than a bad dream, Tatsuki turned once again and scanned the streets for Genma. Still no sign of the elder Saotome. He glanced to the nearest rooftop. If he jumped up there, he would have a better view, and maybe company too if Nabiki had posted someone at that vantage point. There was only one problem: he couldn't make a jump like that, going either up from the street or back down to it. Infuriating, especially considering some of the casual leaps he'd seen Ranma make. Even Akane Tendo could manage a one-story jump from what Tatsuki had heard, which was all the more frustrating since he believed he might be able to beat her in a fight if he used a careful hit-and-run strategy.

A thought which led him straight back to brooding over the ridiculously skewed power levels in this district. Another thirty minutes passed this way, at the end of which Tatsuki was a seething morass of resentment and baffled fury. Maybe it would be worth it, he couldn't help but think, if he were to challenge and take down Akane. Ranma would squash him afterwards if a tenth of what he'd heard in the rumor-mill was true, but a victory like that, over an Anything Goes student who certainly outstripped him in a few important areas, might be sweet enough to make up for it.

Further thoughts on the matter were tabled as he finally noticed the approach of his target, illuminated by a helpful street-light. Genma had just dashed out from a side alley five blocks down and was now barreling along the final straightaway toward the Tendo home. He was in panda form, going on all fours for better speed, and didn't seem discomfited in the least by the weight of Soun Tendo, clinging frantically to Genma's back as his long hair snapped and crackled in the wind. Tatsuki smiled grimly. Genma was clearly in no mood to be stopped, but Nabiki's instructions had been perfectly clear. This once, at least, he found himself genuinely happy to obey her.

Soun, meanwhile, was teetering somewhere on the edge of hysteria. He still didn't know for certain why his old friend had suddenly become so frantic to get home. Just as his own sprint had caught him up to Genma, a splash of water from nowhere had destroyed any chance for his friend to answer questions without stopping and scribbling on a sign. It quickly became clear that Genma had no intention of doing that. Soun had paced him for awhile, running in silence as he tried to determine what had lit such a fire under his oldest friend.

When inspiration struck, it had been even more horrible than his first hypothesis concerning the fraudulent flyer. Perhaps the two of them had been lured away from home to leave his precious girls alone and defenseless! If Ranma were to take advantage of his and Genma's absence to soar away for a few hours, it would be a perfect opportunity for some ruthless vagabond to kidnap one or more of his beloved daughters! Shock and horror had frozen Soun when this insight hit him, at which point Genma doubled back, slung him over his furry shoulders, and raced off at top speed. After that Soun just tried to hang on and pray that they'd be in time to save his family.

By the time the two Masters of Anything Goes reached the final stretch of road leading home, Soun was in no condition to notice a random student loitering in the lane one block ahead of his house… at least not until the boy twisted in a fast spin kick perfectly timed to knock Genma off his feet and transform his charge into a tumbling slam into a nearby property wall. Good luck alone threw Soun clear. He landed with his own painful thudding roll, but it was nowhere near as damaging as getting pinned under Genma would have been.

Tatsuki smirked, enjoying the satisfaction of a move executed perfectly. He'd never seen Ranma's father in action, but was certain the man could take him apart in an even match. However, catching him by surprise had been all the edge Tatsuki needed to take him down. Time now to flag one of the students on the rooftops and let them be the one to pass Nabiki's message along to Genma. As for Tatsuki, he had better get while the getting was good—

"YOU WILL NEVER HARM MY PRECIOUS BABY GIRLS!!" It was a good thing that the apparent earsplitting volume of Soun's Demon Head was just another chi trick. Had he really screamed the message as loudly as it seemed to the hapless Tatsuki, caught in the grip of an enraged none-too-stable parent and helpless beneath the phantasmagorical tirade, Nodoka would surely have sent her manly son outside to deal with the threat and followed to watch. As it was, though, only Tatsuki, a handful of nearby student sentries, and the quickly-recovering Genma heard Soun's righteous declaration. The last coherent thought Tatsuki managed, before falling thankfully unconscious, was an ironclad decision to leave Akane Tendo the hell alone.

Genma got back to his feet with a series of grumbling gruffles, rubbing his head and glaring at his crumpled assailant. 'Think you're a martial artist, do you boy? Just wait until I sign you up as the Master's next disciple.' A loud growl from his stomach cleared the last cobwebs from his head and reminded him that there were more important things to worry about.

"Um… Mr. Saotome?" Both men jumped, stared around, then looked up. A girl's face was visible through the darkness, peering uncertainly down at them. "Ah… you really don't want to go in there like that." She watched the panda scribble something on a sign and hold it up, too bemused to read the message even if there had been enough light to do so. "I can't read that," she said apologetically. "Anyway, I needed to tell you that Ranma's mother is in there."

Quick as lighting Genma dropped from his upright stance, rolling onto his back and spinning the sign. It now presented the message 'I'm just a cute and cuddly panda.'

"I can't read that one either," the nameless girl called down. "Anyway, she's already met with Ranma and heard a lot of stuff from him." She winced as the panda below her suddenly gave a groaning wheeze and clutched at its chest with one clawed paw. Hopefully the man wouldn't perforate himself and bleed to death before the Saotome family could reunite. "Everyone knows to keep quiet about your curse, but that means you need to keep it hidden until you can cure it for good." She paused to take a breath. Before she could continue on to the message about the soap, waiting with Manami just outside the Tendo home, Genma was gone.

The front door of the Cat Café slammed open. A heartbeat later Genma zipped through, once more in human form and paying no heed to the fact that the door had been locked prior to his entry. Another heartbeat, and a bonbori bounced painfully off his skull. At another time he would at least have reacted, but here and now he didn't even pause, merely continued his charge past Shampoo, through the dining room, and into the kitchen. Only then, as the utter lack of Cologne registered, did he stop dead in dismay.

"I suppose I could bill you for repairs to my front door." Cologne's dry voice from behind him sent Genma whirling around, hope renewed. "But considering my great-granddaughter's methods of entry at the Tendo home, perhaps it's better to let it slide."

"Right, yes, thanks. The water!" Genma exclaimed, lunging toward Cologne and dropping into the Crouch of the Wild Tiger. "Is it here yet? Please tell me it is!"

Cologne stared inscrutably back at him. "Why is it such an urgent matter now, Genma? The last I heard, you wouldn't really be needing it for another few months."

He gave a bitter laugh. "That was the plan, but it must have slipped up somewhere. Right this very minute my wife is waiting for me at Tendo's place. She's already met with Ranma and talked to him." He ignored both Shampoo's soft gasp of surprise and the girl's wide-eyed face appearing in the window that connected the kitchen and dining room. "I can't afford to wait any longer. If the water's not here yet, do you at least have something that'll do for a temporary fix?"

"Actually, you're in luck," Cologne replied after a long pause, the wheels of her mind spinning as she considered this new development, "the Nannichuan arrived just this morning." It was her turn to ignore Shampoo, as the young Amazon started then fixed her with a reproachful look. She hadn't informed the lavender-haired girl of this because Ranma had already been scheduled to spend time with her today; Cologne had thought to give her youngest descendent another opportunity tomorrow to seek out her beloved and share the news with him.

"It did? Wonderful! Let's go!"

"Not so fast," the Matriarch replied. "There are a few things we need to settle first."

Genma swallowed, trying to fight a sudden feeling of dread. He cursed the fate that had brought him here in such dire, immediate need of the cure. "And what would that be?"

"Payment," Cologne returned. "I'm not going to ask for much; Shampoo agreed to this in the first place because she wanted to help your son. But I've had to put forth a certain amount of effort of my own, and I'd like to see some compensation."

"What kind of compensation?"

"Like I said, nothing much." Cologne gave him as non-threatening a smile as her features would allow. "I simply want to talk to you about your wife, find out what kind of woman she is, the history you two have together, that sort of thing."

Alarm had given way to confusion. "Why would you care about any of that?"

The Matriarch stared back at him. Quietly, but with the underlying firmness of the entire Bayankala Mountain range, she replied, "Whether or not you like it or accept it, by our laws Shampoo is Ranma's wife. That makes your wife her mother-in-law. Surely you can see that it's only natural to want to know about her."

Genma grimaced as if he'd eaten a particularly bitter early persimmon, but didn't say anything in reply.

"And it's for your own good too," Cologne continued in a more affable tone. "For one thing, I'll throw in a 'Saotome Special' order of ramen, on the house." She let Genma salivate for a few moments, then said, "And far more importantly… how long has it been since you sat down and thought about her? I mean everything, not just the good times or the things you're most afraid of." The Matriarch paused for a few moments more to let that sink in, then continued, "You're planning to go back to her tonight for good and all… don't you think it would be helpful to remember everything you can about her, to prepare for that reunion? Talking to me about this ought to do just that. Of course she won't be exactly the same person as she was when you left, but better that you remember who she was so that you can understand who she is now."

"And she probably would be happier if I remembered all those niggling little things," Genma mused. That was something he reckoned was common to every woman that had ever been born. Certainly he'd never encountered one for whom it wasn't true. He didn't think for a moment that something like that would make or break the judgment call Nodoka was going to be making regarding him, Ranma, and the boy's manliness, but he also didn't want to hurt his wife if it could be avoided. "Fine, you've got yourself a deal. But can we use the Nannichuan first?"

"No," Cologne said flatly. "Think of that as incentive to remember more."

"All right, all right," he grumbled. "Can I at least have a chair to sit in?"

"No," Cologne said, just as flatly as before.

"What! Why not?"

"Our chairs are needed here. You may borrow one, certainly, but we're not giving any away."

Genma and Shampoo both rolled their eyes. "Great-grandmother, that was terrible joke," the girl complained.

"Perhaps so, but it still broke the tension," the Matriarch shot back. "I felt that we could use a little humor before Genma and I get back into the heavy, serious conversation."

"Genma and you?" Shampoo sighed. "That is you way of saying, 'Shampoo, time be seen not heard'. Yes?"

"No. It's my way of saying I want you to head to the roof and train, rather than listening in on us." Cologne paused just long enough for Shampoo's mouth to drop open in shocked outrage, then switched to Mandarin and continued, "<If he tells me anything that you or your husband need to know right away, rest assured I'll pass it on. But you should learn from son-in-law himself about who his mother is.>"

Genma watched as Shampoo's mouth clicked closed, followed by her head inclining toward Cologne in a quick half-bow. With no further ado, the girl disappeared up the stairs. "Any chance you could tell me what you said to her to get such quick, dutiful obedience?" he asked, only half joking.

"Hoping to get the same results with Ranma, are you?" Cologne let out a cackle. "You're about fifteen years too late for that."

Afternoon sunlight streamed through Akane's open window, along with a fitful breeze. It guttered, gusted, and swirled, catching dust motes and sending them on a wild, tumultuous course of loops and spins, now visible in the light beaming through the window, now fading to nothingness as they were carried out of its path. If Akane had noticed, she might have compared them to her own state of mind.

She certainly hadn't caught her balance yet. Nodoka's arrival the previous day had changed so many things, some for the short term, others presumably for good. Akane didn't know what to think about so much of it, especially the fact that she'd been completely wrong about her sister's motivations. 'At least I didn't throw that in Nabiki's face,' she thought. 'I'm glad I figured that much out first.' Easy enough to figure out, when Nabiki had been as vocal as everyone, and more eloquent than anyone, in arguing that Nodoka should join her husband and son as a guest of the Tendos. 'And I'm glad what I thought at first was wrong.'

She wasn't quite so glad about some other things. For one, Genma had taken a break from training her due to having his wife in his life once more. Akane supposed she shouldn't complain, but that didn't make her happy to swallow these setbacks, didn't make it any more palatable to choke down a few days where Shampoo was free to widen the gap that Akane had been narrowing. Her sensei hadn't said anything specific about when he'd resume her training, but Akane had already decided that she'd give him today and tomorrow, which were the last full schooldays of the week, and perhaps Saturday morning as well. After that, he was going to be training her again whether he liked it or not!

Her spirits bolstered by these thoughts, Akane turned her mind to another unpleasant memory of the previous day. Since it had been decided that Nodoka would join the household as yet another semi-permanent guest, certain rearrangements had to be made — after all, the three Saotomes couldn't all sleep in the same room. Her father had been as quick as ever to try and shove Ranma into her room. Well, Akane might have let that happen when they were trying to get rid of Ukyo, but there was no way she was going to allow it under these circumstances! She'd stood up for herself with all the fire and determination she could muster, had looked her father in the eyes and shut him up in record time. None of that was particularly bad, but what had disturbed Akane was that this time Ranma hadn't backed her up, hadn't joined in the protest! He'd just stood there, silent, and let her do all the work! 'That perverted jerk probably thinks he's got a right to stay here now, after that stupid business with Ukyo moving in on us,' she thought darkly. 'He better not try anything now that he doesn't have Mr. Saotome in the same room to keep an eye on him.'

Thoughts of Ranma led her back to the one thing entering through the window that she had noticed. The breeze might have slipped past her, the dust motes and sunlight gone unnoticed, but the sounds of Ranma practicing in the back yard had remained in the background of Akane's awareness ever since they'd begun. She stood up from her bed and walked over to the window, looking down at him.

He was moving at least as quickly and powerfully as ever. Akane couldn't be sure, but she thought she sensed an extra spring in his step, a subtle note of extra joy and excitement in his movements. Whether that was truth or just an illusion, the wide smile he was wearing made his emotions pretty apparent. Akane stared down, and a small answering smile appeared on her lips. 'Maybe he is a jerk, a pervert, and an idiot, but he's finally got his mother back. And she's just as happy about that as he is.'

Something about the moment seemed familiar, something in the combination of those thoughts and Ranma's smile. She continued to watch him for a few moments as she grappled with the sensation, eventually running the memory to earth. Shortly after they learned of Nodoka, Akane had tried to arrange a meeting between son and mother. She'd given Ranma a flower to give to Nodoka; he'd taken it, thanked her, and then stood staring at her with a really goofy smile. Akane's danger sense had quickly been tripped, and she'd demanded to know what he was thinking and why he was looking at her like that. As far as she could tell, Ranma hadn't even noticed her warning stare or sharp tone. He'd still been smiling just as warmly and tenderly as he explained that he was thinking about his mother, how he really did have one. It had been a great relief to hear that, and she'd smiled back at him and encouraged him a little more.

'Maybe it would be nice to talk to him like that again.' The thought slipped into the forefront of Akane's consciousness, worming its way past some truly impressive defenses in order to do so. She blinked and examined it, finding that perhaps there was something to it. She wasn't about to just forgive and forget his little speech about her skill relative to Shampoo's, but perhaps she could put those issues on the back burner for now. After all, the best time to get his apology would be after he'd watched her squash the Amazon, and Akane knew that was still at least two weeks away.

The youngest Tendo nodded firmly. Turning away from the window, she detoured by her closet and changed out of her school dress, then headed downstairs and out into the yard. She waited a few moments for Ranma to slow down from a particularly high-speed point in his exercise, then walked over and said, "Ranma? Can we talk?"

He blinked, and took a few seconds to answer. "What, you mean right now?"

"Well, yeah," Akane answered, unpleasantly surprised to find that the words weren't coming nearly as easily as they should. "I just… wanted to talk to you. About Auntie Saotome, I guess, and, and all this…"

"Huh." He shrugged. "Okay, Akane. Let's go to the dojo." He turned and began walking in that direction.

Akane followed automatically, but found her steps slowing almost immediately, eventually bringing her to a halt with less than half the distance covered. "Wait, Ranma. Why there?" she asked, even as he disappeared inside the building. Akane frowned, pushed away her inexplicable reluctance, and hurried through the door.

"Could ya close it behind you?" Ranma asked as soon as she was inside.

The question sounded innocent enough, but Akane felt a sudden renewed surge of reluctance to be here. "What for?" she asked, speaking more sharply than she'd intended.

The stare he fired back at her didn't help to improve her mood. "Uh, what do you think?" Ranma asked. "So we don't get overheard. That's kinda the whole point of coming out here, Akane."

"Who's going to overhear?" she protested.

This time he stared at her for several silent moments before replying. "That would be Mom. Did I not hear you right? I thought you wanted to talk about some stuff that she doesn't need to hear."

Akane frowned. She really just wanted to know what Ranma thought about all this and how he was feeling, but said, "I guess you're right." After all, maybe the conversation would go into territory that it was best Nodoka not listen to. She still wasn't crazy about having the discussion here, but maybe it was the best option. She closed the door as he'd asked then sat down against the wall, trying to push away memories of two days past, when Ranma had stood by that same wall and said his piece about her and Shampoo. "Um… how's everything?"

"Pretty good, I guess," he said as he sat down beside her. "It's real great to be able to spend time with Mom as myself, you know?" Almost before the words had finished escaping, his eyes were wide and he was wincing. "Um, sorry, I didn't mean to say it like that, didn't mean to remind you of your own mom."

Akane tried to keep the pain that shot through her from registering on her face. 'Idiot, you didn't remind me of her until that stupid apology.' Gritting her teeth against yet another thoughtless, hurtful remark from her fiancé, she said, "Never mind me, I wanted to know about you and your mother. I'm almost surprised you didn't skip school today to spend more time with her." It wasn't like he had paid any attention at all today; as far as Akane could tell, all he'd done in class was catch up on sleep.

"I asked her if she wanted me to, this morning when she woke me up. But she told me she didn't want me short-changing myself on my education like that." For a moment Ranma looked a little frustrated, then his smile reappeared, as wide and carefree as ever. "Oh well, we'll have plenty of time now."

Akane blinked, surprised to learn that it wasn't due to Genma or random chance that Ranma hadn't needed her to wake him up this morning. One more small but permanent change. "What do you think will be the next thing you tell her?"

"Kinda hard to say," Ranma mused. "Prob'ly it'd be a good idea for her to get a heads-up on all the jerks who like to challenge me. Maybe I'll see if I can track down Ryoga, have a match with him. That'd show Mom that I've got real strong rivals but they ain't quite as strong as me."

"You jerk, how about you track down Ryoga and tell him his Drowned Guy water is here!" Akane shot back. Ranma had passed along the news of his father's cure as they walked to school this morning. She supposed Genma must have slipped those facts to him sometime earlier in the morning, maybe while Akane was out jogging. Part of her wanted to cut the conversation short right now, and tell Ranma that if he wasn't going to spend this time with his mother, then he ought to be pounding the streets looking for the Lost Boy.

She didn't do it, since her rational mind knew that looking for Ryoga was almost always a waste of time, whereas waiting for him to show up produced surprisingly good results. Akane reminded herself that she'd wanted to spend this time with Ranma, wanted to talk about Nodoka and really understand everything that was going on there. She pushed aside thoughts of how her idiotic fiancé always picked on poor Ryoga, and shoved away memories of her long-ago training with the Lost Boy, when he'd tried so hard to teach her Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics. Ranma had just sat there and mocked the both of them, and still managed to learn the moves better than her in the process!

Akane shoved a little harder, eventually forcing those unpleasant memories out of her thoughts and leaving only a slightly increased reluctance to holding their discussion here. "Do you really think she cares that much about how strong you are?"

"Well, duh. Why else would she let Pop take me on the road for all those years?" he shot back. "Sure, that ain't all she wanted, but the whole point of a training trip was to train me to be the best Anything Goes heir I can be."

"Saotome Anything Goes heir, maybe," she returned. "Don't forget that this is the Tendo dojo, for Tendo Anything Goes."

"Yeah, yeah," Ranma waved a hand dismissively. "Like you'd even still have this place if it wasn't for me. Hey, Akane, you think you could tell those stories to Mom sometime? How I saved your butt with Natsume an' Kurumi, and how you needed me to win that fight with the Dojo Destroyer?"

She'd been clutching tighter and tighter to the memory of Ranma holding that flower she'd given him for his mother, but it was fast slipping through her fingers. By contrast other memories were rising to the fore, other times she and Ranma had spent in this place. At the front of the pack were the two that idiot had thrown in her face, the battles with the girls who'd thought they were her sisters, and with a man who'd scarcely even looked to be her same species. Following quickly on their heels came the recollections she'd already pushed away once, of the long-ago Rhythmic Gymnastics training.

Then, as if a door had been flung wide open, came still more memories of what had passed in this place between Ranma and herself. He broke her out of the Xi Fang Gao through sheer obnoxiousness… They talked about Happosai's illness and her father's resultant determination for a wedding, to ensure the future of Anything Goes. She could almost hear that discussion again, and how much she hadn't said… She bandaged his wounds after his fight with Mikado, teased him about letting a guy kiss him, and even taunted him a little about kissing her. He'd looked like he might, for a moment there, and then both teens had witnessed every other member of the Tendo household staring enthusiastically at them. The moment was shattered so thoroughly that Akane wondered sometimes, late at night when most of her usual barriers were down, if it could ever come again…

With all the strength she had left, she pushed enough of the tumult aside to say, "Ranma, I don't want to talk about that! Not any of it, not now, not here!"

"Huh?" He stared back at her with blank incomprehension, his typical cluelessness only making this harder. Why couldn't the idiot try to understand her, just once?

"I mean let's go! Let's get out of here, go for a walk or something." Akane grasped tight hold of the idea. Yes, that was perfect. They could get away from all the ghosts clamoring out of these walls, talk about things in an open, neutral area.

"I can't do that, Akane," he said, in such patient, reasonable tones that she wanted to smash him through the ceiling. "What if Mom wants to take a break from helpin' Kasumi get dinner ready and talk some more? No way, I'm gonna be here if she wants me."

"She isn't going to!" Akane could no longer keep her voice level. Still, she was feeling more bitterness than anger, a fact that she hated but couldn't seem to do anything about. That familiar, fiery rush that Ranma had provoked in her so many times was only a trickle now, barely moderating a current of much less pleasant feelings. "She's in the kitchen because she wants to be, so that she can make a wonderful dinner for you and Mr. Saotome! She's not just gonna slack off from that so she can talk to you for a few minutes about nothing important!"

At this he frowned — no, the jerk actually glared at her! "Maybe it's not important to you, Akane. An' maybe you're right that she won't step outta the kitchen before dinner's ready. But I'm gonna be there for her anyway, just in case." He tensed, as if on the verge of standing, but didn't rise yet. "We can talk about this here, or you can wait until we're walking to school tomorrow."

Disdaining to wait for him, Akane shot to her feet and headed for the door. "Whatever. I'm going to go jogging." She slid the door open and paused on the threshold, teetering on the edge of saying something else, maybe something bitter and cutting and clever that would still tell him he could change his mind and come along, something like 'Feel free to catch up if you're enough of a man to admit you made a mistake.' But in the end she swallowed the words, turned, and walked proudly and silently away.

"You seem a little uncomfortable, Nabiki dear," Nodoka said, her eyes widening in remorse and belated concern. They'd been sitting here for nearly ten minutes now, ten minutes that Nodoka had quite enjoyed. The middle Tendo was an excellent source of information on her manly son's adventures and exploits, and how great of an impact he'd had on the Tendo family. Nodoka had seen the subtle signs of discomfort in her guest, but it had taken this long for them to actually register with her conscious mind. "Are you all right?"

Nabiki blinked. "What was that, Mrs. Saotome?" she asked. "Uncomfortable…?" Judging from the girl's surprised look, Nodoka concluded that Nabiki herself hadn't realized what she was feeling until it was pointed out. A much darker look flashed across her face, there and gone so quickly that the Saotome matron missed it while blinking. "I'm feeling a little chilly, actually," she apologized. "The draft from that air-conditioning vent is blowing right at me."

Now that Nabiki had pointed it out, Nodoka was able to detect the breeze herself. It wasn't blowing directly at her, and in any case her kimono was much more snug and warm than the outfit Soun's daughter wore. "Let's change seats," she said briskly, standing and gathering the tea and sugar biscuits they had ordered. "And remember, dear, you can call me Auntie."

Nabiki was only too happy to follow her lead, and the pair seated themselves at a booth well away from overzealous air vents. "It seems a little unseasonably warm for autumn," Nodoka mused, wondering whether she should drop a subtle cue to Nabiki about her clothing. She certainly didn't feel that halter tops and short shorts were very appropriate for young ladies.

"The weather's often unpredictable around here," Nabiki said. "Ranma's even taken a few unscheduled flights because of it."

"Just like the one he's on now," Nodoka said. Her voice was warm and her gaze was distant, and all thoughts of nudging Nabiki toward greater propriety were gone with the wind. "It was so sweet how he waited for me to tell him to go, to reassure him that I didn't begrudge him his time away in the sky."

"I'm a little surprised that you wouldn't rather spend this Sunday lunch with him, or even him and Akane," Nabiki replied. "I don't suppose my company is much of a substitute."

"Nonsense, dear," Nodoka said briskly. "I want to get to know all of you girls better. I'm enjoying helping Kasumi with the housework, and we've had some wonderful chats." A faint wrinkle puckered her brow. "I'd like to spend more time with Akane, too, but she seems so busy with schoolwork," the wrinkle deepened ever so slightly, "and training."

"Well, she is Daddy's heir," Nabiki lied through her teeth. Oh, her sister might be that in name, but she knew who Soun was counting on to revive the Tendo dojo.

"I suppose," Nodoka said doubtfully, "but it still seems odd… and that it should be my husband training her rather than her father…" Although so far she had only heard about this fact, not seen it first-had; Genma hadn't yet resumed an active role in Akane's training.

"Mrs. Sao— Auntie, I might as well be frank with you," Nabiki said. "Your husband is a much better martial artist, and a much better teacher, than Daddy." She shrugged. "Think of it as—" The words 'one more thing for Ranma and Akane to share' died in her throat, as a memory of two days past rose up once more, colder by far than the draft from the air conditioner had been. "As something that'll help my sister understand your son better," she finished.

"Well, yes, I suppose you have a point. Maybe it's not perfectly ladylike, but things will be better for them if they have something so powerful in common," Nodoka said, the tentative note changing to one of wistfulness. "If I'd had opportunities like that when I was her age, perhaps I would have been able to go along with Genma and Ranma on their training journey…"

"From the stories I've heard of that journey, you probably wouldn't have enjoyed it much," Nabiki said. "Weariness, cold, hunger, dirt, never having a chance to settle down and have some stability," 'watching your husband engage your son to a dozen different girls,' "…it didn't sound like much fun to me."

"Oh, Nabiki, I know that," Nodoka said with a sigh. "Genma dearest already told me, after all. Anything that wouldn't have been too much for me, would not have been enough for my son to become the man he turned out to be. I've only had glimpses into the life of a true martial artist, I've never lived it the way Genma and now Ranma have. But if I could have… but if there were more I could have given my precious son…" She sighed again. "I sometimes feel that Genma and Ranma deserved much better than me."

Well over a dozen ways to answer this zipped through Nabiki's mind, but all of them were shot down. This was the first time she'd even suspected that Nodoka possessed such a wonderful vulnerability to exploit, and the time to seize an opening like that was not the instant one learned of it, but after time had been taken to understand and plan for the perfect opportunity…

'This is your last warning,' Cologne's voice rasped out of the depths of her mind. 'If I learn of any more interference from you…'

With a great deal of effort, Nabiki suppressed a shudder and forced away the memory once more, the sound and frost-blurred sight of that horrible, withered, inhuman… thing that should have been safely in a grave hundreds of years ago. 'Damn you, Cologne,' she thought bitterly. 'And damn you too, Mrs. Saotome, for catching me off guard and dragging me out here to lunch. I shouldn't have to push you any farther. You ought to be the one doing the pushing by now, to clip your idiot son's wings and settle him down with my little sister.'

None of this emotion showed on her face or in her voice. Swallowing what she would have liked to say, Nabiki replied, "That doesn't seem right to me, Auntie. If Genma had married someone else, he might have had a son named Ranma… but it wouldn't be the same person as the boy you're so proud of. He never would have existed at all."

By Nabiki's count, Nodoka blinked nine times before she finally found her voice. "I… never really thought of that, dear." The Saotome matron dabbed daintily at her eyes, and cleared her throat. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it," Nabiki said airily. "I'm sure it's what Ranma would want you to hear." She projected an image of 'thoughtful silence' for awhile, finishing her cup of tea and downing a biscuit while Nodoka regained the rest of her composure. "Since we're on the subject anyway, there was something I was a little curious about."

"What would that be, Nabiki?"

"Well, it's that promise that Ranma and Genma made with you. Everything you've said so far makes it sound like you're totally satisfied. Isn't there supposed to be some dramatic moment where you stand up straight and tall and announce into a microphone that Genma was as good as his word, that Ranma Saotome is truly a man among men?" Nabiki asked, arching one eyebrow. "I admit I'm not really familiar with the ins-and-outs of these archaic honor covenants, but I thought that when something like this was completed successfully, you ought to signify it by destroying the pledge of what would've happened if they'd failed."

"Oh. Oh, dear," Nodoka said faintly, one part of her mind noting with astonishment just how many different emotions she'd experienced so far during this innocuous little chat. The majority of it, though, was focused on sheepish chagrin. "I can't do that, Nabiki."

"Can't? Well, I suppose you have a point; it has only been four days since you got back to them," Nabiki conceded. "I can understand that something like this would need more time before you make your official decision. Even if it doesn't really take that long to see what kind of a man Ranma Saotome is." She offered Nodoka a grin and a wink, a piece of acting that should have won her at least one award.

"Um… well…" Nodoka's answering smile would best be described as 'rueful'. "That isn't really what I meant, dear. It's a different point of honor."

Nabiki blinked. "You've lost me, Mrs. Saotome," she confessed. 'You scatterbrained, half-witted ditz, can't you do even one thing right? Take a damn good look at the picture I went to so much trouble to put together for you, and declare that your son's stupid neck isn't on the line any longer! It's not that complicated!'

"…It's a little complicated, I'm afraid," Nodoka said, after pausing and searching for words. "The exact agreement was that Genma would bring Ranma up to be a man among men, and they would return to me when his training was complete. And, well," she let out a near-perfect copy of the sheepish chuckle that Nabiki had heard from time to time from Ranma's feminine side, "when I returned to them, it invalidated that part of the oath they swore."

"I don't understand how that makes any difference," Nabiki said, fighting a queasy feeling. "The Saotome family is back together again, and Ranma's a bona fide man among men. What's invalidated other than the penalty for failing?"

"It's something you probably can't understand, dear," Nodoka explained. "As you said, you aren't familiar with all the intricacies of a martial artist's honor. But what it all means is that because I went back to them, rather than letting them come back to me, I can't declare the promise fulfilled."

After a long moment, Nabiki replied, "Mrs. Saotome, I don't get it. If you can't actually pass judgment on them, and anyway you've already decided that Ranma is the son you wanted him to be, isn't it as good as fulfilled?"

"No, you misunderstood me," Nodoka said regretfully. "I cannot honorably declare the promise fulfilled. If Ranma were to fall from grace, turn away from honor and dignity and all that he and Genma promised, I would still have to enforce the vow they made."

As good an actress as she was, Nabiki was still unable to stop the color from draining from her face. "So you can call the debt due, and you can't cancel it. Because you came back to them instead of them going to you."

"I'm afraid so," Nodoka murmured. "Please don't blame yourself, dear, you couldn't have known."

'Wonder how well that would fly with the Amazons,' Nabiki thought bitterly. "I wasn't actually planning to, Auntie," she said. "Because, you know, the first time we met you was when you came to our home looking for them."

"Yes, but it was just meant to be a visit," the Saotome matron explained. "That wouldn't have been the same thing at all as returning to them for good. I should have remembered, those days ago when you came to me and told me I could meet them again… I just got so caught up in the moment, in the joy of seeing my son after so long and finding out how wonderful he was, how Genma had raised him to be everything I'd hoped for and more… well, by the time any thoughts of prudence and restraint returned, everything was already settled. Genma and Ranma and I were officially a family once more." Nodoka sighed, then said earnestly, "I haven't forgotten all those things you said that night, Nabiki dear, how eloquent you were about my joining your household to be with my husband and son. It meant so much to me… please don't ever feel ashamed."

"All right, Auntie," Nabiki said bravely. "I won't." 'Tell me something — was your maiden name Kuno?' Aloud, she continued, "If that's the way you say it has to be, then I suppose that's all there is to say." At least until she figured a way to move Nodoka past this particular bit of lunacy. Nabiki had utterly no desire to have anyone find out that thanks to her meddling, Nodoka didn't think she could ever release the Saotome menfolk from the Katana of Damocles she held over their heads. Ranma would just pout and sulk and fume, and maybe try some utterly lame, absolutely non-threatening attempt at revenge… but if he ever complained about it to Shampoo, Nabiki shuddered to think what the consequences would be. 'I won't let that happen. This refugee from the padded cell is damn well going to see things my way. That's at least one piece of 'interference' that the Thing That Came From China can't complain about.'

"It does seem an awful shame, though, Auntie," she continued earnestly. "You've said it yourself — Ranma is the man you wanted him to be. Shouldn't he at least hear that from you? I know how much you matter to him, how important it is to him that you'd be proud, rather than disappointed. Can't you tell him, even if it's unofficial?" If Nodoka would ever say that, then everything would be fine as soon as Nabiki could think of a way to twist past the woman's latest ridiculous delusion. Nodoka would have already admitted that Ranma was off the hook, and she would be honor-bound to shred that stupid document she'd carried with her for so long.

"He knows, dear," Nodoka reassured her. "I've spent so long apart from my family that I'm making very sure they know I love them and I'm happy to be with them again." She hesitated, eyeing Nabiki with a contemplative, twinkling gaze, then said, "It's nice to see you so concerned for my son, Nabiki. But then again, after living in the same house with him for over a year, I suppose you've grown at least a little fond of him."

"You could say that," Nabiki murmured, putting on her demure mask. "At least a little."

"Well, then… I probably shouldn't say anything," Nodoka equivocated, "but…"

"A secret, Auntie? My lips are sealed. Unless of course it's something you'd like for me to 'let slip' to someone."

"It's just for you, Nabiki. At least for now," Nodoka clarified. "I already told you, because of how things turned out I can't release Ranma and Genma from the promise. But that doesn't mean they can't ever be released."

"What would it take?" Nabiki wanted to know, not bothering to hide her eagerness as she knew Nodoka would simply assume the best possible reason for it. "Would he have to pull off some incredibly difficult, dangerous, manly hi-jinks? Something that would declare to anyone and everyone that Ranma Saotome was a real man? Stuff like that has already happened several times, and I don't think we'll have to wait all that long before another chance turns up."

"No, dear, that's not what I meant. Like I said, no matter what I cannot be the one to release them from their pledge." Nodoka smiled a thoughtful, hopeful smile. "However, what I can do is transfer the promise over to someone else, once there is someone who can honorably receive it." She paused for a moment, giving Nabiki the chance to ask any questions. When the middle Tendo just waited for her to continue, Nodoka said, "The promise was signed by both Genma and Ranma, but it's my son that is the crux of it. And there will eventually be someone who has as great a claim on him as I, his mother, do."

"You mean my sister, when they're married," Nabiki surmised, stomping down hard on a resurging memory. 'Damn it all, just saying that is not interference! And Cologne's not here to hear it even if it were!'

"You're close, Nabiki, but no. Not his wife," Nodoka explained, "but his own child. Or children. Once Ranma gives me my first grandchild, there will be someone who depends on him so much that I could not honorably hold the pledge any longer. At that point I can transfer it to the mother of his child, and she will be free to declare it fulfilled for good and all." The Saotome matron heaved a sigh. "How I look forward to that day…"

" 'The mother of his child'? Not 'his wife'? Having a child out of wedlock wouldn't be considered unmanly?" Nabiki wanted to know.

"Of course not," Nodoka said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "You've lived with my son for long enough, Nabiki; surely you've seen that it simply wouldn't be right to expect him to limit himself to just one woman? And just because a woman loved him enough to settle for being a mistress instead of his wife, that certainly shouldn't mean she can never give him children. That would be even more wrong!"

After a long moment of silence, Nabiki said tentatively, "Ah… Auntie, I'm not so sure that Akane is open to that kind of sharing…"

"She'll learn better," Nodoka reassured her guest. "I haven't spent as much time with Akane as I'd like, but even just from my first visits to your home I was able to see some things about her. In some ways she's still very young, isn't she? She still has many lessons that she needs to learn about being a woman, and there hasn't been anyone who could really teach them to her. Kasumi is a wonderful young lady, but some things one simply can't learn from a sister. I plan to be there for Akane, to help her through those difficult times and learn how to be a good wife. Things that she hasn't been able to see yet will become clear in their own time, Nabiki dear. I promise you, by the time your sister and my son actually wed, she won't be selfish enough to think she can keep him all to herself. There will be room for other young ladies who love him and want to be with him." The Saotome matron was too dignified to wink, but with the tone she'd used when speaking that last line and the gleam in her eye as she smiled at Nabiki, she might as well have.

Nabiki smiled smoothly back. Inside, though, she wanted nothing more than to retreat to the safety of her room and lock the door. 'It's official. Today really, really sucks.'

"I still can't believe I let him talk me into waiting this long," Akane muttered untruthfully. It was the afternoon of Monday, five days after Nodoka's return to her family, and Genma was only just now getting around to resuming her training. The youngest Tendo pulled her gi out of her closet, and took a minute to enjoy the crisp, fresh, clean sensation of a Kasumi-laundered garment. Pulling it on, she turned away from the closet and toward the door. She stopped partway through the motion, though, and instead headed over to her window. Drawing the blinds and opening it, she stared outside for a long moment.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was bright and welcoming, and the autumn air was pleasantly warm. Even as that thought registered, though, a breeze sprung up — one that seemed to carry a bracing hint of days to come, of the exhilaration brought on by the first real cold snap of the year. That was still a long way off, but Akane felt as if she could sense it just around the corner, and a delicious chill raced up and down her spine.

It was amazing how sharp your senses were, when you were trying to distract yourself.

Akane leaned farther out the window and took several deep breaths, as if storing up enjoyable memories. One last breath, then a long sigh, and she muttered, "Okay. No stalling. I told him I was going to do what it takes, and I'm not going to back down. It's not going to be fun, starting in with those pressure points, but I've got to do it." She grimaced. "I wish I hadn't waited this long. It feels a lot scarier now than it did at first. Too much time to think about it, I guess." Maybe there was something to be said for Ranma's usual charge-ahead-without-thinking approach… nah.

Nodding as decisively as she could, Akane turned away from the window and headed out of her room. Down the hallway, taking her mind off the immediate future by focusing on a day farther ahead… down the stairs, picturing herself standing triumphant over a defeated Shampoo… turning to go down the hall that would lead her outside to the dojo… "Hello, M— Auntie," she said politely, as Nodoka stepped out of the kitchen a few feet ahead of her.

"Hello, Akane," the Saotome matron returned, smiling back but also registering a look of disappointment.

Apparently Akane's attempt to keep her mind off the specifics of what she was heading toward was still sharpening her senses, because she noticed. "Is something the matter?" She nearly had to bite her tongue to suppress a knee-jerk question as to whether Ranma had done something boneheaded. Sure, he was the most probable cause if someone had been upset, but it could have been Genma too.

"Well… I was actually hoping we could spend some time together this afternoon," Nodoka replied. "I was just about to start working on dinner. I'd be very happy if you could assist me, Akane."

"Um, I… Actually, I was on my way to train…" Akane said apologetically, indicating her gi.

'She doesn't sound very enthusiastic about it,' Nodoka noted. 'Certainly not like Ranma. Perhaps she only trains because she feels like it's expected of her?' Well, if Akane's heart wasn't in the Art, then Nodoka didn't think training in it would be all that helpful in making her a proper wife for Ranma. Certainly it wouldn't be as useful as learning how to cook proper meals for him would be. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather join me for another lesson, dear?" she said hopefully. "I remember the last time I was a guest in your home, how much you wanted to be able to make nice meals for your loved ones. Training is all very well and good, but what does it give you that you can give back to others?"

Akane couldn't find a quick answer for this. Vague thoughts of teaching flitted through her head, but were dismissed almost instantly. The things she was learning from Genma were for her, not for any random students the dojo might one day have. Defeating Shampoo, standing up for herself, not having to rely on Ranma… these were all things she needed for her own sake. "You and Kasumi can make a better dinner than I could," she replied, knowing it was weak but not able to come up with a better response on the spur of the moment.

Her conviction only growing stronger that Akane wasn't training because she wanted to, Nodoka pressed the attack. "But wouldn't you like to change that, Akane? Or at least catch up? It's true that your sister is a very accomplished and talented cook, and you may never equal her. But you can certainly become good enough yourself that your husband would rather have meals cooked by you than anyone else."

Those last two sentences tugged Akane's emotions in so many different directions that she didn't have a clue how to feel. Irritated that something else was trying to get in the way of her pursuit of real Anything Goes? Angry that Nodoka should bring up that stupid arranged marriage and treat it as if it were a done deal? Disheartened at the thought of never being as good as Kasumi? Happy that Nodoka believed in her potential even as much as she did, more than anyone else ever had? 'I don't need this now,' Akane thought, taking a deep breath and pushing away the confusion. "Didn't you say that you were actually going to start supper now?"

Nodoka blinked. "Yes, dear, that's why I was asking you to join me," she said, too polite to state her confusion at the question but her tone communicating it nonetheless.

"Then that's not the time for me to be in there for a lesson," Akane explained. She put her hands behind her back so that she could unobtrusively clench her fists. "I-I know that I've still got a long way to go before I can cook well." She tried, but couldn't suppress the grimace that getting those words out cost her. "And you want to make a huge, wonderful meal for dinner, right? As good as it can be, and big enough for everyone to eat as much as they want." When Nodoka nodded, she went on, "If I'm in there, it will only slow you down." Another unpalatable truth, but somehow they were coming a little easier now — and Akane found, to her mild surprise, that the thought of the training ahead of her was no longer so unpleasant. It would beat standing out here and admitting to her shortcomings, that was for sure. "Why don't we wait for the weekend? That will give you time to teach me some stuff without hurting the meal you're trying to make for everyone."

"But… today is only Monday," Nodoka pointed out. "What about in the evening? I could give you a lesson then, if you're sure about not joining us in making tonight's dinner. And anyway, I promise that you'll learn a lot if you help out now, and you won't hurt what we're trying to do." She hadn't forgotten how much trouble Akane could be in the kitchen, but surely with both Kasumi and herself working together the youngest Tendo's talents for disaster could be negated. "You'll help us. Any meal is better if it's made with more love."

Akane bit back an 'I don't love that jerk!' response, since it wouldn't invalidate Nodoka's point — she would be cooking for her family as well as her freeloaders. Reluctance to turn Nodoka down was quickly building up again. She forcibly reminded herself that Genma was waiting, and that she was receiving this training because she'd demanded it from him; if she were to slack off now, there was a chance that she might lose it for good. Or at least have to go through a lot of irritation and effort to get him back as her sensei. "I really think I need to train, Auntie," she said. "And I'm sorry, but I can't make it in the evening either. That's when I do my homework."

"If that's really what you want, dear," Nodoka said with a sigh, her disappointment so obvious that Akane trembled on the very brink of taking back the decision and accepting her offer after all.

"Come on, Mom, don't look like that." Akane whirled around to find Ranma standing a few feet behind her. He shot her one unreadable glance, then turned back to Nodoka and regained his best smile. "Akane's right; you oughta start her out with stuff that nobody's expected to eat afterward. If you want some help in the kitchen, I'd be glad to."

Nodoka blinked, uncertain how to respond. His remark about Akane was a little inconsiderate, but that was okay; men weren't supposed to be as sensitive as women. However, the offer was most unexpected. "Thank you, Ranma, but that's all right," she said gently. "Why don't you go for a flight, or see if your father would like your help in Akane's training?"

"You sure, Mom?" Akane didn't even notice the hint of disappointment in his voice, too busy fuming quietly about her stupid excuse for a fiancé once again trying to show her up, acting as if he were light-years better than her at every part of being a girl. That jerk would probably claim that he still was, even without having a Jusenkyo curse to at least give him the body for it! "I'm sure not up there with you and Kasumi, but I can chop and clean and do all the basic stuff, prob'ly even better than you cause of the speed training I've had. Heck, if you were budgeting this much time for making dinner when you were plannin' on having Akane 'help'," the quotation marks around that last word were clearly audible, "then I could probably save you an hour at least!"

"Ranma, you JERK!" Akane snapped before Nodoka could respond. "Do you think you could just once let it slide?"

"What's your problem?" he shot back. "I was talking to Mom, not you, and I was telling her why I'd be a lot of help and that I'd like to!"

"Ranma, I'm glad you'd like to help, and glad that you want to spend time with me," Nodoka said, stepping in before the conversation could escalate, "but you shouldn't upset dear Akane like that. In any case, she's right — even if you could do what's needed, it's not appropriate. This is women's work."

'Women's work?' Part of Akane hated that blithe, thoughtless declaration… but she couldn't deny that another part of her agreed with it. It did hurt that she couldn't cook to save her life (or anyone's except Happosai's), it did make her feel like a failure as a girl. And it only made it worse whenever Ranma showed her up.

"Well… maybe so, Mom. But you know that Pop and me spent most of our lives on the road. We didn't have any women around to take care of that stuff," Ranma said gently. "Since I picked up the skills then, might as well use them to help my family now, right?"

For the second time in under ten minutes, Nodoka blinked and tried to process an unexpected reply from her son. 'But… that's… surely Genma dearest ought to have taken mistresses to handle those details…?' She searched for a good way to get the conversation back to ground she understood, but came up empty. Her manly son ready, willing, and eager to work in the kitchen, Akane preferring to pass the time in the dojo… it simply wasn't right!

After a few moments spent scrutinizing her son and thinking back over exactly what he'd said, though, Nodoka realized what she was overlooking. Ranma hadn't said he wanted to cook, just that he wanted to be with her and help her. If he really had spent so much time in the past learning something that wasn't exactly manly, well, it was a shame that he hadn't been able to use that time for better things, but it certainly hadn't hurt him any. In fact, it was probably an actual credit to his manliness that it hadn't harmed him!

With that adjustment made, Nodoka was able to find her place in the conversation again. "You might have a point," she said. "I have an idea! Why don't you and Akane both join Kasumi and myself? It might be a little snug, but the kitchen should hold four people. We can all work at the things that we're best suited for."

Akane was still searching for words when Ranma made his response. He shot a worried glance her way, then his jaw firmed with determination as he said, "You can count on me, Mom."

It took every bit of control that she'd learned over the last three and a half weeks to swallow the response she wanted to make. Mrs. Saotome didn't — quite — deserve to see her blow up at her idiotic pervert of a son and throw all his faults in both Saotomes' faces. 'Yeah, we can count on you all right. Count on you to just go along with it when your precious mom's the one trying to shove you and me together. And I know I can count on you to always butt in, to do your best to show me up, to never once let me forget that you're better than me without even trying,' Akane thought bitterly. 'Well, you know what, Ranma? Count me out.'

Taking a deep breath, Akane said steadily, "Thanks for the offer, Mrs. Saotome, but no thanks. I'm sure you and Ranma can make a good dinner. I've got training to do, and I'm already late for it. If you'll excuse me…" Not waiting for a response, she gave a quick nod and hurried down the hall. 'That's two Saotomes down and one to go,' she thought as she passed through the door that took her from the house to the dojo walkway. 'At least Mr. Saotome is supposed to be giving me a hard time.'

Akane twisted desperately to the side, hoping it would be enough. Genma's incoming strike parted the air an inch away from her shoulder. Before the Saotome master could recover or follow up on the attack, she twisted around through the rest of her one-eighty degree turn and clamped down on his arm. Ignoring as best she could the crawling, intrusive sensation from his wildly flaring aura, Akane gave a tremendous yell and pivoted once more, substituting brute force for finesse as she threw the man as hard as she could. Pain shot through her from a dozen different areas, flickering over her body like a crackling sheet of lightning, but the triumph of the moment was enough to let her forget it.

The triumph was very short-lived, though. Even as she released her grip on Genma's arm, his left foot snaked higher to let his big toe tag her shoulder in the very point his previously-dodged attack had been aiming for. Akane stumbled and clenched her teeth as a new lance of pain blossomed, joining and strengthening the ones already running riot through her body. Meanwhile, she saw through tear-blurred eyes, Genma regained control of his flight almost immediately by reaching up and bracing one palm against the ceiling. Akane had barely recovered her balance by the time he touched lightly down, turned, and pressed the attack again. He'd never even moved far enough away for her to get a clear view of anything!

However, though Genma's aura was thick enough in the air to render him blurred, flickering, and indistinct Akane's eyes, she was able to make some things out well enough. The elder Saotome still wasn't moving any faster or with greater power than he had at the start of their spar — and though Akane was hardly pleased to admit it, she knew this was a lower level than he used in his morning battles with Ranma. 'If you don't want me to hold back, show me I can't afford to,' his voice growled again in her memory. 'Prove me wrong, girl, or don't talk back to the sensei.' Well, she'd been trying to do just that, but it didn't seem to be working. Early on she'd pressed several furious attacks, determined to get through to Genma, to connect with one decisive hit that would more than counter the taps and touches that were the only attacks he was using. Each time, though, he'd dodged, blocked, or softened her attack enough to take no damage from it, and had managed to tag at least one more pressure point on her to boot.

She was trying to adjust, trying not to keep on making the same mistakes. Since her first idea had brought her nothing but rapidly mounting pain, Akane had found the motivation to craft a new plan on the fly. Admittedly, 'fight defensively and hit him when he makes a mistake' wasn't a very complicated plan, and she hadn't been able to pull off the second half of it yet, but it had at least let her keep fighting. If she hadn't changed tactics, Akane knew she would have been defeated fifteen minutes ago.

Then Genma was upon her again, and it was all she could do to hold him off. At one point he changed the direction of his attack entirely, reversing his momentum and just managing to tag her wrist with his index finger. Even as she pulled frantically back Akane couldn't stop herself from flinching at the expectation of a new surge of pain. Nothing came, however, which surprised her enough that she stumbled and nearly lost her balance entirely — an opening which allowed Genma to drive around and in from the side, a needle appearing from seemingly nowhere into the grip of his first and second knuckles. It penetrated her gi just above her left hip and birthed the pain-flare she'd expected a few seconds back.

'I can't keep this up,' Akane realized. Genma had retreated a few steps back, his usual courtesy after landing another successful shiatsu strike. Instead of trying to adjust to the new and greater pain, she let out a gasping, bitten-back cry of agony and sank to one knee. "I… I can't do this," she said through clenched teeth. "It-it hurts so much…"

Genma sighed, but at least had the decency to spare the histrionics he would have unleashed if Ranma had made such a statement. Akane supposed she should be grateful for that. "All right," he said gruffly, walking over and offering her a hand up. "I'll undo the p— OOF!" This last as Akane uncoiled from her pose with all the strength and focus she had left, driving her fist into the elder Saotome's gut.

She tried to follow up with a knock-out blow to the head, but this attack was foiled; Genma had never powered down his aura, and even as he staggered backward from Akane's sucker-punch, he concentrated it all into a semisolid wave outward from him and away to the right. Akane's vision was distorted worse than ever, and this in combination with the force of the defense caused her to miss by a solid foot, leaving her stumbling away from the Saotome master.

By the time she recovered and turned back to face him, Genma had put almost the length of the dojo between them. His aura was still out in full force, obscuring both himself and the area near him, but for the first time since their spar began Akane was able to see things near her clearly. "Not bad, Akane," he allowed through clenched teeth, frowning and rubbing at his gut.

Akane took a moment to consider the situation. She wished their positions were reversed; Genma's corner of the dojo was the one that held several items which would have made admirable missiles. Long-range was looking more and more like the best way to approach the battle, but at this point she couldn't see any good way of doing that. She still had some fight in her, but the constant pain was wearing her down even as Genma stood there enjoying uncontested recovery. Bracing herself, knowing that doing nothing was the wrong thing and hoping this might not be, Akane shot forward on the attack again.

"All right, girl!" Genma bellowed, charging in as well. "Have at you!" And now he wasn't holding back at all, Akane realized with intense dismay, now he was striking as quickly as he could, blasting aside her attack with a force that nearly numbed her wrist, opening her guard and lashing out to strike a good dozen pressure points in the span of a few seconds. Akane gave a flinch that would have had her mother warning her about her face freezing like that, and waited miserably for the new apocalypse of agony.

After a few seconds, as the last of her old shooting pains died away to nothing, she unfroze. "Huh?" she said feebly.

Genma snorted. "I already told you I was going to undo the points. Let's take a break." Without waiting for a response, he turned and headed back for the corner of the dojo.

"Wait…" Akane said uncertainly. Hearing that note and frowning at herself, she called out more firmly, "Wait! I can keep going!"

Genma didn't even turn around, though he did wave a hand dismissively. "Rest assured, Akane, if I thought working you into the ground was the best way to train you, I'd do it."

"Guess I can believe that," she muttered as she walked over to join him.

Genma, meanwhile, had reached the corner where Ranma's emergency thermos was stored. That was of no interest to him now, however. Instead, he picked up the covered bucket that rested beside it, took off the lid, and threw a good measure of its contents in his face. "Ah, that's refreshing," he said, the words packed with immense satisfaction.

"You weren't even sweating," Akane pointed out moodily.

"Doesn't make it any less refreshing," he shot back. "If nothing else, there's the fact that I'm not suddenly wearing a thick fur coat."

"I guess there is that," she replied. Not surprising that he hadn't yet gotten over the fact that he wasn't cursed any more, though she was still hopeful that someday he'd forget and try to get out of trouble by splashing himself and pulling the panda routine. Akane hesitated for a moment, then pulled up the floorboards that hid Ranma's change of clothes. There was also a towel there, which she soaked in the remaining contents of the bucket and draped around her neck. She sat down next to the wall, letting out a deep sigh and enjoying the relative lack of pain. All that was left were the familiar twinges and slow burn that accompanied an all-out practice.

A few feet away from her Genma sank down into the lotus position. "So what do you think of the training so far, Akane?" he inquired.

Akane managed a feeble smile. "Please just tell me tomorrow isn't going to be as much worse than today, as today was from yesterday."

"Ha. No, don't worry," Genma assured her. "Our afternoon sessions are all going to be the same as today's, for at least the next two weeks."

"W-what? Why?" Akane wanted to know. "I thought Anything Goes meant we always had to be doing different stuff!"

"Bah. True Anything Goes is about unpredictability and adapting to anything, girl. That means you don't depend on patterns and you don't expect things to go just how you expect them." Genma peered owlishly at her through his glasses. "I thought for a minute there at the end that you were starting to pick up on that."

"Yeah, yeah. I thought I could at least count on what you yourself told me!" she shot back. "You said I always had to keep doing new stuff to keep growing as quickly as possible!"

"And I also told you why we were using these pressure points! Because that can only go so far, and then it loses its effectiveness."

"But surely keeping that method up while combining it with the new stuff would be best," she argued. Genma stared at her for a long, silent moment, and eventually Akane felt the wind go out of her sails. "All right," she sighed. "I know who's the teacher here. You don't have to say it."

"If it makes you feel any better, neither your father nor I got anything like the easy time you had of things yesterday," Genma said. "I used only a few points on you, and all you had to do was push through kata while ignoring their effects. When the Master got around to this phase of our training, he used real injuries to provide the pain, and the only time he had us doing kata was when he demanded that we use only those moves while we escaped from a bunch of homicidal women he'd stirred up."

Akane made a mental note to ask her father about this training. She wouldn't put it past Mr. Saotome to exaggerate the peril he personally had faced. Come to think of it, she wouldn't put that past her own father either, but if his story clashed with Genma's then she could conclude they were both full of hot air. "Well, I'm glad you're taking it easier than that on me," she said.

"What about the aura?" he asked. "Are you beginning to get a feel for just what I'm doing? Remember, the ultimate goal of these exercises is to teach you aura control." Well, that and make her into a real martial artist rather than a pretense of one, he mused, not to mention getting her and Ranma on better common ground. And, above and beyond all else, prove to the boy that his father still had a few respectable tricks up his sleeve.

"Are you kidding?" Akane asked incredulously. "We only fought for about twenty minutes! That's not anywhere near enough time!"

"No, I suppose not," Genma said remorsefully. "I guess I'm just too used to Ranma, and how quickly he picks up on things." 'That ought to motivate her to push a little harder. Or a lot.' He suppressed a smug smile at how skilled a motivator he was.

"What, you mean like the Cat Fist?" Akane shot back. Then, in an instant, her gaze tracked away and behind Genma, and her face changed from snarling to horrified. "Oh! Mrs. Saotome!"

Genma spun so fast he nearly herniated his still-bruised stomach, his face losing all color in a heartbeat. "D-Dear! I… wha?" The dojo was empty behind him, and all the doors remained closed. Eventually recovering some of his composure, he turned back and snarled to Akane, "If you want any more lessons from me, don't you dare hit that low again! Take me down with a sneak attack and I'll just congratulate you on finally starting to learn our school, but don't ever joke around about hurting my family that much!"

Akane had already reached a similar conclusion. She grimaced, hung her head, and said, "You're right. I'm sorry. I think I got a little too carried away, what with finding a method that was actually sort of working against you and Ranma."

"All right," he said gruffly. "Apology accepted."

After a few minutes of thoughtful silence, Genma reopened the conversation. "Since we're on the subject of Nodoka, I will say I'm a little disappointed in you, Akane."

She frowned. "Is this about yesterday, and me not wanting to spend my afternoon in the kitchen like a good little girl?"

"It's about yesterday, all right," he said, frowning right back at her. "I couldn't care less about the 'good little girl' part, though, and you ought to know that without me having to say it."

"Then what? How I didn't choke down every last little word of protest when Ranma started being his usual obnoxious self, just because his mother was there?"

That was unwelcome news to Genma, but he shrugged it off. Akane couldn't have been too strident in her protests or he would have heard about it. "No. It's about my wife," he rumbled. "She really did want to spend time with you, Akane, she would have been happy to help you learn your way around the kitchen. She was hurt when you turned her down, and not only for the afternoon but also the evening compromise she offered you. She was disappointed enough that I noticed almost at once last night."

"I'm sorry about that," she replied. "I… I would have liked to be able to take her up on it." At least before Nodoka had the bright idea of getting both her and Ranma in there together. "But this was more important! My training is more important than that."

"How, exactly?" he wanted to know.

"What do you mean, how?" she demanded. "Do you want me to come right out and say it? Gonna pick up the slack for Ranma, since he has to keep a lid on the worst of the insults now? Fine! I'm a horrible cook! I admit it! Even Ranma's better than me!!" She spat the last words out as if trying to rid her mouth of the taste of them, then sat panting quietly for a few seconds. Almost immediately the worst of the disgust faded though, replaced by a small measure of relief. She'd spent a sleepless hour last night thinking these things over, doing her best to wrap her mind around the hard, hurtful truths she'd sort of admitted to earlier in the day. "It's not like it wasn't hard to say no to her," Akane continued. "It's not like I wouldn't like to get better. To be able to cook a nice meal for everyone, and, and not have them try to run away or make fun of me. But every time I've tried to do anything on my own, I've messed it up. It takes the Water of Life for me to be able to cook a good meal, and last time I checked they weren't selling that in jugs at the market."

"That's right, girl. There are no shortcuts," Genma pronounced. "Since you already see that for yourself, I'm confused as to why you don't think you need practice."

"I never said that! I said I couldn't afford it. As long as I've been trying and as little progress as I've made, I… I know that this isn't something that I can get without really working hard for it, for a long time. And I don't have the time now! Why couldn't she have asked me on Sunday instead, when a certain slacker excuse for a sensei still hadn't started back up with our lessons yet?"

"Oh, come now," the excuse in question blustered. "There were only five days where I cancelled our lessons — no, less than that! We trained on Wednesday morning, as I recall. Because I took less than a week off for my wife finally coming back to me and Ranma, that makes me a slacker?"

"No," Akane was forced to admit, "that's not what makes you a slacker." Genma gave a brisk, satisfied nod, and she continued, "But it was sure enough of a reason for me not to throw away the first session when you were finally ready to start teaching me again!"

Actually, Genma had agreed with that from the beginning. 'Let 'em think they're winning, so you can catch them off guard at the right moment.' "All right, Akane, I suppose you have a point," he said graciously. "It even does you credit that you didn't shrink back from the trial waiting for you." It was Akane's turn to give a self-satisfied nod. "However, that excuse only works for the afternoon. Remember, that wasn't the only offer Nodoka made. She offered to meet you halfway, and you just shook your head and walked off. I think that was what hurt her more than anything else, girl."

"Why?" she shot back. "I told her, the evening's when I do my homework!"

"Then you should get Ranma to help you with it," Genma said, pouncing like a verbal tiger. Akane's jaw gaped feebly open as his brilliant suggestion registered with her, and he gladly filled the silence she left. "I know he also uses the evenings for his homework, and I also know he doesn't take nearly as long as you at it. And yet his grades are just as good as yours! Except in English, anyway," he conceded. "So you see, if the two of you worked together, it would only help—"

"Are you insane?!" Akane burst out. "Mr. Saotome, do you really not know why Ranma gets the grades he does?" When the man's clueless expression answered the question for him, she heaved the biggest, most exasperated sigh she could manage and explained, "The teachers give them to him. They all hate Principal Kuno, and Ranma does a good job of keeping him in line. And even when he does act up, Ranma always makes sure he gets what's coming to him." At least, he always had up until this last time. If Ranma had even been involved in the last Hawaiian hullabaloo, Akane hadn't seen it. She wondered for a moment whether his grades would slip as a result, then returned to the conversation. "Ever since that first time, he's also gone easy on the teachers when they get dragged into the mess. That's the only reason he's got a decent grade point average. I'm sure he could earn it if he put in the effort, but he doesn't. Miss Hinako won't go along with the rest of the teachers, which is why his English grades are so much worse. That's the kind of scores I'd be getting if I went to Ranma for 'help'." She used the exact same inflection on the final word as the boy in question had the previous day when referring to her.

Genma frowned as he mulled over the unexpected revelation. One conclusion, at least, was easy enough to reach. "Please don't ever tell Nodoka any of that," he said as he continued to ponder.

"Of course not," Akane said with a sigh, then muttered, "Far be it from me to ever disappoint her in her precious, perfect son."

"…So, wouldn't the same thing be true for you?" the Saotome master said, not having heard the last part. "After all, you stand up to the Principal too, you cause trouble for him, you at least manage to give Ranma some backup. Couldn't you let everything except English slide and free up time that way…?"

"Don't… even… start… with that," Akane ground out. Her face bore such a strong resemblance to a thundercloud that Genma felt a quick urge to duck under an umbrella. "How dare you! I'm never going to stoop so low."

He frowned, finding his backbone again. Every time he thought she might really be starting to learn the lessons of Anything Goes, she'd pull something like this and disappoint him. "Then you'd better talk to every teacher you've got tomorrow, right?" he returned. "You'll want to find out how many times they gave your score a little nudge without you even realizing it. And you'll need to go back all the way to last year to have them undo it!"

Once again, Akane's jaw dropped. Eventually, she muttered, "Let's change the subject."

Carefully suppressing a smile of triumph, Genma said, "Right. Back to Nodoka, and cooking lessons if she wants to give them to you."

Akane let loose a noise that was half growl and half moan. "Not that subject!"

"Then what?" he countered. Ever since that first night of terror in the mountains, Genma had never lost sight of the fact that eventually, after Ranma and Akane were married, he was going to be eating at least some meals made by her. This might be the best chance he'd ever get to push her toward competence. "Akane, you said yourself that you want to get better. You admitted that you need practice. My wife wants to spend time with you, to get to know you, and she's offering to do it through something that's just what you need and want! I don't see the problem here! You could at least make a little time in the evenings."

"Arrgh! Fine! I can't promise that I can manage it all the time, but I guess I can do a half-hour here and there." 'He just had to get all reasonable, didn't he?' Silently Akane promised herself that she wasn't going to let this turn into another one of those stupid struggles not to get shown up by Ranma. Then, not silently at all, she declared, "With her. Not if she wants to drag Ranma into it too."

"I don't think you need to worry about that," Genma said with a wince. "Nodoka dearest might have been willing to let Ranma into the kitchen yesterday, but she certainly isn't going to encourage him to cook." He felt certain that he was the only man in the history of Japan to have his wife chide him for never taking even one mistress.

"Good. That's enough of a break," Akane declared, standing up and tossing her towel into the corner, grateful that she'd had its coolness to mitigate the heat of her temper. The conversation had been almost as stressful in its own way as the training she was supposed to be recovering from. She got into a ready stance and called out, "Do your worst, Mr. Saotome!"

"Ha. No thank you, Akane," he riposted as he got to his feet, his aura writhing forth to fill the room. Genma hadn't told her, but these exercises weren't just training for her; the energy his tactic was constantly expending was good practice for him too. He was going to forge this amateur into a true Anything Goes warrior, and make himself a stronger fighter in the process! He'd like to see the Master or the old woman manage that! "I'd rather do my best!"

Ukyo took a deep breath to calm herself. It was the seventeenth such breath she'd taken since starting out from her restaurant, and she wasn't even a third of the way to her destination yet. "This isn't going to be easy," she said to herself.

"Since when is anything in my life ever easy?" Ranma replied. "It's not too late to change your mind, you know. I could carry ya back to your place in two minutes flat."

She opened her mouth to respond. Then, as the full impact of the offer he'd made hit her, she clapped it shut, blushed, and considered. He had said it so casually, without being nervous or reluctant or anything! A week ago he'd done the same thing, carrying her without hesitation to the top of Furinkan so they could talk about his mother's return to his life. That had been nice and she'd thought it was a hopeful sign, that he would do that all by himself, but she hadn't lost sight of the fact that she'd been in her boy's uniform at the time. To have him make a repeat of the offer now, when she was dressed in her finest, most feminine kimono… well, Ukyo could only see it as a good omen. Ranma had been nervous of getting close for far too long. These indications that he was finally getting over that were a welcome development in her book.

"Ucchan?" His voice roused her from a daydream where the two were much closer than just him carrying her rapidly through the street.

"Um, could you repeat the ques— Oh, right." She paused, fighting off one last impulse to tell Ranma that if he carried her slowly instead of quickly, he'd have himself a deal. "Ranma honey, is there something you're not telling me? I mean, I thought we'd settled this."

He shrugged, looking away from her. "I dunno, Ucchan," he said uncomfortably. "Something about this… it just feels wrong. Can't say why, though."

Ukyo chewed her lower lip. On the one hand, Ranma might not be convinced that this was the best way to approach things (though heck if she could figure out what problem he had with it), but she felt certain it was. On the other, there were many prices she'd pay to make a good first impression on Ranma's mother, but trampling on his own feelings wasn't one of them. "Sugar, I think we need to talk about this a little more," she said at last. "Tell you what — why don't you give me that ride, except carry me to where we were already going. You and I can talk this over there, and if we decide not to go this route after all, you just won't call your mom to come join us." She thought that was a nice compromise, especially since it'd mean the two of them would spend even more time together today, and was a bit miffed when Ranma still looked dubious. "What, is there a problem with that too?"

"Just wondering… is the kind of stuff we're gonna be talking about really something we oughta be doing out in the open?" he answered. "What if there's kids from school there? I know you said the place is in a quiet, out of the way corner, but I wouldn't bet ten yen against half our class randomly showing up anyway. What if I carry ya back to your place, we talk there, and then if we still want to do this I carry you back? We won't lose too much time that way."

"You know, I should have suggested that myself," Ukyo said with a wide grin. "Okay, let's go!"

A couple of blurring minutes later, seated now next to Ranma in Ucchan's Okonomiyaki, she mused ruefully on another good reason to come back here rather than race ahead to their original destination. "Ranma honey, when we leave again remind me to take a hairbrush and a mirror with me."

"I dunno, your hair kinda looks good like that," he teased her. "It's got that whole 'wild energy and freedom of the sky itself' thing going."

She stuck her tongue out at him. "Maybe so, but that ain't the image I'm wanting to present here." Both of them sobered at that.

Ukyo waited a few moments, seeing if Ranma would explain whatever was bothering him. When he held silent, she spoke again. "Ranchan, I know your idea for your mother first getting to know me was to bring her here while the restaurant was open, have her watch the Ukyo in her natural habitat, let her see first-hand how good a cook I am and all that jazz. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but I still don't see why my idea isn't better. You even agreed it probably was!"

"Yeah, you're prob'ly right," he admitted. "It's just… I dunno. Something about this just doesn't feel right to me. I'm not sure what."

"Then let's talk it over a little more," Ukyo said with a sigh. "You suggested having your mom come here, and see me the same way I am every day. Is that still the way you're thinking about doing it, when you say that my idea doesn't feel right?"

"Yeah," he admitted, looking down at the counter rather than meeting her gaze. "I remember all that stuff you said, about how you going to meet her dressed up all formal and demure and stuff will probably make the best first impression, rather than bringing her here to talk with you while it's business as usual. But… it's just…" He broke off, clearly trying to put his thoughts into words. Ukyo held silent and gave him the time he needed to do so, and eventually he said, "I just don't think you should have to do it like that. I mean, get all dolled up like that, spend forty-five minutes on a walk that should've taken twenty cause you gotta take such tiny little steps, hide the best part of who you really are so you can pretend for Mom, show her something that she'd like to— YAAAH!"

Midway through that recitation, Ukyo's fingers had begun to twitch. Once Ranma dug himself past a certain depth, she'd casually reached over to where her mega-spatula was stored, grasped firm hold of the handle, and brought it over, around, and down. The flat of her weapon smashed against the counter, parting the air an inch from Ranma's nose.

"W-what the heck was that for?" he wanted to know, unconsciously patting himself down as if searching for damage.

"For being such a jackass, you jackass!" Ukyo fired back, almost immediately realizing it hadn't been much of a snappy comeback. "Since when is this," she made an impassioned gesture that took in her kimono, her makeup, and the hair that had been neatly arranged, once upon a time, "some kind of pretense?"

"Uh… Is this a trick question?"

This time the spatula was aimed at his head. He deflected it with ease, which partly irritated Ukyo further, and partly reassured her. He wouldn't have done that unless he'd expected the hit, which presumably meant that on at least some level he'd known that was a stupid thing to say. "Yes!" she shot back. "You're making it sound like I'm trying to pull the wool over your mother's eyes, lying to her face about who I am and what I want! Like I had to go out and buy this kimono for today's meeting, and go to a freaking costume artist to put the makeup on for me!" She paused, glaring fiercely at him, waiting for him to make another stupid comment. This time he didn't, which Ukyo hoped was due to the fact that he knew better — she'd already owned this outfit and he'd been there to watch her apply the cosmetics.

Then again, of course, it could have just been the glare that kept him silent. Ukyo took a few deep breaths and smoothed it away, along with the temper that had birthed it. "You don't really think that, do you Ranma?" she asked quietly. "That none of this is who I really am? That it's all just some game to impress your mother, since she's so traditional?"

It took him a long time to reply. "I guess not," he said at last, reluctantly but with enough conviction to at least spare himself another spatula slam. "I remember those kimonos from the time I stayed here during that deal with the Gambling King. But… I also remember that time with your secret sauce, and how bad you took it when the stuff didn't turn out right… I remember you tryin' to bury every bit of the Ucchan I knew in a mask like this…" He gestured toward her, up and down, indicating with his gesture the same things she had a minute ago.

She sighed a sigh of relief. "Ranchan, you big silly… you should've told me before now that was what you thought. We could've gotten this cleared up a long time ago."


The clueless, befuddled look on his face was so cute that the chef had to giggle. "You're only partly right about what happened then," she said, merriment fading as quickly as it had come. Those were some pretty unpleasant memories after all, and not just her own suffering but also the utter crap the Tendos had browbeaten Ranma into going along with. Silently Ukyo resolved, for roughly the two hundred and seventieth time, to help her fiancé win free of those jackasses. "Yeah, I took that failure with the sauce awfully hard. Way too hard. No way should I have let it make me think I needed to give up okonomiyaki and just be a woman."

"Got that right," Ranma declared.

"Yeah, so from what you said it sounded like you thought that was giving up all of me, and latching on to something completely different?"

"Um… well, yeah…" From the tone with which he spoke, Ukyo thought it was beginning to sink through his skull that the idea was wrong.

"Well, you're wrong," she confirmed briskly. "Okonomiyaki is the biggest part of me, but it's not the only part! This," once again she gestured to the outfit she wore, "this is too. It's who I want to be, as a woman, and… as a w-wife, someday." She couldn't meet his eyes as she said that last part, blushing and looking down at her hands, clenched nervously in her lap to stop herself from reaching for the spatula again. Ranma wasn't responsible for her embarrassment, and he didn't deserve her taking it out on him.

"Well, you definitely look the part now," he said. *CLANG!* "OUCH!!"

"S-sorry about that," Ukyo managed, distantly certain that she was going to have to redo her makeup. A blush this intense had to have melted it.

After rubbing his head for a few moments, Ranma spoke again. "Okay, Ucchan. I guess now I don't feel so bad about goin' this route to introduce you to Mom. But there are a couple of things I realized somewhere in here, that I think I oughta point out." Ukyo wrinkled her brow, but before she could say anything he hurriedly continued, "Stuff you might not have thought about. Like… I understand now, about how this really is a part of you. But like you said, it ain't the biggest part. That's okonomiyaki, and how great you are at it, how you can even run your own restaurant all by yourself and still keep up your schoolwork and even manage to practice the Art too… that's real impressive, you know." He grinned at her, even as one hand fended off the Return of the Spatula. "I still think it's kind of a shame to not let Mom in on that, to show her something else just cause that's what she'd be more expecting to see."

"I understand, Ranma. But I don't think so," she said. "There'll be time. I can show her that stuff later. I… what I mean is…" she gulped, trying to force down the lump in her throat and return some moisture in its place. "This meeting… it's not about me, not trying to say, 'Look at me, see how impressive I am.' It's about you and me, and… and that I'm your fiancée. That's why I want to do it like this." By the end of the speech her heart was pounding harder than it did during all but her fiercest training sessions, and it would have taken more strength than Ukyo possessed to look her fiancé in the eyes. Simply getting those words out was as hard as anything had ever been.

It took a long time for him to respond; by the time he did, Ukyo had almost recovered enough composure to look at him again. "I guess I understand too," he said quietly. "There was one other thing, but now I'm not sure if I should just drop this or what."

"Go ahead and tell me," she invited.

"It was the last thing I thought of, a reason why we oughta let Mom know right from the beginning how important okonomiyaki is to you," Ranma said. He gritted his teeth and clenched one fist as he continued. "Because she needs to know that, needs to understand it… for when we tell her about that stupid stunt my old man pulled with your cart."

"Oh." That was all Ukyo could say for awhile, as she turned this idea over in her mind. To her dismay, she couldn't find an answer for this one.

"Yeah." Ranma sighed. "Pop's made some really bad calls, stuff I sure don't want to have hit Mom over the head, like the real deal with Jusenkyo, and the C-Cat Fist. But this one thing the old man is gonna have to face the music for. I just hope Mom won't take it too hard." He hesitated, then continued, "It might help if you could let her know that you had him at your mercy and you didn't feel like honor demanded you actually spill his blood."

"Or…" Ukyo paused, breathed, then said, "Or I could just not get that far into specifics, Ranchan."


"I mean, all we really need to do is tell your mom about the promise your father made." She forced a smile. "I guess there's no need to get so far into it as discussing my dowry, and how that jackass took off with it. At least not now, not at this first meeting. If you want, I'll keep my mouth shut about that little piece of the picture."

"You'd… you'd do that, Ucchan?"

The look on his face and the hope with which he'd spoken settled it for Ukyo. "Yeah. Don't get me wrong, Sugar," she warned, "You know I don't think your old man is much of a prize. And even though you say your mom's happy with him, that doesn't automatically make me want to do whatever I can to keep her feeling like that. But… for you, Ranma, I'll do it. As long as your mother doesn't ask too many questions and drag it out of me, I'll keep quiet about just what your jackass of a father pulled."

"Well, there ain't any other students here," Ranma said as he glanced around the café. "Wonder how long that'll last."

"With any luck at all, that's how it'll be for the whole time we're here," Ukyo replied. "I don't come here all that often, of course, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone else from Furinkan any of the times I've come. That's why I suggested this place in particular." She gestured around at the quiet elegance surrounding them, and wished for a moment that Ranma had had a nicer outfit to wear. "Well, that and the nice décor, the high quality service, the really good tea and all that." The chef hesitated for a moment, then said, "You told me your mom seems pretty well set financially, right? I mean, she's certainly not hurting for money?"

"You don't know the half of it." Ranma grinned. "I found out something more specific since I first told you about her. She's a lot better than 'pretty well set'. You know how it's traditionally the woman's job to keep household finances and stuff in order, right?"

"Yeah, that's right." That was one traditionally feminine arena where Ukyo had no qualms at all about her skill. Successfully running a restaurant taught one about money matters very quickly. "I guess she's had plenty of time to practice. And to save up."

"More than just that." His grin widened. "She made a lot of money over the years with some real good investments. I dunno how much, but I do know how funny it was watching the old man find out about it, an' then realize that since it's supposed to be 'a woman's place to keep the purse strings'," he quoted Nodoka's gentle rebuke with an expression that his traditional, genteel, refined mother wouldn't wear even while drunk, "he couldn't get his hands on it."

With great effort, Ukyo suppressed a guffaw that likely would have gotten them thrown out of the restaurant. "Well, that's good to know. Then she won't have a problem with the prices this place charges."

"They're a little on the steep side, huh?" he asked, looking around once more at the quality surrounding them.

She snorted. "You could say that. There's a reason I don't come here often, y'know."

"Well, it looks like a great place to bring Mom. I'm gonna go call her and invite her to come on over," he said, rising from the table and ambling away.

'Guess this is where we find out if his mom can even make it.' Ranma hadn't said anything about it, but Ukyo at least hadn't missed the possibility that there was one way their plan could go awry — they were counting on Nodoka being home to receive the call and being willing to drop whatever she was doing to come to a café she'd never visited before, simply on the strength of an out-of-the-blue request by her son. Of course, she thought with a smirk, from what Ranma had told her that wasn't really an accurate rendition of the facts. All they were really counting on was Nodoka being there to take the call. Everything else on that list was a given, not something they just hoped would go right. And if it turned out that Nodoka wasn't there when her son called, well, that would just mean she and Ranma would spend a little more time together now and try this again tomorrow.

Somehow, though, she could feel a deep-down certainty that Nodoka was home, that the meeting was going to happen today. As she watched Ranma go, she felt the first faint stirrings of butterflies in her stomach once more. 'Stupid, get a hold of yourself! It was only a week ago that Ranchan was telling you how his mother was back in his life for good, and right away you were asking him when you'd get to meet her! Where's all that determination gone, huh, Ukyo?' the chef asked herself.

It didn't seem to help. The trembling and quivering grew stronger. And really, Ukyo thought, was it any wonder? Her fiancé was the one with enough surplus confidence to fire it off in blasts of power, and even he was nervous at the prospect of this meeting. She knew him well enough to pick up on that, to read the emotion even as he tried to hide it completely.

However, she also knew him well enough to see the determination. Ranma might be anxious, might have some qualms about what could go wrong with this meeting, but that was only natural given the kind of things that happened in his life. "Just try and think of this the same way he does," she murmured. "Ranchan knows we need to do this, and that's all that matters to him. He's not freaking out about his mother not liking me, or worrying she'll have a hissy-fit when she learns Akane's not the real fiancée, or imagining some rival out for a rematch busting in on us, or…" She clamped her mouth shut and tried to focus on the funny story he'd told her about Genma, Nodoka, and the family finances. It would be best to triumph over her fit of nerves, but failing at that she'd at least settle for a distraction.

"Well, hey there. What's a gorgeous babe like you doing all alone in a place like this?"

"Back off, Soichiro, I saw her first!"

"Hey, wait a minute… don't you go to Furinkan with us?"

"Hot DAMN, that's right! You're Ukyo Kuonji! Where the heck do you get off keeping beauty like this under wraps at school?"

Ukyo blinked, coming out of her reverie and gaping at the sight before her. The four teens who'd spoken were only the tip of the iceberg; standing in the aisle next to her table were twelve boys in blue, jostling each other and jockeying for the position that would allow one of them to slip into the seat across from her. "Holy crap! When I said I wanted a diversion, I didn't mean the whole frickin' kendo team!" she exclaimed, too shocked to keep the complaint within the silence of her own mind.

"Nay, fair flower, these oafs are but the most skilled of the team, not its entirety." The turbulence of the crowd halted at once, each kendoist as frozen at those words as Ukyo was herself. "And fear not — the witless fools shall not disturb our tryst." Tatewaki swept an elegant bow, which from Ukyo's perspective just meant that his head briefly dipped out of sight. The rest of him had already been hidden by the crowd between her and the son of the house of Kuno.

Tatewaki didn't let that state of affairs continue for long, though. Rising from his bow and drawing his bokken in the same motion, he proclaimed, "Away with you, varlets!" and surged forward, one mighty strike sending his subordinates rolling away like so many bowling pins. He allowed himself one burst of satisfied laughter, then slid neatly into the seat Ranma had vacated a little while ago. "Ah, fair maiden, truly it has been far too long since you revealed your true, glorious beauty. I regret only that I have no flowers to bestow upon you — but wait! Light seeking light doth light of light beguile!" As quickly as he'd seated himself, but far more welcomely, Kuno was back on his feet and striding away.

Knowing that the restricting grip of her kimono meant she'd never be able to outrun him, Ukyo simply sat and wished she'd brought her combat spatula after all. Ranma said his mother carried the Saotome family sword with her all the time, right? Why hadn't she thought of that when she made the decision to leave her own armament at home?

All too soon, Kuno was back again, his arms full of flowers. The Blue Thunder had appropriated the centerpiece from each table in the café, pausing only to chuck a fistful of yen at the insolent fool of a manager who'd thought to protest. "Pray accept these as a poor substitute for the roses of deepest crimson that are themselves inadequate, but the best that a poor love-stricken fool could hope to bestow upon thee."

Ukyo smiled sweetly back at him. "Oh, Upperclassman Kuno, I think you could give me something much more welcome than roses." 'Ranma honey better hurry up and get his ass back here. If I have to listen to this idiot for long, I'll… I'll… I'll pay Nabiki whatever it takes for her to arrange a vacation for everyone from Moronmasa here.' Hell, if she had to put up with Kuno much longer she might take matters into her own hands. Maybe she could tell him she'd heard a rumor of a supernaturally beautiful red-haired pig-tailed girl languishing in a Taiwanese brothel and crying for her hero to rescue her.

Fortunately for Ukyo's peace of mind, that very moment was when the last remnant of the pig-tailed girl reentered the café. The chef brightened immensely as she caught sight of him over the shoulder of the oblivious kendoist. Ranma merely looked puzzled at first, no doubt wondering why there was someone else in the booth with Ukyo. Then, as he walked closer and recognized Tatewaki, his face darkened. Ukyo smiled all the wider with happiness and relief, and gave her fiancé a 'thumbs up' gesture of encouragement.

"Fair maiden, is there something — unhand me, cur!" Kuno's awareness of the fact that his date was looking past him, rather than at him, came far too late. Before he could even shift in his seat, much less turn around to look, someone had his shoulder in a grip of iron.

"Sure thing, Kuno," Ranma said, his voice full of mocking good cheer. In a very impressive display of strength, coordination, and control, he pivoted and whipped his arm around, yanking Tatewaki out from behind the table without even disturbing the mound of flowers, much less the table itself or the benches around it. He finished the motion by dropping Kuno into the area he'd just passed through, leaving himself between the kendoist and Ukyo.

"Saotome, you go too far!" Tatewaki thundered. "How dare you seek to chain yet another defenseless damsel to you! The gods themselves weep at the thought of your evil deeds, weep and cry out for vengeance! And the Blue Thunder shall be more than obedient to the mandate of heaven!" He brought his bokken around from 'blustering posture twenty-three' into 'offensive stance seven' and prepared to charge.

"Ha! Bring it on, Kuno— YAAH!" Ranma jumped as the table, hurled by Ukyo's frantic one-armed toss, barely missed him. "What was that for?!"

"You jackass, he ain't the only kendo goon here, you know!" Ukyo stood now with her back to Ranma and the upended table between them, making herself into an additional, human shield between her fiancé and the kendo club. She glared at them as fiercely as she could, wishing she could put them in their place through sheer force of will… or at least knock the remaining glasses of water out of their hands. Her desperate counter had stopped the first wave, but in a restaurant there was hardly a scarcity of ammunition. "And maybe he's too stupid to realize it, but none of these guys think the water has to come out of an iron bucket to change you!"

Kuno blinked. "What's that, fair one? Can it be… can that be your true self, speaking past the chains of your enchantment? Can it be that I have done enough damage to the foul sorcerer, and now the cold iron is no longer needed? Only the water itself remains a necessity?"

Ukyo heaved a miserable sigh. "Ranma honey, it's probably a stupid question, considering the way the afternoon is going," she stopped, and snarled so fiercely at the kendoists creeping closer that they froze in their tracks, and one even dropped his glass of water. "But I don't suppose your mom wasn't there when you called?"

"Course she was," her fiancé fired back, just as bitterly. "She's on her way out here right now, an' I think she was even gonna take a taxi to get here quicker. And Ucchan? It's kinda late to be tellin' you this now, I guess, but I used the soap last time I took a bath." He returned his full attention to Kuno. "Okay, Upperclassman," he growled. "Let's get this over with!"

Nodoka stepped out of the taxi and stopped, staring at the sight before her. "Driver, this can't be right," she said. "My son told me I was meeting him at a very nice café." The place before her seemed of high enough quality, she supposed, if one discounted the shattered windows or the tables and chairs she could see through them, splintered and scattered throughout the room.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but this is definitely the Chrysanthemum Garden," the man said apologetically, gesturing to a sign wedged into the wall of a building on the opposite side of the street. Enough of it remained intact and visible to display the name in question. "As to what happened to it… well, you get used to this kind of thing around here."

"Hey, Mom!" As if to confirm that she was at the right spot, her son rose from a bench farther down the road and waved. Nodoka paid the driver and hurried over to meet him.

As she got closer to him, she was able to make out more detail. Her son was smiling brightly, but one eye was twitching. While his hair hadn't come out of its pigtail, Nodoka suspected it wouldn't take much more exertion to see that happen. His clothes weren't actually torn, but they were scuffed and abraded, and in addition seemed to have been subject to several dousings. She wondered for a moment why he hadn't transformed, then remembered that Genma had said something about a countermeasure that Ranma could use to temporarily block the curse if need be. She supposed he must have taken a cue from what happened during yesterday's meeting with Shampoo.

She shifted her gaze away from Ranma to the girl who had been seated next to him, and was now standing and waiting for her cue to bow. The Saotome matron smiled wider and wider as she contrasted the girl's appearance to that of her son. Ranma looked like he'd fought his way through the wringer and escaped relatively unharmed, but this beautiful, elegantly-dressed girl showed only the faintest and most negligible signs of having been through anything at all. "Oh, Ranma, my son, you make me so proud!" she exclaimed.

He blinked. "Er… what was that, Mom?"

"You demolished that café, didn't you?" she asked happily. "Well, not you specifically, but it happened when you were fighting off a rival to protect this young lady. Am I right?"

"H-huh?" the young lady in question asked feebly. She stared at Nodoka as if not believing her eyes, then turned to face Ranma. "Hey, Ranchan, you never said anything about your mom being a mind reader!"

"Uh… she ain't, Ucchan, I guess she just knows me well enough to guess what happened here," he said, giving a feeble laugh.

Nodoka smiled brightly and nodded. Truth be told, considering what had happened yesterday during her introduction to Shampoo, it hadn't been hard to figure out. 'If Ranma had told her of those events, she ought to have seen for herself why I would realize what happened,' the Saotome matron thought. 'Probably that means Ranma is keeping Shampoo and this girl discreet from each other as well as from Akane. I shall certainly have to congratulate him on his manliness!' And in the meantime, she would keep quiet now about the previous day's adventure. "He gets it from his father," she confided to the girl… Ucchan? Perhaps her son thought unusual names in one's partners were a turn-on. That might be worth looking into, as a suggestion she could make to Akane. "Why, some of my fondest memories are of the epic battles Genma waged for me, back when we were young!"

"Really, Mom?" Ranma asked, giving her a doubtful look. "And… that's something to be proud of?"

Nodoka blinked, clearly at a loss for words. "Of course it is," she said at last. "To fight for the one you love, to strike down those who would use her against you or even claim her for their own, to cast your defiance in your enemy's teeth and then follow it up with a kick — such things are the height of manliness! How can you question that, my son?"

"Cause I seem to recall just three days ago you talking about the 'wild, unprincipled young men and women who run amok through Nerima', and you sure sounded disapproving then."

Nodoka smiled back at him in gentle rebuke. "Yes, of course, dear. That's who you were fighting against, isn't it?"

"You could definitely say that," the girl beside him said dryly. "Nice to see you know better than to lump Ranchan in with jackasses like that, even without being there to see how it all went down."

"Of course I do, young lady. I'm his mother after all." Nodoka blinked. "Oh dear, where are my manners? As I said, I am Ranma's mother, Nodoka Saotome." She bowed.

"A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Saotome. I'm Ukyo Kuonji," Ukyo said, returning the bow and noting with pleasure that the butterflies seemed to have all flown away. Things had been crazy enough earlier that perhaps it would all be smooth sailing from here on out. "Ranma's fiancée."

Nodoka blinked, fought off a surge of déją vu, and scrutinized Ukyo's face carefully. No, there could be no doubt — this girl, at least, was no Chinese Amazon. "Excuse me, dear… did you say his 'fiancée'?"

"That's right," Ukyo said. "Ranchan and I met when we were just little kids, when he and his father stopped for a while on their training journey. Some of my best memories are from back then, and all the stuff we got up to together. Before he and his dad left again, my dad fixed up our engagement with Genma."

'Oh dear,' Nodoka thought with some dismay, 'it seems I'm going to have to explain to Ranma that there's such a thing as being too discreet. This girl should have been told of Akane a long time ago…' "Wait a moment," she said aloud, as Ukyo's final words finally registered. "Did you say… Genma dearest arranged this?"

"Yep. I sure did," Ukyo replied firmly. "He sure did."

"But… but my son already has an honor-bound fiancée!" Nodoka protested. "Her name is Akane Tendo. The Saotome-Tendo agreement was made before Ranma was even born!"

"I know," Ukyo replied. 'Steady now, don't lose your nerve and don't push too hard. Just tell it like it is.' Well, as much like it was as she could manage without completely throwing the panda to the wolves. "Genma said something about that, back when my father first brought up the idea of engaging Ranma and me. And so Dad pushed a little, wanting to see if he was serious about it, and you know what happened? Your husband was ready and willing to shove that agreement with the Tendos off to the side so he could engage Ranma and me instead."

"Young lady, I simply can't believe that that is true!" Nodoka protested. "The Tendo home is where we're staying, and the Tendo engagement is the only one Genma dearest has ever shown any encouragement for! I'm sorry, but I think you must be misunderstanding the way of things here."

'Crud, she's not taking this as well as I would have liked,' Ukyo thought. Bracing herself, she played a trump card. "Mrs. Saotome, I'm sorry, but what I've told you is the truth. Ranma will confirm it."

"Ranma? Is that true?" Nodoka's tone carried equal parts warning, pleading, and worry. She certainly didn't want to hear that this was true, or even somewhat true! But… but if it was, she definitely needed to know… Surely it couldn't be, though, the woman thought desperately. Surely there must have been some misunderstanding somewhere along the line.

"Yeah, Mom. It's true," her son said, quietly, sadly, and reluctantly. But she heard the certainty in his voice as well, and sagged further. What had Genma done?

"But… listen, Mrs. Saotome. You haven't got the whole story, and without that you're not gonna be able to give Genma enough credit." Inspiration had struck Ukyo like a bolt of lightning. She'd taken only a moment to examine the idea, and hadn't found any flaws in it. Taking longer didn't strike her as a good idea, not with the expressions both Saotomes were wearing. As she said that, Ranma's shifted into confusion and Nodoka's into hope. Pausing for one last instant to reflect on the sheer debt Genma was unknowingly piling up toward her, she explained, "I said 'shove the Tendo promise off to the side', but that doesn't mean he just broke it with a snap and forgot about it. What he did was give me a chance to prove that it had been the mistake, that my agreement was a better idea."

"How did he do that?" Nodoka wanted to know.

"Simple." Ukyo chuckled darkly. "He took Ranma and slipped away, left me behind instead of taking me along with them. I had to care enough to track them down after all that time had passed, and forgive Ranma for what turned out not to be his fault after all, and still want to marry him even after all those years of hurt. That was a whole bunch of hard tests your husband laid out for me, Mrs. Saotome, but I'm proud to say I passed them all." There — an explanation that didn't make Genma look too bad to his wife, didn't even mention the small matter of a stolen dowry, and still established her as the rightful fiancée.

"But… I still don't understand. Soun, Nabiki, Kasumi, even Genma… in all this time that I've stayed with the Tendo family, my son is the only one who hasn't outright declared Akane to be his fiancée."

"Really?" Ukyo countered. "I didn't hear her name in that list. Did she ever say that?"

"…No," Nodoka was forced to admit. "Not in so many words. But… but she has shown how she feels, in other ways… at least sometimes…"

"Soun Tendo is your husband's oldest and best friend," Ukyo said, feeling a pleasant sensation of security and control. She was winning this battle, just as somewhere along the way she'd won the battle against her own fear! "How could Genma say anything other than that, while he's actually staying as a guest in the guy's home? And it's not like all that stuff I said for myself didn't also cut the other way. It all applies to Akane too, or at least the gist of it. It's not just me who's had to show whether she'll trust in Ranma, or believe in him, or say she wants him. Or forgive him when it looks like he's done something that hurts, or sacrifice what's important to her for what's important to him. To show she'll go as far as she has to go, to be with him."

The light of understanding had been growing steadily brighter for Nodoka as Ukyo spoke each successive line. With the last one, all the pieces fell into place for the Saotome matron. Offering Ukyo and Ranma a smile that held no hint of her earlier pain and confusion, Nodoka said, "Well then, Miss Kuonji, I'd certainly like to get to know someone who cares so deeply for my son. Shall we find another café and make up for lost time?"

Genma gave a deep, quivering sigh as he felt the worst of the tension begin to ease. Four days ago, when Akane had thought that each session was going to be different, she hadn't been as far wrong as he let her think. It was true that they spent each afternoon in the same type of contest as they'd had that day, with Akane trying to defend herself from his shiatsu attacks while his aura writhed around her and played havoc with her senses. But what Akane didn't know, what he felt it better not to tell her, was that each day he was manifesting that aura in different ways. Genma figured that by not revealing this, he'd know she was ready for more specific teaching once she realized it on her own.

The demands he was putting himself through were as harsh as any he had in years. In their own way, they might be as difficult as anything Happosai had tasked him with, although Genma's regimen at least didn't carry the possibility of social stigma or jail time. Forcing his energies into so many different coils and configurations, without taking time to let his body get used to each one, more often that not left him stiff and aching and exhausted. It was all the more painful because he had to keep up an appearance of normalcy, lest Ranma figure something out too soon.

At least here, late at night and alone in his room with Nodoka, he could drop the act. His wife wasn't an especially skilled masseuse, but she was happy to put as much effort and time into his back-rubs as she needed. Of course, she had a bit of an ulterior motive in getting his worn and weary body ready for action again, but that was selfishness Genma certainly didn't mind.

Nodoka made a pleased, happy noise as she felt the last knots in her husband's shoulders give way. The muscles lower down in his back had begun to loosen as well, and she shifted her ministrations there to complete the task. Another thirty minutes of this should be enough, she judged. As Genma gave another, deeper sigh, she decided that it would be a good time to open the conversation. After all, she certainly didn't want this massage ending with her husband relaxing so much that he fell asleep. "How was your day today, Genma? Did anything out of the ordinary happen?"

"No, it was just another day. Akane is making good progress," Genma mumbled. "Not as good as Ranma, but I could hardly ask for that."

"Would you say she's more determined lately to practice than she was a little while ago?" his wife asked. "On Monday she didn't seem very eager at all, but since our conversation then it seems as if her zeal and enthusiasm have picked up quite a bit."

"Well, it's not surprising," Genma relayed. "Monday was when we started up her training again after several days off, and she went into it knowing that we were kicking into a higher gear. It's only natural that she felt a little reluctance at the time. I'm just happy to see how well she got past that."

"I'm sure you're doing a good job of teaching her," Nodoka said. "Of training her and preparing her to be a good wife for our son." And on that note… "Well, my day certainly wasn't ordinary." She had held off yesterday on telling him about her introduction to Shampoo; she hadn't quite been sure why, only that her mother's instincts had said it wasn't the right time. And sure enough, the very next day her manly son had introduced another wonderful girl! However, even if he had a third waiting in the wings for tomorrow, she felt like now was the time to reveal what had so far been revealed to her. "Ranma introduced me to Ukyo Kuonji."

The Saotome matron paused and blinked in dismay. In an instant, all her careful work had been undone — Genma's back had gone as rigid as the boards she'd seen him shatter effortlessly. "Genma? Is something wrong?"

Only the fact that his face was buried in a pillow kept Genma's jaw from dropping and his voice from gabbling in panic. Twin impulses warred for dominance in his mind: splash himself and proclaim his cute panda innocence, or somehow push the problem off on Ranma to deal with. After a few seconds, enough rationality returned to remind him that ten days ago he'd bricked over door number one for good and all. It was either leave this for Ranma, or deal with it himself. In any case, he needed to know more about what had happened. "Ah… you met little Ukyo, did you?" he mumbled into the pillow, following it up with a nervous chuckle.

"Not so little now," Nodoka replied. "She's grown into a beautiful young woman. It was quite nice to meet her and begin getting to know her."

'Begin getting to know her?' Genma wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. Maybe he should help Nodoka learn what she needed to know about the chef. "Yes, she's a very good friend to Ranma. I'd say she's as good as the sister he never had."

"Oh really, dear. You'd say that, would you?"

The note of mirth and gentle mockery was so strong in his wife's voice that Genma, against his better judgment, twisted around to look at her. Sure enough, she was smiling the smile every woman knew — whether they had it from birth or it came with the other equipment at puberty, he couldn't say — the one that proclaims, 'weak, helpless little woman will humor big, strong, clueless man'. "Er… did you get some other impression, dear?"

"Well, perhaps," Nodoka allowed, looking as innocent as she knew how. "After all, Ranma did wait to introduce me to her, and to Shampoo as well, until after I reassured him that it's perfectly manly and admirable to take mistresses as well as his wife."

Fighting an impulse to turn back to the pillow and use it to put himself out of his misery, Genma managed, "Y-you did that, did you…?"

"Yes," she replied. "Please don't think I'm angry or upset or disappointed in you, husband, but this was one area where you didn't work things out as well as you meant to. I know it's not what you meant, but Ranma actually got the idea that honor and propriety and manliness required him to only limit himself to one girl! In fact, at first that's what I thought you had deliberately taught him!" Nodoka gave a light, self-reproving little laugh. "But in my defense, that was just from talking to Ranma, not getting any more of the story than just his."

"And… the talk with Ukyo made you think different?" Genma asked, sweating and hoping and praying that Nodoka wasn't leading him into a trap, that she really was as cheerfully oblivious as she seemed to be. His wife had never been particularly deceptive, or good at seeing others' deceptions, and he could only hope that the years apart hadn't changed that.

"Well, of course!" she replied. "Once I heard enough from Miss Kuonji," she stopped, reminded herself that the girl had requested Nodoka call her by her first name, and continued, "I mean, Ukyo, it was easy to see what you'd really been aiming at there. You didn't want her to be a wife to Ranma, since there was already an agreement with a family much older and more honored than hers. If you had meant that, there wouldn't have been any need for those tests she told me about. The engagement would have been sealed and that would have been that. Instead, you put her into a place where she had to choose for herself to put everything else aside for Ranma's sake, to know that she loved him enough to go to such lengths for him. Right now she's certainly determined to be his actual wife, but whether or not she has admitted it to herself, she already knows she loves him enough to simply be a mistress. I believe everything will work out properly, when the time comes."

"I'm glad you think so, Nodoka dear," Genma said, managing to keep enough doubt out of his voice that his lovable ditz of a helpmeet didn't notice the rest. "Er, would that be for both Ukyo and Shampoo?"

"Yes. And that's another thing," Nodoka said happily. "The feelings Ukyo and Ranma have for each other are certainly their own, but it was you who had such a critical role in bringing them together. That's all well and good, for a parent to help out a child that way, but it was also quite nice to see one girl that Ranma had chosen and won all by himself. That was what really reassured me, even before meeting Ukyo, that Ranma had misunderstood what you were trying to say. He thought that just because you never took a mistress you were trying to say he shouldn't either, but deep down inside he knew better."

Genma laughed feebly. Inside, though, he felt more like taking a tear-stained page out of Soun's book. 'What was it I said to him that one time? Oh, right, 'if Ranma and I can get back to my wife, you and I will have the best ally we could hope for in making our dreams come true.' So much for that,' he thought gloomily. 'Well, maybe it won't be quite that bad. After all, Nodoka believes honor is a more important part of manliness than virility.' That much, at least, he was sure of. And therefore, she ought also to think honoring the Saotome-Tendo pledge would rank higher on the manliness scale than spreading the love around. He just had to make sure she understood the situation here (or at least, as much of it as was safe). "It's true, dear. Ranma has learned some lessons better than I was able to teach them," he said,. "However, there's something I think you should know."

"What is that, husband?"

"That marriage is a team effort," he said pompously. As the faintest wrinkle appeared on Nodoka's brow, he swiftly amended, "Uh, wait, I wasn't saying you needed to know that! I was just trying to lead into what I really meant to say." With his wife restored to smiling placidity, he breathed a deep sigh of relief and continued. "What I was trying to get at is, regardless of how I raised Ranma and what he might have learned from me, and what he might still be learning here and now, it might not matter how willing he is to take a few extra girls under his wing." Genma paused for a moment, wondering absently just when he'd started to pick up Ranma's habit of making bird-, sky-, and flight-related jokes. "If Akane won't accept that, then—"

"Why does everyone keep bringing that up?!" Nodoka exclaimed, coming as close to losing her composure as Genma had seen since he and Ranma left home so long ago. "Genma dearest, I know! I've been made quite well aware that Akane isn't ready to share yet. I've already reassured our son that I'll teach her better, that she won't still be so selfish by the time they are actually married."

"Y-you have?" Genma gasped. His immediate impulse was to try and talk Nodoka out of this, but it was stymied almost at once by a healthy sense of self-preservation. If Nodoka thought she could, maybe it would be better to let her try and fail. Even if it ended up killing all the affection his wife currently felt for the youngest Tendo, that wouldn't change the important thing here — Nodoka would still support the Tendo engagement wholeheartedly, out of honor and duty.

Somewhere in the back of his mind came a faint sense that there was a flaw in that argument, but before he could pursue the idea Nodoka was speaking again. "Yes. After that was when Ranma decided it was the right time to introduce me to Shampoo and Ukyo."

"I see." Genma took a few moments to think bitter thoughts toward Nabiki. This antic of hers really had not come at a good time. He was beginning to get the impression that there might be things going on behind the scenes that he really needed to catch up on, and he couldn't! The commitment he'd made to the course of training Akane simply wouldn't allow it. And he couldn't back off from that one, not with everything he'd invested into it and all that he hoped — no, needed to get from it. Probably the best thing would be to go further into debt with the middle Tendo, Genma thought unenthusiastically, and let her gather the intelligence he needed but couldn't spare the time for.

He reminded himself that things could certainly have been worse. Nodoka was taking this all much better than he could have hoped for. And even if things did subsequently go wrong, he was pretty sure that he personally wouldn't be blamed. Still, it never hurt to buy a little more insurance. "It may take awhile, dear. You helping Akane to understand these things, I mean," he explained. "Speaking as her teacher, I can say that she is nowhere near as fast or as capable as our boy, not when it comes to learning new things."

"Hmm. I suppose I've seen that myself, in the cooking lessons I gave her during that one visit," Nodoka allowed. She was silent for a few moments, then said, "Well, if she simply takes too long to understand, if it reaches the point where it's not fair to Ranma to delay the marriage any longer, then he can just continue to keep his relationships with Shampoo and Ukyo discreet. It would certainly be better for Akane to realize the truth and accept that she has no right to balk, but failing at that what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her."

Genma thought back over the carefully-constructed house of cards that he, his son, and the Tendos had presented to Nodoka, how she'd so far accepted it without a hitch and even grafted on her own favorable additions. "I'm very glad to hear you say that, Nodoka," he said wholeheartedly.

"But that's settling for second best, and I don't want to do it!" the Saotome matron proclaimed. "I'm going to do my best to help her learn better. And with Ukyo and Shampoo too! You did very well in bringing things as far with Ukyo as they have come, Genma dear, and now you should sit back, relax, and let me take it the rest of the way. I'll help her see the true way of things here, show her what really is the best thing she can give to our son. The best for both him and her."

"If you can do that, I'll be overjoyed and deeply relieved, dear," Genma said. "You've said that I handled things well with Ukyo. Well, it's good to know you have such faith in me, but I'll admit I wasn't so confident myself in my efforts. As you said, she passed every test I put between them, and only came out of it more determined in the end to be with Ranma. I honestly don't know how I would go about telling her that she needs to settle for being his mistress, rather than his wife."

"Oh, Genma, I know that," Nodoka replied. "It's only natural, after all. For fine, delicate, finishing touches like that you need a woman's gentle touch, not a man's bold, strong, wide strokes. Leave it to me; I'll teach her not to let her reach exceed her grasp." She smiled at him, then gently snuggled closer. "After all," she murmured, "if a woman really loves a man, she must be content with what he can give her."

As harsh a pang of guilt as he'd felt in years shot through Genma. It was all he could do not to slide his hand in between Nodoka and himself, to check his torso for an actual bleeding wound. There was silence for several minutes as he forcibly reminded himself that despite the many half-truths and white lies he'd told to his wife, one thing he'd said to her so long ago had been absolutely true: the trip had been for Ranma's own good. If they hadn't left, Ranma wouldn't be anything of who he was today.

It was true, Genma mused, but it was also true that they were nearly at the end of that particular road. All he needed to do was finish this one last sprint, work everything out right in his training of Akane, and he'd win back the lion's share of his son's respect and affection. Those labors were almost at an end… maybe it was time to start thinking about what could lie beyond them?

He blinked away those musings to find Nodoka had flipped him over onto his stomach and resumed work on his back, tracing long, slow, gentle circles there with one hand as she probed for his remaining tension. Her other hand was already working on one of the worst knots.

Genma held silent until she'd teased away all the stress from that one. Before she could move on to another, he turned over on his side so that he could face her. "Nodoka," he said gently, reaching out and taking her hand in his. "As you say, there are things that only a man can give a woman." He paused for dramatic effect. This wasn't something to be yelled into a microphone, after all, but rather to be spoken only loud enough for her to hear. "Would you like me to give you another child?"

Nodoka pulled back, staring at him in wide-eyed wonderment. "Oh, my darling," she breathed. "Would you really do that for me?"

Genma hesitated for a moment to fight off a pang of disquiet. She'd said those exact words, in that exact tone, with that exact look in her eyes, when he'd offered the seppuku promise all those years ago. He pushed aside the memory, reminding himself that this offer surely couldn't twist on him as badly as that one had. "Of course I would, dear."


To be continued.

Author's notes: This chapter gave me the chance to do something I've wanted for a long time, and that is speak my mind about the anime screenshot used in the links to the 'Ranma and Akane forever project'. I don't know how widely-used this thing was even in its heyday, and the project has long since died, but the memory of that picture and how it was used has stuck with me for years. Ironically enough, it's actually an excellent shot to use to sum up the relationship between the two — just as long as you understand why Ranma was smiling at Akane and holding that flower, why she was smiling back at him, how quickly her smile disappeared as she got a good look at his face, and what explanation he gave to her to bring the smile back.

With all that in mind, it's pretty easy to see that using that particular screenshot to support a 'Ranma and Akane forever' stance is ignorant at best, deceptive at worst.

Once again I've included a Shakespearean quote in this fic, and once again it's from Love's Labour's Lost. Once again I got the quote from the bartleby(dot)com website for famous quotations. And I'm beginning to get a little unnerved here. Back in chapter 2 when I first decided it would be good to toss in a Shakespearean quote for Kuno to misuse to support his quest for two girls rather than one, I took a look at the long list of William's works available at the website and decided it would be nicely ironic if I could find one in LLL, since the title of that play fit quite aptly with Kuno's situation. The pigtailed girl was now lost to him forever, after all, and all his labor gone for naught (not that it hadn't already been in vain, but still…)

So I looked in there, and sure enough — there was a suitably applicable quote. As I recall, I browsed through a couple of other pages as well, checking quotations from other plays to see if there would be a better choice, but never found one even as good as that one. I went back to the LLL quote to copy it, and realized that the very next quote below that one made a perfect counterpoint for Nabiki to use in describing Kuno. So I grabbed it too.

Then, in chapter 3 I needed a quote relating to doing things in their proper timing. Once again I went to Bartleby and browsed through all the available quotes for several different plays. Once again, the best available choice happened to be in Love's Labour's Lost. And now the same thing has happened again! It's downright odd, but at least it doesn't seem threatening. Yet. If copies of that play start randomly turning up in my office and home, expect delays in the release of the last few chapters. Thanks again to everyone at the Refuge who gave C&C.

Chapter 9
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