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A Ranma ½ story
by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.

Chapter 16: Karma, Love, and Other Four-Letter Words

"Let that be a lesson to you." Akane spoke the words in her best tone of triumphant righteousness. She sent one more glare flashing toward the boy, and noted with satisfaction that even in his current semiconscious state, he flinched at the sight. She turned on her heel and marched briskly away. After a minute or two, her would-be abductor's horse edged its way back from around the corner where it had taken refuge. If a telepath fluent in Equine had been there, he might have been puzzled by the thought, 'At least this one didn't zap me.'

'Honestly,' Akane thought to herself as she left the scene behind, 'it's like this place got even weirder while I was away. Nobody ever tried to kidnap me off the street in broad daylight to be their bride before.' She paused, thinking back to Ryoga-Oni. 'But it did happen when I was at home. Is that really any better?'

She gave that thought due consideration, coming only to the conclusion that if she didn't want weirdness landing in her lap, she probably shouldn't be walking the streets like this. Giving a decisive nod, Akane tensed, then sprang to a nearby second-story rooftop. 'That's more like it,' the youngest Tendo thought. Yes, walking along the streets would have been far more normal… but that wasn't something she cared about anymore.

Akane continued along the path she'd been taking before her unfortunate — well, for him anyway — encounter with Sentaro. She kept one eye on the rooftops before her, plotting the best route to take, and one on the streets below her. An hour and numerous miles passed with no further sight of anything deviant or threatening. No rampaging monsters (not that she'd expected any of those, but after Ryugenzawa she wasn't going to rule the possibility out entirely), no other would-be bridal kidnappers, not even a random mugging. It was a quiet, peaceful afternoon in Nerima.

Eventually, Akane's brow wrinkled in doubt. 'Maybe I'm not doing this right. Or maybe I was, and I'm not anymore.'

On the one hand, it did seem to make sense that if she got back down on the street and offered herself up as bait, that might be the provocation she needed to bring out the dangerous, irresponsible types who needed defeating. On the other hand, what little research she'd been able to do had indicated that what she was doing now was the right way to approach her task. You didn't wait for trouble to come to you, you went looking for some that was already happening to someone else. That way you could dive in, catch whoever was causing the problems completely off-guard, and get the situation back under control before anyone else could recover their balance.

Hey, if it worked for Batman, why shouldn't it work for her?

Of course, Akane knew full well that those stories about that gaijin vigilante were just urban legends, but still… the idea had seemed to be sound. And it was much more attractive than letting danger crystallize around her. She had just been trying to apply what Mr. Kuno had told her about using your head to find adventure without running the serious risks. But despite the huge first success she now had under her belt, Akane was still aware that she was very new to this. Maybe one of the unwritten rules of adventuring is that you have to stick your neck out a little, at least more than she was doing right now.

'I should probably go and talk with Mr. Kuno again. It would be good to get some more pointers,' Akane mused. She turned that thought over in her mind. While an attractive idea, there was one drawback; what sort of excuse could she use for going over to his home? As much as Akane had focused on the relationship revelations during her last trip to the Kuno mansion, she had still paid enough attention to notice the pronounced lack of warmth with which Kodachi — and to a lesser extent, Ranma and Shampoo — had regarded her. She wasn't sure whether Ryoga had flinched when he first saw her, but thinking back to the things Akane had said to him in the wake of the P-chan discovery, she wouldn't bet against it. No, if she wanted to go over there again she had better have a very good reason.

After spending a few minutes searching for one, Akane's eyes widened. She smacked herself in the forehead. "I can't believe I didn't think of that!" she cried, dismay causing her to speak the words out loud. It was Mr. Kuno's encouraging words of guidance that had given her the determination and direction to make these choices for herself! She might never even have gone back to Ryugenzawa if it hadn't been for him! She owed him a story and one heck of a thank-you!

'Thank goodness Nabiki hasn't found a buyer for the dragon scales yet. I'll just have to take one of them back and give it to Mr. and Mrs. Kuno as my way of saying thanks.'

With that decision made, Akane decided she might as well head back home. It was late afternoon now, probably too late to go over to the Kuno mansion today. But she'd gotten enough exercise, and even though her first patrol hadn't been the blaze of excitement she'd hoped for, she'd still accomplished something worthwhile. And Shinnosuke would surely be glad to get a phone call and learn how vehemently faithful she'd been to him today.

As she turned in the direction of home and telephones, something registered out of the corner of her eye. She made another half-turn, staring down a street that ran perpendicular to the course she'd been taking. It wasn't much, or at least it didn't seem like much at first glance, but there was a noticeable pocket of unrest several blocks down the street. People weren't actually fleeing in panic, but they were definitely backing away from something.

Akane made a mental note to ask the Kuno patriarch whether this sort of timing happened very often, then headed over to investigate.

She slowed her pace as much as she could during the final approach, taking the last jump with a sort of crouching hop designed to minimize her profile. From her new vantage point, she was just in time to make out a glimpse of the door of a restaurant as it swung shut. The various onlookers had stopped backing away, but they were still wearing expressions of shock and disbelief. Akane tensed, straining her senses, trying to determine if anything were happening inside that restaurant that she needed to stop.

After a minute, her pose of hawk-like readiness dissolved into confusion. Had she really just heard that elderly man say what she thought he'd said? She focused again, listening as hard as she could. This time there could be no doubt about it.

"Strangest panda I ever saw."

"Maybe it got lost from a circus or something."

"What's it want in that restaurant anyway?"

"Probably got tired of all the bamboo."

"Just wait til it comes out of the restaurant," advised one man on the far edge of the crowd. "You haven't seen anything yet."

As Akane felt the first real stirrings of let-down, the door opened. Sure enough, it was her sensei, Genma Saotome, back from his long fruitless search for her. His gi was threadbare, worn nearly through in some places. His backpack was battered and scratched. Here, it was obvious even to those onlookers who'd never seen the elder Saotome before, was a man who'd traveled many long weary miles and was very eager to rest. 'I should go down and apologize,' Akane thought half-heartedly.

A second later, as Genma leveled a glare like a blowtorch on the various pedestrians clogging his path, scattering them like leaves in the wind, she began to entertain second thoughts. 'Or maybe I should just let him cool off for awhile.' Genma wasn't actually radiating a battle aura, but his mood was pretty plain to see nonetheless.

Deciding that the better part of valor would be to stay hidden until her sensei was out of sight, Akane remained in her position, crouched down with only the top of her head visible from the street below. She winced rather painfully a few moments later when a delivery girl zoomed by on a bicycle, splashing the one visible puddle of water over the one Jusenkyo-cursed individual present. She ignored the excitement rippling through the various people on the street. Genma's reaction was rather more important just then; the man-turned-panda stood stock-still for several seconds, then turned on his heel and stalked directly into the door of the building next to him. His battle aura still wasn't out, but Akane was certain she'd seen a vein bulging in his forehead. That it had been visible even under the fur… Well, the youngest Tendo knew that wasn't a good sign.

Deciding not to risk bolting in case Genma should come back out at just the wrong moment, she stayed crouched down, frozen motionless. Akane was thus in position to see her sensei reappear in human form once more, cover another half-block's distance, and get splashed again. This time the water had come from a window above him. And this time, as he headed indoors in search of hot water, Akane clearly saw a battle aura flickering around him.

This time, as soon as the door closed behind him, she took off like a shot.

"Saotome, my old friend! It's good to see you again."

"It's good to be back," Genma said shortly, doing his best to hide his current mood of bubbling, seething frustration. It helped immensely to have finally made it back to the Tendo home, but while that went a long way it by no means eliminated his bad mood completely. "Has Akane returned?"

"Yes, she came back last week." Soun chuckled sheepishly. "Apparently she didn't go to the mountains after all. She did quite a job of pulling the wool over our eyes, eh?"

"Yes. Why don't I go congratulate her," Genma retorted through clenched teeth. Turning quickly away before his sudden facial tic could set off any of Soun's parental warning senses, Genma strode down the hall, up the stairs, and into Akane's room.

It was empty. He gave a snort that rattled the windowpanes, and headed back through the door.

"If you're looking for Akane, she's out in the dojo," Kasumi said helpfully. Just as her aura of peace and cheerful domesticity began to soften Genma, she continued, "Why don't you let me draw a bath for you first, though?"

Genma rumbled a wordless growl, none too happy to be reminded of the thirty-seven "baths" he'd already had on his way over here, and then even less happy to realize that the sound he'd just uttered could have come straight from his hateful cursed form. "Perhaps later, Kasumi," he said, hurrying away.

As he passed back through the house on his way to the door, he caught sight of Nabiki out of the corner of one eye. The middle Tendo opened her mouth as if to say something; Genma just sped up. He wanted to get this business with Akane over with, and then maybe take Kasumi up on the offer of a long hot bath, and then settle down for a real dinner, and then sleep on an actual futon. Talking with Nabiki didn't figure in there at all, as far as he was concerned.

He made his way out of the house into the yard and slackened his pace just a trifle, walking toward the dojo with a measured tread of impending doom. He paused just for a second outside the door, then swung it open and strode inside.

He very nearly stumbled over Akane. The youngest Tendo was kneeling on the dojo floor just slightly beyond the reach of the door. Before Genma could quite recover his balance, she spoke up.

"Here, Sensei. This is for you." Akane picked up the bundle on the floor before her and held it out.

This of course was no aid whatsoever in recapturing his burning sense of offended authority. Mechanically, Genma's hands reached out and took the offering, and began unwrapping the silk around it. Meanwhile, his brain struggled to get back into gear. "Akane…" he growled, just as the last layer of cloth came free. Automatically he glanced down, postponing the tirade just long enough to see whatever this was she'd pressed on him.

He very nearly swallowed his tongue when he realized he was holding a dragon's fang.

It could be nothing else. The size and shape didn't mean anything; any decent craftsman could create a fake that looked this authentic. But with the tooth resting against his skin and his eyes staring down at it, Genma's trained senses could feel the energy burning within. This was the real thing, as real as the fang he'd seen so many years ago. That one had been the prize item in the collection of a master whose skills were a normal man's lifetime beyond Genma's own, a treasure as far out of his reach as diamonds from the moon.

And this one, unless he had completely misheard Akane, now belonged to him.

"What… where… how… why… who…?" For the moment, Genma's speech centers were well and truly flummoxed. The string of pronouns was the best he could manage.

"Have you ever heard of Ryugenzawa, Sensei?" Akane asked respectfully. "That was where I went on my training journey. The stories about the Yamata No Orochi are really true." There weren't actually any stories about the Orochi outside Ryugenzawa itself, at least as far as Akane knew, but there was no need to let details get in the way of telling her story. "The eight-headed dragon that sleeps in a lake, only waking up every five hundred years with a craving for the flesh of beautiful young girls."

"Y- you went there? And fought that?!" Genma's eyes widened even further. 'Oh, kami above, what have I done?! Is that the kind of challenge she thinks she's ready for?! I should never have taken her to fight Ranma! Soun is going to kill me!!'

"Well, I didn't mean to, at first," Akane said, out of a desire to sound modest, not because she sensed his unspoken thoughts and wanted to reassure him. "My family went to Ryugenzawa a long time ago. I was just a little kid. I wanted to go back now and see what it was really like… and things just kind of snowballed from there."

She went on to tell the complete story. About meeting up again with Shinnosuke, about the wound he'd taken protecting her all those years ago, and how it would eventually have killed him without the miracle moss from the Orochi. Told him how they'd lured the dragon forth, and fought it (and if Genma was left with the impression that the battle had been more of a fierce struggle and less a desperate game of keep-away, well, could anyone really blame her?). Confirmed that they had — that she had — eventually located and retrieved the moss, and finally healed Shinnosuke for good.

"One of the smaller heads did almost get me," she confessed. "But Shinnosuke hit it really hard at the last minute, so I didn't get eaten after all. That was what knocked that tooth out."

"And you're giving it to me?!" Not a protest, exactly; he just wanted an explanation. "Why?!"

"Because Shinnosuke's alive. Because I'm alive. I was good enough, skilled enough, fast enough, to go head-to-heads with a dragon and live through it. And it's because of you, Uncle Saotome. You're the one who's given me all the harsh, hard training. You're the one who pushed me and pushed me and wouldn't let up. That's what kept me alive then." Akane bowed her head. "Thank you."

'So she did follow through on it,' Nabiki thought, observing her dazed houseguest. Genma had just stumbled his way past her en route to his room. Master of his own branch of martial arts or not, he was staggering through the hall with all the grace of a drunken sailor, his attention far too captivated by the object in his hands to take notice of such trivial things as bouncing off walls.

Then again, Nabiki didn't suppose that was particularly surprising. The research she'd already done indicated that to the right buyer, that tooth in Genma's hands was worth more than their entire neighborhood, and probably the ones immediately adjacent to it as well. And Akane had just given it to the man!

It had been less than a week since little sister's return home, less than a week since Akane had told her the story of Ryugenzawa and asked for her help in selling the scaly souvenirs she'd picked up there. Nabiki had assumed at first that the reason Akane hadn't mentioned including the fang in the sale was that her younger sister wanted to keep it as her own personal memento. But after preliminary research indicated just how much more valuable the fang was, Nabiki had gone to her sister and tried to get her to change her mind on the subject. Only to hear that Akane wasn't saving the tooth for herself, she was planning to give it to Genma.

And she had now followed through. Apparently Nabiki had wasted every breath of the long, impassioned argument she'd made to Akane, "suggesting" that she should just give Genma one of the scales if she felt like she had to reward him somehow. Nabiki sighed. 'What will Akane do once I'm not around anymore? Little sister has all the financial acumen of a small bowl of miso soup. She gets her hands on a treasure like that and then she just gives it away? When is she going to start planning ahead? What on earth is she going to do with her future?'

The middle Tendo considered that thought for a few pensive moments. For some strange reason an image kept trying to intrude, a vision of her sister wearing a fedora and carrying a bullwhip, racing through crumbling ruins with a golden statue clutched firmly in one hand. Nabiki shook her head, discarding the bizarre image, and reminded herself that she had something more immediate to attend to.

Inside his room, still more than halfway lost in shock, Genma sat down on the floor. The fierce glow of possessive pride warred with wonder. He knew Akane had improved dramatically under his tutelage, but he would never have bet on her emerging triumphant against a dragon. Not even backed up by someone as strong and brave and capable as this Shinnosuke boy apparently was. Before hearing this story, Genma would certainly not have thought Akane would be able to handle a test of that magnitude. But she had, and it was thanks to his teaching.

And if Akane had managed to reach such heights… he found himself wondering what Ranma had been up to recently.

From her position in the doorway behind him, Nabiki coughed, then coughed again, louder. Neither attempt managed to reach Genma, and so she walked forward and around in front of him. "Hey, Mr. Saotome. Present for you."

'Another one?' he thought, with the small portion of his mind that wasn't reeling from recent events. 'That must have been what she wanted to talk to me about earlier. Hah, I should have listened to what she had to say. After Akane's thank-you, everything else is just going to be a letdown.' So much so, in fact, that… "Keep it," Genma said magnanimously. "Akane has already thanked me enough. And really, I was just doing my duty as a martial artist. I didn't train your sister for monetary reward."

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "This isn't from me, and it has nothing to do with Akane. It's from Ranma."

"From Ranma?" Genma echoed. "What is it?"

"Just a little souvenir he brought back from China," Nabiki replied. She retreated backward through the door, bent down and to the side, then straightened back up into Genma's field of vision.

The elder Saotome would have laid extremely good money just then against anyone who wanted to bet that something could take his mind off Akane's gift. As his gaze riveted on the cask, and specifically on the ink-stained characters "Danger — Nannichuan!!" drawn by Nabiki herself, he would have lost.

Night had fallen. He'd had his long, warm soak in the furo. He'd had a wonderful meal cooked by Kasumi. And Genma was now stretched out, enjoying the relative heaven of a futon after the long, hard search for Akane. Basking in the glow of civilized comforts, made all the more attractive by contrast to the labor he'd so recently endured, the cold cheerless, thankless—

'Well, not thankless,' Genma amended with a mental chuckle. He turned on his side, gazing toward the impromptu display stand that he'd set up. It was positioned just perfectly for the moonlight streaming into the room to bathe the fang in its pale light. He gave another satisfied smile, then rolled back to his previous position, looking straight up into the ceiling. A much more attractive view than the thin material of a tent, or a sky choked with rain clouds, both of which had been far too common sights of late.

Of course, the thought of rain clouds had lost all its sting this afternoon. Genma still couldn't quite believe it, couldn't completely grasp the depth of the good fortune that had been waiting on his return to Nerima. He'd finally escaped the greatest tribulations of his life! Whatever kami had seen fit to torment him must have been appeased at last! It had been a long hard road to get here, but finally everything was right in his world! With a satisfied sigh, Genma closed his eyes, ready to sleep the sleep of the deserving just.

After half a sleepless hour, he got up, and hit the kitchen for a midnight snack. That ought to help him drop off.

Thirty minutes later, with a bit more frustration, he repeated the process, finishing all the leftovers from dinner.

After yet another half-hour's interval passed, Genma concluded that the food just wasn't cutting it. He knew he'd been gone a long time in the wild, and that he would have to adjust to such comfortable surroundings again, but it shouldn't be giving him this much difficulty! Oh, well, there was an easy enough solution. This time, instead of the refrigerator, he headed for the sake cabinet.

Genma and sake had plenty of experience with each other, but drinking alone was something he almost never did. It was just far more enjoyable to share the liquor with his good friend Soun. Given a choice in the matter, Genma would have preferred to do that this time as well, but somehow he didn't think that Soun would appreciate being woken up just to join him for a nightcap. And so the elder Saotome quickly polished off one bottle, not enjoying it nearly as much as he otherwise might have, but confident at least that this would send him off to slumber quickly enough.

Fifteen minutes later, and beginning to feel real frustration, he hit the cabinet again. Another bottle went the way of its predecessor. Genma retired to his room once again, hoping that this would finally be enough to put him to sleep. After two bottles of sake, though, it no longer seemed like such an important thing. His frustration was fading, replaced by a rather pleasant haze. Slumber would be nice, but for the moment Genma was feeling too mellow to care whether it continued to elude him.

He lay back down on his futon and closed his eyes. Sleep still wouldn't come. It didn't matter that much, though, he told himself. Look at everything that had happened today. Look at all the good things he did have. Losing one night's sleep was nothing, certainly no reason to feel as if there was something deep and fundamental missing from his life…

As that thought percolated through the alcohol, Genma's brow wrinkled and his eyes opened again. Something big… missing…?

The sake which had eroded his usual barriers spoke again, whispering the answer across the dusty, closed-in expanses of concepts and conventions Genma had never really learned how to deal with. He wasn't fully aware of this, certainly not at all levels… but as if on instinct, he rolled onto his side, and looked at a bare patch of floor several feet off to his left.

It had been quite a long time since his son's futon had been spread there beside him.

That realization came like a spark, igniting the vapors of sake and burning them away in a blinding flash of inspiration. Of course there was one last thing to deal with! Of course there was one significant piece of his life that he still needed to put back into shape! Just because the obstacles for doing so had been removed from his path didn't mean he didn't still have that one last bit of work to do.

With no trace now of alcohol-induced lethargy or mellow repose, Genma rolled to his feet and hurried from the room. There were still several things that needed to be done, and he would take the first step without delay. Now, where did Kasumi keep the stamps and envelopes…?

Forty-five minutes later, Genma returned to his bed. This time, sleep came almost immediately.

"Kodachi was right," Shampoo remarked.

"Right about what?" Ranma wanted to know. He was curious, too, as to why she'd said it in such a mischievous tone.

"She said she thought it looked like rain, told me to bring this umbrella."

Ranma gave a wry chuckle. "Like predicting it's gonna rain in Nerima is any big deal. But I'm glad she did anyway." A date was the single most annoying time for his Jusenkyo curse to get triggered. There had been a couple of close calls on their way to the theatre, and another between the theatre and the restaurant, but Ranma had successfully dodged each bullet. That was probably why the heavens had decided to cut loose with this shower.

"Shampoo glad too. Besides, that was not only thing she said that I agree with."

"Huh? It's not?"

"Mm-hm." The impish gleam in Shampoo's eyes was brighter than ever. "After she say take this small umbrella, she add that it is perfect size for us to use."

"Heh." Now it made sense. Being squashed this tightly against his Amazon fiancée was rather enjoyable, Ranma had to admit. "Can't argue with that, Sham-chan." He tightened the arm that was wrapped around her, giving her a quick squeeze. "Being stuck this close together… it does make for some nice opportunities."

"Like what?" Shampoo purred, turning with some difficulty to look him in the eyes.

Ranma's eyes acquired their own mischievous gleam. "Like… this!" His free hand shot out, launching a barrage of Amaguriken-speed tickle strikes against the spot on Shampoo's side where she was most vulnerable. She shrieked, jumping instinctively away; Ranma followed, matching the move with precision enough never to leave the umbrella's protection.

"<I never told you I was ticklish there!>" the Amazon shouted. Love of her life or not, that was one secret she'd never intended to give away.

"Heart Link, remember?" Ranma said smugly.

"Grrr. I will get you back for that, Ranma!"

"Go ahead an' try," he taunted her. "You know I ain't nearly as ticklish as you, Sham-chan."

Shampoo stuck her tongue out at him… and then in one smooth motion she closed the umbrella. "Guess Shampoo will have to get creative then."

The rain had been slackening off for the last ten minutes, and by now was barely even a drizzle. Ranma held his breath… and the shower finally died, and the sun broke through the clouds, and his curse remained quiescent. "Hah! Nice try, Shampoo!" he crowed.

"I thought so too," she replied with a smirk. Spinning the umbrella, she discharged more than enough moisture to shift her husband-to-be from "he" to "she". Glumly the redhead reminded herself that going head-to-head with Shampoo in anything related to sneakiness and guile was a good way to win second place.

A quick side-trip got Ranma dried off and back in his birth form, and then the duo resumed their trek back to the Kuno mansion. "Are you still learning new shiatsu points from your great-granny, Shampoo?" Ranma asked after a few minutes of companionable silence had passed. "Or have you started working on a new special technique yet?"

"If it was special technique, don't you think I would have tell already?"

"Of course not," Ranma replied. "You'd try an' keep it a secret, and surprise me with it…. Uh, okay, should we change the subject?"

Shampoo giggled. "No, no need. We still working on shiatsu. Would Ranma like to learn some of the new points she teach me?"

"Yeah, that'd be— Hey!" he protested, catching her finger just before it could poke into his lower abdomen. "What're you trying to do?!"

"To fake you out. That was just poke. Shampoo not know any shiatsu points on Ranma's belly."

"This is more payback for the tickling thing, isn't it."

"Is nobody's fault but your own that I am in playful mood now, Ranma." He was still holding her hand; Shampoo twisted her wrist, bringing her index finger into contact with just the right spot on his palm.

"Whoa!" Reflexively Ranma dropped her hand. His own suddenly felt like it had been plunged into ice water, and the sensation was quickly spreading. "What'd you… do…. Man, this is weird. My whole body feels like you turned it to ice." He made a few experimental twists and turns, confirming that he hadn't lost any strength or range of motion. "But it doesn't feel bad or anything… just real strange. What's this point for?"

"Is not point for use in battle, at least not against opponent," Shampoo replied. "Great-Grandmother say it can be used in teaching Hiryu Shoten Ha. Point brings about a condition called 'Soul of Ice'. Puts away all passions, keeps student from feeling anything too hot or too strong, which is necessary for technique."

" 'Can be used' to teach it? What's the alternative?"

"If teacher want to give student hard time, she can teach him Soul of Ice without using point to first show what is like. Great-Grandmother say that is harder on student, but good for plenty of laughs for teacher."

"So this is the key to the Hiryu Shoten Ha…." Ranma mused. "I'm not sure I like it."

"Why not?"

"Like you said… It puts away all passions, all the strong feelings… I can look at you right now, and I know I love you, but my heart don't start pounding, and I can't feel the usual excitement."

Shampoo grimaced, and said something impolite under her breath. "Should have thought of that. At least I waited 'til late part of date to make this stupid mistake."

"Do you know a counterpoint?"

"Is not one. Just have to wait for effect to wear off. Will not take very long."

"So I guess we better take the long way home, right?"


"Cause I want to be able to give you a decent goodnight kiss, that's why."

Shampoo smirked, her mood rising again. "This was lunch date, Airen, is only afternoon right now. Will not be goodnight kiss. It will be end-of-date kiss. Goodnight kiss will be when you come to my room tonight, tell me to sleep well, tuck me in, and leave to have X-rated dreams of Shampoo."

Ranma blinked. "Whoa… I think I just felt a crack in this 'Soul of Ice' thing."

"Oh? Then I will keep going. I don't want my Airen's feelings blocked off even for one minute longer!"


The Amazon blinked, shocked out of her search for just the right steamy speech. That had sounded like….

The Saotome heir had already turned in the direction from which the cry had come. "Maybe you'd better leave me like this for now, Sham-chan," he decided. "See ya back at the Kuno mansion, okay?"

"Okay, Ranma," the Amazon said quietly. "Hope this goes well for you."

"Me, too," her fiancé replied, striding away toward Genma.

Father and son stood now on the bank of the Nerima canal. A few hundred feet downstream there was a bridge over the water, but for the moment nobody seemed to be using it; they had as much privacy as could reasonably be asked for. The bank where they stood was bare dirt, with a few large stones scattered around. In point of fact, it was quite near the spot where Ranma had done his best to console Akane over her disappointment with Dr. Tofu so long ago.

Not that the Saotome heir recognized this. Thanks to Shampoo's shiatsu slip, he wasn't feeling nervous or angry or even tense, but despite his artificial calmness — a calmness that he suspected was already beginning to crack at the edges — he knew that this encounter was important. What did his father have to say for himself? Why had the old man really sought him out? What would happen now? Ranma had spent almost all his life with his father as his closest companion… but lately, for all these many months while his life tumbled through convulsions of change, Genma had been absent. He'd altered so much since coming to Nerima, certainly more profoundly than he had during any three-year period from his years with Genma. Did his old man even care? Just where did his father want to go from here?

"I wanted to thank you, Ranma," Genma said, breaking the silence that had stretched between them since his son first caught up with him back on the street. "You don't know how much I was beginning to hate that curse."

"So you got the Nannichuan, I guess."

"I did." Genma smiled broadly. "I'll admit you caught me totally off-guard with the news about Shampoo, boy. But I can see there are wonderful advantages to having an Amazon for a second daughter-in-law."

"I officially proposed to her near the end of the China trip, by the way. To Dachi, too," Ranma said, eyeing Genma closely, trying to detect any hint that his father might be bothered at all by the changes in his son's life that he'd missed.

"Congratulations!" Genma said, smiling broadly. "Have you set a date for the wedding?" He frowned thoughtfully. "Just how do Amazons do that, anyway?"

"Same basic deal, just that the ceremony's a little different," Ranma answered shortly. "And we haven't really talked about dates yet. Prob'ly wait until after high school."

"Well, if that's what you want," Genma said. "But remember there's no need to wait that long if you don't want to. It's not like you'll have to chain yourself down to a job to support your new family, after all."

"Guess not." That last comment had tipped the balance. Ranma was through trying to work his way up to the important questions gently. "Maybe I'll talk to them about having it sooner. Should we bother to send ya an invitation?"

The younger Saotome had said the words without any trace of irony or anger. It took Genma a few seconds to realize just what he'd been asked. "W-what?!" he stuttered, still a little too shocked to really make any kind of coherent response.

"I asked if you even wanted an invitation," Ranma said calmly. "You sure as hell haven't been around for any other of the big things that've gone on in my life lately."

"RANNNMA!! How can you… can you…." Genma's protest, initially quite heated, ground swiftly to a halt. His son wasn't glaring at him, hadn't demanded this, hadn't made it any kind of insult or challenge. Genma would have known how to handle either of those things (or at least he would have believed he knew how), but not this. The boy had just calmly asked the question, showing no sign that it wasn't a serious request for information. He wasn't showing anything at all to indicate that the answer mattered to him… hadn't given any clue that he particularly cared one way or another.

The fear he'd choked down over a month ago, as he'd walked stiffly away from the Kuno mansion, reared back to life stronger than ever. How could Ranma ask him such a question? How could the foolish boy be overreacting this badly?! It hadn't been that long, had it…?

Grabbing desperately at that thought, Genma countered, "It's only been a few months, Ranma! Does it really bother you that much that I wasn't there to see you fall for a second girl? Most teenage boys would rather their parents keep their noses out of business like that!"

"Is that all you think happened? And what do you mean, 'a few months'? It's been a lot longer than that, old man. Didn't you even care enough to notice?" Deliberately, Ranma began to build his battle aura. Not giving his father a chance to cut in, he continued, "Didn't the fact that I kicked your butt instead of Akane's clue you in? Does it really not matter at all?" By now his aura was shining brightly enough that Genma had to shield his eyes. "That's what I'm asking. That's what I want to know. Do you care at all how far I've come and how much I've changed, all this time while you were nowhere around?"

'Oh, Kami-Sama. What's happened to him?' Genma thought, desperately searching his son's face as best he could through squinting, watering eyes for any sign that the answer would mean anything to him. 'How can he even ask that?' Through the choking fear, he cried, "Yes! Of course I care! Why do you think I brought Akane over there anyway?!"

"You said it was to challenge me," Ranma replied. "In fact, you said she'd beat me, cause of how I'd been 'slacking off' and 'getting soft'." He flared his battle aura even brighter, then let it die. "Oh, yeah, and there was something in there about leeching off my rich girlfriend too, wasn't there?"

"So I made a mistake!" Genma half-yelled, half-pleaded. "I thought after you lost to Akane, that would be enough for you to come back to me! For more training, if nothing else…."

This time, it was undeniable — Ranma felt a definite crack run through the Soul of Ice. It wasn't enough to break the technique, but it was a warning sign that he wasn't going to be able to hold this cold calmness forever. "That sure as hell isn't what I heard from you then, old man. Just a bunch of insults and junk. Nothing that woulda made me think you wanted anything other than to see your new student beat your old one."

Genma's face twisted in anguish and fear. "It, it was just a means to an end. I already said what I thought would happen. Why I did it. What I hoped…" He gulped, and as the last traces of color faded from his face he continued, speaking just barely above a whisper, "Yes, Ranma, it matters. I do care. But… but… do you?"

"I ain't the one who did the abandoning here."

"Maybe not." This time it was a whisper; Ranma had to strain to hear it. His father was no longer meeting his gaze. "But you're the one asking me all these things… not looking like the answers mean anything to you…."

"Amazon technique," Ranma said coldly. "Soul of Ice. Blocks all strong emotions. Shampoo was nice enough to give me a little protection before we had this talk. You think I could've done all this without something like that?"

"I-I hope not." Genma took a deep gulping breath, and forced himself to meet Ranma's eyes again. "I'm sorry, boy. I never meant to leave you for good. It still doesn't feel like it's been that long. Not to me." Except for the recent eternity that he'd spent searching for Akane, but that was hardly Genma's fault.

There was a long, strained, tense moment of silence as Ranma considered his response. "So what you're saying is, this whole mess was really just another one of your boneheaded mistakes, right, Pop? Like the Cat Fist, and engaging me to half the girls in Japan?"

"Yes! That's it exactly!!" Genma said, nodding with such fervor that he nearly gave himself whiplash. "I'm sorry I waited too long! But, Ranma… Son… never think that my family doesn't matter to me!!"

Another crack, and then another… with the first spark of true fear he'd felt so far, Ranma realized that the effect was fading — and he could feel his emotions rising up through the breaking ice, far too strong for him to handle right now. With a tremendous mental effort, he forced his way back into the technique as best he could, reassembling the Soul of Ice through sheer need, skill, and force of will. It stabilized into something not nearly as complete as before, but at least it was enough to suppress the flood.

The pigtailed teen took a deep, ragged breath, then risked a smile. "Okay. I hear ya. So, old man… you want to see something new I learned over the summer?"

After taking a few deep breaths of his own, trying not to choke on the overwhelming sensation of relief, Genma nodded. "An Amazon technique?"

"Not exactly. But yeah, let me show you one of theirs first. It's the Breaking Point." Ranma took a few steps to the side, bent down, and demonstrated said technique, reducing a rock to rubble.

"Ah, yes, I've heard of that one," Genma said sagely, switching for the moment from 'extremely relieved father' to 'wise old sensei'. Then what he'd seen actually registered. "WHAT?! You actually know that?! Something so powerful…" his voice trailed off, as visions of the future glory of Anything Goes danced through his head.

"It's got plenty of drawbacks, old man." Something Cologne had told him, about a common misconception concerning this technique, bobbled up in Ranma's memory. "You did know it only works on rocks and dirt and stuff like that, right? Not yer opponent."

"Oh." Genma blinked. "Well, it's still an impressive move, Ranma."

"Heh. You ain't seen nothing yet. I actually made a new variation of it. Wanna see?"

"Of course."

Resisting the urge to send the technique right underneath his father's feet, Ranma let loose an Earth Slash. The trench roared away at an angle, racing up the bank of the canal. "How's that, Pop? Impressed?"

Judging by the flabbergasted expression on his father's face, and the way he didn't even twitch as the bank collapsed into a miniature landslide that sent him tumbling into the canal, the answer was definitely "yes".

The splash woke Genma from his stupor. He scrambled back onto dry ground, ironically enough even happier at the dousing. 'Never gonna be a panda again, never gonna be a panda again…' "It's a wonderful accomplishment, boy. I'm proud of you." The elder Saotome had no idea how to achieve the Soul of Ice, but in this moment, relief and awe and the supremely reassuring realization that his family apparently wasn't going to fall apart after all combined to do for him what Shampoo's trick had done for his son. Just this once, the old barriers and patterns were broken, and he could talk of such things without any real difficulty. "It's every father's dream to see his son surpass him. That you've done so at such an early age… that you've found two wonderful girls to share your life with… that you finally laid Jusenkyo to rest for both of us… I couldn't be happier, Ranma."

Ranma glanced upward, noting with real surprise that the sky was swiftly becoming clouded over again. The first raindrops should already have been falling. 'Missed your cue,' he thought toward whatever kami or demon was responsible for the water magnet component of a Jusenkyo curse.

Aloud, he said, "Uh, about that… Wait. Lemme backtrack."

"Hmm?" Genma asked absently, for the moment paying more attention to giving the gathering clouds a good old-fashioned Japanese red-eye. Let the rain pour! Would he care? Not a chance!

"It goes back to when me and Shampoo first started gettin' close. We had ta battle an Oni, and Sham-chan got hurt really bad. She would've died, but Dachi and I donated some life force to bring her back. Thanks to that, both girls' souls are tied to mine for good… Hey, old man!" Ranma irately bounced a small rock off his father's head. "Are ya listening to me?!"

"Yes, yes, you just said Kodachi and Shampoo are tied to you… and you beat an Oni?!" Genma smiled even more broadly. "Well done, boy!"

"That ain't the important thing here," Ranma grumbled — especially since it had been Cologne who actually put Ryoga-Oni down. "I was trying to tell ya about being linked to Dachi and Shampoo. For good. Forever." As the first raindrop splattered on his head, he continued, "That's really cool most of the time. There was just one drawback…" and now the rain was really falling, thickly enough to wash away his male form. "When I got in the Nannichuan, it gave the both of them guy-curses. Which is why I hopped back in another spring before we left Jusenkyo behind."

By now Genma's face was nearly the color of the clouds above. "You… you mean…" he spoke in a choked whisper barely audible over the rain, "…you can never be cured?"

"Not by the Nannichuan, anyway." Ranma-chan paused, fighting for control over her rudimentary Soul of Ice. It kept wanting to slip from her grasp… and seeing her father radiate such massive grief and disappointment sure wasn't helping. "Wanna take back anything you said, Pop? Still proud of me? Or not so much, now?"

"Don't say that, Ranma! I'd give up my cure in a heartbeat, if it broke your curse!!"

His son-turned-daughter just stared, shocked at that response even through the fading Soul of Ice. Genma wasn't always the most honest of men… but in the extremis of emotion such as this, there was no way that statement could have been a lie. That he would say that… that he meant it… In a flash of dread, Ranma-chan realized that she wasn't going to be able to hold the Soul of Ice much longer. 'Got to… got to get back home… can't break down in front of him…'

Meanwhile, Genma's mind was working just as desperately. This just wasn't fair! "Ranma, please believe me — curse or no curse, I'm still very proud of you. I'll come by tomorrow and we'll talk more. But for now there's something I absolutely have to take care of. See you tomorrow, son." And with that he was gone, shooting away so quickly that even in the rain he raised a slight trail of dust.

Ranma-chan just stood there and blinked, shock replacing all other emotions for the moment.

The morning sunlight streamed through the large window, tinted with just a hint of green from the foliage outside. It shone brightly on three teenagers seated at a large table, and it shone briefly on the food that the servants brought for their breakfast. "What time you think Genma will show up?" Shampoo asked after the majority of her hunger had been assuaged.

Ranma considered, chewed, swallowed. "I just don't know. It could be any time." A shadow of melancholy crossed his face.

"What's bothering you, dear?" Kodachi asked gently. She could feel that it hadn't been more than a small pang, but as far as the White Rose was concerned, that just meant it needed to be stopped now, before it grew into or triggered a larger one. "I don't think we'll have to wait too long. It's obvious this matters to Genma. After all, remember what Tatewaki told me yesterday."

Her fiancé blinked. "What did he tell you yesterday?"

Kodachi gaped for a second, then smacked herself theatrically on the forehead and made a wordless sound of disgust. "I didn't mention it?! Grrr. He told me that Genma just returned to the Tendo household two days ago. Which means that your father sought you out the very next day, Ranma-kun. So we can take it as a given that he does care, and that this is important to him. I don't think we'll have to wait too long."

"You're probably right," Ranma agreed. "But…" again there was the glimpse of melancholy, "…he might not be able to get away real early. That's what I was thinking of. I mean, what's the old panda been up to all this time? All I really know is that somewhere in there he got serious about training Akane. For all I know, they could have a couple hours of training scheduled each morning."

"Is that why Ranma was feeling little bit down?" Shampoo guessed. "Because is not just Genma has not been around to see changes in your life, is also you have not been around him?"

Ranma exhaled a long sigh. "Yeah, Sham-chan. You hit the nail right on the head. It's something I said to him, yesterday, something that I got to thinking about last night. He was getting real freaked out cause the Soul of Ice kept me from looking like I cared about whether he stayed or left for good, he challenged me over something — I don't even remember exactly what it was — an' I shot back at him that I wasn't the one who'd done the abandoning here.

"But… but you know, that's not a hundred percent true. He didn't try to get back to me, and I didn't try to get in touch with him either. I mean, yeah, going back to the Tendo place woulda been way too awkward, at least for a long time there, but I could've sent him a letter or something."

"Airen, that crazy! It was not your fault! Is responsibility of parent… to…" Shampoo's voice trailed off. "Okay, I remember now. Is Genma Saotome we talking about. Is not good idea to expect too much responsibility from him."

Ranma grimaced. "Yeah, he made his mistakes. But I did too. And… and it's like I couldn't even see them, until yesterday. Until late yesterday."

"That isn't very surprising, Ranma-sama," Kodachi said quietly. "It seems to me like everything was all jammed up, like a great number of logs trapped in a stream, under pressure, but unable to move until the right thing finally shifts. Before yesterday, when was the last time Genma ever said he was proud of you?"

The pigtailed teen was fairly sure she knew the answer to that question even before she'd asked it, but he replied nonetheless. "There've been times he showed it, kinda, when I'd master something new. But he's never come out and said it so plainly as that."

"And Ranma know from both our memories that that is not how most people grow up." At least Shampoo knew that was the case from her memories, and she knew the Kuno parents well enough to be quite certain Kodachi had received that same kind of loving, nurturing encouragement. "Should not be hard on yourself, Airen, if you were not able to do some things until after Genma had done what he needed to do." She gave him the warmest, kindest smile she could manage. "Look at it this way. Since there is mistakes on both sides, that means both people have to walk together to meet in middle. Is not one person has to go all the distance, to other one who not move one bit. That way would not be good for family at all anyway."

Ranma exhaled, then gave a smile of his own. "Thanks, Sham-chan. That… I think I needed to hear it," he said finally. Then, with a bit of irony, he added, "Anyone listening to ya wouldn't have a clue you'd just as soon pack my old man off to the Americas or something."

Shampoo grinned sheepishly. "You know I not so forgiving as you, Ranma," she admitted. "But just because it seem to me like it no should matter this much to you, that does not make it matter one little bit less. So I will do best to be one big happy family with Genma, now that he is finally getting his head out of his…" she broke off, and gave a loud, utterly unrealistic cough.

"What we want is for you to be happy," Kodachi said firmly. "If that means keeping Genma close, and just riding herd on him to prevent any more idiotic blunders… Well, then that is what we'll do."

For the moment, he couldn't say anything through the lump in his throat. Instead, Ranma reached out with his right hand, taking hold of Kodachi's left, and grabbing Shampoo's left with his right. He gave them both a squeeze, which successfully shifted the tightness from his throat to his grip. "Thanks," he said. "Thanks, Dachi-chan, Sham-chan. I am happy. With both of you, how could I not be?"

Shampoo and Kodachi both smiled brightly back at him — very brightly indeed, with the way the sunlight caught the tears shining in their eyes. Moments like this could never, ever come too often…

A few moments later — just late enough not to ruin the mood — Sasuke popped up through the floorboards next to Kodachi's chair. "Forgive me for running late, Mistress Kuno!" he said, bowing until his head rested on the floor. "I have no excuse for my tardiness." Forehead still flat on the ground, he stretched out one hand, which held the various items that had come in the mail that morning.

Kodachi gave a gentle, long-suffering sigh. "Sasuke, why are you apologizing? Father isn't even here to receive this. He's the one who reads the mail at the morning table. Not any of us. In fact…" she flicked quickly through the various envelopes, "…there's nothing here for anyone except Mother and Father."

"Yeah, man, you're not late. You're way, way early," Ranma pointed out. "They're still off on that business trip to wherever."

"That doesn't matter!" Sasuke said vehemently. "A true ninja should never let such things keep him from the timely execution of his duties! The Master has charged me with bringing the mail in at a certain time in the morning, and nothing should ever keep me from doing it! Not snow, not sleet, not freezing wind, not driving rain, not burglaries at all the post offices within twenty miles of here…."

Shampoo blinked, wondering where that last one had come from. Then again — she glanced through the window at the bright warm sunny weather outside — it could easily have just been the strange little ninja talking to hear the sound of his own voice. "What you mean about post office burglaries?"

Sasuke straightened up, apparently in order to enable himself to hang his head. "I don't know many details. I only stopped for a few moments, to listen to some other servants gossip. But it seems all the post offices nearby were broken into last night."

"That many, all at once? Weird," Ranma commented, as Sasuke vanished back through the trapdoor. "Wonder what the deal was with that."

"Hmmm. Probably somebody plan to challenge you soon, Airen," Shampoo suggested cheerfully. "Heir to school of Martial Arts Papercuts, or Martial Arts Postal Service, or something silly like that. And he wanted to gather ammunition for special attacks."

"Awww, man, I hope that's not it," Ranma complained. "I mean, yeah, we're back in Nerima where life goes crazy all the time, but come on! Surely this stuff with Pop is enough for now."

"But it sounds like you'll be making peace with him quite soon, Ranma-sama," Kodachi pointed out. "That's going to leave you wide open."

The Saotome heir gave a long, theatrical sigh. "Why me?"

"Look on bright side, Airen. At least this happening to someone who is man enough to take it," Shampoo said, sliding her chair over far enough to pat him on the back.

The three of them left the breakfast table behind shortly thereafter, heading with unspoken consent to the main living room closest to the Kuno mansion's front door.

They beat Genma there by all of a minute.

The door slammed open and the elder Saotome raced in. He was halfway across the room, heading for the doorway that would take him deeper into the Kuno mansion, before the presence of the room's occupants registered. He jerked to a stop, spun around to make eye contact with his son, and gave a deep sigh of relief. "So there you are, boy. Good to see you again."

"You, too," Ranma said, somewhat hesitantly. What kind of an entrance was that?!

Kodachi gave Genma a long, evaluating stare. Judging from his rumpled, bleary, red-eyed appearance, she didn't think it likely that he'd gotten a wink of sleep since yesterday afternoon. Her fiancé's father looked to be running on that curious peak of nervous energy that comes just before the final reserves of will and anxiety are exhausted. It wasn't something she'd ever experienced herself, of course, but she'd seen it several times during her younger years, back when her brother still had a significant skill advantage over her. The only way she could win their sparring contests back then would be to outlast him, which Tatewaki always decried as a really cheap trick. Cheap, but effective, Kodachi would counter, usually with a rude gesture or two.

Of course, she highly doubted that Genma Saotome had reached this extreme of exhaustion through something so innocent as battling someone with greater reserves of endurance. Perhaps he was still suffering the lingering effects of his long journey through the trackless wilds, searching for Akane. After all, Genma had only returned two days ago. And she knew from her beloved's description that the encounter of yesterday afternoon had been plenty stressful for Genma as well as for his son. Perhaps, also like his son, Genma had found his whirling thoughts to be too great a burden last night to allow slumber to come easily. The unease and intensity of Ranma's thoughts had been keeping not only himself awake, but also both fiancées as well, through the Link they shared. None of them might have gotten a decent night's sleep had Kodachi not eventually snuck over to Ranma's room and taken his mind off all such issues for the rest of the night.

However, unless Tatewaki had given some as a present to Nabiki, the Tendo household didn't have any sleep wards available. Even if they did, she didn't suppose Nabiki would have used one of them on Genma, as the White Rose had on his son. It was quite possible that the elder Saotome hadn't been able to drop off at all. Combine that with lingering fatigue from his wilderness jaunt, stir in stress from the upcoming meeting with his son, and that would neatly explain the nervous anxiety she could see so clearly in him now.

That was what Kodachi told herself, anyway. She really didn't want to listen to the nameless suspicion rising up from the back of her mind, that they were about to be faced with yet another of Genma's unpleasant past mistakes.

Unaware of the thoughts running through at least one of his listeners' heads, Genma reached behind him, unhooked one of the two backpacks he'd been carrying there, and tossed it to his son. The pigtailed teen caught it, reflexively setting it in his lap. "Ranma, you were right. We haven't spent nearly enough time together. And I'm sure you'd like to teach me some of the new things you've learned. I think a nice training trip will let us fix both those problems at once."

Ranma's jaw dropped until it nearly rested on the backpack. "Wha? What're you talking about, old man?! I just got done with a massive trip!"

Genma snorted loudly enough to shake the pictures on the wall. "Bah! Didn't that okonomiyaki enchantress tell you where I was, when she sent those dreams for you?! I've spent my last month in the wild with nothing in the way of comfort! If I can handle getting back on the road now, surely you can too!"

"Look, Pop, I ain't saying I got a problem with most of that stuff. Yeah, I want to spend more time with you, yeah, training with you again sounds good. But the trip part ain't gonna fly! I told you yesterday, I just recently got officially engaged!" Ranma glanced to his right and to his left, indicating two girls who were NOT looking happy at the thought of their fiancé being snatched away. "I ain't leaving them behind! Not now, anyway, not like this. Not even for you!"

"Well, bring them along then," Genma said, trying to sound reasonable, and mainly succeeding. It was clear that whatever was bothering him, the thought of taking these two additional participants on the proposed trip didn't. "In fact, I should have thought of that myself. I need to get to know my future daughters-in-law, after all."

Just for a second, Ranma wavered. Why the heck did this mean so much to his father anyway? Maybe he ought to go along with it. But…. His jaw firmed. At the very least Genma was going to have to give some kind of good reason. "You still ain't said why this needs to be a trip, Pop. Heck, we can just use the Kuno mansion. Wouldn't ya like to check out some of the cool facilities we've got? C'mon, at least let's stick around and have lunch here." That experience would shake Genma out of this idea unless he had a really good reason for it, Ranma knew.

"Look, we can talk on the road! Kodachi, Shampoo, shouldn't you be packing right now?"

Shampoo snorted. "Not until I hear good reason, not just your say-so, father-of-Airen. I have training session scheduled with Great-Grandmother tomorrow afternoon. I not show up for that, and you will not be happy with what happen when Matriarch of Chinese Amazons finds out is your fault."

Genma blanched, losing his train of thought just for a few seconds. Then the urgency of the situation got him moving again. This was no time for listening to excuses! All his effort the previous afternoon and night had been for nothing, and there was no time to lose whatsoever! "Well, give her a call, and explain that you'll be going off for a different sort of training! I'm sure she'll… she'll understand…."

Those last few words escaped more or less under inertia. All but the barest minimum of the elder Saotome's attention was riveted suddenly on a new sensation, an awareness, a warning his highly-developed sense of personal survival was screaming at him. It was coming from behind him, behind and to his left, from the doorway through which he'd entered this room. It was a sensation the older martial artist hadn't experienced many times in his life, but it was still all too easily recognizable. As if on autopilot he turned, damning the post office for their insanely quick response, already knowing just what he'd see. While this might no longer be the case for his son, Genma knew exactly who was on the other end when he felt himself receiving a burning, yearning, amorous woman's stare.

Kasumi glanced at the clock. It was nearly time for the mailman to come by. The eldest Tendo daughter allowed herself a brief moment of guilt, remembering the letter that sat now in the mailbox, the letter that should have been there the previous day. But Akane had decided to try cooking breakfast yesterday morning, and in the chaos the missive had been lost. Kasumi hadn't remembered or recovered it until quite late in the afternoon, far too late for it to be posted that day. 'I hope it wasn't anything urgent,' she thought. It was the first piece of correspondence she'd ever seen Mr. Saotome send out. 'I wonder who Nodoka is, anyway. Perhaps a cousin or a sister?'

Genma blinked. Not only was nobody there, the door wasn't even ajar. He blinked again. Still closed. "I really am getting too jumpy," he muttered under his breath. After all, even though the post office had apparently performed their duties with the speed of greased lightning, there was still no way Nodoka could have made it over here yet. Not as slowly as his wife walked in that kimono. Letting out a sigh of relief, he half-turned back to face his son and future daughters-in-law.

Behind him, the door blew out of its frame, disappearing into a cloud of splinters.

The newcomer paused, relishing that one frozen moment of shock on the faces of all she'd surprised. Then, with a rustle and slither of cloth moving swiftly against wood, Yokehi crossed the distance to Genma and had him in her embrace. "It's been a while, hasn't it?" the enchantress cooed.

"What?! You… I… but… this…" The sight of this figure — this amorous ghost that Nabiki had sworn her fiancé had laid to rest — shocked Genma the rest of the way out of his wits. He gibbered a few more incoherent words of protest, then, with a sigh, his eyes rolled up and his knees gave out.

Yokehi frowned, but still caught him as he fell. "Amaterasu's Adam's Apple! I didn't even get to kiss you this time! We most definitely are going to have to do something about this fainting tendency!" Shucking off his backpack and hefting him to her shoulder in a fireman's carry, she turned to resume the journey that had been interrupted by Akane, so long ago.

"H-hold it!!" Ranma yelled, shooting to his feet and finding breath to protest, even though he'd nowhere near caught his balance at this development. "Who are you?! Where the hell are you takin' my old man?!"

"Your father?" Yokehi replied, turning back to face Ranma with interest. She gave him a long, considering stare, then twisted her neck and gave Genma a similar one. Whatever the purpose of that examination had been, she seemed pleased with the results. "Let's just say I'm taking him somewhere where the two of us can get… intimately acquainted."

"Like hell!" Ranma retorted. "I only just got the old fool back in my life, and some crazy witch shows up to snatch him away? I don't think so!!"

The sorceress sniffed. "You should speak with more respect to your stepmother."

That took the wind right out of his sails. "You… you're…?" Apparently he'd massively underestimated the changes he'd missed in his father's life, Ranma thought dizzily.

"Well, stepmother-to-be," Yokehi amended.

"And what does he say about that?" the pigtailed teen demanded, recovering somewhat, and reminding himself that Genma's reaction on seeing this new arrival hadn't exactly been favorable. Yokehi just shrugged, which response caused Ranma's expression to harden a little more. "That's what I thought. You ain't taking him anywhere!" he yelled. Then, glancing behind him, noting with some disgruntlement that Kodachi and Shampoo were still seated on the couch, he added, "Hey, you two! A little backup here?!"

"Oh, right. Sorry, Ranma-sama." Kodachi gave one last blink of astonishment, then got to her feet. "You'd think I ought to be used to bizarre things happening by now. I don't know why this caught me so off-guard. So what if a beautiful, supernatural woman has apparently decided to make Genma Saotome… her love slave…." Abruptly the White Rose sank back down to the couch. "Sorry, dear. Just give me a few more minutes."

Unlike Kodachi, Shampoo had been born into a culture that seriously valued many of the qualities Genma had to offer. She knew several Amazons who would have considered him superb husband material — after a period of judicious breaking-in, anyway — and so it wasn't nearly as hard for her to process this development. "Ranma is right," she said, standing up and staring menacingly at the ghost. "You is not going to take stupid panda man away. Not now, not like this."

"Bah. As if you children could stop me." Yokehi engaged her second-favorite sorcerous ability — it had been her very favorite for a long time, but had recently been displaced by the one that let her escape Tatewaki's onslaught with her existence intact — sending a web of compulsion toward the only conscious male present. He would buy her more than enough time to esc— what?!

Ranma staggered, clutching at his head in a sudden delirious blaze of disorientation. Yokehi's mind-control abilities only affected men… and his soul was directly tied to two women. She could temporarily knock away his own control, but she could not pull his strings herself.

"Ranma-sama!" Kodachi shouted, diving from the couch and catching him as he fell.

Satisfied that her Airen was being tended to, Shampoo whipped out a scimitar and focused as much chi into it as she could. This encounter seemed awfully similar to the stories she had heard of the night when Ryoga received his twin Kisses of Marriage. The woman before her didn't look particularly serpentine, but from what the Amazon understood, neither had that ghost at first. Shampoo couldn't do the Heaven and Earth Cut, nor could she match Kodachi's sheer chi output, but perhaps this much energy would be effective anyway. "Put father-in-law down now!" she demanded, stalking toward Yokehi, faintly-glowing sword held menacingly before her.

The witch's eyes narrowed. "I think not!!"

With no further ado, she lashed out with a new trick she'd developed quite recently. Nearly being snuffed from existence on the very night she escaped from slumber in the enchanted brassiere had been a terrible shock to someone who'd seen herself as effectively immortal. Only an ability tied to her alternate serpent form had let her escape, "shedding a skin" at the last moment and fleeing invisibly. It had been a rude shock indeed, and a subsequent worse one to learn just how much time had passed while she slept, but she had learned from it. Yokehi had already developed a few new abilities, and she had no intentions of stopping that quest anytime soon.

She gestured with her free hand, and the corresponding sleeve of her kimono exploded into unraveling threads, almost identical to the result of Akane's counterattack so long ago. But this time the threads remained under Yokehi's will, multiplying, then shooting forward. Shampoo managed to sever most of the first wave, but then the second was upon her even as the remnants of the first snaked around her sword arm. The Amazon was bound securely, followed in an eyeblink by Ranma (still too woozy to effectively resist) and Kodachi (who might have escaped by flaring her battle aura strongly enough to char the threads, save for the fact that this would also have charred the love of her life). The threads wrapped and wove around them, coccooning them securely enough even to prevent speech.

Yokehi gave a prolonged, triumphant, but still demure and ladylike laugh. "You should have known better than to try to stop me without that boy with the reality-tearing sword. Don't worry, Ranma, you'll see your father again soon enough. But the honeymoon is no place for children. Until we meet again!"

The threads binding them faded within five minutes of Yokehi's departure, which was one bit of good news. Kodachi knew good and darn well that when her parents finally did get back from their trip, one of the first things they would do was ask the servants for news of any interesting events that had transpired while they were away. Having Godai and Hitome learn that their daughter had been caught so pathetically off-guard, and not only herself but her fiancé and sworn sister also… Well, the White Rose would far rather avoid that eventuality. The last thing she needed to do was trigger a reemergence of her father's overprotective side.

"Think that might have been same spirit what tried to kidnap Genma before," Shampoo said as soon as she could talk again. "You remember, from night when Ryoga defeat Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung?"

"Yes, that's got to be it," Kodachi agreed. "Hang on, let me go fetch my old night-light." Shampoo wasn't the only one who remembered the stories she'd heard of that night. Kodachi had always felt vaguely proud that her favorite childhood possession had been responsible for solving two crises so far. And now, perhaps the third time would be the charm.

Ranma shook his head in mild bemusement as he watched his fiancée vanish deeper into the house. "It's a really powerful artifact with a cool name like the Orb of Amalthea, and she still calls it her old night-light. Weird."

Shampoo gave him a look that indicated she thought his response was far stranger. "Ah… Ranma? Why you not freaked out? Ghost just stole your father away, took him right out from under your nose, just when he finally get back in your life. Shampoo thought you would be really worried, impatient to get going. You not still under some trick from stupid ghost, right?"

After wondering for a second just how Shampoo expected him to answer that last question, Ranma opted to ignore it. "Well, Shampoo, I am a little bit ticked. But it's not near as bad now as it was right when that witch showed up."

"Hope Kodachi get back with Orb quick," Shampoo muttered. Louder, she said, "Why is that?"

"Eh, cause I've had a few minutes to get my feet back under me and think about stuff." There hadn't been much else to do besides think, for that five minute interval, and thinking over recent developments had been much safer than thinking of the interesting sensation of having his fiancée tied so closely and so tightly against him. "It ain't like I'm still stuck out in the dark wondering whether Pop even cares about bein' a part of my life anymore, after all. He cleared that up yesterday. The fact is, the next step needs to be me sayin' I'm sorry for not trying to get back to him either." Ranma grinned, part sheepishly, part vindictively. "I figure that'll come easier after I've hauled his sorry hide outta trouble. Heck, this ghost lady may've even done me a favor, giving me a chance to save him like this. It'll be something to hold over his head for years to come."

That made a lot more sense, the Amazon thought. "Still, Shampoo would have expect you to be in bigger hurry than this. It not bother you that ghost is getting a big head start right now?"

"Course not, cause it doesn't matter at all. We'll find her with the Eye of Bastet, and catch up to her with the Nanban Mirror. Heck, we probably oughta let that last part slide for a few hours, just to let Pop get good an' appreciative when we do come riding in for the rescue."

Shampoo laughed merrily. "How about giving a week? After all, Genma has been alone for long time. Maybe this sorceress deserve chance to catch his heart."

Genma wasn't totally certain, but he was fairly sure that he'd only been unconscious for a short while. Less than an hour, almost surely, and if he had to guess he'd have said it was on the short side of fifteen minutes. He was lying flat on his back, on what felt like a springy bed of moss. He could smell the pungent odors of earth and vegetation, and could feel a slight breeze against his skin. Ever so carefully, he cracked open one eye the barest fraction, while modulating his breathing to fake continued unconsciousness.

The sun was well on its way down to the western horizon. He was surrounded by trees that were definitely not indigenous to Japan.

Not a good sign.

"Now, now," a seductive voice cooed from far too close for Genma's liking. "Faking sleep isn't going to do you any good. You should get some real rest. You had a very busy night, after all."

Shock from that message blew away every shred of confidence in his assessment of how much time had passed. 'Oh, merciful Kami! Did I… did we…?!' A few panicked seconds of wracking his brain failed to unearth any suppressed memories; the elder Saotome gathered his courage, sat up, and asked, "W-what's that supposed to mean?"

"Your little series of raids on all those post offices. I was most impressed," Yokehi explained. "You swept through them like a whirlwind, sowing chaos and anarchy in place of all that boring order. Just why did you do it, anyway? Did a postman give you offense?"

"No, I was looking for something. A letter that I shouldn't have sent," Genma explained, relief loosening his tongue.

Yokehi's smile broadened. Ruthlessness in looking out for himself and no hesitation at all in correcting a mistake he'd made… and a willingness to admit to her that he'd made a mistake! Her old love Tenma might be dead and gone, passed to dust centuries ago, but so far all the signs were pointing to his descendant Genma as a replacement even more satisfactory than the original! "Well, don't worry about that now," the sorceress purred. "Whatever annoying consequences that letter getting out would have had, I promise you they won't be troubling you now." Yokehi's eyes gleamed. "I'll take verrrry good care of you, my love."

"L-listen!" Genma sputtered, desperately thinking back to that night so many months ago when Happosai had unleashed this terrible, fearsome entity. "I'm not the man you think I am!"

"I know exactly who you are," Yokehi returned. "Genma Saotome, a master martial artist. You recently spent a month searching the wilds for a girl you thought was in trouble," an expression of mild distaste crossed her face at the memory of Genma's good deed, "but since she was your student and the daughter of your best friend I suppose that's all right. And of course," now she was smiling broadly again, "she rewarded you very handsomely indeed."

That level of familiarity with his private life struck Genma as perhaps the most ominous sign yet. So much so, in fact, that he really didn't feel up to considering the implications at the moment. "I… I thought you thought I was somebody else, that night all those months ago…."

"I did," Yokehi said quietly, looking away. "Tenma Saotome, your distant ancestor. He and I loved each other very much. But I ran afoul of another sorceress's curse, one that damaged the magics I used to keep myself young and beautiful. In order to restore them, I had to abandon my body, enchant one of my close personal items, and seal my spirit within it. My familiar, Pata, was to release me after ten years had passed and I had recovered," the sorceress grimaced bitterly, "but the same bitch who laid me low tracked her down and slaughtered her."

"Sorry, could you repeat part of that? You said you had to choose some item to seal your spirit in… and you picked a bra?!" Genma boggled. "Why?!"

Yokehi stared back at him in equal incomprehension. "Why not?"

After a long moment of silence, spent by Genma in trying to find an answer to that question, Yokehi spoke again. "Anyway, I now know better. It hasn't been ten years, it's been centuries. And you aren't Tenma." The sorceress lowered her eyelids, giving Genma a sultry look. "But you are quite like him, Genma dear." She slipped forward across several feet of the distance separating her from Genma. "A man of skill and strength, refreshingly free from the shackles of petty morality, yet nowhere near the kind of heartless monster for whom that is most usually true." Another move, even quicker this time, to counteract the fact that Genma was slowly edging backward. "Just the kind of man I'm looking for."

As his back thumped against a tree trunk, Genma decided that enough was enough. "But… I'm not! You can't! I'm already married!!"

"Oh, don't give me that cock and bull story." Despite her words, Yokehi's tone was light and playful, showing that she didn't really mean the censure. After all, this was more or less how her relationship with Tenma had begun. In fact, Genma's ancestor had been even more skittish than this, since fear of the supernatural had run deeper in his time. "When that young man introduced himself as your son, I scanned you. You haven't been with a woman in over thirteen years."

"That's because I was on a training journey, bringing my son up to his full potential as a martial artist!" Genma retorted desperately. "It was never meant to be permanent! I was planning to go back to Nodoka very soon!" At least, that had been the plan in between receiving Ranma's gift of Nannichuan water and learning that his son hadn't been able to avail himself of that cure. No need to go into quite that much detail now, though.

Yokehi just gave him an arch look and continued advancing. "To a woman who you left for that long? A woman you didn't even visit during that training journey? Bah, if you could abandon her like that, then there's nothing there I need concern myself about."

"That's not true," Genma said, finding a measure of backbone in the face of this slur. "I did what I did for the Art. I have no problem admitting that it is my first love. But Nodoka is my second! I've never betrayed her, and I won't start now!"

Yokehi sniffed derisively. With a hint of true annoyance she replied, "It's hardly a betrayal. There's nothing there to betray. Anyway, it would be much better for everyone concerned for you to reach out to someone who really appreciates you."

Genma's jaw squared. "I said I'm not doing it. I won't abandon my wife for the arms of another woman, and you can't make me!"

The sorceress stared blankly at him. "Of course I could," she said, her confusion at his statement plain to see. "Are you forgetting that I'm a sorceress?"

The elder Saotome's face paled, and he swallowed convulsively. "Um… err…."

Yokehi leaned forward, closing the last few inches that brought her into Genma's personal space. The soft cloth of her kimono flowed and roughened, becoming viridian scales. Her pupils extended up and down into serpentine slits. Her legs fused together, lengthening into a tail. "I can do quite a lot of things, Genma Saotome," she whispered, holding Genma's panicked gaze as a true serpent might that of a bird… a bird which was at the very top of the lunch menu. "Does that frighten you? Does this form strike you as more of a nightmare than a night-companion? Do you fear me, and what I can do, and who I can be?"

"Yes," he choked out, hoping it would be enough to finally kill whatever accursed fancy she'd taken to him.

The last thing the elder Saotome would have expected was what actually happened. Yokehi pulled back, an unmistakable expression of satisfaction on her face. "Now we're getting somewhere," the scaly sorceress pronounced.

"W-what do you mean?" Genma asked, more than a little afraid of what the answer might be.

"It's the same thing I had to go through with Tenma," she explained. "Your ancestor was as fearful of the unknown, of the supernatural, as any man might be. I had to work through that with him before we could come together. I had hoped I wouldn't have to bother with such a tiresome task again with you, but it's nothing I can't handle."

"Th-that's not it at all!" he protested. "I already told you, this is about Nodoka! About the family I already have!!"

Yokehi waved the excuse aside. "Whatever, dear."

"Are you sure you want to do this now, Ranma-kun?" Kodachi had heard the explanation, but it still felt a little strange to her. Although she personally didn't see a need to hurry to Genma's rescue with all frantic haste, part of her was still expecting her fiancé to feel exactly that way. But then again, the White Rose reminded herself, she'd been operating under a bit of a misconception last night. She had thought Ranma's anxiety and turmoil had been solely due to the thought of the reunion with his father, when in fact they had been primarily caused by belated realization of his own mistakes. It almost made her wish she'd taken a few moments to talk to him then, rather than just knocking on his door at midnight and slapping a sleep ward on his forehead as soon as he opened it.

"Yeah, it'd probably be for the best. It's not real far out of our way. And we know this stop won't take too long, but we don't know that about the one we'll be making at the Cat Café." Ranma shrugged. "Besides, I think I remember Kasumi usually does the shopping pretty early in the day. We should let her know as soon as possible not to expect my old man for lunch, and prob'ly not supper either."

Shampoo shrugged. "If Ranma say so." Without further ado, the trio headed down a side street, their path turning away from the route to the Nekohanten, bearing now toward the Tendo dojo.

A few minutes' brisk walking brought them to their destination. It felt mildly awkward to be admitted by Akane, rather than Kasumi, but Ranma didn't let it bother him. Really, wasn't it all water under the bridge by now?

The youngest Tendo favored him with a fierce stare. "If you're here for a challenge, you're supposed to use the rear door."

Ranma blinked. Hadn't his father ever managed to knock Akane's overconfidence out of her? "Ah, that's not why we're here. It's about my old man, actually."

Akane gave a grimace of resignation, and inclined her head. She'd been halfway expecting this, but the development was no more welcome for all that. In fact, strange though it seemed, she would rather the reason for this visit had been a challenge from a fighter she knew was way out of her league. "I understand."

"You do?" Kodachi asked, with more than a hint of disbelief in her tone.

"He's leaving here to go back to you, right, Ranma?" Akane took a deep breath. "I know you'll want to spend more time together now. Just… please tell him not to forget about my training, okay? I've still got so much to learn!"

'Is good thing Ranma not particularly care about all the changes he missed in Akane's life,' Shampoo mused, reflecting on the memories she'd gained from her beloved of the time he'd spent in this household. 'She maybe has not changed so much as Ranma, but for sure is more than Genma has.' In fact, it might be a good idea to tell her Great-Grandmother about this new, improved Akane. The Matriarch was always interested in shaping the development of strong women warriors, always on the lookout for those who could benefit the Amazon tribe, whether as new members or just as allies. Shampoo hadn't ever really thought of Akane in those terms before, but times change.

"Um, that's not what I'm here about," Ranma said. "The thing is, Pop and I ain't had a chance yet to talk about anything like that."

"Didn't he make it over to your place this morning?" Akane asked, confusion replacing disappointment.

"Yeah, for all of five minutes," he replied. "He was all nervous and jumpy, wanted me to hit the road with him for a training journey right then and there. We argued about it for a little bit, and then I guess what he was running from caught up with him."

"A woman blew her way through the door without bothering to open it," Kodachi explained, "knocked Genma unconscious through sheer force of either her will or his fear, and trapped the rest of us with a spell of binding." 'Spell of binding' — yes, that sounded much more dignified than a literal explanation of what had happened. The White Rose produced a quick painting she had done of Genma's abductor. There hadn't been sufficient time for any great detail, but enough was there to give the essence of Yokehi's appearance. "Is this the spirit that tried to make off with him that you and all the others fought several months ago?"

"Sh-she's still alive?" Akane gasped, staring at the image in certain recognition. "I thought Tatewaki's attack wiped her out!"

"Evidently my brother's strongest technique was insufficient to make a final end of this ghost." Something Kodachi hadn't really considered before now. A slight frown creasing her brow, she remarked, "That is an unpleasant development, to be sure."

"And you said she's come back now and kidnapped Mr. Saotome?!" Akane's jaw firmed. "Okay, let's go!"

"Excuse me? Let's go?" Shampoo repeated. "What you mean, us? We just came here to tell you why Genma would not be back too soon."

"Fine, you've done that. I'll leave Kasumi a note so she knows not to make triple portions for lunch." Akane stared stonily back at Shampoo. "Then we can go and rescue him!"

"Look, what's this 'we' business?" Ranma wanted to know. "Shampoo's right, we didn't come here to ask for help. Except for you confirming that this is the same ghost, anyway, for whatever that's worth. Thanks, but that's all we need. Now if you don't mind, we're kinda in a hurry."

"You're the one who's wasting time arguing," Akane snapped, "instead of just saying 'Thanks, we could use your help.' "

"That's cause we don't!" Ranma snapped back. "Look, Akane, in case you forgot, you didn't do too damn hot against this ghost before. I didn't come here asking for somebody to tag along and slow us down!"

The youngest Tendo forcibly restrained herself from the reaction she wanted to take. "Slow you down? Okay, hands up, everybody in the room who's fought a dragon and lived!" Akane's own hand shot ruthlessly skyward. "What, I'm the only one? Gee, how about that."

Ranma snorted. "Man, I can sure see Pop's taught ya how to make ridiculous boasts and look like you mean every word."

The only reason she didn't hit him at that point was because there was a more satisfying reaction available. Akane took off like a shot, returning almost as quickly, carrying a handful of glossy dark green objects. "These are the scales from the dragon that didn't manage to eat me, you egotistical jerk!" With some effort, she resisted the urge to throw them in his face.

Before Ranma could say anything in response, Shampoo touched his arm. "Airen, they is real," she said, with more than a touch of wonder. She could see the draconic aura still coiled within the scales, faint, and without much in the way of power… but undeniably real. And now that she was paying attention, there was a stronger hint of that in Akane herself, seeming to be mostly concentrated in one arm. "Shampoo think she is telling the truth."

"Of course I'm telling the truth!" Akane all but yelled.

The visitors were silent for a few moments. Eventually, though, Ranma spoke up. "Fine, I apologize for doubting you. Maybe you wouldn't hold us back after all. But…" his eyes hardened, and he spoke the next sentence with absolute, rock-hard certainty. "You still ain't coming with us, Akane."

"He's my sensei." The youngest Tendo retorted in clipped, cold tones that just barely managed to hold back the anger and hurt. "I don't care if you hate my guts, Ranma. I'd say I'm sorry if I thought it would help. But you owe me this! You don't have any right to keep me out of it!"

"Don't have any right?!" he yelled back. "How the hell can you say that?! Where's Pop been all this time, huh? Here… training you… he spent all that time on you, and left me out in the cold!

"And now, when I faced up to the old fool and asked him if he even cared anymore, when I got it through his head that yeah, it mattered to me that I hadn't seen him in so long, when he told me he was sorry and he was proud of me and he wanted to spend more time with me again, when he's in trouble and needs me to get him out of it, I get his student yellin' in my face and telling me I don't have any right not to count her in on the rescue?! Well, screw that, Akane! He's my father, and this time I'm gonna act like it!" He finished the diatribe, and stood there breathing heavily, though more to recover his temper than his wind.

Akane was trembling now — but it wasn't from anger. Her own temper had been snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane's blast. "Oh, Ranma," she breathed, through the light of dawning realization. "I'm sorry. I-I didn't think…" She swallowed hard, then continued, "You're right. I should sit this one out. Go ahead and rescue your dad."

"Thank you for understanding," Kodachi said, feeling a significant portion of the grudge she still carried toward Akane crumble to dust. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we shall take our leave."

"Okay… Wait!" Akane exclaimed, as a memory struck her. The trio turned back to face her. "I don't know if it will make any difference," she offered, "but that witch did say her name, back when she tried to kidnap Mr. Saotome the first time. It's Yokehi."

"Thank you, Akane," Ranma said quietly, struck by recollections of his own. Memories of the many stories Kodachi had read, and specifically of the power of a name… "That could help a lot."

The youngest Tendo forced a chuckle. "I would have liked to teach that stupid snake-lady a lesson myself." After the Orochi, Akane was quite certain something like Yokehi's alternate form would hold no more terrors for her. "But I guess this will have to do."

Nothing else was said between them until they reached the Nekohanten. Ranma in particular had plenty to occupy his thoughts, which alternated between the current situation with Genma and curiosity over just what Akane had been up to lately. A real dragon? Where would you find something like that these days, anyway? And what would be the best way to find out all those details without feeding Akane's apparently-still-too-large ego? Maybe his dad would know…

By the time the Cat Café came into view, the Saotome heir was more than ready to push these circling concerns aside. It was late enough in the morning that the restaurant was open for business, but the three were glad to see that not too many customers were there yet. While this was good news for Ranma and company, it was no particular stroke of fortune for Lung-Lung and Ling-Ling — it just meant that the Matriarch was able to work even more training than usual into their current waitressing stint.

Kodachi ducked, letting the bowl of ramen Ling-Ling had just thrown pass over her head, then twisted out of the way of the platter of dim sum Lung-Lung had tossed. Neither twin had directed her projectile toward her sister, and each had to frantically scurry into position to catch what the other had thrown. As soon as each girl caught her new burden she threw it again, on yet another seemingly-random trajectory. This time neither of them were directed toward the White Rose; seizing the opportunity, she dashed over to join Ranma and Shampoo, who had already recognized this training method and were sidling along the wall.

She kept one eye focused on the Amazons and their entrees, fairly confident that her current position meant they wouldn't be throwing anything her way, but not totally willing to bet on it. Three more passes resulted in the twins converging onto a particular table, each catching the thing the other had tossed one last time, and setting them down before a bemused customer with a bow. Kodachi blinked, realizing in that moment that the path the girls had woven throughout the room was roughly equivalent to the kanji character for "honor". Either that was part of the focus of this exercise, or one really absurd coincidence.

The White Rose broke from her musings to see that her companions, for whom that training exercise held no surprises, had taken the opportunity to hurry into the kitchen. She dashed along in their wake before Cologne could dish out another couple of orders.

"Good day, son-in-law, Shampoo," Cologne was saying, "…and you too, Kodachi." The Matriarch paused just for a moment, evaluating the turmoil in Ranma's aura and the faintest fading tinges of some foreign magic that still clung to the three of them. It looked like another interesting crisis had arisen. Three-hundred-plus years of skill and control allowed the ancient Amazon to suppress the broad smile that wanted to curve across her lips at the thought. Life in Nerima was so much more entertaining than all the boring duties she would have been facing back at home! "What can I do for you?"

"We're gonna need to use the Eye of Bastet again," Ranma replied. "An' the Nanban mirror too, probably. You did say this time you took it back here instead of leaving it at the village, right?"

"That's right, Ranma. But perhaps you wouldn't mind letting an old woman know just what's happened?"

"Could we go ahead and get started with the Eye first? It's kind of a long story and I don't really want to tell it all here in the kitchen."

"Certainly." Cologne bounced to the window that connected the kitchen with the dining room and called out, "Ling-Ling! Take over the cooking! Lung-Lung! Trace the word 'pride' with your next delivery path!" Ignoring the look of shock and trepidation that spread over the lime-haired girl's face, and turning a deaf ear to her protest of "<You want me to pass to myself?!>", the Matriarch headed out of the kitchen.

Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo followed her up the stairs and to the room that held Cologne's chest of treasures. The Matriarch opened said chest, retrieved the Eye, and passed it to her great-granddaughter. "Now, what exactly did you need it for this time?" she asked curiously. "Who are you searching for?"

"For Genma," Shampoo answered before Ranma could, speaking in a strange, contemplative sort of voice. "He just came back the other day. Today he come to our home to see Ranma, but he was kidnap right in front of us. Was taken by ghost witch. By ghost witch that have try this before." 'By ghost witch that have big crush on Genma and want to be too, too close to him.' "By ghost witch who now have him somewhere off all by the two of them, nobody else to interfere, nobody else to watch, at least that is what she thinks." Shampoo smiled sweetly and passed the Eye of Bastet back to Cologne. "Would Great-Grandmother please be the one to search them out? I not feeling up to it, actually." Not considering the kind of luck she'd had in the past with this artifact, anyway.

Cologne gave her great-granddaughter a strange look, wondering why she would have asked that. All the Matriarch could really determine was that Shampoo was quite serious about the request. Chalking up another question for the near future, she accepted the stone back and closed her eyes to invoke it.

"An excellent job of dodging the bullet, Shampoo, if I do say so myself," Kodachi congratulated her sister.

"Was not hard to see what stupid horny ghost had planned to do with him. No way in hell is Genma first Saotome man I will see naked," Shampoo returned, favoring her husband-to-be with a saucy smirk. Ranma gulped, his attention diverted for the moment from any thoughts of his father's plight.

"<Blast it all!>" The Matriarch's oath shocked him back to his senses. Three pairs of eyes riveted on Cologne, and fear settled in three stomachs to see her registering more anger — and worse, dismay — than they had ever seen.

Ranma found his voice first. "What, what's wrong, Granny?! Don't tell me something terrible happened to my old man?!" Given the way this Yokehi had acted toward Genma, his father's actual safety was the last thing he'd thought he had to worry about!

"I don't know, son-in-law. However, I seriously doubt it," Cologne added dryly, shaking off the worst of her negativity, and mentally berating herself for agreeing to take Shampoo's place without first discerning her great-granddaughter's reasons for hesitation. Kodachi's comment and Shampoo's reply had made those all too unpleasantly clear, but since the Matriarch had given her word, she'd gone ahead and taken the risk.

Her lavender-haired descendant needn't have bothered passing off this task, though. What Cologne had seen would have annoyed Shampoo, not revolted her. "This sorceress is apparently taking no chances with her newfound privacy. She has screened Genma quite thoroughly against scrying magic."

Her words were followed by a period of awkward silence. "So what does that mean, exactly?" Ranma eventually asked. "Don't tell me you aren't gonna be able to find him after all!"

"Not with this," Cologne said with another frown and a sigh. She returned the Eye to the chest, exchanging it for the Nanban mirror. "I'm going to have to go back home and ask for my great-granddaughter's aid in breaking through this witch's defenses."

The Matriarch paused, fixing Ranma with a piercing stare, then said soberly, "I won't offer you false reassurance, boy. I'm no mage myself, but I've picked up a good bit of the knowledge. Since we know your father's true name, Rouge will be able to eventually get a lock on him. But without any sort of hold on the sorceress who's hiding him, it could take months."

"MONTHS?!" Ranma squawked.

"Her name is Yokehi," Kodachi said, rather more calmly. "Or at least, that is a name she goes by."

"Ah, that's more like it," Cologne replied. "Don't hold me to it, but those two things together might be enough for Rouge to crumple this Yokehi's defenses like tinfoil."

"Let us hope so." Maybe it wasn't for her sake, but Shampoo's desire was no less fervent for all that. No way did she want this matter dragged out for much longer! Her Airen deserved far better than stress like that!

"Anyway, I'll go ahead and talk to my great-granddaughter," Cologne offered unenthusiastically. She started to raise the mirror to her face, then sent a piercing stare Ranma's way. "Are you sure about this, Ranma? After all, remember how little you appreciated it when your father tried to interfere in your love life. Don't you think it might be better to leave well enough alone?"

"You're joking, right?" Ranma asked flatly.

"Not at all. So what if you end up with a sorceress as a step-mother? Considering how weird your life already is, would it really be that big a deal?" Cologne paused for a long, hopeful moment, but found no crack in Ranma's expression of stony determination. "Oh, very well, son-in-law. The lengths I go to for family," she grumbled just loud enough for everyone to hear. "This will likely take awhile, so will the three of you please help Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung in the restaurant until I get back?" With no further ado, the Matriarch raised the Nanban mirror, concentrated for a second, then let a single tear fall to its surface.

"The lengths she's going to?" Ranma grumbled as the three of them walked down to fulfill Cologne's request. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Their great-grandmother might have been unenthusiastic about recent developments, but the same could not have been said of the twins. Ling-Ling was quite glad to relinquish her place in the kitchen to Shampoo, and both girls cheerfully accepted Kodachi's aid in waiting tables and Ranma's assumption of cleanup duty.

Business picked up shortly after that, but with five people working it was just busy enough to help keep Ranma from worrying too much. The lunch rush came and went. The last few straggling customers finished up and left, and then there wasn't much to do except brood. As fortune would have it, though, the Matriarch returned just a few minutes later.

As soon as he saw Cologne coming down the stairs, Ranma dropped the cloth he'd been using to wipe tables and zipped over to meet her. "So what now, Granny?" he asked. The Saotome heir had expected Rouge to come back with Cologne; her absence struck him as none too promising a sign. "What's the deal with finding Pop?"

"My great-granddaughter has set up a spell to pierce this sorceress's defenses. I'm sorry, Ranma, but it's going to take a little longer than we hoped. We'll have results in four days' time. This is as quickly as we can manage without running the risk of alerting our enemy to what we're doing."

"So what if we do alert her?!" Ranma wanted to know. "Couldn't we just break through, move in real fast, and take her down anyway?"

"No, we couldn't," Cologne returned. "The absolute minimum time for this spell to work would be two days, and rushing it like that would mean Yokehi would become aware of our efforts almost immediately. Give her two days to prepare or take her by surprise four days from now… I'm sure you can do the math for yourself, son-in-law."

Ranma gave a long, frustrated sigh, but didn't say anything. The Matriarch was right. That was one equation he could solve without even thinking about it.

"And Rouge was able to cast some general auguries, as well," Cologne continued. "She was able to confirm that Yokehi was not dissembling — she really does feel a deep, yearning desire for your father. Every indicator spell Rouge used showed that the sorceress is far more likely to squash someone or something that threatens Genma than to pose any sort of threat to him herself."

"That's good to hear," Kodachi said gratefully, giving Cologne a deep bow of respect. "Thank you for the reassurance, and for your efforts on our behalf."

"I'm afraid I'm going to need something more substantial than just that, Kodachi," the ancient Amazon replied. "Perhaps you noticed I wasn't very happy at the thought of going back and asking for Rouge's help? I knew very well that she would seize the opportunity when she had me over a barrel. I'm going to be spending most of my free time for the next week dealing with the duties that I usually foist off on her." The awareness of what she was getting herself into had been the reason Cologne hadn't needed an onion to shed a tear for the Mirror. "When I decide just what sort of compensation from you three is appropriate, rest assured I'll let you know."

Ling-Ling leaned back in her chair with a sight of contentment. "<It looks like last time wasn't just a fluke, huh?>"

"<Sure does,>" Lung-Lung replied, an equally contented smile on her face. The twins were seated at the table of a restaurant they'd stumbled across quite some time ago, back when they were scouring greater Tokyo for the Crepe King. Both girls had been very impressed by their experience with the Jade Blossom; the food had been of superb quality, the prices had been surprisingly low, and the service had been excellent. The only downside to eating here was the sheer distance that they had to travel from their normal stomping grounds in order to get to the restaurant.

Of course, a single favorable experience shouldn't be enough to set one's opinion in stone. The young Amazons had decided they needed at least one more under their belt, and so they'd come again today, taking advantage of the fact that Cologne was spending the day back at the village, and verifying that the quality of the place hadn't diminished since their last visit. As indeed it hadn't. The twins were winding down now, lingering over their desserts, cheerfully aware that the upcoming check for their combined meal would be half what they'd pay for this quality at many other places.

"<It'll be nice to come here with Ryu and his parents,>" Lung-Lung continued. That had been the main reason for coming back here today — to make sure that if they did bring their family-to-be here, that everyone would be favorably impressed. "<And Ukyo and Ryoga, too, if they want to come.>" They would make the offer, but even though they'd finally buried the hatchet for good and all with Ukyo, neither Amazon would be particularly surprised if their former competition declined. The Jade Blossom didn't serve okonomiyaki, after all.

"<Sure will be. When do you think we should ask them?>"

The lime-haired girl considered. There were still two days to go until Rouge's magics would overpower Yokehi's. "<Probably we should wait another four days or so. That'll give plenty of time to finish up this business with that ghost and have any victory feasts that anybody might want to throw to celebrate. But Great-Grandmother will still be jumping through hoops for Aunt Rouge, so we'll still have time free.>"

"<Sounds like a plan,>" Ling-Ling said. She returned her attention to her dessert.

A minute later, when the last crumbs had been devoured, she looked up again. Her sister still wasn't finished — in fact, she was staring across the room, all thoughts of her remaining food apparently gone for now. Ling-Ling sneaked one quick bite out of Lung-Lung's torte, then turned her own gaze toward whatever had captured her sister's attention so thoroughly.

There wasn't much to see, just a woman sitting by herself at a corner table. She had apparently just sat down, as she was still studying the menu and had not yet been brought anything to drink. At first glance she was just another Japanese woman, if one with a bit of an odd hair color, dressed in an old but high-quality kimono. However… Ling-Ling's brow furrowed. There was something… some hint of familiarity… had she seen this woman before? Surely she must have to get such a feeling as this. But for the life of her she couldn't think of when it might have happened.

"<Do you recognize her?>" she asked her sister, hoping for but not expecting a solution. "<I could swear I've seen her face somewhere, but I can't think of anything more than that.>"

"<No, me neither. And it's annoying,>" Lung-Lung complained. "<I'm pretty sure this is more than just someone we randomly delivered an order to once. But I can't remember anything more than that.>"

"<Hmmm…>" Her sister's words had seemed to shake something slightly loose in Ling-Ling's head. "<Maybe we haven't seen her face-to-face. It feels more like… a picture, or the television?>"

"<You're right,>" Lung-Lung said, her eyes widening with realization. "<I think it was something like that.>" And if this woman had been on the news somewhere… Lung-Lung spent a quick moment reflecting on just how much trouble you had to get into before the Nerima news services felt it was worth reporting, then got to her feet. "<Come on, let's go talk to her.>"

"<Okay.>" Ling-Ling followed her sister, thinking again how fortunate it was that Great-Grandmother wasn't around to ride herd on them. She and her sister had had enough lessons in Japanese culture to realize just how badly what they were now doing went against the grain. But since 1) Ryu wasn't around to be spooked by their faux pas and 2) the Matriarch wasn't there to hand out a couple of swats, she cheerfully ignored that knowledge.

"Good afternoon," Lung-Lung said with a big smile as she drew near the woman. "This maybe sound strange, but has we ever met before?"

Nodoka offered an uncertain smile of her own. "Ah… I don't believe so. I don't know many people from China." And yet… the Saotome matron blinked, realizing that the sight of these girls actually was striking some faint chord within her. "My name is Nodoka Saotome. May I ask what yours are?"

'Nodoka… Nodoka Saotome….' Ling-Ling turned the name over in her mind, while at the same time reflecting sourly on the irritating Japanese custom of using too many names that were too long and too complicated anyway. She could almost swear she'd heard "Saotome" somewhere, or maybe just something similar, but "Nodoka" wasn't ringing any bells at all.

"I am Lung-Lung. This is sister Ling-Ling," the lime-haired girl replied. Like her sister, she thought she'd heard "Saotome" before, but couldn't be sure. Especially considering how she'd gone for two weeks thinking her Airen-to-be's family name was Hibachi. "Has you ever had picture in paper, or on TV, or something like that?"

"No, I don't believe so," Nodoka answered, puzzled at the question. "Why do you ask?"

"Because that what I thought I remember, from seeing your face. Can not remember just where, Ling-Ling neither, and is really bothering us. That why we came over to talk, to hope we could figure out."

Nodoka's eyes widened, the mention of the television supplying a belated realization as to just what these girls were reminding her of. "You… What area of China do you girls come from?" she asked, curiosity and years of loneliness overcoming her traditional Japanese restraint. "Is it perhaps near the Bayankhala mountains?"

"Mm-hm," Ling-Ling answered. "Well, actually is in the mountains, not near. We is proud Amazon warriors of Joketsuzoku."

"That is what I was thinking of!" the older woman said, smiling more widely now. "I saw a special on the television some time ago, that talked about your people." She was surprised it had taken her this long to make the connection; it should have been obvious as soon as she saw two Chinese girls with outlandish hair colors carrying weapons in plain sight. One last vestige of restraint held her back for a moment, and then snapped under the weight of an opportunity for company. Those had been all too painfully rare for far too long…. "Won't you sit down? I would enjoy hearing more about your village."

"Would be glad to," Lung-Lung said, setting her trident against the table, pulling out a chair, and sitting down. "What would you like to hear?"

Before Nodoka could say anything, a waiter materialized next to the table, inquiring whether the Amazon twins were ready for their check, or did they require something more? Ling-Ling indicated that they were fine, paid the man, and waved him away.

However, this break in the momentum had allowed Nodoka to realize that things were currently shaping up to be rather awkward. She had yet to order anything, and her guests had already finished. It simply wouldn't do to interrupt their talk with a meal if she were the only one eating. The Saotome matron hesitated for a moment, considering her options, then said, "Would you like to come over to my house for tea? It's not far from here."

"We would be glad to," Lung-Lung said firmly. So far this lady seemed nice enough, but until she was completely sure that "Nodoka Saotome" wasn't really some terrorist or mass-murderer she wasn't going to let the woman out of her sight. "But did you not want to order something for self?"

"I'll probably just come back for dinner," Nodoka reassured her. She signaled a waiter and told him that she had changed her mind about eating now, gathered up the long, cloth-wrapped bundle that rested beside her at the table, and led the way out of the restaurant.

Nodoka hadn't been kidding about her house not being far away, the twins reflected. It had only taken them ten minutes to get here, even moving as slowly as Nodoka's kimono forced her to go. The Amazons had barely scratched the surface of their culture so far; they'd spent most of the time correcting misconceptions that had come from the television documentary Nodoka had watched. Lung-Lung, who had actually been in the village when the thing was filmed, suspected that the reporter had worked those things in on purpose, as a form of revenge on the Amazon who'd claimed one of his cameramen as her new husband.

"Is for sure not true we use drugs to break people's minds and take away free will so they do what we want!" Ling-Ling was saying as the three entered the lane that held Nodoka's home. "There is secret technique that can do something like that, but is punishment used only for people who commit really, really bad crimes with no remorse. Other lands have to kill or cage people like that, but Amazon wisdom mean we can take away dangerous, dishonorable part of them and let them live useful, even happy life."

"What sort of secret technique?" Nodoka asked curiously. "Do you mean a martial arts technique?" Genma had certainly showed her some amazing things, all those many years ago.

Ling-Ling shrugged. "I not know whether to say yes or no. When you go high enough, is hard to say something is just part of martial arts. Like secret techniques me and Lung-Lung do. We use as part of fighting style, but is principle that could be apply in many other ways too."

Making a mental note to ask them for further details later, and realizing that they'd reached their destination, Nodoka turned and led them over to her house, pausing only to retrieve the mail from her mailbox. "Welcome to my home."

The twins eyed the area speculatively as they removed their shoes and followed Nodoka inside. It seemed much like her kimono — of high quality and well cared for, but quite old. Not that two girls with three thousand years of Amazon history at their backs had any problem with that.

Nodoka led them further into the house, settled them down in the living room, and headed off to get her tea set, the sheaf of letters still clutched absently in one hand. Ling-Ling had just started to hiss a question under her breath to Lung-Lung, wanting to know whether she'd had any more luck remembering where they'd seen Nodoka before, when a fierce gasp echoed throughout the house. Both girls shot to their feet and dashed from the room, finding their hostess staring down at one unopened letter, swaying like a willow in the wind.

"Is you okay?" Lung-Lung asked anxiously, hurrying forward to catch the older woman if she fell.

The Saotome matron didn't hear a word of the question. "Genma… Ranma!" she breathed, staring down at the envelope for one instant longer, then ripping into it with the ferocity of a Tasmanian devil.

Behind her, Lung-Lung and Ling-Ling swayed like a couple of pussywillows in the wind.

Ling-Ling was the first to recover. Nodoka… Saotome! The picture she'd seen! This was… but how could it be… Ranma's mother?!

"<Big Sister Shampoo's got a lot of explaining to do,>" the cherry-haired girl muttered under her breath.

The train hummed as it sped along its rails, carrying them quickly along, yet not quickly enough. The papers rustled in Nodoka's hands. The words blurred as her eyes tracked over them, no longer really registering the printed symbols — she'd read, and reread, the letter Genma had sent. And then she'd read it again, and again. She knew where to find her son and husband now, and she had learned at least some things about Ranma's recent life. Such details as Genma had included were reassuring… but they served more as teasers, appetizers to whet her hunger rather than sate it.

The texture of the paper in her hands, still fresh and crinkling, contrasted with another paper she carried on her person. That one was old, faded and brittle. It had featured in as many dreams as had this message that heralded the return of her family… but those had been nightmares, terrible visions in which Genma failed utterly, bringing back a son with no concept of manliness or of honor, a broken sword rather than the perfect gleaming blade her husband had set out to forge. Someone who gave Nodoka no choice save the one that she'd feared for longer than the girls who sat across from her had been alive.

Ling-Ling stared curiously at Nodoka, wondering what the Japanese woman was thinking. It was probably just as well that the Amazon didn't realize Ranma's mother had pegged her and her sister as a couple of ten-year-olds.

"Would like to hear about Ranma?" she offered, tiring of the silence that had stretched for so long now. It didn't look like her new acquaintance was really reading that letter any more, just shuffling the pages absently through her hands. "Is for sure no way Ranma's father put all his adventures into even letter that long."

It took a few seconds for the offer to register with Nodoka; when it did, her head snapped up and her eyes locked on Ling-Ling's with force enough to make the cherry-haired girl jump. "Do you know my son?!"

"Mm-hm," Lung-Lung answered, a puzzled look on her face. "You not hear us when we realize you his mother? We live near Ranma, see him all the time. You go to see him, we come with you, we are going back home anyway. Why you think we still with you now?"

Since there wasn't a polite way to say that Nodoka hadn't thought it was important enough to wonder about, the Japanese woman pretended not to hear the question. "Please, do tell me anything you can about my son! Is he…" she took a deep breath, clenched one hand on the cloth-covered sheath of the Saotome honor blade for courage, and continued, "…is he manly?"

"What 'manly' mean?" Ling-Ling asked, feeling a moment's frustration at how far she still had to go in mastering her Airen's language, and deciding that one of these days Ryu was darn well going to learn Mandarin.

"It means a man who exhibits all the best qualities of men, an honorable, brave, kind, strong, handsome, virile man, someone who stands head and shoulders above the common folk and serves as an example for them to strive toward."

" 'Manly' mean all that?!" Lung-Lung wanted to know.

Nodoka blinked. "Oh, sorry. That last part was 'man among men'."

Ling-Ling hesitated for a moment, wondering whether she dared ask for a definition of "virile". Deciding that Nodoka's explanations had already made her dizzy enough, she answered, "Not sure how to answer. Is what you want to know, would Ranma be good husband?"

"That will do for a start," Nodoka replied.

Pleased at having something to answer that she understood, Ling-Ling smiled and replied, "Yes. He is very good catch, any Amazon who have normal taste for men would think so." At that point a light bulb went off; she said, "Maybe now I get what you mean. Most Amazon womans want husband who is strong and brave and skilled, not wimp who let wife make all decisions, and not man either who not have heart to be warrior. Sound like 'manly' means 'kind of husband most Amazons want'?"

"I think so," Nodoka endorsed cautiously. "Would you say that is true of Ranma?"

"Of course so!" Lung-Lung reassured her. "If he was not already taken, we would have go after him ourselves."

Nodoka's eyes widened slightly, but she managed to control her reaction beyond that. "Ah… forgive me if this is a rude question, but… how old are you?"

"Fourteen years old," Lung-Lung replied, her smile becoming a bit strained.

"I see." Realizing that such matters weren't really that important, except insofar as they reflected on these girls' ability to accurately judge her son, Nodoka put the conversation back on track. "So Ranma is a good catch by Amazon standards? How many other girls do you know who have thought so?"

"Was too, too many to count last month, when we go on visit back to Amazon village," Ling-Ling answered. "Ranma and Big Sister Shampoo and Kodachi had to fight other girls off whole time they were there just to get peace to themselves."

After a long moment of silence, Nodoka asked, "Who is Shampoo?"

The twins stared back at her in disbelief. "It not say in letter?"

"No. Genma told me of Miss Kuno and Ranma's relationship to her, but that is all."

"Stupid panda," Lung-Lung grumbled under her breath. "He not think Amazons matter enough to talk about?" Louder, she said, "Lung-Lung not mean offense, but Genma have no idea how to write good letter. Big Sister Shampoo is Ranma's other Airen… uh, wife-to-be. She is Champion of Amazons, great-granddaughter of Matriarch, is just as good match as Kuno daughter! And half Ranma's heart belong to her, just like other half to Kodachi! Be sure and tell stupid father of Ranma he need to work on letter-writing skills."

Nodoka was too off-balance to take any offense, not that she would have anyway. Those skills were hardly ones that she would expect of Genma or Ranma. "Ah… you mean… my son… he intends to…" Finding herself unable to put it into words just yet, and realizing that this was the second time these girls had mentioned something about multiple women pursuing the same man, she asked, "Is it common among Amazons for one man to have several wives?"

"Not common, exactly," Ling-Ling answered. "Happens only for man who is such good catch that womans willing to share him with others in order to be with him. Like our Airen," she added with a big smile. "Make for big families, many strong children from man who show he good enough that Amazons do want many of his kids to add to strength of tribe."

The Saotome matriarch was still feeling rather dazed by this recent revelation… but at Ling-Ling's words a significant portion of that tumult morphed into hopeful happiness.

Eventually (to the part of Nodoka that was paying attention, it seemed to take years), the train arrived at their stop. The Saotome matron and the Amazon twins disembarked, and Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung took point, leading their companion through the streets of Nerima. The girls continued relating what stories they could of Ranma's life and the challenges he'd faced, wracking their memories for every last detail they could come up with. Most of what they told her came secondhand from stories they'd heard from Shampoo. Ling-Ling suspected that, given the source, those stories (in which Ranma usually managed to come off looking pretty much like what Nodoka had said "man among men" meant) might be a bit exaggerated, but she shrugged off such concerns. Nodoka hadn't laid eyes on her son in well over a decade, and now that she was finally on her way to end that long separation, the woman's eagerness and anticipation were plain to see. A little exaggeration at this point wasn't likely to get her hopes any higher than they already were. And anyway, it wasn't as if lives were at stake or anything.

With that comforting thought, she continued filling Nodoka in on everything she could remember, alternating turns with Lung-Lung. However, wrack their brains though they might, the twins ran out of new material roughly halfway between the train station and the Kuno mansion. Even though Nodoka was so plainly eager to see her son, the kimono she wore still constricted her to a slow walk. As the silence stretched, Lung-Lung wondered why the woman hadn't taken a taxicab. They were fairly uncommon in Nerima, but there had been one sitting idle at the train station. Neither Amazon had pointed it out; they were in the Matriarch's home territory now, she always seemed to find out anything important that occurred around here, and they knew what Cologne would have to say about Amazons getting too dependent on the luxuries of technology. Still, Lung-Lung thought impatiently, it might have been worth the risk.

If she could have glimpsed inside her older companion's mind, though, the lime-haired girl might have found reason to curb her impatience. While Nodoka's foot pace was roughly that of a turtle in a hurry, her mind was whirring with such speed that her average velocity was really quite high.

She no longer needed to look at the letter to review its contents. They whirled through her mind now, feeling more like a flock of geese than a solid stream of information. Discrete facts, highlights, fragmentary pieces rather than the whole itself. And those missing pieces… those things Genma had left out….

Nodoka allowed herself one bright, hopeful smile. It was quite reassuring, all the wonderful things Genma hadn't seen fit to include in his letter.

She had had her worries through the years. Lately, during this unusually long period with no letters or postcards from her husband, those worries had been growing larger and larger. They had always been there in the back of her mind, squatting like some demon-toad swelling larger and larger with poison. This letter had served as quite a large needle, jabbing that dark wall of worry, holing it, letting the venom begin to seep out. But the stories her new Amazon acquaintances had told her went far beyond that; if Genma's missive was a spike through the darkness then their testimony had been a hail of shrapnel, rending it into tatters.

It wasn't just the reassurance about Ranma that she'd gotten from the twins. Not as such. It was the fact that Genma hadn't seen it as necessary to tell her all these good things ahead of time, that he hadn't used the letter to get her favorably predisposed before ever meeting her son in person. That could mean only one thing: that her husband was so confident, so assured that he had done his job and done it well, so certain that he had truly fulfilled his honor-bound oath, that he hadn't needed any such hedging of his bets. He had left so many of the best things as pleasant surprises for his wife, rather than revealing them all ahead of time.

Nodoka blinked as she followed that thought to its logical conclusion, then spent a few moments feeling guilty over having spoiled the surprise. Even as a little girl she had never snuck around looking for presents before they were wrapped. It was a little disheartening to realize she'd tarnished her perfect record.

But such thoughts failed to grip her for long. Her family would be reunited at last! She was finally going to meet her son! And every sign showed that he would be more than enough of a man to let her rid herself forever of this terrible promise, the oath that had weighed against her heart, mind, and soul for so long. She had more than half a mind to pull the paper out now and rip it to shreds!

But no, Nodoka reminded herself, pushing away the excitement with great difficulty. As hard as the dictates of honor might be, as heavy as duty might weigh upon her, she could not forget her own obligations. Genma had given his solemn word, and she had accepted it. No matter how terrible the thought of invoking that promise might be, or how unlikely the necessity now seemed, she still could not honorably use the Saotome blade to turn it into so much confetti. Not yet, no matter how much she wanted to. She contented herself with the thought that with everything she'd learned today, surely there was no need to worry about the judgment she would shortly have to pass.

That thought even managed to keep her content for all of two blocks' distance.

Shortly after that, the nagging doubts began to whisper again. They were much less forceful now than they had been in the long, still, lonely watches of the night, but then again Nodoka's fortitude was also dramatically diminished at present. The speed with which things had changed had just not given her a chance to catch herself yet. In time, no doubt, she would find that place of balance again, but Nodoka would burn her best kimono before she would put off this meeting!

Brave sentiments, to be sure, but it didn't much help to stop the sour whispers in the back of her mind. What if Genma had failed? What if Ranma had failed? Or — worst of all — what if she failed? That was the one that had hurt the most over the years. Other fears had the power to call down nightmares and trouble her slumber, but when this one arose (and she kept it pinned down and battened away as tightly as she could, but arise it continued to do) it would banish sleep entirely. Sometimes for more than one night.

What if she judged wrongly? Oh, not that she should err on the side of leniency — that thought had no power to twist her guts with nausea. No, the deepest, darkest fear was that she might see something, might take something the wrong way or just not get all the facts, might feel she had to declare that Genma and Ranma had failed, had failed badly enough to force her to invoke her husband's sworn oath and finally end her family forever… and then, too late, learn what she had missed or misinterpreted, realize that honor had not after all forced her to such an extreme, but only her own terrible mistake.

It was the worst fear, Nodoka believed, that she could ever face. It made her fingers positively itch to rip the cloth from her katana, whip the blade out of its sheath, and do her best to reduce a particular sheet of paper to its component atoms.

Now, as always, she was stopped by the inescapable fact that doing so would simply be too great a transgression against the bounds of honor. There just was no way out of that… No matter how the fear should rise up to choke—

Nodoka came to a dead stop, her eyes widening with astonishment, a gasp catching in her throat. An idea had just slipped into her mind with all the subtlety of a direct meteorite strike. She stood there, not daring to move, not even daring to breathe, examining it from all angles. It might be playing a little fast and loose with things, but did it cross the line into dishonor?

No, she was satisfied after a few frantic moments of thought. Not even close.

The root and heart of the matter was the fact that Ranma's manliness was no longer just the concern of his own family. Or rather, not of what had been his family when the promise was made. This situation didn't just concern Genma, Ranma, and herself any longer; there were two young ladies (one of them the daughter of very famous, very wealthy samurai nobility and the other some sort of barbarian royalty) and their own immediate families that were intimately wrapped up in it as well.

Could she, in good conscience, even think about depriving Ranma's two wives-to-be of the love of their life? Well, yes and no. Even a matter as weighty as her son's two fiancées couldn't overrule the promise Genma had made to her… but Nodoka didn't think she could honorably make any sort of judgment call without taking Kodachi's and Shampoo's own judgments into account.

It was settled then. Judging from her young companions' stories, the chances were slim to nonexistent that when she met her son neither Kodachi nor Shampoo would be present. She would simply hand the promise over to one of them for safekeeping. Preferably Kodachi; as the representative of all that was best in Japanese young womanhood she would surely understand more readily than Shampoo, but either would do in a pinch.

Nodoka drew one deep breath of satisfaction, then began moving again, taking her steps as quickly as decorum allowed. Her guides hadn't yet noticed that she had stopped for a time, which was a relief. On this day of days, she had no wish even to inconvenience anybody, let alone do anything worse. Nodoka smiled broadly, feeling at least one fear that had plagued her for so long fall away, imagining it plunging down a chasm to shatter on the rocks far below.

As great as Nodoka's eagerness to see her son was, it still wasn't enough to make her run. And likewise, her first sight of the Kuno mansion in all its sprawling glory didn't cause her pace to falter.

However, the Saotome matron was conscious of a further increase in the tendency of her knees to tremble. To think she had once been so impressed by the samurai lineage of Genma's old friend Soun Tendo! Joining her family to one such as this… Well, all Nodoka had to say was that when she finally saw her husband again, she would have to make very sure to show him her approval and appreciation.

Unfortunately, on entering the mansion, she found that Ranma and his fiancées had gone out for lunch. Ling-Ling suggested a tour of the grounds while they waited for their return, but on questioning the servant further and finding that Ranma was expected back any time now, Nodoka decided it could wait. She settled herself down to await her son's return, ironically enough in the same room where that son had done his own waiting for a family member only a couple of days ago.

After exchanging awkward glances and shrugs, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung sat down to wait with her. It didn't seem right to just slip off and leave Nodoka alone like this. Lung-Lung tried to help pass the time along by talking about Shampoo and Kodachi, but it quickly became apparent that their companion was just too wound-up to engage in a conversation like that at the moment. The twins lapsed into silence, their thoughts running parallel with Nodoka's even if their emotions were nowhere near so fervent, all three wishing silently for their wait to finally end, each one straining for the first sound that would announce the prodigal's return.

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were the product of a warrior society, each trained since she could walk to hone her body and mind to a keen edge literally unfathomable to most of the world. Therefore, when Nodoka's head snapped around, her gaze riveting on the door and her body tensing, the young Amazons dismissed it as wishful thinking. Neither of them had heard anything, after all. And yet only a moment later the doorknob turned, and the door swung inward, and Ling-Ling gave quiet thanks once again for the fact that the Matriarch was currently nowhere nearby.

Nodoka gulped, struggling to breathe. Time seemed to be stretching most unpleasantly, these last few seconds extending like taffy being pulled to a dozen times its original length. Would this be her son, or just some other visitor? She pulled back into her mind every last detail concerning Ranma's appearance that the twins had shared with her, attempting through sheer force of will to ensure that it would indeed be her son, her young man among men, who was on the other side of that portal. And then… he was through the doorway… time was moving quickly again, even more quickly than usual… Nodoka's eyes swept over his muscular warrior's build, over the casual, combat-ready clothes, over the black hair… and a massive wave of relief and joy swept over her. Her son was here at last! "Oh, Ranma, I've missed you so much!" she cried, darting forward.

"<How about that,>" Ling-Ling snickered. "<She can move fast in that thing after all.>"

"<Yep.>" Lung-Lung put a hand over her mouth, muffling a few chortles of her own. "<I'm disappointed, though. Look how he's just standing there all shell-shocked, just because somebody came racing up and grabbed him in a hug.>"

"<I know what you mean. Obviously he needs more experience with that.>" Ling-Ling sent a long, sultry look toward Ryu, though keeping it from dissolving into a fit of the giggles was probably the hardest thing she'd done all day. Her Airen was completely stunned, staring at this apparent madwoman who'd latched onto him and was now babbling about what a long time it had been and how wonderful he'd obviously turned out to be.

Curiously enough, it was the sight of the twins standing there and snickering that started Ryu on the road to recovery. Having at least one possible explanation for this — that he was currently the butt of a practical joke — was far less confusing than no explanation at all. Maybe that wasn't what was going on, but the possibility was enough to get Ryu's brain more or less in gear. "Ah… excuse me, ma'am… I don't…?"

Nodoka barely even registered the fact that he was speaking. She certainly didn't pay any attention to the words. Nonetheless, Ryu's action was enough to shake her out of the welcoming-hug stage into the subsequent pull-back-and-get-a-good-long-look phase. "Let me look at you! Oh, you're so handsome, R—?!"

That was the sound of her mind skipping like a CD in an earthquake, as the sight of the dragon tattoos coiled along her "son's" forearms finally registered.

Ryu, meanwhile, was trying to figure out what to say next. A little difficult to know just where to begin, given the fact that the crazy lady had just let go and staggered backward, turning as pale as Kodachi in the process. None of this was making any sense at all!

Just as it dawned on him that results might be achieved by asking Ling-Ling or Lung-Lung what the heck was going on, Nodoka unfroze. Her hands were trembling, but manic strength more than compensated for that. Holding onto the cloth-covered sheath of the Saotome honor blade usually gave her a sense of comfort and stability, but in a situation this bad that just wouldn't cut it. She needed naked steel out in front of her, and she needed it now!

In one deft movement Nodoka ripped the blade from its confines, drawing the sword in a flash of desperate need. Sheer emotion gave her the strength to break the ties that secured the blade without even noticing. Unfortunately, said emotion in no way made up for her utter lack of skill and basic clumsiness, and as a result the hilt slipped right out of her grasp. Even as the sword cleared its sheath it was airborne, spinning away backwards over Nodoka's shoulder, to lodge itself in the ceiling several yards away. Nodoka turned and stared mournfully after it, realizing that she was going to have to get through this without her security blanket… er, blade.

She screwed up what courage she could, turned back around, and blurted out, "How?! How could you do this to me?! My only son, my own flesh and blood, a member of the Yakuza?! Have you no honor at all?!"

"WHAT?!" Ryu exploded. Politeness could go hang itself, this craziness had gone far enough! "Lady, what the heck are you talking about?! Your son?! I'm Ryu Hibiki, and I've never seen you before in my life! And I'll have you know I deliberately designed these things not to be a pattern the Yaks would use!!"

"Is so," Ling-Ling assured Nodoka, the situation not seeming quite so funny after the way the woman had whipped out that sword. Still, Nodoka hadn't seemed angry, only shocked and saddened at what she thought she'd seen. Maybe she had believed she needed to defend herself or something. "This not Ranma. He is our Airen, Ryu." The cherry-haired girl allowed herself a bit of impoliteness then, and fixed Nodoka with a glare. "Remember we tell you? Ranma wears hair in pigtail."

"I just thought he must have had a haircut this morning," Nodoka answered absently, staring intensely at Ryu. Then, finally realizing that eye color didn't match either, she let out a long sigh of relief. "My apologies, young man. Please forgive me for my rudeness." She glanced at the tattoos again, this time with no hint of aversion or condemnation. "You have the right to make whatever decisions you like with your life, of course," she said with a bow and another apologetic smile.

Ryu just spluttered, trying to find something intelligent to say. Ling-Ling, snickering again, moved over beside him; Lung-Lung abandoned her guard position between Nodoka and the katana and joined the two at her Airen's other side. "No worry, Ryu," she whispered, resting her head on his shoulder. "We know what good man you is."

"Ling-Ling be sure to do something to make up for this to you. Something extra nice," the redhead said with a wink, "some night soon."

"Excuse me," Nodoka said politely, interrupting the moment, and earning a curious mixture of relief and further aggravation from Ryu. "Could you please help me retrieve my sword, young man?"

Once again, Kodachi extended her awareness along the Heart Link, and felt the same basic thing as she had every other time she'd done that this afternoon. Her smile grew just a little bit wider. There was a hint of frustration and eagerness lurking in her fiancé's psyche, but it was just that — one tiny discordant note, rather than a serious block of anxiety. Considering that the main idea behind the three of them getting out this afternoon had been to keep Ranma busy, happy, and not worrying about his father, the White Rose was pleasantly conscious of a job well done.

They were nearly home now, but that didn't mean she or Shampoo would be relaxing just yet. It had been a while since both girls had sparred with Ranma at the same time. Kodachi planned to change that once they were back in the mansion. She was quite looking forward to it, feeling confident that this once, at least, she and Shampoo would win the match fairly easily. Ranma was accustomed to defending himself from the occasional shiatsu attack from Shampoo, but Kodachi had never really gotten around to learning any points other than the two she'd picked up from his memories. However, unbeknownst to Ranma, Shampoo had showed her quite a few interesting pressure points the other day. It would probably only work once, but she was confident that this time when her fiancé did his usual trick of first striking to disarm her, it would backfire on him quite satisfactorily. Kodachi couldn't wait to see the look on his face, when he used his typical tactic and she deliberately sacrificed her grip on her club or ribbon or whatever to launch her own empty-handed precision strike.

She was still trying to decide whether to use the Tarantallegra or the Rictusempra point as the three of them entered the front door.

Ranma didn't notice the people waiting in the room quite as quickly as he might have done; he was a bit distracted by the distinct sensation of anticipated mischief he was sensing from Kodachi. All three of them were well into the room before Ranma's eyes locked on one particular figure and his knees froze solid.

It was nowhere near a photorealistic resemblance. That kind of detail was very difficult when painting on silk, and anyway Kodachi hadn't wanted to take that long in creating her gift to her then-boyfriend. Not to mention the fact that the White Rose had been working from a recovered memory more than a decade old.

Despite all this, Ranma knew in a heartbeat just where he'd last seen this woman's likeness. The picture Kodachi had painted for him after the Heart Link, the single most precious physical possession anyone had ever given him — the image of his mother.

"M-Mom?!" The whisper escaped without any conscious thought.

Nodoka was already moving, her lingering embarrassment over the misunderstanding with Ryu already forgotten. This was her son! And even though they'd been apart for so long, he'd recognized her immediately! Nodoka darted forward once again, as all her heart and mind cried out with gladness over this long-anticipated reunion!

Well, all her heart, almost all her mind. At the last minute she swerved to the side, pulled a sheet of old, fragile paper covered with faded writing out of her kimono, and handed it to Kodachi with a briskly-stated, "Here, take this. It's yours now." Only then did she whirl back and grab her son in the embrace she'd dreamed of for so long.

The act didn't even register with the White Rose just then. Like Ranma, like Shampoo, she knew very well who this must be. But how? How could it be?! Her image wasn't the only forgotten memory regarding Nodoka that had been recovered through the Heart Link. She had seen one as well that answered — or seemed to answer, anyway — the question of just what had happened to Ranma's mother. It had been several years into the training trip, as she recalled. The season was winter, and Ranma and Genma were slogging through the wilderness en route to a monastery that young Ranma suspected was only a figment of his father's imagination. As children often do, he had let his father know full well that he didn't like what was going on. Not one little bit.

"Can't we stop for a while?" young Ranma whined. "I'm cold an' I'm tired an' I'm hungry. An' there's too many stupid trees anyway. You outta cut up a few of them for a fire, Pop."

"Quit complaining, Ranma," Genma growled. "We're almost there. And we don't have any food anyway, so what would be the point of a fire?"

"So catch us a bear or something," Ranma grumbled, but half-heartedly. He was beginning to wonder whether those stories Pop told of taking down wild animals with only his own skills were really true. Maybe they were just more tall tales like the ones his old man told when he wanted Ranma to push forward with some crazy training method, about how terrible his Master had been and what terrible trials he'd undergone in his younger days. Young Ranma didn't have much other than his Pop's words to go by in his life, but he still knew better than to believe all that stuff about how much better he had it than his father had.

"If there were anything larger than a squirrel nearby I'd have done that already. Now quit whining; you sound like a girl! A real man wouldn't think twice about a silly little hike like this!"

"Yeah, he'd be smart enough not to go on it at all," Ranma muttered. "Bet Mom would knock your block off if she knew you were draggin' me around like this."

He'd spoken quietly, but not quietly enough. Genma came to a dead halt, standing frozen in the snow for a heartbeat. Then the elder Saotome whirled, turning back to face his son with an intense expression far removed from the casual dismissal of a few moments' prior. Ranma stopped as well, feeling more than a little fear at his father's sudden change of demeanor.

"Listen to me, boy," Genma said hoarsely. Ranma could hear no trace of anger at all in his father's voice, nor see anything like that in his eyes. In a way, that scared him even more. He knew he had been pushing his luck, goading his old man's frustration higher, but no trace of that could be seen now. It didn't make any sense, didn't fit any pattern he understood, and so he did the only thing he could think to do: stood there and listened as requested, with plenty of frightened intensity of his own.

"Listen," his father repeated. "Do you know the last thing your mother asked of me before we left, Ranma? She wanted me to make you into a strong man, someone she could be proud of. Not a little girl who starts crying and sniffling just because she had to walk through a bit of snow! Never mind me, think about her. What if she was watching you right now? Think of that, boy, think of your mother's eyes on you right now. How much would it hurt her to see her only son making such a big deal over such a small thing?!"

Ranma didn't know what to say, couldn't think of how to respond. That desperate, pleading look in his father's eyes hurt! And the words were just as bad! At last, he mumbled something along the lines of an apology, pushed past his father, and started moving again.

Behind him (which of course meant that this would be no part of his son's memory), Genma smiled. It was never too early to start cluing Ranma in on how high his mother's hopes were going to be when they finally went back to her.

After this episode, Kodachi recalled, Ranma would never again mention his mother around Genma. Eventually all thought of her would be reduced to the basic acceptance that wherever she was, she was gone; once he'd finally forgotten that cold moment in the snow, this acceptance would in turn become a vague idea that she'd probably left Genma not long after his birth. Even after the Heart Link unearthed this scene, he still had preferred to think that. But with an adolescent's perspective this memory had made a lot more sense, and all three of them had been fairly certain — his mother was dead.

Well, apparently they'd all been wrong, unless the dead had risen from the grave (and considering this business with Yokehi Kodachi was nowhere near ready to count that out). Or perhaps this was an impostor? What if this were Yokehi herself, disguised, trying some elaborate plot to slither her way into Genma's heart?

That thought was worrisome enough that it temporarily drove all others from her mind. She glanced over at Shampoo, hoping that her sister's "Eyes of the Cat" would see through a disguise if there was one. The Amazon was looking just as stunned as Kodachi felt, staring right at Nodoka without any sign of hostility. There was no indication that Shampoo saw anything more threatening here than Kodachi herself had. It was one small bit of relief, anyway. The White Rose turned her gaze back to Nodoka, who had now pulled back to slightly less than arm's length, Ranma's shoulders gripped in her hands. If you discounted the sheer unthinking shock present on her son's face, which was only just now beginning to thaw into a small trembling smile, it would make quite a heartwarming picture.

Kodachi stared at the tableau, her own heart beginning to surge with an echo of the feelings that were very, very shortly going to be flooding through the love of her life. Later, she would think back to this moment and suspect it must have been the point when she absentmindedly slipped the paper she'd been given into her pantsuit. She never would be able to say for certain, though.


To be continued.

Author's notes: This is only the first half of what was originally written as chapter 16. After I'd finished the whole thing, I decided it was just too long to be released in one piece. The author's notes at the end of what became chapter 17 cover this one as well.

Chapter 17
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