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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 17: The Search is Over

Time had passed, though Ranma would have been completely unable to say just how much. He and Nodoka remained where they had been, seated on the couch in the room where she'd waited for him. Everyone else had left them to their privacy, waiting nearby but out of earshot while Kodachi did her best to monitor the Heart Link without actually infringing on her beloved's privacy. Once she judged that he'd recovered sufficiently, she and Shampoo led Ryu and the twins back into the room, along with Tatewaki — who'd happened by, wondered why everyone was congregating in the hallway like this, and gotten a much more surprising answer than he'd bargained for.

Ranma glanced over as the door opened, smiling even more broadly as he recognized who had just returned. "Hey, Dachi-chan, Sham-chan! Come on over!" The girls were only too happy to comply; as they stopped next to the couch Ranma explained, "Mom, these are my fiancées." Nodding to each in turn, he said, "Kodachi Kuno, and Shampoo of Joketsuzoku."

Kodachi made her most gracious bow and smiled as warmly as she could. At the same time, she felt a mild pang of chagrin. Ranma had just dropped something like that out of the blue onto his long-lost mother? He'd spoken as if having multiple fiancées was nothing more remarkable than just one or none? Obviously she had jumped the gun a little in leading everybody back here. Ranma-sama must still be more dazed than she'd thought to simply assume that his mother would swallow that without a hitch.

"It's very nice to meet both of you," Nodoka responded, her warmth matching Kodachi's. The White Rose didn't have time to do much more than blink at this blasé acceptance before the Saotome matron continued. "These two young ladies," nodding toward the twins, "already told me many nice things about you. I'm certainly looking forward to getting to know you both better."

Shampoo sent her own glance of consideration toward her cousins, wondering whether there was some sort of Dance that had let them make Nodoka so readily agreeable to an Amazon multi-marriage. Come to think of it, Mr. and Mrs. Hibiki had agreed to Ryu's situation with surprisingly little in the way of fuss….

"We happy to help," Lung-Lung said, innocently driving Shampoo's suspicions that much farther along. "Is good to see family come back together again. Even better to help it happen."

This, Kodachi decided, was the perfect cue to ask Nodoka for more details about that familial separation. Where had she been all these years? Why had Genma never spoken of her to his son? The theory that would fit those facts most easily — that Ranma had been abducted by his father against Nodoka's will — just didn't work when other things were considered. The woman's reaction didn't fit. She was very happy to see her son again, but there was none of the desperation and mingled grief that Kodachi was sure ought to be there, had Ranma truly been taken without his mother's knowledge or consent. Yes, the White Rose decided, it was time for some answers.

On the other hand, it didn't feel right for her personally to be the one asking that question. She caught Ranma's eye and sent a meaningful glance his way, a signal to him to broach the subject.

Ranma blinked, reminded by his fiancée's intense gaze of what he needed to say next. He took a deep breath, braced himself, and started out, "Hey, Mom… Listen. There's something… I mean, about Pop…" He stumbled to a stop. Dang it all anyway, this was hard! Stupid ghost witch had to kidnap his old man at the worst freakin' possible time. How the heck was he supposed to tell his mother this news?!

"I know he's not staying here," Nodoka replied. Reluctantly, she tore her eyes away from her son, fixing her gaze on the one youth present who had yet to be introduced. From the story her Amazon guides had told her about the time when Ranma had battled an Oni and saved Shampoo's life, she was fairly certain she knew who this must be. "Tatewaki Kuno?" When the tall boy blinked and nodded uncertainly, she smiled and asked, "Could you contact your fiancée at the Tendo home and leave word for them to send Genma on over here?"

After a long moment of disconcerted silence, Ranma asked, "Uh… how'd you know all that stuff, Mom?" Just how much detail had Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung gone into anyway? Had the twins taken the opportunity to start training in Martial Arts Gossip-mongering or something?

Nodoka whipped several sheets of paper out of her kimono and beamed at her son. "From this letter your father sent me. He told me how he was training Soun's daughter so she could one day revive her school." Impossibly, her smile brightened as she added, "He also described how you were instrumental in bringing Tatewaki and Nabiki together, Ranma. I'm very proud of you."

"Could I see that?" Ranma asked faintly. Taking the letter and scanning it quickly, he found enough evidence to conclude that Genma must have been more up-to-date on what had happened in his life than he'd thought. It wasn't all there, but there was a heck of a lot more than he'd given Genma credit for knowing — and what was more, many of the things Genma had included in the letter were things Ranma hadn't thought about much, but seemed to have struck his father as quite praiseworthy. Ranma felt a deep, though faint, pang. He was too happy right now at having his mother back in his life, but he suspected that when that wore off he would have to deal with a round of guilt even worse than the previous time. At least, unless it turned out that his old man had gotten all this information from Nabiki only for the purpose of writing this letter, or just because of the way Ranma had kicked his butt before the trip to China. He made a mental note to check up on that.

Seeing that Ranma was too busy staring at the letter to respond, and his fiancées were likewise too busy reading it over his shoulders, Tatewaki took it on himself to begin explaining. "Ah… Mrs. Saotome, concerning your husband… ahem, well… as the wife of a premier martial artist you must surely have seen a few things that the general public would have a hard time crediting…?"

Ranma forced his mind away from the paper, and decided to just spit it out. "Mom, Pop was kidnapped by a ghost witch two days ago."

"Oh, my," Nodoka said, drawing in her breath sharply. Her wide-eyed stare was enough to capture all of Ranma's attention; thus, he remained unaware of the glares everyone else in the room was sending his way. "Does that sort of thing happen often?"

"Not really, no. She tried once before, but we fought her off," Ranma answered. Tatewaki's glare sharpened a bit on hearing that casually-stated 'we'. "Actually, we thought she was dead after that. That's how she was able to catch us by surprise and snag Pop this time."

"Now, Ranma," Nodoka chided him, "you said yourself this was a ghost. You were right when you thought she was dead, but that was no reason to think she wouldn't cause any more trouble. Genma himself shared stories of his younger days with me that make that plain enough. I suppose he just told them to you as if they were legends, not something that really happened."

"Yeah. Something like that."

"So what does this ghost want with him?" Nodoka asked curiously. The abduction had happened two days ago; if it were anything too terrible or evil, surely Genma would have already defeated and sealed the abomination and made his way back home. Of course, he might have done so and pulled into Nerima on the next bullet train after hers for all she knew, but Nodoka would prefer it if the situation were less critical than that.

Rather than just let her Airen blurt out another shocking revelation, Shampoo spoke up. "Is because she is ghost — lived long time ago. She get released, she see Genma, he remind her of someone else. Someone else she had feelings for. You get Shampoo's drift?" the Amazon asked anxiously.

"Yeah, this time she flat-out told me 'the honeymoon is no place for children' when I tried to stop her," Ranma added.

"Oh, that's good to hear," Nodoka said with a sigh of relief, cutting right through Shampoo's and Kodachi's ire, causing them to jerk their collective gaze from annoyed at Ranma to incredulous at Nodoka. "I'm glad to know Genma is still so handsome and virile, to drive women to such lengths."

After struggling for a bit to process this response, Kodachi managed to ask, "Aren't you the least bit worried that he might be unfaithful to you? I know we said she was a ghost witch, but this was no ugly old hag. She had the appearance of quite a beautiful woman."

Ranma sent an annoyed glance Kodachi's way. Surely she could have put it more tactfully than that.

However, the lack of tact didn't seem to have bothered Nodoka. "No, of course I'm not concerned, dear. My husband is a good and honorable man. He might try to do something and fail," the barest hint of a shadow passed across Nodoka's features at the reminder of the fear she'd lived with for so long, then vanished as she took a reassuring look at her son, "but he would never deliberately walk away from honor like that."

Another long moment of silence followed this pronouncement. Shampoo eventually ended it, coughing loudly, then saying, "Is moot point anyway. We have spell set up to break her spells, find her in another two days. When that happen, we will ride in to rescue, break up whatever is happening, and bring Genma back here."

Nodoka considered that. It seemed to Shampoo that the woman was none too pleased at the revelation. This was confirmed a moment later as she spoke up, saying "Dear, I'm not sure that's such a good idea. In fact, I am almost certain it isn't. After all, isn't that what you did before, Ranma? You fought her off, forcefully thwarted her will, stood between her and the man that had caught her eye. How would you feel if," Nodoka groped for an analogy, "oh, say, someone from Shampoo's tribe showed up in Japan and tried to take her away from you? It would just make your heart go out to her all the more."

"I guess I can't argue with that," her son admitted, "but I'm not sure where you're goin' with this, Mom."

"It would be better to let things be with your father and this sorceress," Nodoka explained. "If you should fight her and defeat her again, it will just strengthen her determination to come back and try again sometime in the future. What we should do is let Genma-dearest handle this himself. Sooner or later this ghost will grow tired of bashing her head against the stone wall of his stoic loyalty, and give him up of her own free will."

Moonlight streamed down around him, bathing the environs in a silvery glow. Everything seemed to come into greater focus under the lunar illumination, showing more detail than Genma was used to seeing under the full light of day. At the same time, the moonlight softened the edges and smoothed the curves of the various trees and flowers and foliage that surrounded him, seeming to deepen the shadows sufficiently to provide an air of mystery without actually obscuring anything enough to risk a misstep.

This wasn't the first time he'd taken a walk through this particular moonlight. But Genma still wasn't used to the peculiar quality of the illumination, especially how much of it there seemed to be. Considering the density of the forest's cover, combined with the fact that there was only a tiny waning sliver of moon visible in the sky, nowhere near this much light should have made it through to ground level. Still, no need to look a gift horse in the mouth, as the elder Saotome saw it. And so he walked along, studying the terrain with far more ease than he could have done normally at this time of night, trying to find anything that might help with his eventual escape.

He resolutely kept his eyes off the figure gliding beside him, forced the awareness of the indulgent smile she wore right out of his mind. Maybe his captor did suspect what he was really doing on these moonlit strolls she took with him, but if she did she obviously didn't think it worth her while to hinder him. Genma was determined to make her pay for that miscalculation.

Yokehi, meanwhile, was multitasking with a prowess a computer might have envied. She was actually only performing three tasks at once, but any computer capable of envy in the first place would no doubt find her freedom to walk around, interact with her environment, and make her own decisions enough reason to turn the proverbial shade of green. The multitasking would just be icing on the cake.

The largest part of the witch's attention was focused simply on enjoying the moment, drinking in the beauty and reveling in the company. Genma had already become noticeably less fearful of her, and surely that would lead to her eventual success sooner rather than later. Another portion of her awareness soared ahead on wings of willpower, scouting the area ahead and around her, allowing her to choose the best route for their stroll. And the final task, the one requiring the least conscious thought but the most energy expended, held a cloak of concealment around herself and her companion. These woods had many wonderful qualities that served her well as a retreat, but Yokehi had no intention whatsoever of revealing her — or Genma's — presence to the permanent residents.

The combination of those latter two tasks suddenly bore unexpected fruit; sensing what was not too far ahead and off to one side, Yokehi gently placed her hand on Genma's arm and guided him from their current trail onto a different one. Genma stiffened slightly, and his pulse quickened. He refrained from looking at Yokehi, already uncomfortably aware that this unusual brand of moonlight caused the ghost to glow with a beauty greater than really should be possible for any woman.

Yokehi couldn't read those thoughts, but sensing the physical reactions, without catching even a hint of the acrid scent of true fear, was more than enough to brighten her spirits even farther. As the two of them moved slowly along, the witch tightened the web of concealment she had drawn over herself and Genma. She didn't want to spook what she had sensed just up ahead….

Then they were out from under the trees, halting just on the edge of the clearing. On the far side stood a unicorn, the shadow of the trees that rested over it doing nothing to hide the creature's beauty or majesty. Its coat shimmered like all the mysteries in the world woven into one fabric. Its eyes gleamed, far brighter than should be possible in the shadow in which it stood. Its horn glowed softly, yet shone with presence and power enough to make Genma think wistfully of his dragon fang, left in the Kuno mansion with the rest of his baggage. The creature moved slowly along, and it was a dance more graceful and powerful than any kata any martial artist had ever managed, or ever would. The unicorn was engaged in grazing through a patch of wildflowers, chewing and swallowing with evident relish, yet somehow even this mundane act of feeding was a part of the ballet, a vision of unbelievable grace and wonder.

Genma stared long and hard at the unicorn, feeling emotions well up within him that he didn't understand and couldn't really control. Drawing a deep, ragged breath, he forced his eyes away from the sight, scanning the clearing instead, desperately focusing on the numerous breaks in the treeline around the clearing. Each extended out into an additional pathway through the forest. Who knew but that one of them might be his direct ticket to the outer world and freedom?

Yokehi first sensed his inattention, then took note of what he was actually doing. A slight frown creased her brow, then smoothed out as she returned her attention to the unicorn. It was a scene of beauty that had had few equals in her life, and nothing to surpass it. Genma's silliness could wait a few minutes.

After the passage of those few minutes, a subtle change passed through the unicorn. It paused in its grazing, looking up, not yet alarmed, but curious as if it had sensed the ghost of something unexpected. Realizing that even her impressive abilities of concealment were nearing their limit, Yokehi took hold of Genma's arm again and led him back out of the clearing.

She was content to guide him along in silence for awhile, ordering her thoughts, and scanning the area ahead of them for something in particular, something less wondrous than a unicorn. Eventually, she broke the silence, asking Genma almost conversationally, "Dear, I was wondering something."

"What is it?" Genma asked gruffly.

"Just curiosity, really." Yokehi kept her tone light, yet at the same time used enough emphasis to hopefully get through to the man she had chosen for her own. "You keep looking around, as if you were trying to decide just which way to run. Exactly where do you think there is to run to?"

Forgetting in his befuddlement not to look directly at her, Genma turned and gave Yokehi a stare of incomprehension. Fortunately, his confusion was enough to shield him from any impact the sight might otherwise have held. "What do you mean?"

"I mean… look here." They had just come to an intersection where the path they walked along crossed another. A drift of soft leaf-mould lay in the perpendicular path; Yokehi gestured toward it. "What do you see there?"

Genma took the steps necessary to bring him close enough to investigate. On realizing what was preserved in the soft mould, his confusion only grew. Why on earth had his captor/would-be mistress showed him this? "It's a footprint," he breathed, realizing with a sudden rush of hope just what that meant. He wasn't all alone here with Yokehi; there must be others nearby. The dimensions of the print were too small to be either his or hers. In fact, the small size was an even better sign. "A child's footprint." If there were children wandering freely through the woods, then that meant help would be that much more readily available. It wasn't, couldn't be just some random hermit.

"You are correct — for whatever that's worth," Yokehi replied archly. Then, her tone shifting to brisk and businesslike, the sorceress said, "Pay attention to what I'm about to show you, dear. I will only be able to hold the effect for a short time. But for that time, you will see what lies several miles away in a direct line from us."

Before Genma could ask what that meant, the space before him… warped. The outer edges twisted, spiraling around into what the elder Saotome understood was a tunnel, a twist in space that allowed him to see what was on the other side as if it were only fifty meters away.

It was a village, actually less rustic and primitive than his dim memories of the Amazon locale he had passed quickly through so long ago. But it bore a certain resemblance to that area, showing unmistakable signs of being the home of people with no dependence on or care for the technologies of modern life.

And those people… Genma gulped and staggered backward as he got a good long look at the figures moving gracefully through the village. Even at this hour of night there were still children present, though it was rather more difficult to see them than was the case for the adults. This was because the children were, without exception, dusky-skinned to a darkness that would have been invisible save for the unnaturally strong moonlight. Not so the adults, whose pale skin reminded him somewhat of his Japanese daughter-in-law-to-be.

However, the elves' slight builds and obvious pointed ears bore little familiarity to anyone Genma had ever seen.

Yokehi collapsed the viewing tunnel with an audible sigh of relief. Opening it hadn't been hard, but preventing its notice had taken a huge effort. Still, it should be worth it. "Now do you see, Genma?" she asked gently. "If you left, where would you go? Why continue to struggle? I can take you back to Japan, and I fully intend to… when we go back together, and meet your son again to be one big, happy family."

Judging from Genma's reaction, he hadn't really heard any of this. The elder Saotome gulped a few times, then asked, "What… what are those… whatever-they-are's doing in North America?!"

Yokehi gaped at him, unable to find words for some few moments. At last, the sorceress pulled herself together, at least enough to say, "Genma, you just saw an elven village. And fifteen minutes ago we watched a unicorn! Hasn't it sunk in yet exactly how far I've taken us? How on earth can you think we're just in North America?!"

"Because of the stars," Genma said flatly. "They're the same now as they were when I brought Ranma through here on our training trip."

Slowly, Yokehi turned her gaze skyward, glaring at the glittering heavens as if they'd personally offended her. "Knew I forgot something," she muttered under her breath.

Pressing his advantage, Genma waved his hand, in one expansive gesture indicating all of the woods and particularly the area where the viewing portal had been. "Come clean, now. How much of this is just an illusion?"

"None of it," Yokehi retorted, gathering as much dignity as possible. "Not the forest, not the elves, not the unicorn." She sighed. "But I will admit that you're correct. We are in North America. This forest carries a ridiculously high background level of nature magic, due to the elves who settled here and the magical creatures they brought with them. That's why it's worth staying here, even though it's so far from the lands of our birth."

"Oh. Really," Genma said skeptically. "Just what does that heavy level of magic do for us? Besides letting you keep me on a leash more easily?"

"I'm glad you asked that, Genma dear," the sorceress replied with a sweet-and-saucy smile. "The answer is waiting right ahead of us."

Right ahead of them was another area where the trees opened up into a clearing. For a moment, Genma slowed his approaching pace, suspicious as to what exactly might be lurking there.

Then he took a long, deep breath as a sudden cross-breeze swept from the clearing down to the two of them, and quickly shifted into a trot.

Yokehi followed at a more sedate pace, pausing to smile tenderly at the sight of Genma already seated at the edge of the massive feast she'd created. This was no dinner of fruit, mushrooms, or other bounty of the forest such as they'd had so far. Spread out before Genma was a meal fit in quality for a Japanese emperor, and in quantity for his elite team of sumo bodyguards. It was still piping hot, but not enough so to cause him any pain. Which was good, because the elder Saotome had dived into the feast with a gusto that sent warm fuzzies surging all through Yokehi's heart. "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach," she murmured happily.

Perhaps some corner of Genma's mind heard her, despite the near-silence of her words. The older man did pause for a moment, glancing at Yokehi, then subjecting the food spread out before him with a critically-appraising eye. 'Nodoka's cooking was better than this,' he thought, but with no real vehemence or conviction. And soon enough, with Yokehi now seated daintily beside him, he was eating again as heartily as ever.

Another one of those long, awkward moments of silence followed on the heels of Nodoka's announcement. It stretched, and stretched, and eventually Ranma decided someone needed to break it. A quick glance around the room's various occupants made it seem unlikely that anyone else was ready to do so, though. Ryu, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung were still blinking in surprise, all three of them somehow perfectly synchronized in the gesture. Shampoo was mouthing the phrase "stoic loyalty?"; Kodachi had much the same reaction, only substituting the words "stone wall?". Tatewaki had removed himself from Nodoka's field of vision entirely and was edging toward the door, his expression that of someone deciding to leave explanations to other people and get out while the getting was good.

Nodoka was still smiling cheerfully, not seeming to have noticed any of this. For a few seconds longer, Ranma struggled with temptation. Wouldn't it be okay to let her go on thinking the best of things? But no, he realized unhappily, better to get it over with. His mother seemed to be carrying around an utterly unrealistic idea of his father, as some kinda paragon who never slipped up, fell short, or made any real mistakes. And there was no way she was going to be able to hold onto those illusions much longer anyway, not while there was cold water anywhere in Nerima. Jusenkyo was going to bust his old man right off that pedestal. Better to go ahead and let the cat out of the bag now.

"Uh… Mom? Could we go somewhere else and talk about this a little more? Like, in private?" Ranma clarified.

"Of course, dear," Nodoka replied, calmly and cheerfully. She could see that her son was a little worried, but that was no cause for concern — her motherly instincts had already informed her of just what must be the cause. Her son was still a teenager, he was at the time of his life when his manly urges would be at their strongest… and to top it all off, he had managed to acquire two lovely young ladies to share his life. It must seem inconceivable to Ranma that Genma wouldn't feel the same way, and her son was bravely trying to prepare her for a blow Nodoka knew wouldn't actually be falling. Still, she mused as she followed him out of the room, perhaps telling him that wouldn't be the best way to set his mind at ease. Maybe she should just listen to his warning, put on a grave, concerned face, and assure him that she was prepared for whatever might happen.

The Saotome matron followed her son through the hallways, with Kodachi and Shampoo bringing up the rear. The procession ended in a large, airy recreation room, one which had an entire wall of windows that looked out into the grounds. The floor was tiled mosaic, the couches were a decadent mixture of opulence and comfort, and there were numerous elegant paintings along the three non-transparent walls. However, none of that was why Ranma had chosen this room as their destination.

He slowly approached the ornamental fountain that rippled and splashed in the center of the room. Stopping just far enough back that the spray didn't quite reach him, he turned back to face his mother and said, "Listen, Mom. There's something… something I got to tell you… it's about the training trip. Something happened… I mean…" He paused, took a deep breath, and said, "Jusenkyo. The last training ground we went to. A Chinese training ground. Pop took me there, even though he didn't speak any Chinese and he didn't know anything about the place. Didn't wait to find out any of those details either, just led me out into the middle of it for some sparring as soon as we got there. That… that's why… I just need you to understand. He does make mistakes sometime."

"Oh, Ranma. I know that, dear," his mother replied gently. "Your father is a man, and all men make mistakes." She glanced toward Kodachi and Shampoo, and said, "Just ask these two young ladies. Young love may make your heart think something different, but I'm sure both of them will admit to you that they aren't perfect. And I know Genma-dearest isn't either."

"But… this… this one was pretty big, Mom," Ranma countered. "Jusenkyo — it's cursed. There's all these pools of water lyin' around, an' if you fall in one you're cursed with the body of whatever last drowned in that particular pool. After that, any time you get splashed with cold water, you change. Hot water changes you back."

"Oh, dear," Nodoka said, beginning to feel the first real stirrings of anxiety. "Did either of you receive a curse?"

"Yeah." Ranma took a deep breath. "Both of us. We got a cure for Pop not too long ago, but it couldn't work for me." He paused, giving his mother a look that mixed evaluation and pleading. She didn't look like she was on the verge of fainting or anything; hopefully she wouldn't take this too badly. "It could be worse, I guess, but it could be a whole lot better, too." And with no further ado, he leaned over and stuck his arm into the fountain.

Nodoka hadn't flinched an inch on learning of her husband's abduction by an amorous witch. She didn't take her son's transformation into her daughter with that much stoicism, but at least she didn't faint or stagger backward. After all, Ranma had rather built her up to expect something pretty significant.

Nonetheless, it would be paltering with the truth to say she was pleased. "R-Ranma? My son?" she gasped. "Oh, merciful Kami! Are you still my son?!"

"Yes!" Ranma-chan exclaimed in return, plaintively, awkwardly, quite unhappily.

Seeing that her fiancé was having a little trouble knowing what to say next, Kodachi stepped smoothly in. "Jusenkyo's change only affects its victims' bodies, Mrs. Saotome. Genma was cursed to take on the body of a panda bear, but while he was in that form he retained all his personality and intelligence. It is just so with Ranma."

"Right. Is body only," Shampoo seconded. "Ranma is still all-man at heart. Change does not mess with his mind, does not bring spirit of girl what drowned in pool out to take over, nothing like that."

Nodoka exhaled in relief. "Thank you, Shampoo dear. That is exactly what I was most afraid of."

"Is not so," Shampoo confirmed again, though unsure as to just which of those two alternatives had been the one Nodoka meant. "Pool just gave Ranma the body he would have had if he was born as girl. If Ryu or Tatewaki fall into that spring, he would look totally different from Ranma."

"I understand." Nodoka turned back to regard her offspring, feeling a pang of sorrow at the sight of the clear pain in her eyes. "Oh, Ranma, I'm sorry you've had to undergo such a trial," she said gently, stepping forward and giving Ranma-chan a hug. "But it could be worse, couldn't it? I'm sure there are much worse springs to fall into than one that left you in human form. What if you fell into some bizarre hybrid spring that had had multiple creatures drown in it? You might turn into some giant winged monster or something."

"I know, I know. It could be worse," Ranma-chan agreed. Since basically all of her pain had been the result of her mother's initial reaction, Nodoka's latest response had now wiped most of it away. "In fact, there are some good things about this body."

Nodoka stiffened, ever so imperceptibly. "Such as what?"

Ranma had come up with this list in the weeks following the disappointment at Jusenkyo, when he had finally had to face the fact that he might never be cured. "Well, for one thing, it makes for a great disguise." Nodoka nodded. "For another, well, what you said. There's things at Jusenkyo a ton worse than this body. Heck, there even are some springs that mess with your mind when you get splashed. I'm just really lucky Pop and I didn't fall into those."

"Are there other advantages?" Nodoka prompted.

"Yeah, but they're kinda a long story. I'll give ya the really short version. A real long time ago, Pop made a stupid deal with one of his buddies to engage me an' one of Mr. Tendo's daughters. We went there, but the curse really freaked them out and the so-called 'engagement' went over like a case of bad sashimi. If it hadn't been for all that, I might not've been able to get free once I met Dachi-chan." Ranma-chan turned and gave said girl a smile. "Or at least, it woulda been a lot harder. And believe you me, she's a heckuva lot better person to share my life with than any of Mr. Tendo's daughters."

"If they're so shortsighted about such a little thing and let it keep them from seeing what a fine young man you are, then that is certainly true," Nodoka said primly. "Was there anything else?"

"Kinda the same story over again, actually. When I first met Sham-chan," another warm smile directed toward a fiancée, "I was in my cursed form, and she thought I was really a girl. I kinda goofed up and offended her honor without meaning to, just tripped over a local custom I didn't know about. She had to chase me down and beat me in a rematch to get her honor back. If I'd been a guy when we first met up, though, things woulda gone a lot different."

Nodoka nodded firmly. "Those sound like some excellent silver linings indeed. Were there any other benefits you thought of?"

"Nah," her sometime-son replied. "Once I thought it through enough to see those last two, I didn't really bother tryin' to come up with any others. Didn't need to."

Shampoo stepped up to her Airen's side, dumped a kettle of steaming water over her, then glomped him firmly. "Ranma say the sweetest things," she purred.

Ranma snaked his own arm around Shampoo and gave her a squeeze, but resisted the impulse to take it farther. Indulging in a make-out session right in front of his mother probably wouldn't leave such a good impression. "Anyway, Mom," he said, returning his attention to her, "that was something I had to show you. Cause… cause you were gonna find out sooner or later, about the fact that Pop did make this one big mistake."

"Now, Ranma," Nodoka chided gently. "I'm sure you have had some unfavorable experiences in that form. Having boys press their attention on what they think is a cute girl cannot be pleasant. But you yourself said that without this curse, you wouldn't have both Kodachi and Shampoo in your life. Perhaps one, but not both. Isn't that worth more than you've endured?"

"Well, yeah," Ranma said disconcertedly. "I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about Pop!"

Again, though for a different reason, Nodoka tensed slightly. "Did Genma dear suffer some terrible mishap due to his cursed form?"

Ranma, who didn't know about his father's tenure in Azusa Shiratori's cage and who would have laughed himself sick over it if he had, shook his head. "I just meant… the fact that he took us there… I mean, without….?"

"I understand that Genma did make a mistake," Nodoka admitted. "But it doesn't seem so terrible to me. I am certainly sorry for the pain it caused you, Ranma, but I am quite glad to get two wonderful daughters-to-be from the same circumstance."

She paused, then continued decisively, "You don't need to keep trying to protect me, dear. I know very well that Genma isn't perfect." She smiled at him. "And you should be glad he isn't, because if he were he wouldn't be a man and you would never have been born. I know he has made mistakes, like we all do. But nothing so terrible as all that. I have faith in him, in the man I love. And you should too."

"I… I…" Ranma swallowed, thinking back to the letter his mother was once again carrying, that listed so many things about his life that he hadn't credited Genma with knowing. Remembering too his father's reaction to Yokehi, and that the elder Saotome hadn't shown any signs whatsoever of welcoming this intruder into his life. "Thanks, Mom," he said at last. "I think I needed to hear that." Surely, if his mother could show such loyalty, such deep affection, and such a nonjudgmental attitude toward her husband, he ought to take that fact sincerely to heart.

"Don't get me wrong, Shampoo. I'm very glad that Nodoka has returned to be a part of Ranma's life." This was Kodachi.

"Shampoo agree. Timing even seem to be good too. Gets Ranma's mind off worrying for Genma."

"And it is certainly nice to see them reunited, to feel how happy Ranma dearest is at this development."

"Is so. Warm glow is enough to make Shampoo want to turn down thermostat."

"She seems quite nice, too. Loving, caring, open-minded…"

"Ready to accept bigger family than most Japanese would be, Shampoo think."

"While she seems to be impressed with my familial position, it has not made her turn obsequious or subservient."

"She not show even hint of common prejudice, that because Shampoo Chinese she is second-rate person."

"Not only does she accept Ranma-sama for who he is, she sees clearly just how good a person that is."

"She sees him as man, not boy, and knows how to value warrior's heart."

"All the same…"

"All the same…"

In stereo: "The woman is a ditz."

A long, sticky silence followed this pronunciation. There was no one else in the room to break it. Ranma and Nodoka were having dinner together. Both Ranma's fiancées had of course been invited to come along, but this once they had begged off, telling Ranma that he and his mother should have this time just to themselves. The two girls were now in Kodachi's studio; she had retired there and attempted for a time to divert herself from thoughts of all the day's upheavals through some therapeutic painting, but it hadn't worked at all. When Shampoo happened by shortly thereafter and opened the floor for further discussion, Kodachi had abandoned arts and crafts without a second thought.

The White Rose sighed, half in resignation, half in amusement, and half in some other emotion she couldn't quite identify. "At least we now know what manner of woman would marry Genma Saotome."

"True. But what we don't know," Shampoo retorted, giving voice to a question that had been nagging her for quite awhile now, "is bigger puzzle."

"Which is?"

"Where did Ranma get his brains?" The Amazon spread her hands in a gesture of helpless bewilderment. "Shampoo know he not a true genius, except when it come to fights and tactics, but he much, much brighter than I can see in either father or mother."

Kodachi mused on that question for a while, finding it a very valid one. At last she said, "All I can say is, maybe he got the absolute best of each parent. Maybe somehow Genma's positive traits mixed with Nodoka's in such a way that each reinforced the other. After all," she continued thoughtfully, "it's not that Nodoka seems to be lacking in intelligence so much as that she's just…."

"A ditz," Shampoo finished, considering it from this new angle. Eventually she said, "Maybe you right. Maybe it like cousin Xiao Yu. How she feel for Mousse make her do stupid things, think stupid things, not see some things any more clearly than he do, but it not change her into drooling moron. She still had the brain that let her learn quick enough to press me hard in fight sometimes, even though she is a year younger. Is just that for her, love threw a big kink into the works."

"Indeed. Thank goodness neither of us is afflicted so badly as that," Kodachi pronounced. Shampoo nodded solemnly in agreement.

After several moments of contemplative silence, the White Rose continued. "I don't think we can say the same thing for Ranma-sama, though. Although in his case it is rather different."

"What you mean?"

Kodachi shrugged helplessly. "I mean, that as far as I can see, he hasn't seemed to pick up the first clue as to his mother's… shall we say, handicap?"

"To Ranma, what matters is that she is here, and she love him. He not see anything else." Shampoo paused thoughtfully. "And really, does anything else matter? So what if neither of Ranma's true parents will win any awards for their brains anytime soon. He not just depending on them anymore. Remember how far he has come since getting away from Genma? Was not on his own. He have us, and your father and mother, and Great-Grandmother too. She is sneaky and crafty and smart enough for a dozen 'son-in-laws'."

"You're probably right. Still, it grates on me a little. That Ranma should see someone through such rose-colored glasses, I mean. Far better to see things as they really are," Kodachi stated.

Shampoo gave a shrug of her own. "Love is blind, I suppose."

Kodachi opened her mouth to reply… then all of a sudden she shut it with a snap. Her eyes were no longer on Shampoo. Instead, her gaze roved down her own side, down the long, snow-white side ponytail that spilled along one arm… and over the colorless skin of that arm… and remembered the very first thing that had struck her about Ranma, in her first meeting with him… or rather, both her first meetings, one with Ranma, one with "Ranko"…

"You're right, Shampoo. I think I'll try to be a little less judgmental," the White Rose said quietly.

Shampoo blinked. "Not sure I was trying to say that, but sound good to me."

"Indeed." Kodachi took a long, deep breath. This necessarily did certain things to the top of her pantsuit, things which would have interested Ranma quite a bit had he been there.

He wasn't, of course, but this once someone else took notice of one piece of the process. "What was crackling sound?" Shampoo asked curiously.

"Crackling sound?" Kodachi repeated. Now that Shampoo mentioned it, there had been such a sound effect, hadn't there? But where had it…? As if guided by a dim memory, her hand slipped inside her top, and retrieved the paper she had been handed an eternity ago. "Oh, this," Kodachi said, memory returning. "Nodoka gave it to me when we first saw her."

"What is?" Shampoo asked curiously, eyeing the parchment curiously. It was yellow and brittle with age, but did not seem so old that any writing should have faded beyond leaving any trace behind. But even to her Eyes of the Cat, the paper appeared perfectly blank. "Nothing there."

"I don't know… oh, wait," Kodachi said dryly, and flipped the sheet over, exposing the ink on the other side. It was faded, but still legible. The paper contained both writing and numerous inky handprints, sized to have been left by a small child. Shampoo could make little sense out of the writing; her current position relative to the paper meant that she was looking at it upside down, and the inky handprints further obscured things. She suspected it might be Genma's handwriting, but couldn't say for certain without a better look.

"What it say, Kodachi?" the Amazon prompted after a moment. On receiving no response, and noting that her sworn sister had frozen into rigid immobility, Shampoo hurried around to a position that allowed her to read for herself.

This action kick-started Kodachi's higher-order mental functions, at least enough to allow her to read aloud, in a horrified whisper, " 'I will commit ritual suicide. —Genma, Ranma' "

Shampoo continued where Kodachi left off, her voice no louder or more sanguine, " 'Unless Genma has raised Ranma to be a man among men.' "

Kodachi blinked, recovering a bit more mental capacity. "What?! Where? Where does it say that?!"

"What you talking?! Say right there!" Shampoo declared, pointing to the blank area below the writing Kodachi had read.

"Shampoo, this is no time for silly games!" the White Rose remonstrated. "There's nothing there! What are you trying to say anyway?!"

"What you — oh." With serious effort, Shampoo pushed all her recent horror far enough over to the side to concentrate. "I see writing there, but is coming from Eyes of the Cat. Like time I knew how to open Great-Grandmother's chest without set off trap. This promise is made only to be call in if Ranma is not man among men."

"Are you sure?"


The White Rose wiped sweat from her brow. "Whew. What a relief," she breathed. The paper might as well be a pledge to pick up Mt. Fuji and throw it into the sea, since the condition for its being called in was even more unthinkable than that.

The sound of the door opening drew her attention. "Shampoo? Where are you going?"

"What kind of stupid question is that?! Need to go have words with Ranma mother!"

"No, we don't," Kodachi argued. "Certainly not right this moment. I don't think this is any time to rush off without thinking things through."

"No time to rush?! Is you crazy?! What if she trying to call this in right now?!"

Kodachi arched one eyebrow. "First of all, she isn't, or we should certainly be feeling Ranma's horror through the Heart Link. Don't tell me you weren't monitoring it, to see how his dinner with his mother was progressing."

"Shampoo was," the Amazon returned. "Something kind of distract me just now. And what reason is that not to hurry? All it mean is she have not do anything stupid yet."

"Secondly, seppuku requires Ranma-sama's participation. You know very well he wouldn't abandon us like that."

"Yes, Shampoo know that," the Amazon growled, more eager than ever to get this over with and race off to deal with Nodoka. "That not point! Point is how much hurt it would be to Ranma, if she ask!"

That took Kodachi back a bit, but she rallied to make her next point. "Thirdly, you and I know very well just how wonderful a man Ranma-sama truly is. And such is evident to anyone who spends even a little time around him. There is exactly one thing that could conceivably have moved Nodoka to think this promise had to be called in, Shampoo, and that's Ranma's Nyannichuan curse. And if she had thought that, she would surely have said so when Ranma revealed it to her."

"You no know that. Could just be waiting until Genma is there at same time. <Vicious Chinese Amazon expletive deleted> paper say Genma and Ranma both do this if Ranma not measure up."

Rallying came a bit harder this time, but Kodachi managed it quickly enough. "After all she said after Ranma-sama's explanation? No, Shampoo. That reaction just doesn't fit. She would have just kept quiet if she thought the curse was that bad, not been so reassuring as she was."

"You not know that! Sure, what you say is act of honorable, kind person," Shampoo faltered a bit as she brought the qualities "honorable" and "kind" into conjunction with "someone who was thinking of calling this promise in". Then, pushing the incongruity aside as not really relevant, she said, "And we not know that! Only met her today! Is too soon to be able to make that kind of call!"

"I don't think so," Kodachi argued. "And I'll tell you why. You were standing there when she gave me this…" she gave the paper one glance of loathing, then looked away again, "…this accursed document. But you probably didn't catch what she said at the time. Did you?"

"No. What was?"

" 'Here, take this. It's yours now.' She didn't give it to me to hold for a little while, she transferred it over to me entirely."

Shampoo's brow furrowed. "But that make no sense. If it matter to her, and since she keep it so long seem like it would have to, why she do that? Why she say that, let go of it for good and all so fast, just like that? Does not add up."

"Oh, I think it does," Kodachi growled, glaring down at the paper once more. "Take a good look at this, Shampoo. See if you don't see it for yourself."

"If is all the same to you, I rather not look at <vicious Chinese Amazon expletive deleted again> paper right now. Just tell Shampoo what you talking."

"I just meant, look at the handwriting."

Shampoo drew in a sharp breath, the light of comprehension dawning in her eyes. "Of course," she said disgustedly. "Is Genma's. What you want to bet this was all his idea?"

Kodachi let loose a most unladylike snort. "My parents give me an annual allowance larger than some nations' gross domestic product. And I wouldn't set ten measly yen against you in that wager, Shampoo."

"Well, at least you would not lose ten yen then." Shampoo fell silent, pondering with bitter irony how much trouble they were going to in order to rescue Genma. As far as she was concerned, Yokehi could have him. She wondered whether it might be possible to somehow sabotage the rescue effort. Maybe she ought to ask Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung.

"Anyway, I think we can take it as pretty much a given that honor was the only reason Nodoka was holding onto this paper, and that there's no danger now of her bringing this matter up," Kodachi said. "She wouldn't have passed it off to me so thoroughly had that not been the case."

"Right. She gave to you." Shampoo gave her sister a meaningful look. "You know what to do now, right?"

"Indeed," Kodachi said, calmly and coldly, the word backed with the strength of steel. She crumpled the paper in her grasp, under the circumstances not caring too much about the damage this did to the old, fragile parchment. And then… summoning her chi… warping it into the configuration she'd use for the Firewhip Ribbon technique, caring not a thing for what the lack of a proper focus in executing the technique would mean….

The ancient paper flashed almost directly to ash, passing through only the briefest blossoms of flame.

Kodachi brushed the ashes away with an air of grim satisfaction. Ignoring the fading pain of the burns the hot chi had inflicted on her, she said, "That takes care of that."

"Right. No more stupid promise. No more stupid threat. Nodoka better never, ever, ever bring it up, either," Shampoo pronounced.

"I really don't think there's any chance of that," Kodachi reassured the both of them. After a moment's silence, she continued, "Still, if I'm wrong…"


"…if there ever does come a time when she even looks like thinking to call this promise in…."


Kodachi stared Shampoo in the eyes. "Xi Fang Gao."

Shampoo returned the gaze with a grim smile. "Damn straight."

"Mmm… Genma…" Nodoka mumbled in her sleep. It was far too dark in the room for any observer to make out the expression on her face, but the tone of her voice, mixing as it did a sort of yearning warmth with pleased satisfaction, made it clear that the Saotome matron was certainly not suffering from nightmares now.

A dim figure stood at the bedside, staring intently down at the woman. The intruder held motionless, tense, balanced on the cusp of motion, yet not quite certain what to do. It rather boiled down to what sort of dream Nodoka was having. If she was enjoying the thought of all her family coming back together, well, that was one thing. It would fit quite well with one possible course of action. But if the woman was slipping into an erotic dream of Genma Saotome, that would be the cue to exit right speedily. Shampoo had no desire whatsoever to witness even a glimpse of such a thing.

The Amazon had spent a good portion of the night tossing and turning and worrying. Kodachi's reasoning might be sound and solid, but the simple fact was it wasn't enough to satisfy her. She needed to hear from Nodoka's own lips that she had no intention of calling that damnable promise in, that she had seen as clearly as daylight that her son truly was a man among men.

Hence Shampoo's presence here, in the guest bedroom in the mansion that had been assigned to Nodoka. It would be simple enough to wake the woman up, query her on whether she was satisfied at Ranma's manliness, and then apply the Xi Fang Gao. Either erasing all thought of the oath Genma had sworn, if Nodoka wasn't certain that he'd fulfilled it, or just removing the memory of this visitation if she was.

The only problem with that was that Shampoo didn't want to resort to that technique unless absolutely necessary. Not with Ranma's mother, the same woman who had already asked Shampoo to call her "Mother" too. If Nodoka did have any thought of possibly calling in the honor promise, then the very next instant would see Shampoo applying the shampoo with no qualms at all. But if it should turn out that her mother-in-law was as horrified by the thought as Shampoo herself, well, the Amazon would rather go to a pet store and play with a dozen cats than mess around with Nodoka's mind.

Waking Nodoka up, asking her question, and letting her remember the encounter didn't seem like a very good idea either, though. Still, she had thought, if worst came to worst it was probably her best option. And so she had left her bed and snuck her way through the halls to her current situation, staring down at the dim figure that was Nodoka, trying to get up her nerve to wake the woman up before her dream got any more intense.

She knelt down and reached out, slowly and tentatively; her hand had only crossed half the distance when Nodoka spoke again. "Genma," she repeated, "I'm so proud. Ranma is such a wonderful son."

In a flash of inspiration, Shampoo retracted her hand, gulped a few times, wrapped her thoughts with her beloved's memories, then spoke in the best approximation she could to Ranma's father's gruff tones. "Are you happy, wife?" she asked.

Given the Amazon's normal high-pitched little-girl's voice this was a pretty darn poor imitation of Genma, but Nodoka was deep enough in her dream to take it in stride. "Oh, yes, dear," she said. "Such a wonderful, manly son…."

"A man among men?"

"A man among men among men," Nodoka murmured dreamily.

"And you're satisfied I've kept the promise?"

"Yes, dear. You've made me so happy."

At that, Shampoo let out a long, relieved sigh. Kodachi would certainly want to hear this. She tensed, on the verge of standing and beating a quiet retreat, then noticed Nodoka was still murmuring something, more faintly than before. Shampoo leaned her head in, curious as to what this should be.

"…missed you so much," Nodoka complained, rolling over on her side, and wrapping one arm tightly around the Amazon's neck. Her free hand began working its way down Shampoo's back.

Before this could get any more embarrassing, Shampoo shot out her left hand and used the sleep shiatsu strike she'd employed on Kodachi so long ago, the one that had let her carry the White Rose through the halls and deposit her in Ranma's bed without waking her. Nodoka's grip instantly loosened as she dropped into a deeper level of slumber. Shampoo stood up, brushed a few invisible wrinkles out of her top while recovering her poise, then carefully restored the blankets Nodoka's action had disarranged. 'Time to tell Kodachi about this,' she thought, slipping quietly from the room. 'Just the good news, though, not that last part.'

Two days had passed. Nodoka made no mention of the document she'd handed over and Kodachi had destroyed. For obvious reasons, this didn't particularly worry either girl. Both were now confident that Nodoka just planned to tell Genma she was satisfied and let that be the end of it. It wouldn't be long now. The time had almost arrived for what Shampoo privately thought of as "Operation: Rescue Stupid Panda From Fate He Deserve" to commence.

"All right, everyone. Settle down and keep quiet," Rouge instructed. She glanced around the room, her gaze roving over the various other people present. Ranma, Kodachi, Shampoo, Nodoka, Cologne, Ryu, Ryoga, and Tatewaki — four males, four females. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung had protested bitterly at not being able to sit in as well, but as far as Rouge was concerned the balance of the spell was more important than their eagerness for exciting entertainment. "It's almost noon, and that's when my counterspell will sneak its way through the last of Yokehi's barriers."

"And what exactly will happen then?" Kodachi asked. "Will you be able to show what you see to us?"

"All of you will be the ones doing the seeing," Rouge explained. "All my concentration is going to be on the spell. It'll be like all of you were there in the middle of what's happening to Genma. Each of you will see him and his surroundings, not these walls, not your friends, not even your own body. You'll hear whatever sounds and speech are going on there, too. Pay attention, because I won't be able to keep up that level of surveillance for too long."

"I'm sure you won't need to," Nodoka said kindly. "Just give us a few moments to reassure everyone that Genma is doing all right, and that his captor is growing tired of her exercise in futility."

Genma's mouth was set in a grim line. He twisted, turning his forward charge into a roll that brought him up facing a new direction, his fist leading the way before him with a loud kiai. That is, it would have been loud, it should have been loud… but the sound was dampened by his companion's magics, fading to silence almost immediately. It felt wrong, like he was being cheated, his power sapped and his freedom hobbled.

Or at least that was what he told himself, holding onto those thoughts with all the determination he could muster. Defiance was really the only way Genma had of fighting back at this point. Slipping off into the woods to escape had failed, both spectacularly and miserably. Yokehi didn't spend all her time during the day with him; each full day of his captivity had seen her disappear off into the forest for a period of several hours. Genma had let the first one go by without taking advantage of it, both to see how long Yokehi would be gone and also to lull her into a false sense of security. When she returned late that afternoon, a round of subtle questions (at least, Genma honestly believed they had been subtle) left him with the information that she'd spent the time strengthening and maintaining the web of magics that sustained her, protected them, and siphoned off power from the forest and sent it on to the home she was preparing in Japan.

On the second day he'd acted, waiting for a quarter of an hour after she left him, then slipping off into the forest himself… and immediately losing all sense of direction. He'd wandered helplessly for ten minutes before finding his way back to the very clearing he'd left behind. Five more trial runs had resulted in the same outcome; the fact that each time it took exactly ten minutes for Genma to return to ground zero finally clinched the thing. Yokehi might be elsewhere, but her chains around him weren't.

Genma had spent the next few hours sulking. Yokehi hadn't said anything to indicate she'd noticed, but he suspected that was the reason she sought out and showed him the unicorn that night. And it was probably not a coincidence that she'd put so much effort then into talking about how pointless it was trying to get away, and how there was nowhere to go.

Well, you can knock a Saotome down, but you can't keep him down, Genma decided. It had taken quite a lot of heavy thought, but eventually he came up with an idea on how to foil his would-be mistress's scheme. When she left him alone the next day, he set out once more… but this time he refrained from setting even one foot onto any of the paths leading out of his clearing. Instead, Genma leapt from treetop to treetop, smiling broadly and chuckling right out loud at the fact that this time, his sense of direction stayed firmly functional.

He had indeed foiled Yokehi's countermeasure, the one that was keeping him cocooned away in coils of magic… and also hidden from the various denizens of the forest.

The fact that the Saotome School focused so heavily on aerial combat was all that saved him. Genma succeeded by the skin of his teeth in dodging the swooping strike of an eagle large enough to have carried him off in one claw. He actually managed to make it back to the forest floor more quickly than if he'd descended via free-fall. Immediately thereafter the old familiar puzzlement as to which was his left hand and which was his right came back with a vengeance, and sure enough, ten minutes later, he trudged back into the clearing.

It wasn't just the awareness of the existence of giant eagles that kept him there after that. The trees were thick enough that keeping to the middle of them would have left him well out of range of oversized avians. No, it was the thought that where there were giant eagles there might just as well be giant weasels, and staying in the lower reaches of the trees would put him nicely within such a creature's range. Something that vicious, enlarged to the same degree that the eagle had been… Well, Genma would have backed the Master against such a foe (at least, in Happosai's pre-Kodachi glory days), but it was a fight that the Saotome patriarch would personally walk a thousand miles to avoid.

Unfortunately, walking a thousand miles wasn't currently an option, at least not if he wanted to end up somewhere other than where he started out. Genma had wracked his brain for other ideas on escaping his predicament, but hadn't managed to come up with anything that looked remotely workable. Catching a giant eagle and flying away on it made for a few minutes' pleasant fantasy, but to a man with as pronounced a sense of self-preservation as Genma Saotome, there was no chance of it becoming more than that. Digging a tunnel to freedom didn't even rate that highly — the thought of all that work was a few moments' unpleasant fantasy.

Sending up smoke signals in hopes of attracting attention from the elven village had been an act of desperation, since it seemed all but certain that Yokehi would see the smoke first and take appropriate action. However, any chance was better than none, Genma thought, and so built and lit a signal fire. A signal fire that resolutely refused to produce a single wisp of smoke, no matter how many armfuls of green leaves he dropped onto it.

After that, there hadn't been much else to do but sulk. The only other idea he'd had since then didn't have anything to do with escape at all. Genma had thrown himself into training, pushing himself harder than he had in years. The resulting exhaustion let him fall asleep more quickly in the evening, sleep more soundly throughout the night, and wake up later in the morning. He also hoped that such single-minded determination, such focus on something that she couldn't share in, would be enough to finally dull the edge of this creature's fixation on him.

He had to admit, though, that the back-rub she'd given him this morning, working out the kinks and soreness from muscles unaccustomed to quite that level of exertion, had been rather nice.

"…Right," Rouge replied. "Even after the vision fades, I'll still have a lock onto their positions. We can jump right out there to Genma with the Nanban mirror, if it turns out that we need to." The Amazon mage snuck a quick sidelong glance at Nodoka's expression, then added, "For example, if we should happen to tune in just as she's telling Genma she's tired of his stubbornness and is leaving him to make his own way back to civilization."

"Oh, that would be nice," Nodoka said, smiling once more. Remembering something that her son had mentioned to her the previous day, about information-gathering magics this woman had already used to discern that Genma was in no danger, the Saotome matriarch spoke up again. "If we find that she's still being stubborn, would it be possible for you to cast an augury to find out just how much longer it will take her to finally give up?"

Since Rouge had already done one of those on her own initiative, and the answer had been "she won't", the mage sidestepped the question. "I don't know. It will depend on what we see here. Now, everyone be quiet — I need to concentrate."

Ranma took a long, deep breath, fighting off a minor spasm of nerves. As if sensing this, Kodachi brought her arm up and around behind him, gently rubbing his back. Shampoo, seated on his other side, leaned her head on his shoulder for a moment, then reluctantly disengaged. That position was nice, but much too distracting. Later, the Amazon promised herself.

The combination of gestures settled the slight fluttering sensation as quickly as it began. The Saotome heir smiled, feeling his confidence rise again, higher than ever. Everything was falling into place, becoming what it was supposed to be. He'd been so long without a real family, had spent so much of his life so very close to being alone. But here in Nerima things had finally begun to change for the better. Kodachi, Tatewaki, their parents, Shampoo, Cologne, Ryoga, Ukyo, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, and finally Ryu… so many different kinds of relationships, all of them the kind of things he could never have had on his training journey. Looking back now, it was almost like he'd had to leave his old man behind for a while, to open up enough of a place to fit in all these new emotions and pieces of his life.

But not forever, no, not that. That was not how it was going to be, Ranma thought sternly. His family was on the way back to being together again, the broken pieces drawing toward wholeness, ready to finally join again into something better than it was before. Already his mother had made her way back, out of time beyond memory. That she should return, against all odds, just now, precisely during this crisis over his father's abduction… Well, it was enough of a sign for Ranma. The Saotome family would be whole once more.

Yokehi smiled a contented smile as she watched Genma blur through his kata. At this rate, he'd be even more sore tomorrow than he had been this morning, giving her an excuse for an even longer, more enjoyable massage. That wasn't the only reason Genma's fury of increased training had her smiling, though, nor was it the enjoyable sight of watching the martial artist blur through a routine of such skill and power. No, what really had Yokehi smiling was the memory of the meals she'd fixed for Genma earlier this day, combined with the happy awareness that creating his meals through magic meant she controlled just how much real nutrition he was getting. At this rate, it wouldn't be long before her man was even more muscular, more lean and mean, more dangerously attractive than ever. And all without her ever once having to nag him about a diet! As far as Yokehi was concerned, things were just getting better and better.

Against one wall of the room stood a grandfather clock. Earlier, Rouge had calibrated it so that it would strike noon at the exact moment when her spell took effect (and had also muffled the ticking and blocked the sound of the bell that would toll the hour). All eyes were on the timepiece now. Ranma held Shampoo's hand in his right, Kodachi's in his left, all three youths' grips tighter than normal with a mixture of readiness and muted suspense. Ryoga, Ryu, and Tatewaki, to whom the outcome of this exercise naturally held less importance, seemed more relaxed, but tension could still be read in their postures and expressions.

Cologne and Nodoka, on the other hand, evidenced no sign of concern whatsoever. Kodachi suspected that Cologne at least was feeling it, but the Matriarch was too good at hiding her reactions to betray herself now. Nodoka, by contrast, showed her emotions plainly. Somehow, seeing her fiancé's mother so confident, so unconcerned, showing such faith in Genma, just left the White Rose feeling that much more uneasy.

As the hour, minute, and second hands on the clock crept ever closer to perfect alignment, she hoped half-heartedly that Nodoka's faith would not turn out to be misplaced. But though she wouldn't say it to Ranma, that was another wager on which Kodachi wouldn't even risk ten yen.

Genma glided to a stop, holding motionless in the final position of the final kata of his routine. He had pushed himself hard all day long, and even though it couldn't be much past eight o'clock in the evening, he was more than tired enough to turn in.

Yokehi, however, had other ideas. Perhaps it was the starlight, shining down so fiercely and illuminating Genma's muscular form, sweat plastering his gi to his body. Perhaps it was the sheer relish he hadn't even thought to hide as he'd gulped down each meal she'd magically prepared for him. Perhaps it was the fact that he wasn't really showing any signs at all of fear for her anymore. Or perhaps it was the nagging thought that she had been alone for hundreds of years, even if those centuries had been spent in unknowing slumber.

The sorceress had been planning to wait another couple of days before making her next move on him, but now, for whatever reason, she found she couldn't hold off any longer.

"Ready for bed, dear?" Yokehi cooed, gliding over beside Genma. He grunted affirmatively, ambling over toward the larger of the two piles of fern fronds that served in place of futons. Yokehi's sleeping place was located about ten feet away from his; when she kept pace with him as he passed it, Genma felt a minor surge of anxiety. When her fern-futon twitched into motion behind them, following at Yokehi's heels like an oversized verdant hound, that anxiety deepened. And when he settled down on his own bed, only to have Yokehi's spread out and commingle with his, turning into one king-sized mattress-equivalent, on which the sorceress gracefully seated herself, Genma broke out into a cold sweat.

Yokehi noted these details, and reluctantly decided that she probably wasn't going to be able to go as far tonight as she'd like. But at least she could push a little, wear away a trifle more of his stubbornness, ease her way just that little bit farther into his heart. Now what would be the best approach to take?

The witch assembled and put on a wide-eyed expression of mingled innocence and contrition. "Genma, there's something I should have asked yesterday. Have you been enjoying the meals I prepare for you?"

The non sequitur knocked Genma for enough of a loop that his brain completely disengaged, allowing his mouth to answer honestly. "Yes, they're about the best I've ever eaten. Why are you asking now?"

"Because I should have asked earlier," Yokehi replied, giving a mincing little pout. "I shouldn't have just assumed you liked them, from how you dug in and ate. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed my cooking as much as much as it looked like."

"Well, you didn't exactly cook them, now did you?" he protested. "You just magicked them up."

Yokehi sniffed. "Just because I used different methods doesn't make it any less of an effort or an act of skill on my part. It's the same principle as if other chefs might disagree on whether to cook something in a pot or a pan."

"So what is the difference between a pot and a pan?" Genma wanted to know. Hoping, too, that he could keep the conversation on this innocent level for as long as possible.

"I have no idea," Yokehi admitted. "I've never had to know things like that. Magic means I can do almost anything in other ways, better ways than fooling with such mundane, petty limitations." She paused there, giving him a long, significant look.

Eventually, feeling more or less obligated to say something, and still hoping to keep the conversation on an innocent level, he said, "Well, it certainly does let you produce some wonderful meals."

"I'm glad you think so, Genma dear. But I wonder, have you really thought about all the implications?"

"Um, no?"

"I didn't think so," Yokehi replied archly. Quicker than Genma could react, she reached out and trailed her hand across the curve of his chest, over the warm, dry fabric of his gi. "Have you even noticed? Your clothing was soaked with sweat just a few minutes back, and now it's dry, clean, with no distressing odor at all. The same for you personally, too. It would be no hardship for me to arrange a warm bath for you — or for us — but until you ask me for that I'll just keep on cleaning you magically."

The bath comment seemed to have tied his tongue for the moment. Yokehi spoke again. "You are a man who values your comforts, Genma. I learned this during the time I watched you, deciding on whether or not you were the right man for me. And you are, just as I am the right woman for you. Who do you think can provide even a tenth of things for you that I can? Here, in this forest, you're living more comfortably than you ever did at Soun's. When we return to Japan together, you won't have to continue training Miss Tendo in order to earn your room and board. You can do it if you want to, of course, but it will be your choice entirely. And," Yokehi chucked, "if she runs off again you certainly won't have to search the mountains for a month for nothing. Not with me at your side."

At this point, Genma found words. Contrary to Yokehi's assumption, it wasn't just her offer to prepare a bath for the two of them that had frozen his vocal chords earlier. No, what had really shaken Genma was a sudden, faint, completely irrational fear that somehow, against all reason, Nodoka might perhaps be watching this. It made no sense, but at least it distracted him slightly from the full impact of Yokehi's reasoning, gave him barely enough nerve to scrape together a defense in the face of this onslaught. "But… I… Nodoka…."

Not much of a defense, to be sure.

The sorceress heaved a long, mental sigh, consoling herself with the thought that once she finally worked her way past Nodoka's place in Genma's heart, all this loyalty would be hers and hers alone. "Yes, yes, Nodoka," she replied patiently. "The woman who just let you go out of her life. The woman you haven't seen for over thirteen years. Are you still imagining her to be that pretty little near-teenager you left behind? She's aged a decade, you know, and will only grow older. That is what you would go back to? Stretch marks… wrinkles… gray hairs… someone who will spend more and more of her energy simply keeping a cramped little house clean, and have less and less left over for you…."

Yokehi pulled back, just enough to allow the full effect of her next tactic to register. This was going to be something of a risk; if she guessed wrongly she would look like a fool. But her chosen carried one photograph on his person, a photo of a young man and woman with a child. The man in the picture was undeniably a younger Genma, and the infant bore a strong resemblance to Ranma, and so Yokehi felt it was reasonably safe to assume the woman was Nodoka.

Hoping that that was indeed the case, that it hadn't been Genma's sister, the sorceress shifted form. Not into her alternate serpent body, though… the sight that seared right into Genma's eyeballs was that of Nodoka, as lovely, as young, as flat-out hot as she had been on the day he first set eyes on her. Or even more so — that girl would never have worn the provocative outfit that barely clung to this image's curves.

"I can give this to you too, Genma, if that's really what you want. Image doesn't mean anything to me," Yokehi's voice said. "We can play any game you like. Or if you want, we can keep on with our current one, where you hold out and hang back and play hard to get. You know it won't change the end result, don't you? Sooner or later, it doesn't matter in the end. You'll come to me, and we will be as one. You know in your heart that that's how it's going to be." The sorceress made a sweeping gesture, indicating the body she currently wore. "No faded, dying flower out of the dead past has any power to change that."

And with that, the vision came to an end. Tree trunks faded, replaced by paneled walls. Electric light banished the night's shadows. The sight of a teenaged Nodoka vanished, leaving only a matron in her thirties, back ramrod straight, hands clenching the sheath of the Saotome honor blade with force enough to warp the cloth covering.

There was a long moment of silence, as all the witnesses tried to recover their balance, to process what they'd seen.

Eventually, Rouge broke it. "Well?" the mage asked impatiently. "How did it go?" Carefully maintaining a straight face, she turned to Nodoka. "Do you still think the best thing to do is let the matter rest?"

"No," Nodoka snarled, "I changed my mind."

"Mrs. Saotome, I understand your anxiety, but charging in as quickly as possible just is not a good idea," Cologne said reasonably.

The room was more crowded than ever. In addition to everyone who had been there for the invocation of the spell, Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, and Ukyo were now present, having hurried in just as soon as Rouge opened the door and indicated her enchantment was complete. Ryu and Ryoga were now filling the newcomers in, sitting on the other side of the room from Nodoka and using low-pitched tones that she wouldn't be able to hear.

"And why not?" the Saotome matron demanded. "Wasn't that the entire idea behind this? As I understand it, you were already planning to rescue Genma even before I received his letter and made my way back to my son. Never mind what I said about letting matters slide until time takes care of the problem itself. I think we can all agree now that that is most unacceptable." Her gaze shot around the room like sheet lightning, resting on every other person present in turn, daring anyone to disagree.

"We are all quite agreed on that," Cologne said placatingly. "I'm not suggesting we should wait much longer. But consider what we saw of just where they were. Here it is midday, but night had fallen there. If we wait a few more hours before moving in to strike, we will catch our enemy not only off-guard, but actually asleep."

"She seemed to be ready to retire almost immediately," Nodoka said with a frozen, brittle politeness. "Is there some particular reason you think it will be hours before she is actually asleep?"

"Bah, child, I suppose you were too busy staring at your husband and realizing how utterly exhausted he was," Cologne responded. "And no wonder. Judging from the scuffled nature of the ground, I could tell that he's been putting some serious effort into training kata lately. Undoubtedly Genma will be asleep before any great length of time has passed. But I saw nothing to indicate our adversary was anywhere near that tired."

That reasoning was enough to cause Nodoka to relax, ever so slightly. But it was nowhere near enough to silence all her objections. "Well, all right. I suppose maybe it would be a good idea to wait that long… if we felt it was necessary to catch her when she was asleep. But why should we believe that, elder? Surely catching her by surprise will be enough of an advantage!"

This, Rouge decided, was her cue to speak up. "Mrs. Saotome, could you elaborate a little more? Could you describe just what sort of a plan of attack we should use? We haven't even discussed any details like that yet."

Nodoka blinked, clearly at a loss as to why there was any need for such discussion. "Didn't you say you had an artifact that would transport us all to my husband's location?" Rouge nodded. "Well, then. We simply use that, and then in that one instant of surprise everyone strikes her with all the skill and power they can bring to bear. It might be excessive use of force, but I see no problem with that."

"M-m-mother," Shampoo stumbled over the term of address, which didn't exactly feel natural yet, "there is problem. First time this ghost show up, she take super-strong attack and disappear after it. Everyone thought she was destroyed, but we know now that was wrong. You not really want her come back again half a year from now, right?"

Nodoka took several long, deep breaths, then returned her attention to Rouge. "All right. I defer to your knowledge of the supernatural. Is waiting until she sleeps supposed to prevent that?"

"Not exactly," Rouge replied. "But it will give me the chance to lay down a boundary ward, which will prevent her from escaping or turning invisible. That seems necessary in order to keep her from pulling whatever trick she used before, but it will take me nearly a minute to set up once I've arrived there. That is why we need to wait until she sleeps."

"…Very well," Nodoka reluctantly conceded. "So the plan is to sneak in, carry Genma away, and then you trap her forever?"

"Oh, goodness, no," Rouge replied, grimacing at the thought. "The ward will require my direct attention to sustain it. No, it is just to pin her down so that our warriors can defeat her in fair battle."

'Fair battle? Sound much more like unfair to me,' Ling-Ling thought. Truth be told, the cherry-haired girl was feeling a tiny bit of sympathy for Yokehi. After all, the snake-lady had indirectly helped her and her sister get their Airen-to-be more quickly than might otherwise have been the case. Ling-Ling still had every intention of accompanying the strike force, though. It would take something a lot more pressing than a bit of misguided sympathy to cause her to pass up a chance of standing by Ryu's side in battle.

"Are we sure that will be possible?" Nodoka asked, worried now. "I had thought we would have your magic to directly aid in the attack. Without that, aren't we just left with martial arts skills? After all, my husband is a master martial artist, and he hasn't been able to defeat this creature yet."

"Are you sure he's even tried?" Ryoga asked injudiciously, then shrank back against the wall as Nodoka rounded on him with a furious glare. "I… I just m-meant…"

"Look, Ryoga was one of the guys who fought her last time. So was I," Ukyo added, drawing the heat off her boyfriend. "The witch has some kind of mind-control abilities, although I think she can probably only use them on men. But that would be more than enough to ditch any chance of Genma taking her down on his lonesome."

"Oh. I see." Nodoka glanced anxiously around the room, her gaze shifting from Ryoga to Tatewaki to Ryu, coming at last to rest on her son. The Saotome matron took a deep breath, then said, "If she does have such abilities, then that settles it. I apologize for wanting to rush in, but I didn't realize our forces were really only half the strength I thought they would be. Ranma, I know how much it will hurt you to hold back from this mission. I am sorry."

Ranma opened his mouth to explain about the Orb of Amalthea, but before he could get the words out his mother continued. "Don't worry — I'll take your place in the assault."

After that the pain from biting his tongue kept him quiet long enough for Kodachi to respond.

"That won't be necessary, Mrs. Saotome!" The White Rose spoke the words as quickly and forcefully as she could, wiping a large bead of sweat from her brow. Not everyone currently present in the room had yet seen evidence of Nodoka's skill level with the katana she carried, but for those who had Kodachi's reaction was clearly understandable. "We have an artifact whose power will shield us from such manipulation. That was an integral part of how she was defeated the first time."

"Oh, well, that's good to hear," Nodoka replied. "Very well, Ranma, it looks like we'll be able to rescue your father together after all."

"Ah… Mom, I think you might want to sit this one out," he said hesitantly. "I mean, you don't have much training with that sword, right?"

"And that is exactly why I should go along," Nodoka returned. Her first excuse hadn't held up for very long at all, but it had been just that — an excuse. It had served enough of a purpose by letting her get her foot in the door, so to speak, and now that the subject of her accompanying everyone else had been brought up, she wasn't about to let it die off. It wasn't enough that that accursed spectral lady-of-the-night should pay for her effrontery. No, Nodoka herself was certainly going to be there personally exacting payment at the edge of her blade!

"Could you explain that logic a little further?" Cologne inquired.

"Certainly. As the wife of a martial artist I know very well that an amateur can be more deadly than a veteran," Nodoka replied equably. "Because his, or her, moves are completely unpredictable."

A moment of silence greeted her, as everyone who had seen Nodoka handle her blade reflected on the grim truth of this statement. Cologne was the first to recover. "While that is undoubtedly true, Mrs. Saotome, that logic is meant to be applied only in one-on-one situations. Yokehi isn't the only one who will be baffled by your attack; you will also force everyone else to hold back as well, because they cannot perceive what you intend to do either."

Nodoka blinked, a pleased smile beginning to curve across her lips. "Are you saying I should fight her one-on-one?"

It had been a long time since the Kuno mansion had seen such a big group facefault. "NO!" everyone shouted at the same time, after picking themselves up. Nodoka brushed back a few unruly strands of hair that had been knocked loose by the force of the yell.

Meanwhile, Shampoo's mind was racing frantically. Clearly Ranma's mother wasn't going to give up on this crazy idea. How best to minimize the damage? Ranma probably wouldn't be happy if she walked over and used the Xi Fang Gao without so much as a by-your-leave. No, tempting as it was to protect her by washing the idea of accompanying the rescue right out of Nodoka's hair, it just wouldn't do. The Amazon's brow furrowed, trying to pin down some elusive other idea that was tickling at the outer edges of her consciousness. Suppose they did let the woman come along… wasn't there something that could protect her… and why did her thoughts keep circling back to the fact that there had been no moon showing in the sky above Genma…?

Suddenly everything fell into place, and the Amazon blurted out, "Convict us!"

On receiving a room full of blank, confused stares, Shampoo consulted her memory and corrected herself. "Mean, Invictus. That is name of sword, yes?" She stared at Tatewaki through half-lidded eyes. "Sword someone use to win really cheap victory once, magic sword that only works when new moon is in the sky, makes wielder invincible?"

"Er, yes," Tatewaki said, fidgeting in his seat and not meeting her gaze. "Correct in all the particulars, Shampoo."

"Thought so." The lavender-haired girl turned back to face Nodoka. "You take that, would actually work for you to go one-on-one with stupid ghost. Would certainly keep you safe in fighting her."

"<Shampoo, could I have a word with you?>" Ranma gritted out in tones that basically defeated the purpose of speaking in Mandarin. It was clear to anyone with an IQ above room temperature that he was not happy at this suggestion.

Cologne intervened before things could get out of hand. She could sympathize with Ranma's lack of sympathy for this plan of putting his untrained mother on the front lines, but this was no time to let anyone lose their temper. "<Stop, child,>" she said, using the tones of command that were so deeply ingrained into the memories Ranma had acquired from her great-granddaughter. This cheap trick brought him up short, just as Cologne had intended. "<Your mother is determined to accompany us. Do you want to be the one to tell her she can't?>"

Ranma blanched, and shook his head vigorously. Cologne smiled. "<I thought not. Then you should be thanking my great-granddaughter. This idea is almost certainly the surest way to keep your mother safe.>"

"<Thank you for your concern, elder,>" Nodoka said, her Mandarin provoking a massive rash of sweatdrops throughout the room. "<But I'll be just fine.>"

Her son eventually recovered enough to say, "R-right. Okay, Mom, then you'll take the magic sword, right?"

"I don't think that will be necessary," Nodoka protested. "This is our family's honor sword, Ranma! It is certainly a more appropriate choice than some borrowed blade!" She quick-drew it, ignoring the way three-quarters of the room dived for cover.

Ryu got back to his feet, abandoning the protective position he'd taken in front of Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, brushed the dust off his pants, walked over to the middle of the room, and retrieved the Saotome blade from the ceiling. "Ma'am, I really think you should listen to them," he said apologetically.

"That's right!" Ranma exclaimed, finding all the backbone he needed to face down his mother as the perfect way to approach this issue struck him. "Think about it, Mom — what would Pop say if I let you go into danger without being there every step of the way to make sure nothing bad happened to you? He'd think he failed to teach me the first thing about a martial artist's duty. And he'd be right! No way am I going to let you do this without doing all I can to protect you!!"

Nodoka turned that thought over in her mind a few times. Something seemed wrong with the logic, but she couldn't find an actual point to attack. "Oh, very well," she agreed at last. "I'll carry this enchanted weapon instead." Then she brightened. "You said it was for defense, didn't you, Shampoo dear? Then I can hold it in my left hand to shield myself, and strike with our family blade in my right!"

"Invictus moves of its own volition, in whatever way is necessary to shield you from an attack," Kodachi countered quickly. "And it can move with speeds far greater than are humanly possible. That means it could very well slice through your katana and there wouldn't be a thing you could do to stop it."

After heaving a long sigh, Nodoka acquiesced. "I see. I suppose I will just have to lay this sword aside for a little while."

"It really will be for the best," Ryu said fervently. Feeling that it was probably safe now, he handed the weapon in question back to her.

"Might as well go now to the vault and get you armed," Shampoo said. The Amazon fully intended to make sure Nodoka would leave her katana there, too. Out of sight, out of mind sounded pretty good to her just then.

Everyone except Nodoka had had some prior awareness that the Kuno family owned a few bits and pieces of real magic. Reactions on actually seeing the room that contained the various treasures Godai brought back from his travels were many and varied.

Nodoka just took it all in stride, though this was due in large part to an incorrect assumption she had made. She knew that the rich generally had unusual habits, and had decided that the Kunos must prefer to store much of their money here, in the form of these objects, rather than in more usual investments.

Ukyo staggered backward, grabbing onto Ryoga for stability and reassurance. She'd made the mistake of casting a "Detect Magic" spell, certain that most of this stuff couldn't really be enchanted. Finding out just how wrong she had been left her knees feeling like they had been filleted.

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung each swept the room with a wide-eyed, wondering gaze. Eventually, Lung-Lung regained enough presence of mind to remind Shampoo that their birthday was coming up before much longer.

Cologne stared shrewdly around the room. For a long moment she struggled with the temptation to bop Shampoo on the head. Eventually, though, she forced it away. Simply too much time had passed since her great-granddaughter had engaged in the conduct that could have made an enemy rather than an ally of someone with resources like this. Clearly it could have been a mistake of hideous proportions, but it was too far in the past for discipline to really be appropriate any more. Besides, in all fairness, she would have had to give her own noggin a knock or two as well.

Ryoga and Ryu wore identical worried expressions. Both were thinking back to a particular bit of Hibiki family history. Namely, the time their father had gotten lost in a series of caves, had found his way to a treasure hoard, and had packed out as much of the loose gold and jewels as he could carry. The room they were looking at now had plenty of items, but almost no random jewels or coins. They really, really hoped those two facts weren't connected.

The last to recover from the shock was Rouge — which was not to say that it took her long to react. Rather, the mage opted to give her response while still suffering from sensory overload. "So tell me, Kodachi. Do you think your father might be in the market for a second wife?"

Kodachi didn't really hear, which was a shame. It would have been excellent teasing material for the future. But the White Rose was distracted by the sight of a random scattering of gold coins spread across the floor a little ways into the room. "That's strange," she noted, bending down and picking up the nearest piece. "It is most unlike Father to leave a mess like this."

"Maybe he was in too much of a hurry when he an' your mom left on their trip," Ranma said. "He probably knocked the bag over when he came in here for that sword he usually takes with him." The Saotome heir had already noted, without much surprise, that the blade in question was missing from its stand. Kind of a shame — that weapon's ability to launch vacuum blades would have been a nice extra ace in the hole for their upcoming battle. The sword Kaldrskryke would have been much better off in Tatewaki's hands just now. After all, despite Godai's sentimental fondness for the thing, it wasn't like he was likely to need it on his business trip.

"Perhaps that's it. That's not all that's odd, though." Kodachi turned the coin over and over in her hand. "It's just a blank disc of gold. Something as mundane as that, Father wouldn't keep in his private collection. This room is reserved for special treasures." She gestured toward a display case that held a number of coins, each of a different size, shape, and apparent age. Ranma couldn't read or even recognize the script on any of them. "Those are the only sort of coins that should be here. He should have just converted these to cash," Kodachi continued, picking up another two coins and confirming they were the same as the first. "That's what he's always done with this sort of loot." Ryoga and Ryu breathed a quick sigh of relief at this, causing Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, and Ukyo to think identical thoughts of puzzlement.

"Well, maybe these were something he only just got recently," Ranma said, beginning to sweat. While he didn't exactly have a problem with admitting that he himself had put these coins here shortly before leaving on the China trip (they were half of the loot he'd acquired during the rescue of the Sakuras, and were his way of saying thanks to the Kuno parents for opening their home to him), now didn't seem the right time to just blurt that information out.

"I suppose," Kodachi said, dissatisfaction still plain in her tone. "Oh, well, it isn't really important." She set the coins off to one side and moved further into the room, stopping before a display case that held a familiar broadsword and sheath. She opened the case, retrieved the sword, and offered it to Nodoka. The older woman accepted the weapon and inspected it with all due care, clearly swallowing a hint of disappointment at the fact that the sword was of Western style rather than Japanese.

"Here, I will take Saotome sword and put it where this was, for safe-keeping," Shampoo chimed in as Nodoka sheathed Invictus. Ranma's mother hesitated just for a moment longer, then passed over the blade in question, either missing or ignoring the audible sigh of relief the gesture provoked throughout the room.

"You know, there is lots more stuff here," Lung-Lung pointed out a moment later, as everyone was drifting toward the exit. "Would it not be good to look for magic weapons for the rest of us?"

"I don't think there's anything here likely to be of use," Tatewaki replied.

"Nothing of use?" the lime-haired girl protested. "Is weapons all over one wall!"

"But most of them are enchanted to be used against one particular type of enemy," the kendoist explained. "For example, those greatswords and that battle-axe would be wonderful choices if we had the misfortune to face off against a dragon. Or at least that's what my father said. Believe me, Lung-Lung, after the last time Yokehi caused trouble I asked him if he had anything that would have been of use against her. Other than the Orb of Amalthea, which of course we already knew about, there was really only one thing he could think of."

"What is?"

Tatewaki gave a wry grimace, and pointed toward the single largest item in the room. It was a polearm half again as long as he was tall, a lance with a handle nearly the diameter of Lung-Lung's wrist. The thickest part of the lance was easily wider than her leg at the knee. "That. A Maenad's Lance, I believe he said it was called. It has a number of strong general enchantments that make it a fearsome weapon against any opponent. But it also has some sort of restriction on who can even wield it at all, and we don't know what it is." He shrugged. "Anyone can carry it around from place to place, but try to hold it as a weapon and it'll slip right through your fingers."

"Not to mention is too, too heavy to use anyway," Ling-Ling pointed out.

"No, it's much lighter than it looks. Part of the magic."

"Can I see?" Tatewaki nodded reluctant permission, repressing with some difficulty the reflexive urge to caution someone who looked so very much younger than him. Ling-Ling carefully pulled the lance from its mounting on the wall. It was light, much lighter than would normally have been possible for a weapon of such size. She backed away from the wall, shifting the lance to a ready grip, wondering just how it would escape from her grasp. Would it be as if the handle were suddenly coated in butter? Would the wood beneath her fingers suddenly take on the consistency of smoke?

Or would it just stay there securely in her grip, while Tatewaki, Kodachi, and Ranma gaped wide-eyed at the sight?

Ling-Ling blinked, belatedly realizing just what had happened. "This what you said no one can do, right?!"

"The weapon seems to require that it be wielded by a female warrior who specializes in polearms," Rouge said, the results of her quick-and-dirty scrying spell coming in. Whatever artisan had crafted the Maenad's Lance clearly hadn't cared about hiding such details. "Lung-Lung should also be able to manage it. Perhaps Ukyo as well, though I'm not sure whether her combat spatula quite qualifies."

"Well, let me try!" the young Amazon girl in question exclaimed, hurrying forward. Reluctantly, Ling-Ling passed it over. Her twin held it with no more difficulty than she had. "Is good!"

"Don't get too worked up, child," Cologne said dryly. "Enchanted weapon or no, you're not taking it into this fight. That thing is far too much larger than the weapons you're used to, not to mention of a different design, and you're going to be fighting with friends at your sides. I'm sure none of them want to accidentally get skewered on that monster."

The twins grimaced bitterly, but recognized the essential truth in what the Matriarch had said. "Oh, all right." Lung-Lung carefully placed the lance back into its position on the wall. Ukyo eyed it speculatively, but decided to leave it alone for now. Still, if the Crepe King or the Gambling King ever reared his ugly head again, she might just have to see about borrowing a certain pointy stick.

Once again, all eyes were on the clock. This time, though, they only waited the alignment of two of its hands. It had been decided to make their move at four in the afternoon, which, according to Cologne, should more or less correspond to midnight where Genma was.

"Remember, Mrs. Saotome, do not activate the magic of that sword until after I have set the ward," Rouge reminded. "You will know that I'm finished when I begin to glow a faint blue."

Nodoka made a vague sound of acknowledgement, only sparing the mage a slight amount of her attention. The rest was divided equally between watching the clock and brooding darkly over the righteous judgment she would shortly be carrying out on Yokehi.

"Why exactly is she supposed to wait?" Ukyo queried. "Afraid the sword kicking on will wake the witch up?"

"Yes, that's it exactly," Rouge explained. "And activating the blade here, before using the Mirror to take us there, is certainly not a good idea. Mixing magics of that high a level is not something you do without running a lot of tests first, to be sure it's safe. Especially not item enchantments; there's just too good a chance that metaharmonic resonance will occur, and when that happens you can throw all predictability right out the window."

Ukyo flinched, swore, and hastily dispelled the magical charge she'd instilled into her combat spatula. "I wish you'd said something sooner. I spent the last three hours enchanting this thing, and it could've messed us all up."

"Ah, Ukyo dear, don't you think I realized you had cast that spell?" Rouge inquired. "Your little temporary boost was nowhere near powerful enough to interfere with the Nanban Mirror."

"So what you're saying is, I just dumped three hours' worth of work down the toilet for nothing."

"More or less, yes."

Ukyo grumbled a few choice comments under her breath, but declined to say anything further.

"What about you, Granny?" This was Ranma. "Aunt Rouge can't add any magic to the direct attack, cause she'll be on the outside of the ward keepin' Yokehi pinned up in it. Are you gonna bust out with some Amazonian artifacts to make up for that?"

"No, son-in-law, I think I'll stick with the skills these tired old bones know best." Cologne fed chi into her staff until it glowed, then spun the weapon through a series of forms, moving it faster and faster until the air crackled with minor sonic booms. Finishing the display, the Matriarch reminded him, "We aren't trying to obliterate this ghost, remember. All we really want to do is defeat her, and do it thoroughly enough that she knows she will never be able to stand against those who would fight for Genma." Ukyo rolled her eyes at that last sentence, after confirming that she was well out of Nodoka's line of sight.

"And is just about time for that," Shampoo said, nodding toward the clock. It now read 3:53. "Let us go over plan just one more time."

"I will invoke the Nanban Mirror to bring us to the edge of the clearing—" Cologne broke off as Ranma raised his hand. "Yes, what is it, son-in-law?" she asked, her tone betraying slight irritation at how quickly an interruption had come.

"Since it's dark there, shouldn't we be letting our eyes adjust now?"

Everyone in the room blinked several times. "Good point, Ranma-kun," Kodachi said, producing her ribbon and sending it dancing out to flip the light switch. As this was an interior room with no windows or open doors, the action resulted in pitch blackness and a sudden large amount of restless shifting.

"That's too dark," Rouge observed, casting a faint illumination onto the clock. The resultant light level in the room was a good bit darker than the unnatural starlight that they had witnessed four hours earlier, but it was still enough to make out the dazed expressions on the faces of Ranma and Ryu, and the all-too-innocent expressions on the faces of Shampoo, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung. Rouge rolled her eyes, suspecting that if the Amazons had been wearing lipstick for the fight, so too would be those two boys.

"Anyway," Kodachi continued in Shampoo's place, after sending a dry glance toward her sister, "the next step of the plan is…?"

"We will appear at the edge of the clearing. Rouge has already confirmed that Yokehi is asleep and has been for some time now. Everyone will stand quietly, holding back from the attack — and also refraining from any sudden bouts of foreplay with their chosen partner," Cologne added, sweeping her own gimlet gaze over the various teenaged Amazons present, "—while Rouge works her magic. Once she has done that, Yokehi will be trapped within a thirty-three-yard radius circle, and unable to turn invisible.

"The activation of the trap will likely awaken her. Kodachi, you bring out the Orb of Amalthea to prevent her from ever getting off a mind-control spell. Mrs. Saotome will call upon the magic of her sword and lead the attack. It should catch Yokehi by surprise; ideally, she will expend the majority of her strength against Invictus' impenetrable defense. Once our enemy realizes that she cannot win that way, she will change tactics. There is no way to say for certain just what she will do then; she may retreat, she may dodge around and go for another target, she may pull some completely new trick out of her sleeves. In any case, Nodoka will continue to use Invictus to absorb her ire until Yokehi moves too far away from her for this to be practical.

"That is when the rest of us will move in, with all the speed and skill and strength we can muster. We take her down, and Ranma and Nodoka can tell her just what they think of her attempt to steal Genma away."

"Elder…" Nodoka spoke up hesitantly, "…doesn't it seem as if you're leaving some holes in the plan? Shouldn't we make it a little more solid than that, consider contingencies, plan for them a little more specifically than just saying 'see what happens and deal with it accordingly'?"

"No, child, we shouldn't. It's a basic principle of warfare. 'No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.' Since we cannot possibly predict all the possibilities, trying to do so will not only waste time, it will bog our warriors down in trying to remember a mess of useless detail. It is far better to make a simple, flexible plan that takes into account all the major things we know, and leaves everyone with enough confidence to take their own initiative as events warrant."

"I see. Thank you, elder." Nodoka gave a quick bow. 'Of course. I should have thought of that myself. There needs to be provision for Ranma to take whatever actions he sees fit, once we're actually there and can see the fight with our own eyes.' It was nice to know that her Amazon in-laws-to-be had such a good, clear understanding of her manly son's general worthiness.

"Is not one major thing we forgetting to talk about?" Lung-Lung wanted to know. "What about Genma? Whole point is to rescue him. Would not be good to catch him in crossfire."

"No problem," Ranma assured her. "As soon as the fighting starts he'll clear outta there faster than you can blink."

"Yes, dearest is much too experienced to allow himself to be caught in the middle of a fight he doesn't understand," Nodoka added. "He'll withdraw until he can get a good idea of what is happening. After that, he may even join in on our side of the fight." The Saotome matron actually giggled then. "I'm not certain of that, though. Seeing his wife show up in the middle of the battle to free him will certainly be a surprise. The poor man may still be rubbing his eyes and trying to wake up by the time everything is over."

"Speaking of time…." Cologne gestured with her staff, indicating the clock. Rouge had never removed the minor enchantment that silenced its tolling of the hour, and none of them had noticed when the minute hand crept beyond full vertical. It was now a few minutes past four o'clock.

"Right," Ranma said. "Let's do this."

With a shimmer and a glimmer, the Nanban Mirror bent time and space, depositing Ranma and company not fifty feet away from his slumbering father. Nodoka caught her breath, a sudden tear glistening in one eye. It had been so very many years, but Genma's snoring sounded just as she remembered it. It was all the Saotome matron could do not to go over there and give him either the one-two combination of blows to the ribs and breadbasket that she knew would shift him into deeper, untroubled sleep, or the pinch in a rather different area that would wake him up immediately.

Rouge retreated ten paces from the others and sank down into a kneeling posture, her mind already detaching from the here and now, reaching inward for the strands of power she would spin into the web to hold Yokehi in place. Reacting as quickly as she had in a long time, Cologne dashed over and jabbed a gnarled finger into her descendant's shoulder, distracting her from her task and calling her attention back to mundane affairs. The mage opened her eyes again, shooting a gaze of mixed irritation and question toward the Matriarch.

Cologne made a couple of broad, sweeping motions with her staff, smoothing out the dirt before her while at the same time ensuring she had everyone's attention. Then she reversed her weapon, bringing the tip into contact with the ground, writing quickly but silently. *We missed something very important. I have sensed things in this forest that shouldn't be here.*

*What sort of things?* Kodachi scrawled with a gymnastics club.

Rouge, now much paler after having used a quick, low-power spell to discover what her great-grandmother was talking about, pulled out a long rune-scribed wand and answered, *Something like a tiger-sized badger with six legs and a coat made of metal, prowling less than a mile away.* Blast it all, surprises like this she could have done without! She had crafted the observation spell of four hours past as comprehensively as she could, but there had been no way for her to make it thorough enough to allow the Matriarch to use her chi-senses. At least those senses had warned them before she sealed herself away from everyone in a trance, Rouge thought grimly.

As if reading her mind, Cologne wrote again. *Change of plans. I will stay outside the ward and guard Rouge. The rest of you will have to deal with Yokehi yourselves.*

Not feeling right about using her borrowed sword to scratch in the dirt, Nodoka simply nodded, giving a smile of confidence and a nod of determination. It felt a little odd, to leave such a task to a tiny, wrinkled old lady, but the Saotome matron knew better than to think there was any need to protest. She had already done that several hours ago, back when she'd first realized that Shampoo's great-grandmother intended to come along on the attack, and the demonstration the Matriarch had made of her skills silenced that protest quite quickly.

*Very well. Everybody except Great-Grandmother, back away now. I am going to set the ward.* Rouge took a deep breath, deliberately forced away the awareness that there had already been one nasty shock, and began crafting the spell.

Everyone watched, tension rising higher and higher. And then, as an azure shimmer broke over the mage, Nodoka exploded into motion.

Drawing Invictus, the Saotome matron spoke the words that would transform her into an invincible whirlwind of justice. "[I am the monarch of my fate, I am—] Oh, dear."

Half the people were staring in horror at the sword, buried in the trunk of a tree ten feet above their heads. The rest held their collective breath, their desperate gazes pinning Yokehi, as if they could hold her asleep in her bed through sheer force of will.

In point of fact, Genma's snoring had completely drowned out all this commotion. The witch didn't even twitch.

After gulping a few times and recovering the power of mobility, Ling-Ling decided to give her Airen a break from his apparent self-imposed duty to retrieve Nodoka's fumbled sword. The cherry-haired girl took a few steps backward, then used her staff to pole-vault into the air. She landed as lightly and deftly as a flying squirrel on a branch a little below the blade. With some difficulty, she eased it out of the wood, dropped back to the ground, gave Nodoka as fierce a glare as she could manage, and handed it over. Nodoka smiled her sheepish thanks, then spoke again. "[I am the monarch of my fate, I am the captain of my soul!]"

Watching the blade erupt in brilliant magical light, Kodachi couldn't decide which fact reassured her more — that Nodoka had just been rendered undefeatable, or that the magic of the sword would now prevent her from losing her grip on it.

The formation of the ward had not troubled Yokehi's sleep. The compromises and back-doors that Rouge had painstakingly woven throughout the ghost witch's protection spells were just powerful and thorough enough. The Amazon mage managed to ease shut the door of her prison without alarming her enemy.

However, when Invictus switched on, the grace period was well and truly over.

Yokehi shot to her feet, slumber banished in an instant. Her mystical senses were screaming a warning at her, a warning loud and clear enough that she was already drawing on her power to bring her to full alertness before sleep had really even begun to fade naturally. The sorceress blanched, her eyes widening with shock at the sight before her. How in the name of the Greater Darkness had so many people snuck up on her, people who still weren't registering on her warning spells?! Only that woman's — Nodoka's! — sword was clearly obvious to her mystical eye!

Only a fool blindly engages someone with a magic sword unless they have to. This was obviously a rescue party for Genma, who was just now sitting up and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Yokehi sent out a fistful of enchanted threads, snaring him and pulling him to her as quickly as she could without hurting him, then rushing backwards away from Nodoka at a speed the Saotome matron certainly couldn't match. This quickly took her out of the clearing and into the trees. She paused there, just for a moment, taking stock of the situation.

It could have been much better, that was for sure. Obviously, Yokehi growled to herself, she should have spent more time talking to Genma about his family. The time she'd spent watching him at Soun's prior to making this move on him had given her no idea they had resources like this available! Not only had they found her here, they had done it without her even having a clue that they were coming! Even now, she couldn't sense any of her would-be attackers, except for the terrifying blaze of magic that accursed Nodoka was carrying.

By now Genma was struggling and squirming in his bonds, a distraction she frankly did not need. Yokehi spared an instant to Command him to stillness and reabsorb the magic that had been physically binding him, then hurried through the forest, circling the clearing with the speed of a tornado. Coming up on one side of it quite far from the spot where she'd first vanished into the forest, the witch peered through the foliage. Her heart sank even further as she got a good look at the forces arraigned against her. The sword wasn't the only piece of magic with which they'd armed themselves. Miss Kuno was carrying that accursed orb that blocked her ability to control men's minds! If the girl had been much closer, her current spell on Genma might already have been neutralized by it!

And even worse, Yokehi realized, her brother, who'd come so very near to wiping her out when she last encountered him, was here too! That the boy was able and willing to use such a terrible attack scared Yokehi on so many levels, it wasn't even funny. But it didn't frighten her beyond the point of coherent thought — no, Yokehi could see quite clearly that this was a time to apply that gaijin saying she'd heard a few weeks ago. 'She who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day,' she thought, 'except I'd prefer to avoid fighting them at all.' Well, it had taken them four days to catch up with her after her first escape, and now that she knew they could follow her she'd be more prepared next time.

She began to back away from the clearing, as quickly as she could while still maintaining an awareness of where all her adversaries were. Her detection spells were still FUBAR'd, but by searching for heat signatures rather than raw life-force, she could keep track of her unwelcome guests. Let them have this place! It had only been a temporary refuge. She had harvested nearly all the energy she needed by now anyway, sending it on to the home she was preparing for herself and Genma in Japan. Let them try to run her to ground there! Their offense would break like water against the stone of the— Oh, bloody hell.

That last thought came as Yokehi's back impacted with a ward. A very strong, very solid, very well-crafted ward. A ward, the sorceress confirmed through the rising flush of panic, that she might be able to break… but the energy expended in doing so would leave her much too tired to fight or teleport away.

Just for a moment, Yokehi knew despair. She lowered Genma's inert form from her shoulder, cradling him in her arms, looking down on the man she had chosen for her own. Surrendering him would allow her safe passage, she was reasonably confident of that… but was she willing to lose? To lose him, to lose the battle? How much was she willing to risk for this?

'This could've gone a lot better so far,' Ryoga thought. Wasn't the stupid witch supposed to waste all her power fighting Nodoka? She wasn't supposed to do the smart thing and stay away from Invictus! The former lost boy grumbled to himself, feeling a little bit betrayed. Someone dumb enough to kidnap Genma to be her husband should not be able to make good decisions in the heat of battle!

"Come out and face me!" Nodoka yelled, brandishing Invictus as she stared into the trees. "Or are you frightened by this 'faded, dying flower'?!"

"Yeah!" Ranma yelled. His mother was on the right track, employing insults to drive an enemy into making stupid mistakes, but he suspected she probably wasn't skilled enough to really use the technique effectively. "I know you just woke up, but come on! Don't waste time sneakin' around puttin' on yer make-up! You don't wanna make yourself look less scary, you want us all quakin' in our boots at the sight and smell of ya!"

Just for a second Nodoka blanched, but then remembered just how badly this unholy harlot had insulted her. Her son was just paying the vile spawn of darkness back in kind. A quick rush of pride kept her silent for a moment longer, and then she resumed her own catcalls and demands for action.

However, Yokehi seemed not to be interested in complying. After a couple of minutes, Kodachi interjected her own suggestion. "She cannot go far, and she cannot turn invisible. Why don't I start cutting down these trees with my ribbon to eliminate her hiding places?"

"That sounds like a good— AAAUUGHH!" Tatewaki yelled in shock and discomfiture as a sudden host of threads boiled out of the darkness between the trees not far from where he was standing, surrounding him in an instant in a cloud of whirring strands. Nodoka turned and raced toward the source of the attack, but it stopped before she could take more than half a dozen steps. She hurried on anyway, reaching the treeline but finding no hint of Yokehi remaining there.

Tatewaki stared down in horror at his empty hands. The threads might as well have been monofilament wire, for all the ease with which they'd reduced his bokken to sawdust. He shifted ever so slightly, one hand going into his robes for the spare weapon he had brought with him, hoping against hope that what he suspected wasn't true…

And every last shred of what had been his clothes fell away, leaving him unharmed, but also stark naked.

"One brush with death from you is quite enough for me, thanks," Yokehi's voice trilled mockingly. Tatewaki gave an incoherent cry of rage and embarrassment and sprinted for the dubious privacy of the treeline.

"Hey, do Ryu next!" Lung-Lung shouted, gesturing enthusiastically toward her Airen

"Since you ask so nicely…" But this time Nodoka was ready, zipping over into the path of the attack, and letting Invictus shred these threads as thoroughly as their predecessors had done Tatewaki's outfit. "Oh, fie on you, Nodoka. Can't you let that girl have her fun? Just because you're an old, dried-up, faded, dying flower, is that any reason to spoil things for those still young enough to enjoy themselves?"

"I am quite young enough to enjoy myself still, thank you," Nodoka replied sweetly. "Splitting your skull open is going to be a particular treat."

"Bah. You have to catch me first." With that, Yokehi stepped out of the trees that concealed her, appearing in plain sight on one of the paths leading out from the clearing. This particular path held straight for nearly a thousand feet before turning.

Given that Rouge's ward was only supposed to be two hundred feet wide, the fact that Yokehi was standing right at that bend in the trail was not a pleasant sight.

Kodachi was the first to recover. "It's just an illusion. It must be! Right, Shampoo?!"

The lavender-haired girl shook her head, dismay plain to see on her face. "Not unless she can fool my Eyes of the… my special gift. Far as I can see, that is really Yokehi."

"Oh, are you referring to that ward? The one that was meant to pin me down?" Yokehi's lilting, mocking voice wafted back along the wind. "It's still in place. But I'm a sorceress too, you know. It wasn't that hard to make this place bigger on the inside that it is on the outside. And since this is an enchanted forest, well, I thought it would make a nice touch to call in more of it. That ward keeps us in, it doesn't keep anything out. Nothing at all."

With that, the witch turned and walked forward, disappearing around the bend in the trail. "Have fun looking for me and Genma," she called back. "I assure you, the two of us will be having plenty of fun of our own."

Back in the clearing, grim silence prevailed for nearly a minute. "What're we gonna do now?" Ryu eventually said.

"I don't see that we have any choice but to split up and search for her," Tatewaki growled in return. The kendoist was now "clothed" in a sort of rough loincloth or diaper woven from leaves and vines. He was carrying a stick larger, sturdier, and heavier than Cologne's staff, and the expression on his face showed far more readiness to use it than the Matriarch usually displayed.

"Letting her pick us off one by one not sound like good idea to Shampoo," the Amazon protested. "Did you mean in small groups?"

"Yes, I did. You, Ranma, my sister, and his mother in one, Ryu and the twins in another, and the remaining three of us in a third. That seems best to me."

"Wait a moment," Nodoka protested. "Don't all the men need to stay in one group, and carry the artifact that protects from mind-control?"

"Ah, good point," Tatewaki managed, after recovering from the fact that the woman who'd willingly married Genma had been the first one to spot that flaw.

Before he could come up with a different division of their forces, Shampoo produced a flask of water and splashed her husband-to-be. "Shampoo think good division is Ranma, Shampoo, Kodachi, and Mother for one, then Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, and Ukyo, and then boys together with Orb of Amalthea."

Ukyo and the twins traded ironic looks. '<Good thing we made peace with her.>' 'Good thing I made peace with them.'

"Sounds good to me, Shampoo," Ranma-chan said. "Okay, everybody— Huh? What is it, Mom?"

"We still haven't split our forces the right way," Nodoka pronounced. "I should be in my own group. Putting three others with me is wasting them, because my sword will protect me completely."

Ranma-chan swiftly searched for some logical reason that that wasn't a good idea. Unfortunately, none came to mind, not even anything that sounded good but was in fact logically flawed. She settled for saying, "But… Mom… I don't want you goin' off by yourself. I mean, I had to go so long without seein' you… I don't want to be separated from you now…."

"Oh, Ranma, I feel the same way," Nodoka replied, clearly wavering on the verge of giving in. But then her spine stiffened, and she said, "But remember, Genma dearest has been apart from me even longer than you have. If doing this has even a chance to bring all our family back together more quickly, then we need to do it!"

"Mom, I-I…." Ranma-chan broke off, deliberately reminded herself of the tests Kodachi had witnessed (in which her father had used Invictus to parry both a shot from a railgun and the concentrated fire of twenty assault rifles), sighed, and said, "I hear ya. Okay, you take north, we'll take east, the rest of the guys will take south, and the rest of the girls west. That sound good to everybody?"

"Well enough," Tatewaki replied. "Let's move out… Ryoga, south is this way."

"I know. That was just for old times' sake."

Genma blinked and gasped, like a diver coming up for air. The last thing he could remember was being carried like a sack of coals over Yokehi's shoulder, squirming and fighting the threads she'd used to bind him. Then, a period of blank nothingness.

Now where was he? It wasn't quite pitch-black, but there was very little light, far less than he had ever seen since his kidnapping by Yokehi. He seemed to be wedged rather tightly into some confined space. Black bars wove thickly in front of him, restricting the light. With a little concentration, he confirmed that that pattern extended down below his current line of sight, pressing against his stomach and legs.

The similarity to prison bars, combined with the fact that Yokehi was nowhere in sight, seemed to flip a switch in Genma's brain. All the frustration of the last few days came boiling up at once. How dare Yokehi do this to him, he mentally growled. Taking him away from home without so much as asking, making all the decisions for him without any regard for how he felt about it, and now leaving him trapped in a situation like this! Well, he wasn't about to sit still for such injustice.

Genma braced his legs and pushed back, freeing up enough space to bring one arm up and around in a glancing blow. It was impossible to get any real force behind it from the constrained rotation, but that didn't matter — he'd used every ounce of skill at his command to vibrate his fist quickly and powerfully enough that it buzzed through the restraint anyway. It was wood, Genma realized as he repeated the action, an easier task now that he had the room from his first hole. His captor had apparently stowed him within the bole of a tree, and then encouraged it to grow strips over the hole. Well, Genma Saotome wasn't about to stay here like a cache of nuts stored by a squirrel! He squirmed free, pushed away from the trunk and into free-fall, flipped in midair, looked down a bit late and thanked his lucky stars that there was a path below him rather than a patch of brambles or something, and landed on his feet.

He began walking along the path, only to stop a few paces later. What was happening? His sense of direction wasn't giving him any difficulty at all. This should have been the start of a ten-minute walkabout over which he'd have had no real control and which would have seen him back to the old, familiar clearing. But no hint of that had happened yet. What was going on?

Genma had no way of knowing that Rouge's ward and Yokehi's countermeasure had ripped the delicate web of magics she'd woven through the area to shreds. He hadn't even been allowed to realize that the cavalry had arrived for his rescue. Genma could be a very heavy sleeper when he wanted to be, and in a situation like this — where his only defense against Yokehi crawling into bed with him in the small hours of the morning and taking things from there would be to not wake up — he tended to sleep very heavily indeed. He hadn't even managed to come fully awake by the time Yokehi's magical threads had shot forth to trap him, and she had wrapped him securely enough to prevent him from seeing or hearing anything.

Consequently, when he turned a corner in the trail at the same time Nodoka came around another bend farther on down it, the sight was a complete and total surprise.

"H-husband?" Nodoka breathed. She held rigid for several seconds longer, then darted forward.

Part of Genma screamed bloody murder at the sight. This was the same woman to whom he'd promised to bring Ranma back as a man among men or commit ritual suicide, and she was racing toward him with a glowing sword clutched in one hand. "RUN, NOW!!" demanded that corner of his mind.

The remainder, a rather larger part, wanted to know just how on earth Nodoka was supposed to have come to be here. His wife was a traditional, demure Japanese lady. She kept house. She had tea ceremonies. She cooked wonderful meals. She doted on children, especially her son. She didn't hike randomly at midnight through the American hinterlands carrying a European-style broadsword.

This majority of his mind considered these facts, then told the screaming little part to shut up, it was getting on their nerves. Clearly there was no chance of this really being Nodoka. That meant one of two things — either this was a trick, or a dream. Perhaps Yokehi had hit upon the idea of assuming the form of Nodoka at the age she would be right now, tricking him into thinking it really was his wife and lying with her, and then revealing that his defiance no longer had any ground to stand on. If that was the case, then this image would be warm and welcoming and eager, but it wouldn't know any of the things that his actual wife would.

If this Nodoka did know such things, then the whole scenario could only be a dream, something conjured up by his subconscious mind to reward him for his sterling behavior tonight. Yes, that piece of Genma's mind thought smugly, not many men in his position would have held out so firmly against temptation. A nice dream like this would be only what he deserved.

By now the woman who was either a poor copy or a warm memory of his wife had caught hold of him, the sword swinging randomly aside in just that sometimes-endearing, sometimes-horrifying way that No-chan had always had, in order to let her hug him without skewering him on the blade. Cautiously, not wanting to hold back if this wasn't Yokehi, not wanting to give her too much if it was, he eased his own arms around her.

The length of time that passed during which Nodoka simply held him, quietly crying with happiness into his gi, set Genma's suspicions more firmly than ever on the "dream" possibility. This just didn't seem like the kind of behavior Yokehi would use in planning a quick seduction. Still, he thought, as he noticed her getting herself more or less under control, it would be a good idea to test her further. Time to see if she would say something only the wife he remembered could know.

"Have you seen Ranma yet, No-chan?" Genma asked, pulling back just enough to look her in the eyes.

"Oh, yes!" Nodoka had been expecting quite a different question; she'd rather thought Genma would be shocked beyond belief at the sight of her, wondering and wanting to know how on earth she had come to be here. Questions about her manly son, though, drove those thoughts right out of her mind. "You did a wonderful job, Genma. He truly is a man among men. The curse was a shock, of course, but after Ranma explained how it led to the circumstances that allowed him to fall in love with both Kodachi and Shampoo, instead of just one of them, well, it all worked out for the best. I'm so proud of my son, and of the good job my husband did."

"And… the promise…?" Genma hinted.

Nodoka blinked. "I'd been thinking I had forgotten something," she realized. "I gave the pledge to Kodachi to hold. We'll get it back from her as soon as this is over, and scatter its ashes from Mt Fuji."

He hesitated no longer. This couldn't be Yokehi. It was his wife — or rather, a best-case scenario dream of her. "I am glad to hear you say I have fulfilled my honor promise," Genma said. "Come, let us celebrate."

Nodoka made a sound like a pleased cat as her husband's hand came up and began stroking her neck, hitting that one special spot in that one perfect way. She very nearly let the old, longed-for sensation sweep her away to the inevitable end. However, the Saotome matron barely retained the presence of mind to pull back and say, "W-wait, dear. We have to finish this, first."

Genma blinked. "We have to finish it before we can start it?" That was one thing he'd never forget about Nodoka — her ability to come to conclusions that made no objective sense to him.

"Not this, that. I mean, we can't do this and that yet. I mean…" Nodoka clamped down on her flusterment, reminding herself that Yokehi could be just over the next ridge. "What I mean is, we came here to rescue you and defeat that witch who snatched you away. We need to finish that and get back to Japan first."

" 'We'?" Genma repeated slowly. "To rescue me? Who are you talking about, dear?"

"Ranma, of course, and his lovely brides-to-be, and the Amazons Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, Tatewaki Kuno, Ryu and Ryoga Hibiki, Ukyo Kuonji, and Shampoo's great-grandmother Cologne and aunt Rouge. They used Amazon magic to find you and whisk us all out here."

"I… see," her husband replied, his face now more closely approximating the expression Nodoka had expected him to wear all along. He said nothing more, still obviously coming to grips with this. Nodoka took his hand and began gently but firmly leading him back down the trail, along the way she had come. There was no point in continuing along the path she had been taking, since that would just be backtracking over ground her husband had already covered. She had passed a divergent path just a little ways back; they would go down that one and see what they found. The Saotome matron smiled grimly. And if they should happen to find Yokehi….

Then that grim expression shifted into alarm. What if they should find Yokehi, without the Orb of Amalthea to protect her husband from the vile hellspawn's mind-control?! She stood tremblingly still for a few interminable seconds, then whipped Invictus up to eye level. "Sword, pay attention. The whole reason I'm here is to rescue this man, my husband. If you let our enemy place him under a spell, we will have failed. I will have failed. I will have been defeated. So you will prevent that from happening, will you not?"

Invictus bobbed up, then down, then back to its original level. Nodoka nodded herself, favoring it with a pleased smile. "Thank you very much."

It had taken forty-five minutes of walking to reach the edge of the ward. Admittedly they had been moving much more slowly than they otherwise would have, keeping to a pace that allowed for maximum caution and awareness of their surroundings, but the discovery of just how much extra space was packed in here still had Ranma-chan's stomach churning with frustrated anger.

Then, too, there was the shape of the ward itself. The arcane boundaries were invisible, even to Shampoo's Eyes of the Cat. But all three teens were able to feel the edge clearly enough, and it was no pleasant discovery to find that it twisted, curled, and bent at crazy angles. The spell cast by Rouge was a perfect circle, but clearly they couldn't even assume that much any longer. Yokehi had certainly found an annoyingly effective countermeasure.

The three of them paced along the ward for a little ways, confirming that its twists and bends didn't just stop a slight distance away from the point where they'd first arrived. After that, deciding that more discussion and planning were needed, they retreated back to the clearing.

Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, and Ukyo arrived there two minutes later. All three of the newcomers wore dazed, glazed, wondrous expressions that frankly irked Ranma-chan even more. "You guys have any luck?" she asked, sharply enough to draw their attention more or less back to reality.

"Yeah. Well, no. Not like you mean, Ranchan," Ukyo explained. "But we did see something pretty darn amazing."

"Was a unicorn." Unshed tears glistened in Ling-Ling's eyes. "Not show any fear, let us come right up and pat it. Was most beautiful thing Ling-Ling ever see in whole life."

"Never thought Lung-Lung would say this, but thank all good powers that we have not seduce Ryu yet," the lime-haired girl said fervently.

"But you not see Genma, or Yokehi, no?" Shampoo asked, bringing the conversation back to more important concerns, and staving off a serious show of anger on her redheaded Airen's part. "You find edge of ward way far away, and it was all twisted and bent?"

"Yeah. Well, it's not that the ward is bent. It's the space that we're in that's folded and twisted and all that," Ukyo clarified. "I'm pretty sure of that, anyway. If Yokehi had screwed with the ward itself, I'm pretty sure Rouge wouldn't just be sitting out there on her butt."

"Speaking of Rouge, we've got some bad news." This was Tatewaki. He, Ryoga, and Ryu had just appeared out of the shadows of the treeline. Ling-Ling noted with much relief that they were still carrying the Orb of Amalthea, so her Airen hadn't been ambushed, overpowered, and placed under Yokehi's control again. On the other hand, she'd been kind of hoping that the witch might have tried, failed miserably, and sliced his clothes to ribbons in a fit of pique.

"What's that?" Ranma-chan asked as the newly-arrived group covered the distance to join the six girls in the middle of the clearing.

Kuno gestured back the way they'd come. "Remember that when we first arrived here, Rouge took up her position just outside the southern edge of the clearing. We went as far back in that direction as we could, and when we found the edge of the ward there was no sign of her on the other side of it."

"Remember what Yokehi said about pulling in more of the forest?" Ryoga asked grimly. "Take a good look at this clearing. It's the same size and shape as when we first got here. It's got the same two piles of leaves that they were sleeping on. But this isn't the same clearing, not really. Yokehi's shuffled everything around."

"If it's not clear yet what we mean, look there." Tatewaki pointed toward a nondescript tree on the western edge of the clearing. "When we arrived, there was a very different tree standing there. The trunk split less than four feet from the ground, and both offshoots curled and twisted in a very distinct way. And we encountered that very tree some five minutes away from the edge of the ward."

"That's what I just told them, you jackass," Ukyo said exasperatedly. "Everything's warped around in here. What feels like north or south or whatever to us has nothing to do with the true directions outside the folded space."

"Tell me, Ukyo, just how much versatility is there to this trick of geographical origami?" Kodachi requested. "Could Yokehi be standing less than a foot away from us in a fold of reality, not invisible but hidden all the same, listening to us?"

"…I don't think so," Ukyo said cautiously. "But don't take me to the bank on that one, sugar."

"Hey, Ukyo, I had a question too." This was Ryoga, who was the one carrying the Orb of Amalthea. He held it up and forward slightly, drawing her attention to it. "We never saw any sign of Yokehi or Genma, but this thing did give off a random pulse of light. Was that because she was lurking somewhere, trying to get control over us?"

"How should I know? I've never studied that thing. Tatewaki has to know more about it than I do."

The kendoist inclined his head. "That was my guess. We had hoped you might be able to confirm it." Ukyo gave an apologetic shake of her head, and Tatewaki grimaced. "It would have been nice to think that we had frustrated her, even if only a little."

"So what we do now?" Ling-Ling said. "Is no way we manage to pin down stupid ghost witch. Place is just too big, not enough of us."

"First, we wait for Mom to get back," Ranma-chan replied. "Then we need to follow the edge of the ward until we do find Rouge an' Cologne. We let Great-Grandmother know what's happened, and take things from there."

"What she can do? She outside ward, and if Aunt Rouge drop it, Boom! Witch gone for sure."

"Yeah, she's on the outside. But think about it, Lung-Lung… how'd we all get here?"

The lime-haired girl's eyes widened at the reminder. "You mean…" She clamped her mouth shut so as not to give away anything their enemy might possibly overhear, and considered the possibilities. True, Great-Grandmother had to remain where she was to defend their aunt, but surely she could spare a few seconds to cross over to them with the Nanban Mirror, collect Shampoo, and cross back to Rouge. Then Shampoo could take the Mirror and return to the Amazon village for some serious backup. Let this witch try to stand up to the combined fury of the other three Amazon mages! No trick with folded space would save her then!

"That is a good point." The words came from no discernable direction. It was Yokehi, speaking in nearly the same carefree mocking voice she'd used before. Kodachi thought she detected a slight edge to the witch's words this time that hadn't been there before, but couldn't be certain. "It would certainly be in my best interest not to let you re-establish contact with whoever is maintaining this prison. Thank you for reminding me."

"You can't stop us forever!" Ukyo snarled. "I may not know a lot about stuff like this, but I know how much power it takes to mess around with space like you've done. You can't keep switching things around and keeping us going in circles. Not for long, anyway, it just takes too much power. And if you were that strong you'd've just busted your way out of the ward at the beginning."

"Humph. Typical attitude of an inexperienced little hedge-witch," Yokehi replied. "Thinking that it's all about power. I don't need to fold space to keep sending you where I want you to go. I can do that quite easily with a simpler, subtler spell that takes almost no power… and you'll never even realize that I'm doing it. Or did you think it could possibly have been a coincidence that all nine of you made your way back here within five minutes of one another?"

The teenagers all blinked at this. "We see coincidences that big at least once a week," Kodachi informed the concealed conjuress.

"Really," Yokehi drawled. "Well, don't take my poor word for it, Ranma. Just ask your father. I've decided to allow him to say a proper round of goodbyes." A "decision" that had rather been forced upon her; the interval of distraction caused by rebuilding and refining her misdirection spells had been just long enough for Genma to be freed by the Orb of Amalthea and to meet unhindered with Nodoka. Not something she'd had any intention of allowing. Yokehi had no plans to admit that in this lifetime, though.

"Pop?! HEY, POP!!" Ranma-chan yelled, fearing now that this was the cue for Yokehi to produce her chained, hobbled father and use him as a hostage to force her release. The redhead looked wildly around. "WHERE ARE YOU?!"

"Right here, boy," Genma growled as he and Nodoka appeared at the edge of the clearing. "What do you think you're doing, yelling your head off like that? Have you forgotten there's a crazy witch somewhere around here waiting to pounce?!"

"Oh, Genma, you silly man. She's not going to give away your position. I've tracked all of you for all this time." Genma flinched ever so slightly at the words, realizing that his hopes of Yokehi being miles away ignorant of his freedom were clearly in vain.

"Yeah, and she was talkin' to us just a minute ago. Didn't you hear her, old man?" Ranma-chan demanded, more than a little irate that the first thing out of her father's mouth had been not only a rebuke, but a stupid one at that. Still, at least he'd addressed her as "boy", not "girl".

"Now, Ranma, it's not his fault. I stilled the air between you, myself, and him, preventing any of our sounds from reaching his ears." Yokehi's voice hardened. "It is time for this charade to end. I admit that you caught me by surprise, and that you have trapped me here, but that was the first and last of your victory. I've allowed you to wander around freely, to see just how things are now. Your mage fashioned the prison walls, but you are the ones caught like flies in a spider's web."

Her voice hardened farther, passing from stone to steel. "I control things here. I have no wish to harm any of you, but I will not see the man I love carried away from me. Contest this further, and you will see what happens when you challenge a sorceress on her home ground."

"I already know what happens. We kick her butt!" Ranma-chan proclaimed. "You're full of it, lady. You talk big, but you ain't even showed your face yet. Cause you know that when you do, we'll take you down."

"And what do you think you have, that can 'take me down'?" Yokehi inquired. "Will you bash me with sticks and stones, or your fists? Do you even begin to understand how useless all your skills are against a sorceress in her full power?"

"Your full power will break like the last dying breath of a diseased harlot against the power of this sword!" Nodoka proclaimed fiercely, waving Invictus over her head. Genma ducked instinctively, even though the sword had bent its path to avoid what would otherwise have been a near-miss.

"Ah, yes." Yokehi let the silence stretch just for a few seconds, then hissed, "Invictus. That is its name. And it truly does render you beyond defeat, Lady Saotome. For the moment."

"How, pray tell, do you know of this blade?" Kodachi asked, straining mightily and almost managing to keep her voice level.

"Why, I have been studying it for nearly half an hour now," Yokehi said, her gracious tone not quite managing to hide the ugly undercurrents of menace and confidence. "An extremely powerful spell, but it certainly has its limitations." All pleasantness was now gone from her voice, as she continued, "Tomorrow evening, there will be a slim crescent of moon just barely visible in the sky. It certainly won't add much in the way of illumination. But it will render that blade nothing more than an inert lump of metal.

"In fact, its protection won't even last that long. The magic will sink down into hibernation sometime tomorrow afternoon. I can certainly wait that long before moving in and removing you from the scene, Nodoka Saotome."

And that was it. The line had been crossed. Ranma-chan stood tremblingly still for a few heartbeats more, then took several steps away from the group, toward the treeline. "You're not gonna threaten her," the redhead promised. Her words emerged as little more than a whisper, but quickly grew in power. "You're not gonna hurt her! You're not gonna steal my father away!! You're NOT GONNA SCREW WITH MY FAMILY ANY MORE!!"

She let the anger come, rising higher and higher, twisting round and round with another emotion — the determination to see Genma returned, her mother safe, all three Saotomes back together. As they should be. As they would be!

Her face contorted into a mask of feral rage. Her lips peeled back in a snarl. Her hands shot forward in the classic Street Fighter pose. "KIKOTSU BAKUHA!!"

"Did Ranma forget? No say 'Kikotsu Bakuha'," Ling-Ling chided in a trembling, small voice. "Say 'Kame Hame Ha'."

No-one laughed at the joke. As they stared at the sight before them, laughter was just about the least appropriate response possible. The blast of chi had roared louder than any thunderstorm, or any bullet train. That would perhaps have been a better comparison, Ryu thought grimly, because when the attack came, it shot forth with the directness and power of that staple of Japanese mass transit. It had blasted trees to toothpicks for nearly a thousand feet and carved a massive trench through the earth in which they'd stood.

"That was impressive." Yokehi mentally cursed as she realized the words hadn't come out nearly as controlled as she'd intended. The sorceress could only hope that everyone was still too stunned at the force the shapeshifted redhead had unleashed to notice the fear and uncertainty which leaked into her voice. She fell silent, working on rebuilding her control.

"What'sa matter?!" Ranma-chan yelled. The drain of that move had been severe and unpleasant, but she could feel the ambient chi swiftly refilling her reserves. "See somethin' you didn't like, maybe? Something you couldn't just shrug off?! I don't even have to hit ya with this! All I have to do is knock down all the trees! Whatcha gonna do then, when you got nowhere else to hide?!"

Yokehi's response was a long time in coming. When she did speak, though, it was in the same old light, mocking tone that everyone had come to know and loathe. "Now, Ranma, you shouldn't lie to your stepmother like that. It's hardly polite. I know very well that you cannot possibly pull off such a powerful attack more than once or twice."

"Do I look tired to you?! KIKOTSU BAKUHA!!" Another massive swath of trees was reduced to so much sawdust, pulp, and splinters. "I can do this all night!"

"Thanks, but you've already done enough."

"Son-in-law, what have you done?!" The cry followed hard on the heels of Yokehi's response, and hit everyone far harder. Ranma-chan, along with everyone else in the clearing, whirled. Coming up from the south were Cologne and Rouge. The Matriarch was balanced atop her staff, bouncing along apparently unhindered at all by the fact that she had slung Rouge over her shoulder. The mage was massaging her temples and groaning faintly.

Before anyone could recover enough to process this, the Matriarch had closed the distance. "A massive blast of chi with your life signature just ripped my great-granddaughter's ward to pieces! What in the name of sanity were you thinking?!"

"Now, now, it's not his fault," Yokehi's voice trilled. "It wouldn't have even touched the ward, except that he had no way of knowing I just undid something I'd done earlier." The witch paused, then said, "I make my acknowledgements. Here, now, I cannot handle the lot of you. You have won a respite. But I will return soon enough for you, Genma. Until then, my d—"

"ENOUGH!" Genma roared, interrupting her. It was easy to summon this much courage with the sheer power of the force surrounding and supporting him. "Have you learned nothing in all this time, woman?! Run away, bide your time, steal me again — it won't change anything! I will never betray Nodoka and yield myself to you!"

"You would not say that if she weren't here. If all these meddlesome vermin weren't inflicting their presence on that which is no concern of theirs!" Yokehi's reply was tight, almost choked-off… and the pain in it could be heard very clearly.

Genma refused to be moved by that. The sight of a crying woman might affect him, but words? Not a chance. "No concern? Of my son? My wife?! My real family, not someone who thinks only what she wants matters?"

"It's not like that!" The witch's control was breaking. "I want to be with you, to please you and give you a good life! To complete you, as I know you will complete me!"

"You know nothing of the sort, I promise you that. Because it's not going to happen! I'm leaving here with Nodoka and Ranma!"

"An' if you steal him again, we'll come again." This was Ranma-chan. "And so help me, next time we'll bring the whole Amazon Council down on you if we haveta. You damn well won't survive that."

"Enough, Ranma. This is my fight." Genma turned his attention away from Ranma-chan and back toward the woods. "I will not abandon Nodoka for you. You've wasted enough of my time and yours, Yokehi. Leave, and find someone else."

"Forget that!" This was Rouge, who had now recovered enough from the destruction of her ward to stand up. Her head was throbbing more fiercely than the worst hangover she'd ever experienced, which only added to her ire. "You're not going anywhere yet! Show yourself, witch, and swear never to bother us again. Or the Chinese Amazons won't wait for you to strike again — I and my fellow mages will track you down and put you down forever!"

Silence greeted her ultimatum, a long silence that stretched and stretched. Then, just as Ranma-chan was putting the final polishing touches on a round of insults that would either draw a response or prove for certain that their enemy was no longer present, Yokehi spoke. "Genma… please…"

He closed his eyes. "I've made my choice. I made it a long time ago."

"Very well." The words came brittle as eggshell, as broken as the shell of an egg that would now never hatch. Yokehi stepped out of the trees, appearing on a pathway some twenty feet away from the clearing's edge. An arcane glow surrounded the witch, brightening her enough to highlight the glimmering trails of tears that curved down her cheeks. "L-let the words of my oath be sealed by all the power I possess. I hereby pledge myself to Nodoka Saotome, never again to try to steal her husband away from her, never again to show my detestable face in her sight. I p-pledge to all of you, never… never to seek any sort of revenge for this night's events. Or for anything else. None, none of you who look upon me now shall ever… see me again." The witch bowed her head, whispered, "Farewell," and vanished.

Even through his closed eyes, the disappearance of the light was obvious. Still, Genma waited a few seconds longer before daring to lift one eyelid. On seeing no sign of a crying female, he exhaled a long, deep breath. "Let's go, everyone," he said gruffly. "Let's go home."

The house was large, but not inordinately so. It was well-decorated, but not opulent. The fixtures and furnishings were of uniformly high quality, but this characteristic was secondary to that of comfort.

Yokehi stood in the largest room, staring red-eyed at the home she'd built primarily for someone other than herself. The place already bore something of Genma's imprint, even though he'd never yet set foot in it.

"Not yet," she whispered harshly. "But I'm not beaten yet, either."

The tears had been real, but not the loss of composure. Yokehi could admit, to herself at least, that she'd been backed into a very nasty corner. But that Chinese mage had still been suffering from the feedback of her ruined spell, had been unable to think quickly or clearly enough. The ghost witch had seen it in the gaijin's eyes, had seen the woman accept her oath as being what she had demanded. They all thought they'd won, driven her to renounce her dreams for good and all. "But I've not been defeated yet. I promise you that."

Yokehi stood ramrod straight for a moment longer, then walked slowly over to a large, comfy chair. It had been sized for Genma; as she curled up within it she could almost imagine that it was his own embrace curving around her, sheltering her, joining her, completing her. She took a long, deep breath, and began trying to decide.

Would it be better to wait until Nodoka died naturally, then move in, restore Genma to his youth, and renew her claim on his heart? She could simply put herself back to sleep until age or chance took the woman who stood in her way. There were risks to this approach, of course, but she suspected that was true of all remaining paths to her goal.

And if there were many such paths left, they hadn't yet revealed themselves to her. The only other option she could see would be to return to that bizarre area in China she'd recently visited, and avail herself of water from the spring that caused one to become two. This course bore its share of risks and difficulties as well, but at least there would be no danger of Genma dying before Nodoka passed along.

Yokehi wiped the last traces of tears from her eyes, and gave herself over to pondering. 'Decisions, decisions…'

The forest disappeared around them, replaced in an instant by the walls of the Kuno mansion. Cologne pulled Rouge slightly back from the rest of the crowd, and said, "I am going to take my great-granddaughter back to the village. Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, you may have the rest of the day and the evening to spend as you wish." Her gaze flickered toward Ryu, and she added, "Try not to get the poor boy into too much trouble. And Genma…" her gaze shifted from amused to hooded as she turned it toward the elder Saotome, "I'll discuss ways you can repay us for our aid soon enough."

As the Matriarch and the mage disappeared, Ranma-chan stepped forward. "I'll be satisfied just hearing you admit it out loud, Pop. I saved your sorry hide. Come on, spit it out, it ain't that hard. 'Oh, thank you son, without you I'd still be trapped there, helpless in the clutches of that awful, awful woman.' " She smirked at him, all other emotions pushed to the side for now, displaced by anticipation of the admission her old man was going to have to make.

"Now, Ranma, don't tease your father," Nodoka said gently, not only breaking the moment but grinding it to dust. With only the barest hint of reluctance she sheathed Invictus, handed it to Kodachi, then stepped over and embraced Genma. "I'm so glad to be back with you, dear. Glad we're all here, now, together again for good."

"And I as well, No-chan," Genma replied, the fervor in his voice almost too great for words to describe. He was safe, his family was whole, and his wife would never be calling in the seppuku contract. She even knew about the curse and it didn't bother her! Truly all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds!

"Awww… it's a Kodak moment," Ukyo muttered, half-embarrassed to be feeling as much of a warm fuzzy as she was. This was Genma Saotome, after all, she mentally protested. The man who'd caused her so much heartache! But seeing how happy Nodoka was in his arms, how happy Ranma-chan was at the sight of her parents reunited, the chef just could not summon up any real remnant of the old anger.

"It is indeed." Tatewaki blinked. 'Kodak… camera… 'Biki-chan….' "That reminds me. I should call the Tendos and tell them Genma is safe." And maybe by now a certain Tendo daughter would have finished meeting with her lieutenants and preparing for the start of term at Furinkan, and would be free for a dinner date.

Kuno slipped out the door, followed by Ukyo and both sets of twins. After a moment of silence, Shampoo spoke up. "Am glad we were able to rescue you. For you, for Ranma, for… Mother." She then leveled a warning stare at him. "Do not make us go through this again, okay?"

"I'm sure one kidnapping is the maximum for any one life," Genma assured her with a laugh. "I'm not going anywhere." The last of the word struggled to emerge coherently, just barely making it out ahead of a monstrous yawn. After all, Genma's internal clock was still telling him it was about an hour past midnight, after a day of strenuous exercise. Now that he was safe and secure here, the last of the adrenaline was fading away.

"Well, now, Genma dear, I think you should go somewhere. To bed," Nodoka clarified with a smile. "Our daughter-in-law-to-be has given me a wonderful room not far away. Come along now."

As the Saotome matron led her husband from the room, Shampoo let out a snicker. From the look of things, Genma had been sinking into drowsiness quickly — too quickly by far to realize just what was really going to be happening. The sun might not have set here in Japan, the dawn of the next day might be far off yet, but to someone who was getting very tired of waiting for her sister to claim first turn at a certain privilege, the gleam in Nodoka's eyes had been unmistakable. "Bet he not get much sleep tonight."

"I know," Ranma-chan said with an evil grin, "but I ain't cutting him any slack tomorrow morning in sparring practice." The grin faded a bit, into a more thoughtful expression. "We've got a lot of time to make up for."


Author's notes: This is it, folks, the final chapter. I'm ending where the anime left off, with the introduction of Ranma's mother. This is the reason for the long gap between the release of the prior chapter and this one. I had to wait for Viz to get around to releasing the final episode and watch it, to see what sort of things were revealed there.

This was needed so that I could treat Nodoka's character appropriately. Even before I saw those episodes, I was fairly certain I didn't want to portray her as some kind of stoic samurai-ko* swordmistress. And seeing her in action clinched that decision in stone. Ironically enough, it seems to me that Genma was correct — if he hadn't gotten Ranma so thoroughly away from his mother, Ranma would never have been even half as skilled a martial artist as he is. She's just too much of a clumsy ditz, with strong but strange ideas on honor. It would be interesting to see a Ranma who'd been raised exclusively by this story's Nodoka, I think.

Another point, that I know has bothered some people, was the fact that until now there's been almost no mention of Nodoka, and never a discussion about her between Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo. But I believe this to have been necessary. Until I saw how Ranma reacted in the original series to the revelation of his mother's existence, I could not safely write almost anything about what he thought about her, what his assumptions were regarding her absence from his life. Any guesses I made could have been revealed as totally wrong by those final episodes. And so, although Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo certainly must have discussed his mother at some point, this story could not cover any of those discussions until this chapter. Frankly, I cut it pretty darn close by mentioning her as much as I did, with the whole Kodachi-recovers-Nodoka's-image-through-the-Heart-Link bit.

Acknowledgements for this chapter: Tarantallegra and Rictusempra (the shiatsu points Kodachi was considering using in the spar that didn't happen) are curses from the Harry Potter continuity. Considering the ridiculous effects of shiatsu points in the original series, this seemed appropriate.

A long time ago, Gregg Sharpe made some comments about the direction I was allowing Akane's character to take. I don't think he actually used the words "Tokyo Tendo" (ref to Indiana Jones, for those of you who might not have caught the significance), but he might as well have. It's a joke I enjoyed playing up, but on another level it's no joke at all. Some people have probably been a little disappointed at how Akane, though not treated harshly by this fic, is clearly an outsider, a stranger to the camaraderie of the modified Nerima Wrecking Crew. In my eyes, this is not only necessary, it is a seriously good thing. In the original series, Akane is the one who has to be rescued time and time again, and though she may (usually but not always) contribute something to that effort, the brunt of the work is always done by someone else. Here, in my story, she learns to stand on her own two feet, and earns her victories.

Depicting Genma as a bonehead rather than deliberately evil or heartless seems to me to better fit his character as depicted in the anime. Don't think I've given him too much more credit than he is due in this chapter, though… if you read between the lines, it shouldn't be too hard to determine whether he'd really have been able to hold off indefinitely from giving in to Yokehi. Of course, the Yokehi of this story would no doubt be a better match for Genma than Nodoka; the witch sees and values him as he is, whereas Nodoka wears a thick pair of rose-colored glasses (that's my interpretation, of course, but if she really understood Genma then what would it say about her that she let him take Ranma on the long training journey?)

I suspect at least some of Yokehi's taunting Nodoka as an old woman has been inspired by DB Sommer's story The Things We Wish For…. I probably would have had elements of this in my story even if he hadn't included them in his (since Yokehi will never get old and wrinkled it is only natural that she would contrast herself to Nodoka thusly when working on Genma), but possibly not this much. Anyway, now that you've finished White Rose, go read DB's work.

*Read Quantum Destinies, too. That's where the term "samurai-ko" comes from. And no, I'm not going to explain what it means. You have to check out that story to find out. I cannot think that anyone who has liked White Rose enough to stick with it this far would not enjoy Quantum Destinies greatly as well.

It's been a long, crazy, enlightening ride, working on this fic. And I'm not one hundred percent certain that I won't come back in the future and write a bit more. If I did, though, it would be stand-alone OAV side-stories. I've certainly left plenty of threads that could be worked into new ideas (See! Ken teach Sakura to be more assertive. Laugh! as she seduces him. Tremble! when Masa Kiri returns, intent upon dragging Ken down to irredeemable corruption. Turn green! as Sakura rips out his liver). But the main story, the real story, is done.

To everyone who's ever sent supportive comments, saying they liked the fic, thank you. It does matter, it does help sustain my determination to provide long, deep, quality works, to keep working on improving my writing skills, and to complete everything I start. I hope this ending was satisfying for you.

Comments? Criticism? Thank-you's for spending two years of my life writing this? As always, email me at aondehafka@hotmail.com

Omake (please note that this is not the actual future of the story):

"Congratulations, Ranma!" Godai said enthusiastically. "You'll make a fine son-in-law. I wish Hitome and I had been here to learn the news sooner."

"So how did that business deal go, anyway?" Ranma asked, a little awkwardly. He had plenty of common ground with the Kuno patriarch, and it was generally easy to talk to him, but some things would never be interesting or easily comprehensible.

"Well enough, well enough." Godai produced a flat wooden box and handed it to his future family member. "Here, I brought you back a souvenir. I suppose we can call it an engagement gift now."

Ranma took the box, noting that its dimensions and near-total absence of weight ruled out just about everything in the way of contents. About the only thing that would work would be a single sheet of paper. For some strange reason, the kanji for "just in case" were printed on the top. "What is it?" he joked. "A scroll of remove curse?"

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