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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter three

Kenzan no Akuinnen

Part A

Disclaimer: Takahashi provided the paints, I'm just working on my own easel.

What has gone before:

Ranma and Ukyou have finished their first date, at the symphony, and return to the restaurant to meet with Chame. Ryouga wakes up in pig form, beaten badly and being taken care of by a girl he doesn't know. After a run in with some gangsters, Ranma discovers Nabiki accidentally tried playing games with people that she shouldn't have. Chame has a discussion with her Father, complaining that she doesn't want to hurt people. Shortly afterwards, Ranma saves Kuno from being killed by Chame in a fit of anger. Chame plans on leaving soon, and has agreed to go with Ranma to confront his mother as he reveals his curse to her.

Previous chapters are archived at: http://ranma.stassen.com/uc/

Brief key, trying to stay simple.

<> frame thoughts.

"" frame speech

"{}" frame speech in Mandarin

 

"In the science of martial arts, the state of mind should remain the same as normal. In ordinary circumstances as well as when practicing martial arts, let there be no change at all -- with the mind open and direct, neither tense nor lax, centering the mind so there is no imbalance, calmly relax your mind, and savor this moment of ease so thoroughly so that the relaxation does not stop its relaxation for even an instant."

From 'The Water scroll' - Miyamoto Musashi's 'The Book of Five Rings'

 

"The mind is like the moon in water,

The body is like an image in the mirror."

Yagyu Munenori - from 'The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War'

 

Ranma growled darkly, as Chame and Ukyou followed her down the street, "It would rain today, wouldn't it?"

Ukyou stifled a laugh, then pointed out, "True, but if you think about it, doesn't this give you a chance to test the waters before you tell her the truth?"

The pigtailed redhead said nothing for a moment, then sighed. "You're right, I guess. I should have carried a dang umbrella with me, though."

Chame shook her head, and said nothing. Every so often she would pause for a moment, her eyes scanning the road, searching for... something.

Finally, Ranma broke down, and turned to the shorter redhead. In exasperation, she asked, "Chame, what are you doing?"

She glanced at him, then returned her attention to her task. "Searching for anyone who might be trying to get us."

Ukyou shook her head, trying to ignore the cloud of fears and nagging doubts that trailed her. "I think you're worrying too much. Who could be after us right now?"

Ranma spoke before Chame could, her voice dry and carrying her irritation, "Well, we have no idea where Ryouga is, and he's a lot more dangerous than we had previously thought. Those guys in suits might be after us, since I said I was my sister, and they saw you with me anyway. Kuno might be out of the picture, but his older sister is on the loose..."

Ukyou drew in a deep breath, and expelled it slowly. "You're right. I just really wish that we could be leaving under more favorable circumstances."

Chame said nothing, her staff tapping the ground silently as they walked. After another block, Ranma pointed to a house, calling out, "There. I hope she's home. I should have called first."

Ukyou grabbed Ranma's shoulder, unable to deny the apprehension that was plaguing her. "Wait, Ranma. What if they told her that you, er, Ranko was missing, and to keep an eye out?"

Ranma stood silently for a moment, deliberating, then hung his head. "I tell her the truth. I think she'll hear me out before she tells them where I am."

Chame interrupted before Ukyou could ask any more questions, "Don't forget, we also have Kasumi and Tofu on our side."

Ranma nodded, glad for the little bit of positive reassurance. "Right. I think you mentioned something about that... At any rate, this shouldn't be too much of a problem."

Ukyou still didn't let go of Ranma's shoulder. She frowned, and spun Ranma to face her, pleading, "Ranma. What if she calls upon you to commit seppuku?"

Ranma said nothing for a long moment. Chame tightened her grip on her staff until her knuckles turned white, and then Ranma spoke, her voice sounding oddly hollow. "I don't think she'll do it. If she does, if she honestly thinks I need to fulfill that contract, then there will be no more Saotome Ranma by sundown tonight."

Ukyou drew in another deep breath, and pulled Ranma to her tightly. "Ranma. Please, don't do this; you can't do that to us. I need you, I _love_ you! And Chame has put so much into seeing you survive!"

Ranma licked her lips nervously, "Well, I'm not sure I want to die, but..." She trailed off, staring at her feet. Ranma seemed oblivious to the rain, and lost in her thoughts.

Ukyou embraced Ranma tightly again, begging,, "Please! I'd do anything to keep from losing you!" She seemed on the verge of tears.

Chame nodded slowly, her eyes flickering across Ranma before coming to rest on Ukyou. "Ukyou, can I have a moment with you?"

Ukyou reluctantly walked to the side, leaving Ranma in the street. She didn't want to leave Ranma, but Chame knew something. "Okay, Chame. What is it?"

Chame sighed deeply, then whispered, "Ukyou, Ranma's really nervous about this. I don't want to ruin things, I want this to work out. I don't honestly believe Ranma's mother will call upon the contract. If she does, however, I'll tell you this. Saotome Ranma has to commit seppuku at sundown if his mother finds him unworthy. Kuonji Ranma should have no such obligation..."

Ukyou blinked a few times. "Oh," she said faintly.

Chame shook her head, turning to look at Ranma, who stared at the door to his mother's home. "I don't want to push you into this, but... if it comes down to it, would you be willing?"

Ukyou stared into Chame's eyes, firm in her resolve. "In a heartbeat. Hell, I'd be glad to do it even if his life wasn't in danger, in fact-"

Chame held a hand in the air to forestall any further speech from the brown-haired girl. "No. Don't push him. If it comes down to it, then yes. Otherwise, just have patience."

Ukyou nodded reluctantly. "He needs a friend, right?"

Chame glanced at Ranma as she replied, "Right. But I think this is all worrying over nothing."

Ukyou nodded again, relaxing slightly. "Okay. Let's get this over with."

The two returned to Ranma's side. She glanced up at them, and heaved a heavy sigh, "C'mon."

Nobody said anything as Ranma led the way to her mother's house, and knocked on the door.

There was a muffled rustling noise, and then a slim woman, not unattractive but with the maturity of several years on her face, answered the door. She looked down at Ranma, surprise evident on her face, "Little Ranko! You're soaking! Come in, come in! Are these your friends?"

Ranma, Ukyou, and Chame were all let in, and Nodoka shook her head at the trio, "Imagine! Girls your age, are running around in this weather without umbrellas." Ranma glanced at Ukyou, who looked too nervous to smile.

Ukyou forced a weak laugh, "Well, you know how it is..."

Nodoka nodded, concern etched on her face. "Indeed. Now, sit down, and have some tea. I want to know what's going on, Ranko. Akane called, asking me to keep an eye out for you. She sounded very worried."

Ranma flinched at the words, and sat heavily on a couch. "I'm... I'm sorry."

Nodoka sighed, and left the three for the kitchen. Chame sat on one edge of a loveseat, and shook her head disapprovingly at Ukyou when she moved to sit near Ranma.

Ukyou frowned, and sat next to Chame. Seated this way, Nodoka would sit next to Ranma. <I guess it does make sense, though. Oh, Ranchan...>

After a few minutes, Nodoka emerged from the kitchen, bearing her formal tea set. "I don't get a chance to use this much, and I've wanted to teach Ranko the Tea Ceremony for a while... There shouldn't be a problem since I think we have time..." Ukyou and Chame shared a muted groan, glancing at Ranma worriedly. "What's wrong?"

Ranma stood up, "Ah, Auntie Saotome, they're nervous because I'm so clumsy, and it would be a pity to break the formal tea set... why don't we put that away, just in case?" <And I already know Martial Arts Tea Ceremony... I doubt you'll be in a mood to be using your formal tea set after we talk.> Nodoka frowned, but complied, turning back to the kitchen.

A few more minutes left Ukyou trying to avoid breaking out into hysterics. <My god, Ranchan might have to commit seppuku! We should just get him out of here, and run away...> Chame glanced at Ukyou, and waved to Ranma.

Ranma blinked for a moment, then nodded, and extended a palm towards Ukyou. Ukyou shivered as she felt... something happen. She glanced around, <What was I so worried about? Oh yes, Ranma might have been killed. Might still be killed.> She shook her head, trying to think clearly. <Shouldn't I be more worried about this? Maybe Ranma used some calming technique on me.>

Nodoka re-emerged from the kitchen, bearing a non-formal tea set, and poured tea for each of the girls. "I suppose that will have to wait for a later day, then. Now then, Ranko, I want to know what's going on here. Did you and Akane have a falling out? Akane said Mr. Panda was worried sick about you, and they haven't seen you for a few days."

Ranma set down her teacup with trembling hands. Her voice wavered slightly, as she tried to explain herself, "Something did happen, Auntie. Something with Ranma and his pop."

Nodoka stared, too stunned to even chastise Ranma's language. "Oh? What happened, Ranko?"

She drew in a ragged breath, then continued, "Ranma and his pop went to China about a year ago. You remember that, right?"

Nodoka nodded worriedly. "Yes, but I thought they had come back. Did something happen during their training trip?"

Ranma nodded back, eyes tearing. "Yes, something did happen. Something that may keep your son from fulfilling his contract with you. He may not be a 'man among men.'"

Nodoka dropped her teacup, and it bounced on the carpet. She picked it up and set it back on the low table absently, oblivious to the wet spot that would likely stain the fine carpet underneath. In a level tone, she asked, "Ranko, was my son injured? Or my husband? What happened?"

Ranma sobbed weakly, before regaining her composure. "Your son and his pop went to a training ground called Jusenkyou. Have you heard of it?"

Shaking her head slowly, Nodoka apologized, "I'm sorry Ranko, I don't know much Chinese."

Ranma sighed, wiping her eyes. "It doesn't matter, really. I can tell you. It's a training ground. Ranma knocked your husband into a pool, while they were training. The idea was that they would fight on bamboo pools sticking up in all of the pools, and... Well, your husband fell in one."

She blinked, confused. "And? Genma can swim, was the fall too far?"

Ranma shook her head, "The pools were cursed. When you fall into one, it curses you. It makes you take the body of whatever fell into the pool. Your husband leapt up out of the pool and knocked your son into another one."

Nodoka gasped, horror evident in her voice, and a feeling of dread forming a knot deep in her stomach. "My son is cursed? What did he turn into?" Ukyou swallowed nervously, feeling a sensation that neatly mirrored Nodoka's, as she watched the drama unfold before her.

Ranma said nothing, taking the tea kettle. She sighed deeply, and walked to a section of the floor without carpeting. Holding the tea kettle in front of her, her voice barely more than a squeak, she explained, "Your son turns into a girl. A little girl with red hair."

Nodoka stared with horrified fascination as Ranma poured the hot tea over her head, and then fell to his knees. His eyes were still filled with tears, as he explained. "I'm sorry, Mother. I'm so sorry." He bowed his head low, and waited for her to say something.

Ukyou swallowed heavily. She wanted to rush over to him, and comfort him, but Chame gripped her arm firmly. The redhead shook her head at Ukyou, and Ukyou whimpered softly, wishing she could help.

Nodoka stared, jaw working, trying to say something. Finally, she stood, unable to find words for the moment. And words weren't what this situation needed. She sank to her own knees in front of Ranma, and embraced him tightly, declaring, "Ranma. My son."

Ranma hugged his mom fiercely, babbling, "I'm so sorry, Mother. Sorry..."

She shushed him, "No Ranma, don't be sorry. This whole thing - don't be sorry."

He nodded, and they held the embrace for a few minutes. Finally, Nodoka stood up, and brushed at the tea stain on her kimono. She reached a hand down to Ranma, smiling pleasantly as she announced, "Come, son. We have much to discuss."

Ranma meekly complied, and sat at the couch. Nodoka sat next to him, still looking a little stunned, but more proud than anything else. "Ranko- No, sorry. Ranma, what happened to your father? What did he turn into?" Ranma heaved a sigh, but before he could respond, Nodoka spoke again, "No, I see it now. He's Mr. Panda, isn't he?"

Ranma nodded, sheepishly. "Yes. I never wanted to lie to you, but he said that if you saw my curse, you would say that he failed to make me..."

Nodoka shook her head. "Ranma, that doesn't mean anything. That was... mostly just an attempt to keep Genma in line. I didn't like the idea of him taking you off alone. I can see that he hasn't changed much, and how he has changed isn't for the better." She sighed again, and put her hands over her face. "I would never truly call for my son to kill himself. I don't care if you turn into Ranko, you're still my son, and that's what's important. How long will you stay a boy before your curse changes you?"

He smirked, not feeling the amusement. "As soon as I get splashed with cold water. Hot water reverses it."

She nodded knowingly, lowering her hands. "I see now why you and Mr. Panda were always playing in the pond. I wish your father hadn't found it necessary to lie to me like that, but I know it isn't your fault."

Ranma finally let his smile reach his eyes. "Thanks, Mom. I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I'm so sorry."

Nodoka sighed, waving a hand dismissively. "I should have seen it sooner, really. I'm glad I got to spend time with you as Ranko. It was better than not seeing you at all. Oh, Ranma. What else has my husband put you through?"

He smiled again, the humor gone from his eyes again. "That's a long story, Mom. You sure you want to hear it?"

She frowned slightly, considering, then nodded. "Of course, though... why are you avoiding Akane? Is there a problem?

Ranma's smile faded completely. "No, Mom, it's..." Drawing a deep breath, he started over, "Yes. There's a problem."

Nodoka looked at Ranma curiously. "What do you mean?"

He frowned nervously. "Mom, you and Pop agreed to have me marry someone from the Tendo family, right?"

She nodded, not seeing a problem. "Of course. I don't know if you're happy with it, but Akane generally speaks well of you. And it's also a matter of honor. What is the problem?"

Ranma sighed, and rubbed his eyes wearily. "Mom, Pop got me engaged to someone else, too."

Nodoka froze, her face quickly shifting from amused to angry. "I see. Who else?"

Ranma pointed at Ukyou. "Her. This is Kuonji Ukyou, one of my fiancées."

Ukyou smiled fearfully, hoping she'd meet with Nodoka's approval. "Hello, Mrs. Saotome."

Nodoka did not return the smile, and her voice took on a slightly frosty edge as she eyed Ukyou. "Ranma, tell me all about this."

He sighed, not wanting his girlfriend and his mother to be at odds. "Well, Mom, Pop agreed to engage me to Ucchan when we were six."

She shook her head, thinking the matter resolved. "I see. I'm sorry Miss Kuonji, but the Tendos have a prior claim."

Ranma gathered himself, explaining. "No, it's more complicated than that, too." He breathed out slowly, letting a wave of calmness sweep over everyone. "Pop already accepted her dowry."

Nodoka's eyes widened, and she relaxed somewhat. "Oh. Well, that does complicate things. What have you planned to do about this so far?"

Ranma smiled with a knowing expression. "I can't marry both of them, now can I?"

Nodoka shook her head, realizing that Ranma was right. "I suppose not."

"So, I've decided to terminate all of my engagements."

Ranma's mother frowned. "That's not very honorable."

He shrugged, stating, "Neither is Pop engaging me to two women."

Chame interjected, "Actually, Mrs. Saotome, he engaged Ranma to others, as well. They just never found Ranma again, unlike Ukyou."

Nodoka sat in stunned silence. After collecting herself, she managed, "Well then. If it were just the two, then we might be able to pay back the dowry. What about the rest?"

Ranma sighed, looking slightly pained. "I don't remember the rest. I'm sorry, and I know that's not very responsible of me, but I only vaguely remember the word 'engagement' being something tossed around before a few meals now and again." He paused, considering, then shook his head and continued, "Anyway, I respect the Tendos, but I can't marry any of them."

Nodoka sighed, looking disappointed. "Why not? Akane seems to like you."

He shook his head again, sorrowfully this time. "It... It wouldn't work out. Akane's awfully violent, and lets her temper get the better of her. Nabiki would sell the dojo, so there wouldn't be a way to join the schools anyway, and Kasumi's already seeing someone, last I checked."

She sighed once more, and leveled a hurt look at Ranma. "I don't like it. I'm sorry, I really don't like it. What about the burden of honor?"

Ranma grumbled, irritation overriding his fear and worry. "Mom, as much as I'd like to handle this issue of family honor, its not truly family honor. It's Pop's honor. What kind of sadistic bastard sells his son for food?!" Ranma sat back down, angrily. He hadn't even noticed when he stood.

Before Nodoka could say anything, Ukyou interjected, "Ranma's right, and he already took care of one of his father's debts. At least, mine. But I still remember when I was six years old, and Genma ran away with Ranma, and my dowry. I still remember how much that hurts. Ranma is a good friend, and a very honorable man. If anyone should bear the burden of broken honor, it's Genma."

Nodoka shook her head, still not liking what she was hearing. "This is very difficult for me to accept. Genma was not the wisest man, but this is a woefully foolish act. Are you sure he did such a low thing?"

Ukyou grimaced, then muttered, "He's done worse." Sweetening her tone slightly, she asked, "Mrs. Saotome, when Ranma was young, did you have any cats?"

Ranma shuddered, but Nodoka didn't notice, instead turning to look at Ukyou again. "Why yes, we did have one. I'm afraid it has passed away now, but Ranma seemed quite fond of it as a child."

Ranma shuddered again, stating, "I don't like c-c-cats."

Nodoka looked concerned, shifting her attention back to Ranma. "Why not? What happened?"

Ukyou's grimace turned to a look of anger. "Your husband," she practically spat the word, "thought that a good way to improve Ranma's skills as a martial artist was to wrap him in fish sausages, and toss him into a pit of starving cats."

Nodoka stared in horror, her mouth hanging open for a second. She closed her mouth and caught her breath, then declared, "NO! My husband would never do such a thing to his son!"

Ranma shuddered again, interjecting, "Yes he did, Mom. And then he tried to fix things." Ukyou froze; she hadn't heard this part before.

Nodoka gaped, confused. "What? But, he tried to make it better, right? What did he do to fix things?" Her tone seemed to plead for Ranma to say that Genma was a good and honorable man.

Ranma's voice was cold, and Ukyou shivered, knowing it was the voice he used when he was preparing for a long and hard battle. "He waited a few days so the cats would be good and hungry, and then he wrapped me in dried sardines, and threw me in again."

Nodoka shuddered this time, and asked, "How - how old were you?"

Ranma glared, bristling with anger. "I was ten years old, Mom. Ten god-damned years old. And you know what?"

Nodoka cowered, frightened of her son's wrath, but managed a weak, "What?"

Ranma shuddered with rage, and then relaxed abruptly after Chame gestured at him. He smiled at her thankfully, and began again, in a calmer tone, "He waited a few more days, wrapped me in salted sardines, and did it again."

Nodoka shook her head, and reached a hand towards Ranma. She whimpered softly, "No..."

He nodded, clenching his teeth. "And when that didn't work, he wrapped me up in fishcakes, and did it again."

Nodoka wept openly, "My son! How, how could any man do that to their own child?"

Ranma sighed, and rolled up his sleeves. Myriad tiny scars shone on his shoulders. "I have more. On my ankles, my knees." He pointed to a small mark almost hidden on an eyebrow. "One here, a couple elsewhere. They're pretty small. But they should prove it. He did that to me."

Nodoka embraced her son tightly, sobbing into his chest, "Ranma, I'm so sorry. I am so sorry. I should never have let Genma take you away."

Ranma shook his head, gently putting an arm around Nodoka's shoulder. "No, Mom... I'm... mostly over it. I... just can't stand to be around cats." He shuddered again.

Ukyou stared, tears streaming. Chame gave her a consoling hug. Ukyou glanced at Chame, then sighed; she looked almost ready to shed a few tears of her own.

Nodoka spoke, then, calmed. "Ranma, I don't know what to do. However, your father has shown a supreme lack of judgment, and I hereby decide that all marriage arrangements that your father has made, including the union with the Tendos, is void. I... I can't do that to you after that. You need to make your own choice." She sighed, and released Ranma from the hug. "I won't complain if you choose to marry one of them, but I am not going to allow you to be forced into it. There's an honorable solution, if anyone complains."

Ranma sagged to the couch, shocked. He couldn't have been more surprised at that moment unless his father and Happosai turned to charity work. Then again, considering Nerima ward... "Mom? Are you, sure?"

Nodoka frowned, taking her seat next to Ranma again. "Of course I'm sure, why would you be so hesitant?"

Ranma stared at his hands, eyes clouded. "For almost the first time since I can remember, a person older than me is telling me to make my own decisions about my life without coercion or trickery." He smiled, wiping away an errant tear. "You don't know how much that means to me. Thanks, Mom."

They hugged again, Nodoka beaming. "I'm just glad you can smile after all that your father... All that Genma put you through." She sighed again. "This night, I never would have suspected all of that. Well, Ranma, I'd like you to be happy. No matter what."

Ranma grinned, relaxing substantially. "You know, I was so worried you were going to have me commit seppuku, I almost couldn't make myself come here."

Nodoka looked pained, releasing Ranma from the embrace. "Genma should have known I never meant that for you. Though I'm not sure how I feel about _him_, right now."

Ranma shook his head. "No... don't do that. I don't like what he did, and I have to admit, I'm not that close to him, but..." He trailed off, uncertainly.

Ukyou frowned. <Let the bastard get it, Ranchan.>

He shrugged, asking, "How is he ever going to learn if he's dead? I'll tell you one thing, though. He doesn't know that you know he's Mr. Panda."

Nodoka nodded, lips pursed thoughtfully. "Do you think I should try and change his ways?"

Ranma paused, unsure. "No. I know what he did to me, and I don't know if I'd want my mother subjected to that. I don't think he'd try and marry you off to someone else, or throw you into a pit of c-cats, but... Jeez. You deserve better than him. Does that make any sense?"

Nodoka laughed, a considering look in her eyes. "Yes it does. You think I should divorce him?"

Ranma blinked, taken aback. "Uh, you know, I'm not sure. I think you should have a talk with him about that, and decide for yourself. I'll tell you this, though: if you do choose to stay with him, I won't love you any less. If you don't, I would be honored to stay your son."

Ukyou raised an eyebrow, grinning. <Ranma, admitting to his feelings? Well, it _is_ his mother...>

Nodoka nodded again. "I understand, then. But, Ranma, now that you're back..." She trailed off, seeming to be worried about something. "Ranma, would you like to move back in with me?"

Ranma stiffened, and Nodoka winced at the reaction. "Oh, oh jeez, Mom, I mean, oh man. Well, here's the thing... I would like to, I really would, but the truth of the matter is... I can't."

Nodoka's eyes began to tear, and she shook her head. In a plaintive voice, she asked, "Why not?"

Ranma grimaced, looking away. "I've got a lot of people trying to kill me right now, and I wouldn't want to put you in danger."

She nodded slowly, softening somewhat. "I believe you. Could you at least stay here tonight? Spend one night with your mother and tell me what your life was like?"

He swallowed, voice thick, "I'd like that, Mom. I'd like that a lot."

She smiled again, the cheerfulness on her face enough to blind the two men. "Then, welcome home, Son."

Ranma broke into a wide grin. "It's good to be here. Now, I'd like to introduce you to my friends. As you probably remember, this is Kuonji Ukyou."

Ukyou stood, and bowed low to Ranma's mother. "I am honored to meet you, Mrs. Saotome." Nodoka returned the bow, eyeing Ukyou.

Ranma grinned, explaining, "We're dating right now..." He trailed off and blushed, but shook himself out of his reverie. "And this is Chame."

Chame bowed low as well, a practiced ease to the gesture. "I am honored to meet you as well, Mrs. Saotome."

Nodoka returned the bow, though her eyes remained on the redhead thoughtfully. "Chame? What is you family name?"

Chame paused for a moment, then explained. "I am sorry, I have no family name."

Ranma flinched, feeling a resonance from deep within that declared her statement to be false. <She lied. I could tell. Why?>

Nodoka looked confused. "How do you not have a family name?"

Chame sighed, then looked away. "Ah, I have to do something to restore my honor before I can claim it again."

Nodoka nodded slowly, trying to hide any suspicion she felt. "I see..." She shook her head abruptly, turning to Ukyou again. "Ah, where are my manners. Any friends of my son are welcome in my home. I think I should make us something to eat, are you hungry?"

They all nodded, and Ranma grinned, offering, "Ah, would you like Ranko to help you in the kitchen?"

Nodoka's smile faded. "No..." Ranma's face fell. "I'd rather have your help, Son."

Ranma's face lit up again. "Great! What should we make?"

Nodoka debated with Ranma, as the two headed into the kitchen. Ukyou pondered offering her assistance, but then decided Ranma needed the time alone with his mother. She turned to Chame, relieved that everything had worked out so well. "So. Now what?"

Chame shrugged, seeming pleased herself. "I don't know. Wait for dinner?"

Ukyou giggled, and the two chatted about inconsequential things while they waited.

***

After an hour of the voices from the kitchen laughing, gabbing, and the occasional, "No! You're kidding!" "It's true! Ask Ucchan!" Ranma and his mother presented the meal.

Ranma's basic skills, with Nodoka's experienced touch managed a quite palatable meal, and Ukyou praised him, "Another excellent meal! You learned that pretty quick, Ranchan!"

He blushed, and lowered his head. "Thanks Ucchan, but really, my mom did most of the work, I just helped."

Nodoka beamed. "So modest! You were an excellent assistant, Ranma. Anyone would be pleased for your aid in the kitchen."

Ranma laughed, "Thanks, Mom."

She shook her head, still smiling. "If anything isn't done right, it's probably my fault for letting myself get distracted! Some of those stories are amazing!"

Ranma nodded knowingly. "Yeah, some of them are. I'm just surprised that nothing ever happened to let you see me and Pop for who we really were."

The pair fell silent for a moment, then Nodoka spoke and, her voice was warm, "Ranma, you came and told me the truth." Her voice began to turn cold, "Your father never did, and probably never would. If anyone is to blame, it's him." Nodoka looked displeased, as she spoke the last like an epithet.

He sighed, worried that the pleasant atmosphere would slip. "You're right, I suppose."

Nodoka shook her head, noting Ranma's worry. "Never mind that, for now. How will I be able to contact you once you leave?"

Ranma scratched his head, thinking. "Um, you know, I hadn't thought about that."

Chame interrupted, "I've spoken with Nabiki about this. If you wish, you can write letters. Nabiki will forward them to a contact of ours, and they'll reach us at the location we'll be staying."

Nodoka nodded again, her expression serious. "I see. Um, Ranma, if it isn't too much to ask... could you call me once in a while, and tell me how you're doing?"

Ranma smiled emphatically. "Of course! I don't know how often I'll get the chance, but I'll try and call you."

Nodoka smiled, and scribbled her number on a piece of paper, which Ranma accepted. "Good. I'll be home between seven and eight o'clock every Tuesday and Thursday. You don't have to call me every time, but when you do want to, I'll be here."

He grinned as his mother turned a warm gaze to him. "No problem, Mom."

She nodded, turning her attention to the redhead briefly. "So, ah, Chame, you seem to know the most about what's going on. Can you tell me who's trying to kill my son?"

Chame paused, then listed off, "Well, there are a few people, right now. I'd say Kuno's not a threat for a while... If he ever was. Ryouga's still on the loose, and the 'businessmen' after Ranma are a threat..."

Nodoka frowned, interjecting, "Why do they want to kill him?"

Ranma shrugged, explaining, "The gangsters - call it like it is, Chame - are after me because someone set me up in a deal with them... and then backed out, because I wouldn't do it."

Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "What did they ask you to do?"

He shrugged again, taking a bite from his plate. "I don't know. The person who set up the deal tried to back out of it before it got to me. I guess she just got in over her head."

Chame nodded, picking up the story. "That's about what happened. She tried to return the money, but they wouldn't accept it. Still, they aren't as big a threat as Ryouga. He's a maniac, driven by hate. Honestly, I suspect he's possessed."

Nodoka snorted. "Possessed? You make it sound as if magic and the like is real."

Chame handed Ranma her glass of water. He shrugged, and dumped it over his head. Ranma set the glass back on the table, and turned to her mother. "It is."

Nodoka blanched, apologetically. "Oh... So he's possessed? I really shouldn't have doubted, I'm sorry..."

Chame shrugged indifferently. "Don't worry. Not many people do accept things like that. Or martial artists shooting blasts of ki energy at each other. Or any of a number of strange things. But they can happen."

Nodoka cocked her head to one side. "So, magic does exist? Aside from just curses?"

Chame nodded. "Of course, Ranma used some on you earlier. Remember the wave of calmness?"

Nodoka grinned, nodding to herself. "I suppose it does make sense, at that. And it was a clever thing to do. I wonder what would have happened if you hadn't..."

Ranma blushed, and stared at her plate intently. She was about to say something, when the phone rang.

Nodoka answered the phone, while everyone else fell silent. "Hello? Oh, how are you doing, Akane, dear? I see. Hmm... Well, if I see Ranko, I'll tell her. Don't you fret. Tell me, how are my son and my husband doing? I was thinking of stopping by to visit them soon. Still on a training trip? I see. Well, thank you dear, I would be honored. Certainly. I'll see you tomorrow." She paused for a moment, listening. Her eyes turned hard and cold, but her voice betrayed nothing. "I will. I'm sorry to hear that. Okay, then. Goodbye, dear."

She sat the phone down, and sighed, not moving. Ranma cleared her throat nervously. "Mom? Thanks for not giving us away... What was that about?"

Nodoka sighed again, and returned to the table. Her expression was troubled, but otherwise unreadable. "Akane called again, and said that she was worried about Ranko. She also said to tell her that her family misses her and loves her very much."

Ranma stared at her plate again.

Nodoka shook her head. "Ranma, I think Akane cares about you a great deal. Why didn't you tell her you were leaving?"

Ranma looked up, meeting her mother's eyes. "Mom, I'm dating Ukyou. Remember the things I've told you about Akane not trusting me? I'd like... I'd like to be friends with her someday. But right now..." She trailed off, unsure of what to say next.

Nodoka sighed, closing her eyes. "No, you're right. I think she does care about you, maybe with time... no. I will not push you." She smiled. "I'm sorry, Son. Er... Daughter? I shouldn't have done that. Now, tell me more about your girlfriend."

Ukyou dropped her chopsticks, and turned a dark red. Ranma blushed as well. "Oh, well, you know. Standard relationship, we met when we were six, I thought she was a boy, dad ran off with her dowry and she swore vengeance against me... that kind of thing."

Nodoka blinked, confused. "Is this true?"

Ukyou hesitated before responding. "Well, Mrs. Saotome-"

"Call me 'Mom,' Ukyou."

Ukyou grinned, glad of the warm feeling that had replaced the knot of tension in her belly. "Well, Mom, mostly. He forgot to mention that I spent ten years training to fight him, and pretending I was a boy to hide my shame."

Nodoka raised an eyebrow at this. "Do you change when you're splashed with water?"

She laughed, "No, Mrs.- ah, Mom, I stay the same. Anyway, when I met Ranma, I challenged him to a duel to the death. He, of course, thought it was a sparring match, and got kind of mad when I, uh, cooked him a little."

Nodoka blanched, and turned to Ranma. Ranma nodded, and picked up the story again. "Well, I still thought Ucchan was a boy. So when she started hurting me, I kind of lost it, and went all out against her."

Ukyou grinned, then winked. "After he accidentally slashed my shirt open, he started to figure out what I was."

Nodoka's eyes nearly popped out of her head. Her voice remained tranquil, as she said, "I see."

Ukyou giggled, explaining, "No, not enough to see, well... Enough to see that they were there. Not, uh..." She blushed. "Anyway, once he found out what happened, he apologized to me. He gave me back my battle spatula." She gestured to it in the corner, near the umbrella stand. "And then he apologized. He was nice to me... He told me that I was cute, and said that I could hit him."

Ranma grinned, flushing slightly. "I didn't want you to hit me, but I would have let you." She turned to her mother. "She thrashed Pop something fierce, though."

Nodoka nodded sagely. "Normally, I would ask you not to date my son if you've challenged him to a duel and intended to kill him... But since Genma got a beating out of it..."

Everyone stared at her for a moment, before realizing she was joking, then they burst into laughter. Ukyou fought down the hilarity for a moment, and managed to say, "Oh, wait until you hear about Shampoo!"

Ranma laughed so hard she fell backwards onto the floor.

Nodoka looked confused. "I don't understand... oh! The Chinese girl who wanted to kill him _and_ marry him?"

Ranma nodded between bouts of laughter. After a few minutes, they managed to straighten themselves up, and Ranma sighed contentedly. "That's just what I needed after these last few days."

Ukyou nodded back, fighting back another round of giggles. "But back to the story. I decided not to hit Ranma, since I saw how unhappy his current fiancee made him. So I decided I would try and carry out the engagement of all those years ago."

Ranma frowned, staring at her plate. "Now... we canceled that engagement. We'll see if we get there... when we get there."

Ukyou smiled confidently. "Of course."

Nodoka nodded to herself. "Ranma, I'm pleased that you were able to become a good man despite Genma. If you wish to marry Ukyou..."

Ranma blanched, and waved her hands. "No! We don't need a formal engagement yet... I mean, maybe someday later, but, I'd like to see how things work out first! No sense rushing things, right?"

Nodoka smiled. "I'm sorry. I was teasing. Decide when you feel the time is right."

She sighed, and color returned to her face. "Oh, okay then."

After that, they fell into idle chatter, discussing other adventures.

After some time had passed, and they were all yawning, Nodoka shook her head. "Well, I think we should get some sleep. You two," she pointed at Ukyou and Chame, "can sleep in the den. I'll bring you a pair of futons. Ranma, you can stay in your old room. Do you want some hot water from the bathroom?"

She nodded, "Which room is that?"

"I'll show you."

After a quick stop in the bathroom, Ranma helped his mother set the futons up in the den, and entered his own room. He gave his mother a hug, and she kissed him on the forehead, before closing the door.

Ranma looked around at the room, examining it. A room he hadn't seen since he was four years old. He glanced at a few knickknacks, and finally crawled into the slightly too small bed. After fidgeting for a while, he padded into the bathroom, and splashed himself.

When she crawled into bed again, it was about the right size. She smiled to herself, and looked about the room again before falling asleep, "Home..."

***

Ranma woke to a knock at the door, and sat up, alarmed. She rubbed her eyes, and looked around, <Where is this?> Her mother opened the door and peeked in. <Oh yeah!>

Nodoka stared at Ranma for a moment. "Does the curse activate itself at night?"

Ranma blushed faintly. "Uh, no, the bed was a little small..."

Nodoka grinned wryly. "That's quite clever, then. It must be a convenient curse. You could use it for all sorts of things." She smiled speculatively.

Ranma blushed darkly. "Uh, well, from time to time, I guess... only in emergencies, though."

Nodoka laughed, "I remember from a few of your stories. Why don't you wash up; breakfast will be ready shortly."

She nodded eagerly. "Sure!"

By the time Ranma stepped out of the shower, and returned to the living room, Chame and Ukyou were already up.

Ukyou grinned at Ranma. "Hey, Ranchan. You sleep well?"

He nodded. "Yeah. You, Ucchan?"

She smiled, and nodded back.

Chame rolled her eyes good-naturedly, but said nothing. After a moment, Nodoka emerged from the kitchen, bearing a tray. Ranma tried not to drool as the dishes were set. "Wow! Looks good, Mom!"

She smiled, pleased. "I'm glad you enjoy it, Son. Now stop and chew it. You can taste it longer that way."

Ukyou sputtered, nearly choking on her glass of water, "Well, if anyone can make him stop to 'taste the roses,' it would be you."

Nodoka nodded. "Well, you may someday gain that power as well." Ranma blushed at his mother's words. She frowned, thinking, "I wonder if things will fall apart with the Tendos now that you're leaving."

Ranma shook his head, still smiling. "I doubt it. Unless you let Pop move back in here, Mr. Tendo is probably the only one who will give him a place to stay. If nothing else, you _are_ still friends, right?"

Nodoka looked uncertain. "I don't know. I was friends with Soun's wife, but I'm not that close to the rest of the family. I've never even met Soun, actually."

Ranma hesitated, before speaking again, "I don't know. I think you could still be friends."

Chame tapped the table thoughtfully. "You know, the Tendo sisters could use someone like you around. With Ranma gone, they'll need someone for moral support. Soun falls to pieces pretty easily, and not to be rude, but now that Ranma's leaving, you might enjoy the company."

Nodoka looked worried for a moment. "That's true, I suppose, but..."

Ranma grinned, adding, "It'd let you keep a sharp eye on Pop. If you stayed with the Tendo family, you could keep an eye on him. Of course, if you wanted to punish him, you could ask Akane to help cook, and give the bad dishes to Mr. Panda..."

Nodoka looked startled for a moment, then grinned. "You're right, actually. That might be a good idea."

Ranma nodded encouragingly. "See? And you'd be closer to Nabiki, so that you could stay near where we'll be sending letters."

Nodoka smiled brightly. "Very well then. I'll still be here on Tuesdays and Thursdays, since you probably wouldn't want to call there. Very well indeed." She looked pleased, then her smiled faded. "How much longer can you stay?"

Ranma looked at Chame pleadingly. Chame bit her lip, explaining, "We should be out of here after noon. We still have to collect our things from Ucchan's, before we go..."

Nodoka sighed. "I don't suppose I could come with you, then, could I?"

Ranma took a deep breath. "I wish you could, but it's not going to be safe. Not at all."

Nodoka's eyes flashed with anger. "And you are safe with two teenage girls? How old are you two, anyway?"

Ukyou sighed, hoping that Nodoka would calm quickly. "I'm seventeen."

Nodoka looked pointedly at Chame. "And you?"

Chame shrugged, explaining offhandedly, "Three thousand four hundred and sixty... two."

Nodoka rolled her eyes. "Well that's hardly old enough for --" She broke off, staring at Chame in confusion. "Excuse me?"

Chame shrugged again. "Mrs. Saotome, I'm able to prove this to you. You won't enjoy it much, but it'll be brief. Do you want that proof?"

Nodoka put a hand to her head, looking anxious. "If you can prove it, then yes."

Chame flexed her hands. "Okay, give me your hands. Ranma, don't interfere, it's not going to hurt her." Ranma frowned, but nodded, and stepped away. "Close your eyes, and you shall see..."

Nodoka's eyes drifted shut, and a warm glow formed about their joined hands, slowly spreading to envelop both of them. For a few minutes, they stayed that way, then there was a snapping, electrical sound, and the two flew apart. Ranma dashed to catch his mother before she crashed into the wall, as Ukyou managed to catch Chame.

Nodoka stared blindly at her son, and began speaking in a strange voice. Its tones seemed both chilling and captivating, and even if he hadn't wanted to, Ranma would have heard them. The voice was not Nodoka's, which prompted Ranma to pay even closer attention.

"One born of greatest light, to walk the path of the dark,

called by the dark, cast to the dark.

One born of greatest darkness, to walk the path of the dark,

shunned by the dark, cast from the light.

One with power greater than he can contain, will fight the one of greatest darkness.

When darkness mounts, and mounts and mounts, will the power be unleashed.

The Unbroken Circle will break only to he of Nine Daughters, of eight mothers.

Daughter by sprit, by blood, by stone.

Daughter by body, by flesh, by fire.

Daughter by mind, by bone, by air.

He of Nine Daughters will break the circle, and be cast free.

Only then, shall the darkness be resealed."

Ranma stared, wide eyed. Ukyou and Chame watched from where they fell across the room, jaws agape.

The blind eyes searched Ranma out again, and another voice spoke, deeper, more menacing, but at the same time, more comforting, and closer. Ranma suppressed a sudden shiver, and listened.

"When the time is right, and a daughter found,

the darkness will shun the light,

Daughters of Nine shall be born to others,

And by spirit he shall bind them.

Darkness will mount, and mount, and mount again,

To bear them to the Home of the Wayward Spirits

Blood calls blood, thy blood calls thy blood's kin,

Through the blood of thy father, thou will reclaim the stolen Daughters of Nine."

Nodoka, or whatever spoke through Nodoka at the time, grabbed Ranma's hand, and he felt a tingling, almost painful sensation before she fell limp, into his arms, eyes drifting shut.

Ranma could only stare in shock, while Nodoka lay in his arms.

Chame made it to her feet, and examined the woman. "Ranma, she's going to be fine. Why don't you set her on the couch?"

Ranma nodded, and gently lay his mother on her couch. Then he whirled on Chame, with anger in his eyes and a biting tone, he demanded, "What the hell did you do?"

She raised her arms defensively, and backed off. "Calm down, Ranma. It was prophecy. It was a warning, and some advice."

Ranma stared with undisguised anger. "She'd better be okay, or, or..." He sat heavily on the floor, and placed a hand on his mother's head, anger draining away. "Mom..."

Nodoka stirred, eyes fluttering open. "R-Ranma?"

He nodded, squeezing her hand reassuringly. "Yes, mother?"

She sat up unsteadily, aided by Ranma. "I understand now. I can't tell you much, and I'll forget it soon anyway, but you need to pay attention to what was said. You must."

Ranma nodded, still upset. "Okay, Mother."

She rubbed her temples. "Ranma, it's not Chame's fault. It just happened at a bad time. You... you should go now. I look forward to hearing from you again, alright?"

He nodded, blinking away moisture from the corner of his eyes. "Okay, Mom. I love you."

She smiled at him, seeming a little unsteady. "I love you too, Ranma."

Ranma swallowed, savoring the last moment of contact with his mother before abruptly wheeling to the door. He was halfway down the street before he stopped.

Chame smiled sadly, and offered an apology, "I'm sorry, Ranma. It was meant to happen to me, and I made a mistake..."

Ranma pressed a hand against one of the walls that surrounded the homes in this area, and battled for control of his emotions. He frowned, trembling. "Chame, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you. I was just worried about my mother. Don't you worry about your mother?"

Chame's expression became pained, and she looked away for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was thick, and her eyes shone with unshed tears. "I care about my parents very deeply. However, I don't want to talk about that now."

Ranma nodded, and removed his hand from the wall. He turned his back to it, sighing. "That was thoughtless of me."

Ukyou stared behind Ranma, and blinked a few times. With a note of worry in her voice, she asked, "Um, Ranchan, what did you do to the wall?"

Ranma turned to face the wall he had been leaning on before. The section he had touched, and the wall to ten feet on either side of that point, sagged, like molten wax. He hesitantly touched it, feeling its solidity. "I... I'm not sure."

He looked at Chame quizzically, and she shrugged. "I'm not sure either. Unfocused emotion? Maybe you stumbled across a new technique."

Ranma shook his head, closing his eyes. "No. It means that I need to control myself better."

Chame said nothing, and Ukyou looked concerned. "Ranchan... Come on. Let's get going."

He nodded, dully. "Yeah. We should, Ucchan."

The three walked back to the Ucchan in silence once more, each lost in their own thoughts.

***

Ukyou took a last look around the restaurant, with a pained expression. She had packed all of the things she thought she would truly need, but she wasn't pleased with leaving so much behind. She sighed, and rested a hand against the unlit grill. "I'm going to miss this place," she whispered. "After all that you've done to help me get Ranma. Thank you." She wiped a tear away, and walked out to the street.

Ranma sighed, and walked down the stairs. "Ucchan..." He shook his head, tracing a finger across the handprint Ukyou had left on the grill, "Damn. I'm not much good at this, but thanks for helping Ucchan be there for me." He smiled, and walked outside, locking the door behind him.

Chame looked around nervously, and Ukyou avoided looking at the restaurant. Ranma put a hand on Ukyou's shoulder, and she smiled at him. "Okay, Ranchan. Ready?"

He glanced back at the restaurant. "Yeah. What's going to happen to Ucchan's?"

Ukyou shrugged, feigning indifference. "It's paid for two months. After that... I don't know."

Chame began to walk, beckoning the others to follow. "Come along."

Ukyou sighed, and walked away from her restaurant. <I've got Ranchan, now. It was worth it.>

After a while, the trio reached a train station. Chame studied a map briefly, before fishing some earplugs out of a pocket. Ranma nodded at her. "Loud noises from the train, right?"

Chame watched Ranma's lips, and nodded back at him. After purchasing some tickets, they boarded a train. He tried not to think about the fact that he was leaving the town he had considered home for so long, and the home he had only known for one night.

They were directed to a moderately sized cabin with a pair of soft benches. Chame sat near the window, and Ukyou sat opposite her. Shrugging, Ranma took the seat nearest to the door, next to Ukyou.

Ranma stared nervously at a pamphlet. Chame set her staff in one corner, staring out the window while Ukyou smiled at Ranma. "Ranchan?"

He tossed the pamphlet back into the compartment it was taken from. "Yeah, Ucchan?"

She leaned towards him, resting a head on his shoulder. "Thank you for taking me with you, Ranchan. I know that this can't be easy for you, especially since you miss your mother."

Ranma sighed, and slowly wiped a hand across his face. "I don't know what's going on right now, but Chame's the key. She's right that I have to leave, though. I wouldn't want anyone else to be in danger."

Ukyou twitched slightly. "Worried about Akane?"

Ranma shook his head slowly. "Yes. No." He sighed deeply, and growled, "Damn it, I'm worried about all of them! Even Pop. Ryouga would kill him if they fought. I don't know how good Dr. Tofu is, and he can't be there constantly. I'm worried about what Ryouga will do if Akane finds out..." He let his voice trail off.

Ukyou admonished herself for her outburst. "Finds out that Ryouga is P-chan?"

Ranma flinched, but nodded. "Yeah. I'm afraid of what he'd do then. I'm sorry, Ucchan. I still have feelings for Akane. Even if I don't think it would work out, it doesn't mean I don't care. I'd still like to try and be her friend..."

Ukyou nodded her head. "I can accept that, Ranchan. You lived with her family for almost a year. If... if you want her, you can go to her."

Ranma grumbled, "For god's sake, stop doing this, Ukyou. Unless you get some strange pleasure out of convincing yourself that I'm going to leave you. If I were going to, I wouldn't have gone out with you in the first place. I wouldn't have initiated the first k-kiss. And I wouldn't be traveling with you right now."

Ukyou nodded obediently. "You're right. It's a bad habit, after ten years of trying to seek revenge, and a year of nothing happening between us..."

Ranma snorted. "Ukyou, I don't know what the problem is exactly, but you need to relax. I hope that this will help." He leapt out of his seat, yanked Ukyou to her feet, spun her around, and draped her over one arm. "I care about you a lot, Ucchan." She had only enough time to blink before Ranma kissed her again.

Ukyou shivered, a strange tingling sensation spreading through her. She clung to Ranma, refusing to let the moment end, and when he tried to pull away, she forced them both to fall in a tangled pile on the floor. She kissed him, he kissed her... it didn't matter any more. They were kissing, and Ukyou finally started to cast away the cobwebs of doubt. "I love you Ranchan.

He smiled at her, "I think that I l-l-" He turned, at a small noise, someone shifting in their seat, and blushed dark red. Chame studiously stared out the window. Ukyou blushed even more darkly, realizing how she was entwined with Ranma. They managed to disentangle themselves and sit back down.

For a few minutes, the two sat in silence. Checking to make sure it was safe, Chame removed her earplugs. "Ranma? Ukyou? You two have a minute?" They nodded, and Chame turned serious. "I'm sorry if I bothered you. However, I think we should be worrying about the prophecy we heard earlier today."

Ranma nodded, his blush fading. "Right. I was kind of wondering about that, actually."

Ukyou shook her head, trying to clear the dizziness that kissing had placed there. "Um. I actually forgot most of it."

Chame nodded thoughtfully, and glanced around the small cabin. It was still empty except for the three of them, and their packs. After carefully removing a piece of paper from her bag, she unfolded it, and read it aloud again.

Ranma frowned, looking bemused, then shrugged. "You got me. I have no idea."

Ukyou paused, thoughtful. "I'm not sure, but I think it's two. The way that... the voice changed between them." Ukyou and Ranma shared a shudder. "So let's take the first one."

Ranma took the paper, and puzzled over it for a bit. "Okay, so who are these two guys its talking about in the beginning?"

Ukyou shook her head, pointing at the paper. "Well, the first three parts are about three different people, right? The one from darkness, the one from light, and the one that's got more power than he can contain? Well, who are they?"

Ranma scratched the back of one head, thinking, "Well, Ryouga used to be a nice guy, I guess he could be the first one."

Chame furrowed her brow in thought. "I think its referring to something else. But skip past the first three lines."

Ukyou re-read the lines. "'Unbroken Circle,' eh? What's this about all these daughters?"

Ranma snorted. "'Nine Daughters of eight mothers.' Does that mean that someone is going to have nine sisters, and this person is going to be important?"

Ukyou scanned the paper again, thoughtfully. "No, I think its someone who has nine children..."

Chame shrugged. "That's not much to go on. Anyone reasonably handsome and unfaithful man could qualify."

Ranma rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but what does it really matter? What's this 'Unbroken Circle,' anyway?"

Ukyou frowned. "Maybe it's a metaphor?"

Ranma stared blankly, but Chame raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

Ukyou shrugged, feeling a little nervous. "Um, where are there circles that don't break? Things like the sun. It's always round, right? Or maybe even something more vague. Isn't the water cycle a circle?"

Ranma nodded slowly. "I think I get what you're saying. Maybe even something like the world. It's a circle, right? I mean, how it goes around the sun?"

Chame shook her head. "Not a true circle. Close, but not quite. The sun is much the same way, but it is something to think about."

Ukyou smiled, triumphant. "Maybe it's something to do with time!"

Ranma stared blankly again, not comprehending. "How is time a circle?"

Chame's expression paled. "It shouldn't be. But it can be."

Ranma sighed, shaking his head. "This is way over my head. Do we have to worry about this right now?"

Ukyou put an arm around Ranma, and he didn't complain. "Maybe we can worry about this later, then."

Chame sighed, sounding weary. "No, this isn't something we have to worry about right now. We should just get some rest."

Again, quiet descended. Ranma frowned. <Why do we all fall silent like this so often?> He rubbed his head, dimly remembering that he had wanted to ask Chame about why she had lied about her name. He glanced at her, but at her expression, decided to ask about it later.

***

The train stopped in Kansai, and they left there. Chame said the tickets were good until the end of the line, and scattered some seemingly personal effects around the cabin before they left. Anyone who looked in would think they had just stepped out for a moment.

Ukyou took in a deep breath, admiring the scenery. "You know, Ranchan, we met just about twenty miles that way." She pointed.

Ranma smiled softly, remembering. "Yeah... I remember. But I don't think we have time for that now."

Chame nodded, commenting, "You're right. Let's get going." She scanned the village around them briefly, mumbled something to herself, and strode off.

Ranma and Ukyou followed, though Ranma looked concerned. The pigtailed boy asked, "Where are we going?"

Chame shrugged, pointing. "Through those woods, and across that mountain."

Ranma stared at the peak in the distance for a moment. "And then?"

"We change direction, and go towards my house. Then we start training you."

Ranma shook his head. "Okay. But I haven't gotten much of a chance to practice lately, and I'm worried about my skill slipping."

Chame gave him a strange look. "That shouldn't be a problem."

***

In Nerima, lay the Tendo household. It was no longer the happy home that is used to be. Gone were the shouts and yells from constant arguments and fighting. It seemed almost unnaturally quiet, compared to the normal state of things. Akane sat at the table, morose, and stared without seeing at the dishes in front of her.

Kasumi frowned, not quite knowing what to say. <Poor Akane. Ranma's been gone almost a week now.> She smiled sadly at Dr. Tofu, who fell back onto his old routine, and pretended to act as he had before.

Of course, he wasn't as destructive as he used to be, but this was overshadowed by the fact that Ranma was gone. Akane didn't notice, except for a small bitter voice in her mind, <You lost him, too. You just can't win like that. You aren't cute enough, and you're too much of a tomboy.> She pushed the thought away, she had mulled over that enough recently. Alternating between bouts of rage, and fits of grief.

In Genma's normal seat, Nodoka sat, chatting idly with Soun. "So, where are Ranko and Ranma?"

Soun smiled weakly, explaining, "Ah, Ranko went to join Ranma and his father on their training trip."

Nodoka nodded knowingly. "I see. I've been thinking for a while, Mr. Tendo, and I think that Ranko would agree with me. My house is so cold and lonely now, and I'd like to have Ranko stay with me for a while. I've even got enough room for Mr. Panda. I know Ranko and Ranma seem very close, and perhaps if she was staying with me, I would be able to see him."

Soun sweated nervously, while Nodoka pretended not to notice. "Um, perhaps, but since they're all out on a training trip, we'd have to wait until they came back, right?"

Nodoka sighed, turning her attention to Akane. "I suppose you're right, then. Akane, dear, what's the problem?"

Akane pulled herself up from the pit her thoughts had fallen into, with effort. She didn't have enough in her for anything but the weakest of smiles. "I'm... fine, Auntie Saotome. I just miss Ranm-ko. Ranko."

No one said anything for a moment. Then Nabiki sighed, and put her chopsticks down. "Yeah. Well, I gotta go do some homework. See you later."

Nodoka watched her march up the stairs, then turned back to the youngest Tendo. "Akane dear, can I have a word with you alone?"

Akane nodded obediently, and trudged out towards the dojo. Nodoka sighed deeply, and turned to Kasumi. "Kasumi, dear, thank you for your help with dinner. It was very nice. Just make sure that Mr. Panda doesn't get any, it's not good for him."

Kasumi stifled a giggle, and smiled sweetly. "Of course, Auntie Saotome." Nodoka nodded at her, and left the house for the dojo.

When she entered, she glanced around briefly. Numerous patches covered holes in the walls, and the building showed many signs of intense use. Mr. Panda sat in a corner eyeing her nervously. Akane sat in the center in a meditative position, facing the dojo shrine. She seemed even more despondent, if anything.

Nodoka pushed the panda away, chiding it, "You belong outside. Shoo, now. Shoo."

He trundled off towards the house, not looking back. Nodoka sat near Akane, and put an arm around her shoulders gently. "Akane, dear, what's bothering you?"

Akane sobbed wordlessly for a moment before speaking, "I miss. Him. Her. Both of them."

Nodoka sighed, glancing around. "Akane, dear... can anyone hear us in here?"

Akane looked up, then shook her head. She could dimly make out the family, still crowded around a table. Kasumi was keeping the food away from Genma, and only Nabiki was missing. "No. I guess not. Why?" Her voice trembled slightly, as though she was on the verge of another bout of tears.

Nodoka looked slightly nervous. "Akane, what do you think of my son?"

She blinked, then stared at her hands. "I don't know. Sometimes I think I like him, and sometimes I think he's an insensitive lout." She caught herself, and amended, "But, he's mostly away on training trips, so I don't see him very much. Just Ranko, mostly."

Ranma's mother said nothing for a moment. "Akane, I know that Ranma and Ranko are the same person."

Akane's eyes widened, and she sputtered, "But-I- Are you going to make him- make him-"

Nodoka cut her off, "No. Of course not, Akane. What kind of mother would I be? That promise was meant largely for Genma. She glared at the panda from a distance. He had managed to get a bowl of something, and was busily eating. "It failed. And because of my idiot husband, Ranma..." She sighed again, wiping away a tear. "He came to see me before he left."

Akane stared, tears forgotten. "Where is he? Is he okay?" Concern gave way to anger. "Who was he with?"

Nodoka frowned thoughtfully, remembering Ranma's words. "Akane... Ranma's in danger. He left to protect us, because... I can't say more, really. I'm sorry about that. But he's okay. I'm not going to say anything to Genma, because I don't think Genma deserves to have things so easy after what he did to my son." Her voice faded for a moment. "Ranma said not to worry about it, but I don't think I can ever forgive him for what he did to my son. The stories... the engagements... the lies. He told me about a lot of it. There wasn't enough time for all of it."

Akane blinked, mouth dry. "Oh..."

Nodoka sighed, dismissing the issue absently. "It doesn't matter, now. I value honor highly, you should know that. But I value my family more than my honor, as any proper parent should. Genma never really knew me, if he thought that I didn't." Her voice hardened, as she continued, "My son cried to me, because he thought I would find him unworthy. My son, who my husband promised to make a 'man among men,' reduced to tears because of a stupid, stupid-" She stopped herself, and took a deep breath before she continued. "No. I have to be calm about this."

Akane stared at the shrine in silence for a moment. "What do you mean, about family being more important than honor? Genma always said..." The words died on her lips, and she laughed bitterly, "Of course. I'm sorry. Your husband didn't really know you."

Nodoka glanced at Akane sharply, but didn't mention the slight. "Never mind about that right now. What's important, is I've told my son that he's released of all of his engagements. I've heard from your sisters how opposed you are to marriage with him anyway..."

Akane's jaw dropped, and she looked as shocked as if someone had slapped her. "But, I-"

The woman raised a hand to forestall Akane. "No. Calling my son a pervert for a curse that is his father's fault did not raise his confidence. I don't know how you feel about my son, but he believes that you don't care enough for a marriage to work."

Akane flinched back, as though she had been struck again. "Oh. Oh god. No... why?"

Nodoka sighed again, a soft whispering noise. "Akane..."

She turned on the woman, livid. "What do you mean you released your son from the engagements? How can you do that honorably?!"

Nodoka shushed her, and glanced at the house. No one had turned to face them, except for the occasional glance. "I am perfectly prepared to divorce Genma. If I do, Ranma would be my son. No longer a Saotome." She glanced at Akane's expression and snorted, "Yes, I would. I love my son, and I'm not going to do what his father did. I am not going to push him and coerce him, and try and make him do something he doesn't want to."

Akane stared at her feet. The question crossed her mind of when she had actually stood, and she sat back down heavily. "Oh. What did Ranma say to you about me before he left?"

Nodoka stared into the house for a moment, not really seeing the table. Dr. Tofu was chatting with Soun, and Kasumi had cleared the dishes. When she spoke, she seemed much calmer, more tranquil, "He said he'd like to be friends with you some time."

She nodded, mumbling, "Friends." She stared at the shrine again, thinking. <Friends. He doesn't love me. He doesn't love me. It's my fault. It's my fault.> She repeated the litany in her mind, feeling herself spiral into the depths of depression before another thought buoyed her. <It's his fault. He wasn't open enough...> The thought died. <I can't lie to myself. It's my temper that scared him away. It's my fault.> Before she succumbed to depression, another thought hit her. <It's both our faults.>

She paused, then, floating on that line between the depression that only anger had saved her from before, the depression that had stalked her since her mother's death, and... what else? What was there aside from the anger and depression?

Akane blinked, tears streaming down her face as she realized. Ranma had made her happy. She never admitted it, and now, she probably never could. The boys at her school, Kuno chief among them, had only chased her because they thought... what, she was cute? That didn't matter now, though. They hadn't cared. Ranma had, even if neither of them would admit it. And she had cared about him, too.

And it was gone now, gone forever. She came back to the room suddenly, regaining her senses. Nodoka was sitting near her, watching her warily. Akane grabbed her like a drowning woman would clutch at a life preserver, and wept.

Nodoka held her and comforted her, while Akane sobbed, "I never- never- I never admitted that I loved him! And now it's too late!"

The older woman barely managed to resist a tear of her own. "It's okay, child, It's okay... I know you don't want to hear this right now, but you will have to give him up. Maybe, someday..." she trailed off.

Akane stared at her through the tears. "Someday?"

Nodoka smiled her best motherly smile, and Akane felt herself relax a little. "Maybe someday, you'll find someone else who you can share that with."

Akane shook her head, still letting herself be held by Nodoka. "No. It never happens again, and no one will else will ever be as good."

Nodoka winced, then spoke softly, "It will. But you have to be patient. I lost the man I loved, and pined for him. He probably never even knew I was in love with him... but I married Genma in the end. I can't say that it was the right choice."

Akane's jaw dropped in surprise, "Huh?"

Ranma's mother smiled again. "This hurts, I know, and it takes some time to get over, but you will. And you have to, or you'll decide that any man who gives you affection is good enough for you."

Akane nodded slowly, and the two of them turned to see someone standing in the doorway. Akane reluctantly let go of Nodoka, and scooted away. Nodoka gestured to the floor in front of her. "Have a seat, Nabiki."

The middle Tendo sister sauntered over to the indicated spot, and sat down. Akane eyed her warily, then grumbled, "How much did you hear?"

Nabiki wore her, telltale smirk. "Well, now..." She let the smirk fade, and stared at her feet. "No... This is partly my fault." She glanced behind her, the remaining family were caught up in their normal antics. Kasumi laughed, and said something to him as a foggy-lensed Dr. Tofu 'accidentally' knocked the panda arund whenever he moved towards the kitchen. Soun grinned nervously, and fingered the shogi board.

She turned to face Nodoka and Akane, frustrated. "Damn it. This is really my fault, and I screwed up big. Akane, I have to tell you something. It's something you aren't going to like..." she trailed off nervously, looking up at her sister.

Akane stared, curious and confused. "What, you're eloping with Ranma?"

Nabiki blinked, taken aback. "Uh, no. It's actually worse than that... Or maybe it isn't that bad."

Akane sighed, staring at the floor. "I know already. I've heard the rumors. Ranma left for China with Shampoo. He went willingly, didn't he? If he was drugged, I could go rescue him..."

Nodoka pursed her lips, and looked to Nabiki for guidance. Nabiki shook her head, then mumbled, "Um, I'm sorry. I guess he must have had a thing for her after all."

Akane slumped forward. "I didn't want to hear that."

"I'm sorry." She repeated, unsure of what else to say.

She sighed deeply, staring at the floor of the dojo. "No, it's something I needed to hear." She barked a single bitter laugh into the silence. "It's fine. I'm sure there's someone else for me, eventually."

Nabiki fidgeted for a minute before saying anything. "Yeah. I'll.. talk to you later."

Akane sighed again. "I wish P-chan were here."

Lost in her emotions, she didn't notice Nabiki flinch, but she heard the forced levity in her sister's voice. "Imagine that... he always seems to disappear when Ryouga..." She trailed off, then stood up suddenly. "I actually do have some homework to finish up. Take care of yourself, Sis."

Akane wearily climbed to her own feet after Nabiki had left. "Yeah. I think I should get some rest."

Nodoka nodded, as Akane wiped a few last tears away before leaving. <Oh Ranma... I only hope that you find happiness.>

***

A man brooded on the roof of the Tendo home. He didn't hear the voices drifting in from the dojo, and at that moment, didn't really care. He felt... something in the air that he hadn't felt in a long while. Something that threatened him.

He shuddered; few things scared him anymore, and until a few days ago, one was living in the same ward. Of course, another had come only about a week ago, and then vanished again, just as suddenly.

He pondered, staring at the sky. <Which one is more dangerous? Which one do I fear more?> He sighed, climbing to his feet. He wasn't about to listen to the creaking complaints that his body gave him, not for a long, long while.

The man paced the peak of the building. <Now there's no fun left in the city. I could handle one of those two, and maybe the boy. But two is too much to handle. Then again, I don't see those two ever working together.> He pulled his pipe from a pocket, and regarded it for a long moment. Sighing, he tapped it out on the roof, and refilled the bowl. He lit it with a spark of ki from his finger. After a few puffs, he fell back into his brooding, <One of them has my heir. The other would probably have left and be planning on getting him back. Which one has him?>

He took another puff from his pipe, frowning in consternation. <The Joketsuzoku woman? Or the Ancient One?> He stopped, mentally sifting through all of the information he had collected over the last few days. <The stories say that the Joketsuzoku took him. She would never advertise the fact with the Ancient One so near. But then, what could make her claim to have him if she didn't?>

He scowled, scuffing his feet. <Who can I get to help me here? I might have been able to coerce the boy, but if he were here, I wouldn't need to. His father's damn near useless, especially with his wife around...>

The man paused, considering. <I need to find one of them, Cologne, or the Ancient one. Whichever does NOT have the boy, would help me out of spite for the other... Of course, Cologne has an ulterior motive, but then... the boy can take care of that himself.> With a sigh, he shook his head, <No. neither of them would be useful to me, since they would both take the boy.> He frowned, suddenly, feeling another familiar presence, <No, I have a few minutes before I need to worry about that. The only thing I don't understand is what the Ancient One would want with the boy. I thought she was content to wander.>

He balled his hand into a fist, wreathed and crackling with energy. <I've learned a few things since the last time I've truly fought either of them. If it comes down to it...> Releasing the energy, he allowed it to dissipate. He sighed, turning to his pipe. He absently created another spark of energy to re-light it. <I need an ally here. Who should I turn to?>

The man resumed his pacing, until the sound of beating wings and a bestial scream broke the stillness. Happosai grinned. <Of course. Who better.>

A huge monstrosity of a creature, like a winged minotaur with tentacles protruding from its back shrieked at him again, something incomprehensible. Windows in the neighborhood rattled, and people dashed into the yard from the house. Happosai glanced disdainfully at the people on the lawn, as they froze, staring at the monstrosity in abject fear.

The beast dived at him, but Happosai simply leapt straight up, passing over it, and mocking, "You'll have to do better than that, Pantyhose!"

The beast wheeled around, lighting on the opposite end of the roof. It flexed its muscular arms, twitched its tail, and shrieked at him again in rage.

Happosai smiled wickedly, and allowed himself to be chased across the rooftops. He laughed out loud as he thought to himself, <Just who I need.>

------

Author's notes:

Originally, this was about twice as long, but I didn't want to subject the FFML to such huge chapters through e-mail. Thus, this is chapter 3a. Also: Killed all smart quotes in all chapters. Thanks to Richard Person for pointing them out... that was embarrassing. The title of this chapter is, 'Kenzan no Akuinnen' which should mean, 'Tool of Dark Destiny.' I'll let you draw your own conclusions as to what it refers to.


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