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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter five

Sokeizaisangyou

Part A

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

What has gone before:

After the trio arrived at Chame's house, Ranma and Ukyou began studying and training in earnest. Genma has gone to China to follow the rumors of Ranma's abduction, and found that Cologne didn't have him. Ryouga and Akari were slowly growing closer, but Ryouga slipped and allowed Rage control... Meanwhile, the Prince of the Musk met with Cologne, though the reasons for the visit have yet to be revealed. Ukyou and Chame made a startling discovery concerning Ranma's lack of knowledge about the 'birds and the bees,' and Ukyou took it upon herself to explain it to him, in her... rather effective manner.

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

Brief key, trying to stay simple.

<> frame thoughts.

"" frame speech

"{}" frame speech in Mandarin

 

"Knowing my troops can strike, yet not knowing the enemy cannot be struck.

This is half of victory.

Knowing the enemy can be struck, yet not knowing my soldiers cannot strike.

This is half of victory.

Knowing the enemy can be struck, knowing my soldiers can strike, yet not knowing that the form of the earth cannot be used to do that battle.

This is half of victory."

Sun Tzu - The Art of War - Chapter Ten

 

"...Then, the first of three steps shall be taken. The three of many, and many, and many..."

From the N'Dori 'Book of the Founder'

 

Akane grimaced irritably at the stack of homework that sat in front of her. "Too much training, not enough study." She scratched her head for a moment, then attempted to plow through it as quickly as possible, desiring nothing more than to return to training.

Nabiki glanced briefly through the open doorway, and allowed herself a small smirk. <Akane's becoming more and more like Ranma every day.> The smirk faded as Nabiki returned to her own room. <Then again, I'm not so certain that it's a good thing...>

Dr. Tofu and Kasumi stepped out of the doctor's cloak, returning to the visible spectrum, and shared a wry grin. Kasumi shook her head, commenting, "I'm worried about Akane, though..."

The doctor seemed unconcerned, and said, "With her oaths binding her through training, there's nothing to worry about. The path that I'm training her on will heal her in its own right... eventually she'll find healing others the most rewarding task, with any luck."

Kasumi's ever-present smile expanded slightly. "How wonderful! Now... the house is in good keeping for the next few hours... shall we..." She trailed off and traced a finger across the doctor's torso. His gi left a good expanse of his chest exposed, and Kasumi purred slightly as she stroked him.

Tofu blushed brightly, and closed the cloak about him, leaving Kasumi to pout. After a moment, a disembodied voice called out, "Er... would you like to go out for dinner, Kasumi?" The eldest Tendo sister giggled, then nodded towards the source of the voice.

***

Akane surveyed the gates. The hentai brigade had long since disbanded, though Kuno kept trying. Today, he had gotten out of his cast, and carried his bokken again. Akane frowned slightly at the sight; Kuno hadn't carried the wooden sword for quite a while.

He fetched a rose from a pocket and sniffed imperiously at it before flinging it to Akane. After the merest moment of hesitation, Akane caught the rose, and crushed it in her hand. As usual, Kuno didn't notice, going off on another tirade, "...and though the fiery-haired sisters have been abducted by the vile Saotome, I shall rescue you, Tendo Akane from his cruel sorcery!"

A thought was formulating in Akane's mind. She had toyed with it briefly before, always discarding it when it surfaced, but now, it rose in her mind, clamoring for attention again. She frowned, considering. It was a truly cruel thing to do, by any measure, but at the same time...

Smiling, Akane suggested, "I'm safe right now. Why don't you go to rescue the sisters?"

Kuno's face suddenly froze with a glazed expression, and he mumbled something incoherent as Akane walked past him, and into her class. She couldn't help but suppress a smirk at just how badly things were going to go for Kuno. Akane was not at all certain where Ranma actually was. If anyone knew, it would be Nabiki, but she wasn't going to speak on account of what she had almost gotten Ranma into. On occasion, Dr. Tofu or Akane still had to run off the gangsters.

She reflected briefly, <Even if Kuno finds them, Ranma will still beat him up just as easily, and if he's learned half as much magic as I have, Kuno's in for some real trouble. Aside from that, they can probably do what they did to Tarou.> Frowning slightly at the thought, she wondered if Dr. Tofu could tell her exactly what _had_ happened.

A sudden prickling sensation on the back of her neck alerted her, and she swiftly raised her mental barriers. Grimacing, she tried to feel out the attack, and locate its source. <Some kind of mind-altering magic... Gosunkugi? Damn... that boy needs a good talking to. Too weak, and poorly focused.> Akane cracked her knuckles loudly, causing the students seated near her to edge away nervously. <And if he's trying the type of spell I _think_ he's trying...>

***

Ranma sneezed suddenly, then looked around. Ukyou glanced up at him from writing in a large blank tome, then smirked, saying, "Someone must be thinking about you."

He shrugged, frowning slightly. "I guess. Just thinking about things... Chame said that she wanted to teach me how to forge stuff... I should go to the forge soon, or I'll be late." Ranma masterfully concealed a smile. Chame hadn't actually suggested it, but she hadn't been opposed, either. He had asked, since he was interested in crafting something. Chame had a mild interest, but declared herself a meager potter, and a poor smith.

At Ranma's suggestion, she had agreed to teach him what he needed, since she had a forge anyway. Ranma suspected that the rest could be picked up from books, if necessary. After all, his father had learned martial arts techniques from books.

He reconsidered briefly, after remembering the neko-ken.

Someone in town could teach him more, if necessary.

Ukyou nodded, turning back to her tome. "Don't take too long, Ranchan," she called out as he left. <I wonder what he's trying to hide that smile for.>

The forge was built into the side of the house at the base of the tower. Ranma made a mental note to find out what was in the tower at some point; it always seemed to slip his mind when Chame was around.

A heavy, squat door led into the interior of the forge, and a covered woodshed provided fuel for the fire.

Chame had stoked the forge fires earlier, though it was instantly obvious to Ranma that a good deal of the operation was magically assisted. He smiled at the thought, since it meant he was less likely to burn himself. The sweltering heat from the coals was already enough to make him reel slightly.

The elder Machin looked up as he entered. She was wearing her normal clothes, silk shirt and loose-fitting pants. But then, Ranma, and lately Ukyou, wore similar clothing anyway, so he didn't think about it. She was wearing a pair of thick gloves and a heavy smock in addition to her normal clothing.

Grabbing an extra smock from the wall, she handed it to him, saying, "Put this on before we start."

He donned the smock, and found himself at a comfortable temperature instantly. Smirking, he remarked, "Convenient."

She grinned at him. "I thought so. Now, let's start with the basics..."

***

Herb, Lord of the Musk plodded down the road, attended only by her two most experienced servants. Lime paced her to the left, his hulking form dominating the road. Mint was a small blur to the right, his much smaller frame darting about, examining things that were new to him. Which was almost everything, since the Musk tribe didn't get out much.

The trio largely ignored the large panda that dashed past them, followed by a small mob of shouting villagers.

***

Genma finally found a bathhouse, and dove into the warm water. The villagers on his trail halted, and looked about, confused.

Smiling, Genma pointed to a door and uttered one of the few phrases that he knew in Chinese. In fact, he had learned it only a few weeks ago, for just such an occasion. "{The Panda went that way.}"

Nodding, the mob dashed towards the indicated exit. Sighing in relief, Genma fled out the door he had entered from, <Ranma... I will find you, and bring you back. The schools _will_ be united.> After a moment of hesitation, Genma offered up a prayer of thanks for the phrase working again.

***

Ryouga sat up slowly, releasing a slight groan. As the noise escaped his lips, his eyes began to tear up. The intense pain of a migraine he was used to, but this was pain that was reaching whole new levels for him.

Someone stirred in the darkness next to him. The slight rustling was enough to set Ryouga's head spinning, a whirlwind of pain and nausea. He lurched unsteadily to the bathroom, and managed to vomit in the toilet before he passed out again.

***

Akari woke from her fitful sleep and suppressed a shiver. Checking to make sure she was alone, she mentally thanked whatever gods had seen to it that her grandfather was gone for the week. If he had heard what had happened last night...

The girl suppressed another shudder, and scrambled out of the bed. Ryouga was gone, and she felt... unclean. She shook her head and wadded up the sheets from the bed, making a note to herself to have them burned later.

Dropping them on the floor in an unceremonious pile, she walked unsteadily to the bathroom. Ryouga lay on the floor, unconscious. After a moment of hesitation, she splashed him with cold water from the sink, and cleaned him up with a washrag.

Once clean, the piglet was carefully dried and set down on the guest bed.

That done, Akari scrubbed herself for a frantic ten minutes until she felt 'clean.' After that, she let herself soak in the hot furo, and tried to make sense out of the events that had followed Ryouga's battle with Katsunishiki. The aftermath had left her... confused, to say the least.

The rules her grandfather had set forth explained that Akari could only marry someone who could defeat Katsunishiki, but she hadn't expected him to be so... forward. She winced slightly at the memory, and tried to sort things out.

It was... a little rushed for her, and Ryouga had _never_ behaved that way near her before, but... was this normal? Lowering her head, she brushed a few tears away. <Yes... this must be normal. I'm just such an awkward... outsider... it's confusing to me. That's all.>

***

Happosai paced about, though his favorite haunt was now deserted. He paused for a moment, letting a rueful smile play across his face. The roof had become more popular than the living room, recently. Tarou and Akane came up here to brood separately, and Happosai had seen some interesting elements involving Kasumi and Dr. Tofu.

He shook his head at the memory; Kasumi was certainly... bold. Of course, the doctor would have none of it, insisting that she save herself for marriage. Which, as Happosai knew, Soun would never allow.

Soun needed Ranma to marry Akane. Happosai was only dimly aware of the reason, but it made sense to him when he thought about it. Without their wedding, the inheritance tax on the dojo would wipe out the family savings. Of course, if Tendo gave the dojo to them as a _gift_ during a wedding... The old man shook his head, unconcerned.

It didn't matter to him, of course. Ranma could marry Akane, or that scrumptious looking Kodachi that Akane had taken to beating up every few days. He had plans for the boy, but he didn't care who Ranma ended up with, really.

Happosai hesitated a moment. There was a surefire way to get the boy back, of course. All that Happosai had to do was let it get to Ranma that Akane was in trouble...

Fingering the book he had picked up earlier that day, Happosai debated. <I'm not a big fan of magic, but he hasn't come back yet, and this is probably the best chance I'm going to get, so...> With a sigh, he shook his head, and cracked open the book. <Surely just _reading_ it wouldn't hurt...>

The black, leathery bindings warmed to his touch, and he found himself absorbed in the words on the pages in front of him. <I can’t make out the title. Hmm...>

***

Kasumi suppressed a shudder and exchanged a meaningful glance with Dr. Tofu. The couple turned as one, and marched towards Nabiki's room. While neither could pinpoint it, something nearby was very wrong, and very dangerous. It was time to send a few letters.

***

Ranma frowned, glancing over the letter that Chame had handed him. "Eh... Who is this 'Herb,' person, anyway?"

Chame shrugged, as Ukyou served them tea. "Thanks, Ukyou. You ought to take a break once in a while. I'd say Ranma's made you too domestic."

The girl flushed, and sat next to Ranma. To his credit, he didn't shy away anymore. Shaking his head, he set the letter on the table. Ukyou read over it quickly, asking, "Who are the Musk?"

Chame frowned, saying, "Well... they used Jusenkyou to, ah, 'improve' themselves. A band of warrior men, they established a magical device to lock someone into their cursed state, which is a bucket and ladle called the Chiisui-ton. The reason they did this was to throw what they thought were strong animals in the spring of drowned girl. Then they would lock them in, and breed with them." She paused for a moment, then added, "I think Herb is a noble. I'm not certain."

The young couple blinked and traded a glance. Ukyou shook her head, asking, "Uh... why didn't they just lock strong warriors in as women? I mean... animals?"

Ranma repressed a shudder. "That's creepy."

Chame snorted, "You don't know the half of it. Anyway, the children from those pairings displayed the attributes of the animals that were used. The princes of the tribe carry the blood of dragons in their veins. According this letter, Herb wants information regarding the location of the Kaisui-fuu." Tapping the table thoughtfully, Chame stared at the wall for a long moment before speaking again, "Well... the Kaisui-fuu is a magic kettle that they can use to reverse the effects of the Chiisui-ton. Sounds like one of the Musk -- and it would have to be an important one -- managed to get himself locked in cursed form."

Ranma nodded, an interested expression on his face. "Huh... can they be used to cure the curses?"

Chame shook her head, smiling softly. "No... sorry. The Kaisui-fuu only unlocks curses, doesn't dispel them."

Shaking his own head in response, Ranma muttered, "Well. It doesn't really matter. They're still in China, so we've probably got a while until it's a problem, right? There are... some things I need to take care of first."

Ukyou raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Chame merely looked thoughtful.

***

Ryouga woke, dizzy and confused. After a moment, his head cleared a little, and he realized that he was in pig form. Yawning widely, he jumped off of the bed and trundled over to the bath. There was no sign of Akari, and the furo was filled with warm water.

With a contented 'bwee!' he leapt in and resumed his proper shape.

After a brief soak, he tried to remember what had happened recently, but found nothing but the darkness that filled his memory when the rage took over. He toweled himself off, suddenly nervous. <I've avoided the rage for almost a whole month now... what happened? I'd better ask Akari about it.>

Akari looked up from her position in the yard, where she was tending one of the pigs, and shied away momentarily. After her initial reaction had subsided, she smiled at Ryouga uncertainly. He smiled back at her warmly, greeting her, "Akari! Good morning, did you rest well?"

The girl licked her lips and nodded slowly, her eyes darting between her feet and his eyes. "Yes... I... slept fine... did... did you enjoy it?"

Ryouga blinked, confused. <Huh? Oh! Did I enjoy sleeping as P-chan! Right.> He shrugged and waved a hand absently. "It's... It's nice once in a while, I guess. I used to really hate it, at first, but... I don't know. After meeting you, I think I don't mind as much as I used to."

Confusion and relief warred for control of Akari's face, finally settling for a truce in 'confused relief.' "I... I'm glad then. Do... do you want to marry me now? My grandfather said that I can only marry a man who defeats Katsunishiki, and you did, so..." She flushed, staring firmly at her feet, unable to look at his eyes. <Why is it so difficult to talk about this?> Clearing her throat, she continued, in a shaky voice, "So... you can marry me. No one else can beat him..."

Ryouga stared, stunned for a long moment. <What? Of course I would but... I love Akane!> The thought was instantly beaten down by Ryouga noticing something. Akari was walking oddly. As though she were injured... <Oh. Oh. Oh, shit. I didn't... I... I did? Oh, crap. I _have _ to marry her now!> Dully, he nodded, mumbling, "Yeah... that would be great... we should... Yeah..."

The smaller girl latched onto Ryouga instantly, exclaiming, "Ryouga! I love you..." <Of course he'd marry me!>

Nodding, and still uncertain of what to say, Ryouga mumbled, "I love you too, Akane."

Of course, Akari was too happy to notice a single misplaced syllable.

***

Nodoka stared at the phone pensively. Ranma had _promised_ he would try and keep in touch with her. He had said he would keep in contact, but so far, she hadn't gotten a single phone call or letter from him.

Biting her lip, she sighed, "Ranma..." Nodoka was able to get some information from Nabiki about it. Nabiki kept in touch with Chame, who was living with Ranma, but... She fingered her katana idly, wondering if the phone was to blame.

A brief fantasy of the phone, tanto planted firmly in its dial while Nodoka cut the cord, caused her to blink. <No... no more blaming others for what's going on. Ranma... hurry up and call me!>

***

Ranma wiped the sweat from his forehead, and smiled to himself. "Ah... yep. That looks about right."

Chame glanced over his shoulder and nodded approvingly, commenting, "That's a heck of a lot easier than crafting a weapon, and to be honest, you did a really good job. Even if you did cheat a little on the shapes."

Blushing slightly, Ranma carefully picked up the fruit of his labors with a pair of tongs, and dropped it into a nearby bucket. After a moment, the steam subsided, and Ranma cautiously reached in to pull it out.

Finding it was cool enough to be handled, he removed it from the bucket, and a moment later, removed another he had dropped in earlier. Admiring them again in the light, Ranma furrowed his brow in thought, and mumbled softly. A light glow suffused his hands, flowing into the items he had crafted briefly, then fading. "These are good. I'm happy with them."

Chame nodded, staring at them. "Cheated on the finish too, I see. Nice work, though. Machin are supposed to be really _slow_ learners... I'm impressed, Ranma.

With a grin, Ranma pocketed the items, saying, "Thanks. Let's go in and get dinner. All this made me really hungry."

***

Ukyou suppressed a grimace. Ranma had promised her something special, then proceeded to spend the next week with Chame almost non-stop while the pair was crowded into the forge. <Ranchan... you promised me...> Sighing, Ukyou realized that couldn't bring herself to be angry with Ranma yet.

Coming to Chame's to study with the mystic and sometimes warrior had opened both of their eyes to a lot of new things... and Ranma was eager to learn everything. Setting the places, she waited for the pair to enter.

Ranma smiled at her brightly. "Ucchan! Mmm... dinner smells great." He plunked himself onto a cushion and began eating with his normal gusto. Chame made a slight, almost imperceptible gesture, and Ukyou grinned.

Turning her sweetest smile to Ranma, she nodded, chirping, "Thanks, Ranchan. It tastes better when you eat it, instead of trying to breathe it in."

Ranma nearly choked, but caught himself, and slowed down his pace to a level that seemed to please Ukyou. "Er... sorry." <And I just wanted to be over with dinner so I could give her...> He smiled a bit at that thought.

***

Ryouga grumbled to himself slightly, and fingered the box that he had purchased earlier that week.

Sighing, he fingered the felt material that covered its surface, and looked up from the ground. With a wail of despair, he realized that he was lost. Again. He repressed his instinctive anger, and checked the surroundings. <That... that looks just like the 'Ucchan's.'>

He peered closely at the building. <Ukyou would never let it get that dirty, and the sign isn't out yet.> Sighing, he shook his head. <I can't talk to Akari yet... I need to find Akane and apologize.>

After a few more minutes of wandering, he checked for familiar landmarks again. Grumbling, he grabbed a passerby roughly by the shoulder. "Excuse me, sir, can you direct me to the Tendo dojo in Nerima?"

***

After the meal was over, Chame excused herself to a corner of the room to watch events unfold. It had been a while since she had found something truly intriguing, but this couple was entertaining to her in a way that nothing in the last seven hundred years or more had been. <And,> she admitted to herself, <they _are_ friends.>

Ukyou started to gather the dishes, and Ranma reached out a hand to stop her. He began falteringly, "Um... Ucchan?"

She glanced up at him, curious. "Yes, Ranchan?"

Chame grinned to herself. <I wonder how far he'll get before his brain gives out.>

He sputtered for a moment, trying to say something he had planed in advance, then gave up on that. Falling back on his backup plan, he started to say something, made a face, and threw that out as well. Ranma's brain, taxed with a situation that was not martial or magical in nature, locked up. <I thought he would last longer.>

After a heartbeat, Ranma spit out, "Ucchan, I want to marry you."

She stared at him for a long moment before something kicked his memory enough to have him present the ring he had spent the last few days crafting for Ukyou. The okonomiyaki chef could only stare in shock for a long moment at the ring, then picked it up with trembling hands.

It was formed from three perfectly matched bands of metal. Gold, silver, and white gold, painstakingly braided together to form a ring. Even more strikingly, when one followed a thread, it slowly turned into a different thread. The gold eventually melded into the white gold, which melded into the silver, which melded into the white gold, which melded into... Ukyou blinked, staring at the ring, "It's... it's... so beautiful... Ranma... thank you." Ukyou was surprised to find her vision distorting as tears filled them.

Ranma tried to guess where the table that had been between the two of them had gone, then quite suddenly decided that he didn't really care. "I love you, Ucchan." She said something he couldn't quite make out as she nestled into his embrace.

Acts of love, or acts inspired by love sometimes could have tremendous impact even against supremely powerfully beings. Once in a great while, a being that was ancient beyond normal reckoning could be caught off guard by one of these acts. Chame used this as a defense when asked what she was doing pinned between the table and the wall, where it had been flung.

***

Tarou stared for a long moment at the boy who had grabbed his shoulder, then sneered, "I remember you."

Ryouga blinked for a moment, uncomprehending, then growled low in his throat, "Tarou... you... where am I?"

Tarou rolled his eyes, pointing. "The Tendo dojo is right behind you. Want to spar?"

Shaking his head, the Lost Boy spun around, and in a stroke of luck, marched to the front door of the Tendo household.

***

Ranma shouldered his pack, leaving behind a few of the items he had crafted. Ukyou and Chame met him at the door, shouldering their own burdens. Shaking his head slightly, Ranma turned his back to the house. "So... how shall we travel?"

Chame smirked, eyeing her students speculatively. "How long do you think you can hold the Breath of the Earth?"

Ukyou paled slightly, then mumbled, "Um... probably a few hours..."

Ranma nodded, saying, "Sounds about right to me..."

The redhead smiled. "Good. If you can hold it for five hours, then we should be able to make the train station in one day, and be in Nerima by tomorrow morning. Remember, it won't hold over concrete."

After exchanging a smile, the young couple nodded. Ranma stretched out a few muscles, declaring, "O...kay! Let's go!"

The Breath of the Earth, Chame had explained, was a technique that allowed one to stretch one's strides, and shorten the distance one had to travel. The theory was to match one's heartbeat and breathing to the breathing and heartbeat of the Earth. In practice, this wasn't practical, since the Earth wasn't a single living thing, but a collection of small lives, strung together in a great spiral.

Ranma had taken a long time to actually be able to sense the life of a region around him, though Ukyou seemed to accept it with her innate knowledge of such things. Chame had explained that each living section of earth had a spirit, a soul, and was, in fact, alive.

Older peoples had referred to the more powerful of these spirits as lesser gods. As the explanation went, the majority of these spirits didn't care much about the humans on them. A slim few took interest in humans, and a slimmer few held malice for them.

So, Ranma found himself changing his breathing pattern and his heart rate to match, every minute or so. Leaving Shu-Gibra's territory, and entering a rocky section of a mountain slope held by a spirit that called itself Bre-Nirlo, and then onward to the spirit that controlled the area on the opposite side, and so on, and so on.

The practice was exhausting, and one of the territories had to be skirted, since the local spirit wasn't interested in assisting anyone, but they made it to the train station eventually.

Releasing the Breath of the Earth, Ranma heaved a sigh. "Ugh. Well. We made it."

Chame nodded, grinning at the young couple Proudly. "Good!" she exclaimed, "Either of you remember to bring money for the train tickets?"

Ukyou made a face and covered her eyes. "Oh no... You're kidding, right?"

Snorting, Ranma produced some money from a pocket. "Yes, I know. And I know you have enough on you anyway."

Chame smirked, as Ukyou muttered vile imprecations about her. "Okay," Chame said, "let's get going, then."

***

Ryouga knocked on the door to the house. A moment later, Kasumi answered, her expression changing from pleasant and passive, to irate. "Ryouga." She stated, the normal warmth absent from her voice.

He blinked a few times, and scratched the back of his head. "Uh... yeah... I needed to talk to Akane... is... is she home?"

Frowning slightly, Kasumi nodded, "She is."

Ryouga bit back a curse, feeling anger rising within him. <What, has Ranma turned them all against me? The bastard...> He suppressed the rage instantly, fear of what had happened last time adding to his control. "May I come in and speak with her?"

Sighing, Kasumi gestured beside her. "Come in." She pointed to a couch, explaining, "Wait here, I'll fetch her."

Nabiki saw Ryouga, paled for a moment, then dashed up the stairs ahead of Kasumi.

The two elder sisters convened behind Akane, who was fighting with her pencil against her math homework. She glanced up and turned slowly, to see her sisters staring at her sternly. Blinking, she found her efforts to edge away impeded by the desk, behind her. "Uh... Nabiki? Kasumi? What's going on here?"

Nabiki pursed her lips. "Akane... this isn't the best time for this, I know, but... this is about Ryouga and P-chan."

Akane frowned, not understanding the connection. "Wait... does P-chan belong to Ryouga?"

Kasumi sighed, and covered her eyes with one hand. "Akane, Ryouga has a Jusenkyou curse."

The youngest Tendo sister nodded, uncomprehending. "Okay... what does he turn into?"

Nabiki rolled her eyes, grumbling, "Think about it, Akane. You ever notice P-chan's collar?"

Akane frowned, then commented, "Yeah, it looks just like Ryouga's bandannas. Why?"

Kasumi pressed her hands together, sighing, "Akane, do you remember Ranma sneaking into your room at night, holding a kettle of hot water?"

"Yeah. He only tried that a few times, right after I got... P... cha..." Her face twisted into a mask of disgust and betrayal. "No!" she protested, "He... you're kidding, right?!" A month ago, she would have screamed, shouted, sworn revenge, and malleted the pig into next week. Now, she was unsure of the best course of action.

Nabiki groaned, "No wonder Ranma said you were dense. Don't you remember the incident when Ryouga and P-chan had the same mark on their stomachs?"

Akane swallowed, looking sick. "Yeah... I... I remember... But... why didn't Ranma ever tell me? It doesn't make sense! He would have told me!"

Kasumi shrugged, speaking softly, "I can't claim to understand Ranma, Akane. You could send him a letter and ask him. But... right now, Ryouga's waiting downstairs to speak with you."

Shaking her head, Akane stared at her sisters, confusion evident on her face. "What... what should I do?"

Nabiki smiled, a vaguely sinister expression. "I have an idea..." Eyes glinting, Nabiki explained to Akane, "Here's the plan..."

***

Tarou stepped away from Akane's window slowly. <Wouldn't do to let a perverted maniac kill my only student. I had no idea Akane didn't know about that. No problem. I'll just stay nearby and make sure that nothing hurts her.>

Dr. Tofu grinned from behind Tarou, enveloped in his cloak. <I think Ryouga's in more danger than Akane right now.> Shadowing Tarou, the doctor watched Ryouga closely.

***

Ryouga jumped up to his feet as Akane walked down the stairs. "Akane! How are you!" Kasumi followed Akane, and stood to one side unobtrusively.

She eyed him guardedly, then said, "I'm... okay, Ryouga. How are you?" Making a point of sitting across from his position on the couch, she adjusted herself warily.

He frowned, noting her new apparel. "Uh... I'm..." <Cheating on you. I'm living with a girl and I already defiled her. You?> "I'm okay. Life's been a little... odd lately."

Akane nodded slowly. "I see."

Ryouga sat down uncertainly, not quite able to read Akane's emotions. "Um... have... how is Ranma?"

She shrugged uncomfortably, staring at the floor before returning her attention to Ryouga. "He, ah... left."

Blinking, Ryouga nodded. "I... see. Do you know where?" <Bastard! Abandoning... no, wait... now Akane's free! Akari's independent! Akane needs me! YES!>

Akane shrugged. "I heard that he went to China, to live with Shampoo."

Ryouga hesitated, taken aback by the announcement. "I never would have guessed..." <Probably a potion. Good riddance!> "So. Ah... are you seeing someone?"

The girl rolled her eyes. "I'm getting over an almost year long engagement, no I'm not seeing anyone." She heaved a sigh, looking downcast. "Things didn't work out with Ranma... there... there were too many secrets between us." Pensively, she stared at the ceiling, "I can't have a relationship with someone who hides something... _anything_ from me..."

Blinking, Ryouga considered his options. "Uh." <Should I tell her? I can't! She'll hate me!> "Akane... I... have to tell you something..."

She raised an eyebrow, wondering. "What's that?"

He stood, palming the box he had acquired earlier. He took a deep breath, gathering what little confidence he could. "Akane... there's something I've been hiding from you for a long time..."

Akane blinked, patiently. "Yes, Ryouga?"

Swallowing, he presented the box, proclaiming, "I love you, Akane."

She stared at the ring for a long moment, then shook her head. "But you're going to keep lying to me about your curse? I think not. I hope I never see you again."

Ryouga's eyes unfocused in confusion. <Who told her? Who, _who_, WHO? I will _KILL_ YOU, RANMA!> Then the rage took him, more deeply than it had ever touched him before.

And this time, he didn't fight it.

***

For a moment, Akane thought Ryouga had gone into shock. Then he moved, so quickly she almost didn't have enough time to react.

Akane leapt back, out of the path of a shishi houkodan as it decimated the chair she had been sitting in. As she landed, she took a defensive stance and screamed, "What the hell are you doing? Are you insane?"

Ryouga's face twisted, and his eyes emitted an unearthly red glow. His voice was too deep, and grated heavily on Akane's ears, "NO. NOW YOU WILL DIE."

Akane's eyes widened, and she raised her arms to shield herself from his next attack. To her surprise, Kasumi leapt in front of her, arms spread wide. The next shishi houkodan impacted against a glowing barrier of force that the eldest Tendo daughter had quickly erected, bleeding the bolt's energy off into the air, vibrant yellow streamers of power that dissipated as they writhed away.

In fits of rage, people are prone to make mistakes. These mistakes can cover a wide variety of actions. The rarest and most dangerous mistakes are so subtle, that they can't be seen even when one is _not_ blinded by anger.

A perfect example of this is a young martial artist using a ki blast to attack a helpless bystander. Normally, this would only anger relatives and friends of the bystander. Which is what happened. However, one of these friends was nearing his three thousand five hundredth birthday, and had only just now after all that time found someone he truly loved again.

Attacking the object of his affections, regardless of the fact that she had placed herself in front of another target, was not considered a wise action. Despite the fact that she wasn't harmed. He had intended to harm. And that was enough.

Tarou only had enough time to take a half-step forward before the wind of Tofu's passage threw him to the ground.

Tofu discarded the cloak, leaving it to twist through the air as he rushed forward. In a heartbeat, he had reached... somewhere... and retrieved a katana. The blade moved too quickly to be seen, slashing hundreds of miniscule cuts across Ryouga's body as Tofu wielded it with one hand. Between slashes, the doctor struck Ryouga's shiatsu paralysis points with his free hand.

Kasumi's arms hadn't yet been lowered to her sides by the time the doctor was finished.

Tofu sheathed his sword swiftly, and turned around, catching his cloak before it hit the floor. Glancing behind himself, at Ryouga, he sighed, "I trust you won't make a nuisance of yourself anymore?"

Ryouga blinked twice.

Tofu smiled grimly, a warrior in a doctor's gi. "Good." He turned then, facing Kasumi, becoming the mild mannered doctor again. "Are you okay, my love?"

She nodded slowly, marveling at the change. "Ah, yes, Tofu... I'm fine."

Akane blinked a few times, then shook her head, relaxing from her defensive stance. "That was interesting."

Tarou recovered, and entered from the back door, still confused at the doctor's swift dispatch of the lost boy. "Um. Well. What should I do with him?"

All eyes turned to Akane. She frowned for a moment, then stated, "I don't know. I guess it would be best if he were taken somewhere away from here and let wander. I don't care to see him again."

***

Rage found himself lying on a street, some miles from the Tendo Dojo. His mind was in turmoil. <Akane... how... this is Ranma's fault!>

After feeling began to return to his limbs, he struggled weakly. The doctor hadn't helped the bleeding, but the cuts were too shallow to be very worrisome. Rising to his feet, he stumbled on blindly. His pocket still contained the box, undamaged. <Akari, then. Akari...>

Shaking his head, he wondered how the doctor drove him away. <I need time to think about this... I'll stay with Akari. Until I can figure out how to kill Ranma.> He was pleased to note how calm his host remained while he was contemplating murder. Unnoticed by him, his eyes retained their red glow.

<It's going to rain soon.> He readied his umbrella, and lost himself in planing the exquisite revenge he would extract from Ranma. And all of the other humans that were left alive afterwards, but killing Ranma would bind Rage's host to him completely.

***

Akane stared out into the rain, contemplating. Nabiki was sitting on Akane's bed, flipping through a magazine. With a sigh, Nabiki tossed the magazine to the foot of the bed. "Yen for your thoughts?"

Grimacing, Akane shook her head, and caught the one yen coin that Nabiki had flipped towards her. "Adding insult to injury, Nabiki. Just thinking... P-chan was yet another thing that I blamed Ranma for that wasn't his fault."

Nabiki pursed her lips thoughtfully for a moment before responding. "You know... he made mistakes, too. He blamed you for things as well. And don't forget how he insulted you. You shouldn't hate him, but... you shouldn't hate yourself and make him perfect in your memory, either."

Akane sighed, "I... yeah. It's not like I can have him now anyway, is it? It's funny..." She leaned back, staring up at the gray sky through her window. "Part of me wants to resent him. Part of me still loves him."

Nabiki snorted, "I want my money back."

Akane leapt out of her chair, proclaiming, "Okay, enough moping. You want your money? You'll have to beat it out of me!"

The middle Tendo daughter scrambled to a defensive position, her face bearing a look of shock. "No, you wouldn't!"

Akane grinned. "My training has made me ruthless. I would."

Nabiki managed an 'eep', before the tickle fight began.

***

Dr. Tofu sat on the deck, his sword across his knees. Rain pattered on the ground before him, larger droplets trickling from the overhang that sheltered him.

Kasumi knelt near him, and patted him on the shoulder. Her soft voice held a certain note of worry as she asked, "What's troubling you?"

He shrugged, taking a small sip from the teacup Kasumi had offered to him. As the warm liquid tricked into his stomach, soothing his soul, he explained, "I'm a healer by profession, but I drew my weapon against a human... I shouldn't have done that."

After a moment, Kasumi shook her head. "Well, you followed your heart, and I don't think you've caused him permanent injury. You've only hurt his pride, truthfully."

Tofu drew his blade slowly. The blood had been cleaned off, revealing a solid black blade. "This is... the 'Makaze.' 'The Wind Caused by the Devil.' Chame's father crafted this blade for me... she was given its twin." Shaking his head, he re-sheathed the blade. "But I had not meant to harm a human with it again. Not in the years..." He trailed off. "I haven't hurt a human in over eight hundred years with this blade. And now the Hibiki boy has brought up enough anger in me to destroy that."

Kasumi smiled slightly, her worry now showing in her face. "Tofu... you're being too hard on yourself. I realize you place a great value on not harming others, but once in a while, you must."

He shook his head, contesting her statement, "That may be true, but I didn't have to hurt him then."

Frowning, Kasumi continued to argue, "Okay. I'll accede that point to you. However, you were controlled by your emotions, and you can't blame yourself entirely for letting your heart rule over your mind." The doctor looked at her skeptically. She shook her head, sighing, "Aside from which, you drew blood, but you stopped before you actually did permanent damage. You were still in control, and he deserved _some_ punishment for his actions."

The doctor heaved a sigh. "Perhaps you are correct." He contemplated for a moment, until the two younger Tendo sisters began to laugh loudly from Akane's room. Smiling slightly, he glanced towards the noise. "Perhaps."

***

Ranma lay sprawled across the seat, his head resting in Ukyou's lap. She smiled at his soft snoring, and glanced up at Chame. The Machin's face was unreadable, as she stared into the darkness outside the window of the train.

Shaking her head, Ukyou brushed a hand through Ranma's hair. She mused aloud, "I wonder why he never lets his hair down."

Chame glanced at Ukyou briefly, and managed a weak smile, "I don't know." Falling silent, she returned her attention to the darkness.

The okonomiyaki chef frowned slightly, and unfocused her eyes. Chame's aura radiated worry. "What's bothering you?"

Growling slightly, Chame shook her head. "I don't like this. This isn't exactly a safe situation... Nerima..." She sighed, redirecting her irritation. "I don't want to be here. There are just too many unknown factors."

Ukyou frowned. "But we have to... all of the paperwork we need is here, isn't it?"

The redhead nodded. "We could have Nabiki send it to us, though. It's the people here..." She sighed. "I should try and get some rest. I suggest you do the same."

Sighing, Ukyou agreed, "Let's just leave the light on."

"Suits me..."

***

In his room in the Kuno mansion, Kuno paced back and forth, muttering under his breath, "How shall I manage this... how indeed."

Sighing, he glanced at the stack of pictures. Then he grimaced. All of the private investigators he had contacted insisted that they needed a picture before they could search for someone, but this left Kuno in a quandary. "Which one? I cannot afford to let my image slip by agreeing to part with a single one..."

Frowning, he lit upon an answer, "Of course! Nabiki will sell me the information I seek! Yes!" He laughed softly to himself, and gathered up a few of his possessions as he marched towards the school.

As usual, Akane dealt him a blow, heavy with all of the anger she bore for him. Nabiki shook him into wakefulness, after hauling him to the infirmary. "Kuno. When are you going to give up?"

He blinked a few times before recalling his plan. "Ah, Nabiki. I was just thinking of you."

She arched an eyebrow at him, and waited for him to continue.

Grinning, Kuno said, "Name your price. I will pay any amount you ask if you tell me the whereabouts of the pigtailed girl, and her sister."

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "That's..." She paused for a moment, reconsidering. "Any price?"

He nodded vigorously. "Any price."

She grinned slyly. "Fine. Bring me 50,000 yen later today, and I'll tell you where to look for him. Agreed?"

"Ag.... 500,00?" He blinked a few times, considering. "Maybe not _any_ price..."

Shrugging, Nabiki turned her back to Kuno.

He reached out a hand to stop her. "Nabiki... I will pay you ten thousand, and no more."

She considered for a long moment, then nodded slowly. "Very well, then. One hundred thousand." Nabiki laughed softly to herself as she walked away. <I'll tell you where you should look, not where he is.>

***

Nodoka's hand trembled as she checked the calendar. <Another chance to call ignored. Ranma, why don't you ever call or write?>

She sat at her table, letting her head sink onto her folded arms. <Why did you have to visit for just a day, and then disappear again? Do you not love your mother?>

A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. For a moment, she was tempted to ignore it. <Probably just a travelling salesman... or a neighbor, this early...> With a sigh, she gave in, and answered the door. She blinked in surprise at the trio at the door. "Ranma?"

He grinned sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. "Sorry, Mom. I should have called first."

She ushered him inside quickly, sparing polite nods for Ukyou and Chame. "Why haven't you called me? Or written?"

Ranma frowned as he was led to a seat. "I should have written, I'm sorry. There aren't any phones in the nearest village, that's why I haven't called."

Nodoka sighed, "Did you get my letters?"

Ukyou raised an eyebrow and exchanged a glance with Chame. Seeing a look of surprise on the other's face, each frowned slightly. Ukyou turned to Nodoka, explaining, "We haven't gotten anything from you yet. It might have gotten held up in China..."

Rubbing her forehead, Nodoka grimaced. "Never mind, then. What brings you back, Ranma? Is it safe for you here now?"

He smiled brightly, and shook his head. "Actually, Mom, I wanted to tell you that Ukyou and I got engaged."

Nodoka's day brightened instantly. Her son had come to visit, and she was about to gain a daughter-in-law as well. "I am so pleased! When will you be wed?"

Ukyou coughed slightly. "Er... later today, if we can manage it. We can't afford a real ceremony, since if it were public knowledge... well... we were going to retrieve some papers from Nabiki and then go to the city hall."

Confused, Nodoka sighed, "And I had hoped for a ceremony... very well. I suppose I understand the necessity." She frowned thoughtfully, then asked, "What is the reason for retrieving papers from Nabiki?"

Chame shrugged uncomfortably. "Er... I removed all of the evidence and paperwork on him from the public offices."

Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "Indeed?"

The redhead flushed slightly. "Well, you see... I didn't want anyone using legal records to trace him, but we'll have to reinstate some of those records before he can be married..."

Pursing her lips, Nodoka frowned. "Won't this be dangerous, then?"

Ranma shrugged, interrupting before Chame could answer. "I'm not worried about it. They can't really trace me... they might think I'm in Nerima, but they won't be able to find us."

With a sigh, Nodoka shook her head. "I see... Ranma... might I have a word with you alone?"

Wincing, he nodded, and followed Nodoka to the garden. Ukyou cringed and looked at Chame. The Machin just shrugged. "Don't look at me, romance is not my area of specialty."

***

Nodoka contemplated the koi pond for a moment before turning to Ranma. "Son... I admire your willingness to be wed, but... are you certain this is wise at this point?"

He shrugged nervously. "Well... I love her, and she loves me... I... I think I want to spend my life with her..."

Nodding sagely, Nodoka stared into the depths of the pond. "Love is a worthy cause... but... where will you stay once you are married? Do you have a home to share with her? What about children? Are you ready to run that risk at your age?"

Ranma blanched. "Children? No... We... Ugh. Mom, we're training to fight demons. Er... a demon. A nasty one. We haven't thought about... well..." He paused, considering, then shook his head. "_I_ hadn't thought about that. I'll ask. But I think it's a bit soon, I mean, we're still training, and while we're decent, neither of us is exactly a master of magic."

He scratched the back of his head for a moment, considering. "Right now... we want to marry, and practice with Chame. Once that's done, and we defeat the Outsider, then we'll settle down. I can get a job teaching at a dojo somewhere, or Ucchan and I can open an restaurant somewhere..."

Nodoka glanced at Ranma and met his eyes for a moment before staring down into the pool. "Fight a demon, hmm? Well... I can't fault that. It is the duty of a martial artist to protect the weak..." She sighed, "I can't claim to understand much about magic and the like... my parents seemed quite frightened of the very idea, and forbade me to speak of it."

Intrigued, Ranma looked at his mother closely. "I never remembered them. What were your parents like?"

Nodoka sighed again. "They died when I was your age. I married your father a few years later... I'd rather not go into the details about that just now. My mother died in an explosion at a factory. I don't know why she was there, but the factory owners were eager to pay my father not to question them about it. He... grew despondent after that, and sent me to live with some cousins for a while. He passed away shortly after. I think it was a broken heart."

Ranma said nothing for a long moment, then smiled. "I guess I'm lucky to have you still around then, aren't I?"

Serenely, Nodoka shrugged. "That's for you to say. However, at some point, families change. Once, I was part of a family with my mother and father. Then, I was part of a family with my cousins. Years later, I was part of a family with you and your father." She was silent for another long moment. "Then your father took you away from me."

Bowing his head, Ranma sighed, "I'm sorry. I wish I hadn't gone..."

Nodoka shook her head. "I... thought it was actually a good idea at the time, but after a few months, I began to regret it. I missed you and your father horribly, and... I was now part of a family of just myself."

Ranma raised his head, and stepped towards his mother to offer her a hug. "I'm sorry... and now I'm leaving again, aren't I?"

She returned his embrace, then stepped away and regarded him intently. "It's the nature of a family to redefine itself. I just wanted to be part of a larger family for a while." Smiling, she sighed philosophically, "Awkward though it may seem, the Tendos seem to appreciate my company." Frowning, she nodded, "Which reminds me. Your father disappeared about a month ago."

Snorting, Ranma shook his head. "I'm not worried. What's he going to do, really? Maybe he'll look for me, or maybe he'll just run away again." He grumbled, "What's he so hung up on about me marrying Akane for, anyway?"

Nodoka frowned, considering. "I'm not certain. Honor appears to hold little value for him, so it's something else, though I can't understand what. Mr. Tendo seemed to be pushing for it just as hard."

Ranma waved a hand absently. "I'm sure it's not important. But... I don't want to make you be alone... I mean, Pop's gone now... so... ah..." He sighed, unsure of what to say. "What do you think I should do?"

For a long moment, Nodoka said nothing, simply staring into the pond again. Then she sighed, "You should do what you must, Ranma. Yes, it hurts me that you must leave, but I don't know of the ways of demons and the like. I would very much like you to return with a wife, and start a family here, but..." She turned then, to look Ranma directly in the eyes. "Promise me that you will find happiness. That's all I ask." Done speaking, she turned away from Ranma, and entered the house before he could respond.

Left alone with his thoughts, Ranma learned how fascinating the depths of a koi pond can be.

***

Ukyou stood as Nodoka re-entered, slightly nervous.

The older woman's gaze soften somewhat as it passed over her, and she sat near the young girl. Chame edged away unobtrusively.

After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Ukyou smiled hesitantly at Nodoka, "So, ah... would you like to come with us when Ranma and I wed? We still need a witness..."

Nodoka nodded, "That would be pleasant... Ukyou, tell me. What are your plans for the future?"

Chame stood suddenly, mumbling something about air, and left the two alone.

Ukyou watched Chame depart, then frowned. "I... I haven't thought about it much, since we spend most of our time training... If you mean what plans do I have for Ranchan and I, then... well, we have a few options." She paused for a moment to consider. "Ranma and I both know a bit about magic, and more about martial arts... but those aren't exactly marketable job skills."

Shaking her head, Ukyou shrugged. "If everything else fails, I can still fall back on my skills at making okonomiyaki."

Nodoka nodded slightly, considering. After a moment of thought, she asked, "Do you place yourself, and your happiness below that of Ranma's?"

Ukyou nodded. "I... yes. I do. I love him too much not to."

Frowning, Nodoka shook her head. "I do not know that that is wise... if you worry too much about someone else's happiness, and let your own fall by the wayside..." She trailed off for a moment, then sighed, "Remember that your own happiness is important as well." Ukyou nodded, not certain what the older woman meant. "Ukyou... promise me you'll spend time concentrating about your own happiness. If you don't, you might let your love turn to bitterness."

Reeling as though slapped, Ukyou nodded. <Did that happen to her? Is that why Nodoka and Genma...? I can't let that happen.> "I... I promise, then."

Smiling, Nodoka accepted the promise. "Good, I would expect nothing less from my daughter-in-law.

***

Nabiki eyed the envelope warily, and then counted the money to be sure. Shaking her head, she mused, <Kuno's never been this free with money before. I wonder what will happen to Kuno if he actually finds Ranma...>

She sealed the envelope, then met Kuno's intent gaze. "Okay, Kuno-Baby. You want to know where to look for the pigtailed girl?"

The kendoist nodded eagerly. "Yes! I must free them from-"

Nabiki raised a hand, and cut Kuno off. "Next time, stop after the 'yes.' Okay. The rumors say Ranma's in China."

Kuno snorted imperiously, stating, "True, but I've seen the fiend at a restaurant in Nerima after his supposed disappearance."

Nabiki blinked at that. <Oh yeah. Akane mentioned that. Oops.> "Right... well. Tell me this, Kuno. Where do you _think_ Ranma went?"

Rubbing his chin, Kuno struck what Nabiki assumed was supposed to be a noble pose. "Ah, but my mind is too pure to understand the minds of-"

Heaving a sigh, Nabiki shook her head. "Kuno... next time, just say you don't know, okay?" At his blank look, she rolled her eyes. "Never mind. If you want to find him, go to China. The only clues leading to his whereabouts are there."

Kuno grimaced, and paced away a few yards before spinning to face Nabiki again. "I do not think so. I suspect that there is something more that you are not telling me about this."

Nabiki opened her mouth to refute the claim, when her ears picked up a pair of familiar voices.

"She should be somewhere around here, right?"

"Yep. We just have to ask her for the papers, then we can go to the city hall."

Nabiki felt the blood drain from her face. <Oh no. Why now? And I was just about to be set for the next few months, too!>

Kuno's eyes narrowed, and he snatched the envelope from Nabiki's hand. "I should have expected such a lowly gesture from Saotome, but from you..." He snorted, and spun away to face Ranma as the martial artist rounded the corner. "Saotome! You fiend! I will release the pigtailed girl from your clutches!"

***

Ranma blinked a few times, then glanced to Ukyou and Nodoka. "Um... Mom, meet Kuno."

The kendoist stumbled to a halt. <Ranma's mother? Hmm...> "Ah, you are the mother of the foul sorcerer. My humblest apologies."

Ukyou smiled slightly, before Nodoka had time to respond. "Kuno, This is also the mother of your 'pigtailed goddess.'"

Nodoka blinked, then nodded slowly. "Ah... yes. Ranko." She cocked her head at Kuno, "And, what, pray tell, are you attacking my son for?"

Kuno collected his jaw from the ground, "Your son, um... brother and sister. Oh." Blinking, Kuno mulled over the new information. "I had not realized that... Ranko? I did not know that she was your sister. I had thought..." He shook his head slowly. "It explains so much. Why she's always near you, why she wears the same clothes..." He sighed, then a smile crossed his face. "Ah! I have a request for thee, mother of the fair, er... Ranko!"

Frowning slightly, Nodoka nodded, "And what might that request be?"

Striking another of his favored poses, Kuno asked, "I request your permission to date with the fair Ranko."

Ranma, having remained silent this time, shuddered, and glanced at Nodoka. She frowned, and shook her head slowly. "That, I cannot do, Kuno. I'm afraid that she is already promised to another."

Kuno shook his head. "But... But... who can have a claim more righteous than the honorable Kuno Tatewaki?"

Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "I have heard much about you from my son, and..." She smiled slightly, realizing that it wasn't even a lie. "More from Ranko. I do not think you know what the meaning of honor truly is, for you appear to have very little."

Kuno blanched. "None are as honorable as I! I am the most honorable!"

Smirking, Nodoka shook her head. "Then why did you not respect and honor the agreement between my son and Tendo Akane?"

He shrugged, thinking the answer was obvious. "None other than I deserve the fair Akane."

Nodoka blinked a few times, absorbing this information. Then she turned to Ranma. "You said he was a little 'unbalanced.' I appreciate your respect for him, but I believe next time, you should simply state that he's a raving lunatic."

Ranma smiled, offering, "He's fairly normal, compared to his sister."

Stunned, Kuno listened, unsure of what to say. After the slight from Nodoka, he growled. Listening to Ranma insult his sister, however, made him shout, "Do not speak ill of my family, dishonorable cur!" He drew his bokken, only to have it deflected by a katana.

Nodoka raised an eyebrow at him again. "You wish to make this an affair of family honor? I accept."

Kuno blinked, then studied the woman for a moment. <When did she draw the weapon? I never even saw her move...> He nodded slowly, commenting, "I am loathe to fight against a woman, but I accept. If I win, I shall claim the fair Ranko for my own." He was too distracted to notice that Ranma was as stunned by her motion as he was.

Ukyou smacked herself in the forehead with a palm. "Jeez, how dense can you get?"

Nodoka frowned. "Very well. I will meet you at noon in Sakura park. I trust you know where it is?"

Kuno nodded slowly. "Agreed, then."

The woman sheathed her katana in a single fluid motion. "And... bring steel. This is a fight for true honor."

Nabiki stared as the trio approached her, leaving Kuno to storm off alone.

Ranma shook his head. "Mom? I thought you didn't know how to use a sword!"

She shrugged. "I lied. I saw how nervous it made you when I thought you were still Ranko, and claimed not to know how to use it, hoping it would calm you."

He laughed softly. "That explaiCharacters codes for the Microsoft Windows fonts in the range 128 - 159 may not be recognized on other platforms. You are instead recommended to use named entities, e.g. ™ rather than Windows character code 153 (0x2122 in Unicode). Note that as of February 1998 few browsers support the new entities. ns a bit... But... I don't want you to get hurt. Are you sure you don't want me to fight him?"

Nodoka smiled. "I will manage, Ranma. Have faith in your mother. Hello, Nabiki."

Nabiki blinked a few times, then shook her head. "Auntie Saotome?"

Nodoka nodded politely to the girl. "Yes, Nabiki?"

Flushing, the middle Tendo daughter smiled slowly. "Can I start a betting pool that you'll beat Kuno?"

Ranma winced, and shared a sigh with Ukyou. Nodoka shrugged. "I suppose. More people to watch. The shame might be unbearable to Kuno."

Nabiki giggled, "Oh... we'll see..."

--------

Author's notes:

The title of this chapter is 'sokeizaisangyou,' which, as usual, has more than one meaning. The translation of the title is 'forge or foundry,' plural. There's not much really profound to explore in this chapter beyond that...


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