Strained Harmony


A Ranma Sailor Moon fic thingy.


By Sunshine Temple and Trimatter


Naturally, We own neither Sailor Moon nor Ranma. So here's the disclaimer

Ranma 1/2 and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon belongs to Naoko Takeuchi, Koudansha, TV Asahi, and Toei Douga, and DIC.


Previous chapters and other works can be found at our fanfiction websites.

http://home.austin.rr.com/trimatter/

 http://jtemple.florestica.com/

 

Other website Temple of Ranma's Senshi Seifuku

http://fukufics.com


C&C as always is wanted.

 

Yes, the next chapter is here. Sorry for the long wait


Chapter 2 Changing Horizons

 

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            Ranma held a bottle of green tea in one hand and idly fingered her brooch as it dangled from its short, thin chain with the other. Even though she was not "in uniform", since it was her day off, Ranma found herself very used to wearing the brooch that Setsuna had given her as part of her uniform. It made her feel closer to her employer and by extension Hotaru; like it reminded her that she was part of something larger.

 
            She found it comforting in ways that she never really felt before.

 
            With her other hand, she lightly touched the tall bottle of green tea as she waited for Akane. In preparation, Ranma had another bottle waiting for her friend when she showed up. Removing her hand from her tea, Ranma unconsciously smoothed out her turquoise knee-length skirt. Though the white short-sleeved shirt was tailored for her frame and modest in cut, it still left just barely enough cleavage so that her brooch would fall nicely into place.

 
            "I wonder if she'll be my friend after today." Ranma thought worriedly. "But I can't pretend things will ever go back to how they were; I hope she'll understand."

 
            Ranma could not keep her hand still, and it wandered up to her hair where she played with her lengthening curled locks. Having it in a perm kept it relatively short compared to her pigtailed days, but over the months it had grown down to the nape of her neck. Ranma stopped her brushing and settled for idly playing with her "favorite" lock of hair - the one that just wouldn't stay put - while carefully looking around again.

 
            The food court of the mall was so packed with eaters that Ranma was glad to be able to get a table that was against the partition that surrounded the large court rather than a table out in the middle of the large room. Having her chair bumped into by passing strangers when she was trying to eat was quite vexing. As a happy coincidence, it also gave her a good vantage point to watch over the main entrance about one hundred feet away. If anything threatening came through, she'd have a chance to get away before being spotted.

 
            She could not help but smile when a welcome face appeared, but her mood was dampened by what could happen after Akane was told.

 
            "Ranma!" Akane called out.

 
            "Hey Akane!" Ranma called back as a girl with just shorter hair walked up to her. "You're late, what happened?"

 
            "Oh, my sister again," Akane replied with some venom in her voice. "She thinks it is her job to know where I'm going - and when I tell her it is none of her business she takes it upon herself to try and follow me."

 
            Pondering only a brief moment, Ranma concluded, "She's probably figured out that you're seeing me."

 
            Nodding in agreement, Akane mumbled under her breath some disparaging things about Nabiki. "Well, at least I lost her somewhere in Shibuya Station. Maybe she can make money off selling her own damn body instead of trying to sell other people's."

 
            Ranma's eyebrow raised at the sheer amount of anger that Akane was exhibiting toward her sister. Something more must have happened. "What?"

 
            Sighing, Akane settled into her seat. "She's really getting on my nerves. It's like she watches every little move I make - I caught her going through my room three times already. The last time I caught her she was trying to pry open my diary."

 
            "Oh," Ranma said, slightly at a loss as what to say. She pushed the waiting bottle of green tea toward Akane.

 
            "I told her to get out of my room and stay out," Akane said as she twisted the cap off the bottle, "and the next time I caught her in there, I'd do something she'd regret."

 
            "I bet she loved that," Ranma commented as she watched Akane take a sip of tea.

 
            "Yeah," Akane said, placing the bottle down. "But you know what really took the cake?" Ranma shook her head no. "She told my father and he got on to me about it."

 
            Ranma stared a moment in incomprehension. "W-what?"

 
            "That's what I thought," Akane said in agitation. "My own father had the... the gall to tell me that 'finding you was now a matter of honor'. Can you imagine that?"

 
            Nodding slowly, Ranma just then realized how much heat Akane was taking from her absence. "Sorry...," she mumbled.

 
            "It's not your fault," Akane said, pausing to take another sip of her tea. "Between father, Nabiki and Genma, they all feed off each other."

 
            Silence, or what passed for silence in the noisy mall, was shared between the two.

 
            "Might as well start with Nabiki," Ranma thought. "Before going onto other things."

 
            "I reported Nabiki and our fathers," Ranma said guardedly.

 
            Akane sat across from the redhead for a moment before nodding. "Good," Akane said with heat. She was relieved that someone finally worked up the courage to do that.

 
            "They say it'll take a months before a preliminary investigation wraps up," Ranma continued as she looked out at the waves of shoppers in the mall. "I guess you can expect to be interviewed," Ranma said understating what Setsuna had planned.  She would have to be patient.

 
            "What do you think will happen?" Akane asked.

 
            "I really don't know," Ranma admitted. "But from what I heard, they take a very dim look on this sort of thing - especially after what came out about what North Korea pulled in the seventies."

 
            Akane nodded. Relations had been strained between the two countries for decades, but North Korea's admission of kidnapping Japanese citizens - some as young as thirteen - to help their spies fit into society better had made things worse. Nabiki, Genma and Soun conspiring to sell a Japanese citizen to someone in Hong Kong as a sex slave would be seen as just about the same thing.

 
            During Akane's musings, Ranma was gathering herself up for the next problem: telling Akane that she would not be going back to the Tendos' after this was over with. Summoning up her courage, Ranma opened her mouth to speak when –

 
            "Hey Ranma!"

 
            The voice pierced the din of the crowded food court. Looking about, Ranma spied Nami as she weaved through the mass of people toward where Ranma and Akane were seated. Ranma waved the other bespectacled girl over to the seat across from her.

 
            "Hey Nami," Ranma greeted from her chair. "Grab a seat." This would complicate things.

 
            "Thanks," Nami said as she plopped down across from the redhead. "Man, the mall's insane today - and there aren't even any good sales going on or anything."

 
            Akane studied the newcomer. Ranma had mentioned her new friends, but this was the first time that Akane actually met one. As if picking up Akane's thoughts, Ranma made the introductions.

 
            "Nami, I'd like you to meet Akane," Ranma said. "She's one of my oldest friends from back when I lived in Nerima. Akane, this is Nami; she is a friend from my new school."

 
            "Hi."

 
            "Pleased to meet you." 

 
            Nami rested her elbows on the table top and looked between the redhead and Akane. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

 
            "Oh no, Akane and I were just talking," Ranma said with a smile that almost covered the lie. "We go way back."

 
            "Really?" Nami asked. Though Ranma had told much about her past, she had yet to meet anyone from it, and clearly the two were not just reminiscing. "Then you must know martial arts then - everyone from Ranma's past knows martial arts," she said semi-seriously.

 
            "I'm the heir to the Tendo School of Anything Goes," Akane replied, then added under her breath, "As if that family's anything to be proud of."

 
            "Anything Goes? Isn't that what you told me that you practiced?" Nami asked Ranma.

 
            "Yes, er - same school, different branch," Ranma explained. "I was the heir to the Saotome School, but it can go to hel-... never mind."

 
            Knowing that this was a sore spot in Ranma's past and apparently Ranma's friend's as well, Nami opted to change the subject slightly. "So, you've known Ranma a long time?" Nami asked as she made eye contact with Ranma and Akane.

 
            "Umm... about half a year-? No a bit more... nearly a year," Akane answered. She suddenly realized that she had known the curly-haired nanny almost as long as the brash fiance.

 
            Nodding, Nami smiled mischievously and leaned toward Akane. "So tell me," she whispered to Akane, but just loud enough for Ranma to still hear, " - has Ranma always been such a tomboy?"

 
            Blinking at the question, Akane managed to catch the humor in the other's eye before replying. "Oh yes," she answered in a low, playful voice. "Did you know when she first showed up, she didn't even know what a bra was?"

 
            "Hey!" Ranma said in false indignation; she had caught on to the shifting mood of the table. "I didn't need one when I first showed up."

 
            "My, you must have bloomed very quickly," Nami quipped. She had seen how much Ranma had grown in the time they had known her. Definitely a late, but big bloomer.

 
            "Why yes," Ranma chuckled. "It was as if one day I was flat-chested and then centerfold material the next."

 
            Akane and Nami giggled at the redhead's proud smirk. Akane arrested herself in mid-giggle. Ranma was not embarrassed or flustered at this reminder of womanhood. Ranma seemed to have gone along with the jest without any problems.

 
            "So where's Kimiko?" Ranma asked, deciding to shift the subject further away from her past and into the present. She reached for another sip of tea. "It's not like you to go shopping by yourself."

 
            "She's with Kenusuke," Nami said with a trace of disapproval.

 
            "Kenusuke?" Ranma repeated, freezing in mid sip. "On man," she then sighed, putting the bottle down. "I thought we talked her out of seeing him."

 
            "I thought so too," Nami agreed. "But that asshole called her up the other day and - wham."

 
            "Who's Kenusuke?" Akane asked, feeling more than left out of the conversation.

 
            "Some older guy who graduated from our school a couple years back - a real jerk," Ranma paused before continuing to explain. "He's real smarmy, you know the type: likes to see how many notches he can get on his belt."

 
            Nami shook her head. "I care for Kimiko dearly, but I just don't understand what she sees in him."

 
            "She thinks she's in 'love'," Ranma said with bitterness. "I swear if that little shit hurts her, I'll break him in two."

 
            "What I don't understand is why some of the girls chase after him," Nami said plainly. "They have to see that there is something wrong with someone that old wanting them."

 
            "I don't know - some girls are just stupid that way," Ranma snorted as she paused to take a sip. "They think it makes them more mature when an older man takes an interest in them."

 
            "How much older is he?" Akane asked, joining in on the conversation. Akane knew what type of guy the two girls were talking about and had built up a personal hatred for men who used girls' emotions to lure, play with and then discard them like old toys. The money the girls got from "compensated dating" was another enticement, though Kimiko's boyfriend did not sound old enough to do that. Her friend, Sayuri, was almost taken in by just that kind of man - until he was arrested for engaging in under-aged prostitution and that opened her eyes to the man he really was.

 
            "He's about five years older. It's more that he's a jerk." Nami answered while shaking her head.

 
            "Why is Kimiko going with a guy like that?" Akane asked. "Doesn't she know he's a pervert?"

 
            "That's what I'd like to know," Ranma said darkly as she sipped her tea, griping the bottle tighter than necessary. "I mean he's just using her."

 
            Akane blinked at Ranma's choice of words and demeanor; it immediately deflated her own outrage slightly. She then took a sip of her, almost untouched tea. Ranma was obviously unhappy with Kimiko's choice and didn't even try to hide it.

 
            "What do her parents think?" Akane asked, in a tone that was a cross between concern and being appalled. "Certainly they can't think that this is a good thing."

 
            Nami snorted.. "They think he's a nice, confident young man, and applaud Kimiko's decision to date a serious student."

 
            "Bastard got her family, hook, line, and sinker," Ranma snorted. "This guy goes for the heart, and knows to charm the girl's family too."

 
            "I just don't know what to do," Nami said forlornly. Ranma sighed in agreement and silence ruled the table for a moment.

 
            "You could just castrate him," Akane suggested darkly, looking into her bottle. She really hated guys like that.

 
            "Thought of that," Ranma said. "Especially after he tried to put the moves on me, but it would've been too messy."

 
            "And we don't want to go to jail either," Nami pointed out in a defeated tone.

 
            The three fell silent in contemplation.

 
            "How about," Akane began, "you get - er, what's her name?"

 
            "Kimiko," Ranma supplied.

 
            "Why not get Kimiko together with one or two of this jerk's ex-girlfriends?" Akane suggested. "At least she can hear firsthand what this guy is like."

 
            "That's an idea," Nami said with a blink. She thought it over a bit. "Say... that is a good idea," she said with a bit more conviction.

 
            "I never thought of doing that," Ranma muttered more to herself than anyone else, then she looked across the table. "Akane, you're a genius."

 
            "Er... thanks?" Akane said uncertainly. She knew how dense Ranma could be and was not surprised that she had not thought of it, but she was surprised that Nami had not either. But then again...

 
            With that plan in mind, Nami decided to move onto the next crisis at hand. "So... you girls doing anything or you want to come help me shop?"

 
            "Er...," Ranma stammered a bit before catching herself. "I guess... if Akane doesn't mind."

 
            "It's fine with me," Akane said with a shrug. "I have nothing planned for the day."

 
            "What are you shopping for?" Ranma asked.

 
            "A dress," Nami answered with a slight frown. "A nice dress as my mother calls it," she clarified. "We're going to visit my grandparents during break and my folks want me to be 'presentable'."

 
            "Ahhh...," Ranma said in understanding.

 
            "What's so hard about that?" Akane asked.

 
            "Her grandparents are a bit old fashioned," Ranma said offhandedly. " They're picky from what I understand, but there's nothing wrong with dressing up to something fancy or important." She shrugged. She had dressed nicer herself on that... outing with Setsuna. 

 
            "Oh. Well I don't mind tagging along if you don't," Akane said with a noncommittal shrug.

 
            "That would be great," Nami gushed. "The more, the merrier."

 
            Half an hour later, Nami came out of the dressing room wearing yet another fashion disaster - in a sense that it would be totally inappropriate to be seen in near her grandparents. It was a pale blue skirt with a high-cut matching shirt that exposed Nami's belly. "How about this one?" she asked.

 
            Shaking her head, Ranma looked over her friend with a critical eye. "I don't think your grandparents would approve. You did say that their tastes leaned toward the conservative?"

 
            "Well I don't want to dress like a dweeb," Nami complained, but knew Ranma was right. "What do you think?" She asked Akane.

 
            "I think it is nice, but I don't know much about your grandparents," Akane ventured.

 
            "Imagine thinking kimonos are the height of fashion," Nami said as she regarded herself in the full length mirror. She did not look too bad; she'd keep this dress in mind for next time.

 
            "How about this one?" Ranma asked as she held up a green jumper-type of dress. Akane was taken aback slightly. Ranma had actually picked out a fairly nice looking dress, but what Ranma said next really floored her. "It would go nice with that necklace you have - you know the pearl one."

 
            "That might work," Nami commented. "You were always better at coordinating accessories than I was."

 
            "Ranma's better at coordinating accessories?"
Akane's mind whirled. "I knew she was starting to accept all this, but what in the world-"

 
            "But - I don't think so," Nami said as she studied the dress closer. "It looks too much like a school uniform."

 
            As Nami reentered the dressing room, Akane looked over the racks of clothing and selected a fairly revealing dress - one with lots of cleavage. She wanted to test something. "Say Ranma," she began with false distraction in her voice. "This one would look good on you," she finished by holding the dress out by the hanger.

 
           Cocking her head, Ranma evaluated the dress, then shook her head slightly. "No, it shows too much," she finally said.

 
            Akane blinked. Then blinked again. "You used to not mind wearing stuff like this," she said carefully as she hung up the dress.

 
            Shrugging as she paged through the rack in front of her, Ranma replied plainly. "That was before I preferred guys to look me in the eye when they were talking to me and not my chest."

 
             "Ranma's a real stick in the mud when it comes to what to wear," Nami called out from behind the curtain of the dressing room. "She doesn't want to give the kid she's nannying any bad impressions."

 
            "Really?" Akane said while raising an eyebrow.

 
            "Well, yeah," Ranma replied as she leaned against the rack she was just looking through. "I can't let Hotaru think that it is okay to dress like a... a..."

 
            "Hussy," Nami finished for Ranma as she exited the dressing room wearing the clothes she had had on. "At least that's what you've always said."

 
            Cheeks flushing a bit, Ranma meekly let a "right" escape her lips.

 
           "Find anything else?" Nami asked tiredly. Shopping wasn't as much fun when you had to shop to please other people.

 
            "Nope," Ranma replied.

 
            Later on Akane simply shook her head. After four clothing stores, Akane was confused, Nami still had to buy a single garment but more than Nami's pickiness, or more likely, her grandparents' pickiness was Ranma's very casual behavior in the stores. At the last shop, all three girls even perused through the lingerie and Ranma was looking for bras. Akane mentally kicked herself for being amazed at that. Ranma had been living as a girl for months; she had to know by now how underwear worked.

 
            Akane felt as if she were shopping with her own girlfriends rather than... well, with Ranma.

 
            "Had he really changed? It makes sense for Ranma to be like this after this long, but so conservatively dressed..." Akane mentally added

 
            Sighing tiredly, she decided to find out more about Ranma's friend.

 
            "So, you two are in the same class?" Akane asked as they made their way to a fifth shop.

 
            "Yes. Ranma was really shy when I first met her. You know how she was raised, right?" Nami asked. To be honest Ranma was still fairly shy but she was making great progress.

 
            Akane nodded hesitantly; she was unsure of exactly what Ranma had told Nami.

 
            "I can't imagine living like she did," Nami continued.

 
            "It wasn't that bad," Ranma commented.

 
            "Would you go back to that kind of life?" Nami asked.

 
            "No way," Ranma replied without thought. "I like where I'm at right now."

 
            Feeling a pang, Akane controlled her first instinct to ask Ranma outright for clarification. She felt that something fundamental had changed over the months... something real and irrevocable, but it was clear that Ranma felt it too. Akane made a mental note to ask Ranma about it when they were alone.

 
            It was sometime later and the three girls were sitting on a bench, all feeling slightly depressed. Ranma was on one end, cleaning her glasses, Nami was rubbing her head, trying to stave off an impending headache and Akane was removing her shoes to relieve her sore feet. After spending the majority of the afternoon going from one shop to another in what was now looking like a useless attempt at pleasing someone else's tastes, they were all a bit at the end of their rope.

 
            "You know," Nami said tiredly, "I think I'll buy the most daring outfit I can find and just shock the hell out of my grandparents."

 
            "And catch hell from your folks," Ranma pointed out, her mood just as tired as Nami's.

 
            "Are they really that picky?" Akane asked for the tenth time since they started shopping as she rubbed her foot.

 
            "Yes," Nami replied dryly. "They still wear yukatas and kimonos and all that old fashioned stuff."

 
            "Well then, why not show up wearing a kimono," Akane said tiredly, slipping back into her shoes. "They can't complain if you dress like they do."

 
            Nami and Ranma stared at Akane with the same stupefied expression on their faces.

 
            "What?" Akane asked, looking back as the other two.

 
            "Why didn't we think about that before?" lamented Nami. "It's so obvious! Akane once again you are a genius!" She finished by leaning over and hugging Akane tightly.

 
            "Aren't kimonos kind of expensive?" Ranma asked.

 
            "There's bound to be something affordable," Nami said. "If not, then I can rent one for a week."

 
            "I think there is a place near the mall that had some on display," Ranma pointed out. "The White Crane, I think it was called. I saw it on the far side of a plaza on the way over here."

 
            "I've heard of that place," Akane piped in - then paused with a cock of her head; she tried to recall who she had heard the name of the store from.

 
            "Sounds good to me," Nami said, her voice reflecting her raising spirits. "Let's check it out."

 
            The crowds thickened as the trio approached the White Crane forcing the girls to walk single file as they threaded their way. Ranma was leading the way, followed by Nami with Akane bringing up the rear. As they neared the store itself the crowd slackened to a point where they could walk side by side.

 
            "I thought it was around here," Ranma said as she looked around the plaza. She could have sworn it was around there somewhere.

 
            "It's okay," Nami assured. "We'll go somewhere else."

 
            "Akane!" a feminine voice called out.

 
            The three girls turned as one to face a smiling, older woman bustling toward them. She was taller, by a whole head, than Ranma, her auburn hair was done up in a tight bun and she moved with grace despite her hurry. She wore a nicely tailored kimono that had a simple, yet pleasing pattern on it.

 
            Nami looked at the newcomer with curious eyes.

 
            Akane internally groaned as she recalled who she had heard the name of the store from.

 
            Ranma's heart sank as Nodoka Saotome glided up to them. She almost missed that Nodoka was sword-less but filed that away for later.

 
            "It is you Akane," Nodoka said. "What a pleasant surprise."

 
            "Um... why hello Mrs. Sao- I mean Aunty" Akane greeted the older woman. "I didn't expect to see you today," she tagged on lamely.

 
            "It wouldn't be a surprise if you did," Nodoka quipped in an amused tone. "And who do we have here?" She asked as she turned her attention to the two girls accompanying Akane.

 
            "Umm... oh! Aunty Sa-er, Nodoka, I'd like you to meet... Nami." Akane said as she introduced her new acquaintance, "and this is..." Akane froze. "How am I going to introduce Ranma? She thought wildly. She'll figure out that she's 'Ranko' and with Nami here-"

 
            Akane's frantic thoughts were cut off as Ranma spoke. "Why Aunty, I'm surprised that you don't recognize me," she said coquettishly as her eyes twinkled mischievously

 
            The older woman cocked her head and studied the redhead. "We've met?"

 
            Removing her glasses, Ranma smiled up at her 'Aunty'. "I'm Ranko," she said simply. She was amazed, but heartened. Changing her appearance so that no one could recognize her had been one of her goals.

 
            "Ranko?" Nami mumbled in confusion as she watched the exchange.

 
            Nodoka's eyes narrowed slightly as she further studied the girl. After a short moment her eyes widened and her mouth hung open in surprise. "Ranko! It is you!" She exclaimed loudly after quickly getting over her shock. "Look at you! My, you've grown so much since I last saw you."

 
            "Thank you Aunty," Ranma said brightly, but it seemed slightly forced to Nami.

 
            "You are really growing into quite a young woman," Nodoka continued as she studied 'Ranko's' body's proportions. Gone was the thin, but busty country girl that she remembered and in her place was a young girl preparing to bloom into full womanhood. It was good to see Ranko finally grow a bit taller and get some meat on her bones. "I bet the boys are beating down your door trying to date you."

 
            Er... yeah," Ranma half muttered, looking uncomfortable, but to Nodoka's eyes 'Ranko' just looked slightly embarrassed by the compliment, which was just as true too.

 
            "And I must say how lovely you are dressed. It's about time you started dressing properly. Turn around, turn around - I want to see what you're wearing."

 
            Ranma obeyed her 'Aunty' and spun slowly on one foot to give the appraising woman a better look at her outfit. Akane couldn't help but notice that there was no forced girlishness in Ranma's movements; it was all as natural as if Ranma was doing a kata.

 
            "It's so good to see that you're dressing appropriately instead of like a boy," Nodoka commented as Ranma modeled her clothes. The jewelry was very nice too, especially her necklace. Nodoka made a note to get a closer look later if possible. "And so tasteful too. Did your cousin help you pick it?"

 
            Akane sputtered at that.

 
            "Umm... no, er... but my friend Nami did though," Ranma stammered while motioning to her friend.

 
            "Well it's good to know that you have someone to help you with these things," Nodoka said, nodding at Nami before continuing with Ranma. "I recall you being quite ignorant of proper attire."

 
            "Er... thanks - I think," Ranma said in a half laugh to cover her discomfort.

 
            "Oh Ranko it's so good to see you like this - you're so grown up and you do look so lovely," Nodoka beamed as she clasped her hands together in glee and smiled wider in a very approving way. "It's so feminine - unlike your past choices."

 
            "Why thank you Aunty," Ranma gushed, honestly feeling happy about her mother's approval. She liked her look too, it was nice to have people look at her face instead of her body, and it helped with Hotaru. "It is much more comfortable than what I used to wear."

 
            Though Ranma was happy to see her mother, she was also nervous enough to play with the stray lock of hair. This caused Nodoka's attention to be drawn to another radical change in her 'niece'.

 
            "And... Oh! Oh! Your hair! Oh, it's so beautiful," Nodoka exclaimed as she stepped up and ran her fingers through Ranma's hair. Ranma tensed and just as quickly relaxed in the comfortable sensation of having her hair brushed. "I'm so happy that you decided to get rid of that pigtail, it just didn't do you justice."

 
            "Thanks Aunty." Ranma found herself smiling. It took her a while to get used to her new hair, but it had really started to grow on her. Her smile faltered only for a split-second as an empty feeling touched her; she quickly dismissed it and focused on her mother.

 
            "Oh Ranko, I'm so happy to see that you are finally growing out of your tomboy phase," Nodoka continued while drawing the shorter girl into a heartfelt hug. "It's good that you are finally starting to behave more feminine. Pretty soon I think your cousin will have to take lessons from you."

 
            Akane snorted as she barely manage to suppress a giggle. It was clear that she was still the tomboy here.

 
            "So what are you doing here? You girls looked lost," Nodoka asked.

 
            "Cousin?" Nami asked. All during the exchange, she had been getting more and more confused. Now she was thoroughly confused. What was with Ranma being called Ranko? And why did Ranma not mention having any cousins?

 
            "Why yes, Akane and Ranko are cousins," Nodoka explained, keeping an arm around her "niece". "Didn't you know?"

 
            "Er... Nami is a friend of mine that Akane just met today," Ranma said hurriedly. "We're helping her shop for something to meet her grandparents in and since they're real traditional-like we thought kimonos and that's why we're here to look but I couldn't find it and-"

 
            "Slow down dear," Nodoka gently admonished, silencing the babbling redhead. After a moment of silence, Nodoka turned her attention to Nami. "I understand that you are looking for a kimono?" she asked clearly amused.

 
            "Um, yes ma'am," Nami replied as she focused on the taller redhead. Nami could tell that there was some sort of family resemblance going on - and it wasn't between Ranma and her cousin. "But something that is comfortable."

 
            "You're in luck. I know the exact shop you're thinking about," Nodoka laughed. "In fact I'm going there myself," she said giving the obi to her own kimono a gentle tug. "Do you mind if I show you where it is?"

 
           "Why yes, that would be lovely," Nami said with a bow. Sensing that something more - something big - was going on, it was all that Nami could do to not start asking questions right there. She did however, decide to ask Ranma about it once they were alone.

 
            Nodoka took them down one end of the plaza and around a corner through a gateway to another small plaza and to a specific store in one quiet corner. The White Crane was a surprisingly narrow store, but looking through the window it seemed to stretch back quite a ways. The front was all glass with various kimonos and other less formal traditional wear on display.

 
            Once inside, Nodoka waved the sole proprietor over to them. The woman was old - and her appearance almost freaked Ranma out because on first glance she was reminded of Cologne. It was only when the elderly woman stepped up closer that it was clear that she was merely an elderly woman, and nothing like the Amazon mummy.

 
            "Nodoka," the woman bowed and greeted in a surprisingly clear voice. "What a pleasant surprise. Let me put some tea on."

 
            "That's quite all right," Nodoka said brightly. "I actually ran into some young women who might be interested in your wares." Nodoka smiled. "Aunty Suzuki, this is Akane Tendo and her cousin Ranko," Nodoka introduced the girls cheerfully. "And this is Nami... I'm sorry I didn't get your last name?"

 
            "Oh, I'm sorry Aunty," Akane piped up. "I didn't think to ask."

 
            "That's quite all right, Dear," Nodoka said smoothly as she turned her attention back to the proprietor.

 
            "Aunty Suzuki?" Ranma asked. She had more family she wasn't aware of?

 
            "Yes," Nodoka smiled. "Girls, this is Etsuko Suzuki. She's known me since I was young. She's been like a mother to me," her smile became melancholic in remembrance.

 
            "Yes," Etsuko nodded as she studied the younger redhead. "You know, you remind me of her when she was your age," she said appraisingly of Ranma. Etsuko looked thoughtful. "Say, you're not related to Nodoka, are you? You look a bit like her when she was younger," she shot a playful glance at the taller redhead. "Have you been seeing someone on the side No-chan?"

 
            "Now Aunty..." Nodoka flustered.

 
            "Oh let an old woman have her fun," Etsuko laughed while Ranma shuddered in fright.

 
            "Of course you're far too feminine, Ranko. No-chan was quite the tomboy in her day, always poking around in attics and cellars. She always made a mess of her clothes." Etsuko explained.

 
            Ranma blinked. "Uh, imagine that."

 
            "Anyway, Aunty," Nodoka said, clearly embarrassed. "Nami here needs some affordable traditional garments that are comfortable. I understand that she's visiting her grandparents soon."

 
            "Well she came to the right place," the old woman cackled out in a way that just raised the hairs on the back of the younger girls' heads. "Come this way," Etsuko continued as she extended an inviting arm. "I'll size you and see what we have."

 
            The measuring of Nami went quickly and painlessly and in no time Etsuko had shown her customers the section of the shop that held the proper sized kimonos. Since Nami was about average height for her age, that meant that she had a wide selection to choose from.

 
            "This one looks nice... I guess," Nami said uncertain at what she was looking at. The garment was a bright blue with little decoration.

 
            "I don't think you would be comfortable in that one," Nodoka pointed out. "It is rather heavy and would be difficult to get in or out of unaided." Nodoka could sympathize; she enjoyed Kimonos but also enjoyed not wearing them. Visits to the Tendos and Aunty Etsuko were different, however.

 
            "Oh," Nami said then paused. "But it looks simple enough."

 
            "That's because you are looking at the outer wrap," Nodoka explained. "There are other pieces that are worn underneath along with the obi that ties the whole thing together."

 
            "Oh," Nami said dumbly. "This is looking like another dead end."

 
            Etsuko padded up to Nami with an outfit held in both hands. "Try this on and see if you like it."

 
            "What's this?" Nami asked as she took the offered garment. It was long and flowing in a reddish color.

 
            "It's a yukata," Etsuko replied. "It is just as nice as a kimono, but not as difficult to wear and much more light weight."

 
            "Umm...," Nami hesitated.

 
            "Go on," Ranma urged. "Let's see how you look in it."

 
            "Oh, all right. I mean, I came out to buy an outfit for my grandparents...," Nami said as she started to move to the back of the store where a beckoning Estuko and the changing rooms waited. "But you don't go anywhere Ranma, you're stuck with me to the end."

 
            "I won't," Ranma said as she smiled and waved.

 
            "I hope that does it for her," Akane commented wearily. "I never thought shopping could be such a chore."

 
            Nami hesitated, smirked evilly and grabbed Ranma's arm "Oh no, you are are coming too."

 
            "I'm not planning on getting anything... I don't want to waste Mrs. Suzuki's time."

 
            "Please call me Aunty Etsuko, dear," the store owner said warmly. "And it's no problem for me if a lovely girl wants to try on something."

 
            Defeated, Ranma sighed, there was only one thing to do: spread the pain. "But we can't leave Akane out."

 
            Akane glared at the redhead.

 
            Etsuko laughed at the three girls' antics and led them to the changing room in the back. Once there, Ranma shrugged as she took the whole thing in stride and unbuttoned her top. Akane held her tongue as she looked at the redhead's chest. Her eyes darted at the other women as if to gauge their reactions; more importantly, she was gaging Ranma's reaction - or lack of. Ranma was behaving as if being in a woman's changing room was perfectly normal.

 
            "I think you're gonna need another bra," Nami laughed as she looked over at Ranma.

 
            "Again?" Ranma pouted as she examined her chest; unasked, the elderly woman ran a tape measure over her quickly and professionally.

 
            "Yes Dear," Etsuko noted after comparing her actual measurement against the tag on Ranma's bra. "My, you really should have proper support."

 
            "I thought they were starting to fit bad," Ranma sighed. She liked that bra, she only bought that bra a month ago.

 
            From inside the changing stall Nami laughed. "Oh it's not that bad, some girls would kill to have a body like yours."

 
            "I'll be right back," Etsuko said as she ran out of the changing room and to another part of the store.

 
            "Why aren't you taking off your shirt?" Nodoka asked Akane.

 
            "Uh... Aunty Etsuko's not here..." Akane blushed.

 
            "Oh don't mind me," the owner said seeming to appear in the changing alcove. She handed a lacy white bra to Ranma, and turned her attention to Akane.

 
            Ranma looked at the bra and sighed. At least the price was reasonable. She slipped out of her old one and changed into the new bra. She automatically adjusted the straps and shook in just the right way to settle her breasts properly in the cups. The new bra was a definite improvement over the old one.

 
            "Miss Tendo?" Etsuko asked as she attempted to get Akane's attention away from the changing redhead.

 
            "Sorry!" Akane's face reddened again and she fumbled with her shirt. "What does it matter that Ranma's here. I just saw her take her bra off." Akane reassured herself as she finally got the shirt off. "And wearing a bra is about as revealing as wearing a swimsuit."

 
            As Etsuko made her measurements she mumbled to herself. "I think I have something nice for you two," she said looking Akane and Ranma over. She then walked out of the alcove.

 
            "Ranko, why did your friend call you by my son's name?" Nodoka asked in a low tone, once Etsuko had left. Her eyes were filled with a mixture of curiosity and hope. "And where have you been these all these months? I heard that you were on a training trip with my son, then that you went back home to the country."

 
            "Ummm...," Ranma began - only to stop. "Awwww crap," was the only coherent thought that passed through her mind, as panic encroached. She looked around the alcove but short of diving into a changing booth there was no escape.

 
            "Aunty, can you keep a secret?" Akane stepped in, distracting Nodoka from the floundering Ranma while trying to come up with a plausible explanation herself.

 
            "Why certainly," Nodoka replied, looking between the two girls. She could tell that there was something going on. "Whatever is the matter?" she asked with deliberate vapidness.

 
            "Er... Ran..ko is hiding," Akane ventured, hesitantly. "She's had a falling out of sorts and she's... ummm... ummmm..."

 
            Ranma smiled. Akane could be quite devious. "I'm using Ranma's name to hide, yeah," Ranma interjected. She then smiled darkly. "I don't want to be found because of Nabiki."

 
            "Yes, my sister ... she's trying to... ," Akane paused to gather her thoughts. "Well, Aunty I don't want to say what my sister Nabiki has been trying to do to poor Ranko here."

 
            Ranma smiled thinly at Akane's cleverness, she was telling the truth too. "Yeah, that's it," Ranma said. "Nabiki has been trying to do stuff that's... would dishonor me. So I left with Akane and Ranma's help and I'm hiding out until the police get through with their investigation." Ranma was pleased that she had avoided lying to her mother, or at least avoided any new lies.

 
            Inside her booth, Nami concentrated on her reflection. The yukata was quite nice, but that conversation was engrossing. It was a lot like what Ranma had told her but with a few new wrinkles. She remarked on the amazing and unbelievable coincidence given Ranma's engagement to a guy and Akane's engagement to a guy named Ranma. They had seemed to have forgotten her and she dared not remind them of her presence.

 
            Nodoka raised an eyebrow skeptically. It was really quite shocking. "I can't believe that Nabiki would do anything that serious to her own flesh and blood," she said looking aghast. "But it's not like you would run away without reason. What about Mr. Tendo? This implies he was unable to help."

 
            "Aunty, please," Akane interrupted, almost pleadingly. "Don't say anything to my father or my sisters. If they found out where Ranm- er, Ranko is, it'll be bad for her."

 
            "Are you serious?" Nodoka asked disbelievingly. She was skeptical, but the apparent fear in both girls' eyes spoke volumes.

 
            "Yes, mo-er, Aunty," Ranma said firmly while covering her slip. "It is serious. If you say anything it would interfere with the police investigation. I know Nabiki is family, but the law must do their job unhindered."

 
            Nodoka raised an eyebrow again at the second mention of police and then nodded. "Very well, but I want you to know that if there is anything that I can do, I'll help you. Do you have a place to stay? And what are you doing for money?"

 
            "Thank you for the offer," Ranma bowed. It was nice that her mother at least cared for Ranko. "I have a job - for several months now... I'm a nanny to a girl," Ranma replied. "I have room and board and even a bit of an allowance." She looked out to the rest of the shop and wondered what had happened to Etsuko.

 
            "I see," Nodoka said and she cocked her head at Ranma. She then smiled. "A nanny you say? You must have matured a great deal to take on such responsibility at your age - but you do seem much more womanly now."

 
            "Yes, I'm starting to understand what it's like to be more than a girl, to be a woman," Ranma plainly said as Akane covered her mouth to keep from openly laughing.

 
            "So tell me about this child you're a nan-"

 
            "Ta-dah!" Announced Etsuko's return. "Please try them on," she said handing one garment to each girl.

 
            Ranma and Akane took the offered garments. Akane was just about to enter the remaining empty booth when Nami quickly exited hers to let Ranma in.

 
            Ranma, Akane and Nodoka looked to see Nami in a very nice summer yukata. The reddish color was enhanced by the sakura pattern that seemed to flow from the left shoulder to the side where the right leg was.

 
            "Wow," Ranma commented. "You look great."

 
            "Yeah..." Akane muttered, still holding the door.

 
            "You look marvelous," Nodoka chimed in with a smile. "How does it feel?"

 
            "Great," Nami replied merrily as she checked herself out in a full length mirror. "It doesn't feel heavy or restrictive at all."

 
            "You two should try yours then," Etsuko gently prodded.

 
            Ranma nodded and slipped into her booth, while Akane went into hers.

 
            "I think your family will be quite pleased," Nodoka commented to Nami.

 
            "Really? That's good," Nami beamed. "I'm amazed at how fast you picked this out, thank you," she said, bowing to Etsuko.

 
            "It's my pleasure," Etsuko said.

 
            Ranma stepped out of the stall with a beaming smile; the yukata was elegantly draped over her form and was tied to fit perfectly.

 
            "Oh my," Nodoka said as she looked over Ranma in that turquoise yukata; the wave pattern on it was beautiful and almost hypnotic to look at.

 
            "Yeah, that's just wow," Nami said with a tinge of jealousy.

 
            "You look great too," Ranma assured her as she pushed her glasses back up her nose. "Aunty, you're spooky," Ranma complimented Etsuko as she looked at another mirror and idly fluffed her curls.

 
            "I try my best," Etsuko remarked. "You've worn this stuff before haven't you?"

 
            "Sure, for festivals and stuff." Ranma's shrug was interrupted by Akane exiting her booth.

 
            Akane proudly showed off a green yukata with a nice dragon weave.

 
            "We'll make a proper lady out of you yet," Ranma teased.

 
            "This feels great," Akane said running a finger over the material.

 
            "You almost got it," Etsuko said as she discretely adjusted Akane's obi.

 
           "Thanks," Akane looked at Ranma's and Nami's clothes and smirked slightly when her gaze returned to her reflection. Theirs were nice, but for once she was dressed just as good as Ranma.

 
            "Now is this what you want?" Etsuko asked Nami.

 
            "Well, yes..." Nami said.

 
            Etsuko nodded and led Nami back to the counter near the entrance.

 
            "I hope Nami can afford this," Akane said fingering her own clothes.

 
            "Her parents gave her some money to buy something like this," Ranma assured.

 
            "I suppose I can fill that role for you two," Nodoka offered with a little smile.

 
            "Really Aunty, you don't have to," the dark blue haired girl said. She did not know how much Nodoka would have to spend and there was no price tag on the garment, but Akane knew it had to be too much.

 
            "This is really overly generous," Ranma piped up. Part of her was irritated but she reminded herself that her mother was trying to be nice. "I mean, it's generous and all," she continued as she fingered her new yukata. "But it would be a bit much."

 
            "Oh, I assure you it is all right," the older woman said merrily. "It's been so long since I've had the opportunity to shop for someone other than myself, I couldn't help myself."

 
            "Are you sure this won't be a burden to you?" Ranma curiously asked. If her mother had resources like this why did she act so... The redhead paused, her mother never acted poor when she visited the Tendos. It was more that money was never an issue on her mind.

 
            "Of course not," Nodoka assured. "Now I won't accept no for an answer."

 
           It was inevitable. Soon enough a kimono attired woman was followed out the door by three yukata clad teenage girls. Each girl was carrying bags that held the clothes that they were wearing when they entered the shop. On their feet were the shoes they had worn in, since they politely declined to wear the offered sandals. Akane was a bit surprised at the old woman's selection.  Women didn't wear old fashioned geta with kimonos anymore. She shrugged,  this woman was friends with Nodoka, traditional too.

 
            "Now, no more funny business about the bills," Nodoka admonished cheerfully.

 
            Yes, ma'am," the girls chimed, knowing it was useless to argue.

 
            "I just think it's suspicious mine was on sale," Nami added.

 
            "Nonsense, Aunty Etsuko depends on repeat business and word of mouth advertising." Nodoka explained.

 
            "Makes sense, high scale places work like that," Ranma shrugged. That was what the store she had bought her blue gown in was like.

 
            "Do you think your parents will approve of your purchase?" Nodoka asked Nami who was following slightly behind Ranma and Akane.

 
            "Oh I think they'll be very surprised," Nami smiled as she seemed to glide along in her new outfit. "They would never expect me to buy anything this... this nice. Thank you so much for your advice."

 
            "You're quite welcome. I don't know about you girls, but I could use a refresher," Nodoka said off handedly. "How about we stop for something to eat before we... depart our separate ways?"

 
             "Sounds good to me," Akane replied. "But we're buying."

 
            "I couldn't ask you-"

 
            "Too bad," Ranma said with a playful exaggerated firmness. She smiled wickedly; she knew just the place.

 
            Nodoka resisted the urge to tell "Ranko" how cute she looked with her lower lip sticking out like that.

 
            "You bought us new outfits, so it's our turn to treat you to something," Ranma countered enjoying being proactive against her mother for once.

 
            "I'll chip in for that," Nami piped in. "You were really helpful back there, and I'm sure you know a good place around here. You always do. "

 
            "No, this is my treat. I want to do something nice for my friends," Ranma assured.

Nodoka glanced at the unwavering looks of determination that the three girls wore. "All right," she relented. "As long as you girls promise not to go overboard."

 
            Ranma smiled mischievously. She would show her mother a thing or two. The redhead led the quartet down a block and over to what looked to be an unassuming restaurant.

 
            "Green Mountain?" Akane said reading the name.

 
            "It's a nice place. Traditional food," Ranma shrugged as she opened the door for the others. Setsuna had taken her to this place for lunch more than a few times before and it was close and seemed appropriate for today. She looked Akane up and down. "I don't think you're too underdressed," she teased.

 
            "Welcome to Green Mountain, do you have a reservation?" The hostess in a kimono warmly greeted them after bowing. The restaurant was warm and inviting with plenty of warm woodwork and soft lights.

 
            "Hi Keiko-san," Ranma bowed in response, and then removed her shoes.

 
            Keiko's smile broadened when she recognized the redhead. "Oh hello Miss Ranma. No Miss Meiou or Hotaru-chan today?"

 

            Akane looked around the hushed wood-paneled restaurant and boggled.

 
            "No, I'm with some friends," Ranma smiled. "I'm sorry I don't have a-"

 
            "Nonsense." Keiko waved her off adding a warm smile for affect. "We would never be rude and turn you and your friends away. "

 
            Nodoka nodded. A woman who could afford a full time nanny had to be well off.

 

            Akane also blinked and wondered at Ranma's ability to waltz into a fancy restaurant and just claim a table?

 
            "I wouldn't want to impose," Ranma demurred.

 
            "No, we've got an opening," Keiko assured as she made a mark on the appointment book. Miss Meiou was a frequent customer, not just with personal lunches, but business meals and events. She then gathered a set of menus and escorted the four girls to a secluded corner of the restaurant that was adjacent to an interior courtyard complete with a koi pond.

 

             Soft sunlight filtered down from windows high up on the wall. "I must compliment your clothing, such lovely patterns," Keiko said as she led them. "Miss Ranma-chan always had such a wonderful fashion sense," she thought.

 
            "Thank you, Keiko, Aunty Nodoka bought us these at the White Crane."

 
            "Such nice decor," Nodoka complimented as they passed some paintings and statuary.

 
            "Oh, so you shop there?" Keiko's eyes brightened. "Suzuki-san supplies our uniforms as well."

 
            Akane blinked as she looked about the interior of the restaurant. The fit and finish just screamed wealth and money; the layout of the main dining area was divided into small semicircular booths with partitions that provided guests a certain amount of privacy for business or other dealings.   There were also several other more private rooms and the babble of a waterfall came from the garden courtyard around the corner.

 

            She knew Ranma was being paid for her work, but never connected it to an actual surplus of money for the redhead; her job did come with room and board after all. Pausing to consider that more, Akane realized it was not just money, but influence - no one just gets into a place like this without a reservation - and they had just walked in.

 
            The four sat down and after a brief consultation with the menus gave their orders to Keiko who rushed off and quickly returned with some appetizers and tea.

 
            "Isn't it odd for the hostess to take orders?" Nami asked.

 
            "She always takes the first order for us," Ranma assured. "We'll get a proper waitress shortly." She was sitting across from Nodoka, flanked by Akane and Nami. They each had cups of tea and were enjoying a plate that contained spring rolls.

 
            "So Ran-" Nodoka paused in thought, before continuing. "Ranma, tell me about this child that you are a nanny to," Nodoka asked as she set her cup on its saucer. She had decided to go along with 'Ranko's alias and address the redhead in her son's name.

 
            "Well...," Ranma thought a moment. "Her name's Hotaru; she's eleven, sweet, smart and has developed a love of martial arts that rivals mine."

 
            "You're still into martial arts?" Nodoka asked. It appeared that Ranko had not shed all of her tomboyness.

 
            "Oh yes, it's how I keep my figure," Ranma answered with a smile. "But I'm using it to help strengthen Hotaru: we practice several times a week over at Prince Arisugawa Park when the weather is nice. When I first started as her nanny she was pretty weak - I mean she couldn't sustain any psychical activity for any length of time. But with exercise and the right diet she has gotten a whole lot stronger."

 
            "It sounds like a lot of responsibility," Nodoka said as she mentally filed the name of the park away. "I hope it's not more than you can handle."

 
            "Oh believe me, Ranma can handle it," Nami piped in. "Even her boss, Miss Meiou, says she's over dedicated."

 
            "I'm handling it just fine," Ranma said, slightly annoyed. It was a good thing Nodoka's tone was not judgmental.

 
            "Really?" Nodoka asked. She was intrigued by this Miss Meiou.

 
            "Yes," Nami replied while taking a bite of food. "Ranma behaves more like Hotaru's mother than anything."

 
            "Really now?" Nodoka said with a cock of the eyebrow. She could tell how much Ranko loved her job and her charge. She was proud of the progress she had made from that skinny, lonely country girl, and was sorry to have missed out on it.

 
            "Hello, I'm Shiori," a woman in a simpler kimono in the same style as Keiko's greeted as she stepped up to them with a bow. "Are you ready to place your orders?"

 
            Akane froze as she watched Ranma shift topics and discuss lunch specials with the waitress. Ranma's familiarity with the restaurant was displayed by the smooth way that Ranma navigated through the choices and selections. The only thing that kept the scene from being too surreal was the quantities that the redhead was ordering.

 
            "Do you want anything?" Ranma gently asked Akane.

 
            The Tendo coughed and looked down the menu. The selections were recognizable, but there were no prices to be found for anything anywhere on the menu, which she found quite worrying. "Umm..."

 
            "Don't worry, I have it covered," Ranma assured.

 
            Nodoka smirked as Akane stammered out an order with Ranko's guidance. It was good that Akane and Ranko were still close. Once the waitress bowed and left with their orders Nodoka looked back to the redhead. "So it's rewarding being a nanny? That's a very womanly job."

 
            "Er... well, yeah," Ranma fumbled out. "I mean, she doesn't really have much in the way of family and I sort of... well... you know... fit in... if you know what I mean."

 
            Akane stared at Ranma with a odd look before a contemplative expression crossed her face.

 
            "It still sounds like a lot of responsibility for someone as young as you," Nodoka said.

 
            "Though I am glad that it seems to have brought out the maternal side of you... Ranma."

 
            Ranma smiled thinly at her mother's approval and the fact that she was calling her Ranma, though she was unsure about the maternal comment. She then had to fight off the frown as a wave of frustration swept over her; she was prepared to tell Akane that she was breaking with her old life for good before getting sidetracked by shopping... and now this.

 
            She fleetingly considered for a moment how Nodoka would react if she learned the truth - but those musings did not get too far because there were too many unknowns about the woman. The insult of the one person that she should know better than anyone, being a complete stranger to her sparked a small flame of anger. During her contemplations she absently played with her favorite lock of hair, twirling it about her fingers.

 
            Nodoka gazed at the younger redhead and resumed studying the piece of jewelry that was hanging from a thin, gold chain that was framed by the "v" formed by the crossing over of the left and right sides of the yukata. It was a flat and oval shaped opal set in a simple gold band. There was the hint of a dragon that snaked from the band and intruded over the stone. The opal was quite odd since it was semitransparent and light seemed to dance within it.

 
            "That's a very interesting brooch you have there," Nodoka commented. "Did a boy give that to you?"

 
            "Oh no - I mean, my employer lets me wear it. It is sort of a family moniker or something," Ranma explained, her growing ire derailed momentarily. "From what I understand, the employees of the Meioh family have worn this for generations."

 
            "May I see it? It is very interesting," Nodoka asked as she leaned forward to get a better view.

 
            Ranma reached up to unclasp the brooch from its chain - and hesitated, showing reluctance to let it go. After a bit of fumbling, Ranma carefully handed the brooch to her mother's outstretched hand. 

 
            Nodoka studied the brooch in her hand carefully, holding it up to the sunlight to get a better look. The sunlight filtered through the semi-translucent opal-like stone and the refraction of the light was fascinating. Drawing the brooch closer to her face, Nodoka took a small magnifying glass from her obi and examined the brooch closer.

 
            "This is really interesting," Nodoka said slowly as she turned the brooch this way and that way, looking at it from as many sides as possible. She took her time in examining the backside where the pin and clasp were joined to the rest of the jewelry. "There's a maker's mark," she finally said, "but I don't recognize it."

 
            "How old is it?" Nami asked curiously while leaning forward herself for a better look. She had always liked Ranma's brooch.

 
            "I'm not sure," Nodoka replied as she replaced the magnifying glass back from where she got it and handing the brooch back to Ranma. "It is old, that's about all I can tell, and the workmanship is exquisite, but I can't quite place the style - it seems to be a combination of different eras. At first I thought it might have been an old piece that had been reworked over the years... but then the finish would be rougher. You say your employer gave it to you?"

 
            "Yes Aunty," Ranma replied as she quickly reattached the brooch to the chain. "It's really part of my uniform, but I enjoy wearing it."

 
            "Do you think you can find out anything about it for me? It is very unique and I'm always looking to expand my knowledge," Nodoka said as she munched on another spring roll.

 
            "I could ask," Ranma replied with a slight shrug. She wondered why her mother cared so much about it; it was just a piece of jewelry. "She might know something."

 
            "You know a lot about jewelry?" Akane asked Nodoka.

 
            "When I was young, I was surrounded by heirlooms of my family - some dating back hundreds of years, and I developed an eye for antiques," Nodoka explained. "I appraise items for a fee - that helped me make a living since my husband and son left on their training trip."

 
            Shiori eased in and presented their meals. Akane blinked at the food placed in front of her and looked to the other girls who were unsurprised and had already started eating. Shiori smiled and with a bow left them as quietly as she had arrived.

 
            Akane looked around at the peaceful atmosphere. She turned to Ranma who, even though she was eating delicately, seemed to enjoy her food a bit too much.

 
            "Training trip?" Nami commented in between sips of her seafood soup. It was amazing how fresh the fish in it was and the completing flavors were exquisite. She noted no mention of a daughter. It was... confusing. Ranma went on a training trip with her father too, but there was no... male Ranma mentioned.

 
            Nodoka looked up from the rice dish and smiled. "Oh yes, over ten years ago my husband left and took our son to make him the best martial artist and a man among men," she said with an attempt at pride. 

 
            "Ten... years...?" Nami drawled out. "You haven't seen your son in ten years?"

 
            "Yes... but I've been close though," Nodoka's voice switched from pride to sounding down before brightening again. "But I'm sure that he is a manly man - why, Akane here is his fiancee."

 
            Akane looked down and wondered if she should tell Nodoka that the engagement was moved to Nabiki. Deciding that things were starting to get uncomfortable as is, she elected to not to admit that fact.

 
            Silently enjoying her food, Ranma sat and watched the emotions, from pride, happiness to sadness, play across her mother's face, while thinking her own thoughts. What was the measure of a mother? The dim, distant, and diluted memories that she had of the woman in front of her did not help. She felt as if a stranger had asserted herself into her life - the anger from earlier began a slow burn.

 
            Nami turned to Akane. She knew she should not pry into this, but she was curious. "So, you're engaged right?"

 
            "Er... yeah," Akane replied awkwardly after a pause. She felt that she was still engaged to Ranma; after all, Nabiki had taken the engagement before.

 
            "What's he like?" Nami asked, very interested in the subject of romance.

 
            Another pause followed. "He's... strong," Akane worked out.

 
            "Is he handsome?"

 
            "Umm... yeah...," Akane replied uncomfortably. Once again, she felt as if she were under a microscope like when Nodoka first showed up.

 
            "I'm sure you two will be happy together," Nodoka chimed in, pride reemerging in her voice. She hoped that her son's involvement in the problems surrounding Ranko was honorable. Ranko did seem to show gratitude for his help. "Don't you agree Ra-Ranma?"

 
            Swallowing hard, Ranma fought her growing anger and managed to control it. She would not let her mother's delusions ruin a good meal. She gritted her teeth and replied weakly, "Oh yeah... very... happy." 

 
           Akane coughed, drawing attention away from the distraught redhead. "I haven't seen him in months though," she said. "He went on a... training trip and he hasn't returned yet."

 
            "Oh? They're still gone?" Nodoka asked. "I thought that was...," her voice trailed off as she looked between Ranma and Akane.

 
            "Yes... er, that is after that, he and his father went on a real one," Akane confirmed then adding rather quickly, "I'm sure that they are fine."

 
            "Well that's good, I remember how much fun my husband had on his training trips. It's nice that he's taking our son on so many." Nodoka smiled in fond memory at, she thought, her future daughter in law.

 
            "Yeah... fine," Ranma mumbled under her breath as her insides raged.

 
            "Well anyway, I'm sure to be reunited with him before too long," Nodoka said in a cheery way. "But for now, I'm contented knowing that he is in good hands."

 
            The table fell silent for a heartbeat.

 
            "How do you know?" Ranma asked suddenly and irritably. She felt that she could not let things slide, not if she wanted to keep from exploding in anger... or was it resentment?

 
            "Whatever do you mean?" Nodoka asked, surprised by the question and the tone that it was asked in.

 
            "How do you know?" Ranma repeated in near the same tone, as she put her chopsticks down. "You haven't seen your son or husband - in ten years. Your... child could be sickly, or crippled, or something worse and you wouldn't even know it."

 
            "I'm sure he is fine," Nodoka affirmed and guessed at what she thought was "Ranko's" concern. "I know you must be worried about him since you haven't heard from him in a while, but my husband is very... adaptable. His honor has always guided him."

 
            "He had been staying at the Tendos' for months and never thought to contact you!" Ranma frantically pointed out. She had found her voice raising and took a breath to calm herself. "Did you ever even wonder why you always, always missed him? How many times did you visit?" she asked, her voice still ragged. "Every time you missed them. Every time!"

 
            Nodoka bolted upright in her chair as if the thought never occurred to her. "Really? But Soun's always been there." She knew the problems her husband had with his friends - if he was a weaker man, he would be led astray by them.

 
            Ranma's irritation with this person was unpalatable. The nanny closed her eyes and gathered her wits. How could anyone not wonder about coincidences like that? Especially when their own child was involved.

 
            "I assumed that was because they were training and didn't want to be disturbed," Nodoka answered in a tone that showed that she did not quite believe her own statement. She wondered if her husband was out with one of his other friends; in between training their son. The closed eyes and seemingly benign expression on the younger redhead were off-putting.

 
            Ranma's lips formed a thin line, and she opened her eyes in a deliberate manner. "How well do you know Genma?" she asked with a frightening calmness. Ranma reminded herself of what her boss would do in this situation. 

 
            The two girls and one woman at the table collectively blinked at the redhead. The heavy silence that followed was very uncomfortable. Akane had an uneasy feeling that Ranma was about to do something she would regret and was determined to head that off, but Nodoka interrupted her.

 
             "He's my husband," Nodoka said flatly. "I know him better than you," she added with some irritation mixed with worry.

 
            "I've seen him more recently than you, and Genma may be many things, Aunty, but honorable is not one of them," Ranma concluded coolly. It took effort, but one did not win by losing her own temper. She paused to control herself again lest her anger took control. 

 
            "Ranko!" Nodoka said in surprise and just as quickly composed herself. "I understand that you are under a great deal of stress and worried about my son, but it won't do to slander another person because of it. People always insult my husband and I'm sick of it!"

 
            The table fell silent on that declaration. Nami quietly sipped her soup. The soft, intimate lighting and formal clothes made for quite the scene - like some drama you only see on TV or something. Not knowing what else to do, Nami opted for staying as inconspicuous as she could manage, while still being at the table.

 
            "People aren't always what you think they are," Ranma said in an icy tone. "And since I've met your husband far more recently than you have... let's just say that you are in for a major disappointment."

 
            Studying the redhead, Nodoka wore an expression that was a mixture of concern and confusion. "Explain," she stated more than asked. Clearly, the girl was upset with her husband - she wondered if Soun had done something to do with it. Her husband's friends could be trouble and Genma, bless his heart, tried his best to reform them - even as they tempted him. It was a noble effort.

 
            "Er... Ranma-" Akane began, finding her voice. She hoped to do damage control. Gone was the reactionary young boy, or even the frightened teenage girl; in their place was a very controlled but very angry young woman.

 
            "Let me tell you about Ukyo Kuonji," Ranma said with a vicious smile. "Better yet, you can meet her yourself. Just stop by Ucchan's Okonomiyaki next time you are in Nerima and speak with her," Ranma firmly said. "And after you do, come back and tell me how honorable your husband is."

 
            "Who is this Ukyo Kuonji?" Nodoka asked. "And what does this person have to do with my husband and son?"

 
            "Ranma," Akane almost pleaded, forgetting her own meal entirely. What had come over Ranma? She was usually happy to spend any amount of time with her mother, but now she seemed very irritated just to be in the same room as Nodoka. Akane had seen a little bit of what she had assumed was nervousness, but now... "I don't think that Aunty would be interest-"

 
            "Interested in what?" Ranma sharply asked; it was as if something had suddenly snapped inside her and she was not in the mood for covering for her father anymore. She paused to regain her composure, her lips reforming into a thin line before continuing . "Aunty should be interested in meeting Ranma's fiancee," she said with deliberate calmness.

 
            "Is someone saying my husband engaged Ranma to this Kuonji girl?" Nodoka asked with narrowed eyes. This would not be the first time someone had tried to drag her husband's name through the mud by accusing him of such a thing.

 
            "Your husband has been a busy man," Ranma stated with a bit less vitriol. Her attempts to bleed down her rage were working and it was replaced by an icy distance, it almost felt like a cool void. She was the one in control here.

 
            Akane froze unsure what to do. She could swear she was seeing frost around the redhead. If not for the worrisome throbbing vein on Ranma's forehead she would swear the soul of ice was being tapped for this.

 
            "I thought Akane was Ranma's fiancee," Nami said with puzzlement, breaking her silence. The afternoon had become more and more confusing as it went on - and it didn't help that her friend seemed to share the same name as the older woman's son.

 
            "Uh, she is," Ranma bitterly smirked, looking at Nami, and pushing current developments relating to Nabiki aside. "As is Miss Kuonji," she continued, changing her gaze to her mother. "As well as many others."

 
            "Two fiancees'?" Nami thought . The situation was strange, almost like a TV drama, that they were all dressed in traditional garb just made things more surreal.

 
            "There were others," Ranma restated more firmly. "No thanks to his father... Ranma himself succeeded in annulling most of them, but the Tendo and Kounji engagements have too much riding on them to be so easily dismissed."

 
            Nodoka mechanically turned to Akane. "Is this true?" She had heard the rumors about her husband, but knew them to be rumors, at heart. Her husband was not perfect, but he made up for his mistakes, he always did and the engagement with the Tendos was his idea after all. No, she was fairly sure that it was a big misunderstanding, or worse... someone trying to sabotage her husband... again.

 
            Swallowing, Akane slowly nodded. "Yes Aunty, it is true."

 
            "Then we must talk about this later," Nodoka announced. "This is after all a family matter," she said while stealing a glance at Nami. "I'll ask Genma to explain when I see him."

 
            "And you would believe anything he tells you?" Ranma asked not as pointedly as before. The sudden anger had started to run its course leaving her feeling a bit empty. "He's been tricking you for years."

 
            "I highly doubt that," Nodoka intoned. Her husband had confided in her, even to things that were... less than honorable. "But no, he won't be the only person I talk to," Nodoka promised. She was disturbed by the younger redhead's sudden shift in attitude. "I'm sure Soun's involved too" Nodoka, briefly glanced to Akane, and held her tongue. Soun had mellowed over the years. "And I'm sure Miss Kuonji will have a fascinating view on things," her tone indicated skepticism on that engagement.

 
            "Don't say I didn't warn you," Ranma said, her tone being disturbingly civil as she took another bite of her food. "Let's just say that your son is tired of paying for his father's mistakes."

 
            "You seem quite concerned about my son," Nodoka idly stated. She liked it better when Ranko was full of fury and malice, but the long pauses and clinical demeanor were somewhat disturbing. The nanny had shifted from young girl to mature women much too fast, has something happened to her?

 
            Nami held her tongue. The changeover in her friend was amazing. She knew how stern and mature Ranma could be in "nanny mode", but this was the first time she saw it channeled so forcefully.

 
            "You bet I am," Ranma said. "I just wonder if Ranma wasn't man-"

 
            "Ranma," Akane interrupted. "Can I speak to you for a moment? Please? It's important."

 
            "What do you-" Ranma began, only to be tugged by the arm by Akane as she passed her chair.

 
            Keeping herself firmly seated, Ranma turned and stared Akane down.

 
            Akane took a step back from the bespectacled girl. "We'll be right back," Akane assured as she motioned for Ranma to follow.

 
            Akane escorted Ranma and retreated to the ladies room where Akane hoped to have a private moment with the redhead. Seeing that this restaurant was upscale enough to actually have a restroom attendant, took her back slightly. Unsure as to what to do next, Akane looked at Ranma and back at the attendant. "Err... could we have a moment alone? We need to talk about... something." Akane thinly asked the traditionally dressed attendant.

 
            The kimono-clad attendant blinked at the teens.

 
            "It's okay, Orimi-san," Ranma said with a bow. "We'll only be a moment."

 
            "Of course Miss Ranma, I'll be just outside if you need me," the attendant bowed, before exiting the room leaving the two teens behind. Once assured that they were alone, Akane rounded on the redhead. "What in the hell do you think you're doing?" Akane loudly whispered. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

 
            Ranma laughed as she looked at her reflection in the elegant mirror. It was a bit overstated for her tastes, and seemed too formal for the bathroom. "Like I'll let myself be killed. I've been gone for the better part of a year Akane, remember?" she asked with a satisfied smile, once she had finished adjusting her hair and touching up her makeup.

 
            "Right, you already escaped from them." Akane sighed as jealousy crept into her voice. "So why push your mom then? Just let her have her delusions."

 
            "You think it is all right to let... to let my mom live a lie?" Ranma asked with mock horror.

 
            "Oh, get off it Ranma. You nearly tore her head off. Don't tell me you care about her feelings."

 
            Ranma frowned, she did not want to be so... emotional, but she wanted to be in control, to be in control of her life. "She thinks Pops is the height of honor; she hasn't a real clue to the kind of man that she married and she doesn't want to know."

 
            "How can you say that? She doesn't know because no one... has... told her...," Akane's voice trailed off.

 
            As Ranma waited for Akane to continue, she adjusted her yukata. "Well?" She asked pointedly.

 
            "Okay... I'll give you that," Akane conceded. "But telling her? Aren't you afraid of what will happen?"

 
            Ranma laughed. "Oh, afraid of what? Getting kicked out of her home and the family?"

 
            "What about the contract?"

 
            Ranma slowly turned to Akane. "What about it?" she flatly asked. "It doesn't mean anything."

 
            "Doesn't mean..."Akane muttered as she stared at the redhead for a few heartbeats. Out of a desire to not irritate Ranma further, Akane let the last comment go. "Okay... but promise me you won't do anything until you at least calm down."

 
            "Akane-"

 
            "Please?"

 
            Drawing and releasing a deep breath, Ranma evaluated her friend. "Why?"

 
            Akane paused. "I...I just don't want you going off half cocked." 

 
            "Half cocked?" Ranma asked sounding insulted. She waited for a second.

 
            "Okay, I mean I don't want you to.... it's like you're using the Soul of Ice. Don't just throw away everything with your Mother."

 
            "I can just tell her everything, and if she doesn't believe me so what?" Ranma looked down. "The worst she can do is never see me again, and that's what I've got going now."

 
            The room fell silent as Akane couldn't think of anything to refute that last statement.

 
            "She promised to check out Ukyou, don't you think that'll help? Let her figure it out." Akane managed to work out. "Look, you still care about her, otherwise you wouldn't even be here arguing with her."

 
            "Fine," Ranma sighed and adjusted her obi one last time. She then turned to check out her profile and smiled. Hotaru-chan was right She was growing up nicely, no more being a short little girl for her or Hotaru.

 
            "That's it?" Akane asked with surprise as Ranma exited the bathroom. She quickly followed the redhead back to the table.

 
            "Did you girls sort things out?" Nodoka idly asked, looking up from her lunch. "I was just talking with Nami about the quality of their seafood."

 
            "I thought the spices on Mrs. Saotome's fish were a bit bland," Nami confessed.

 
            "I tried telling her that the subtleties were supposed to contrast with the rice dish," Nodoka explained.

 
            "Really now?" Ranma was suspicious. It was strange, seeing her mother outside her visits to the Tendo's - she was far different than the bumbling woman she had met.

 
            "You know what I mean. You obviously know fine food," Nodoka offhandedly said while gesturing to the quality and quantity of food that Ranma had ordered for them. "Did that come from your employer?"

 
            Ranma mulled over the inquiry. She wanted to stay mad at her mother, but more importantly she wanted to keep her cool. "It did." She looked to see Nami uncomfortably fidget. "Did you discuss anything else with Nami?"

 
            "I was curious if you had a boyfriend," Nodoka replied after taking a sip of tea.

 
            Ranma smirked. "That's okay, I suppose."

 
            "I'm sure your progress has helped things in that area," Nodoka offered. "And your choice in clothing is a lot less... provocative."

 
            "Yes, I'm a role model now," Ranma shrugged and tried to focus her mind again. "I have to be responsible."

 
            "It must be nice to be independent and on your own," Nodoka idly remarked.

 
            Ranma's anger sputtered into confusion. "That's a strange thing for you to say" she stated with suspicion.

 
            "You always seemed very nervous and ill at ease at the Tendos, at least whenever I visited," Nodoka innocently added.

 
            Ranma smirked. "I do feel better having fewer hassles in my life," she said before resuming her meal.

 
            "It must have been troubling enough to warrant such a complete break," Nodoka agreed. "At least you have people willing and understanding people to help you."

 
            Ranma's eyes flicked to Akane and Nami before returning to her mother. "Yes, that is nice," she said evenly, thinking of Setsuna and Hotaru.

 
            "I'm heartened that you've also taken such a long term commitment. It speaks volumes about your character," Nodoka smiled.

 
            "Oh?" Ranma asked.

 
            "Makes sense, you dote over Hotaru," Nami reminded.

 
            Ranma fought the threatening blush. "I like my job."

 
            "It's more than a job for you," Nodoka remarked, with a little smirk. "It's your lifestyle, isn't it?"

 
            "I take my responsibilities seriously," Ranma sternly replied.

 
            Nodoka leaned back with a little smile.

 
            Ranma paused. "What about you?"

 
            Nodoka looked up from her meal. "Yes?" she asked in a seemingly clueless voice.

 
            "How's your business going? You're an appraiser right?"

 
            "Yes, clients come to me with family heirlooms and I assess their value, sometimes I make purchases or sell. Business-wise I'm doing fairly well and it is enjoyable work, especially the collecting."

 
            Ranma cocked her head. "Hardly traditional it seems," she remarked.

 
            "Perhaps." Nodoka then smiled. "It is nice to see you concerned about proper behavior."

 
            "You do seem more clearheaded here," Ranma remarked tersely before reigning herself in. "Maybe Nerima has something in the air,"

 
            Nodoka paused as she ate some fish. "Yes, just look at how you've blossomed after a few months away," she finally said with a big smile.

 
            Akane blinked. She did not know what to make of that. Nerima was always weird, but so was Ranma's life.... until now. Was she seeing what a stress-free Ranma was like? A happy and cultured nanny? That could not be... but everything she had seen said otherwise.

 
            "Shame you still have business that keeps you going back to Nerima," Ranma mused.

 
            "My son and husband are important." Then as if Nodoka were recalling something, she spoke again. "Though you gave me some other... residents to visit." She was certain it was just a misunderstanding. Joining the houses was her husband's idea, why would he endanger that through his own actions? She idly wondered if someone had taken advantage of her husband's trust again. That was his one, true fault. She reminded herself to contact her husbands old friends and see if they had anything to say.

 
            "Yes, they should be informative," Ranma agreed.

 
            Nami watched this with heightened interest. It was fascinating, nothing like the fights she had with her own family. Ranma's habit of pausing whenever she was about to lose control was quite useful. She wondered how that would work for her the next time she got in it with her mother.

 
            "So you mentioned training your charge in martial arts?" Nodoka asked.

 
            "Yes, it's great for building her strength mentally and physically." Ranma's expression warmed. "Hotaru needed both."

 
            "It's good that you can be there for her," Nodoka said sadly as she looked down at her plate.

 
            Ranma looked at her mother; she looked vulnerable and... remorseful? Ranma shook off those impressions, the woman was right across from her and yet she had no idea. "Yes," Ranma drawled out. "A child... needs someone... to help them."

 
            "Guidance is important," Nodoka agreed as she paused to sip at her tea, she found the flavor to be exquisite.

 
            "Luckily, Ranma – your Ranma - came out all right in spite of his father," Ranma said in a dark undertone. She wanted to gauge this woman's reaction.

 
            "Rank- Ranma," Nodoka corrected. "I'm sure that it is all a mistake and I intend to clear it up. I'm sure after that you'll see how fine a man my husband is."

 
            "What's going on? I know this woman can't be completely clueless. Why's she like this now?"
Ranma asked herself, gripping her chopsticks a bit tighter. She got a weird feeling of deja-vu. "And what about your son?"

 
            "I would like to see him again."

 
            "That's why you're looking for your son?" Ranma asked. The other two girls continued to sit back and watch. "To see how he turned out?'

 
            Nodoka's face frowned deeply before shifting to a forced smile. "It's part of it."

 
            "What else is there?" Ranma asked as Akane and Nami shared looks of discomfort.

 
            Nodoka placed her chopsticks down on its holder and looked at Ranma with almost piercing eyes - but only lasted for a instant. "Why would there be anything else?"

 
            "He's your child, shouldn't you want to have had more of a role in his life?" Ranma asked, exasperated.

 
            "Yes, but the training trip was vital," Nodoka insisted, but she did wish Genma had visited more frequently. "The agreement was his way of assuring me that he would uphold his promise."

 
            Ranma paused to compose herself. "So you really believe that some oath would keep him in line?"

 
            "An honorable man would never break an oath like that," Nodoka sternly reminded. Ranko was also correct; it was also a wonderful way to make sure a man stayed honorable, not that her husband needed much prodding in that area, especially when he was out training away from his friends.

 
            "An honorable man would not create an oath like that." Ranma countered as she leaned forward. "If you were so certain of his skills then why did you feel the need to accept a pact like that from him and your child?"

 
            "Ranko..." Nodoka caught herself, her husband's problems were private. "You don't understand my husband."

 
            "I understand him just fine," Ranma focused her attention on her mother. "But what about the pact? You can't tell me your husband is Mr. Perfect while simultaneously allowing him to swear an oath like that."

 
           

Nodoka laughed for a couple seconds "I never said my husband was perfect. He is no saint, but when it comes down to it, he does the right thing. We knew the oath would never fail; it was just a reminder of how committed he was to our son's future." She looked slyly at the skeptical nanny. Giving her husband peace of mind while he went away was important, if Genma needed the oath to be a reminder then Nodoka would allow it.

 
           

"Not perfect?" Ranma blinked. She did not expect this level of candor from her mother, especially about her father.

 
            "Now, now don't be shocked. You're not the first generation of girls to like 'bad boys'."

 
            Silence fell about the four girls. Ranma regarded her mother with a mixture of confusion and suspicion. One minute Nodoka seemed very intelligent and able, the next, clueless. The liking "bad boys" comment didn't help either. Time to lay the cards on the table.

 
            "So... was this all an act?" Ranma bluntly asked.

 
            "Act?" Nodoka guardingly asked.

 
            "Yeah, how many times have you visited looking for your son? And not one of those times, did you mention having a career or any real substance!" Ranma's voice became slightly heated. She closed her eyes and waited. "It's like you were some bland cutout. What gives?"

 
            "I not sure what you mean," Nodoka replied in clueless manner, that annoyed Ranma.

 
            "I mean you were waving that sword of yours around and talking about manliness as if it were an obsession," Ranma stated matter-of-factly. "And now you are behaving... almost like a normal person."

 
            Nodoka gave a ghost of a smile and took sipped her tea. "I could ask the same about you."

 
            "Pardon?"

 
            "It's an amazing transformation, isn't it?" Nodoka asked her eyes twinkling.

 
            "This isn't about me," Ranma grumbled.

 
            "Why not?" Nodoka said with the hint of a pout.

 
            "Look, I just want to know what kind of mother Ranma has," Ranma explained with annoyance.

 
            "Yes, I can see that you are very interested in my son, Ranma." Nodoka added using what she thought was a rather strange alias. "But please understand that he is betrothed to Akane; I wouldn't want any jealousy to come between you girls," she said in a tone of seriousness mixed with chastising humor.

 
            Ranma rubbed her forehead and brushed aside some of her curled bangs; this was starting to give her a headache. The worst part was that she was no longer all that sure if her mother was actually all that clueless or was playing with her. Where did the clumsy sword-waving ninny go? Unless... that was her toying with them all the way as far back as when she first showed up at the Tendos. If so, then why? She looked up to her mother with a puzzled expression. "I don't understand..."

 
            Nodoka laughed. "Oh you're making a big deal out of nothing."

 
            As Ranma pushed her glasses back up, she looked to Akane. Her friend could be dense sometimes, but she had been very sharp recently. Either way, Akane had to be able to read between the lines and know that she was not planning on returning, even after Nabiki and the others were taken care of.

 
            Akane looked down; she had an inkling that Ranma would not come back. It was more than calling the authorities on what was going on, Ranma had a job, a long term commitment, and Ranma was not going to abandon it... just to be with her.

 
            For Nami, she thought she had finally had a small clue as to why Ranma never dated in spite of the many opportunities for her to do so. She was not sure if she should believe the older woman's suggestion about "Ranko" having feelings for Ranma. They seemed too similar.... especially their fathers.

 
            Nami's eyes widened. Could that be it? Could "Ranko" be the love child of Genma and some other woman. That would explain the similarities and the issues her friend had with Mr. Saotome...

 
            Nami sighed, she was thinking too much like a soap opera, stuff like that never happens in real life. Maybe "Ranko" was "Ranma's" half sister and secret lover.

 
            "Big deal out of nothing?" Ranma echoed "But... what about the contract?"

 
            "As far as the contract goes," Nodoka continued. "That is a matter of honor and a sworn pledge made by someone as honorable as my husband and it will be upheld."

 
            "Genma..." Ranma trailed off before finding her voice. "Genma is a con man."

 
            "Now Rank- Ranma, that is my husband you're talking about," Nodoka said with dead seriousness. She knew all about the slander leveled against her husband. She was baffled as to the level of vitriol, exaggerations, distortions and outright lies told about him.

 
            The sheer stupidity of screwing up his own plan to join the houses... no, it had to be something else. She knew her husband; he would not do something like that; he was many things, a complete moron was not one of them.

 
            "So what's with the sword?" Ranma asked. "Something you bought off of a client?"

 
            Nodoka gasped. "Heavens no! It is the family blade and my husband gave it to me as a token of his intent for the pledge to be upheld." She shook her head. "It is only a few hundred years old and you're right in that I could have bought a nicer sword, but that's not the point. The point is what it symbolizes: the honor of the family. The honor that we've worked so hard to defend."

 
            "Honor of the family? I guess that's why you carry it, and only when you go around to enforce an oath that's just a reminder." Ranma dryly said. "You don't take it wherever you go do you? Just when you're looking for your husband and son."

 
            "It was his idea," Nodoka said primly. "And I intend to humor his wishes in this regard."

 
            "And you wonder why Ranma avoids you," the nanny muttered as she shook her head.

 
            "Why should he? Both you and Akane assure me of his manliness."

 
            Ranma stopped to think. "That's a good question." She then thinly smiled. "It probably has to do with Genma's actions. What with his extra engagements and other dumb ideas."

 
            "Now, now, I'm already going to talk to this Kuonji girl, and I'll have some... words with Akane's father too," Nodoka said to Ranko. She was interested to learn more about those that were insulting her husband and the family, hopefully it would also allow her to find him faster.

 
            "Questions for Mr. Tendo?" Ranma looked thoughtful. "Your best bet is to make sure Mr. Panda isn't around." She noticed Nodoka's confused look. "The pet distracts him - he's funny that way. Anyway, some sake beforehand always helps."

 
            "Ranma!" Akane reprimanded.

 
           "Yes Dear," Nodoka chastised while refraining from rolling her eyes. "I know how to... talk with my husband's friend, but there's no need to be blunt about it."

 
            "I'm sorry, Akane," Ranma bowed her head. "But it's the only way to get the truth out of him. You know that Aunty."

 
            Nodoka nodded. She knew the key to Soun's vault.

 
            "And don't forget Akane, his hands have been in this from the start," Ranma tersely reminded.

 
            Nodoka allowed a ghost of a smile; she knew someone was taking advantage of her husband.

 
            Akane sunk down a bit. "You're right." She picked at her food.

 
            Nodoka looked between Ranko and Akane. They had earlier mentioned Nabiki's involvement in Ranko's leaving, but now it looks like it went deeper, and included her father. "I'm sure it will be okay," Nodoka offered. Even she was unsure of the truth to that. Ranko had run away from home and made a new life, that was not something done for no reason.

 
            "Yeah, yeah," Akane sighed.

 
            Noticing the lull Shiori came up to the table. "Is there anything more I can offer you?"

 
            Ranma looked to the morose and thoughtful faces around her. "No, I think we're good."

 
            "Very well," Shiori bowed and discretely slipped a leather pamphlet to Ranma. She knew that Miss Meiou and Miss Ranma-chan were most generous.

 
            Ranma flipped opened the small leather folder for a second and looked at the end number. Wordlessly she pulled out her billfold and slipped some bills into it and left the leather folder on the table.

 
            As the redhead stood up Akane boggled. Ranma nonchalantly paying with a large pile of five-thousand yen bills was totally alien to her.

 
           Nodoka casually looked around Ranko's payment. Though she had got the impression that Ranko's job did pay well, the scope of the disposable income that Ranko had just displayed was above her initial estimate. It was good to see that the redheaded nanny had a good boss payment-wise.

 
            Shiori accepted the leather folder and without opening it bowed to Ranma.

 
            "You didn't know?" Nami whispered in Akane's surprised ears as they left the table.

 
            Akane responded with a barely perceptible shake of the head. She looked over to see the hostess chatting up with Ranma before they left the restaurant. The bright afternoon light came as a shock after the long time in the darkened atmosphere.

 
            "I'd like to thank you girls for such a lovely time," Nodoka said as the four glided down the sidewalk. It was mid-to-late afternoon and the shoppers of the day had thinned out a tiny bit.

 
            "It was fun," Nami piped up. However, she noticed the change in mood in her redheaded friend since the restaurant and was concerned. It was not like Ranma to be this... anxious, though she had gone out with her friend Akane...

 
            "And thank you again for the yukata," Akane added. She really liked it and did look nice in it. Though, she had to worry about Nabiki stealing it. "And thank you for the lovely lunch, Ranma."

 
            The four continued on in silence for a moment.

 
            "How about you Ran-Ranma?" Nodoka asked, also noticing the change in her niece. "Did you have fun?"

 
            "Umm... yeah," Ranma replied rather lamely; she then caught herself. "Oh yes, I did

 
            Aunty," she continued with exaggerated gayety. "I just hope that my lunch treat was appreciated by you."

 
            Nodoka eyed the young girl's face, it was as if she was trying to make a connection; a connection that was resisted. She could almost swear to seeing a mean smirk surface on the girl's face. "So young and so burdened," Nodoka mentally concluded. "Perhaps she does need someone - an adult - to talk to about her problems. Perhaps I should make myself available to her... hmmm... how to do it without being overt? Ah!"

 
            "That's quiet all right, I did enjoy being with you girls today," Nodoka finally said. She eyed the shorter redhead. "You said that you and your charge practice at Prince Arisugawa Park?"

 
            "Yes ma'am," Ranma replied in what had become a familiarly cool tone. "When the weather is nice. It's my duty to care for Hotaru and her needs."

 
            "Then perhaps I will run into you there sometime," Nodoka offhandedly said. "I do go for walks that take me near there. Here take my card," she slipped a thin card out of a card holder she kept in her obi.

 
            "Er... that would be great Aunty," Ranma said turning the rather professional and elegant card over. Her face lightened a bit. Maybe Akane was right and she could find a way to break the news to her mother more gently, or at least feel her mother out more.

 
            Feeling she had made the right decision, Nodoka nodded more to herself than to Ranma. "Then I hope to see you and your charge sometime."

 
            "That would be good," Ranma allowed, eyeing her mother carefully.

 
            Stopping at a street corner, Nodoka bowed to the younger girls who returned it with a deeper one of their own. "It has indeed been a pleasure," the older woman said. "I hope to see all of you in the future."

 
            "Thanks so much for your help," Nami said as she rose from her bow. "I can't wait to get home and show my parents."

 
            Smiling, Nodoka nodded in replied and addressed Ranma. "I hope to see you as well, Ranma; and it is so good to see you finally maturing into a fine young woman."

 
            "Thank you Aunty," Ranma said cheerfully; she then smiled toothily. "I hope to see you real soon too."

 
            "I will be visiting the Tendos soon," Nodoka said, now addressing Akane as well. "And I promise not to say anything about seeing Ran-Ranma."

 
            "Thank you so much," a much relieved Akane said. Then she blinked and looked at herself. "But how I'm I going to explain this?" She asked motioning to her new yukata.

 
            "Just tell them that you spent the afternoon shopping with your future mother-in-law and I bought it for you," Nodoka replied. "It is the truth after all."

 
            "Oh yeah...," Akane muttered softly.

 
            Ranma marveled again at the duality of the woman. Nodoka could display a crystal-clear sharpness and awareness but would then become clueless about her own husband and child. She wondered what was going on with her.

 
            After a few more small pleasantries, Nodoka headed off in the direction of her home. Akane said her goodbyes and went off to the nearby rail station and the train that would take her to the Tendo dojo.

 
            Ranma rubbed her forehead in frustration; she had missed her opportunity to tell Akane the news. Though she felt that Akane had to suspect that she was not ever coming back, Ranma did not like to leave her hanging in uncertainty. She sighed and looked over at Nami. As the two girls walked side by side, the sun dipped behind some tall building in the near distance. There was a certain silence between them that seemed hard to penetrate.

 
            Watching the redhead out of the corner of her eye, Nami mulled over how to broach the subject. Knowing Ranma like she did, she elected for the direct approach. "Ranma, what's going on with that woman?"

 
            Silence continued for a few heartbeats.

 
            "She's my...," Ranma paused as if struggling with something before continuing. "She's my Aunty... as you know she's the mother of the guy that's engaged to Akane."

 
            "Okay," Nami said carefully. "Why did she... well... is your real name Ranko?"

 
            More silence followed. Nami knew she could ask other things, but did not want to barrage her friend with the inconsistencies and questions.

 
            "Akane already said that I was hiding out under Ranma's name," Ranma said in a weary tone.

 
            "Yeah," Nami said plainly followed by an extended pause. "It all makes sense that way. You're hiding out. That Nabiki stuff, whatever it is. Taking an alias." Her tone indicated that she felt there were still a few holes, but she let it drop.

 
            "Yeah, but I'm not Ranko," Ranma said after some reflection.

 
            "Ranma...," Nami ventured carefully. "What's going on with your cousin's fiancee? The one named Ranma, too."

 
            Shaking her head and smirking, Ranma replied. "We're... close." She paused. "I'm sorry Nami, but I really don't want to talk about it."

 
            Nami turned and took Ranma's hand. "I know this is hard for you. I don't know what it's all about, but I... I understand you not being ready to tell me," she said after some thought. "But if you need someone to talk to..."

 
            The two walked in a more companionable silence until it was time to part. "Thanks, just... thanks," Ranma said looking to Nami.

 
            "It's nothing," Nami assured. "I'll see you at school."

 
            Ranma gave a weak grin and was surprised when Nami reached out and hugged her. She warmly smiled and watched Nami wave and walk away back to her apartment.

 
            The crowds, on the sidewalk, were starting to thicken as the 'early birds' of the night life crawled out of their daytime dens and into the dusk. Ranma weaved through this ever-thickening crowd on autopilot, not really paying attention to her surroundings. She had let her mother believe the lies - again.

 
            "Is my life going to be nothing more than juggling these stupid lies?"
Ranma thought darkly. "Am I ever going to stop?"

 
            She stopped in her walk.

 
            "Why in the hell should I even be hiding from her in the first place?"
She thought with a scowl that frightened a passing small child, who had originally pointed at the prettily dressed woman. "What in the hell kind of person is she that she  thinks that it is perfectly all right to be apart from their only child for ten damned years?" 

 
            Now she had just avoided telling the truth to one of her friends - and that hurt her more than lying to her mother. She wished she could tell them the truth, the whole truth. Nami was willing to wait for her, but it was not fair to let her hang like that.

 
            "My whole life depends on lies..."
Ranma thought morosely. "A damn lie that I'm too scared to get rid of. I can make it all go away. Why can't I tell them the truth?"

 
            There was consolation in that she had confessed a great deal to Setsuna, "She knows the truth, but that's because she deserved to know, especially after all she's done for me. Do the others even deserve to know? Does my mother?"

 
            It seemed that the only thing new was her own confusion about what and who she really was being the only new thing added into the mix. Was she a girl? Was she a guy? Did it really matter anymore? Ranma did not feel like it did, and if so, would it be so bad to be stuck as a girl? At least that way she'd know for sure what she was instead of bouncing back and forth.

 
            Ranma suddenly found herself emotionally and intellectually tired. She wanted this mess to end and was tempted to just tell Nodoka and her friends. It would be faster that way, and then she would know for sure whether or not they accepted her, the real her.

 
            Riding the elevator to her floor, Ranma idly fingered the new outfit that her mother had bought her, not even wondering how she was going to explain it to Setsuna and Hotaru. The elevator doors opened and Ranma padded down the hall to the apartment she shared with them and withdrew her key from her purse. With the key hovering about the keyhole, she hesitated.

 
            With a shake of the head and a heavy sigh, Ranma unlocked and entered her apartment. The day had been completely draining.

 
            "Welcome home," Hotaru greeted with a lively bounce in her step. She froze when she saw Ranma dressed in the yukata. "Wow, you look beautiful! Where did you get that?"

 
            Forcing a smile, Ranma replied, "I got it over by the mall; at a place called the White Crane."

 
            "Wow, I'd love to have something that nice," Hotaru gushed. "Setsuna-Momma! Come look at what Miss Ranma is wearing!"

 
            Setsuna poked her head out of the kitchen. "Ranma, you're back. My, that is a nice yukata, where did you get it?"

 
            "My... I got it at the White Crane," Ranma repeated, she then forced a smile; she did not want Hotaru to worry. This would not affect her, not if Ranma had any say in it.

 
            "I can make dinner for us if you're feeling too tired," Setsuna offered, noticing the weariness in Ranma's demeanor.

 
            "Oh no, I'll be fine," Ranma said as she walked into the kitchen, forcing her tiredness aside. Her hands twitched and she relished the chance to give them something to do.

 
            "Going to cook in your yukata?" Setsuna amusedly asked as Ranma started the stove.

 
            The redhead looked down and blinked. "Oh - right," she slowly said. "I'll be back in a sec," she said as she left the kitchen. Behind her, Setsuna studied her with curious eyes.

 
            Entering her room, Ranma closed the door behind her and exhaled a long breath, causing her to sag against it. Mechanically, Ranma removed the yukata and folded it neatly under one arm. Sliding open the closet, she placed it reverently on the small shelf along with other folded up garments.

 
            "The yukata really is... nice,"
Ranma thought as she patted the turquoise-colored cloth with the wave pattern weaved into it. It was smooth and soft under her fingertips "It was... fun... to be with mom," she thought with irritation. She was not used to being coy with her mother - she should not have to be. The choice was now Nodoka's. She could live without her mother. She was not sure Nodoka could say the same thing.

 
            The knock on the door was soft, yet loud enough to shake Ranma from her melancholic thoughts.

 
            "Ah... who is it?" she asked, then immediately felt stupid; it was probably Hotaru.

 
            "It's me," came Setsuna's voice.

 
            "Ahh...," Ranma looked around in a sudden attack of modesty for something to wrap herself in, then stopped. "Idiot," she scolded herself. "We're both girls here". Clearing her throat, Ranma responded. "Come in."

 
            The door opened and Setsuna stepped inside, pausing at the sight of Ranma's back, clad only in a bra and panties before closing the door behind her. Ranma was in the midst of removing the clothes she had worn that morning from a shopping bag and placed them neatly on her bed. She appraisingly watched as Ranma mechanically dressed herself.

 
            "Do you want to talk about it?" Setsuna ventured.

 
            "There's nothing to talk about," Ranma said emotionlessly as she pulled out her uniform.

 
            "What happened?"

 
            "Nothing happened," Ranma replied as she turned to face Setsuna, while her fingers buttoned her blouse without thought. She sighed and reminded herself to let that out again. A new bra usually foretold new blouses.

 
            Setsuna leaned her back against the door and crossed her arms. She smiled thinly at Ranma's clothing troubles. "Something's bothering you. What is it?"

 
            They stared at one another in complete silence for what seemed like an hour. Ranma sighed; Setsuna always was better at waiting than her. "I ran into my mother today."

 
            "Okay," Setsuna said as she exhaled. From what Ranma had told her of the woman... this could be very good or very bad. "What happened?"

 
            "Oh we had a good time," Ranma said with a trace of bitterness. "Akane, Mom, Nami and - Ranko," she sarcastically said the last name and pulled on her skirt and started adjusting it. She frowned; she was going to have to let that out again too.

 
            Running into her mother explained Ranma's mood. Setsuna expected as much. "Is there anything I can do?" she asked as Ranma tied her apron on.

 
            "Not unless you can get my mom over some of her ideas of manliness," Ranma sighed out, as she clipped her brooch in place. She checked out her reflection and then turned to Setsuna. "Your nanny is ready for duty Miss Meiou," Ranma said curtsying theatrically.

 
            "Wonderful," Setsuna dryly remarked. A bow was more traditional, but what Ranma did showed off more leg.

 
           Ranma rose from her curtsy and followed Setsuna back to the kitchen. "Then again, if I told her I can stop living a lie. And it's not like I have her as a mother now - so who cares what happens?"

 
            Setsuna's confusion overshadowed any anger. "A lie? You think you're living a lie?"

 
            "Well what would you call it?" Ranma angrily asked as she pulled food out of the pantry. She turned and whispered to Setsuna “I lied to my mom... my friends... even Hotaru. You're... you and Akane are the only people that really know anything about me!”

 
            “And I don't count?” Setsuna interrupted firmly, as she took the food away from her servant and placed it on the counter.

 
            “No! You count,” Ranma said somewhat offended before flustering over how what she had said sounded. “I mean... It's... It's just that... I feel that...” she stopped speaking and looked very lost, and backed out of the pantry.

 
            Setsuna stepped up to the smaller woman with such determination that Ranma stepped back involuntarily. "Do you think Hotaru's improvement is a lie?"

 
            "No... but...," Ranma stammered as she worked her way over to the refrigerator.

 
            "You have friends at school that would do anything for you-" Setsuna continued as she followed behind the redhead.

 
            "But they don't know I'm- they don't know who I really am," Ranma said as she started rummaging through the fridge for produce.

 
            "Who are you then?" Setsuna asked sharply, as she pulled out a cutting board. 

 
            Ranma turned and opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out. She took the wooden board with one hand and fingered her brooch with the other.

 
            "You know who I am," Ranma finally said. "I just don't want to lie anymore. I was this close to telling Mother everything, just to get it over with," she said as she took out a knife, twirled it and started preparing the vegetables.

 
            "I know you're not lying to me. Remember when you came out and told me everything?"

 
            "That's the idea, but I'm not sure she's worth it. A mother's love should be unconditional, not dependent on some stupid contract," Ranma said lost in the art of cutting.

 
            Setsuna watched as Ranma sliced and chopped the vegetables into neat pieces. Even as distracted by her troubles as she was, Ranma remained meticulous in the meal's preparation.

 
            "Yes," Setsuna agreed. "A mother's love should have no strings attached. How much do you know about the woman?"

 
            Ranma ceased her slicing and paused in thought. "I'm really not sure anymore," she admitted. "I thought I knew something about her, but after today... I'm not sure."

 
            The kitchen was silent for a few heartbeats.

 
            "Well... besides, you are who you are - that's why you got the job." Setsuna smiled. "You're almost a straight 'A' student, you've become one of the most kind, considerate people I've ever met," Setsuna listed. "Hotaru loves you like the sister she never had... I-I care about you as to whether you are happy or not. How can you say that's all a lie?"

 
            The kitchen fell silent again.

 
            "Well... okay, but I don't know what to do about all this. I'm still..." Ranma's words died in her throat when she looked up to see Hotaru in the room, silently looking at her. "Oh no." her mind panicked as she felt the bottom fall out of her stomach. "How much did she hear?"

 
            "Miss Ranma? What's wrong?" Hotaru asked her nanny.

 
            Ranma put her knife down, relieved that Hotaru missed the discussion. "I... I ran into some family."

 
            "You did what you had to do. You escaped being bought and sold as a slave, forced into being a second class citizen, married off to whomever is the highest bidder and hurt, maimed or killed," Setsuna said pointedly. "Is that the kind of life you want for yourself? You're better off now than you were - and that's no lie."

 
            "That's what you left from?" Hotaru said with shock. She then ran into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around Ranma's waist. "I'm so sorry."

 
            Hugging her charge, Ranma brightened a bit. Hotaru's total affection was a benefit to Ranma's self worth. "Yeah...," she mumbled uncomfortably. "I know. I ain't goin' back, but I don't want to run from Mom either."

 
            "Ranma," Setsuna began as she placed her hands on the redhead's shoulders, turning this into a group hug, "What do you want? You have to have some idea."

 
            "I want...," Ranma looked lost for a moment before finding her voice, with Setsuna now putting her arms around her chest, in addition to Hotaru's embrace it was hard to think. "I want my mom to love me in spite of... what I am now, I want Nabiki, Pops and anyone else that tries to own me to leave me alone, I want...," Ranma paused and looked lost again for a moment before finishing, "I want to be happy."

 
            "Are you happy... here with us?"

 
            The nanny looked down to see Hotaru happily gazing up at her. "Yes," Ranma admitted easily. "I feel like... I'm part of a family, you know? I grew up on the road with just Pops and I - then at the Tendos, I was more of a guest than part of the family, but here... here I feel like I really belong."

 
            "I feel like you're family too," Hotaru readily agreed as she tightened her hold on the redhead.

 
            Setsuna stepped around Ranma and, standing next to Hotaru, she took one hand and placed it under the redheads chin, steering the smaller girl to look up at her. "How can I help?"

 
            Looking up into those magenta eyes, Ranma felt her cheeks warm. Her heart unexpectedly fluttered in her chest as a warm sensation flowed through her. "Aaaa... yeah," she murmured; she then blinked. Taking a breath to control herself, she answered softly, "But I don't know how."

 
            "We'll work something out," Setsuna assured with a smile.

 
            "Thanks, er... thanks. I... I should get back to dinner," Ranma stammered while trying to contain a blush. Setsuna had a way of doing that to her and it was getting worse the longer she was there... and the closer she got.

 
            "Can I help?" Hotaru asked.

 
            "Sure thing squirt," Ranma smiled brightly, glad for the distraction and the fact the temperature in the room had returned to normal. "It's not just martial arts that I can teach you." 

 

-------

 

"Are you sure of this?" Setsuna asked as she and Hotaru followed Ranma.

 
            "Yes, you guys need proper clothes." Ranma gave an evil little smile. "You two don't have anything traditional at all."

 
            Setsuna shrugged. "It's just that this was the store you met your mother in."

 
            "I was going here anyway. It was a coincidence that she was going there too," Ranma explained as she fingered her yukata.

 
            "Of course." Setsuna had her own feelings about coincidences, but Ranma was right. They should dress nicely for tomorrow.

 
            "So what's this place like?" Hotaru happily asked. Clothes shopping with Miss Ranma was always fun, especially now that her nanny was over her bashfulness with dressing rooms.

 
            "You'll see," Ranma said as they approached the White Crane.

 
            The trio entered and waited in the front of the store. Setsuna walked to one of the racks.

 
            "Not bad," she said testing out the material.

 
            "Very pretty," Hotaru said as she looked around the racks.

 
            Setsuna watched as an elderly woman politely excused herself from a middle-aged couple and walked over to them.

 
            "Miss Ranma! So pleasant to see you again," Etsuko happily greeted, more so when she saw what the redhead was wearing. She looked to Setsuna and Hotaru. "And who are these lovely women?"

 
            "Meiou, Hotaru," the younger girl said with a bow.

 
            "Meiou, Setsuna. Myself and Ranma are Hotaru's guardians."

 
            "Lovely, so what can I do for you?" Etsuko asked. She could see what No-chan meant. It was obvious that Setsuna could afford a live-in nanny, especially given how she was dressed.

 
            "They need something to wear to watch the cherry blossoms," Ranma explained.

 
            "You weren't planning on going in that suit were you?" Etsuko asked with just the barest hints of impending disapproval.

 
            Setsuna found herself blushing slightly. "No, that wouldn't be proper."

 
            "Good," Etsuko happily clapped her hands together.

 
            "I noticed you were busy, Aunty Etsuko," Ranma noted.

 
            "They're just about to make their purchase. I'll be right back," Etsuko assured before going back to the middle-aged couple.

 
            "I suppose we should get a yukata for Hotaru," Setsuna evaluated.

 
            "A full kimono would be too stuffy for her," Ranma agreed. She then smiled wickedly at her employer.

 
            "Oh no," Setsuna stepped back.

 
            "Oh, good idea!" Hotaru nodded happily.

 
            "Now girls..."

 
            "Extra-large bow on her obi," Ranma mused aloud with one hand under her chin as she appraised Setsuna.

 
            "And some nice geta?" Hotaru added.

 

            "She's got lots of sandals. Some of the new geta with just the back heel, and the old wooden style too," Ranma said, recalling her previous visit.


            "Are you three ready?" Etsuko asked after she returned.

 
            "Yes ma'am," Setsuna said as she looked over and saw the middle-aged couple contentedly leave the store.

 
            "So a proper kimono?" Etsuko looked over the tall, green-haired woman. "Yes, I think I might have something that fits your frame."

 
            "Sounds lovely," Setsuna said, shooting a look at Ranma and Hotaru. Ranma managed an innocent air about her while Hotaru covered her mouth, suppressing a giggle.

 
            "Hmm... too informal of an event for a Furisode," Etsuko muttered. "She would look great with those long sleeves," she added.

 
            "I think a Komon would be best," Setsuna suggested. While preferring western fashions, her job required her to know more traditional garments as well.

 
            "Good choice. We'll dress it up with a nice obi," Etsuko said. "And you can wear it for day to day activities too."

 
            "Oh good, you can wear it to work then," Ranma teasingly added.

 
            "Good idea," chimed in Hotaru.

 
            "Oh, yes," Setsuna sighed as she followed Etsuko to the fitting room.

 
            "We'll start close in with a nice susoyoke and hadajuban," Etsuko said as she asked Setsuna to disrobe and take measurements. "I'll be just a moment," she said as she ran off to get the thin petticoat and undershirt like garments.

 
            She returned and handed the garments to Setsuna who stripped and slipped them on.

 
            "You know I'm going to have to count on you for help," she teasingly asked Ranma.

 
            "Oh yes," Ranma coughed as she fidgeted with her own obi. She didn't realize how much she was staring at Setsuna. "I think... I think I'll find a nice yukata for Hotaru."

 
            "Of course you would know her sizes," Etsuko stated as she pondered what kind of nagajuban would work.

 
            "I heard that you're Miss Ranma's aunty's aunty," Setsuna casually said after Ranma left to tend to Hotaru.

 
            "Oh yes, No-chan was always a sweet girl. Sometimes in her own little world, but who isn't?"

 
            "That is true," Setsuna agreed.

 
            "I'll be right back; I think I found a nagajuban that'll work," Etsuko said as she left.

 
            Setsuna's pondering on how a seventeen year old girl had outsmarted her were cut short by Etsuko's return. Setsuna accepted the pale green robe with a little smile.

 
            "I thought you would like the pattern," Etsuko laughed.

 
            "A subtle sprinkling of Japanese maple leaves is very nice," Setsuna evaluated as she slipped it on. Unsurprisingly, it fit quite well. "Yes, this is suitable."

 
            Etsuko nodded. "So you're curious about Mrs. Saotome?"

 
            Setsuna raised an eyebrow.

 
            "I suppose your employee is close to her." Etsuko walked around Setsuna and adjusted her nagajuban.

 
            "Yes," Setsuna said.

 
            "No-chan is a very sweet woman. She does have... unusual views about her family, but everyone has a strange family. Wouldn't you agree?" Etsuko pointedly asked.

 
            "Oh yes, Hotaru can be a handful for Ranma and myself." Setsuna allowed herself to smile.

 
            "It must be reassuring to have a servant that you can trust like that," Etsuko stated as she shifted Setsuna's clothes and finalized her plans.

 
            "It was required for the position." Setsuna simply said, studying her reflection and admiring the outfit thus far.

 
            Etsuko regarded Setsuna a moment, looking deeper than just the clothes. "More than a servant though, isn't she?"

 
            "Excuse me?" Setsuna blinked, unsure that she heard correctly.

 
            "I'll be right back," Etsuko excused herself.

 
            Alone, Setsuna returned to her reflection, it was a shame that such a lovely garment should be concealed, but that was the way things were.

 
            "Here we go," Etsuko said as she returned carrying a large garment. She then slipped it onto Setsuna.

 
            "I forgot how heavy all this is," Setsuna muttered, shifting her weight a bit.

 
            "We could have some imono hiyoku layering if you want," Etsuko offered with a grin.

 
            "I might as well wear a western gown with petticoats or a crinoline," Setsuna countered. "Maybe for Ranma," she idly mentioned.

 
            "Oh? Maybe we should get a nice kimono for her," Etsuko said.

 
            A Homongi," Setsuna said without thinking.

 
            "Formal... got some nice galas to take her to?" Etsuko asked. "Though, big flowing patterns do suit her."

 
            Setsuna smirked as she adjusted her kimono. The earth tones and forest pattern complimented her hair quite well. Etsuko had a good eye and definitely knew her trade.

 
            "I do know all her measurements," Etsuko helpfully added as she started tying an obi around Setsuna.

 
            "Black? Very nice," Setsuna complimented the choice.

 
            "It fits your disposition," Etsuko shrugged. "So you want to pamper up your... associate?"

 
            "Of course," Setsuna smiled. "I suggest coming back on a later date to... discuss Ranma's gift."

 
            "A surprise?" Etsuko grinned widely. "How wonderful."

 
            "She deserves it," Setsuna said simply.

 
            "It's nice to see that Ranma has such a caring boss," Etsuko said delicately as she put on some final adjustments. "There, done!"

 
            Setsuna looked at her reflection with a little smile. "Nice, but did you have to tie the bow so large?"

 
            "It's just to show off," Etsuko assured as she led Setsuna back to the main room. "Well?" she asked Ranma and Hotaru, who almost dropped the garments they were handling.

 
            "Oh my," Ranma said looking her boss over. "That... that really fits you."

 
            "Tell me about it," Setsuna good naturally groused as she shifted the robes on her shoulders.

 
            "Wow, you really look pretty Setsuna-momma," Hotaru said with a smile holding a yukata.

 
            "Thanks," Setsuna said with a slight blush. "Did you girls find anything?"

 
            "Show her, Hotaru," Ranma prompted.

 
            Hotaru happily held up a deep violet yukata. On it was a pattern of pink Ume blossoms.

 
            "Can I try this one on?"

 
            "Of course," Setsuna beamed.

 
            Hotaru happily ran to the dressing room and was followed by Etsuko.

 
            "Wow, Aunty Etsuko does not do things halfway." Ranma walked around Setsuna to get the full view of her new outfit.

 
            "Yes, she knows her stuff," Setsuna shifted her obi a bit. "Oh, I talked to her some.

 
            According to her, your mother has always been a bit... off."

 
            "Figures," Ranma sighed. "Any explanation as to why she's like that? Or what the deal is?"

 
            "She says everyone lives in their own world."

 
            Ranma rubbed her chin. "Own little world huh? That's odd, I spent the last year with everyone and their horse trying to control my little world. Oh there was a monkey too."

 
            "Maybe that's what Nodoka's afraid of... losing control."

 
            Ranma blinked in comprehension. "I guess that fits her," Ranma finally shrugged. "She could be trying to get control over the Genma situation. I guess Aunty Etsuko wouldn't tell everything she knows."

 
            "Of course not," Setsuna agreed, as she patted Ranma on the back.

 
            "This look is appropriate for you," Ranma laughed, bringing the conversation back to clothing. "Very powerful."

 
            "The bow on the back is too big," Setsuna said as she adjusted her obi, again.

 
            "I dunno; it fits you somehow."

 
            "Lovely," Setsuna rolled her eyes.

 
            Ranma's eyes widened and she warmly smiled. "Turn around," she told Setsuna.

 
            The older woman rotated around.

 
            "Very good," Ranma appraised.

 
            "Thanks," Setsuna said with a thin smirk. She then looked to see her daughter returning from the dressing rooms. "Wow... that looks great."

 
            Hotaru blushed and turned to her Nanny. "What do you think Miss Ranma?"

 
            "Very good," Ranma nodded. "What happened to the obi we picked out?"

 
            "I'm sorry; It was too long," Etsuko apologized. "So I found a nice plum colored one instead. You did pick a correctly sized yukata though."

 
            "This is great," Hotaru added as she ran her hands over the silk; she loved the feel of the material as much as the look.

 
            Etsuko smiled. Repeat business was always handy, and she learned more about No-chan's niece. "So, can I interest you three in some proper sandals? I have some nice geta, proper ones."

 
            Setsuna picked up on Ranma's apprehension and with an evil smile spoke. "Oh yes, that would be wonderful."

 

------- 

 

 
            Blossoms fell towards the earth as sunlight played across the branches above, while below Ranma lay on a spread blanket, relaxing and ignoring the soft din of the other scarcely gathered groups that were there to observe the waning blooming season of the sakura trees. Ranma focused on the passing clouds that were beyond the blossom covered limbs and enjoyed the sensation of the breeze moving over her; her eyes fluttering open and shut. Her view of passing clouds over sakura trees was suddenly interrupted by a young face looming over hers. "Yes?" Ranma asked with a contented smile.

 
            "Do you want another dumpling?" Hotaru said pushing one under her nanny's nose. She was happy to be rid of the dumplings her nanny had made a few days ago. Seeing the end of leftovers was always a good thing.

 
            "Thanks," Ranma said grabbing the food as she sat upright. She leaned back slightly and munched on the dumpling. "You're getting better kiddo," she said patting Hotaru on the head, and unconsciously straightened Hotaru's yukata.

 
            "Did you have a good nap?" Setsuna asked, looking up from her book.

 
            "I wasn't asleep," Ranma slightly pouted as she fingered the sleeve of her yukata. She grinned to see Setsuna sitting there in her kimono. It did not project the same kind of raw power that one of her suits did, but gave a more refined... presence.

 
            "There's nothing to be guilty about," Setsuna said with a tiny smile as she adjusted her obi.

 
            Ranma stared at the mature face and eeped in surprise when Hotaru slumped onto her. "Huh?" She exclaimed in confusion.

 
            "Oh dear, it looks like it's contagious," Setsuna dryly remarked as she reached for a dumpling herself. Hotaru barely contained a giggle as she continued to lean against Ranma and made exaggerated snoring noises.

 
            "Okay - maybe I was sleeping," Ranma rolled her eyes as she rummaged around in the picnic basket. "Where did you get this thing?" she asked referring to the wicker container. It was more of a chest than a basket and had compartments for drinks, flat wear, dishes, and even a section for keeping a container of rice warm. During this, Hotaru wormed her way down Ranma and laid herself out more on the blanket, using Ranma's silk covered leg as a pillow.

 
            Setsuna coughed and to Ranma's shock actually looked embarrassed. "Well... when I adopted Hotaru..."

 
            "She went a bit happy buying things," Hotaru finished sleepily for Setsuna as she rolled to her side. Ranma's leg was comfortable.

 
            "I had this little idea of taking her on a nice picnic." Setsuna's tiny smile returned. "At least that came true."

 
           "I'm just happy you had a free afternoon," Ranma added as she frowned at the desert tray. It was too early for those, despite what her stomach was telling her.

 
            "Me too," Setsuna agreed as she reached out to pat Hotaru's leg. Hotaru turned and let out a little yawn as she tried to get more comfortable. "It was good to get some... proper clothing, as well."

 
            "Did you have to make us get these geta? You're very modern, not one for-" Ranma paused.  "What's the word?  Stuff not in its right time?"

 
            "Anachronisms," Setsuna supplied "And oh I don't know, did you have to make me buy a kimono?" she warmly countered. "Besides I've seen you wear heels fine."

 
            "Yeah, but those aren't platform shoes on wood," Ranma shrugged as she looked at the pile of geta on one corner of the picnic blanket. "Though they do pinch your toes less."

 
            "Yes there's that," Setsuna agreed. "Anyway today has been great. Just spending time with... Hotaru is good. I really don't spend enough time with her," she said sadly.

 
            "Nonsense, you spend most evenings with her. If not for Hotaru's... condition you really wouldn't need me," Ranma admitted as she began brushing some of Hotaru's hair with her fingers.

 
            "And you're helping her overcome that quite readily," Setsuna said with deliberate thoughtfulness.

 
            Ranma blinked.

 
            "Oh don't worry," Setsuna laughed. "You're not going to work yourself out of a job. Hotaru would be crushed if she lost her nanny." The older woman looked at her now lightly dozing ward. "Don't forget how much you mean to me... her... well both of us."

 
            "You're right, I really care about her too," Ranma agreed, pretending to miss the slip.

 
            "How's her training been?" Setsuna asked.

 
            "Good, I've never seen someone so eager to learn," Ranma said, resuming her gentle brushing of Hotaru's hair with one hand while eating a dumpling with the other.

 
            "She likes having some control," Setsuna said as she folded her book down. "She's always been a victim of circumstance: being orphaned, being weak, being picked on for her gifts."

 
            "She's happy to find out she doesn't have to be one," Ranma said with a quiet realization.

 
            "Indeed, such epiphanies can be quite liberating," Setsuna picked up her book and nibbled on a rice ball. "Don't you agree?" she idly asked.

 
            "Yeah, guess I do." Ranma looked up and watched as a blossom landed right on her glasses making her go slightly cross-eyed for a second. "I guess we picked a bit too late in the year to eat," she said flicking it off. "At least there's not that many getting in my hair."

 
            "You do look cute," Setsuna said looking over her book. "At least you're not wearing your uniform. The ruffles in your apron would be a magnet for blossoms."

 
            "Like my uniform isn't ruffled enough," Ranma sighed as she carefully dusted herself off so as to not disturb the now napping Hotaru. 

 
            For her part, Hotaru had once again shifted and wrapped her arms tighter around her nanny, one arm thrown across the redhead's legs, the other neatly tucked underneath her body. Hotaru made contented murmurs while doing so.

 
            Ranma gently squeezed the shoulder of the sleeping younger girl affectionately and once again pondered about Hotaru's past. The young girl was unusually terse and guarded about her life before being adopted, and being secretive about her own past Ranma was not one to push the subject.

 
            Setsuna looked at her watch and sighed. It was almost time.

 
            "We're gonna have to go soon?" Ranma asked, noticing the gesture; her voice carried a trace of disappointment.

 
            "Yes," Setsuna said, feeling ashamed that she could not tell Ranma the truth. Ranma's work with Hotaru had been amazing and she deserved to know... to not be some... servant. Sighing she put in a bookmark and closed her book. Right now there was time for Ranma to keep making a difference in her ward's life. The more impact she had now... the better things were going to be in the future, for all of them. 

 

-------

 

 
            The crescent moon hung heavily in the hazy sky, looking almost like a tear that was about to fall onto the city below. The populace had long retired for the night, the streetlights casting ghostly shadows across the empty streets. Restlessly Hotaru tossed and turned in her bed, hoping that sleep would claim her. After a few more moments of agitation, she sighed heavily and sat up.

 
            "I can't sleep," she announced to the empty room. 

 
            Sighing again, she kicked off her covers and maneuvered to the edge of the bed and dangled her feet over it. Though she had grown a lot in the last few months, she still couldn't quite reach the floor. Scooting over the edge, she landed softly and padded across the dimly lit room toward the door. 

 
            "Maybe getting something to drink will help," she mused. She was almost to the door when something odd caught her eye. 

 
            On the sliding door to her closet was a full length mirror. Hotaru remembered that she used to like to play dress-up and pose before it in all sorts of silly ways when she was younger, but tonight something else than her reflection was there. Blinking a few times, she cautiously made her way to the mirror in the half light of the room.

 
            She managed to suppress a gasp as she realized that the reflection in the mirror was of someone that was - and wasn't - her. The girl in the glass was about her height, perhaps a bit taller and wore a short-skirted uniform of sorts with a bow on the front and stared back at Hotaru with eyes of ice. 

 
            Nervous, but for some reason not frightened, Hotaru raised a hand and watched as the girl in the glass mimicked her. Moving closer, her counter-part did the same. Hotaru placed her hand against the glass; the reflection that wasn't hers did the same. Hotaru noticed that where their hands would have made contact it felt warm. 

 
            "Who... are you?" Hotaru asked the reflection. 

 
            In the next room, Ranma was finding it impossible to sleep. It felt as if ants were crawling over her skin, leaving itching trails in their wake. Sighing in frustration, she sat up and grumbled about the injustice of it all. 

 
            "I ain't never going to get to sleep at this rate," she bitched in a whisper as she brushed an imaginary ant off her arm. "Maybe a quick dip in the furo will help." 

 
            Out of bed and out of the room in one fluid motion, Ranma hesitated at the entrance to the bathroom that was across from her room. Something was in the air, she could feel it - she could sense it. She wondered if it was leftover anxiety from last week's adventures with her mother.

 
            "What...?"
She wondered as she cocked her head as if she were trying to see what was in the darkness of the hallway. "Something's... wrong... but what?" 

 
            Forgetting the quick bath, Ranma opted to follow her instincts and locate what was disturbing her. It was as if the wa of the apartment had been disturbed and a pool of... something odd... was settling somewhere in the house. She made it half way down the hall when she halted in front of Hotaru's door. 

 
            "In here," Ranma concluded with her heart in her throat. Grasping the doorknob, Ranma pushed the door open and stuck her head inside and spotted Hotaru standing before the mirror. She was about to ask if she was all right, when the younger girl spoke. 

 
            "Sleeping inside me?" Hotaru asked the mirror. 

 
            Cocking her head in confusion, Ranma opened the door wider to allow her to slip into the room. She drew near the young girl cautiously and bent over slightly to get a better look at her charge. "Maybe she's sleepwalking or something," Ranma mused as she eased closer to Hotaru. "I heard some people do that." 

 
            "Hotaru?" Ranma softly ventured. 

 
            Hotaru turned away from the mirror and faced Ranma; the look in her wide eyes immediately captured Ranma's in an almost hypnotic way. "Darkness returns once again... However I am aware now," Hotaru spoke in a way that conveyed that she was not all here. 

 
            "H-hotaru?" Ranma repeated with a mixture of anxiety and a touch of fear. Where the latter emotion came from, she didn't know; she wasn't even sure who or what she was afraid for. 

 
            "Those two thousand years that went by as I slept like a rock," Hotaru continued in the same dream-like way. "Brought upon the nightmare in this cradle that rocks back and forth..." 

 
            "Hotaru!" Ranma proclaimed loudly; the desperation in Ranma's voice seemed to break whatever trance Hotaru was in as she blinked a few times in disorientation. 

 
            "Mommy?" The young girl asked in a half-daze. 

 
            "Hotaru," Ranma said as she knelt before the girl. "Are you all right? What happened?" 

 
            Blinking a few more times, Hotaru looked Ranma in the eye. "Miss Ranma? What's wrong?" 

 
            "That's what I want to know," Ranma sighed. "Are you all right? When I came in here you were talking to the mirror." 

 
            "I was?" Hotaru asked. 

 
            "I think you were sleepwalking, squirt," Ranma said in a light manner to dissuade any worries the younger girl might have had. "Let's get you something to drink and put you back to bed." 

 
            "O-okay," Hotaru said uncertainly as her eyes darted around the room. 

 
            Noticing Hotaru's hesitation, Ranma asked, "Nightmare?" 

 
            "I think so... I'm not sure." 

 
            Sizing up her charge's mood, Ranma made a decision. "Tell you what? How about you come sleep in my room with me tonight?" 

 
            "I'm a big girl now," Hotaru insisted. "I can take care of myself." 

 
            "I didn't say you couldn't," Ranma placated. "I just think it would be fun to have... a sleep over. How does that sound?" 

 
            A smile slowly grew on Hotaru's face "Oh, okay," she eventually agreed. 

 
            Giving the smaller girl a reassuring hug, Ranma caught a glimpse of something odd in the mirror. Shifting slightly, while being mindful of Hotaru, Ranma got into a position to get a better view. Her eyes widened. 

 
            It the light of the dim, moonlit room, Ranma saw the reflection of two women in an embrace, mimicking Ranma's and Hotaru's current positions. It was them, but not quite them. Hotaru's reflection was dressed in a short sailor suited uniform of some type, the skirt a dark purple or black from what Ranma could tell from the lighting she had. There was a large, matching bow on the back of Hotaru's reflection and she wore knee high boots that also matched the color of the skirt. 

 
            Ranma's eyes widened further as she noticed what her own reflection was wearing. From what she could tell, it was something similar to what Hotaru's reflection was wearing, but she couldn't see much of it because Hotaru's reflection was in the way. What was easy to see was that Ranma was wearing elbow length gloves, earrings and a tiara.

 
            The moment was frozen in Ranma's mind's eye... 

 
            ... then Ranma blinked... 

 
            ... and the moment was gone. 

 
            "Is something wrong?" Hotaru asked while breaking the hug. 

 
            "Nah," Ranma said quite convincingly, hiding her apprehension. "Just the shadows playing tricks on me. C'mon squirt," she said as she ruffled Hotaru's hair, "let's get something to drink and hit the hay." 

 
            As she led the younger girl from the room, Ranma took one last look at the mirror. It hung, as it always had, on Hotaru's closet door. In Ranma's mind's eye, it looked more now like a window to some other realm than a mirror. Was what she saw real, a trick of the light, or was it a glimpse of big changes coming in the near future? 

 
            The uncertainty of that, more than anything, filled Ranma with an intangible, awful dread.

 

----------- 

 

 
            The roughly triangular shaped park was bordered on all sides by major roads, the mature trees that filled the space helped block the sounds of traffic down to nearly nonexistence. At first glance, the haphazard shape of the park made it appear as if it was leftover land from the roadwork that no one knew what to do with. However, the history of the park was explained by the monument of a rider on a horse in bronze of the park's namesake at the front entrance.

 
            Prince Arisugawa Memorial Park was not a large park, but it was of modest size and had some nice out of the way spots where people could be relatively alone when they were in search for peace, quiet and a bit of nature. It was a welcome splash of greenery and open space in the crowded urban environment of greater Tokyo. Among the walkways that meandered through it one could take in the small lake with a waterfall, watch the children play on the playground or go browse the many books at the central branch of the Toyko library.

 
            And the best part was that it was located less than a kilometer from Setsuna's apartment.

 
            Though it drew crowds of people during the day, the park was usually fairly peaceful on Sunday mornings, with only the chirping and calls of the birds as they sang overhead. This morning however, their songs were being drowned out by the sharp clacking of wood against wood that punctuated the silence. 

 
            Off to one side, in as secluded a spot as possible in a park this popular, two girls lashed out at one another with long staffs. The trees filtered the sunlight on the two and as the wind rustled through the branches the shadows underneath seemed to move with them.

 
            The smaller of the two was wearing protective padding that made her almost appear robotic. Through as cumbersome as the padding looked, she managed to move with a degree of grace that displayed her long hours of practice. The taller redhead wasn't restricted by any protective padding and moved freely in and around the smaller girl. From time to time, various people on their morning walks would stop and admire the two combatants before moving on. 

 
            Heedless of their ever-changing audience, the two girls continued their match. The clacking of staffs rang through the small park as Hotaru, wearing padded safety gear and with grim determination, attempted to work through Ranma's defenses. The total attention and focus in the young girl's eyes would be almost frightening except that it was married to a disarming smirk; the same type of smirk that was mirrored by her sparring partner. 

 
            Blocking a particularly low blow, Ranma turned and twisted her staff around Hotaru's in a disarming move that was thwarted by Hotaru pressing forward and stepping into Ranma's defense. Lashing out with a now free hand, Hotaru tried to strike Ranma, but her target had already stepped sideways and back, foiling the attack. They broke apart as Ranma leapt over Hotaru's head and softly landed behind her. Without looking and almost instinctively, Hotaru swept the area behind her with her staff dissuading any attack that might have come. 

 
            "Hold," Ranma announced. 

 
            Standing six feet apart, both girls bowed to one another, held their bow for a moment before facing one another again. 

 
            "You're getting better, squirt," Ranma quipped.

 
            "Thank you, Miss Ranma," Hotaru sang out as she pulled the padding off her body, making loud "shucking" sounds as the Velcro parted. "This is fun; I almost had you." 

 
            "Heh. Almost, squirt, almost" Ranma said. "But don't worry, you'll get there soon enough." 

 
            Tossing the staffs and padding on the ground, both girls moved as one through a series of cool down exercises. Each girl stretching and moving together as if choreographed. For a handful of minutes, the pair moved through the katas in silence, relaxing in the peaceful morning. 

 
            "Miss Ranma? You think we can make a stop on the way home?" Hotaru asked as she moved into the last of her cool downs. 

 
            "Sure. What do you have in mind?" 

 
            "Well... there's Gojunana Ice Creams on the way home," Hotaru ventured. 

 
            "Trying to slow me down by making me fat?" Quipped the redhead as they stopped stretching and started to load Hotaru's pads in an oversize gym bag. Though Ranma had put on weight over the course of the last few months, it had been in "all the right places". 

 
            Hotaru smirked. Ranma filling out had really gotten a lot of the boys' attention, but she was somewhat concerned that her nanny and friend had yet to date anyone. "Miss Ranma, you know you still have to show me that Chestnut thingy." 

 
            "Okay... but I don't want you trying it; you're not ready yet, squirt," Ranma said as she straightened. "We still have to build your ki up first." 

 
            "I know, but it's taking so long," Hotaru complained as they prepared to head out. "That'll take forever!  Like six years... I'll be a seventeen year old woman before I can get that much ki." 

 
            The redhead's right eyebrow twitched a bit. "You'll get there," reassured Ranma after clearing her throat. "It takes time - it's like a muscle that needs to be exercised. Those exercises that I've had you doing have been paying off, right?" 

 
            The shorter girl nodded. 

 
            "Then have some patience," Ranma continued. "You have plenty of time. It took me years of practice to get where I am... as a matter of fact, the way you're picking things up you'll be there faster than I did." 

 
            "Really?" Hotaru beamed as she picked up her staff. 

 
            "Yup," Ranma confirmed as she lugged the stuffed gym bag to her shoulder and picked up her own staff with her free hand. "You keep this pace up and you'll get there before you know it - even when you get to be a seventeen year old woman." 

 
            "Heh," Hotaru replied as she scratched the back of her head, adding a friendly smirk on top of it. 

 
            "I mean it," Ranma smiled. "You're doing great... better than I could have hoped."

 
            "You're just being nice," Hotaru blushed as she picked up a missed shin-guard off the grass and unzipped the shouldered bag to stuff it in; her eyes suddenly hardened. "Someone's coming," she said in a more alert voice.

 
            Ranma smoothly swiveled around in the direction that Hotaru was looking in. Recognition of the woman faltered for a brief second. The hair and face were familiar enough, but the clothes...

 
            A quite complimentary charcoal suit-skirt and matching jacket hung off the older woman's frame. She had on a dark green blouse and a thin ribbon tie. The shoes were dark leather and had only a slight heel. A thin black leather suitcase was held in one hand while a pair of dark sunglasses were being removed by the other.

 
            Blinking Ranma pulled out her glasses, but the image only sharpened slightly. "Aunty?"

 
            "Of course," Nodoka smiled in amusement. "Impressive training." She could see why Ranko would be interested in her son. Even if it was a - hopefully - professional interest.

 
            "Thank you," Ranma said coolly. "So you're going to see a client?"

 
            "Just finished." Nodoka said as she maneuvered her hands to open a glasses case and put away her sunglasses. "I had to tell a poor man that a pair of vases he had were fake. Well one was fake." She shook her head. It was foolish to try to match a forgery to the real thing; it would have been better to simply make two fakes, that way they would have supported each other.

 
            "Yes, it's bad when people are tricked into thinking something is something it's not," Ranma said with a curt nod.

 
            The older woman shrugged. Sniffing out lies and frauds was part of the job. It was a shame, but that was reality. "So, how are you?"

 
            Hotaru zipped up the bag, still shouldered on Ranma, and looked at the older woman and then to her stiff nanny.

 
            "I'm fine," Ranma turned to Hotaru. "This is Meiou Hotaru, my charge." Despite her efforts, Ranma still beamed with pride.

 
            "Charmed," Nodoka said with a bow. "You won't find a finer young woman to take care of you."

 
            "I know." Hotaru said with a broad smile as she fingered her staff.

 
            "So what brings you here?" Ranma asked as the three started walking out of the grass clearing to a group of empty benches.

 
            Nodoka's hand clenched her briefcase. "I was in the area, and remembered what you said about this park."

 
            "Oh?" Ranma asked as she looked to Hotaru who had worked herself between Ranma and Nodoka.

 
            Nodoka's gaze went to Hotaru before floating back to Ranma. "I've been back to Nerima since we last talked. I had lunch at that place you recommended."

 
            Ranma stopped. "Really now? How was it?"

 
            "The owner is a fascinating young woman," Nodoka replied, paused, then continued. "A bit unstable though."

 
            "Unstable? Ucchan was always a good... friend." Ranma paused to think over that. She had stayed more in contact with Akane while Ukyo...

 
            "What would you call a girl who spends years and years planning and training for revenge, only to fall hopelessly in love with the target of retribution?" Nodoka smiled happily. "I'm very pleased that my son's so very manly that he can change a girl's opinion like that."

 
            "Yeah, I guess.... it did happen that way," Ranma shrugged. At the time, Ranma was too dumbfounded to think about the sudden change in Ukyo, now upon reflecting on it, she found it troubling.

 
            "What happened?" Hotaru asked, not understanding the conversation.

 
            "Well, Aunty has a son who's named Ranma too," Ranma explained while giving Nodoka a meaningful look. "And do you remember those stories I told you?"

 
            Realization dawned on Hotaru. "Oh... this is, umm... Ukyo. That's the crazy chef you told me about."

 
            "Er... Yeah... her," Ranma deflated.

 
            "Poor girl, pushing herself to seek revenge - even to the point of swearing off her womanhood - all because of a misunderstanding," Nodoka shook her head. "What kind of father allows something like that to happen to his child?"

 
            "But what about what Genma did? He started it."

 
            "By accepting a gift? It was a nice yatta, but insulting to think my husband could be bribed." Nodoka knew that while it was not impossible to tempt her husband, it was never for long. He always came to his senses before doing any wrong. 

 
            Ranma paused a second to think back on the chain of events that led Ukyo to seek revenge. "It may have not been his idea, but he accepted another engagement" Ranma carefully explained. "And he took that yatta and then when he ate everything on it he left it on the side of the road."

 
            "So says a girl who's upbringing was shaped and twisted for one purpose, revenge against my son and husband.  How can we trust what she says? Could my husband not have been tricked into accepting a gift?"

 
            "Is this the slow and dopey glasses man?" Hotaru asked Ranma as they sat down on a bench in a small pavilion

 
            "Yeah, and he certainly can be tricked," Ranma admitted. "But you can't deny that there was an engagement."

 
            "No I can't. Miss Kuonji is quite adamant. Of course she was too young to remember what happened back then with any clarity, and her self-indoctrination makes her most unreliable."

 
            Ranma mulled over that, the disturbing thing was that it made a certain amount of sense. She certainly didn't remember much of that time - heck, she thought Ukyo was a guy then. "So you don't see Genma doing anything wrong here?" Ranma coldly asked.

 
            Nodoka paused in thought. "It was probably a mistake to accept the gift - especially if he knew or suspected that Mr. Kuonji was... unstable. Which is why I doubt my husband knew," Nodoka sighed. "That's the problem, so many people seem normal and right, until you open up and trust them."

 
            "Yeah, tell me about it," Ranma said as she put an arm around Hotaru.

 
            "My husband does seem to attract 'friends' like that. I'm sorry to admit that Soun is among the most honorable of Genma's buddies."

 
            Ranma cocked her head. "That's... sad."

 
            Nodoka nodded. "It's the truth. My husband has tried to help reform them - and he always knew the best way to keep them from getting too rowdy."

 
            "Getting them drunk?" Hotaru innocently asked as she scooted closer to Ranma.

 
            Nodoka weakly smiled. "It doesn't sound very noble when you put it that way, but it kept them out of trouble."

 
            "And it still happens, like with Ukyo's father." Ranma scoffed. "I don't think your husband is so innocent here."

 
            "Oh? Were you there?" Nodoka pointedly asked.

 
            "Well..." Ranma coughed.

 
            "Even if you were it's not like you would have remembered. You would have been a little girl, younger than Hotaru."

 
            The redhead frowned. Nodoka was right about that. It took Ukyo showing up and starting a fight to jog Ranma's memory - the same thing happened with Ryoga, and she had met him long after Ukyo.

 
            "My son was there, but his memory might not be much better than poor Ukyo's. Who knows that he would think about her," Nodoka sighed.

 
            "I - he thought Ukyo was a guy," Ranma stated weakly.

 
            "See what I mean? Memories are tricky like that. Why would my husband engage our son to another boy? There's so much about Ukyo's story that doesn't hold water. I'm afraid my husband is the only witness I can trust."

 
            "So it doesn't matter what happened to Ukyo?"

 
            "Of course it matters," Nodoka said sharply. "Her life was ruined. Even if my husband had somehow tricked her father - as unlikely as that may be, that in no way excuses what Mr. Kuonji allowed to happen to his child. He had to have known what she was doing to herself, and he let it happen. Should my husband be blamed for the rash and at best uncaring actions of another man?"

 
            "Well, he did steal the cart."

 
            Nodoka sighed. "We're acting under the hypothetical assumption that he did, but that does not mean he is to blame for the warping of Ukyo. That this poor girl forced herself to give up her femininity and spend ten years plotting revenge." The older woman shivered

 
            "But Genma admitted to it," Ranma said, exasperation and uncertainty mixed in her tone. "I was there when he told Ranma that Ukyou was his fiancee."

 
            "Really now?" Nodoka asked as she leaned back into the bench. "I take it that Miss Kuonji was present?

 
            "Yes she was - along with Akane and a whole lot of other people," Ranma replied with a nod for emphasis. "We were all in the same room when he admitted to it."

 
            Nodoka sat, deep in thought for a moment before slowly nodding her head. "Then that makes sense then. It is just like Genma to say something like that to keep the situation from escalating."

 
            "Huh?" Ranma asked, caught flatfooted by Nodoka's response. Hotaru still sat between them, leaning on her staff that was still in hand, taking the entire conversation in.

 
            "It's very obvious," Nodoka explained in an almost teacher-like way and began ticking off points with her fingers. "He was confronting someone who is unstable, who had mistakenly set out on a mission of revenge, who was also displaying unreasonable and violent tendencies and surrounded by many bystanders in an enclosed environment." She paused for effect as Ranma digested what was said. "In such a case, it is far better to try and defuse the situation by calming and placating the person before some innocent bystander was injured."

 
            Cocking her head, Ranma recalled the incident in the P.E. equipment room when she had confronted Ukyo and how quickly filled up with curious students. If a melee had broken out in such a confined space with that many people...

 
            "Feeding her delusions was not the best thing for my husband to do," Nodoka continued as she leaned forward to better view the redhead on the other side of Hotaru. "But it was probably the only solution he could come up with at the time with the possibility of others being endangered."

 
            Ranma shook her head. Nodoka was making too much sense and it was frightening. "What did Ukyo say to all of this?" Ranma asked.

 
            "We never really talked about the details of her and Ranma's reunion," Nodoka replied, then she narrowed her eyes. "Her attitude did change very quickly when she learned who I was."

 
            "Did you tell her that you didn't approve of her engagement claim?"

 
            Nodoka smiled. "It didn't come up." 

 
            "It didn't?" Ranma asked in surprise. She assumed that Ukyo would press her claim upon her mother.

 
            "No, I kept her focused on what had happened all those years ago," Nodoka explained. "You had concerns and discovering the nature of Miss Kuonji's claim was paramount. It is clear now that the poor girl is slightly delusional and suffering from neglect from her family."

 
            Ranma shook her head. "So you're saying that Genma's admission was all a lie?" Ranma asked, controlling the doubt that tried to leak into her voice.

 
            Nodoka smiled slightly. "It may not sound... traditionally honorable, but it kept the situation under control. And what could he do with such a rash and disturbed young woman?"

 
            Ranma paused. It made sense. Nodoka's conclusions were logical, rational and reasonable - if one accepted a certain view of Genma. "So he lied to save others... and probably himself."

 
            "And my son, he was the target of her revenge too," Nodoka reminded. "How could he know that Ukyo would do a one-eighty like that."

 
            "I see," Ranma leaned back and rubbed Hotaru's back. It was amazing. Her mother was being rational, logical, and understanding, but still wrong. "It really is hard to find the truth, isn't it?"

 
            "When talking to unstable and deluded people?" Nodoka laughed slightly. "It certainly is."

 
            "So Ukyo did not convince you," Ranma surmised.

 
            "Quite the contrary. There is very strong evidence to the honor and immense manliness of my son." Nodoka looked into the distance wistfully.

 
            "I guess changing Ucchan's mind like that was a big feat," Ranma allowed as she idly cleaned her glasses.

 
            Nodoka nodded and then sighed. "It was also another case of my husband making well-intentioned efforts that are snarled by the caliber of his... associates. It's a shame that his actions ended up making that poor girl's delusions worse, but what could he do?"

 
            "Ukyo does sound like a moody girl," Hotaru agreed as she studied the older woman's face. The thoughtful intensity Nodoka had was... disturbing.

 
            "Did you talk to Mr. Tendo?" Ranma asked as she replaced her glasses. She wanted to move the conversation away from Ukyo. That well had gone dry.

 
            "Yes, it was impressive. He managed to keep his story up."

 
            "Story? So you know he's hiding something? About your husband?" Ranma asked with a bit of shock.

 
            "Of course he's hiding something," Nodoka had to keep herself from rolling her eyes. "I'm sure Soun did something wrong and my husband is trying to fix his mess... again."

 
            "Sorry Aunty, but this time Genma's in it as much Soun and Nabiki are," Ranma countered.

 
            "Genma's always joined Soun in one crazy idea or the other, doing his best to keep Soun out of trouble. He would do his upmost to... minimize the damage."

 
            Ranma turned her head. That excuse would almost work, if not for what those three had done for Mr. Huang. "No Aunty, not this time. I was there - it's part of why I left."

 
            "Oh?" Nodoka asked. "You're saying my husband took the initiative on-" she looked to Hotaru. "-events?"

 
            "Well... not really. Soun and Nabiki were more advanced, but he wasn't just going along with things."

 
            "I'll have to talk with my husband to sort that out," Nodoka said stiffly.

 
            "Because you can't trust Mr. Tendo," Hotaru noted.

 
            "I see how this goes," Ranma smirked at her mother. "You're being logical. You need evidence."

 
            "Is that so wrong to ask for?" Nodoka asked.

 
            "Not at all," Hotaru said in a distant voice as she swiveled her head and stared at Nodoka. "But you are keeping things discrete, right?" Her hands clenched. "No one knows that you've been having these meetings, correct?"

 
            Nodoka looked at the little girl for a long time. For a brief moment she appeared much older than normal. "No, of course not. Confidentiality is critical to both my professional and... personal life."

 
            As silence enveloped the three, Ranma pondered the events that had led her to where she was. The redhead tried to guess at what rationalizations that Nodoka could come up with. Without a doubt, she could sit there and cite example after example of Genma's misdeeds all afternoon and Nodoka would find a way to rationalize why they happened the way they did. Sitting back and resting against the back of the bench, Ranma absently continued to rub Hotaru's back and tried to think of a way to convince her estranged mother that not all was how she saw it.

 
            "What kind of evidence would you need?" Ranma asked carefully. "The police are investigating, what would you do if Genma was caught in it?"

 
            "Then I would have to ask the officer in charge what kind of evidence they had," Nodoka answered. "I'm sure that any possible indictment of my husband would not go very far. Police will need a lot of evidence before they even begin to make an arrest, especially given Soun's position on the town council." Nodoka paused and frowned.

 
            Ranma sat and pondered.

 
            "Evidence," Ranma mentally concluded. "She needs overwhelming evidence."

 
            "You know that Genma has been hiding from you," Ranma announced suddenly.

 
            "I gathered as much from Soun's demeanor," Nodoka said thoughtfully.

 
            Ranma blinked. Once again her mother had thrown her a curveball. "So you... know?"

 
            "Your employer is encouraging this investigation is she not?" Nodoka asked.

 
            "Well yeah. They've been building the case for a couple weeks."

 
            The older woman's shoulders sagged. "Then it's obvious, my husband has distanced himself with our son of course. Once again I worry."

 
            "Huh?"

 
            "As I said, the police do not work against shadows, they will only arrest when they are sure they will get a confession or enough evidence to get a conviction without." Nodoka's hands nervously tapped her briefcase.

 
            "You're worried? You know Genma's a crook!"

 
            Nodoka turned her eyes and glared at the younger redhead. "What I know is that the police are eagerly investigating a minor politician with a colored past. A small fish that happens to be a close friend of my overly-trusting husband. Yes, I'm worried."

 
            "He sounds like a bad man to me," Hotaru noted.

 
            Nodoka smiled weakly. "My husband should cooperate, I hope he has the sense to, and that is why he is hiding, not just from me, but from Soun."

 
            "You.... you think he's testifying to the police against Soun?" Ranma asked the disbelieve dripping on her voice.

 
            "I know, one finds it hard to believe, but we both know sometimes... people will hold secrets, even from those they're closest to."

 
            Ranma looked to Hotaru and coughed. "You can't... would he betray... no Genma's part of this."

 
            "I know you don't think much of my husband, but he is a survivor. He will make it through this." Nodoka's eyes flickered down briefly. "Any way he can." She reached out and patted Ranma's hand. "He raised my son, and you know how adaptive and strong he is."

 
            "It just seems... unbelievable," Ranma flatly said.

 
            "Yes, but as I said, the police would have stopped by now if there wasn't something there. I'm as aghast as you." Nodoka squeezed Ranma's hand. "I thought Soun was one of Genma's better friends, and now what... those poor girls of his."

 
            "So now you think Soun's some criminal mastermind?"

 
            Nodoka snickered then burst into laughter. "Oh my, no," she said once she regained some composure. "You don't need to be smart to break the law. No, if there is something to this case, I'm sure Soun's a patsy. He always was, but he still should have known better."

 
            Ranma blinked. That sounded exactly like what Huang had done. He was the mastermind and Soun, Genma, and Nabiki were all taken in. "That's... perceptive," Ranma allowed.

 
            "It's just looking at the evidence, logically."

 
          "Right," Ranma sadly remarked. "What if... what if Genma wasn't being honorable here? What if he was... misguided? Maybe he took your son and ran? What if he's protecting Soun, it is noble to stick with a friend no matter what."

 
            Nodoka sighed. "You don't think that hasn't entered my mind? I know my husband." The older woman frowned. "He'll do what he thinks is best."

 
            Pity grew in Ranma. "I didn't mean..." She paused and the sympathy for her father vanished. "No, I did. Look, you know he's not perfect. If he gets convicted? Will that be the evidence you need?"

 
            "That won't happen, and even... even if it did, what will it prove?" Nodoka shook her head in disbelief. "Assuming it's on the level and that he's not making some noble sacrifice... again. That all the slanders about him are true? It'll prove that I've married a fraud, a con man. That I've been making excuses for him; that I've been covering him; that I've been fooled by him; that I've been his longest running mark?" She laughed sharply, but Ranma noticed her eyes dart about. Nodoka picked up her briefcase, stood and smoothed her coat.

 
            "Well... not... not like that," Ranma demurred.

 
            "It can't be that way," Nodoka said her voice once again pleasant, even slightly amused. "You'll see. My husband is doing the right thing."

 

            The older woman glanced at her watch and stood up. "Dear me, I really must be going." She warmly smiled at Hotaru and Ranma. "It was lovely meeting you, see you both later."

 

            "Uh bye, it was good seeing you too," Ranma said, a bit awkwardly.

 
            Hotaru watched the older woman walk away. "So what's with your... Aunty? She knows her husband's a bad man, right?" she asked once Nodoka was out of earshot.

 
            "I don't know. I really don't." Ranma admitted.

 

---------- 

 

 
            The multistory mall was packed and rivers of shoppers, mostly teens, moved from one store to the next. From the third floor, Ranma hugged the rail and looked down into the open spaces that were formed by a courtyard of sorts all the way down to the ground floor. She was eyeing the lingerie shop that was shoehorned between a shoe store and an upscale dress shop. 

 
            Looking like any other schoolgirl on a Saturday afternoon, Ranma blended in with the with crowd and watched the top of the head of one person in particular as she stood in front of a lingerie store and looked at the goods on display. Ranma stood and watched as Akane entered the shop with little hesitation. 

 
            Sighing softly to herself, Ranma looked about the surrounding crowds around on her level and the crowd directly below her, making doubly sure that Akane wasn't followed. A face in the crowd proved otherwise. 

 
            "Damn," Ranma swore to herself as she spied Nabiki just below were she was standing. Eyes narrowing, she watched as Nabiki placed what looked like a PDA type of device back into her purse. Lips firming, Ranma fought the surprising urge to leap down to the floor below and beat the living crap out of the one Tendo who had screwed her life up more than her father was capable of doing. Taking a controlled, calming breath, Ranma instead opted for a safer tack. 

 
            "Can't get rid of her without giving myself away. Damn!" Ranma thought as her eyes darted about. "Gotta go with plan B." 

 
            Moving away from the railing, Ranma mingled with the crowd and flowed along with it - and froze. On the same floor, across from where she was standing, Ranma spied a shock of purple hair. 

 
            "Just great," she swore to herself. "Nabiki follows Akane, and Shampoo follows Nabiki." 

 
            Thankfully the Chinese Amazon was so intent on watching Nabiki that she failed to notice everyone else around her. Slipping back into the crowd, Ranma continued on until she reached the escalators. After making sure she was out of sight of Nabiki and Shampoo, she rode to the ground floor. Once there, Ranma then proceeded to the ladies room and instead of entering, passed through double doors marked "Authorized Personnel Only" and followed the slightly twisting service hallway. 

 
            Eventually, she ended up in front of a door with stacks of boxes on either side. The door was marked with the name of the lingerie store. Stealthily, she tried the door and, as expected, it was locked.

 
            Sighing, she sized up the door like an opponent. "There's no other way," she concluded as she clenched her fist and drew it back, pausing to gather her strength, her fist shot forward and knocked on the door loudly. 

 
            After a short wait, an older, tall and slender saleswoman answered. "Yes? Wha- You're not supposed to be here, this is for mall employees only," she scolded the redhead. 

 
            "Oh, I'm so sorry," Ranma politely said in false ignorance while laying on the charm. "But I got turned around when I went to use the ladies room and now I'm really, really lost. Can you help me please?" 

 
            The saleswoman regarded the demure young woman with a curious eye before softening. "All right, just this once. Next time pay better attention to where you're at and where you're going," she scolded. 

 
            The saleswoman led Ranma through the back of the store, past the counter and onto the sales floor. "Thank you so much," Ranma said politely as she bowed to her savior. 

 
            The woman gave a noncommittal grunt and went to tend to a customer. Ranma ignored the frilly underthings for sale and headed toward a rack of bras off to one side, near the back. Standing there was one of the few people from her old life she could trust. 

 
            "Hey Akane!" She called out. 

 
            "Ranma!" Akane replied with a slight grin. "What took you? I was beginning to wonder." 

 
            "You were followed," Ranma said as she flipped through the rack of lacy bras for the sake of appearances; they were all too small for her. "I had to get in through the back." 

 
            "I was?" Akane asked, clearly surprised. "But I was so careful." 

 
            "I'm sure you were," Ranma said offhandedly. "I noticed that Shampoo was not following you, but trailing Nabiki. I think she put something on you to follow you; I saw her looking at some electronic thingy." 

 
            Akane blinked a few times, as she thought. "I can't see how..." then her voice trailed off.

 
            Ranma noticed this. "Akane? What's up?"

 
            Akane began to dig through her purse and produced a compact. "I knew I should have asked her why she gave this back to me," Akane exclaimed. "She never gives anything back that she steals." 

 
            Both girls examined the compact carefully. "I don't see anything special about it," Ranma said.

 
            "Doesn't matter," Akane said. "As small as they make those things nowadays, it could be fitted into the hinge." 

 
            "What are you going to do?" 

 
            "I'm going to get rid of it, that's what," Akane said sharply. "And then I'm going to have some words with my 'dear sister'." 

 
            "Wait," Ranma said as she took the compact from Akane. "Let's keep this quiet - okay?" 

 
            "Ranma?" 

 
            "No - listen, let's use this to lose Nabiki and Shampoo and when Nabiki asks you about your compact just tell her that you lost it while shopping," Ranma explained. 

 
            "But why?" Akane asked, somewhat frustrated.

 
            "The more you let on that you know what's going on, the more pressure your sister and our fathers will put on you. Stay aware, but don't let on what you really know," Ranma firmly said. "Do you understand?" 

 
            Akane opened her mouth to say something but ended up just nodding. 

 
            "Okay, give me a minute," the redhead said as she slipped away from Akane and pretended to look at some garter belts. She eased behind a group of giggling teenage girls and surreptitiously slipped Akane's compact into one of the group's shopping bags. She then worked her way back to where Akane was waiting. 

 
            "What did you do?" Akane asked. 

 
            "Just making sure that we'll have the chance to get away," Ranma asked distractedly. She was watching the gaggle of girls gather up their shopping bags and head for the door.

 
            "C'mon, let's see if this is going to work." 

 
            Carefully watching, Ranma pointed out to where Nabiki was standing on the next floor up. She looked rather bored and out of place as she obviously eyed the shop that Akane had entered. Ranma and Akane waited as the minutes ticked by. 

 
            "You'll think she'll ever leave?" Ranma hissed. She was determined to tell Akane everything today, no matter the interruptions.

 
            "You know Nabiki when it comes to money..." 

 
            "C'mon Nabiki, check that thingamajig," Ranma urged, even though there was no way for Nabiki to hear. 

 
            However, as if on cue, Nabiki reached into her purse and took out the device that Ranma spied earlier and looked at it. The surprised look on her face was priceless and she tried to quickly move through the thick crowd in the direction that the group of girls had moved off to. Akane made a move to the entrance of the shop, only to be stopped by Ranma's hand on her shoulder. 

 
            "Wha- I thought you wanted to get away," Akane exclaimed. 

 
            "I do. I'm just giving Shampoo time to keep up with your sister," Ranma replied. 

 
            A few moments later, both girls were at the opposite end of the mall, in a small boutique that sold cosplay costumes and accessories. The air was filled with an odd mixture of flowery perfume and latex; so much so that it stung Ranma's nose. Akane drifted midway into the store and looked at Ranma as she stared into the heart of the mall. 

 
            "You think we lost them?" she asked. 

 
            Nodding, Ranma turned to face Akane. "Yes, but it would be a good idea to get out of the mall altogether." 

 
            Akane nodded in agreement. 

 
            "And Akane... er..." Ranma stammered a bit, before finding her backbone. "We need to talk." 

 
            Soon the pair were crossing a windy street, heading away from the mall and the threat of discovery on Ranma's part. In mid crossing, the wind was such that both girls felt the need to hold down their skirts to keep them from billowing upward. Though the action was automatic, Akane noted that Ranma seemed to be more responsive in preserving her modesty than she was just a ten months ago. The hint at something more that was happening with her ex-fiancee surfaced, only to be pushed aside as another gust of wind threatened to expose more than she wanted.

 
            Threading their way through the busy sidewalks, Ranma led Akane to a small cafe with an Italian theme. Once inside the noisy cafe, both had to pause at the door to allow their eyes to adjust to the dim interior. The smell of Italian spices and cheeses teased their senses, making their faint hunger grow into something substantial. Ranma took Akane by the hand and together they wormed their way to the back of the café. There they found and claimed a booth that was the furthest from the door. The lack of windows made Ranma feel more secure against being spotted, but also cut off possible avenues of escape if she was.

 
            Relaxing into opposite sides of a U-shaped booth, Akane watched as Ranma removed a compact from her purse and straightened the few stray locks of curled hair that had become dislodged. After satisfying herself that everything was back in place she neatly closed the compact and replaced it into her purse.

 
            Akane was studying Ranma's movements, as she had been doing over the last several months, and couldn't help but notice the changes in her ex-fiancee; Ranma's behavior had become less forced and more... natural. Ever since the kimono store Ranma had seemed... well, like one of the girls.

 
            It was the little things like this that made her ill at ease; it was getting harder for her to see the boy that she once knew in the girl in front of her now. As it stood she was nearing the point of  knowing the girl longer than she had known the boy.

 
            "I'm sorry this place is no Green Mountain," Ranma said as she rummaged through her purse.

 
            "It's okay, really." Akane shook her head. "So," Akane began, shaking herself from her observations. "What do you want to talk about?"

 
            Ranma started to look real uncomfortable for a moment, before firming her lips up. "It's about... us."

 
            It was as if the din in the cafe had disappeared as both young women stared at one another. Akane had expected this and knew what Ranma was driving at, but waited for the redhead to continue. When Ranma was not forthcoming, she prompted. "What about us?"

 
            Ranma hesitated. In her mind she had rehearsed what she was going to say and how she was going to say it a dozen times. Now faced with the reality of actually speaking with Akane, Ranma found herself emotionally floundering.

 
            "I got to do this," she mentally scolded herself. "I can't string Akane along like this... it isn't right."

 
            "Akane, a lot has changed in the last-" but before she could continue, a waitress came up and interrupted.

 
            "Hello, my name is Hitomi and I will be your server today," the college-age woman said in a slightly robotic way. "Can I start you girls out with anything to drink or some appetizers?"

 
            "Umm...," Ranma verbally staggered before finding her mental footing. "Yes. Two cokes and some breadsticks please," she managed out smoothly, looking up at the waitress. She then focused on the girl seated across from her. "How hungry are you?"

 
            Akane blinked, then shrugged. "I haven't really eaten today," she replied. "I left early to get away from my sister... so I skipped breakfast."

 
            "Okay," Ranma said merrily before looking up at the waitress again. "Two lasagnas - trust me Akane, you're going to love it - and could we have the breadsticks first?"

 
            "Yes ma'am," the waitress replied as she jotted down the order. "I'll be right back with your drinks and breadsticks."

 
            Alone again, Ranma sighed and refocused on the task at hand. God, she hated herself.

 
            "Akane... you're my friend - probably the best friend I've ever had," Ranma stated in a careful way that tried to cover for her fraying nerves. "I need to tell you something."

 
            "Okay," Akane stated, hesitantly. The word 'friend' stood out in Akane's mind. Ranma was going to say it.

 
            Ranma sighed heavily as she looked down as the table top. "Akane..."

 
            "Yes?" Akane ventured, feeling a bit uneasy at Ranma's hesitance. The suspense was killing her. Though young, she had recognized the signs a while ago and knew that this was coming.

 
            "Akane, have you ever thought of what would happen after... well, if our fathers were ever successful at getting us married?"

 
            Akane blinked at the question, then batted in around a bit in her head. "Yes," she finally answered.

 
            "Did you see anything good coming from it? Keep in mind how our fathers are," Ranma pointed out.

 
            "I would - I would have liked to think that things would have worked out, but after the stunt that Nabiki pulled... not to mention the stunts your father pulled..." she paused and look away, into the main part of the cafe. "And how you have changed... I don't know what to believe anymore." She wished Ranma would stop beating around the bush, but let her friend do it. Obviously, Ranma needed this.

 
            Relieved a bit that Akane had not gone ballistic, Ranma schooled herself. She was about to go on, but stopped as the waitress brought out their drinks and breadsticks. Waiting until after the waitress was gone, Ranma idly picked up a breadstick and took a bite. Sizing up Akane, Ranma noted the almost bored and impatient look on her face.

 
            "Akane, I... care about you," Ranma then paused. "No, I love you - but only as a friend. Between your dad and my dad's stupidity, I don't think it would've ever worked out. Hell, I'll go as far as saying that I didn't think we would've ever really had a chance."

 
            Numbly, Akane nodded. Though she knew that Ranma was echoing her own thoughts, it was still hard to hear it aloud. The blow was softened by the months of separation. They had met often during that time, but it was more like two girlfriends getting together than... possible lovers. She had even started to think of Ranma as her ex-fiance, and an ex-fiancee at that.

 
            Ranma's words came as an expected relief. Then Akane knew things were never going to be the same again. She sat there in silence for a moment, regarding the - woman - in front of her. "So... what now?" She asked plainly.

 
            "I would like to have you as a friend Akane," Ranma said as she offered a breadstick to her. She was much relieved when Akane accepted and even took a bite. "I don't have too many friends... friends that know me as well as you do. I could really use more in my life and I thought maybe... you wouldn't mind?"

 
            Swallowing her bite of breadstick, Akane paused to take a long sip of her drink. This gave her time to think of how to respond. "I think... I saw this coming Ranma," she finally said. "I mean, like you said, a lot has changed."

 
            Ranma remained silent.

 
            "When you started acting this way - like a... girl," Akane fumbled about, "it was just that: an act. Now you're..." she broke off and stared at the breadstick in her hand for a moment.

 
            Ranma, having learned patience from dealing with Hotaru, waited quietly for Akane to gather her thoughts.

 
            "It's like the act isn't an act anymore," Akane finally continued. "It's like you were never really a boy."

 
            Lost on how to respond, Ranma stared at the dark blue-haired girl. Seconds ticked by as she tried to think of what to say; more importantly how she felt. "I know," Ranma said softly. "I don't know when it happened... it just seemed to."

 
            A silence fell between the two. It was neither an awkward nor a comfortable one.

 
            "So... are you a girl now?" Akane asked from across the table.

 
            "I...," Ranma began, only to stop. Seconds dragged onto minutes before Akane prompted.

 
            "Ranma?"

 
            "I know I'm more comfortable like I am," Ranma conceded, then paused. "I don't know if the curse has anything to do with it - but I'm happier and more in control of my life than I've ever been. It may be a coincidence... I don't know..." Ranma voice drifted off before picking up again. "I can't see myself as totally as a girl, though - I mean, I can't think of guys in 'that way'."

 
            Internally, Akane found some sense of relief in that last statement. "So, how do you see yourself?"

 
            Ranma scrunched up her face as she wore a look of thoughtfulness. It made her look adorable. After several seconds, Ranma replied. "I haven't exactly figured that out myself - yet. But it'll come to me in time."

 
           Silence fell between the two. It was like neither one really wanted to know what the real answer to that question was.

 
            "I'm sure... I'm sure it will," Akane sighed, sadly.

 
            Ranma blushed. "I'm sorry, but..."

 
            "No I'm not mad at you. You've changed. We've changed. You're right. I think of you as a girl too." Akane chewed her lip.

 
            "What then?"

 
            "I've been seeing policemen," Akane remarked. "I think so at least. There have been strange vans parked around. Kasumi says that there are rumors of a suspected spy ring with all the questions the neighbors are being asked."

 
            "I bet Nabiki's crawling up the walls," Ranma smirked.

 
           "Are you kidding? She can't see anything other than the carrot Huang's dangling in front of her nose." Akane smirked. People seemed to overestimate Nabiki's initiative. Her older sister was actually quite lazy, especially about things she didn't think were important.

 
            "So what's the matter? Huang and this mess will be cleared up."

 
            "Yeah? And you can come back?" Akane laughed. "After Daddy and Nabiki and your father are... what? In jail? Fined? What do you think will happen? You don't need to come back; you don't need any of us. Don't you get it? You won. You're free!"

 
            Ranma frowned. "You're jealous?"

 
            "Of course. You have it made: this perfect job, plenty of money, great friends, your art, even a pretty fashion sense."

 
            "But my mother. I never..."

 
            "Wow, so worst case scenario you lose her, and only have dim childhood memories to remember her by." Akane scowled. "Join the club."

 
            "I didn't," Ranma slumped back and held her hand over her eyes. "I'm sorry... I've been selfish."

 
            "Least there's a tiny bit of that macho jerk still under all those curls," Akane gently teased. She scooted around the curvature of the booth until she was next to Ranma. 

            "It's not your fault," Ranma reassured with a hug. "You've only done what you had to."

 
            Ranma blinked away some tears before pulling her hand away.

 
            "I'm not saying you should have stayed, or that you shouldn't have called the cops." Akane sighed. "It's just... I sometimes wish I had gone with you, or just left at all."

 
            "Don't feel guilty," Ranma said hugging her friend back. "Where would I be without my tomboy friend?"

 
            "You'd probably be feminized by your other two friends?" Akane smirked as she slid back to her end of the table.

 
            "I'm the one growing out a nice perm," Ranma reminded Akane as she ate her breadstick.

 
            "True," Akane paused. "So how's things with Kimiko? Did you get some ex-girlfriends to talk with her about him?"

 
            "Yes, we did," Ranma chuckled. "She seems to have cooled on him, but..."

 
            "He's a smooth talker?"

 
            "Even girls can be dumb."

 
            “Here you go,” Hitomi suddenly said, announcing the arrival of their food. The waitress placed a plate in front of each girl and refreshed the drinks. “Will there be anything else?”

 
            “No... no thank you,” Ranma said. “I think we'll be fine for a while.”

 
            “This is... lasagna?” Akane asked while studying the concoction in front of her.

 
            “It's good... trust me,” Ranma said as she cut herself a piece off and plopped it in her mouth.

 
            “I'm surprised to hear that Shampoo was following Nabiki,” Akane said quietly while examining her plate. The food was interesting and smelled good. “I've only seen her and her grandmother a few times after you left... now it seems that Cologne and Mousse have disappeared altogether.”

 
            “Really?” Ranma said as she cut off a bite of her lasagna. It was nowhere near what Setsuna had treated her to, but it would do.

 
            “Yes, I'm not sure what's going on – I've been avoiding the Cat-Cafe since you left, but my friends at school that still go there told me something about Shampoo being left behind or something,” Akane explained while copying Ranma's actions.

 
            Ranma thought while chewing. "I'm surprised..." she said after finishing.

 
            “Yes,” Akane paused to sip at her soda; the lasagna was unexpectedly good. “I was really expecting them to make more of a pest of themselves, but they haven't even bothered me at all.”

 
            “Maybe they have and you never realized it,” Ranma pointed out. “Did you ever wake up with your hair feeling oddly refreshed?”

 
            Frowning, Akane was deep in thought, exploring her memories. “I... don't...,” she paused a moment. “I'm not really sure,” she admitted. “But I see what you mean.”

 
            Taking a sip of her own drink, Ranma absently nodded. “I wouldn't be surprised if they'd questioned you while you were asleep,” she commented. “All you really know is a phone number.” Then it was Ranma's turn to pause in thought. “You know, I'm surprised that they didn't kidnap you and then call my number to draw me out.”

 
            Akane blinked at that. Kidnapping would be right up the Amazon's alley and was something that they were prone to do. She sat and puzzled over the fact that they hadn't tried that. “It is... odd,” Akane admitted.

 
            “What do you make of what your friends told you?” Ranma asked suddenly.

 
            With firm lips, Akane thought for a moment. “I think that Cologne and Mousse are either still looking for you or went back to China.”

 
            “What makes you think that they went back to China?”

 
            “I don't know,” Akane replied with a shrug. “All I know is that no one has seen either one in about a month or more.”

 
            “Then why leave Shampoo behind?” mused Ranma aloud.

 
           “Who knows?” Akane said somewhat irritably. “They never really played with a full deck – if you know what I mean; the Amazons never had the same rules as the rest of the world.”

 
            Nodding in agreement, Ranma said, “I'll be happy as long as I don't have to mess with them and their crazy laws ever again.”

 
            A creepy feeling passed over Ranma. "You know... outside of you and my mom, I haven't run across anyone that I knew from Nerima... I mean, I haven't even seen Ryoga."

 
            "Ryoga," Akane spat. "Don't even mention him."

 
            Rearing back in her seat at the tone in Akane's voice, Ranma stared back at Akane. "What... happened?"

 
            "I found out that Ryoga was P-chan," Akane said darkly as she picked at her lasagna. "And after confronting him he had the gall to try and blame you for it."

 
            "Er... imagine that," Ranma muttered.

 
            "Yes, he said you did it to him and then covered it up," Akane scoffed.

 
            "That's a lie; he tried it on me too," Ranma grumbled.

 
            "Well, I sent him packing to Akari's."

 
            "Who?"

 
            "Oh yeah, you were gone when that happened," Akane said after taking another bite of lasagna; it tasted really good. "It's a long story, but Akari is a pig farmer that raises sumo-wrestling pigs..."

 
            "Sumo... wrestling... pigs... ?" Ranma drawled out incredulously.

 
            "No weirder than Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics, or Martial Arts Tea Ceremony," Akane pointed out.

 
            "Right," Ranma agreed. "So what happened?"

 
            "Well, Akari's grandfather told her to marry a strong man," Akane explained. "So she sent her Sumo pig out to beat up a bunch of men to find one and - well, Ryoga beat her prize pig in a fight and because of that, she fell in love with him-"

 
            "BWAHAHAHAHAHA!" Ranma roared before covering her mouth, bringing her laughter down to tolerable levels. The other patrons glared at the redhead for disturbing their meals. "Sorry..." she wheezed out while waving her hands around as a form of apology. "It's just good to hear someone else being chased by a girl for a stupid reason."

 
            Akane waited patiently for Ranma to stop giggling and had to stop herself a few times from joining her. The humor was infectious and the mirthful look in Ranma's eyes wasn't helping.

 
            "Anyway," Akane continued with a roll of her eyes; this was too much like talking to her girlfriends back home. "They've had an on-again, off-again relationship. Well Akari is a sweet girl and she is determined to win that jerk Ryoga over.”

 
            "So now he's got girls after him and has stupid crap to deal with?" Ranma smiled; it was fun to hear gossip, especially when this nonsense was no longer happening to her.

 

[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[

 

-----

 

 
            "Ranma, I'm going to be back later than usual today," Setsuna informed Ranma.

"Oh?" Ranma asked as she cleaned up the breakfast dishes. "Is there anything the matter?" 

 
            "Not really," the green-haired woman replied. "I have to go to the Tokyo Bay Observatory to watch the solar eclipse." 

 
            "Can I go?" Hotaru asked, her voice laced with excitement, as she helped Ranma with the dishes. It was a full eclipse, and she really wanted to see it, but her teachers were not about to let their students out for a mere celestial event.
           

 
            "You have school," Setsuna replied with a gentle smile. 

 
            "It's only one day," Hotaru half-whined. 

 
            "C'mon squirt," Ranma said. "There will be other times." 

 
            "Oh poop," Hotaru said as she followed Ranma into the kitchen. "It's not fair." 

 
            "Well, life's not fair; believe me, I know that first hand," Ranma commented as she placed the dirty dishes into the sink for later washing. "You get use to it after a while." 

 
            Inside, Ranma wished that she could do something for Hotaru; the little girl had been looking so forward to it. 

 
            "I'm going to miss it too," Ranma lamented to herself. Not that she was interested in the eclipse at first, but after hearing Hotaru's excited descriptions of what an eclipse was, she made it sound like it was going to be a wondrous sight to behold. 

 
            "At least we'll get to see it on the news tonight," Ranma offered. 

 
            "It's not the same," Hotaru replied. 

 
            "I know. I'm sorry," Ranma said sincerely. "But we both have school... maybe something else interesting will happen to make up for it." 

 
            "I hope so." 

 
            Ranma regarded her charge for a few heartbeats. The disappointed that was visible on Hotaru's face was touching; Ranma knew she couldn't let Hotaru feel down. 

 
            "Tell you what," Ranma said with a grin, "how about I start you on the basics of ki manipulation when we get home tonight?" 

 
            Eyes alight, Hotaru looked up at her nanny. "You will?" She asked, thrilled. 

 
            "Sure," Ranma replied as she draped an arm across the smaller girl, leading them to the living room. "You've been working hard, it's about time to notch up your training a bit." 

 
            "Will I be able throw those cool balls of ki like you can?" 

 
            "Er... giving time... and practice - yeah," Ranma responded. "But first-" 

 
            "I know: The basics," Hotaru interrupted. Ranma was always obsessed with making sure Hotaru had the basics down on anything that she taught her. Though Hotaru knew she needed to start with the fundamentals, she was always eager to jump ahead. 

 
            "Right," Ranma agreed heartily. 

 
            Returning to the living room, Ranma addressed her employer and good friend. "Would you like me to have dinner ready at a certain time?" Ranma asked Setsuna. 

 
            "No, that won't be necessary," the green-haired women replied as she headed for the door. "You two eat without me, I'll grab something to eat while I'm out." 

 
            Sharing a look, Ranma's heart skipped a beat. Setsuna seemed to hesitate also, as if there was something else she wanted to say. "I'll see both of you tonight," Setsuna finally said at the door. 

 
            "Bye Momma," Hotaru said as she ran up and gave a hug for good measure. 

 
            Setsuna smiled down at her daughter before looking up at Ranma. Though there was a connection that had been building between the two over the course of the last few weeks, Setsuna had been reluctant to really get too involved with her nanny. Ranma had quite enough on her plate without anymore needless complications. 

 
            "See you tonight," Setsuna settled for a goodbye. 

 
            Ranma merely smiled and nodded in reply. Life and emotions were getting frighteningly confusing. As the door closed behind the green-haired woman, Ranma pushed any distracting thoughts aside and started in on the task of readying Hotaru and herself for the day. 

 

--------- 

 

 
            Mathematics was a boring subject, but Ranma persevered. Sticking with something until you get it right was something that she had learned from years of martial arts practice. It was unfortunate that she had never applied that creed to anything else outside of that – at least until Hotaru taught her. It didn't make the subject matter more interesting, but it did mean that Ranma was learning. 

 
            Halfway through the class, Ranma felt a wave of weakness pass through her. She suddenly fest like she had not gotten enough sleep the night before. She looked out the windows at the darkened landscape and chided herself for getting sleepy just because it got a bit dark. Forcing herself past the fatigue she felt, Ranma focused on the lessons that the teacher was giving; explaining how to find "x" on the chalkboard. From her book bag that was hanging on it's hook on her desk, she heard a single, quiet "ding-dong". 

 
            Ranma knew two things at that moment: one, it was her cellphone and two, no one would call her at this time of day unless it was an emergency. Standing, while simultaneously fighting the sense of dizziness that followed, Ranma excused herself from the class and stepped into the hallway, book bag in hand. Reaching inside, she extracted her cellphone and answered it. 

 
            "Hello?" 

 
            "Miss Saotome?" 

 
            "Yes?" 

 
            "This is Ikari, principal of Gaiden Home," the voice on the telephone said. "Hotaru passed out in class-" 

 
            "Is she all right?" Ranma interrupted. 

 
            "Yes, she seems fine now, but we think it would be best if she went home for the rest of the day," Ikari said. "We tried to contact her guardian, Miss Meioh, but we couldn't reach her." 

 
            "Set- Miss Meioh is doing some research. She's over at the Tokyo Bay Observatory for the eclipse," Ranma explained, wondering again why a fashion designer was researching there. Was it some new kind of photo shoot? "She's probably turned off her cellphone so as to not be disturbed." 

 
            "I see...," Ikari said in a thoughtful tone. 

 
            "I'll be there as soon as I can to pick her up," Ranma continued. "As soon as I've inform my class." 

 
            "Thank you," a much relieved voice said. "Hotaru will be waiting for you in the nurse's office." 

 
            Shutting the cellphone, Ranma quickly did what needed to be done and was gone. 

 

----- 

 

 
            "But I feel fine now," Hotaru protested in a small voice as the pair entered the apartment. 

 
            "I know, I know," Ranma patiently replied. "But the school is worried that you might be coming down with something," she said while mentally adding, "and I'm worried too."

 
            "What about your classes?" Hotaru pointed out.

 
            "I got it covered, squirt," Ranma answered as she took Hotaru's book bag and set it with hers next to the entryway. "Kimiko and Nami are going to give me a copy of their notes and any assignments that I might have missed." 

 
            "Oh..." 

 
            "And I talked to your teacher before I picked you up, so you won't miss anything either," Ranma concluded motherly. 

 
            "Oh," Hotaru said with an odd mixture of disappointment and approval. She yawned grandly. 

 
            "Why don't you go lie down in your room?" Ranma suggested, feeling somewhat fatigued herself.

 
            "But I'm not tired," Hotaru complained before yawning again. Ranma, not being able to stop herself, mirrored the younger girl's yawn. 

 
            "If you lay down and rest, I'll show you something new for karate," Ranma bribed, not wanting to fight Hotaru's emerging stubborn streak. 

 
            "You will?" Hotaru asked, wide-eyed. 

 
            "Promise," Ranma replied with a 'cross her heart' motion with her hand. "You don't even have to sleep, just rest." 

 
            "Well... okay," Hotaru reluctantly agreed.

 
            Five minutes later Ranma peeked in on her charge and found Hotaru sprawled out across the top of her bed, softly snoring. Entering the room while shaking her head, Ranma crept closer to the sleeping girl. Looking down on Hotaru, Ranma couldn't help but note just how cute she was when she was asleep. 

 
            "Like a little angel," Ranma thought.

 
            Grasping the blankets that Hotaru had kicked to the end of the bed, Ranma covered the girl. Hotaru responded by rolling over onto her side and giving a soft, contented sigh while snugging further into the blankets. Ranma smiled and felt internally warm and fuzzy about it. 

 
            "She really is cute," Ranma mused as she drew her hand over Hotaru's forehead, feeling for a sign of a fever and being relieved at finding none. Seeing that Hotaru was resting peacefully, Ranma claimed the chair at Hotaru's desk with the intent of watching over her for a while. Soon fatigue revisited Ranma as she yawned and stretched. Ranma rubbed her eyes. "She's not the only one that's tired." 

 
            Laying her head on the desk in such a way that she could still see Hotaru, Ranma drifted off into a deep slumber. 

 

------ 

 

 
            Unlocking and entering her apartment, Setsuna tossed her keys onto the small alcove and kicked off her shoes. Her day ended sooner than expected and not on a good note either. It had started out well enough at Tokyo Bay Observatory as the eclipse began. That had changed rapidly as the Moon began to move across the disk of the Sun. That was when Setsuna felt something... 

 
            "It was like a ripple or... a wave in the fabric of space," she reflected on the moment. Whatever foreboding she felt as the body of the Moon ate away at the Sun, dimming the sky, it was nothing as to what came next. 

 
            During the second stage, when the eclipse was at its height, the foreboding exploded into a force that slapped Setsuna's senses. It overwhelmed and smothered Setsuna, making her miss the eclipse - she didn't know it was over with until one of the astronomers asked her what she thought of it. Drenched in her own sweat, Setsuna felt as if darkness had touched the Earth - and it wasn't as harmless as the Moon's shadow.

 
            "It was definitely a distortion in the space continuum," Setsuna thought as she continued to fuss over today's events. She recalled the panic she felt at the thought of something from another dimension crossing over into hers - and her futile attempt at investigating what was going on. "I wonder if that was the reason I couldn't transform." 

 
            Worrying at the apparent loss of her powers, Setsuna made her way deeper into the apartment. Shaking her head and making her long hair swish, Setsuna picked up the phone, paused, then set it back down. "I left messages," she thought to herself. "I just have to be patient. Haruka and Michiru will call me when they can." 

 
            It was after flopping onto the couch and rubbing her stocking feet together the Setsuna noticed the twin book bags by the door. "What are they doing home?" she wondered. "I better see what's going on." 

 
            Moving efficiently, Setsuna quickly made her way down the hall to Hotaru's room. There, she found her two housemates, one in her bed, the other slumped over the desk, both snoring lightly. Instead of going in and risk disturbing the two sleeping women, she settled for observing them from the doorway for a few long moments. 

 
            "They're so alike in some ways," she mentally marveled. Her grin widened a bit more as she realized something. "They're even snoring in sync." 

 
            She watched them both just for a more minutes before retreating back into the living room.

 
            "I'll ask Ranma when she gets up why they're home so early," Setsuna mused. "I hope it's nothing, but I have a feeling-" any more thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. 

 
            Sighing, Setsuna diverted from her destination, the couch, and headed to the front door. With unexpected dread, she opened the door to find Hotaru's aunt and uncle standing there. The look on Michiru and Haruka's faces as she let them inside spoke volumes. 

 

------- 

 

 
            Ranma woke with a sudden start. "Something's wrong," she thought, then stopped in mid-thought. She analyzed her feelings and turned them over in her head. It wasn't anything tangible, however the overpowering feeling of dread filled her. 

 
            Blinking a few times to clear the traces of sleepiness away, Ranma looked over to the bed where she expected Hotaru to still be sleeping only to find the bed empty. Her heart froze as the intangible dread notched up a bit, only to beat it back by willpower.

 
            "Probably in the living room watching another bad kung-fu flick," Ranma thought with a thin smile as she rose from the chair that she had napped in. "I hope it's not as lame as the last one, though," Ranma remembered the movie where the villain spit fire. "I had to explain to her that there were some things that martial artists just can't do." 

 
            She paused a bit and stretched, barely noticing that she really didn't have any kinks, stiffness or soreness that should have come from her uncomfortable sleeping position. Coming out of her stretch, she felt more energized than she should and exited the room in her quest to locate her charge. Quickly checking the living room, bathroom and finally Setsuna's bedroom Ranma's search yielded nothing.

 
            "Where is she?" Ranma asked herself. It was a way of controlling the panic that was building up in her. "She knows she shouldn't leave - wait!" Ranma arrested the wayward thoughts as she looked at the time and smiled. "I bet Setsuna came home and took her somewhere to let me sleep," Ranma concluded.

 
            Her panic subsided a bit as she scanned the living room again. "Yup. I bet that's what happened," Ranma thought calming doen. "There's Setsuna's fancy shoes and... wait a minute," Ranma spied the alcove. "And there's Setsuna's purse! And her keys! She wouldn't go anywhere without those." 

 
            An eerie panic filled her; eerie because it really was not a true panic... it was more like an urgent calling, like a trick of the eye that kept pulling her attention elsewhere. In this case though, it felt like a pulling from within. Just as Ranma was going to delve more into this feeling, the door knocked. 

 
            Letting a breath out, Ranma smiled as she made another leap of logic. "Ah-ha!" She crowed mentally. "They locked themselves out; that explains the keys and everything." 

 
            Opening the door expecting a befuddled Setsuna and a possibly amused Hotaru, Ranma was disappointed to find that it was a friend from school, Nami. "Oh... hi," she greeted lamely. 

 
            Nami, still dressed in her school uniform, blinked at the redhead and then picked up her mood. "Are you all right?" 

 
            "Um... yeah," Ranma replied, brought up short. "What's... up?" 

 
            "Oh. I brought your homework," Nami explained as she dug through her book bag and produced several sheets of notes and held them out for Ranma. "There isn't much, but the English teacher wants us to read the next chapter in the textbook in preparation for next week.... say... are you sure you're all right?" 

 
            "Oh, I'm fine," Ranma answered somewhat normally as she accepted the offered notes. "I was expecting someone else at the door." 

 
            "Oh? Who?" Nami asked with more interest than she should have. 

 
            Sighing internally, Ranma smiled at her boy-minded friend. "I'm waiting for Set- er, Miss Meioh and Hotaru to get back." 

 
            "Oh," Nami said with a tinge of disappointment. Her friend really needed to learn how to date. Someone as nice as Ranma shouldn't be without a boyfriend. "How is Hotaru doing?" 

 
            "I put her to bed when I got home... I sorta fell asleep myself. When I woke up, she and Miss Meioh were gone," Ranma replied. 

 
            "They probably didn't want to wake you," Nami opined. "You did look rather unwell yourself when you left school." 

 
            "Er, yeah," Ranma agreed. "I did feel a bit worn down. Um, thanks for bringing my homework to me." 

 
            "That's what friends are for. See you in class," Nami said with a smile as she excused herself. 

 
            Setting the notes on top of her book bag where she could find them, Ranma returned to her original problem and rescanned the apartment. "Where did they go?" she asked herself distractedly. "If Setsuna had taken Hotaru to the doctor's she would have woke me or at least left a note." 

 
            Sighing, Ranma walked through the apartment again to gather any clues that she might have overlooked. However nothing was out of place or unusual except for the two missing women. The stillness and quiet of the apartment was closing in around her, making her feel very uneasy. 

 
            The feeling of dread started to flow through Ranma again as she realized that something was terribly amiss. "Maybe Michiru and Haruka know where they went," she thought as she picked up the handset of the phone - only to stop as a another feeling came to the fore. 

 
            Holding the phone and blinking, Ranma studied the feeling. The dread was still there but it was being forced aside by a sensation that Ranma could only describe as a calling... or an urge. Setting the handset down on its cradle, Ranma crossed the room to the large windows; hesitating a moment, she slid the tall glass door to one side and stepped out onto the narrow balcony. Peering out into the dusk-covered city, Ranma focused her attention to a particular spot. 

 
           
"There is something... out there," she thought as she reentered the apartment. The feeling was that of ants crawling over her. Pausing to try to come to grips with the sensation, but it was so overpowering that all she managed to do was shudder a bit. Firming up her lips, Ranma stared off into the distance for another half-second before making her decision. "I'm going to find out-"

 
            Any more thoughts were cruelly cut off as Ranma gasped as a red-hot heat exploded from her chest, radiated outward to her limbs and laying her low. She barely caught the edge of the dining room table, as her knees made contact with the carpeted floor. A powerful wave of dizziness swept in the wake of the burning sensation leaving trails of pain that racked through her; the dizziness grew in strength so that it sapped her strength. 

 
            "What in the hell was that?"
Ranma thought as she tried unsuccessfully to climb to her feet; then her abdominal muscles contracted involuntarily. "Oh god..," she muttered as she leaned closer to the ground, fighting the dizziness and nausea for control of her stomach - and lost.

 
            With a great heave, she emptied the contents of her stomach onto the carpet in front of her, using what little strength she had left to keep herself from getting any on her. She felt shame at vomiting in the apartment. What made it worse was that the sensations that were making her ill kept ebbing and flowing like waves lapping on a sandy beach; steady, but not allowing the redhead a chance to collect herself. 

 
            "Oh god, I'm going to be sick again,"
Ranma mentally cried as she dry heaved painfully. "What in the hell is happening to me?" 

 
            She desperately attempted to regain control of herself, but it was like a tidal wave building and there was no stopping it. Her breathing turned from gasping to a near hyperventilating pace as she knelt on the floor, clinging to the table edge as if it were the only thing keeping her from slipping into unconsciousness. Shutting her eyes tightly, Ranma tried to ride out this unexpected storm while fighting the losing battle for control. It was frightening. 

 
            "I got to get a hold of myself... Oh, oh, oh,"
she repeated as the sensations peaked. "... I'm... I'm scared," she admitted to herself.

 
            Her mind racing in panic, Ranma swallowed hard and tried once again to center herself - and failed miserably. A new, more powerful sensation overwhelmed the others, displacing them. The intense burning from within grew  again from a feverish sensation until Ranma thought she was going to spontaneously combust. With the nausea gone, Ranma managed to crack open her eyes a bit and crawl shakily away from the table. 

 
            "What in the hell is happening to me? Why am I so sick all the sudden?"
She thought desperately and wondered in the back of her head if she would even survive this. 

 
            The fever grew and grew until it consumed her. 

 
            It climbed so quickly that there wasn't really any time for the sensation of pain to register. Nevertheless, Ranma screamed out involuntarily as she felt as if fire was slowly leaking from her very soul and being pulled outside of her. It was so sickening and disorientating that Ranma swore to herself that if she survived this, she would go to the nearest shrine and thank the gods. Her head pounded with every beat of her heart, and all she wanted was for everything to stop, but instead she found herself caught in the middle of a kaleidoscope of lights, colors, and sound. 

 
            - and then as quickly as it struck, it was over. 

 
            Still on all fours, Ranma's breathing slowed to almost normal levels. The burning was gone and in its place was a sensation of... healthy power? In spite of the ordeal, she found herself strangely energized. Blinking a few times to clear some spots that floated before her eyes, Ranma slowly pushed herself into an upright sitting position and checked herself for damage.

 
            Studying her hands first, Ranma found them now gloved.

 
            "What the-?
" She thought as she tugged on the elbow length gloves, only to find that they were more like a second skin than apparel. They were impossible to remove. 

 
            "Aw man, more weird crap in my life,"
she concluded. Looking past her black gloved hands, she blinked as other changes started to register with her. Standing without any ill effects, Ranma took stock of these new changes. 

 
            Ranma now found herself, not in her school uniform, but in a modified version of her nanny uniform. The black skirt was slightly shorter than her usual uniform, but still modest in the fact that it still came to about mid-thigh. The top was as black as before, but the white collar was now much wider and sported a bow that resembled the one from her school uniform. The bow now framed the emerald-green jewel that Setsuna had given her to wear when she started.

 
            On the front, covering most of the skirt, was a modified white apron, with frilly ruffles, that tied in the back with an exaggerated bow. Looking over her shoulder, Ranma noted that her shirt appeared to be backless to just shy of the top of her skirt. Like the gloves she now wore, everything fit like a second skin and there was no taking it off. 

 
            Placing a hand to her forehead as if to mentally stabilize herself, Ranma felt something band-like resting there. 

 
             Idly rubbing her fingers together, she realized that her hand itched; not just any itch, but an itch that told her something was missing... something should be there. Focusing on her outstretched gloved hand, Ranma studied her palm, as if looking for answers there. All she saw was her empty hand encased in a black glove. Flexing her fingers, Ranma tried to imagine herself holding... something and as if to answer that desire, something did happen.

 
            Looking on in fascination, Ranma watched as wispy tendrils of fog gathered in the palm of her hand. Blinking a few times to clear her eyes, Ranma stared as the fog thickened and clung to her hand like a living thing. In a slight panic, she shook her hand violently as if it were on fire, in an effort to rid herself of this latest development, but all that accomplished was to make the itching in her hand increase. 

 
            "What in the hell is going on here?!"
Ranma's mind screamed as she continued to frantically shake her hand. "First I get sick, then somehow I'm in this get-up and now my hand is smoking like it is on fire."

 
            "The hell with this crap," she thought as she stopped flapping her hand about with the intention of maybe submerging it in water or washing it or something. That's when she noticed a definite change in the tendrils of fog that surrounded her hand. "Now what?" 

 
            Not quite believing what had just happened, Ranma blinked a few times as the smoke in her hand solidified into something tangible and real. Finding that blinking wasn't helping, she settled on rubbing her eyes with her free hand to see if that would help. It did not and the odd object was still in her hand. It was a rod about the length of her forearm topped with an orb with wings on it. Entwined around the shaft were two ornate snakes that wrapped around until they ended up facing one another with the orb between them. 

 
            After staring for unmeasured moments at the odd staff-like thing, it fell gracelessly from her nerveless fingers. The confirmation of the weird object's existence came as it made a solid 'thunk' against the hardwood floor. Staring down at the staff, Ranma tried to wrap her mind around what had just happened. She drew a blank.
 

 
            "What in the hell is going on here?" she asked aloud, not caring anymore if she was heard. This was too much even for her. "This is getting freakin' ridiculous."

 
            Sighing, she looked about her and blinked. And blinked again. Her surroundings had changed. No - not her surroundings she realized, but how she was seeing them. It was as if the everything now had an, for a lack of a better word, intensified look to them now. The colors were brighter - even the grays. The darkness of the shadows in the room were pushed back and she could see everything down to the minutest detail. 

 
            "Too weird," she softly commented. She frowned at the bit of puke and decided that cleaning was something sane she could do.

 

-------

 

 
            "Ranma?" Setsuna asked as she entered the apartment. She led a muted Hotaru inside.

 
            "I don't know if we should have left her," Hotaru eventually stated as they made their way down the hallway.

 
            Setsuna paused; she wanted to say that it was Senshi business and Senshi business wasn't Ranma's but... She stayed silent as she made her way to and poked her head into Hotaru's room. Seeing that Ranma wasn't where she left her, she assumed that she had woken up and was in her own room. Just as she was proceeding to Ranma's room to check on her, Hotaru called over to her.

 
           "Setsuna-momma, Ranma's in here," the young girl motioned with her hand as she stood by the door to the bathroom.

 
            Stepping aside, Hotaru allowed Setsuna to peek in and spy on the redhead as she dozed in the furo. "Ranma?" She verbally prodded, softly.

 
            Ranma's eyes fluttered opened. "Oh hi," she winced as the queasiness in her stomach grew.

 
            Setsuna detected Ranma's discomfort. "Are you all right?"

 
            "I'm .." Ranma paused. "No. I'm not."

 
            "What's wrong? Upset stomach?" Setsuna asked softly as she sat on the edge of the furo. Hotaru entered the bathroom and hovered behind the seated woman.

 
            "It's kind of a long story," Ranma replied softly as she leaned back into the warm water. "But to make it short I got sick and the next thing I know I'm wearing the most girly get-up you ever saw."

 
            Setsuna paused in thought. "I don't know about that, I am in the fashion business." Setsuna frowned when she saw her joke fall flat.

 
            The redhead was stealing a glance at Hotaru, who was now wearing a worried look. "Oh well," Ranma sighed. "I really don't know how to describe it," she said. "There was like... um... I got sick - to my stomach and all these lights started dancing around me and the next thing I know I'm wearing something that looked kinda like my uniform but I couldn't take it off."

 
            Setsuna and Hotaru just stared at the soaking redhead.

 
            "I'll never make fun of magical girls again," she quipped at her... housemates in a weak attempt at humor. "Say... where did you guys go?"

 
            "We had a meeting," Setsuna stated flatly as she leaned over a bit to better look at Ranma. She noted that Ranma was now naked. "How did you get out of... whatever it was you were wearing?"

 
            Ranma shrugged. "I don't know. After cleaning up my mess, I decided to have a soak. Sometime between cleaning and filling the furo, I ended up back in my normal clothes."

 
            "I see." Setsuna thought a moment, and came up with the same disturbing range of options. "Hotaru, would you mind looking after Ranma for a bit?"

 
            "I'm all right now," Ranma weakly protested.

 
            "I'll be back in a moment," Setsuna continued as if she hadn't heard Ranma. She rose smoothly from where she was seated and looked down on the nanny. "I want to get something - it'll only take a moment."

 
            A quick call, a transformation, leaving and returning took all of six and a half minutes in real time - subjective time. For Setsuna, she was away closer to twenty minutes.

 
            "I should have done this when I said I was going to," Setsuna scolded herself as she emerged and detransformed in the living room. "I should have investigated Ranma's acquired healing ability more. I should have already scanned her with this."

 
           
She sighed heavily just outside the bathroom door, rubbing her forehead with her fingers. "I just got so caught up in the normalcy of life... and Ranma hadn't mentioned anything more... it just got slipped to the wayside."

 
           
Pausing outside the furo door as she heard Hotaru giggle at what was probably some story that Ranma was telling her, Setsuna allowed a pang of guilt to rip through her. If she had been more forthright with Ranma, maybe she would not be feeling this way. She pushed the door open.

 
            "At least we'll find out what's happening with Ranma tonight." Screwing her courage up, she reentered the furo. Hotaru's eyes widened a bit as she turned to the green-haired woman and saw what was in her hand.

 
            "What's that?" The still soaking redhead asked.

 
            "This is... a computer that should help explain what is going on with you," Setsuna answered confidently.

 
            "How?" Ranma asked pulling herself up, despite the nausea.

 
            "Remember when I promised to look into your healing powers?" Setsuna asked, side-stepping the question.

 
            "Yeah," Ranma nodded, causing the room to swim a bit. "Yeah, I forgot all about that."

 
            "Well this is going to help me," Setsuna said.

 
            "Healing powers?" Hotaru asked in a thin voice.

 
            Setsuna sighed. She considered asking Hotaru to leave, but decided against it. No matter what, there would be no more lies tonight. "Yes, Hotaru," Setsuna replied. "Ranma seems to have... acquired your gift."

 
            Hotaru looked between 'mother' and nanny; a slightly distraught look came over her. "I'm so sorry."

 
            "It ain'- that is, it isn't your fault," Ranma firmly corrected. "I told you weird stuff was always happening to me. It's no big deal."

 
            "Why didn't you tell me?" Hotaru asked, hands on hips and feeling slightly betrayed. Setsuna was about to answer, but was cut off by Ranma answering first.

 
            "Because we didn't want you to worry about me," Ranma said. "You have enough to worry about without dealing with things that you can't control."

 
            "But-"

 
            "Hotaru-chan," Setsuna said gently. "We care enough about you not to burden you with it."

 
            Hotaru seemed satisfied with that explanation for a moment - but only for a moment. "You still should have told me," she complained loudly. "I'm part of this family too."

 
            "Okay, okay," Ranma reluctantly agreed while leaning back into the water; she wasn't feeling all that well and didn't feel like debating. "Next time something weird happens to me, you'll be the first to know."

 
            During Hotaru's and Ranma's exchange, Setsuna had flipped open the small Mercury computer and began her scan. At first, what she was reading wasn't making much sense. "What in the hell is this?" She asked herself as she studied the readouts. "This pattern is clearly Hotaru's... but what is this here," she thought as she watched the two interactions of two distinct patterns. "This can't be happening."

 
            The furo fell silent during Setsuna's preliminary scan and it was that quietness that drew her away from the Mercury computer's display and to her surroundings. She looked up at the worried face of Hotaru and down at the pensive one from Ranma.

 
            "Did you find anything?" Ranma asked.

 
            Swallowing a bit, Setsuna folded away the Mercury computer and looked down on the redhead. "You know that off-the-wall comment you made about never making fun of magical girls?"

 
            "Er, yeah," Ranma said as she recalled saying something like that.

 
            "Well... I think... I think you might be... a magical girl now," Setsuna said more bluntly than intended. She could not help it. She was more than rattled by what she had seen. For the first time in a long while, she had been completely surprised. It was not fun.

 
            Silence ticked by.

 
            "What!" Ranma half-shrieked. Then her voice calmed a bit. "I can't be. I just can't be."

 
            "She's just like us?" Hotaru piped up the question.

 
            There was a pause in the room as Hotaru's question echoed about.

 
            "W-what?" A confused Ranma stammered out.

 
            Setsuna rubbed her head; she now regretted not asking Hotaru to leave. This was not anything like she was expecting and Hotaru's indiscreet question only complicated the matters. This was something that was not only unforeseeable but unprecedented.

 
            "Ranma...." Setsuna began, only to stop a moment. "It is a long story."

 
            Chewing her lip, the redhead looked from back and forth between the two women; she decided to go for it. "Are you magical girls?"

 
            Hotaru blushed and looked down as Setsuna merely nodded.

 
            Despite herself Ranma smiled. "Funny skirt, bows, tiara?"

 
            The violet-eyed girl coughed.

 
            "Well, if you're going to be fighting monsters, it's a good thing I've been training you," Ranma commented in a half-daze. Sometimes her life was a little too weird even for her and she had not quite wrapped her mind around being a suspected "magical girl".

 
            Hotaru nodded. "I knew there was something special about you."

 
            "Why did you and Setsuna keep that from me?"

 
            Hotaru frowned. "It's supposed to be a secret. I have a hard enough time with my healing."

 
            "No one is supposed to know," Setsuna interjected. "Can you imagine the danger our friends and family would be in if the creatures we fought against knew who we were?"

 
            Ranma stared a short moment at the green-haired woman. "Good point," was all she was able to muster for a response.

 
            "Are you... mad at me?" Hotaru asked in an almost pained tone.

 
            "No," Ranma replied automatically, aware of the young girl's feelings. "It's just that... I would have liked a hint at least."

 
            "Like I did when you got healing powers?" Hotaru asked softly, but somewhat pointedly.

 
            "Er... yeah," Ranma fumbled about, before composing herself. "So, you're magical girls?"

 
            "Why don't you get dressed first," Setsuna offered. "Then we'll explain everything."

 
            Ranma nodded and reached for a towel and began drying off.

 
            After getting dressed, Ranma eased herself onto her bed. She watched Hotaru climb up and sit across from her, it was as if the young girl was afraid to leave her nanny alone. Ranma paused and studied Hotaru. It was strange, Ranma considered, Setsuna knew someone who had a computer that could what... detect magical girls? Sense magical power? Ranma knew there was plenty of magic around. Her current body was proof of that. "Why didn't she use it before?" Ranma muttered, adjusting how she sat on her bed.

 
            "Because she didn't know you were going to become a magical girl," Hotaru innocently explained.

 
            "And why do you two believe me? You haven't seen anything."

 
            "You would never lie to us," Hotaru said in a stern tone that caused Ranma's heart to hurt. "Besides, we both have healing powers."

 
            "It's okay," Ranma said as she pulled the smaller girl to her chest. "I know it's hard to fit in if you're strange."

 
            Hotaru twisted to get more comfortable. "That's just a little bit of healing, not destruction... if they knew...."

 
            "Destruction?" Ranma laughed and hugged her tighter. "I wouldn't care if you could destroy the universe. I'm your nanny; I know you."

 
            "Really?" Hotaru brightened and rolled over so she could hug Ranma. "That's great!"

 
            "How are we feeling?" Setsuna asked as she entered the room, carrying the small blue electronic device from earlier.

 
            "Much better," Ranma replied as she hugged her ward. "What is that anyway? I don't recall ever seeing that around."

 
            "Miss Ranma doesn't mind that I can destroy the Earth!" Hotaru happily piped up.

 
            "Really? That's very good news," Setsuna said with the same pride when Hotaru got a perfect score an exam. She smiled as she redirected herself to Ranma. "To answer your question, I altered the flow of time to go to another magical girl's house and borrow her super-powered magical computer."

 
            Ranma sighed. "There are other magical girls? Is anyone here not a magical girl?"

 
            "That's what this will find out," Setsuna said as she fiddled with the computer. She looked up to see Ranma frown. The older woman stepped over and sat down on the bed. "I'm sorry; I should have told you. I've spent my whole life living alone, living with secrets."

 
            She looked at the computer display and put it down.

 
            "I know about secrets," Ranma commented as she held Hotaru to her; she briefly wondered how Hotaru would react to her own past, but quickly pushed that aside. One disaster at a time. "So, what's the diagnosis?"

 
            "I'm pretty sure you did transform," Setsuna said, picking the computer up again.

 
            "Yeah, I cleaned up the puke to prove it," Ranma grumbled.

 
            "You threw up?"

 
            "I thought I told you."

 
            "You told us you got sick, but didn't say anything about throwing up," Setsuna said worriedly.

 
            "Oh... well... I did. I don't know how you guys deal with changing though. It's a horrible rush," Ranma felt her stomach buck at the memory.

 
            "It shouldn't be like that," Hotaru said looking between her nanny and Setsuna.

 
            Setsuna chewed her lip. "Would... would you mind transforming?"

 
            Ranma paled at the thought. "I'm not sure how I did it the first time," she admitted. "It just happened."

 
            Hotaru pulled herself away from her nanny and jumped onto the floor. "Maybe it would help if I... I show you mine? Okay?"

 
            "Sure," Ranma said and was immediately bathed in otherworldly light as a giant bladed staff appeared in Hotaru's hands and her clothing vanished, to be replaced moments later via a combination of lights and gymnastics with a uniform that reminded Ranma of the reflection she saw a month ago.

 
            "See? No sickness," Sailor Saturn said as she leaned on her glaive.

 
            "No wonder you wanted to be trained on the staff. Saturn though?" Ranma asked recalling the phrase Hotaru had shouted.

 
            "Yes, we're named after planets," Setsuna explained.

 
            "Pluto's not a planet," Saturn teased.

 
            Setsuna's eye twitched. "Yes, well anyway. I should show you mine."

 
            Ranma smiled broadly at the transformation and nodded appraisingly at the skirt. "See this stuff looks good on you guys. Why don't you have aprons? How come I got the sucky transformation?"

 
            "We won't know until you try it again," Pluto said leaning on her staff.

 
            "Yeah, but like I said: I don't know how to do it. It kinda just happened."

 
           "Must have been during the meeting, when our powers rebooted." Setsuna pondered. It was a rather silly experience. They "lost" their powers only to have them restored almost immediately. Maybe that's why the system reset, there was a new connection.

 
            "So that's where you girls were. Big magical girl meeting?"

 
            "Not that big, just Haruka and Michiru were there."

 
            "Haruka? He's a magical girl! A girl?" Ranma laughed mirthfully; she could guess how hard it was on the guy. "Well I guess he could look good in a skirt."

 
            "Ranma, Haruka is a girl," Pluto gently said.

 
            The redhead blinked once and sighed. "Aw man... not again. You'd think I'd finally be able to spot cross-dressers."

 
            Pluto shook her head. "Anyway, we all have a transformation item, which on our team can double as weapons," she said patting her big staff.

 
            "Neptune's mirror isn't a weapon."

 
            "That's right," Setsuna admitted. "Anyway you summon an item and transform with it."

 
            "Summon an item..." Ranma voice trailed off.

 
            "Picture it in your mind," Hotaru offered helpfully.

 
            "Okay... there was-" Ranma began as she stood up.

 
            "Hang on," Setsuna interrupted. "I want to get a reading on this - just in case something happens," she added as she reopened the Mercury computer and held it up. "Okay, try."

 
            "There was like a weird snake stick thingy." As Ranma spoke the small rod with two intertwined snakes on the end appeared in a small cloud of fog in her hand. She would have jumped at the stick's sudden appearance if it were not for the nausea that grew in her as she was enveloped in a green light.

 
            "Adorable," Saturn said, watching the new Senshi's uniform come into being.

 
            "Yes the stockings are a nice touch, though the maid's cap is a bit much," Pluto appraised as she split her attention between Ranma and the computer's display. The Mercury computer's screen was going crazy as it tried to display everything that had happened at once.

 
            "This pattern here must be Ranma's curse," Setsuna concluded as she studied the readings, ".. this one here matches closely to Hotaru's... but... what?" She studied an animation that displayed the interactions of the patterns. It formed a new pattern that would need more looking at though. "It almost looks like, Hotaru's gift might have tried to cure Ranma of his curse and it backfired... it combined... what in the hell is going on?"

 
             "I love the apron," Saturn then noticed her nanny wobble as the transformation finished and moved to assist her, but Setsuna was already there. 

 
            Ranma found herself held by two strong arms. She looked over to see gloved hands holding her up. "Yeah.... that wasn't fun." 

 
            "It's okay," Pluto said holding her by the hip. "Do you need to go to the bathroom?" 

 
            "No, I just need to sit down," Ranma said as the two eased her back onto the edge of the bed. The contact with Hotaru made most of the sickness pass, but even with that, Ranma felt unsteady. 

 
            "You're definitely a Sailor Senshi," Pluto looked at the readout. The amount of data generated was hard to decipher. "Not sure what of." 

 
            "Sailor Nanny!" Saturn gleefully suggested. 

 
            "I am dressed that way," Ranma weakly smiled as she held her belly. The sickness wasn't as bad as the first time; perhaps Hotaru's presence had helped eased it or something.

 
            "Is it really that bad?" Pluto asked. "This thing doesn't say you're in any health danger."

 
            "Neither does riding a roller coaster for an hour," Ranma sighed.

 
            "Least you're not throwing up," Saturn offered.

 
            "There's that kiddo." Ranma smiled. "So can I go back to normal? Or do we have to fight monsters?"

 
            "Nope, we're good tonight. Do you know how to get back?" Pluto asked, keeping her expression cool. She had set the computer to analyze the recorded information of the transformation. It beeped once and readout that it would take a few hours to complete. Time enough to explain some things to the redhead. She looked up to see a very unsteady nanny.

 
            "I figured it out, eventually," Ranma grumbled as she closed her eyes. After a moment, nothing happened. "Oh man, how do you girls do it?" she asked.

 
            "Just picture yourself in your normal clothes," prompted Hotaru.

 
            Ranma closed her eyes again and pictured herself in her regular uniform. Slowly she shifted back the clothes she had on before. When she opened her eyes she saw both of the other girls had detransformed. She sighed. "So now what?"

 
            "Now we tell you everything," Setsuna explained. "How is your stomach?"

 
            "Uh...," Ranma verbally stammered as she took stock in herself. "I'm much better - I think. Why?"

 
            Setsuna smirked. "Hotaru get some antacids and some of that pink stuff from the bathroom." She stood up. "I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to settle your stomach as you get dressed."

 
            "Huh?" Ranma asked before taking the medicine Hotaru had fetched. It did seem to help, a bit.

 
            "If I'm going to tell you the story of a magical kingdom built on love and justice and then go to our role as protectors of humanity from all kinds of monsters, we're going to do it on the proper setting."

 
            "What did you do?"

 
            "I talked with Etsuko and I was saving it." Setsuna smirked. "But tonight is a special night. Oh I hope Green Mountain has an open room."

 
            "I'm sure they can free one up for you in an hour or so," Ranma dryly remarked.

 
            "Excellent, plenty of time," Setsuna said pulling out her phone.

 
            "Wait, what am I going to wear?" Ranma demanded.

 

------- 

 

 
            "You really went all out," Ranma repeated as she got herself out of the cab. Her geta caught on the curb and she was kept from falling by Setsuna who was in her own kimono. Ranma was feeling much better and the freakiness to this evening's earlier events was diminished by the casualness of Setsuna's attitude. It was replaced by a slight detached, surreal feeling.

 
            "But you look so pretty," Hotaru said as she hopped out in her yukata.
           

 
            Ranma had on a light blue nagajuban with white snowflakes but it was obscured by a darker homongi that went from deep red to a brighter yellow with a large cloud pattern that flowed over her shoulders and sleeves. Her obi was a vibrant green and had leafless trees around the band. Her hair had been fluffed to add some more body and was pinned up with a few opal pins and ornaments that matched her brooch.

 
            She eased up and kept her freshly manicured hand in Setsuna's while Hotaru took the other one. "You really picked this well," Ranma said as she licked her lips. She had gotten used to makeup, but what Setsuna had done was quite artistic, if a bit pale for her tastes.

 
            "The fancy dress gave time for your stomach to calm," Setsuna smiled as the trio made their way to the restaurant.

 
            The hostess warmly smiled at them when they entered. Compared to Miss Meiou's demands on the kitchen, getting a room open, even with the alterations, was easy. "You all look lovely," Keiko said with a small bow.

 
            Ranma blushed while Setsuna thinly smiled.

 
            "I'll show you to your table," Keiko said in a voice that was as smooth as silk as she stole one more glance at the three before leading them. Hotaru-chan was dressed cutely, and Miss Meiou had her classic sexy and powerful style, but Miss Ranma-chan was something else. She always dressed well, but tonight she looked the perfect part of a bauble for someone's arm.

 
            "Here you go, enjoy," Keiko smiled as she slid open the door to the private room. "Congratulations," she whispered to Ranma when she walked past. Keiko had been in the kitchen and seen some of what Miss Meiou had ordered and had a fair idea as to what tonight would be about.

 
            "Uh, thank you," Ranma said as she entered the room and was embraced by the soothing scent of warming soups. It was a small room, enough to comfortably fit a table for four. Oddly enough it had a U-shaped booth instead of chairs. The room itself was well appointed and dimly lit.

 
            "I decided to start us off with something easy on the stomach," Setsuna said as she helped Ranma into the booth before sitting at her left. "I'm sure if you pace yourself we won't have any leftovers."

 
            "But that cheesecake was good," Hotaru pouted as she sat down at the small table to Ranma's right.

 
            "Don't worry, I've got something better in mind," Setsuna smirked as she took a spoon of lobster bisque and offered it to Ranma.

 
            "Oh nice," Ranma said after trying a taste. "So what's the story with you guys?"

 
            Setsuna smiled and poured a bowl for Ranma and then herself. "Don't be bashful, they've made a bunch of soups for us to sample."

 
            "Try the swordfish next," Hotaru said as she sipped at hers. "It's delicious."

 
            Setsuna smiled. "It's a simple story really. There was once a very powerful but very wise and just queen. She had a castle on the Moon and ruled the entire solar system. The Sailor Senshi were her elite guard. The four innermost planets, excluding earth, were represented by one Senshi each who were the guardians to the princess, while the four outermost planets were her soldiers."

 
            Ranma raised an eyebrow, but did not ask a question. She had finished her first bowl and wanted to see if Hotaru was right.

 
            "That sounds almost... fairy tale-ish," Ranma finally commented.

 
            "I know, it sounds silly, but you saw our pretty uniforms." Setsuna frowned and poked at her soup. "Of course it ended."

 
            "That's why we're not living in a magical interplanetary kingdom," Ranma stated. She blinked. "Really, try the swordfish, Hotaru was so right."

 
            Setsuna nodded. "I won't bore you with the details: our queen sacrificed herself to seal the monsters that had destroyed everything, but not before sending her daughter and her Senshi to be reincarnated in the future."

 
            Ranma looked up from her soup. "Sealed?" She said with a slight shake of her head. "Oh man, even I know that's trouble. Let me guess: The monsters got loose and you guys had to fight them?" She asked as she made her way to a soup that smelled heavenly and only said "Bliss" on the nametag. She could see bits of prawn in it, however.

 
            Setsuna nodded. "At first it was just the Guardian Senshi, but the threats got worse."

 
            "Oh yes..." Ranma moaned as she swallowed the first spoonful. She didn't want to get too distracted from what Setsuna was saying, but the food here was too good.

 
            "I see you found the chef's specialty," Setsuna smirked.

 
            'What's in this?" Ranma asked after demolishing her first bowl.

 
            "I think you should have some now," Setsuna mock whispered to Hotaru. "Your Nanny found her stomach again," she said patting the redhead's silk encased belly, a move that made Ranma feel oddly comforted.

 
            "That's good," Hotaru said as she gave herself a small bowl of bliss before refilling Ranma's. With a smirk she then took a ladle and hovered it over Ranma's plum colored lips.

 
            The redhead happily gulped it down and leaned back with a broad smile as the soup warmed her. "Ahh yes, much better."

 
            Setsuna smiled and checked her watch, the second course should be arriving just in time. "Each of the senshi have power over different areas. I have time and space. Little Hotaru has rebirth and destruction."

 
            Ranma nodded as she opened her eyes and sipped some more of her wonderful soup.

 
            "You really like this," Hotaru noted. It was a delicious soup.

 
            "Eating is something we have to do every day, and unlike breathing it's easy to vary it's effects for... artistic reasons," Setsuna said as she watched the redheaded lady finish her soup and begin to pout.

 
            "I think we can finish on a nice beef broth," Setsuna said as she offered the steaming bowl to Ranma and gently raised it to her mouth.

 
            After Ranma had finished, she leaned forward and smiled. "Yeah, eating is great. So, Hotaru's the big guns?" she said as she hugged the smaller girl.

 
            "Yes quite the power. Our princess has more, but it's of a different nature."

 
            "Well once you can destroy the whole planet what does a little more matter?"

 
            Hotaru smiled and snuggled into Ranma's side.

 
            Setsuna shrugged. "The point is that we ultimately serve our princess."

 
            "But not as bodyguard or stuff like that. That's the... guardian's job right?"

 
            Setsuna nodded. She turned to see the door open and a group of waiters remove the old dishes and replace them with all the precision and elegance of a ballet.

 
            Ranma's next question was cut off by the large platter of fish, rice, noodles, and shellfish put in front of her by two waiters. She hesitated as she looked over the immense landscape, and it was a landscape as each piece fit into its own zone and complimented the adjacent ones.

 
            "I decided to ask the chef for something... surprising. It took some doing but he warmed up to this sampler idea. Now I know what Hotaru and myself like, but I decided to play it safe with you," Setsuna lied, knowing full well Ranma's tastes.

 
            "Wow," Ranma hesitated unsure of where even to start in the riot of food.

 
            "Pick anywhere," Setsuna advised as she worked at her normally portioned platter.

 
            Ranma chose a bit of fried octopus and did not look back. Steadily the platter began to clear as she worked through it in an outward spiral. A quarter into it she paused and sipped some of the water and leaned back and found Hotaru putting her head onto her side and hugging her midsection.

 
            "So where do you guys fit in? Where do I?" As she patted Hotaru and returned the hug. Ranma guessed that Setsuna and Haruka and Michiru were the only ones who really accepted Hotaru, and Ranma was not so sure about the, apparently, lesbian couple.

 
            "You're one of us," Setsuna said simply. "We'll figure out your powers. I think you'll work best with Hotaru."

 
            "Makes sense," Ranma admitted. She then wore an uncomfortable look. "Is that why you hired me? To help Hotaru be a better magical girl?"

 
            "No...," Setsuna said as she picked up a crab dumpling that Ranma had somehow missed and eased it to the redhead. "I hired you because Hotaru needed a nanny. I never imagined... I mean... well you've seen how she's improved."

 
            Hotaru nodded and pulled herself back to her dinner. "What you've done will help me as Sailor Saturn, but you're helping me be more... more than her," her voice drifted before she shook her head and picked her chopsticks up.

 
            Ranma reached out and put a hand around Hotaru. "Of course you're more than that."

 
            "I think you'll like our Princess," Setsuna noted as she picked up another morsel to give to her employee.

 
            "She's really nice," Hotaru added as Ranma ate.

 
            "Yes, Usagi has matured quite nicely. Very reassuring," Setsuna added.

 
            The redhead's eyes widened and she struggled to swallow. "Usagi? Blonde girl? Two long pony tails?"

 
            Setsuna nodded. "You've met her?"

 
            "Not really, but I've heard about her at school," Ranma shook her head and sipped some tea. "Lemmie guess, that clique she has is her Guardian Senshi? There's four of them in all."

 
            Setsuna smirked. "Actually one of them goes to a private school. The four Guardian Senshi is not including Usagi. She's Sailor Moon."

 
            "Of course," Ranma nodded. "She's the daughter of that moon queen, of course she'd be Sailor Moon."

 
            Hotaru chuckled. "You know how long it took them to figure that out?"

 
            "To be fair, Venus was pretending to be the princess for a bit. Which hurt their search," Setsuna added.

 
            "But if she's called Sailor Moon, and they're looking for a princess from the Moon," Ranma shook her head. "Even I can figure that out."

 
            "It was a good growing experience for them," Setsuna explained as she picked up some noodles for Ranma. "Usagi had to accept what she was, before she could really become what she needed to be."

 
            Ranma raised an eyebrow as she chewed.

 
            "You'll meet her soon enough," Setsuna promised. "I think she'll really like you."

 
            "You both like to eat." Hotaru giggled when Ranma paused in mid-bite to blush. "Don't worry you're much neater than she is."

 
            "Yes, in addition to your improved decorum, you have a much more mature palate," Setsuna added. She then quipped, "Perhaps you can help Usagi learn some manners."

 
           
"I don't really know Usagi," Ranma coughed. "I hear she is nice enough though; I hear she's also a bit scatter-brained," Ranma allowed. She looked down and was surprised to see only a fifth of her platter remained.

 
            "That's her," Setsuna said.

 
            "So what about you guys?" Ranma asked. "If Usagi's friends are her bodyguards what do you... er... we do?"

 
            "We're the ones they call when things get really, really bad," Hotaru added with a cocky smirk.

 
            "More or less," Setsuna allowed. She studied her young ward for a moment. "We also have other duties."

 
            "Oh like?" Ranma asked.

 
            "Guarding magical talismans," Setsuna offered.

 
            "Destroying planets," Hotaru added with a smirk.

 
            "Watching the gates of time." Setsuna paused and put a finger to her temple. Hotaru's nanny was having an effect on the girl.

 
            "Time gates?" Ranma's eyes widened. "You mean like time travel?"

 
            "Yes, it's my job to keep people from abusing the gates." Setsuna said wondering when Ranma would finally react to all this.

 
            Ranma stopped eating and paused to think. "So you're telling me that you're elite magical girls in service of a princess from the moon, and one of you can blow up planets and the other one guards a time machine."

 
            "Yes," Setsuna stated.

 
            "Good," Ranma went back to her meal. "I wouldn't trust that kind of power with anyone else. I've seen people use time travel. Nothing but a headache. Stupid mirror."

 
           "Mirror? The Nanban Mirror? You've seen it?" Setsuna asked. She had been looking for that pesky thing for a while.

 
            "Yup, it ended up being shattered," Ranma said as she began to finish off her platter.

 
            Setsuna sighed in relief. "Thank goodness."

 
            "So that's why you hired a nanny? Because of the Gates."

 
            "The gates do take up time, but I wanted help with Hotaru, I'm not exactly..." While Setsuna waited to think of how to proceed another batch of waiters came in and rotated the dish ware to the next course.

 
            "Yes?" Ranma asked while discretely appreciating the wafting scent to the trio of lightly grilled fish steaks in front of her.

 
            "I told you that the Senshi reincarnated, but that's not exactly true. One of us didn't die, and kept watch, made sure things worked out... reasonably well."

 
            "That was you," Ranma said as she picked up a knife and started cutting her mahi-mahi. "So you're..."

 
            "Very, very old? Yes."

 
            "You look much better than any other old woman I've seen." Ranma commented as she eyed Setsuna's form without realizing it, then froze after finishing the sentence.

 
            Hotaru smirked and went to work on her fried crabs.

 
             
            Setsuna laughed and worked at her steamed rainbow trout. "I wasn't awake for the whole time. I would wake up every once in a while and check up on things. The right spells took care of the languages, but I was an alien, a foreigner. It wasn't until a few decades ago that I started getting ready."

 
            Ranma coughed. "Sorry about that."

 
            "If you're willing to take your foot out of your mouth, there's much better things to put in there," Setsuna said as she lifted one of the pieces of fish Ranma cut. She smirked when Ranma started chewing. "As I was saying, I was only awake for part of that time. Still even a few days every year adds up," she sighed. "Jet lagged is an understatement. At first it felt weird for me to be staying in one spot, in one year."

 
            "It must have been lonely," Ranma said as she leaned over to hold Setsuna's shoulder.

 
            Setsuna smiled. "Yeah, and after that, it was... hard to put down roots again. That's why I took in Hotaru, I needed an anchor. I didn't want to stay some aloof and distant person without anything other than her work."

 
            "Well, you have people that care about you now," Ranma assured her.

 
            "Yeah, a real family," Hotaru added with a mischievous smile.

 
            "It was a good idea," Setsuna said patting Ranma on the stomach. "You two have been wonderful for me."

 
            "I like having a family," Hotaru quietly said.

 
            Ranma put down her chopsticks and idly adjusted her obi. "I know it was hard losing your family like that."

 
            "That's only part of the story," Setsuna said, as she flipped her trout so she could get to the other side of the fish. "You know about the lab accident, but what you don't know was that there was one before that. One where Hotaru was hurt real bad."

 
            "My mother died and my father was conned by an evil entity and later possessed. My life was saved but I wound up being possessed."

 
            "Oh, God," Ranma whispered.

 
            "Because of the entity growing in her, Hotaru was weak, even weaker than when you first met her," Setsuna paused and decided to tell the rest. "The being was called Mistress Nine and would occasionally take control. It eventually took full control and she tried to summon a monster that would destroy the earth."

 
            "She was beaten and I arose as Saturn," Hotaru stated. "We then sent them back to Tau and sealed the gateway."

 
            "Sealed?" Ranma turned to Setsuna. "Again with the sealing?"
 
           
"I would have preferred to destroy them too, but it was the only option."

 
            "Don't worry, we kicked their ass before closing the door," Hotaru smirked as she cracked a crab apart. Some of Ranma's occasional accidental verbal slips were rubbing off onto the young girl.

 
            "Yes, I recall you blew up that planet, and it was only the Princess showing up at full power that saved you."

 
            "I got better," Hotaru pouted.

 
            "Having to regrow from an infant's why you were so weak." Setsuna turned to Ranma. "Also that big monster, Pharaoh 90, needs to be summoned from earth, that's why Hotaru was possessed, and why it was so important to adopt her. That and she had no family left. Her father died too."

 
            Ranma paused to digest, mentally and physically. It was a bit too much to take in all at once, but she mentally worked on it as she reached out and freshened her tea and then decided to refill Hotaru's and Setsuna's cups. "So a mad scientist destroys his family, a monster takes over a little girl and then uses her to open a gateway to get an even bigger monster in. You Sailor Senshi then save the day and you adopt the young orphan girl." The redhead then went back to her fish and started working on the yellow-tail.

 
            "That's the short of it, yes," Setsuna nodded.

 
            "Good," Ranma smiled as she continued to eat. She was making some sense of the situation.

 
            "How's work been?" Hotaru asked out of nowhere.

 
            "Same old same old," Setsuna frowned. "The fashion magazines are still hounding me, and I really should take another contract, but..." Setsuna shrugged.

 
            Ranma swallowed. "More important things are coming up?"

 
            Setsuna nodded. "Being a fashion designer is just a cover. Sure it's amusing, and helps me develop contacts, but it's not my real job."

 
            "Yes, your real job is saving the world from monsters," Ranma said, still sounding out the words. The whole concept seemed ludicrous on the surface and yet... well in Nerima the fighting was everywhere and normally pointless. Here the fighting was secret and the fate of the world hung in the balance.

 
            "It can be yours too," Hotaru said with a bit of hope in her voice.

 
            "We'll have to learn more about your powers, and why you get sick, but if you want to, then yes, join us." Setsuna offered.

 
            "Damn straight, I'm not gonna let you guys do this alone," Ranma said. She then paused in thought. "Is that what I really want?"

 
            "Good, we still need to figure out why you're a Senshi. Though figuring out your powers and which Senshi you are should help," Setsuna scratched her chin. "And once we figure that out we can lay out a training regimen."

 
            Sounds good." Ranma brightened and resumed her eating. Training in something new, that would be great after months of just practicing moves she learned ages ago.

 
            "Well you started getting healing powers like Hotaru's, after you met her. We had a Senshi meeting today where our powers reasserted themselves. So maybe that woke up your latent powers," Setsuna frowned. She knew she was guessing, but she felt that she had to throw a possibility out there.

 
            "Heck of a coincidence though," Ranma noted.

 
            "But that happens all the time," Hotaru protested. "Look at how the guardian Senshi met."

 
            "Yes mostly during monster attacks that coincidentally brought them together." Setsuna sighed and fed some fish to Ranma as a distraction.

 
            "Well, what about your time powers? You didn't pick me because I was a Senshi with powers like Hotaru?" Ranma asked after she finished eating.

 
            "No." Setsuna simply said. "I picked you because you're the best for the job. If I'd had known you would be a Senshi when I hired you." She held her hand up. "Frankly, I would have been suspicious."

 
            "Too good to be true then?" Ranma smirked.

 
            Setsuna looked over the kimono-clad and coifed redhead. "Yes, but I've gotten used to you being perfect." She leaned in and gave Ranma a quick embrace. "Ranma, I'll be honest with you on everything - what has happened to you should have been impossible."

 
            Ranma happily murmured and returned the hug. Looking up, Ranma found herself dangerously close to Setsuna's face. Close enough to feel her breath caress her cheek; this threw her a bit. "Um... okay, er... now what?" She managed.

 
            "Well, we wait until the computer finishes processing and gives us the results of the scans," Setsuna replied, breaking the embrace. "We should at least get a better idea then."

 
            "Okay...," Ranma said as she tried to discreetly cool herself. "So, I'm like an accidental Senshi?"

 
            "I honestly don't know. We have seen other Senshi pop up. From asteroids and the like," Setsuna explained. "However, given the curve balls life seems to throw at you, I should have expected you'd end up being one of us."

 
            Ranma was surprised with herself at how blase she was taking all of this... as if it was almost expected. Her frown at it being broken evaporated when Setsuna resumed feeding her. Deciding that she had had enough weirdness for the moment, Ranma changed the subject to something more down to Earth.

 
            "Has there been any progress with the police?" Ranma eventually asked when she finished her mackerel fillet.

 
            Setsuna put down her chopsticks. "They're about to arrest Mr. Huang. They've done enough digging to make a solid case. There may be some issues with Hong Kong, but our lawyers are helping."

 
            Ranma nodded absently as she sipped some tea. She was about to speak but held her tongue when the waitresses came in and exchanged dishes for the next course. She blinked at the trio of silver raised dishes in front of her, and pouted at the small icecream-like dishes.

 
            "It's sorbet, something to cleanse your palate. We've still got more courses," Setsuna assured as she spooned her own.

 
            "Oh, like the pickled ginger." Ranma brightened, and started eating. "Oooo, plum," she purred happily trying the red sorbet.

 
            "You really should try the shiso. Unlike a lot of places they don't overwhelm you with mint flavor," Setsuna advised.

 
            "I like the melon," Hotaru said before spooning some of the orange sorbet and offering it to her nanny.

 
            "Wow," Ranma said before eating more from Hotaru's spoon.

 
            "Yes, so Huang is going to get it. They have solid evidence on his ring." Setsuna fiddled with her spoon. "The rest, well the police don't have as much evidence, but they're fairly confident on being able to get confessions."

 
            Ranma shrugged and sampled the shiso while Hotaru resumed snuggling on her soft nanny.

 
            "It's up to you how hard they press. I can influence the police to try more plea-bargaining. They don't need Tendo or Saotome testimony to convict Huang, but we could play it that way. What do you want to happen?"

 
            Ranma wrapped her arm around Hotaru and hugged her tight. "They don't get any special treatment. They think they can take some sleaze-ball's money and what? I'd have escaped it and everything would be normal a month later?" The redhead narrowed her eyes. "No, they're going to experience the consequences of their actions."

 
            Setsuna smirked. "They might not get prison terms."

 
            "Jail, fines, humiliating public apology, whatever," Ranma paused so Hotaru could reach up and feed her again.

 
            Setsuna nodded in understanding. "The punishment itself doesn't matter, that it happened to them is what does?"

 
            Ranma nodded and dabbed away a bit of melted sorbet.

 
            'There's also your testimony, if you're willing," Setsuna gently reminded.

 
            "Yeah, I have seen Nabiki spying on Akane, trying to find me." Ranma shrugged and finished off the last of her sorbet. "I guess I could do it."

 
            Setsuna nodded and summoned the waitresses once again. She smirked as a large platter was put in the center of the table. With a slightly too elaborate flourish she removed the cover revealing a roast duck flanked by a quartet of much smaller poultry on a bed of rice.

 
            Ranma's eyes almost rolled back when the aroma reached her.

 
            "Aww, how cute it's a little family," Hotaru said as she was served one of the tiny birds.

 
            "Actually, they're not ducklings; they're poussin, very tender little chickens," Setsuna said as she motioned for Ranma to be served two poussin, almost half of the duck, and generous portions of rice.

 
            "Oh my," Ranma said as she stared at the food before her. It was too much to resist and she resumed her steady consumption.

 
            "Glad you like it," Setsuna said once the waitresses had left them alone again.

 
            The redhead nodded and kept eating. She frowned slightly when Hotaru straightened up and started eating her own meal.

 
            Ranma's pout faded slightly as she continued to eat. "You’re right, this is amazingly succulent. Lovely little birds."

 
            "Wonderful," Setsuna said after finishing her own poussin and moving onto the bit of duck.

 
            "The rice is very good," Hotaru said as she cut a piece of breast meat and handed it to Ranma.

 
            Setsuna smirked thinly and waited for the current course to finish. "Good?" She asked once Ranma put her flatware down.

 
            Ranma nodded and found a silk napkin being dabbed to her mouth.

 
            "Good, I'll call up the next meal." Setsuna pulled her napkin away. Shortly the poultry bones and dishes were cleared and replaced with a portable stove and an immense pot.

 
            "Unfortunately, to preserve the surprise they couldn't make it here," Setsuna explained after the course was set up and their tea was refreshed.

 
            "Oh, nabemono," Ranma smiled as the lid was removed from the pot.

 
            "Sukiyaki specifically," Setsuna said as she filled Ranma's bowl, which was twice the size of the other ones. She smirked. "They always said you could make it on a budget, but you've never had it prepared at a place like this."

 
            "So, that's why you didn't let me order it last time we were over," Ranma said as she looked hungrily at the bowl Setsuna was preparing for her.

 
            "Wow, look at the pieces of beef. Mmm... lovely scallions," Hotaru sniffed as she served herself some of the slow-cooked stew.

 
            Impatient, Ranma dug into her food as soon as Setsuna handed it over to her. The redhead almost purred at the flavor of the warming food.

 
            "Don't wait on the broth," Setsuna offered, handing Ranma a deep spoon.

 
            The redhead smiled demurely and took the offered implement. After the first few spoonfuls she had to stop and lean back.

 
            "Having a good time?" Hotaru giggled.

 
            "Oh yes," Ranma said with a sleepy smile.

 
            "I'm glad," Setsuna said as she leaned over and discreetly adjusted Ranma's obi.

 
            "Thanks, this is just so..." Ranma blushed at a loss of words.

 
            "It's okay, we just want you to be happy," Setsuna said as she patted Ranma's belly.

 
            Ranma smiled warmly and adjusted herself. She then finished her first bowl, only to have it refilled by Hotaru and then lifted up to Ranma by Setsuna. The redhead happily ate and after downing half of the bowl closed her eyes smiling contently.

 
            Setsuna put the bowl down and watched her elegant servant smile as her adopted daughter nestled in the generous softness of the redhead. She noticed the nanny pout briefly. "What's wrong?"

 
            "It's... too... good," Ranma murmured.

 
            "Don't think that. Your work more than deserves this treatment," Setsuna assured, squeezing Ranma's hand.

 
            Ranma nodded and accepted another spoonful from Hotaru.

 
            Setsuna did not want to break the scene, but she knew something was off. "What's wrong?"

 
            "It's my mother," Ranma said with a little pout.

 
            Setsuna nodded.

 
            "I just don't know her. I thought I did... as some silly ninny that would come to the Tendos incompetently waving a sword, but it's all an act!" Ranma grumbled and adjusted herself, taking care not to disturb Hotaru. "It turns out she plays all of my father's old friends."

 
            "She is a business woman, rather shrewd from what my sources tell me," Setsuna agreed.

 
            "Yeah, I gathered that." Ranma sighed. "She can take any evidence you have and twist it around to support her argument. It's... creepy."

 
            "Oh, the weird lady from the park?" Hotaru sleepily asked.

 
            "Do you want to deal with her?"

 
            Ranma opened her eyes and with all seriousness asked her question. "Do I have to?"

 
            "No, you do whatever you want," Setsuna assured.

 
            Ranma paused to think. How to deal with her mother? Did she even want to? She opted for the safest answer. "I want more sukiyaki," she finally said.

 
            Setsuna laughed. "We can arrange that," she said, refilling Ranma's bowl.

 
            Pondering as she ate, Ranma eventually reached her decision. "I do miss my mother, but... if she's just going to defend Genma forever. I don't need that kind of headache."

 
            "Maybe she can be convinced," Setsuna offered.

 
            "When the possibility of Genma being convicted came up... she did get a bit odd. I think," Ranma shrugged and went back to her meal. "Oh wow, this stuff is just so good."

 
            Setsuna smirked and stole a glance at the nearly empty pot. "Well, we've only got a bit left." She filled her own bowl and Hotaru's and was pleased when the remainder filled up Ranma's.

 
            The redhead happily murmured as she slowly ate.

 
            "Having a good time?" Hotaru asked before eating half of her bowl. She then offered the rest of it to Ranma. One spoonful at a time.

 
            "We'll work on your mother," Setsuna assured. "She might come around. If not..." She shrugged.

 
            Ranma smiled sleepily. "If not," Ranma paused to look at both women that flanked her. "I already have a family. Don't I?"

 
            "Yes, yes you do," Setsuna gave a thin smirk and called for the last course.

 
            Finishing the last from her bowl, Ranma leaned back to her favored position, and Hotaru leaned on her favored pillow.

 
            Ranma's eyes widened when a tall chocolate structure was carted in. The cake had three layers and was trimmed in caramel frosting. The same trim spelled out a message around the circumference saying: "Welcome to the family."

 
            The redhead grinned broadly and felt herself warm in anticipation, while Hotaru giggled. "Oh, that smells wonderful," Ranma purred.

 
            "An advantage of calling ahead and giving the cooking staff a few hours," Setsuna smiled. Ranma's and Hotaru's reactions were worth every yen. The same lust in their eyes as they stared at the confection before them was downright amusing. Using the knife placed next to the cake, she cut three pieces. They were all the same size, and Setsuna smirked at the little pout Ranma saw at her piece.

 
            Taking a forkful, Ranma put the moist cake in her mouth. When the caramel layered, rich chocolate hit her mouth, the redhead happily moaned and almost disturbed Hotaru from her snuggling.

 
            After finishing her piece, Ranma gently nudged Hotaru so that she would notice and eat hers. "Wow," Hotaru said after taking her first bite.

 
            "It's good isn't it?" Setsuna asked as she ate hers. She noticed Ranma's empty plate and then cut another, slightly larger piece for her. The redhead blushed and once again adjusted her obi.

 
            Hotaru nodded with a big smile and looked to see her nanny already well into her second slice. The younger girl pulled her plate closer to the edge, so she could still eat while leaning on Ranma's side.

 
            "I see it's up there with the cheesecake," Setsuna idly remarked as she offered a forkful to Ranma.

 
            The redhead saucily winked as she joyously chewed.

 
            "I'm sorry, I kept this secret from you," Setsuna said handing another bit of cake over. "Do you forgive me?"

 
            Her mouth full, Ranma motioned for the older woman to get closer. Once Setsuna was in range, the redhead leaned up and hugged her. Once the hug was returned, she moved one hand from Setsuna and put it around Hotaru.

 
           

End Chapter 2

 

--------- 

 

 

 

OMAKE OMAKE OMAKE

 

 
            Approaching the table that they had left Nodoka and Nami at, Akane and Ranma froze at the sight of two strange women who had joined them while they were in the ladies room.

 
            "What are you two doing here?" Ranma demanded of the newcomers.

 
            "We thought we'd stop by and say hi," the redheaded pony-tailed women in her early twenties replied mirthfully.

 
            "And to see if you need any help," the other redhead added with a smile as she absently licked her fangs.

 
            "Look," Ranma began firmly while putting a hand on her hip. "This is my story, I don't need any help."

 
            "Shhhh..." Akane whispered. "You're breaking the fourth wall."

 
            "I don't care," Ranma said in irritation. "If I needed help with this, I would have asked."

 
            "Man, talk about getting bent out of shape," the redheaded demon said. "We go all this way to see if you need any help..."

 
            "And do you know how difficult it is to get here?" The pony-tailed woman asked. "Especially after my story is complete? You know I don't get out anymore."

 
            "What are you talking about? You just had some fun with me," the demon offered with a saucy wink.

 
            Pony-tailed shook her head playfully. "Oh hush you."

 
            "You should be more gracious," Nodoka chimed in.

 
            "But it screws with the whole plot having them here," whined Ranma.

 
            "I think it's too late for that," Akane commented.

 
            "Nah," the demon said. "The authors can just remove this and it will be like it never happened."

 
            Pony-tailed snorted. "You know them, they'll just stick it as an Omake at the end."

 
            "Look," Ranma said while looking out at the writers as they were hunched over their computers. "It was fun to do a crossover between two crossovers, but doing a crossover between three crossovers is ridiculous."

 
            "I have to say she does have a point there," Nami said, adding her two yen in. "I mean, three Ranmas?"

 
            "Not to mention that it doesn't really fit in this continuum very well," Akane commented.

 
            "Let's go Ranma," the pony-tailed redhead said to the demon while rising from her seat. "I know when I'm not welcome."

 
            "Right behind you," the demon redhead said. "Besides there's no decent demons to eat in this story anyway."

 
            "Always thinking with your stomach," the pony-tailed Ranma quipped.

 
            "I can think with other things," the demon purred as she rubbed herself on the other redhead's body.

 
            "Ooooo...," the other redhead playfully cooed while letting her hands roam sensually over the demon's body.

 
            "Ewww... get a room!" Nami said loudly.

 
            "You perverts! You're both... you," Akane pointed out in outrage. "That's like incest or something."

 
            "No it's not," the demon said plainly. "It's more like masturbation."

 
            A dreadful silence fell for a few heartbeats.

 
            "GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!" Ranma roared. "GO BACK TO YOUR OWN STORIES!"

 
            "Party pooper," the pony-tailed one huffed as she summoned a sword out of nowhere and created a hole in space/time with it. "Talk about someone who is too uptight."

 
            "Perhaps we should stay and help her," commented the other, making the pony-tailed one pause.

 
            "You mean get her laid? That would help her-" was as far as the other got before she and her accomplice were thrown psychically through the opening. It closed behind them with a "pop".

 
            "Jerks," Ranma huffed as she brushed her hands off.

 
            "What a couple of perverts," Akane commented.

 
            "You said it," Nami agreed while Nodoka nodded.

 
            "Now... where were we?" Ranma asked, hoping to get the story back on track.

 
            "It's too late for that," Nodoka said while looking at her watch. "It's after five, we'll have to come back and wrap this up tomorrow."

 
            "Damn, I hate having to come back," Ranma said. "Having to get into the mood and everything all over again."

 
            "Well... the mood was lost anyway," Nami said as she gathered her purse. "And the authors don't pay overtime. So - who's up for some partying and dancing?"

 
            "I am," Nodoka said as she rose from her seat. "We'll see you both tomorrow."

 
            "Hang on, I'll come with you," Akane said.

 
            Ranma sighed. "Oh what the heck, I'm game.

 

 

2nd OMAKE OMAKE OMAKE

by J St C Patrick

 

 


            "I would like to have you as a friend Akane," Ranma said as she offered a breadstick to her. She was much relieved when Akane accepted and even took a bite. "I don't have too many friends... friends that know me as well as you do. I could really use more in my life and I thought maybe... you wouldn't mind?"


            Swallowing her bite of breadstick, Akane paused to take a long sip of her drink. This gave her time to think of how to respond. "I think... I saw this coming Ranma," she finally said. "I mean, like you said, a lot has changed."


            "So... are you a girl now?" Akane asked from across the table.


            "I...," Ranma began, only to stop. Seconds dragged onto minutes before Akane prompted.


            "Ranma?"


            "I know I'm more comfortable like I am," Ranma conceded, then paused. "I don't know if the curse has anything to do with it - but I'm happier and more in control of my life than I've ever had been. It may be a coincidence... I don't know..." Ranma's voice drifted off before picking up again. "I can't see myself as a total girl, though


            Internally, Akane found some sense of relief in that last statement. "So, how do you see yourself?"


            Ranma scrunched up her face as she wore a look of thoughtfulness, the look made her look adorable. After several seconds, Ranma replied. "I haven't exactly figured that out myself - yet. But it'll come to me in time."


           Silence fell between the two. It was like neither one really wanted to know what the real answer to that question was.


            "I'm sure... I'm sure it will," Akane sighed, sadly.

Ranma blushed. "I'm sorry, but..."


            "No I'm not mad at you. You've changed. We've changed. You're right. I think of you as a girl too." Akane chewed her lip.


            "What then?"


            "I've been seeing policemen," Akane remarked.


            "What! I've only just given you the let's be friends speech and now you reveal you've already been seeing other guys!" huffed Ranma.


            Again a silence fell between them. Akane picked at her lasagna and tried not to meet the redhead's eyes.


            Ranma played with her recalcitrant curl for a moment, then asked, "Are they cute?"

 

 

 Author's Notes:   

 

We'd like to thank the prereaders for their help in this project: J St C Patrick, DCG, Wray, Terra, Ikarus,  PH Wise, and Jerry Starfire. They were great on working on this chapter.

 

We'd also like to thank the fukufics C&C board. They were very helpful in cleaning this chapter up some.

 

Special thanks go to J St C Patrick and Wray for their repeated runs through this chapter finding typos and other inconsistencies.  They went above and beyond chewing through this huge thing. We thank you two, again.



New note:  Asute readers may notice some changes in the dates and character ages.  Regretfully, I had to shift some of the references, given the timing of events in this chapter is out of line with the previous and preceding chapter. Apologies.