Subject: [FFML] [Ranma] Rendezvous with Fate - ch. 16
From: "Ice Angel" <angelysis@hotmail.com>
Date: 11/19/2006, 10:58 AM
To: ffml@anifics.com
Reply-to:
siuane@gmail.com

Sorry about this, but it seems like the attachment was stripped. :/ I 
re-read the FAQ again, I guess I never should have really used attachments 
in the first place... anwyay, again I apologize.

Past chapters are in ff.n: http://www.fanfiction.net/~iCe or in the webpage: 
http://iCe.esmartdesign.com
---------------------

Special Thanks to:
Tin
Ellen Kuhfeld
Jourdan Bickham
Howard Russel

And the person Reading this.

A Note of Warning:
A torture scene used here has adult connotations. Besides,
it's a semi-torture scene, it's bound to be more adult than
normal.


We can burst the bonds which chain us,
Which cold human hands have wrought,
And where none shall dare restrain us
We can meet again, in thought.
~~ Parting
Charlotte Bronte


	~ Chapter 16 ~


_... I didn't think that a person could hurt so much from
loving someone and being loved in return..._


	Ifuku cursed her lack of ability to jump from tree
to tree as her brother. She risked a look behind her and
found out that only Kikuko followed. 'I cannot outdistance
Kikuko,' she thought as she moved about the plants, mindful
not to trip over the protruding roots or the bushes around
her. 'But I must not fail as well.'

	She looked up at the sky, then back at the trail.
Her one advantage over Kikuko was knowledge of the area, but
that was about it. They were near the main house and if she
could get to it before Kikuko caught her, she would be all
right. Mind racing, she jumped over a small shrub and
sighed. 'Things were much simpler when I was pretending to
be a servant.'

	She rounded another curve and was thankful when she
had seen the lights of the guards on the gates. She doubted
if Kikuko would stop for them, though. Her heart was racing;
her muscles were sore, and she was dead tired. Kikuko was a
samurai, trained to kill, trained to hunt. Ifuku was a
servant for fifteen years now, housework was not the same.

	She didn't slow when she reached the gates, knowing
that Kikuko would just try to kill the samurai. Ifuku barely
noticed the shimenawa, a sacred pole made of rice straw that
was hung over the entrance, a sign of the New Year's
festivity. Her sense of time had been dulled by her
captivity. Ifuku shivered as she added one more samurai to
her tail.

	"Excuse me!" she called out as she stepped on
Saotome grounds which were filled with people milling about.
She didn't know if she should be thankful for the extra
cover or be annoyed with the extra obstacles.

	She found Ranma in one of the larger rooms -- after
she hit at least half of the guests running towards him.
"Lord Ranma!" Ifuku bowed immediately as her lord looked
upon her. "Sanctuary! Please!"

	Before Ranma could even answer her request, the
samurai that guarded the gate took Ifuku's hands and shoved
them behind her back, a clear sign that she was their
captive. "Lord Ranma! Sorry for the interruption, she got
past the gates because --"

	Ranma held his hands up for silence and then turned
to Ifuku. He raised her chin so that he could see her face
with better light. "This is Kodachi's maid. I thought I
trained you better than *not* to recognize the household.
Leave us." The samurai immediately let go of Ifuku's hands,
bowed and left to resume his post.

	Dismissing all the other vassals, he smiled at Ifuku
and cleared her misconception of his identity. "Ifuku, I'm
Shizukama-kun," Nabiki-kun told the girl as he took a piece
of cloth from the side and offered it to Ifuku to wash her
face. Ifuku was one of the servants who knew of Jusenkyo. It
was inevitable, because she was Kodachi's maid, and Kodachi
announced the fact to anyone whom she could prove it to.
Being Kodachi's maid, she heard it most often and the
examples were more frequent than most.

	Ifuku nodded as she took the cloth, and whispering
her thanks. She was not able to explain anything, because by
the time she was about to blurt out her hurried confession,
Kikuko had burst into the room through the closed shoji and
took her by the shoulder.

	Nabiki immediately tensed but kept her serene
facade, not showing surprise at the sudden arrival. She did
not even protest the manner of Kikuko's arrival, so used to
Shampoo's 'door making' that it was merely an annoyance.
Addressing Kikuko she demanded, "Who are you, and what do
you want from a servant of the House of Saotome?"

	Kikuko sneered, and shook Ifuku from side to side as
if the girl were a mere rag doll. "This lady is no more a
servant of the Saotome Clan than I am a samurai from your
ranks, Lord Saotome." Taking a sword she'd just liberated
from one of the samurai outdoors, she held it against
Ifuku's throat. "Tell her who you are, Lady Tendo."

	At the title by which Kikuko addressed Ifuku, Nabiki
turned to look sharply at the woman. Ifuku winced at the
cold sword blade pressed against her throat. After a few
seconds of silence, the sword moved to draw closer forcing
Ifuku to finally open her mouth and rasp out, "I am Shori
Tendo, second born of the Tendo Clan that you were looking
for, my lord. Akane Tendo was my sister."

	Through that new information, pieces of the puzzle
slowly fell into place. Yet, more questions appeared than
were answered. "Was?" Nabiki asked, bewildered, as she
balled her hands into fists trying to find out how to defeat
Kikuko without killing Ifuku in the process. She mentally
berated herself for the guards' lack of training. Guards
should never be this lax, even in ganjitsu. He made a mental
note to change the guard duties after she finished with this
new development.

	"She died over a year ago," Ifuku recounted as she
raised her hands to clasp the sword that was threatening her
life. She slowly rose to her feet as Kikuko tried to move
towards the door. Ifuku was thankful that Kikuko let her
stand and did not drag her across the tatami. "Please, my
lord, help me."

	"Unfortunately, you helping her does not fit into
*any* of my plans," Kikuko declared as she stepped back
taking Ifuku with her. "I have no business with the house of
Saotome. Do not engage in a fight with me, my lord. This is
between the Tendos."

	Nabiki-kun shook his head as he gave an arrogant
smile. "Why would *I* care what happens to Kodachi's
servant?" He crossed his arms in front of his chest and
raised an eyebrow. "You could have just hauled her out of
here and be done with the whole process."

	Kikuko moved back inching towards the entrance while
trying to move Ifuku to go in the direction she wanted to.
She was skeptical of the freedom given to her, but she was
not one to question her good luck. "Thank you, my lord."

	"Unfortunately," Nabiki drawled as she pointed
towards the doors that Kikuko had destroyed to enter the
room. "You have just wrecked the front doors and scared my
vassals half out of their wits. We can't have *that* on
ganjitsu now, can we?"

	Kikuko's grip on the sword tightened while Nabiki
slowly moved towards them. "I'm going to kill her," Kikuko
threatened.

	"Go ahead." Nabiki continued to move forward,
seemingly oblivious to Ifuku's plight. "I'm sure it took you
no trouble to evade the samurai at the front gates and get
past the samurai in the house to wreck *my* doors, just to
take some pathetic old maid hostage to move *out* of the
house." Nabiki smiled again. "What does Tendo Shori have,
that you want her so desperately?"

	Kikuko cursed as she eyed Nabiki and then pushed
Ifuku to the ground between them. As soon as she released
her hostage, Kikuko turned to flee, only to have her hand
caught by Nabiki.

	Using the hand she captured, Nabiki pulled Kikuko
towards herself. Kikuko resisted the pull and drew out the
sword to a defensive stance. "I was willing not to fight,
Lord Saotome."

	"I'm more than willing," Nabiki informed her, as she
released the hand and jumped back. "You've already wrecked
the front door anyway. Why not wreck the entire house?"

	Kikuko's eyes glinted as she lunged for Nabiki,
going for the throat. Ducking, Nabiki tried to elbow her,
but Kikuko had already moved and was drawing the blade
downwards.

	Rolling to the side, Nabiki took Kikuko out by a
kick which liberated the girl of her sword and another kick
which brought the girl to her knees. Nabiki stood up, took a
good look at the girl and then punched her out.

	She then looked at Ifuku, who by then crawled up and
was massaging her wounded neck. "You mind explaining to me
*what* the hell is going on here?" Nabiki demanded.


					~~~


	Ranma looked at the single guard at the gates,
bewildered. In his haste, he did not bother to ask why there
was only one standing there when it should have been two.

	As he approached the house in his usual breakneck
pace, he did notice that the front shoji of Rose Brier was
completely wrecked, most of the vassals were littered along
the grounds not daring to enter the house, and his mother
was looking disapprovingly at the entire messy picture.

	He wanted to stop and greet his mother but thought
that Akane's poisoning was a more immediate concern. As soon
as he stepped into the house he called out, "Nabiki! I need
you down here! Now!"

	Nabiki-kun's response was immediate. She was by his
side in an instant with all the fake bowing and scraping
that the usual peasant did when greeting their master home.
"Is that enough for you?" she asked with one eyebrow raised.

	"I don't have time for games, Nabiki. I need your
help." He moved towards the rooms checking them, before
entering the first one he found with a decent futon laid out
and ready for use. He laid Akane down in the bed and then
turned to Nabiki. "She's sick."

	"Ranma, you do realize that one: I am not a
goddamned doctor and two: you have just shouted my *name* to
the entire world who *doesn't* know that Nabiki just happens
to look like a male Ranma," Nabiki deadpanned as she moved
towards Akane.

	"You are not helping," Ranma complained as he leaned
back against the shoji to watch his sister-turned-brother
work. He knew that at times like these, he would only hamper
her abilities, rather than be of any use.

	"It's not as if you're a big help as well," Nabiki
muttered, then to keep Ranma busy and to keep the situation
out of his mind she ordered, "Go get me water, some towels
and a spare kimono." She was intent on her task and Ranma
was already almost out of the door before she added as an
afterthought, "I want some hot water, as well. I want to
return my body to what it's supposed to look like."

	Ranma left and shut the door while Nabiki turned her
attention back to Akane who was half delirious with her
poisoning. Placing her hand against the sick girl's
forehead, Nabiki frowned at the fever that was rising.

	She shook the Akane awake. "Akane," Nabiki called
persistently. "Akane, do you want anything?"

	Akane tried to cough out a few words, but they were
unintelligible. Nabiki drew her ear near Akane's mouth and
she barely heard the word Akane rasped out, "Water."

	Nabiki nodded. "I already sent Ranma to get some
water for you. What are you feeling right now?"

	Sensing where the questioning was going to lead,
Akane managed to croak through closed lips, "Kodachi
poisoned me." Akane's message had been painfully delivered,
and every word she forced out as if it was the death of her.
"She said you knew the cure."

	Nabiki wondered if Akane knew that she was supposed
to be Kodachi Saotome, and that the entire message didn't
make sense at all, but delirium was natural in sickness such
as hers. Running her hand through her hair Nabiki sighed.
"That gives me poisoning but with what? How were you
poisoned Akane?"

	There was no answer from the girl.

	Nabiki undressed Akane while she looked for the
entry point. Had Kodachi/Akane poisoned herself? But then,
there was Shampoo's information about Kodachi switching
bodies, and if that were to be believed, then this girl
might not be in delirium after all. Kodachi usually used
inhalants, but there were times when she laced the tip of
her sword with poison. Nabiki needed to find out exactly how
she was poisoned. After thoroughly examining the woman,
Ranma came back with the supplies Nabiki had asked for.

	Dousing Nabiki with the kettle, he handed her the
other materials. Nabiki glared when Ranma had poured the
water, but did not complain, and took the articles from him.
She then methodically inched over the rest of Akane's body
for any sign of a wound. "Make her drink some of that
water," she commanded, addressing Ranma, though she did not
take her attention away from her patient.

	Ranma complied as Nabiki wet the towels, scrubbing
Akane down with them, and then changed her clothing. She
wasn't sure if the clothes had any poison, but caution was
good. Calling for her maid, she requested that Akane's
clothing be burnt.

	The maid bowed and left.

	"I don't know what poison invades her body right
now. She's delirious, dehydrated, a bit thirsty but has no
abdominal pain. That means she didn't drink or eat it."
Nabiki placed a new wet towel over Akane's forehead. "That
leaves inhalation and skin contact. I haven't found any
wounds yet, so it might mean that Kodachi just used one of
her powders again."

	Ranma let Akane's head down softly on the pillow
after trying to force down as much water into her as he
could without actually killing the girl. As he set her down
he noticed five irregular puncture marks on the left side of
her head, visible now because Akane's sweat had drenched her
black locks so much that they were pressed against her
scalp.

	"Look at this," Ranma directed, bringing Nabiki's
attention to Akane's face, at a point near her ear, as he
lightly stroked his thumb against her hair to clear the
wounds of the curls. "Does that look like an entry point to
you?"

	Nabiki looked at the abrasions and nodded, bringing
the bowl of water she used to clean Akane as she rinsed the
spot where the poison entered her system. "It looks like
whoever poisoned her used a rose to inject her with the
toxin. It's similar to what Kodachi does to her victims.
This was *not* done in the battle field. The culprit took a
rose placed it on her ear and then pressed the rose against
her until it broke skin."

	There was a long moment of silence as Ranma
considered it. He looked at Nabiki after a while and found
she had been staring at him intently. "That's Kodachi's
technique. Especially with girls she was jealous over."

	"It worries me," Nabiki muttered, as she took the
bowl to replace it with fresh water and motioned Ranma to
follow her. "Shampoo came in today. Ifuku also got back from
her long trip. What they told me is disturbing.

	She passed a maid to whom she handed the bowl, and
instructed in Akane's care. She needed a way to find out
what had been in Akane's poison and a clear mind to mix the
antidote.

	She stopped in front of the room she had given
Shampoo and looked at Ranma. "Can we believe whatever they
tell us, Ranma?"

	"Can we afford not to believe them?" he countered
just as heavily as she had asked her question, and just as
quietly, so Shampoo would not hear. "I don't think either
Shampoo or Ifuku have enough motives to mislead us.

	"It's not their motives I question. It's *where*
they received their motives," Nabiki explained, opening
Shampoo's shoji and letting light from the hallway spill
into the dark room. Shampoo was asleep. If she had not been,
Nabiki's sudden entry would have caused a shout of ire from
the woman.

	Shampoo was awakened easily by their presence,
though, and she eyed them wearily as she slowly sat up from
her futon, rubbing her eyes into wakefulness. "You brought
Ranma."

	"Tell him your story, Shampoo," Nabiki urged as she
watched the woman from the doorway. Ranma stood impassively
beside her, not really understanding what Shampoo's story
had to do with Akane's poisoning, but knowing that it was
important enough for Nabiki to have brought him here.

	So he patiently waited for Shampoo to begin.

	And when the story unraveled from her his puzzlement
dissolved into worry.

	And worry finally gave way to fear.


				~~~


	Kodachi smiled as she watched Ranma enter Rose Brier
with Akane in his arms. She looked at the moon and laughed.
It would not be long until the potion induced a deep sleep.
She would make her move then. She would regain her body and
then kill that woman.

	Fingering her short blue-black hair, Kodachi
frowned. 'It's a pity *my* beauty was wasted with such a
pitiful girl.' It is always a waste to watch beautiful
things die.

	She smiled at that thought, and continued to watch
Rose Brier patiently. Nabiki would have a hard time
identifying the poison she infused Akane's body with. There
was no precise medication if she did not know what she was
curing. If she were lucky, maybe Nabiki would do her job for
her and kill Akane.

	But that would be too easy and not entirely what she
wanted.

	Kodachi knew what poisons Nabiki was familiar with
and though this particular one was rare, she would know how
to administer a cure.

	'So that I can kill her again,' Kodachi thought
closing her eyes, imagining what kind of death would be
fitting to one similar to Akane, to one who had already
survived death's embrace once. 'With my own hands, with my
*real* hands.'

	Akane's death needed to be beautifully executed.

	Kodachi frowned a bit as she examined her thoughts
carefully. 'Hmmm... it seems like I have found something
more fulfilling than destroying Ranma-sama.' She sighed.

	But Ranma wasn't going to die. She promised that she
wasn't going to kill Ranma. He was needed in some other
ways. He was *important* to the society, and therefore his
death needed to be on the battlefield. It was a battlefield
which she didn't need nor want to create for him. She was
content destroying what precious happiness he has left.

	No. Ranma didn't need death. He just needed to be
destroyed. Kodachi sighed in contentment when she had sorted
out all of her misgivings.

	Yes, everything needed to be beautiful.

	She laughed again.


				~~~


	Hanae found Shampoo practicing a kata in one of the
rooms. Hanae clapped and giggled as Shampoo, unaware that
she had a spectator, finished the complex round of
movements.

	"That was great! I never could do that last part
though," Hanae marveled as she approached Shampoo. When she
had noticed the woman's stare on her, Hanae's smile faded.
She consciously checked herself for a strand of hair
misplaced or her obi lopsided but could find nothing amiss.
Finally she turned to Shampoo. "Is something wrong,
Shampoo-san? Did I say anything to offend you?"

	Kneeling down so that she was seeing Hanae eye to
eye, Shampoo placed her hands on Hanae's shoulders. It was
the first time she had seen her niece up close because she
avoided moments alone with her, desperately trying to forget
that she represented the love of her cousin. She voiced the
question that had been haunting her ever since she had found
Hanae's picture at the Saotome Donjon. "Did you know your
mother, Hanae?"

	Hanae looked up to Shampoo sensing that the question
was important. Her voice was solemn when she answered,
"Daddy has always told me of her, 'ntie Shampoo. I don't
think he's gonna let me forget her. *I* won't forget her."

	A tear fell from Shampoo's eye unwittingly. She
smiled in turn, berating herself for doubting Ranma. "It's
good that he remembers to tell you of her. Rian was the best
of our generation."

	Hanae smiled as she brought up a small handkerchief
she had hidden in her obi to wipe the tear off Shampoo's
eyes. "He tells me about my father too, 'ntie Shampoo. Daddy
will always make me remember my past."

	Shampoo looked at Hanae in shock as Hanae kept the
small, white cloth in her obi once again. Trying to
understand the rest of what the girl was saying through her
still limited vocabulary of Japanese,, she failed miserably
at making sense of what she had just heard. It didn't mean
that she could speak the language better that her vocabulary
had improved. Instead, she latched onto the most pertinent
of all the girl's statements, "What did you say?"

	"Daddy will --"

	"No the one before that," Shampoo clarified,
confused with Hanae's statement. Her heart constricted at
the words she flung at Ranma on the day that she finally saw
Hanae. "I thought Ranma was your father."

	Shaking her head, Hanae smiled sadly. "It was daddy
who killed my father on Happosai's orders. He was also the
reason for my mother's death."

	Shampoo stared at the child whose identity she had
mistakenly placed.

For the first time since she met Hanae she regarded her
features without the bias of hatred and envy.

	The only reason why it had been so easy to assume
that Hanae was Ranma's daughter was because of the uncanny
eyes, as well as the crimson red hair. But the hair could
have come from her father's side of the family, and the eyes
were Rian's and not Ranma's.

	Although her hair was a deceptive shade of red which
was the farthest from Rian's shade of rich blue-black, it
was Rian's eyes that stared back at her. Rian's eyes, whose
color seemed to change from angry green to peaceful blue. It
was something she associated with Ranma, which was why it
was so easy to pin him as her father. In retrospect, that
was where the similarities between the two of them ended.

	Hanae was blessed with all of her mother's delicate
features, including the thick eyelashes which Rian frowned
upon for being the sole reason that men courted her. Rian's
high cheekbones adorned her face, although the strong chin
was probably inherited from her father. This girl, did in
fact, look like a miniature Rian rather than a miniature
Ranma.

	In fact, when seen that way, this girl and Ranma did
not look alike at all. The only reason everyone thought so
was because Ranma's cursed form had flaming red hair. A
trait they all thought she passed to Hanae. Ranma protected
the lie so strongly that no one looked closely enough to
notice that the eyes weren't grayish blue but ocean green.
Her hair wasn't the burnished bronze of reds, browns and
golds that Nodoka and Ranko shared with age, but rather, it
was a strong shade of red hued black. He capitalized on
their similarities that everyone forgot their differences,
that everyone overlooked the fact that the similarities
weren't similarities at all.

	"And you love Ranma?" Shampoo asked in bewilderment,
not understanding what motivated the young girl that Rian
had birthed into the world. She would have surely vowed
vengeance against her father's killers, surely would have
hunted them down until their blood watered her mother's
grave.

	"He doesn't believe it either, 'ntie Shampoo. So he
made a b'rgain with me. When I grow up and become good in
martial arts, he said I could challenge him to the death.
But I have to be really good." For one so young to make a
bargain that would pit her life against Ranma, she was
entirely too cheerful for it. She said the words as if she
were describing a walk in the park.

	"And will you?" Shampoo asked the seemingly
happy-go-lucky child she had just met. The daughter of the
rival she had always admired and loved. An Amazon. One of
her own. The daughter of Rian. The daughter of a Lost One.

	Hanae looked at Shampoo, and her heart clenched at
the soulful gaze that her niece conveyed. Of a niece she
never knew, borne out of a woman whom she never really fully
understood. "If you were in my place, would you?"

	"I --" Shampoo shrugged as she brought the child
closer and gave a big hug. She tried to convey all that she
could in that moment, of all the words that she could not
have said, and all the feelings she could not share. "I
honestly don't know, Hanae. She was my cousin, I loved her
greatly."

	"But will you kill daddy for her, 'ntie Shampoo?"
Hanae asked with persistence.

	Shampoo shook her head, she was crying once again.
This time, more than a single drop fell from her brown eyes.
She tried not to let the tears show in her voice, although
she failed at the attempt miserably. "I loved him too,
Hanae."

	"Revenge won't give me back my parents tomorrow. It
will make me lose my father today," Hanae whispered wisely
as she stayed still while Shampoo cried and clung on to her
desperately. "I can't live in the past 'ntie. That's why I
have to be happy. Will you be happy for me too?"

	There was a moment of silence as Shampoo pulled away
from the small girl Ranma had raised. The little girl, whom
weeks ago she had hated for robbing her of the person she
loved, had also given them back.

	Compared to the burden that this child had to carry
day by day, Shampoo's own depression shrank and became all
too trivial in her own eyes. Agreeing was not difficult.
"Yes, Hanae. I will try to be happy for you."


				~~~


	Ifuku immediately went to Akane's side when she
found out that the woman was back in the house and was
poisoned. Ifuku assumed the position as Akane's maid,
immediately seeking a way to make Akane's sickness at least
a lesser bit of hell, especially since she had been in a
similar position just that morning.

	Nabiki was surprised when she saw her there tending
to Akane. She raised an eyebrow and asked, "Will your
brother disapprove of your servitude to Akane?"

	Ranma looked at Nabiki, bewildered at the question.
He was not told that she was a samurai yet. Shampoo did not
have the details on why they were in that cell with her.
Ifuku shook her head as she replaced the cloth on Akane's
forehead. "I've known nothing else. My previous life is a
distant memory, too far gone to remember, yet too strong to
forget. My brother will not care that I serve your house, as
long as I am able to serve his."

	Bringing over a small bowl of pungent liquid Nabiki
propped Akane up to help her drink it. None of the liquid
was wasted, Nabiki made sure that the girl drank drop per
unpleasant drop.

	"You have found what poisons were used?" Ranma asked
mildly, his attention already on his wife, though he stood
near the doorway. "Are you sure?"

	"It's always a gamble," Nabiki admitted as she
placed Akane back on the bed. She sighed. "I'm inclined to
believe that Kodachi is indeed within another person's body.
It would explain that unknown samurai's death, and Akane's
poisoning."

	It would explain everything but how.

	There was doubt in Ranma's eyes, but he did not
object. He did not show any doubt in Nabiki's judgment when
there were other people. They were always united upon
questioning. Always showed support with every decision,
especially in front of others.

	"She'll be well in a few days," Nabiki reassured her
brother as she stood up from administering her treatment and
brought the bowl carrying the antidote with her.

	Kodachi was adept in mixing potions. She probably
catalogued every poisonous plant brought up in her
greenhouse and extracted in her laboratory. Mixtures of
toxins were her specialty, and whether it was through
ingestion, inhalation or skin absorption, Kodachi had
already managed to create them all.

	It had forced Nabiki to study every known antidote
to every known poison. Ranma smiled ruefully at her. "I'm
sure thankful for Lin Ke."

	Nabiki grimaced at the name of the Chinese herbalist
from Yaocaicun, another name from their past. "Speak for
yourself, brother. I'd rather not have known her with all
that Mandrake and 'Flower of Womanhood' crap."

	"She *did* give you a lot of information on curing
poisons," Ranma reminded her as she took a folded paper from
her obi and gave it to Ifuku. "She was a real lifesaver."

	"Yeah, *after* her twin Pin Ke managed to poison the
two of us." The two attacked them over a grievance that
Shampoo managed to incur. Nabiki was adept enough to
remember most of the medicinal value of the plants Lin Ke
had thrown at her when Pin Ke's attacks went awry. "You make
it sound like we sat down over a cup of tea and traded
medicinal secrets. It was more like a survival camp."

	Ranma snorted. Learning through their ten year
training trip had never been just 'sitting down over a cup
of tea'. Every day brought opponents, new rivals, new
grudges, all of whose attacks they needed to learn quickly
and assess accurately. Their survival camp was lethal --
they were allowed no mistakes.

	After Nabiki told Ifuku on what to do with the
powder she had just handed over, she glared at Ranma. "This
isn't funny, you know."

	He smiled. "There's nothing wrong in seeing a little
bit of humor in everything. We have to live day to day, else
we won't live at all. At least they taught us that nana-kusa
gayu isn't exactly a cure-all drug."

	Nana-kusa gayu. It was porridge with seven kinds of
spring herbs, believed capable of preventing and curing
every known disease. They tried to use it as a block against
Pin Ke, and were paralyzed days after. Ranma reminded her
that she hadn't instructed anybody to cook that yet. It was
tradition to eat it on the seventh day of the New Year.
Pushing festivities out of her mind, Nabiki sighed at his
sudden mood change. "You still have a maniac that's after
your wife, you know."	Ranma sobered up after that, all
humor he had professed to have disappearing with concern
over Akane's welfare. "If what Shampoo tells us is true...
then she really isn't my wife. And that maniac is."

	"You win some, you lose some." Nabiki looked at
Ifuku, whom they had completely neglected in the
conversation. That was fine when Ifuku had been an ordinary
peasant... now that she was samurai, politeness demanded she
be included. "I'm sorry Ifu -- Shori-san. I'm sure Sara
would gladly take over your task."

	Ifuku shook her head as she held on to the packet
that had been entrusted to her. "Ifuku is my name, Lady
Nabiki. I've said it to you my lady, and I will say it
again, serving has been the only life I have ever known. I
will take care of Lady Akane until my brother takes me
home."

	Nabiki was disconcerted by this but let Ifuku do as
she pleased. Ranma turned to walk out of the door, already
motioning her to join him. She assumed it was to sort things
out, make plans for tomorrow.

	She just hoped that the second day of the New Year
would bring more luck than the first had.


				~~~


	Sohin nursed his shoulder as he half lugged Omokage
through the small forest. The samurai was bigger and more
muscled than he was, which made tree hopping out of the
question. He was not about to add to his injuries while
fleeing from his enemies.

	Groaning, Sohin looked at his companion. They had
been running for what seemed like hours, although it must
have just been a few minutes for the moon had not moved much
from the last time he had looked up. They had been near Rose
Brier when they had attacked. The gates leading to the
estate should loom over their heads soon.

	His thoughts traveled to Ifuku as he trudged through
the forest slowly. Ifuku was fast, but so was Kikuko, and
Kikuko was trained and skilled enough to lead. He winced as
pain shot through his arm, reminding him just how much he
wanted to die at the moment.

	He shook his head to clear his thoughts reminding
himself that death wishes did not help his cause nor should
they be entertained as he moved on a steady pace towards
Rose Brier,. It was no use thinking of death at a time of
desperation.

	Shifting Omokage, he wondered if he should have just
left the man, and gone back for him when he had more help.
He was extremely heavy, and Sohin wasn't used to carrying a
man this bulky at such a distance. He was thankful that he
was at least gifted with strength if not the speed that the
Saotomes had shown.

	He couldn't stop, because he feared that some of
Kikuko's men might find him. He killed the two Tendo samurai
that had ganged up on him, but he wasn't sure about
Omokage's opponents. He just found Omokage dead to the
world. Fortunately, the man was just unconscious.

	'Besides he's my ticket to Saotome territory,' Sohin
thought, pausing over a root that almost tripped him. Sohin
wasn't known in Saotome territory, but Omokage was. 'Just my
luck if they think *I* killed the bastard.'

	It *was* highly probable since he was an unknown
entity. Some men might just kill him off the bat without
questions asked. It lessened complications that way. He just
hoped he had enough energy to run one more time if they
tried.

	'Ifuku, you better be alive,' he threatened, as if
his thoughts would assure Ifuku's safety. 'And if she were
alive? What then? Would she have told the Saotomes our
secrets? Would she have told them our lies?'

	'Sometimes being dead is a whole lot less
complicated than being alive. Actually being dead *is* a
whole lot less complicated than being alive. Not just
*sometimes*.' He took a deep breath. 'This is not helping.
Not that anything is helping,' he thought as he moved. Being
sarcastic when alone was a dreadful habit he'd picked up
when he was training. So was the rambling.

	"You there!" a shout from the trees.

	Sohin barely heard the words because of his
wandering thoughts and maybe because of fatigue caused
disorientation. Whatever the reason, he moved through the
forest without heeding the hails. "Who goes there?"

	A warning shot was fired at him embedding at the
soil between his feet. He stared at it for a while before
its meaning finally sunk in. He dropped Omokage to the
ground from exhaustion and held the sword he'd stolen from
Kikuko in the air, hoping that they would not mistake the
gesture as a threat rather than a signal for concession.

	"I need to talk with Lord Saotome. Tell them it's
--" He trailed off at the name. It was times like this he
hated being just 'Sohin'. Just Sohin was not going to cut
it. At least not for these samurai to take him seriously,
especially since he was bringing a half-dead Saotome samurai
along.

	Making up his mind, he spoke again, "Tell them it's
Tendo Sohin." One samurai approached from one of the dark
corners of the forest to take his sword.

	He was not killed, which was a good sign. Another
took Omokage and carried him slung across his shoulders like
a bag of rice. Finally another samurai took hold of his
hands and bound them while pushing him in the direction of
the Saotome house.

	He looked towards the lights with grim determination
and a heartfelt plea to Ifuku: 'Be at the house, and please,
please, be alive.'





	Ifuku ran down the steps when she found out that
Sohin had arrived. As soon as she saw him, she ran to him
crying, and then slowed down, her head bowed to hide her
tears. There were too many people watching for her throw her
arms around him. Too many people watching for her to press
her lips on his cheek to show that she was thankful for his
presence, thankful that he'd reached her alive.

	It was Nabiki who cleared her throat. Uneasy to
watch the scene and yet, both she and Ranma were spectators
to the meeting.

	She would have preferred it if she didn't have to
watch the display. However, it was Nabiki and Ranma who
Sohin had asked for first and it was their house and fief.
Trying to ease the tension present in the room, Nabiki
asked, "Sohin, would you take your wife to her brother?"

	Ifuku's eyes searched Sohin's own. Her eyes already
dry from the tears she had, just moments ago, shed. Nabiki
sensed that there was an unspoken question between the two
of them that had nothing to do with her question and
everything to do with what they were running away from.

	Giving a resigned sigh, Sohin nodded and looked
away. Ifuku turned slowly towards the Saotome twins, her
hands to her sides, clutching her kimono desperately. She
had changed the white garments the monks had given her into
one of her own plain servant's kimono earlier. Nabiki would
have offered one of hers, but she sensed the move would only
insult the proud woman.

	"We have not been completely honest with you," Ifuku
whispered as she looked at the twins, her eyes imploring the
two of them to understand what she was about to reveal.
"When I was young, my siblings and I were separated. My
sister, Akane, was given to a neighboring clan, and my
brother, Eruchii, was sent to the monks... to train for his
heritage."

	The logic to the separation was simple. The children
had been frightened, pursued under the threat of death.
Three children would be easier to spot than one child.
Ifuku's foster mother entered as a servant to the Saotome
Clan, pretending that Ifuku was her child.

	Since it had been Genma's practice to leave the
twins at a monastery so that they could be trained in the
monk's fighting skills, Ranma's first interest, as most of
his other interest goes, went to that aspect of Ifuku's
story. "He knows how to fight?"

	Nodding, Ifuku continued with her story, "When I was
thirteen, some Tendo samurai came looking for us in this
territory.

	"Lady Chisei, the Tendo patriarch's legal wife, had
not given up so easily in the search, and when all else had
seemed lost she looked into the angle that three frightened
children might have taken. They looked for children who were
suddenly adopted by families."

	Sohin moved closer to Ifuku to show his support. He
did not interrupt, nor did he appear to be listening. The
story brought out his own demons, locking him in a silent
battle while the truth unfolded. His lips continually inched
to a frown that by the time Ifuku was telling the tale of
Akane's whereabouts, his face had contorted to both a mask
of pain and an equal amount of anger.

	Nabiki wondered why Sohin would be affected by an
event that happened long before he met his wife, and then
remembered that Ifuku had told them Sohin had been Akane's
guardian. Their flight must have also been his escape.

	"I was more endangered than my sister because she
was hidden too far north. Because I was in such grave danger
of being found out, we decided that I should marry." Ifuku
smiled a bit, although both the twins did not understand how
her marital status would change her situation. "We expected
that Chisei would not expect the Tendo heirs to marry,
because father had betrothed each of us to children of
adjacent clans. It was political and strategic."

	Nabiki understood, given that she had studied Chisei
closely, trying to find her link to Kodachi. "Lady Chisei
wanted their lands as badly as she wanted yours. She also
loved power so much that she would not understand why you
would give up that same power willingly. And, it's easier to
hide if your numbers were changed."

	Ifuku nodded in confirmation. She then looked up to
Sohin who gave her an encouraging nod before she continued.
"She was also looking for three children, and when you're
married, you're no longer a child."

	"The marriage is false," Ifuku announced. She
paused, giving them time to digest her words before she
expounded, "My foster mother did not want me to marry below
my station, and since no good samurai would actually marry a
'peasant' like me, we staged a good one with Sohin."

	"So you just chose Sohin because he was there?"
Ranma asked curiously. Not understanding why someone would
go through the complicated charade of a marriage that both
Ranma and Nabiki *didn't* know of but apparently, everybody
else in the household knew.

	Nabiki watched the two closely. Although they
claimed that they were not husband and wife, there was the
deep current of closeness that flowed between the two of
them. It was a vein which was visible throughout the time
that Nabiki had seen them together. Yet since they were
separated and saw each other fleetingly and rarely, such
closeness would not have emerged. No actor could fake
neither the emotion that Ifuku had displayed when she
actually flew down to greet Sohin, nor the trust that they
had shown each other even with the suspicious marital comb
in Nabiki's possession.

	If these two were not wed, then they were well on
the road to getting there. Her brow furrowed at the thought:
a runaway heir and a gift vendor. Not an entirely
displeasing idea, but a radical one nonetheless.

	"Oh no... Sohin was a carefully calculated choice."
Ifuku smiled as she leaned against Sohin's chest for
support, which he gladly gave. "You see Sohin is --"

	It was Sohin's hand against Ifuku's shoulder that
had stopped her from finishing her sentence. In that
instant, even without the meeting of eyes nor the parting of
lips, words were spoken between the two of them.

	Ifuku stopped talking immediately, letting Sohin
take part in the story for the first time. She bowed her
head low, lending weight to the importance of the next
words. When the twin's attention shifted, Sohin spoke.

	"I'm Tendo Eruchii," Sohin finished for her. The
admission caused a small stir between the twins. "I *am* her
brother."





	Nabiki held her hand gingerly as she went towards
her room. She could not believe she had acted out against
Sohin. 'Eruchii,' she corrected herself. If her brother had
suspicions before, he was bound to have them all cleared by
now.

	She grimaced, she should not have reacted as
strongly as she had, especially not in front of his *sister*
and her own brother. When she had rounded the corner towards
her room she stopped and found Sohin leaning against her
doors.

	She had forgotten he knew where her room was. There
was a red mark on his face, visible even from a few
arm-lengths away. "You're blocking my way."

	"Don't tell me you're mad over this," there was
exasperation in his voice, but he did not move from his
position and eyed her wearily. "You have to understand, it
was something that I had to do. We would have died."

	"I don't question what you did," Nabiki murmured
bringing her hands slowly towards to her side then looking
at Sohin's eyes. She smiled lightly although she knew it was
fake to anyone who knew her. "Does understanding your
motives make me hurt any less?"

	He didn't answer, and Nabiki nodded. "So it's best,
Eruchii-sama, if we avoid each other completely from now on.
I have nothing to give you, and you have nothing to offer to
me."

	"You lied to me too, you know," he accused before
she completely passed him to reach for her room. "You, my
lady, are also married."

	Nabiki had stopped when she was side-by-side with
him, although she did not look at him directly, nor did he
turn towards her. "I never lied to you, Eruchii-sama. You
presume too much when you think you should know of my own
marriage when you did not deem me worthy to know of yours."

	"Lady Na--"

	"No not Nabiki, Eruchii-sama," Nabiki corrected
lightly, moving past him towards her room. "I am Lady
Ikkasei."

	He caught her hand before she could fully step into
her room. "Tendo Nabiki sounds more appropriate, do you not
think so?"

	"Unfortunately, she also doesn't exist." She looked
wearily at the hand that was preventing her from moving.
"Please let me go Eruchii-sama. I am tired from the ordeal,
and I have more things to check before I can rest. You're
keeping me from my duties."

	"Those are Lady Saotome's duties," Sohin reminded
her sternly. Then in a softer voice he repeated, "My name is
Sohin."

	"I'd rather not use something which was used to
deceive me," Nabiki protested then raised her hand to take
Sohin's own off of her arm. "Forget what you thought
happened. I'm sorry."

	"You're sorry?" Instead of letting her go he took
both of her shoulders and turned her towards him. "Is that
all you can say? We will probably never see each other
again, and all you can say is you're sorry?"

	"Well what do you expect me to say?" Nabiki
challenged him, not pulling back from his grip. "As you've
pointed out quite conveniently, I am *married*. I am
*married* to the father of my son. What part of that don't
you understand?"

	Sohin stopped momentarily, her son's existence was
probably new to him. They knew each other for one whole
month, and he expected to know everything about her. He
expected too much. "Which part about that irritates you
more, my lady, the fact that you're married or the fact that
I'm not willing to understand?" he goaded her with familiar
words.

	"My marriage *obviously*," she said in long
drawn-out syllables to further bother him. It had its
desired effect. He clamped his mouth shut in a way that
suggested deeply controlled anger. "Sayonara, Eruchii-sama.
Long farewells are not among my better assets."

	"There's always room for improvement. A decent
farewell, remember?" he reminded her shifting his hands
towards her upturned face. Nabiki evaded the touch by
turning her face away. Reluctantly, Sohin let her go. Then,
completely contradicting his earlier statement that they
would probably never meet again, he said, "Not sayonara,
Lady Nabiki. We *will* meet again."

	With that, he let her go and disappeared beyond the
hallways.


				~~~


	Kodachi stealthily crept inside of the Saotome house
with no problems while Ranma and Nabiki were both distracted
with what Ifuku was revealing to them. Whatever her former
maid would tell them, she was sure that they were going to
be held up for hours.

	The twins did not believe everything easily. They
had seen too many lies to believe anything at all. Too
mistrustful of human nature not to question what Ifuku would
reveal. And Kodachi was betting Ifuku would reveal her true
identity. She moved room to room, searching for Akane. She
did not have to search long.

	Kodachi blew out the lights once inside the room.
Although her sight was hampered in the dark, at least not
every samurai that would walk by would notice that there was
someone else in the room. It would buy her some time to
escape. She hoped it would not come to that, though. Or at
least she would have already finished her task before the
samurai walked in on them.

	There were two things Kodachi wanted when she had
been 'resurrected'. One was to continue her plan of bringing
Ranma Saotome to destruction. The other was to get her body
back.

	Fingering the vial that would successfully give her
the latter, she frowned. The woman who freed her from her
prison gave it to her and told her that it would bring her
body back. But it had not been easy. It needed her body to
reject the soul that currently inhabited. This meant that
Akane needed to be dying or close to death for the serum to
work. A tricky concept since she didn't want to kill her
body and make it uninhabitable by any form.

	The body needed to be devoid of a soul for hers to
inhabit it, the woman had said as she handed the last 'gift'
when she had visited her in her regeneration state. A
weakened spirit would be easier to push out than one willing
to fight. "Too bad I wasn't here when you were willing to
die, ne, Akane-san?"

	Uncapping the small glass vial Kodachi propped Akane
up and made sure some of the liquid trickled down Akane's
throat. After which she drank the rest of the liquid that
was left and then discarded it carelessly on the floor. It
tasted sweet, which surprised Kodachi, because it was her
experience that anything related to the arcane always tasted
awful.

	"What now?" Kodachi muttered as she took in Akane's
condition. The poison she gave her had been lethal enough to
kill, but not at the speed she had initially let Akane
believe. No she had not chosen the drug for its speed. In
fact the lethal poisons were always slow to kill. She chose
the poison because of the cure, and the cure's side-effects.
And Nabiki was familiar with the cure that went along with
it.

	Always leave an escape.

	It gave killing an edge. Kodachi smiled.

	The room was suddenly spinning. She got to her knees
and slowly sat down. She brought one hand against her head
and moaned. "If I ever survive this, I swear I am never
going to try to switching bodies again," she muttered.





	Akane moaned to wakefulness, bringing her hand to
her head. It was throbbing tremendously. There was also a
nagging sense of wrongness about her body that she couldn't
place.

	Dismissing that as irrelevant for the moment, she
massaged her temple for its pain to go away. She had not
expected Nabiki's cure to work so soon. She had thought that
after she had been given medicine it would take a few days
to recover. At least make her a bit weak. That weakness was
lacking in her now. Other than the minor headache she was
having, she felt fine.

	Stopping the ministrations on her temple she brought
her hand down and sighed. "Maybe a bath would help," she
pondered out loud, and then frowned. Her voice sounded
different to her ears. Deeper than the one she had been used
to. Dismissing it as a side-effect of the drug, she pushed
herself up... and wobbled a bit.

	Cursing, she took a few steps before steadying
herself. It reminded her of a child learning how to walk.
The drug messed up her sense of balance. "Screw around with
my already messed up brain, huh?" Akane muttered as she
tested her steps, finally getting a hang of the simple
process of walking.

	She opened the shoji only to bump into Ranma and
Nabiki. She looked immediately to the floor, blushing a bit.
Although she could not recall what she asked Ranma in her
fevered state, she was sure that somewhere along the lines
she had managed to embarrass herself yet again.

	She didn't know what to tell him, so she moved on to
Nabiki. At least it had been easier for her to talk to
Nabiki. "Uh, thanks for the antidote, Nabiki-san. It worked
wonders. I just *really* need a bath."

	The twins blinked at that, which she had missed
entirely because of her preoccupation with the floor, and
then looked at her. "Just... who are you... exactly?" That
had been from Ranma.

	"What?" Akane asked puzzled, looking up from the
floor. Both of the twins regarded her with a bit of
suspicion. "Are you joking?"

	"Not particularly," Nabiki drawled, her eyebrow
raised, as she awaited the answer to her question. "Hurry
up, we don't have the entire night, and it's New Year. We
have a lot of things to do, prayers to say, servants to send
off to shrines, mothers to appease. You get the idea."

	"It's me," Akane answered her eyebrows knit together
in confusion, her hand pressed to her heart for emphasis.
"Akane, you know sick girl, poisoned by --"

	"Kodachi!" Akane identified the voice as Ifuku's.
Sohin had come up behind the agitated Ifuku and put his
hands on her shoulders to soothe her. Sohin regarded her
suspiciously.

	"Yes, that's right, girl poisoned by Kodachi," Akane
finished with a smile.

	Nabiki looked at her dubiously, and Ranma took her
shoulders and spun her back around into the dark room
towards the direction where she came from. "If you're
Akane..." he paused, pointing to the woman who was lying
down on the room she just exited before continuing, "...
then who's that?"

	Akane was bewildered but looked at the figure Ranma
was pointing at. She looked like she was in deep sleep, and
she was wearing one of the kimonos Ranma had ordered for her
to wear after her 'amnesia'. Her eyes traveled to the face,
and she gasped at the face she had been accustomed to for
the months of her stay in Rose Brier. "Oh my god," Akane
whispered.

	She was staring back at Kodachi Kuno's face.
Something that wasn't unusual in other circumstances. But
this was the face that she had studied in the mirror
endlessly. Her hand flew to her face immediately and then
pulled at her hair. It was short, shoulder-length. Pulling a
handful of the strands to her face she noticed they weren't
Kodachi's curled locks, and were the blue black shade of her
own instead. She almost flew down to the small hand mirror
in the room to see her face. The woman's face that stared
back at her was something she thought she would never see
again.

	She spun around to look at the twins and then at
Ifuku. "I'm me again."

	Nabiki was immediately on to her patient bringing
her hand up to her head. She lit up the lamp that had been
extinguished in the room and took in Kodachi's general
appearance. "She's not dead."

	"Okay... now what do we do with you?" Ranma muttered
to Akane.

	Still not having gotten over her exhilaration at
losing Kodachi's body to regain her own, Akane had not
considered the consequences of the lost form. "A larger
mirror, I want to see my entire face!" She was as giddy as a
child receiving present on New Year's Day. Then she giggled
again, it *was* New Year.

	"You're behind the border attacks. Why?" Nabiki
demanded from inside, leaving her patient again to focus on
their new visitor. "Is it bravery that makes you enter Rose
Brier or just plain stupidity?"

	Reeling from the insult Akane turned to Nabiki and
frowned. "I'm not --"

	"She's the one who took me this morning," Kodachi's
voice wafted from the dimly lit room. All eyes moved towards
the girl who was weakly trying to get up from the futon.
"She almost killed me."

	"*I* was the one kidnapped this morning by Kikuko
and Koji!" Akane protested she turned to look at Ranma. "You
believe me don't you?"

	There was distrust in his eyes. Akane turned to
Nabiki, and whereas her twin had reservations, her eyes
showed open anger. Finally Akane looked at Ifuku. "Don't
tell me you don't believe me either?"

	Ifuku looked away. Finally understanding the full
impact of her sudden 'good fortune', Akane felt helplessness
catch up with her. Of course the truth was difficult to
believe.

	It was just like her amnesia.

	She was going to have one hell of a time proving it.
She was telling the truth -- but when had the truth *ever*
been on her side, anyway?


				~~~


	Cologne entered the Saotome house. It was eerily
silent for New Year. The Japanese were so fond of bonenkai
parties, year-forgetting parties, that she was sure the
Saotome house would be full of their vassals. In desperate
times, people clung to moments where they could forget what
ailed them, even for a while.

	It was a surprise to find that other than the two
samurai standing guard at the gate, Rose Brier was empty.
The samurai said that its household help, which consisted of
families, were let off early. The decorations were long
since forgotten, the pine kadomatsu with its bamboo and plum
which hung at the gates had been trampled by an unsuspecting
guest. Someone had tried to arrange it again, but it still
looked lopsided to the eye. Cologne wondered if it was going
to survive the two weeks it was supposed to remain.

	Looking up at the sacred rope hung towards the front
entrance to Rose Brier, Cologne wondered if it had succeeded
in its job of keeping evil spirits away. Sometimes, evil
spirits were better than their living counterparts.

	No one greeted her at the doorstep of the house, and
she had been the one to find the twins in the hallways. They
did not seem surprised to see her, and both of them looked
weary to the bone instead of cheerful from the holiday. They
realized her presence at the same time, spun around to face
her and stopped to greet her happy New Year.

	"You look grim, students," Cologne noted as she
looked them over. It was not entirely the way that one
should spend the New Year. Nabiki was carrying a basin of
water and some towels. Ranma looked like he'd been running
back and forth from room to room. "If this is how the rest
of your year starts, I hope you're prepared for more damage
control."

	Neither of them particularly appreciated her wry
humor but didn't speak out. Had they been the children she
had taught in China, that comment would have at least
sparked the desire to hit her with her own cane. Growing old
tended to make her students less fun.

	"Mother seems to be taking all of this in stride,"
Nabiki commented as she moved towards the outside to empty
the wash water and get fresh water. She had yet to take care
of Omokage, and neither she nor Ranma had heard his story
yet. "She is with Shampoo and the children, matriarch.
They're celebrating the New Year."

	"I don't need to celebrate. I've had more than a
hundred years of celebration," Cologne declared as she
turned to Ranma, who was in the process of getting some
supplies from a closet filled with a mismatched first aid
kit. In trying to help Nabiki with both her patients' cure,
and keeping the house from falling apart, he looked
completely exhausted. "You two need help more than
celebration."

	"I'll take these supplies to Omokage, Nabiki. I'm
going to check on our mystery girl and the Tendo samurai
Kikuko," Ranma excused himself as he moved out of the
hallway. On afterthought he said. "Lady --" He faltered at
the name. "My wife was poisoned recently, matriarch. I would
appreciate it if you looked at her."

	Poisoned when no doctor was around because of
ganjitsu? Well planned.

	Nabiki started on her own tasks as well. Both were
too busy to notice if the pleasantries exchanged were
impolite. Nabiki suddenly remembered Shampoo as she started
towards the well to fetch some water, so she turned around
to call to Cologne, "Elder! I thought you were worried about
your granddaughter?"

	"You said she was celebrating," Cologne answered
looking at Nabiki affectionately. "She must be fine. There
are other more pressing matters, Nabiki, and my
great-granddaughter won't die on me."

	Nabiki nodded and then left. Deciding to help
however she could, Cologne proceeded on her first task,
which was trying to cure Kodachi. And since Ranma had been
too busy to remember that Cologne did not know the
whereabouts of his wife, she needed to look for her.

	Her search did not take long. She found Kodachi in
one of the dark rooms of the house. The woman was in an
upright position on her futon staring mindlessly at the
shoji where Cologne had entered. From her general survey,
Kodachi seemed fine. She did not understand what the twins
were so worried about.

	"Matriarch Cologne, what an honor to have you look
after me." Kodachi immediately snapped to attention when
Cologne had closed the door, and yet Cologne felt uneasy.
There was something in the tone of her voice that bothered
the old woman immensely. Kodachi made a small bow for her.
"I was assured that Nabiki knew what she was doing."

	Cologne lit one of the lamps, bathing the room with
its yellow glow. As her eyes adjusted to the light, Cologne
turned to look at Kodachi. The patient was sitting almost
serenely by the futon, a queen waiting for her subject to
bask in her radiance. Hopping towards the girl with her
cane, Cologne squinted at her. The close scrutiny did not
unsettle her. In fact, the woman met Cologne's gaze with one
of her own.

	Reaching out a hand to feel Kodachi's temperature,
Cologne was mildly surprised when the girl tried to slap it
away. Kodachi's left hand did not hit hers, since Cologne
had excellent reflexes. But Cologne had been surprised at
the action, reminiscent of Kodachi's older days.

	Even before Kodachi became Ranma's wife, Kodachi
knew of Ranma's multiple fianc�es. She knew about the
existence of the Amazons, and treated them a force to be
reckoned with. She detested the matriarch for the simple
reason that Cologne could not be beaten with either the fist
or the mind.

	Kodachi, suddenly realizing what she just did or at
least tried to do, had the decency to blush. How much of the
subservience she showed was pretend, Cologne could not
guess. It was the one moment that solidified Cologne's
diagnosis of the girl's condition.

	"I see you have your amnesia cured, Kodachi,"
Cologne diagnosed as she pogoed away from the girl to see
her clearly. Her mind was troubled over what she had just
found out as she stared intently at the hand that had
attempted to swipe her own. "A miraculous recovery. I
thought the amnesia was permanent."

	Kodachi did not show any outward reaction. Cologne
had suspected she wouldn't, as Kodachi had mastered pretense
in childhood. Her voice was hushed, as if she was uttering a
secret that only the two of them shared. "What do you mean,
matriarch?"

	"Nothing, Kodachi. It must be astonishing to have
your old memories back." Cologne wondered if Kodachi would
lash out at her, for the girl looked desperate. Yet
something held her back, and perhaps it was the knowledge
that there was no way Kodachi could win in a fight against
her, even with her tricks. Cologne had long since known that
Kodachi was a coward at best. Cowards strike only when they
believe they are safe.

	When Ranma entered the room, Cologne was
contemplating how to reveal that tidbit of information. His
arrival was timely, for she did not know how Kodachi would
react when backed into a corner. "Sorry, am I disturbing?"
he asked the Amazon.

	"Not at all son-in-law." Cologne motioned him in
with her free hand. She looked at her hand again, then at
Kodachi. Apparently he had finished his trip to both Omokage
and whomever else he needed to interrogate on the sketchy
matter of today's events. "What is it, boy?"

	"Akane, what happened out there?" Ranma asked his
wife, not bothering that Cologne was there. "That girl
claims a lot of things she cannot prove, and you claim she
wanted to kill you. She doesn't look like a girl who would
kill."

	Kodachi raised her chin arrogantly, an action
Cologne had not seen recently from the aforementioned woman.
Her tone was self assured when she answered Ranma's
statement with her own. "You do not look like a man who
would kill either, yet you would not hesitate to kill me if
the opportunity provided itself." Suddenly, as if
remembering something she bowed low and brought a hand to
her eye, as if wiping tears away. "She tried to kill me,
Ranma! I am just afraid, that's all."

	Cologne looked at Ranma's reaction and frowned.
Ranma still didn't know how to handle crying women. Not that
his wife was *really* crying, but a few crocodile tears were
enough for Ranma.

	"You said a girl claimed to be your wife?" Cologne
asked breaking the moment Kodachi was creating. She was
thankful she had not moved out of the room -- who knows what
Kodachi could have made Ranma do by then? "Could I speak to
her?"

	Ranma looked confused at the request. It was Kodachi
who shouted back, "No!"

	Ranma was torn between apologizing for his wife and
just leaving the room. At the vehement protest coming from
the supposedly weak girl, Cologne's resolve to meet the
mystery woman intensified. Cologne gave Ranma a small hit on
the head, reminiscent of the days he had spent as a trainee
under her wing. "Come on, young one. Let us see to this
impostor."

	Kodachi raised her hand to stop them but did not
continue. If she wanted not to be discovered, then she would
have to lie low. She would have to pretend, and whether she
liked it or not, Akane had been more 'agreeable' when she
had resided in her body. She took a deep breath.

	She had to pretend.

	For her plans to work, she had to pretend.


				~~~


	Cologne followed Ranma's movement through the
hallways, and entered alongside him when he had opened the
door that led to Akane's temporary quarters. Nabiki was
there, arms folded across her chest, staring at the girl
sitting on one of the zabutons in the center of the room, as
if looking at Akane would clear their current dilemma.

	Akane's eyes lit up when she saw who her visitor
was. "Matriarch Cologne!" Akane treated the matriarch with
respect and was happy that the woman was there. The woman
held sympathy for her plight and at times seemed to
understand that she was just trying to prove the truth. She
even defended Akane against her own granddaughter.

	Cologne looked Akane over silently and nodded,
instantly recognizing the girl that had named herself
Murasaki a few months before. Questions arose from her
presence, much as the puzzle of Kodachi's recovery from
amnesia. This girl, who claimed that she was Akane, a name
Kodachi had claimed only hours before as hers. "And your
name would be?"

	Akane looked at Ranma before answering the question
directed at her. The support she wished to gain from that
look was not given, and Ranma was looking at the old woman
instead of her. "Akane, Matriarch."

	"You change names as frequently as a snake changes
its skin, Akane," Cologne said after a while of speculation.
Her words were drawn out slowly for both emphasis and
thought. "What will your name be the next time we meet?"

	'Kodachi met Cologne in *my* body?' Akane thought
furiously, and though she rebelled at the idea, it would not
change the fact that Kodachi probably did a lot more things
with her body than she liked. "I'm sorry, matriarch."

	Raising her eyebrow, Cologne turned to her two
former students. "Kodachi's marital comb, Ranma, where is
it?"

	His hand quickly went inside his pocket and produced
the item Cologne was asking for. "I've been keeping it close
ever since someone attempted to steal it. Why do you want
it, Matriarch?"

	Nabiki's eyes widened, realization suddenly dawning
on her as Ranma handed the comb to Cologne. She quickly
turned to Akane. "*You* tried to steal the comb! You're
Murasaki."

	Akane shook her head as she denied the accusation.
"I *never* tried to steal anything!" She turned to Cologne
again, willing the matriarch to believe the truth in her
words.

	Cologne palmed the marital comb, a movement Akane
remembered from the time Cologne had tested the mysterious
mirror-shattering rose found in her room some months before.
"Do you recognize this, Akane?" She threw the small comb
towards Akane, who caught it with her right hand just as the
comb was about to hit her face.

	Akane opened her palm to find an exquisite marital
comb. Her fingers trailed the dragon carved onto its arch,
joining the rose which it was curled up against. She looked
up finding all of her inquisitors' eyes were on her. "It's a
beautifully-made comb, matriarch, one similar to a gift I
received just this morning, but one that I do not
recognize."

	Ranma's eyes narrowed. "I gave my wife a similar
comb this morning."

	Akane gasped indignantly at the accusation in his
voice. If she claimed recognition then she stole it. If she
didn't recognize it, then he hadn't given her the gift this
morning. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

	Ranma adorned her hair with the comb immediately
after giving it to her. It had been too dark, and she had
been too tired to examine it that evening. The next morning,
she was going to look at it after her bath, but her
kidnapping interrupted.

	"I know how I can solve your dilemma," Cologne
interrupted, stopping the argument as it started, watching
Akane keenly. Her reaction to the comb was of genuine
surprise, something which could not have happened if she had
been the one who stole the ornament. Yet there was no
denying the fact that it was this girl who had stood before
her months ago, with Shampoo right at her tail. "Bring your
wife, this girl, Ifuku and Shampoo to the dojo."

	The twins, trusting their former teacher immensely,
followed the instructions without question. They looked at
each other first before Ranma disappeared into the
corridors, and Nabiki turned to Akane. "Well, shall we go?"





	Nabiki looked at the two women standing in the
middle of the dojo. Although Kodachi was still recovering
from the poison, she looked miraculously well. Her stance
did not betray the weakness that she, just moments ago, had
shown. Ranma stood beside her while Cologne looked the two
women over.

	The twins stood silently watching as Cologne
scrutinized the two women in question. Finally, she
addressed the twins. "I cannot determine who is telling the
truth between the two, but I have talked things over with
the Saotomes."

	No such talk occurred, not since Cologne disappeared
into the dojo when they were rounding up the people she
requested. Neither of the two refuted her words though, and
her gaze told them not to. Cologne continued with her small
speech, "In the Amazon Village, there is an obsolete but
simple task we assign to find out who, between two women, is
the liar."

	Ranma and Nabiki looked at each other, they knew
many ways from the Amazon Village, but they did not claim to
know everything. Whenever disputes arose, it was settled
with a meeting of the elders, followed with a barrage of
other tests if it were serious enough to merit them. Most of
those tests were fights in the battlefield. Most of the
time, it didn't need to go to the elders, they just fought.

	Nabiki was more familiar with the Amazon laws than
Ranma, but they never witnessed women being tried and
executed. Those types of hearings were always private,
between a circle of elders and possibly a future elder
candidate. It was also rare since conflicts on Amazon soil
were hardly ever left for the elders to settle, especially
since all Amazon women believed in their capability to
fight. Truth was won with skill in battle.

	The doors to the dojo opened slightly as Ifuku and
Shampoo walked in silently, bowing with respect at those who
were present. Cologne nodded at the women. "You have been
serving Kodachi Kuno for quite some time, haven't you,
Ifuku? And Shampoo, is this the girl whom I set you out to
follow?"

	"Yes, matriarch," Ifuku answered as she righted
herself from the bow and then looked at the Saotomes who
were just as bewildered as she was by the events that were
beginning to unfold.

	Shampoo answered with a curt nod, her eyes looking
at Akane fiercely as if memorizing the face presented to
them. Her voice was clear and accusing in her vernacular,
"<This was the woman who captured me, who knew of the curse
of Jusenkyou. She is Kodachi Kuno, I do not know how or why
she looks the way she does, but I am not mistaken in this.>"

	Cologne took this all in stride and the twins stared
at Akane, their expressions grim. Cologne smiled at what she
had just orchestrated. She looked through the wide array of
bows and lingered over one with which Ranma himself
practiced his kyujutsu bow technique and took hold of the
long bow and two arrows. Had she not been on top of her
cane, the seven foot bamboo bow would easily have been twice
her height. Even with the help of her cane, the bow towered
above her one foot six inches, which she balanced easily on
her left hand.

	She threw the bow towards Ranma, an incredible feat
seeing the length of the weapon and her own size. She handed
him two arrows that she took from the quiver as soon as she
reached him. "I am sure you were trained enough by your
foster father to use this, son-in-law."

	He nodded at the assumption as he rubbed the shaft
of the twin arrows he held in his hands. He was still unsure
of what he was ding. Yet he was unable to voice a question,
knowing that it would break the hold that Cologne had over
the two girls that stood in trial before them. So he
remained silent as he saw to the arrows.

	"When Shampoo failed to kill the outsider woman who
bested her, she had been tested and the fate of Jusenkyou
was set upon her. She gained the form of the cat," Cologne
turned back to the two women, addressing them again in the
same formal voice that must have compelled all the elders in
the Amazon village to listen to her. Even in her diminutive
form, Cologne commanded both attention and respect. "We
shall settle this the way that the Amazons do. A trial by
fire. Ranma's arrows will tell us which of the two is Tendo
Akane."

	'This is madness,' Ranma thought as he gripped the
bow. Just as soon as he believed Akane's ridiculous story
about her being trapped in Kodachi's body, the person who
tried to get away with her poisoning claimed to have
switched their souls. *Again*. 'Pure madness.' Now Cologne
was pulling a stunt he didn't even begin to comprehend.

	"Son-in-law will release the arrows at the same
time. Whoever catches the arrow aimed at her must be telling
the truth. Whoever isn't will die. I mean catch, ladies, not
*evade*. That takes care of that, doesn't it?"

	The two women were stunned speechless while the
twins looked at the matriarch disbelievingly as she pogoed
towards them. "Well, son-in-law? I have promised them
something, and we are about to push through. Aim them well.
It would not do if they think I am bluffing."

	'Aren't you?' Ranma wanted to shout out. Instead he
took the two arrows and ripped out one of the three
balancing feathers from the fletching, so that when he shot,
one arrow would go to the right and the other to the left
obtusely. It assured that he would hit the two girls
simultaneously while he drew the bowstring only once.

	He rolled the arrows against his fingertips, gauging
the straightness of the nocks, not wanting his aim to
falter. He then grasped the shaft at the point and at the
fletching ends, twisting it to the right and to the left.

	It was a precaution that Genma taught them when they
were using the arrows, especially against people whom they
did not really want to kill. The arrows might break and
cause harm to the archer and in this case, his targets as
well.

	He did everything slowly, biding time, wishing
someone would stop this. But everyone watched. Even Nabiki
didn't move to halt the proceeding. She was frozen in this
tableau of Amazon justice, where chance and his arrows would
be judge and jury.

	Satisfied that the arrows did not twist easily nor
did he hear cracking sounds, he placed the arrows back to
back so that the featherless sides were touching and drew
them together on the bow. Cologne whispered to him
reassuringly, "Trust me, son-in-law. I know what I'm doing."

	'Do you?' Ranma wanted to howl. He wanted to shout
at her, demand her explanations, but he held his voice in
check. He trusted the matriarch's wisdom. He just wished
that they would end up with *someone* living. He wasn't even
sure if Akane was skilled enough to catch the arrow. Was the
entire length of the dojo far enough for the arrow's flight
to be easily caught using her skills? He taught her briefly
yes, but there was never any speed training in Akane's
regimen. She was solidly classified under the brute strength
department.

	He didn't want to kill her.

	He wondered if his uncertainty showed. He turned to
Nabiki, wanting her reassurance in the middle of this
turmoil. But her expression was hidden behind cold
calculation. He wondered what she thought of this
demonstration.

	Nabiki deepened her frown while Ranma aimed between
the two girls, disregarding eight fundamental stages of
shooting, hassetsu, and drawing the bow in front of him
horizontally instead of its usual upright position,
preparing to shoot at both of the women at the same time.
Being a student of the Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu required him to
learn every martial art available to him, including Kyudo.
It was dangerous to remove one of the three feathers because
in flight, the arrows rotated. He silently prayed that this
experiment would end well.

	"You're going along with this?" Akane demanded as
she looked at Ranma and then at Cologne. Incredulous that
anyone would even think of such a crazy stunt and that
anyone would actually agree to perform it. "If this is some
sort of twisted joke, please end it now. It's hard enough to
shoot with one arrow, but with two going opposite
directions? With your bow not even in a traditional
position?"

	Ranma drew the bow in answer to her question. Both
of the women in trial eyed the arrows, Akane wearily and
Kodachi defiantly. For everyone in the room, time stood
still as Ranma held the bow. Nabiki was afraid to blink to
find out that she missed the crucial moment.

	He drew the bowstring back and loosed the arrow in
one fluid motion.





	Akane stared at her right hand as she disbelievingly
looked at the arrow caught there. Her blood was flowing
freely from the cut that the arrowhead produced at its high
velocity.

	She turned to Kodachi who was holding her own arrow
in an expression that told Akane how expressly this little
game tested her patience.

	A silly trial all done for an arrow which was caught
by both parties. Her gaze was riveted by the stunned look of
Nabiki, as well as the grim look Ranma had.

	Both women caught the arrows in flight just seconds
before they would hit their respective marks in their chest.

	There was a moment of complete silence, of stunned
disbelief. From the two women because they had caught it in
the first place, from the twins *because* they pushed
through with the idea and from all of them because *both*
the women caught the projectile.

	Cologne was the first to break the eerie silence
that fellfell when the whistling arrow had been stopped by
both their hands from the death blow, as she clapped slowly.
"An excellent show if I do say so myself. Your technique has
not dimmed through the years, son-in-law. And the speed in
which you both have performed was exemplary for ones who
have not trained as long as my students have."

	It was just as well that Ranma shot them from the
end of the room rather than a closer distance. If he was
closer they would have probably died trying.

	Akane broke the arrow that she had held, her hand
bleeding because of the movement of the shaft through her
palm. It would scar, she was sure, remembrance of the lunacy
that happened today and the resulting non-resolve that
followed. "And what has been the purpose of all of this? We
*both* caught it."

	There was an uneasy silence again. It was then that
they understood what the spectacle had all been about. "It
wasn't the person who missed that was important..." Nabiki
murmured in understanding as she stared at the two girls'
arrows and then at the matriarch's wide grin. "It was how it
was caught."

	Nabiki finished as she watched the two women in
front of her, amazed by the fact that no one had noticed
that small detail before then. In fact, if Cologne hadn't
pointed it out, no one would have noticed it at all.

	It required a consummate actor to make the women
believe that they were indeed going to be condemned if they
did not catch the projectiles. Cologne smiled with pleasure
that her little game worked. She turned to Nabiki and nodded
to Shampoo who watched silently beside Ifuku. "You have
always been quick to catch on, daughter."

	"What the hell is going on here?" Kodachi demanded
speaking for the first time since arriving at the dojo,
waving the arrow she caught threateningly in front of her
with her left hand. "I am *sick* and all you can do is play
*games* with a senile old woman."

	Ranma ignored Kodachi's outburst, and as the rest of
the people present, he stared at the twin arrows that both
women held against their hands. One woman threateningly
raised it in the air, and the other gripping it tightly
against her bleeding hand. He nodded as he backed out of the
dojo, he understood what Cologne had presented, the glaring
difference so obvious now that the two women stood
side-by-side. "Ifu -- Lady Shori, please inform your brother
that I will need to talk to him regarding your third
sibling, Tendo Akane."

	Ifuku did not take offense at his stumble over her
name, and her answer did not mark her above any lowly
servant of the house. "Yes, my lord," she answered
obediently and excused herself from those present at the
dojo. She then followed his stormy exit of the room and
disappeared into the main house.

	Kodachi, sensing that something important that she
did not understand has transpired, threw down the arrow she
had cleanly caught earlier and broke it with her heel. She
made sure that her departure was even more notable than
Ranma's, yet none of those left in the dojo noticed her
parting.

	Akane, who still did not believe the ordeal was
over, stared at the wound on her hand, too shocked that she
had actually survived, the arrow her blood sinuously covered
falling limply from her right hand. She stared at the drops
of blood that fell on the tatami, and the faraway corners of
her brain mentally noted that it would need to be changed.

	She turned to Cologne, Nabiki, and Shampoo, who were
also intent on leaving. "I don't understand. Will we be
tested again?" Akane wondered, confused at the turn of
events.

	Shampoo did not halt her exit from the room and was
already inside the house by the time Cologne and Nabiki
turned to look back. Both of them exchanged glances before
Nabiki decided that it was her responsibility to explain.
Cologne nodded at the silent decision of her student and
left them alone for privacy.

	Akane stared hard at the person who had made her
life miserable in Rose Brier. Nabiki was a difficult
adversary, yet as she stood there, alone facing her, there
was an uncertainty that Akane had never associated with the
proud woman.

	Nabiki hesitated before she approached Akane. As she
walked closer, Nabiki gracefully took off the long white
bindings that kept her hair in the high pony-tail she had
adopted when she had been scurrying around the house playing
doctor just hours before.

	Her hair fell loose now, below her waist as she
straightened the cloth and took Akane's bleeding hand. She
stared at it for a moment, as if the blood had rendered her
mute, the perfect imitation of a court lady unused to seeing
the dark liquid spilled.

	Nabiki then wiped the warm liquid away using her
sleeve, like a servant wiping the shoe of his master with
his shirt. Finally deciding that the wound was as clean as
it was going to get without the aid of water, she wound her
hair bindings around Akane's hand while whispering, "There
are a lot of things in the world I cannot explain, Akane,
and a lot of things that will go unexplained. Jusenkyou is
the first of many."

	As Nabiki tied the ends of the bandage, she smiled
at her work, but shook her head at the sight of Akane's
blood already seeping through the dressing. "How you were
brought to us is a mystery. For the most part, you have
claimed to be Ranma's wife up to this morning, and before
that you have claimed to be Akane Tendo, even Akane Hibiki.
A woman from the future."

	Akane's eyes grew wide, realizing that Nabiki
finally believed the truth. Not just the fact that she had
been, until moments ago, in the body of Kodachi Saotome ...
or maybe transfigured into Kodachi Saotome, but the fact
that she had been Akane Hibiki in another life. "You believe
me?"

	Looking up from her handiwork, Nabiki nodded, her
smile bittersweet, tinged with both regret for what might
have been and the knowledge of what never could be. "Yes,
Akane Tendo, I believe you." She traced the gash that was
underneath the bandages almost lovingly. "Because of this
wound, I believe you."

	Akane was dumb struck, not only because of Nabiki's
words but also because of the muted unhappiness in which she
said them. "But why?"

	"Akane," Nabiki whispered, her voice slowly fading
in the small room as if she deliberately did not want to say
the words that proved the truth for all of them. She patted
the right hand which she had just bandaged carefully.
"Kodachi is left handed."

	Akane stared at her hand, amazed that a small detail
she virtually ignored could have saved her life. "Kodachi is
left handed?" she repeated from sheer surprise that no one
had detected the difference.

	As if reading her thoughts, Nabiki let go of Akane's
wounded hand. "Ranma and I are ambidextrous. We were trained
by our foster father not to rely on one hand when we were
young." She smiled ruefully then. "We tend to see ourselves
in others. We tend to assume that our abilities can be done
by everyone else."

	The household probably did not notice, or assumed it
was an effect of her amnesia. Ifuku probably thought that
Akane was ambidextrous as well. "Left handed..." she trailed
off as if repeating the words would make her realize its
true value.

	"Yes, she was accused of being touched by the kami,
remember? Some people even said that her writing hand was a
sure sign of this," Nabiki confirmed, then as an
afterthought, as amends for the wrongs that she had done to
this woman she said, "Thank you for the time you spent with
us, Akane. It was the closest thing we were going to get to
happy around this household."

	And then there was nothing left to say.

	Akane stood in the middle of the dojo, her left hand
clutching her wounded right and stared at Nabiki, who was
silently walking out of the dojo doors.

	Somehow, Akane felt as the dojo doors closed behind
Nabiki, a part of her life had closed around her as well.


				~~~


	Ranma wanted to sort out his thoughts before he made
a final resolution in the matter regarding Akane. He
understood what had happened in the dojo, but believing was
an entirely different matter. He walked aimlessly, not
knowing where to find refuge from the bitter pain that was
starting, not knowing where he could find peace in the
middle of the New Year's revelry.

	Amnesia was easy to believe, but the soul switch,
although possible through some of the more ancient arts, was
still close to unbelievable. He still didn't quite believe
the Jusenkyo curse, and he was living proof of its powers.

	When he finished his musings, he found himself
exactly where he began: At the dojo, in the middle of the
firing field, facing an equally stunned Akane who stared
mutely at him.

	Neither of them talked, as they both stared at each
other helplessly. Even if deep down his soul understood who
she was, his mind couldn't comprehend who she is. He
wondered what to tell her as one thought began to overlap
another. Finally, he voiced the simplest one: "Would you
care to spar?"

	She opened her mouth dumbstruck, not believing that
of all the things that he was asking of her, he would ask
her this. But Ranma's world had always been defined by the
battles he lost, and trust had always been gained in between
fights.

	Suddenly she was his student again. It was as if the
entire ganjitsu had never happened, and she was following
his lead. She brought her fists up in a ready stance and he
was on to her at once, parrying her blow.

	"I told you, your stance is too open to attack when
you receive my first blow," he lightly reprimanded breaking
apart from her when she moved and tried to attack as he hit
her lower midsection.

	Akane's fighting skills were vastly different from
Ranma's, not just because he trained more in the art, Ranma
finally concluded. It was because they had different goals
for practicing it.

	Ranma's goal had always been to be the best martial
artist in Japan. As he grew older and began collecting more
challengers along with the wins, he altered that goal and
decided he would be the best protector of his land. Possibly
one of the better daimyos in his own right, Ranma was also
the heir of the Founding School of Anything Goes Martial
Arts.

	He had something to protect, and that drove him to
excel in martial arts. Ranma paused in his evaluation just
as she tried a jab at his arm and failed. Hers was more of
an artistic style than anything else. It had defensive
capabilities to it and the flexibility that gave
Indiscriminate Grappling its trademark, but it had that
blatant display of physical ability that was carefully
hidden in Ranma's own fights.

	Finally, Akane kept to the basics. She kept to a
simple fighting stance because she had never needed the more
advanced options, and because it was the most practical to
use in self-defense.

	However, it was utterly useless in fighting with
samurai, should she come to blows with them, and completely
useless with other practitioners of Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu.
Because in Anything Goes, you stagnated once you stopped
combining attacks.

	Ranma wasn't in a gauging mood. Although he
evaluated her form, he didn't take his time with the usual
feigned blows. He didn't give her the chance to move towards
the offensive. He was much more skilled than she, and
relentlessly pushed her against one of the walls, forcing
her to lean against it, waiting for a final blow. They stood
there for an eternity before he finally gave in to the
question in her eyes, saying, "You've barely improved since
last week."

	"You believe," Akane said breathlessly looking up to
his eyes in wonder.

	"There's nothing left to be proven, is there? The
knowledge of my gift gave me enough to doubt my sanity and
Kodachi's story." He shook his head. Initially, he had
thought that maybe someone, perhaps one of the samurai who
guarded them that night, told her of the gift. But Cologne
proved him wrong, this fight proved him wrong. "Maybe
handedness gave credence to your story, but fighting style
almost never lies."

	His fists connected soundly against the side of the
dojo trapping her head between them, beating an invisible
enemy he couldn't hit. He leaned forward touching his
forehead against hers. He wondered if Akane felt the
desperation that exploded in his chest then. The moment when
reality fell around him, crushing the newly found hope that
he, just moments ago, buried. He drank from the cup of
happiness too deeply, and now that he couldn't have it
again, he was lost.

	"Please," he implored her weakly, as though he had
spent his entire energy in that one fight, as though he had
spent an eternity trying to find her. He wondered what he
would ask of her. 'Love? Understanding?' Instead he chose
the words that were necessary, "You have to leave here."

	Her answer was slow. Her breathing labored either
from sparring or his proximity. "How could you ask that of
me?" The unshed sheen of tears welled around the corners of
her eyes, and he understood, in that moment, that she hurt
equally. It could only be his luck that would demand he lose
her moments after finding her.

	"How could I not?" he retorted stroking a lock of
her blue black hair. Then he pulled away from her
reluctantly, letting the locks drift back, falling through
his spread fingertips. "When I've arranged everything for
your departure, I'll send Nabiki your instructions."

	Before she could protest, he was already out of the
dojo, wondering where to send someone who didn't have any
other place to go but here.


				~~~


	Because Kodachi recovered from her amnesia and was
demanding that all her clothes be black once again, most of
the new ones that were made for Akane were sent away. Nabiki
told Sara to give it to Akane.

	Akane accepted the clothes, because in a way, they
were hers -- and because they were her only clothes. Dressed
and cleaned from the recent trial, Akane set out to find
Cologne, who was currently with the children, and Nodoka.

	Akane did not notice if the children and Nodoka had
gone to visit the neighbors earlier that morning, but both
the children were wearing their best clothes and sitting
down on one of the pillows when she found them. They were
starting another one of the rituals of New Year.

	Nodoka set a plate of liver and a bowl of salt in
the middle of the only table in the room and then the
children's grandmother too sat down to watch the event, sake
cups already in her hands. Hanae, as the oldest child, went
to the table first. She took her chopsticks and picked out a
piece of liver from the bowl. She dipped it in a mound of
salt and then ate it. After she finished, she lunged for the
sake cup that Nodoka offered. Akane smiled at this antic,
which reminded her of the holiday back when she was a child.

	Sei, unlike Hanae, took a more leisurely pace when
he ate it. Wincing, Akane noted that Sei didn't seem to mind
the bitter taste of the liver. When she was young, she had
always hated its taste and took the smallest piece in the
bowl. Akane honestly didn't understand how eating a piece of
liver on New Year could possibly give her good health *or*
good luck.

	Cologne noticed her by the open shoji and she stood
up from the dining table to join her. The old woman was
immediately on her cane to balance out the height difference
and regarded Akane with a small smile. "Nostalgic, Akane?"

	"A little," Akane admitted as she followed Cologne
out towards the gardens which, just hours before, had been a
mess because of all their unwanted visitors. It was already
restored to the festive arrangement. Gone were the traces of
fighting, of the sickness that had plagued them and of the
dilemma they were faced with. In its place were the usual
items, wards placed alongside one another, bringing the
festivity once again. "I missed most of the New Year
Celebrations today."

	"The twins missed most of them too." Cologne smiled
gently at the girl, reminding her of the events that had
happened just moments before. "Nabiki was too busy
pretending to be her brother, and Ranma was busy looking for
you."

	Some feeling touched her heart at the news that
Ranma searched for her. At least she knew enough that he
cared for her. Reminding herself why she had sought the
matriarch she said, "Thank you for believing in me,
Matriarch Cologne." She was grateful that the old woman
noticed the small difference, and that the imagination, or
the knowledge to actually understand the switch was bestowed
unto Cologne. "I was told it was your idea."

	"You're welcome child." Cologne stopped in front of
the highest point of the gardens. It was the place that
Akane remembered Ranma giving her the goodbye that she asked
for, memories she would hold close to her heart. "New Years
are beautiful anywhere you are, but I particularly miss the
fireworks back in China. I hope my granddaughter and I
return before our New Year is celebrated."

	"How long have you known?" Akane asked lightly, sure
that the matriarch had long since understood the difference
between her and Kodachi, even before she suggested the test
with the bow.

	"I have suspected since I saw you. You handle ki
differently than Lady Saotome, but there was a possibility
of her changing. I was sure you were different when I gave
you the black rose Kodachi embedded on the mirror." It was
Cologne's own little test. "I wanted to let my students find
out for themselves, but Kodachi's sudden reappearance was
unexpected. The body you reside in... I said that I met it
before, she was left handed then. It was logical to think
that you switched bodies. There are numerous tales of such
events in Amazon history."

	Akane stared at the dark, the flickering lights of
the town, dim compared to the fluorescent lights she had
been accustomed to, but still visible in the dark. She
closed her eyes as a soft breeze passed her face. "I wonder
what will happen to me now. I am robbed of an identity."

	At that statement Cologne laughed, resulting with
Akane opening her eyes, fixing her gaze on the matriarch.
"Akane, you've always been who you always were. Regardless
of where your soul resides, I am sure the Saotomes would
provide for you."

	Just then Shampoo burst into the garden and shouted,
"Great-grandmamma! Come inside please! You have not given
time to Shampoo ever since you came." Gone was the seemingly
quiet woman that Akane had encountered for the past months
replaced by a perky Shampoo who rushed to hug her
grandmother.

	"Shampoo?" Cologne was equally bewildered at the
change of her great-granddaughter, who had been silent all
throughout the trial. It was almost like seeing the happy
teenager she had been. "Is that you, my child? You've --"

	"Changed? Is New Year, great-grandmamma, and is time
to forget the past," Shampoo answered. Apparently the
seriousness she had displayed earlier was for the trial that
they committed and not because of the ghosts that she
entertained. Then reverting to her solemn face for a few
moments she said, "We have the rest of tomorrow to be sad."

	Akane stared as Shampoo led the old woman back
inside the house, her words echoing in her head. 'the rest
of tomorrow' Akane suddenly shivered. 'What would tomorrow
bring for me?' She wondered as she stared at the flickering
lights that she had known as home for a short while. 'I'm
not even sure if I'm still wanted.'


				~~~


	Nabiki watched the house in contentment, having
pushed back everything to its right place in record time.
She wrinkled her nose at the mess they still had to fix
tomorrow, but she left it at that thought, for tomorrow.

	Deciding to have an earnest talk with her brother
before they started to make decisions, she looked for him in
the one place she was sure to find him. Jumping to the roof,
she was relieved that he was sitting there, staring at the
stars. Again. She sighed at his predictability and his
ability to completely forget that it was ganjitsu. The roof
was always been his first escape, the roof and the stars.

	He looked at her before staring back up at the
constellations that he was piecing together. "I see you've
found me." There was resignation in his voice, although he
did not seem disappointed that she came.

	Nabiki shrugged as she sat down beside him. "If you
did not want to be found, you would have chosen a different
place to think."

	"If you respected my privacy, you would have tried
not to find me," Ranma shot back without taking his eyes off
the skies. "What brings you here? I doubt it's because of my
wit."

	Nabiki punched him on the shoulder and scowled. "Nor
is it for your arrogance, my lord." Finally she thought that
she should begin to straighten out the issues because her
brother would never address them. "Seriously, Ranma, I
wanted to know what we should do about Akane."

	"That's what I was trying to sort out before you
found me," Ranma muttered. He closed his eyes. Although he
wanted to keep her near, they both knew that with Kodachi
around, that was not going to be an option. "My choices are
not my own."

	"You're going to send her away, aren't you?" Nabiki
asked calmly. She knew her brother enough to know that he
would risk everything for Akane. He would risk a chance at
his own happiness because there was a chance she would not
survive here.

	"You've already decided that I would," Ranma
answered, he sighed then opened his eyes to look at Nabiki.
The options regarding Akane's care were not plentiful, and
none of them suited him. "Do you trust Eruchii-san?"

	"You're asking me if I trust that bastard?" Nabiki
asked distastefully, her face contorted to show her dislike
for the man. "I do not think I'm the person to ask for an
honest opinion."

	"You've never colored your reports to me from
personal dislike." Ranma righted himself, propped his elbows
on his knees and leaned his head on his fist. He was irked
by the fact that Nabiki could be this evasive, even when
talking to her own brother. "Do you trust him?"

	"He's not a lecher, no. If that's what you mean,"
Nabiki supplied as she turned to look towards the lights of
the city. It was something she already told him, in almost
exactly the same words that she had voiced out now. She
rubbed her hands together to bring some warmth to them. "I
think they're telling us the truth about their past."

	"I hate it when you absolutely refuse to answer my
questions," Ranma muttered as he stood up and jumped down
towards the gardens. Nabiki followed suit and strolled
alongside him towards the beach. "What is it about Sohin
that you hate, Nabiki?"

	"Please, Ranma. Let's talk about something else,"
Nabiki pleaded as she took off her slippers when they
reached the wet sand. Picking up a small stone she tossed it
against the sea. Another small stone shattered hers. She
looked back at Ranma and gave him a glare, knowing that it
had been his stone that had broken hers. "Must you always
show off?"

	"Not always." Ranma smiled and then it vanished just
as suddenly. The jumps in his conversation was almost as
dizzyingly fast as his speed to one who was not used to it.
"Kodachi's my wife, Nabiki. I can't just replace her with
Akane. Happosai would have my head. Kuno would probably try
to kill me."

	"When have you ever let *them* stop you?" Nabiki
muttered, and although she was sure that her brother already
made up his mind to do the logical thing, she wanted to push
him to do the illogical one. She knew it was futile, they
both had come to terms with the fact that a marriage borne
out of love was only found in highly romanticized tales. It
has no room in the lives of liege lords.

	"I can't make my life more complicated than it is,
Nabiki." Ranma shrugged as he picked up another stone then
threw it into the sea. This time, it was Nabiki's turn to
decimate it. "Tell me, Nabiki, when did you make up your
mind to stop loving Sohin?"

	"Ranma... I was never in love with Sohin," Nabiki
denied as she armed herself with more stones. It was dark so
she needed a lot of stones to hit correctly.

	"You hate to admit it, but we're similar in many
ways," Ranma countered as he sent four rocks flying in at
the same time. He hit the rocks as accurately as he had hit
Nabiki's feelings. "It's the people who get on our nerves
that we end up respecting."

	"If you're equating nerves to respect and respect
with love, then you should have fallen in love with Kuno,"
Nabiki teased with a small laugh as she tried to hit Ranma's
stones. Only one of her stones met its target.

	"I said people, Nabiki, not morons. And that's plain
sick," Ranma complained and then threw all of the stones he
collected into the sea.

	"You asked for it." Nabiki shook her head as she
sent a small chi blast to kill all Ranma's stones and smiled
as they disappeared. It's a wonder why Genma didn't train
them in something similar in the dark. "I don't want Sohin
complicating my life."

	"Am I the reason you stay here, Nabiki? Am I keeping
you from leaving?" Ranma asked as he stared at his sister.

	A frown crossed Nabiki's features as she looked up
to face her brother. "The world doesn't revolve around you,
Ranma. You don't keep me here."

	Ranma nodded as he sat down the beach and closed his
eyes. Although he wasn't quite sure Nabiki told him the
truth about her reasons for staying, it had eased his mind
that she did not think she was chained to him. "Sohin is a
fine man. We could file a divorce and just smuggle you
away."

	"Same goes for you," Nabiki countered, not wishing
to talk about this but finding the topic inevitable. She
followed her brother sitting down on the beach. But her
choice was far simpler, she could choose divorce because the
alliance to the Ikkaseis had long been strained, and Sei was
still alive. But Ranma had no child borne from Kodachi to
hold Rose Brier with. "We were never *romantic*, Ranma.
Romance was always for Shampoo and Mousse or the peasant
girls. We never thought we would marry for anything more
than a good solid power match."

	At thirteen, when Nabiki suffered her first
heartbreak over a peasant boy at one of their training
sessions, they realized that they would never be given the
freedom to choose. "Where did we gain the concept of love?
It was simpler when it did not exist."

	Nabiki hugged her knees closer and rested her chin
upon them. "The Amazons, I guess. Had we stayed in Japan, we
would have never heard of 'happily ever after'. Because not
all of them married with strength, Ranma. Some of the girls
lost on purpose." Nabiki shook her head as she stared at the
lapping waves. "I have had many suitors, many fianc�s... I
didn't know what I had before I lost it, and I didn't know
what I've been missing until it arrived."

	"It must be the Saotome curse. You'd think we have
enough curses already." Ranma smiled ruefully. "We have to
prepare a lot of things, Nabiki." He held out his hand to
her, and she gratefully accepted.

	At least they would always have each other.


				~~~


	Kodachi ripped off the ribbon that tied her hair and
dropped her kimono as soon as she entered the room. The
entire ordeal reminded her how much she hated New Year and
Amazon women. A thousand curses later, she was seated in
front of her vanity with a new maid tending to her hair.

	Because of the soul-shift, the poisons that she had
introduced into Akane were rapidly losing potency. That,
combined with the administration of her own antidote and
that miracle vial, had brought her back to her usual
strength.

	Kodachi moved her hands over the small table filled
with small items she normally didn't put on display. The
jewelry box, the fine combs were settled in smooth silk with
a small hand mirror. One of the combs caught her eye, a new
one in her collection. She brought it under the candle light
turning it over on her hand.

	A marital comb. A marital comb similar to her own,
with the exception of the clouds replacing the rose that was
carved along its length, was in her dresser. "Who owns
this?" Kodachi addressed the girl tending to her hair. The
girl was crouched low so her head was below hers as she
peered at the comb in Kodachi's hands.

	"I believe it is Lady Kodachi's New Year's present
from Lord Ranma," she said before continuing with her
ministrations. Kodachi clasped the comb in her hands
fingering the delicate carving.

	An arched eyebrow rose as she twirled the comb
between her fingertips. 'Getting sentimental, aren't we,
Ranma?' It signified that Ranma at least partially believed
that Akane was not Kodachi, even before the Amazon's test.

	She never felt jealousy over the women that chased
Ranma, because Ranma belonged to her. She was complacent
about her place in his heart, she was irreplaceable. He
might detest her, but he never strayed. He never loved
anyone else. He never hated anyone else, and he never showed
passion to anyone else. He was loyal to a fault, and he
barely looked at other women even if he didn't share her
bed. But now... the unfamiliar emotion stirred in her heart.

	'How dare he offer Akane what belongs to me?'
Kodachi thought, her heart pounding with the beginnings of
hatred. "Get me one of the Chinese dresses that was given to
me as a present when my husband married me. One that allows
freer movement with high slits."

	The maid stood to do as Kodachi bade, when Kodachi
stopped her with another order, "And tell Lady Akane that I
have something precious of hers. That she forgets Ranma's
gifts too easily, and that I will be waiting for her in
Serpent's Bluff."


				~~~


	Ever since they had revealed their identity to the
Saotomes, Sohin had been a little edgy. It was their first
time trusting anyone with the truth, and it scared him
because the truth made them vulnerable.

	But Ifuku's trust in the Saotomes was absolute.
Since he placed trust in his sister's judgment, he did not
object to what they had started. Already the summons from
Ranma, not for Sohin the merchant, but for Lord Eruchii of
the house of Tendo, was a sign of change.

	Sohin entered the library of the Saotome household
still wondering if this had been the right thing to do. He
found Ranma by one of the paper windows looking out at the
dark sky.

	Sohin didn't know how to proceed from there. He
hardly knew enough 'samurai' etiquette. And because they
told the Saotomes the truth, it was expected that he greet
Ranma according to his station.

	Ranma finally noticed Sohin and motioned for him to
sit down on one of the pillows. Whatever the rules of
etiquette were, Ranma dismissed them. "From what I
understood, you're the Tendo patriarch?"

	"In exile," Sohin corrected, puzzled at his
interest, although not so surprised at the question. They
were bound to explain what they were doing. To a house as
powerful as the Saotomes, it was difficult to refuse an
audience. "I am more of a nuisance that Chisei wants to
eliminate rather than the patriarch you want me to be."

	"Does Akane resemble your sister?" Ranma asked
quietly.

	There was a long pause before Sohin answered, "She
should." The empty grave that greeted him was not a sign
that his sister was taken by Chisei, but by the astounding
fact that her body was granted another soul. "It is my
sister's body that she occupies."

	And if the name that they shared, Akane Tendo, was
not a sign, then he didn't know what was. Ranma shook his
head. If it wasn't the reincarnation giving him the
headache, it was probably all the other small problems
cropping up to finish the job. "I would like to request that
you bring her home. With my wife here, she would be in
constant jeopardy."

	Sohin laughed bitterly. "What home? I have been on
the move since I was young, learning where I could. I am the
heir to both the Tendo style and to the Tendo land, but it
is a worthless title while Chisei is there. I cannot give
Akane anything."

	"I understand that. Chisei holds her vassals through
fear. It would be easy to sway them to your favor. Nabiki
and I could lend you assistance if you plan to retake your
lands." It was a generous offer and more than what he
expected in exchange for taking care of a woman who was
virtually his sister. "But Akane needs a place to stay."

	Sohin shook his head for a moment, not knowing what
to do with the offer but not wanting to turn down the
opportunity it presented. He did not go back to his land and
reclaim it, because he lacked the manpower to achieve it.
One man alone cannot stand against the army that Chisei had
jealously built over time. "I don't understand."

	"You know her story."  Racking his brains for
something that would give Sohin a reason to take her, Ranma
could come up with only one thing, "She's your descendant."

	"She might be Chisei's," Sohin answered reluctantly,
and then sighed. "I would take her if I could, but she would
only be in danger with me. Chisei hunts us for game. At
least she knows that our youngest sister is dead. With me,
she risks discovery."

	"I told you I would help you." Ranma banged his fist
against the low table, desperate enough to offer anything he
could spare, yet not knowing what he could. "Isn't that
enough?"

	"What is this really about?" Sohin asked as he
slowly stood up, not wanting to promise something that would
bring him more trouble than it was worth. He had simply to
think about the fate of the earlier Tendo Akane to know the
dire consequences of bringing this one under his wing. "You
could send her anywhere. You're just endangering her with
me."

	Ranma stared at Sohin and then turned to look down.
"Anywhere? Not quite anywhere. She is a Saotome samurai, and
if Happosai knew that, she wouldn't even leave Saotome land
at all. She told me she was heir to the Tendo Anything Goes
School of Martial Arts. Tell me, is your style specific?"

	"My father's fighting style was based entirely on
the sword. I was not old enough to learn this, so I was
forced to learn from everybody else," Sohin answered, not
understanding the abrupt change of topic.

	"And maybe that's whence the other sector of
Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu sprung," Ranma suggested, a different
division with similarities to the style that the Saotomes
taught and revered. It was a branch of Anything Goes that,
from what he observed from Akane's fighting skills, was
based on strength rather than speed, terrestrial rather than
aerial, with direct moves rather than subtle ones. A
complete opposite of the Saotome style, yet parallel enough
in its tenets to merit sharing the school name. From what
Akane had revealed, two styles that flourished without one
knowing of the other for years. "She *cannot* stay here."

	"Is your only excuse martial arts?" Sohin asked. Yet
that was the only excuse Ranma was willing to give. Sohin
gave a resigned sigh, knowing that Ranma would not back down
from the idea, because he had no other. "You would send her
away rather than let her be a constant reminder of what you
couldn't have. Isn't that selfish?"

	'Don't *you* understand that my wife will *kill*
her? That my liege lord will kill her because she knows
*our* style? With you she faces the lesser evil of Chisei. A
woman we could neutralize.' Ranma wanted to shout that out
to Sohin, but pride kept his tongue in check.

	He would not explain himself.

	The repercussions of the switch between Akane and
Kodachi weighed down on his shoulders as Akane's liege lord,
as her initiator in Indiscriminate Grappling and as her
one-time husband. "I don't care if you think so, as long as
you take her."

	Sohin leaned back closed his eyes and hoping that
this decision would not doom them to death. "Only if I could
take my sister with me." He might as well start with his
family. If he was to start a rebellion to retake his land,
he needed the symbolism of his two sisters by his side.

	Ranma nodded curtly. He understood that Sohin meant
Ifuku.

	Sohin closed his eyes on the agreement. 'After
twenty years of hiding, am I still capable of filling my
father's shoes?' The air blew in through the shoji, chilling
him. It was what he had been preparing all his life for, to
become someone he had already forgotten to be.

	"Nabiki brought a prisoner under heavy guard in one
of the rooms. A samurai of the Tendo Clan, Kikuko." Ranma
paused long enough to gauge Sohin's reaction to the news
before continuing, "Lady Shori wanted to wait until you
arrived to decide her fate."

	Sohin's brows furrowed in thought about Kikuko, he
hasn't been daimyo long enough to consider that he had to
question her. The only thought up until that moment had been
survival. "I'll do what I must."

	"One of the men outside will take you to her after
this. I have no word of your other captors but my men were
told to apprehend any suspicious stranger tonight." Ranma
brought out something he had hastily worked on before seeing
Sohin spreading it around the table.

	Sohin looked at the small map that lay in front of
Ranma. Meticulously drawn to scale, it was a good blueprint
for a fortress. Ranma pushed the map closer to him. "Please
go over this, it's a map of the Tendo stronghold in Sanuki.
It's been a while since I was personally there, so there
might be something wrong. And it's rather hastily drawn."

	Since Sohin's last time in the Tendo fortress was
over twenty years ago, he didn't think he would recognize
anything amiss. But he raised his eyebrows at this. "When
did you last visit?"

	"It wasn't a visit. Our foster father has -- unusual
-- ways to train his wards. One of those training sessions
involved learning defenses of castles the hard way." Ranma
frowned as he sat down opposite Sohin, sweeping his hand
over the area of the castle. "The hardest castle to breach
to date has been the White Heron, and that will probably not
be finished for another ten years. The plans for the
fortress are... quite sound though."

	Sohin leaned back as he traced the entrance of the
palace towards the donjon. Quite thorough, there were paths
to rooms and even gate security was there. "Your foster
father? Hasn't it been a while since you were free of your
foster father's care?"

	Ranma smiled at Sohin. "Yes, that's a map of
something I saw when I was sixteen, coming back from China.
It's the reason I asked you to look it over. My sister and I
were only inside the Tendo palace for a week. We scrubbed
the halls quite cleanly for some coin, and then defected
soon after to come back home."

	From what he could see the map looked accurate, and
Sohin had lived in that same palace for most of his
childhood life. He suddenly realized why the Saotome pair
was a formidable foe, even in battles.

	He heard of their ability in battle, yes, but
alongside was an impeccable memory of even the most trivial
things. "Even if I rallied all the men loyal to my father,
we wouldn't be able to storm a castle."

	"The biggest problem you have, Tendo, is the
bottleneck effect of the castle gates. From every gate, your
men will be forced to move through these stone corridors."
Ranma pointed to the series of gates that gave entrance to
the castle. "Chisei's men will take you down one at a time
by arrows from the towers here and here. Do you remember if
this corridor has boards above it, which other samurai could
come from?"

	"No. No, there was never anything like that after
the gates," Sohin assured Ranma.

	Ranma nodded. "Then just archers and the next gates
then. There will be three of these that your men will need
to pass through. Do you have practical experience in raiding
castles, Tendo?"

	Sohin was surprised the Lord of Kanagawa would even
trust that he was Lord of Sanuki on his word alone, let
alone talk with him as if they were equals. "No, of course
not. There were no castles to raid if you were ten and
running for your life, aging to thirty pretending to be
someone you're not."

	"Then you'll have to trust me on this one. There are
other ways to breach a castle built like this and be assured
of victory, but we Saotomes rarely go for them." Ranma
paused and thought upon the strongholds of the castle
complex, the donjons. From memory he laced them together,
interconnecting halls. They were large halls that would
contain soldiers who were ready to receive weapons, and in
turn go to their assigned units. "A first unit must be
capable enough to infiltrate and take out the archers,
follow on to the stronghold, and head to the main donjon
where the Lady Chisei would probably be located."

	Sohin smiled ruefully at the plan. "I realize why no
one *but* a Saotome would do something like it. It would be
almost impossible to gain access to those archers without
someone from the inside, and I assure you, we have no one
left."

	"I was afraid you'd say something like that," Ranma
muttered, straightening from his crouched position over the
map. "I have around a hundred samurai that I could assemble
at this moment to aid you. If I pull enough resources,
Nerima, Rose Brier and the border will be left with no
samurai, but I cannot do that."

	"A hundred is generous, although I cannot guarantee
I can win this little war," Sohin answered. "You're forcing
my hand."

	"You've been on my side of the island long enough,"
Ranma warned as he looked over the map. "It's taken you more
than twenty years to think about it. I'm sure you have some
sort of plan, unless you never meant to take Sanuki back at
all. From what I gauge from earlier conversations, you're a
man who doesn't back off his duties, and Sanuki is one of
them."

	"You're just doing this because you want Akane away
from here," Sohin accused. Anger glittered in Ranma's eyes,
but Sohin didn't give him the chance to retort. "I've
already accepted her guardianship. I am her brother, and I
have planned this for a very long time without the means of
enacting it. It's very difficult to make solid plans in
exile."

	Before Ranma could mutter even the first words of a
token protest, Sohin continued, "I will provide for my
sister as you have provided for yours, and you are right.
It's past time that the three of us went home. I have an
uncle here who is also in exile. He is the last of those who
were faithful to my father. He's living in your lands
because he was of service to Happosai before, and the old
man granted sanctuary. I know Tendos and Saotomes have old
blood between them. If you weren't away on a training trip,
and we had not been exiled, I'm sure my father would have
promised my sister to a Saotome."

	Sohin noted the weary look that Ranma showed,
perhaps because of his loss. "I haven't visited him for fear
that my last living sister would be hunted down as well. My
youngest sister's death took a toll on the two of us. We
would have reclaimed Sanuki sooner if she hadn't died,"
words that he hadn't said since his sister's death just a
little over a year before.

	"You want to go to him now." Ranma's eyes regarded
Sohin sitting before the map of his own palace. "I wouldn't
know where he's hiding. He's under the old man's sanctuary,
not mine."

	"I know someone who does." Sohin turned his head
away, fully knowing that it really was months overdue for
him to return. "I'll take my sisters, I don't need the
samurai. We'll win back Sanuki."

	"They have five hundred soldiers in Sanuki," Ranma
said with deadly calm, and with the accuracy of a man born
into war. He knew that Sohin wouldn't stand a chance against
those odds. "Your uncle has what? Maybe twenty. He wouldn't
have been exiled if he had more."

	"When I stand before the gates of Sanuki I will
rally the men to me."

	"You're a fool," Ranma answered harshly. "The men
you would compel to your feet were mere babies when you
left, and those who are old enough to remember you have
already died by Chisei's own sword or another battle."

	"I *am* Sanuki. I will take the castle and I will
win. I give you my word," Sohin answered as he folded the
map before him and hid it in the folds of his kimono. "There
are more ways to win than the Saotomes' way or by sheer
number, and no one knows more of how to storm the Tendo's
own stronghold than the Tendo heir himself. I *will* take
Sanuki back from my step-mother, and I will return your men
to you. I promise you that."

	Ranma stood silent. He had asked Nabiki if she
believed Sohin could take down the walls of Sanuki, and she
had answered. 'Not Sohin, Ranma. Eruchii, would take down
the walls. Nothing will prevent him from winning back what
he has lost. A man driven by such needs will win. I have
seen his skill, and I have faith in his ability.'

	The most glittering of all recommendations from the
person he most trusted. So Ranma found himself doing the
only thing he could, "If you change your mind my men will
wait for you at the border. An old friend of mine, Kumon
Ryu, will meet you. He is not my subordinate, he is
Happosai's, but he will come for you because he owes Nabiki
much. My hundred will rally under him, and he in turn will
look to you."

	"I have to be the one who leads them. If not, then
my beginning will be weak, my sovereignty questioned," Sohin
said as he looked at Ranma wondering if he understood.

	"Then lead them well, Tendo," Ranma answered. "I am
expecting no less than a victory."

	Sohin stood up to leave, but before he could fully
stand up Ranma said bluntly, "My sister." He stared at
Sohin, gauging what his reaction to the statement was. "What
are you going to do about her?"

	"Nothing," Sohin answered, and though Sohin had not
denied the question, Ranma felt he would not give a straight
answer. "She is not meant for me. There are some emotions
not meant for this world. Were you going to forbid it?"

	A soft smile lit Ranma's face at Sohin's defensive
attitude. "I do not run my sister's life. She would be
displeased to know that I even asked you of your intent."

	Sohin nodded and turned to leave, opening the shoji
doors. Before he was completely out of the room, Ranma said,
"I wish that you reconsider, regarding my sister. She's
stubborn, but I do believe she cares for you."

	Sohin didn't turn to acknowledge whether he heard
the statement or not.

	'He might have the makings of a powerful lord yet,'
Ranma thought as Sohin walked away.


				~~~


	Akane looked out at the sky while idly combing her
hair. It was nearly morning. The night had completely robbed
them of their sleep. She should be exhausted, yet she sat
there watching the still-dark sky, willing the sun not to
rise, for that meant ganjitsu would be over.

	She shifted on the pillow she was sitting on, unused
to it. The new room she had been given by Nabiki matched her
old one, not surprising since the only difference between
the rooms were the shoji, but she felt alienated in this one
all the same.

	Akane turned around just in time to hear someone tap
softly on the paper shoji. "Come in!" Akane answered as she
stood up leaving the comb on the tatami. Nabiki entered the
room silently, carrying a small lantern to light her way
through the dark hallways.

	Hanging the lantern from one of the pegs on the
wall, Nabiki bowed immediately. Akane stood staring at her
because she had never seen Nabiki so humbled, and yet in her
humility, pride still showed in Nabiki's straight back.
Akane smiled as she thought, 'The woman could apologize and
still manage to make it look like she was commanding.'

	"Let me apologize for the shabby treatment you've
received, Lady Akane." No explanations, no flowery words.
Akane grimaced, she would rather have forgotten the whole
matter than Nabiki apologize. Besides it wasn't only Nabiki
who had supposedly wronged her... but it was the woman's
duty to apologize.

	Akane knelt down so that she could place her injured
hand against Nabiki's shoulder. "I'm not the vindictive
type, Nabiki. It was confusing. I was confused too."

	Nabiki rose gracefully from the floor and looked at
Akane in the eye, the image of a proud samurai once again.
No trace of the apology was left on her face as she said the
next words. "My brother has already made arrangements for
you, my lady. It is his wish that you rejoin your family."

	"My... family?" Akane repeated, bewildered at the
chain of events, looking up from the tatami towards Nabiki
who was moving towards the small stove that kept her room
warm.

	Nabiki kindled the fire, ignoring Akane's question
for the moment, warming the chilly room with her gesture.
Then, Nabiki stood abruptly from her task and moved towards
the door. "You are to remain with the Tendos, Akane." Taking
the lantern she brought with her, Nabiki opened the door
towards the hallway.

	"Don't tell me you're leaving me with only that,"
Akane protested, standing up and moving towards Nabiki. She
already sensed his intent, but she did not know that it
would come this soon.

	Nabiki stopped and turned around, brandishing the
two swords that were handed down to Akane back in the
inauguration. The very ones she gave Ifuku the day she
decided to send Ifuku off. They were returned to Nabiki by
Ifuku, and in turn Nabiki presented them back to their
owner. "You should have these. They are yours by right." She
slipped them off their place concealed deftly in her kimono
then placed them reverently on the floor in front of her.
"You may not be a Saotome, but by the gods, you fight like
one." With that Nabiki turned her back to the girl, leaving
her once again.

	Akane started to protest. "Don't I need to --"

	Nabiki paused from opening the door, but did not
turn to look at Akane. "He has a wife, Akane. If you cannot
understand that, then you are not worthy of him."

	"Don't talk to me about worth!" Akane shouted,
holding the shoji close, preventing Nabiki from leaving. "He
cannot just send me away!"

	Nabiki turned from the shoji to Akane. "He can and
he is." When Akane did not let the shoji go, Nabiki sighed
in resignation, her voice softening, "I didn't want to do
this, but it seems like I have no choice. There was an
agreement you both set for the fight over Hanae's training.
You said you would give him anything if you lose in exchange
for the privilege of teaching Hanae if you win."

	Akane opened her mouth realizing what Nabiki was
invoking so that she would leave without qualm. "No," Akane
whispered, and then with more conviction she begged, "You
cannot do this to me, Nabiki. You can *not*."

	"He requests that you leave with the Tendos at first
light tomorrow. He doesn't wish to see you." Nabiki turned
around, but before she left, she whispered with the true
remorse that her brother felt but cannot afford to express,
"I'm sorry, Lady Akane, but you have to leave."

	When another knock sounded on her door, Akane froze
she turned to look at the sound, dreading that Nabiki
returned. Instead, when she called out permission for
entrance, she found Sara was there. Ifuku told her before
she left to join Sohin that Sara was the maid assigned to
Kodachi for the moment.

	"Lady Akane," Sara addressed her with reverence that
hadn't been there when she was Kodachi. "Lady Kodachi sends
word. She has something you want. She wants you to meet her
at Serpent's Bluff."

	Akane's eyes narrowed, not understanding what
Kodachi could dangle in front of her eyes to do something as
foolish as meet her at Serpent's Bluff at this late hour.

	"She says," Sara continued, her message not
finished. "That you forget Lord Ranma's gifts too easily."

	Akane's eyes rounded in shock as she stood up from
her seated position. "No, not this too," Akane whispered in
denial. She could not withhold the last remnants of proof
that her life as Ranma's wife existed.


				~~~


	Sohin had not known what to expect to find when he
found Kikuko, but froze at the doorway when he saw her. She
was seated on the floor in an awkward Lotus position, with
her legs crossed before her. Her hands were tied in a
traditional u-shape behind her back. She was bent forward
with her head as well as her chest bound to her legs.

	Sohin had been exposed to numerous martial arts, but
never had he seen hojojutsu, the skill of restraining a
person with rope, used before. And he never imagined that
Nabiki could perform it. Usually, samurai left the tying up
to the lower classes.

	He had known Nabiki's education in the arts was more
than unique. This proved it. Nabiki finished checking the
rope. She looked up from the prisoner, and then to the Tendo
siblings. He was surprised she even let him see that she'd
set the rope. Rule three in hojojutsu prohibits others from
seeing the technique being performed. Each han had a
different way of tying their prisoners. The secrecy was to
prevent the prisoner from knowing and escaping, looping back
to rule one: do not allow the prisoner to slip his bonds.

	The prawn position that she tied Kikuko in was not
painful now, but it would become excruciating in time. He
didn't know what expression was plastered across his face
when he had discovered her, but she must have disapproved of
it. She narrowed her eyes at him before slowly standing up
and motioning for the siblings to follow her out of the
hallway. As soon as they were out of sight from the room and
out of hearing distance she asked, "Are you capable of being
who you must be?"

	 "I thought Shori would wait for my decision about
what to do with her," Sohin accused harshly.

	Nabiki smiled a self-loathing smile, one which made
her features ugly, daring him to contradict her. "You tie
prisoners up, Lord Eruchii, whether they're going to be
tortured or not."

	Ifuku touched Sohin's shoulder lightly, and he
visibly relaxed. "Sohin, there are things we do, not because
we want to but because we must."

	"Your sister understands what it is to be liege, my
lord," Nabiki said slowly. "Do you?"

	He narrowed his eyes at her, turning around to walk
back into the room where Kikuko had been tied. Already the
ropes were having the desired effect: Kikuko was moaning.
The prawn position was designed to create a burning
sensation on her spine, and since the spine was the seat of
all the human body's nerves, the pain radiated throughout
the body.

	If Kikuko did not give them the information they
needed, the fourth and final form of torture would be the
tanuki. It was very dangerous, and quite painful. He didn't
know if he could bring himself to apply the form.

	Sohin steeled himself, then looked over at Ifuku.
Her face was grim. There were things you never wanted to see
or experience. If you cannot save yourself, then you might
as well save someone else. "Lady Nabiki, would you be so
kind as to take my sister out of the room?"

	Ifuku closed her eyes slowly. She did not want to
leave. She was reluctant to let him endure this pain alone.
"Eruchii," she said the name for Kikuko's benefit. "You have
not--"

	His upraised hand stilled her words. They did not
want to appear weak in front of a prisoner. Ifuku might not
remember what it was to be liege, but he was trained for it.
He remembered power games well.

	Nabiki asked earlier if he understood what being
liege meant. Ifuku might know that this was expected of
them, but she didn't know what was happening. She spoke
words of comfort because she knew him but she did not
understand this world as Nabiki implied. And Sohin did. But
he did not have to like it.

	Nabiki urged a hand near Ifuku's elbow and led her
out, handing Ifuku to another samurai who was guarding the
doors. She was back in an instant, her eyebrow raised. Sohin
cocked his eyebrow once before he turned towards Kikuko.
Nabiki was present because he might not know how to undo and
redo the knots. That, and Nabiki did not trust him to do
what needed to be done.

	He frowned, grimly set on what he was about to do.
He might not like what he had to do, but he understood it.

	Sohin knelt down near Kikuko, untying one of the
ropes so that her head was free to look at him. He roughly
brought her face up to meet his eyes. The movement must have
caused more pain, because she began trembling. "They've
treated you well, Kikuko. Better than how Chisei would have
treated you had she caught you herself."

	The bonds that held her had no knots. No, Kikuko
didn't consider herself in bondage, rather 'wrapped'. The
black ropes were a stark contrast against Kikuko's pale
skin. Sohin rubbed the rope lightly. Black was for the
winter and Kikuko was facing the north end of the house,
representative of the black genbu, the black tortoise.

	The beginning of tears glittered in her eyes. She
hadn't been in the position enough to be broken. She didn't
respond. "Do you know who I am?" Sohin asked slowly.

	She smiled, a half crazed smile. "Your mother
certainly should."

	Sohin raised an eyebrow as he splayed his hand
across her back, trailing lightly along her curved spine.
The stinging sensation she was feeling hadn't reached its
peak yet, he would have known if the pain was close to
unbearable when Kikuko's body was more red than white. A
soothing touch would be a little bit of torture. "You forget
who you speak to, Kikuko."

	"Yes, peasant, I remember you well." She spat out.

	"You were not flogged, you were not pressed," Sohin
commented as he surveyed her pristine body. She was unmarked
by the first two methods. "If you were in my step-mother's
house you would have been flogged as you were questioned.
You would have been put in the box."

	"Careful, Lord Tendo," the note of warning that was
in Nabiki's voice was said with a mixture of disdain. "Mercy
might kill you, and mercy will not gain you her respect."

	Sohin let go of Kikuko's head glaring at Nabiki. He
did not like torture, and he did not like inflicting pain,
but he had to punish because he did not want to be weak. He
could not afford to be weak. Kikuko beat him to a retort,
"She holds your tongue, my lord."

	Sohin deigned a glance at Kikuko. In her pain, she
still had the audacity to look up at him. He stood up and
stalked towards Nabiki, bending to whisper into her ear.
"Don't force me to do something I'll regret, Nabiki."

	She stood completely still for a moment, pride
warring with practicality, before bowing deferentially to
him. "As my lord wills it, I obey." There was no pride
there, and he did not understand how Nabiki could let go of
it so easily. But he had found that Nabiki was more sensible
than she was proud. "I could torture her without the whip,
the press or the box, my lord." All of the words were more
for Kikuko's show than for his.

	She was offering her services so he didn't have to
bloody his hands. A way out. He took a deep breath and
looked at Kikuko. She smiled, there were cracks in the smile
but not nearly enough to break her. "You train your whores
well."

	He felt the beginnings of rage stir inside him at
Kikuko's words, and suddenly, Nabiki was holding his kimono
to keep him from moving. From her angle, Kikiko could not
see that it was Nabiki who stopped him.

	Nabiki moved slowly in front of him, turning at the
last minute to face him, giving him an almost imperceptible
shake of her head. She laid a possessive hand on his
shoulder before turning to look at Kikuko with disdain. "My
Lord Tendo does value my skills extremely well."

	The way she said the word skills suggested more than
just her swift hand with the rope. And suddenly, the way
Nabiki was draped across his arm, seemed extremely vulgar.
Nabiki glanced up at him, "With your permission, my lord?"

	It dawned on him that Kikuko did not know who Nabiki
was. He nodded his assent. He didn't know what else he could
have done. She was on the floor in a deep bow, and he saw
the picture Nabiki presented more clearly. She looked more
courtesan than she did the lady of the house. Kikuko
flinched from Nabiki's touch more than she did at Sohin's
own.

	Her hand was gentle but firm as she raised Kikuko's
head to look at Sohin's. Nabiki had arranged herself so that
her own Kimono covered some of Kikuko's bonds.

	"I have been under Lord Tendo's service for some
months now," Nabiki crooned as she fingered Kikuko's hair
softly, almost lovingly. "Ever since he's been in need of
someone to do some... persuasion."

	Nabiki turned to Sohin in question. He understood
the unspoken question after a long silence. "How many
soldiers does Chisei have, Kikuko?"

	Kikuko would have spit but Nabiki had a strong grip
on her throat. Sohin felt that it would not have been the
first question that she would have asked but she did not
show any outward sign of displeasure. She rubbed her cheek
against Kikuko's own, a threat more than the caress it
looked like. "You will be begging to answer his questions,
my lady. Remember that."

	Nabiki pressed a small kiss on Kikuko's cheek before
she rose and draped an arm against Sohin as they both walked
out of the room. As soon as they stepped out, two samurai
took their place to watch Kikuko, and another two were
situated at the entrance.

	Sohin watched as Nabiki changed from cold and
calculating to exhausted and miserable after a few steps.
"You don't like doing it," Sohin commented, amazed that she
felt that way, amazed that he was able to see it.

	Nabiki must have realized the change in her facial
expression, since she schooled it properly by the time she
looked at him. "We live in difficult times, my lord. Just
tell me what you wish to know, and I'll send you her answers
as soon as I'm able. You can't bring her with you. You have
enough trouble already."

	"What exactly were you threatening her with,
Nabiki?" Sohin asked running his hand through his hair.
Kikuko was in pain, yes, but she hadn't exhibited terror
when he neared her. Not the way she trembled when Nabiki
merely knelt before her.

	"What do you think?" Nabiki asked. He didn't answer
her. "We are more afraid of our own pleasure than our own
pain. Kikuko was trained to receive pain but not
humiliation."

	This time, Sohin stopped in the corridor as he
gripped her arm. "Does Ranma know?"

	She wrenched her arm away from him as she replied,
"We are Happosai's heirs, and this is the only way Happosai
teaches torture." She didn't give him a chance to reply as
she stepped into one of the rooms, and he came face-to-face
with Ifuku.


				~~~


	Akane struggled to get up to Serpent's Bluff. The
last time she visited, Ranma carried her from the bottom.
This time, she was doing it under her own power. She found
that reaching the top wasn't as easy as it seemed.

	At the top, Kodachi was waiting for her, leaning
against the same tree that Ranma used to show her the five
pools of water. The comb she coveted was resting on
Kodachi's midnight black hair, framing it perfectly in the
full moon.

	"You came." Kodachi's threat was wrapped in those
two words.

	Akane righted herself with dignity from her scramble
to the top. She was wearing a gi, and Kodachi wore a black
Chinese dress with slits from ankles all the way to her
upper thighs, allowing free movement.

	"Did you think I wouldn't?" Akane had not backed
down from any challenge in her life. She would not start
now.

	"I thought you might have forgotten what was
precious to you," Kodachi said nonchalantly, turning around
slowly to model the comb that glittered beautifully against
her locks.

	Akane grit her teeth as she lunged for it, but she
missed the comb by a few inches. Kodachi laughed as she
danced away again, flipping a large fan open, covering her
mouth coyly. "What a sexless woman Ranma landed for
himself," Kodachi taunted. "I wonder, what does he think of
you in his spare moments, Akane?"


				~~~


	Nabiki moved hesitantly on the zabuton that she was
sitting on, half-listening to the things that both Sohin and
Ifuku would need for their trip tomorrow.

	So far, except for that little after-torture
incident, she managed for Sohin not to find her alone. She
tapped her fan against her lap impatiently, wondering where
Akane was.

	Nabiki thought that it would be best if Akane were
introduced to Sohin before she was entrusted to her 'older
brother' completely. But it was taking longer than expected
for Akane to make an appearance.

	As she was about to stand up to look for the woman
herself, her personal maid entered the room silently,
kneeling low on the tatami as she informed them, "She's not
to be found, my lady."

	Nabiki rose from the table, and both Sohin and Ifuku
showed worry over the news that Akane was not in her
quarters. "Does Ranma know about this?" Just as she uttered
the question, Ranma opened the shoji, a grim line set upon
his face.

	"Does that woman have *any* sense at all?" he asked
no one in particular, but Ifuku and Nabiki winced. "And my
dear wife is missing as well."

	After several summons, Sara was brought inside the
room, her head bowed as Sasuke urged her in. Nabiki raised
an eyebrow and the maid reported, "Lady Akane was summoned
to Serpent's Bluff, my lord."

	"By whom?" Ranma prompted, wondering who, in his own
household, had the audacity to give such commands in the
middle of the night.

	"Kodachi," Nabiki supplied in a matter-of-fact tone,
and Sara nodded in confirmation. "Serpent's Bluff. You have
to go to them. That area is dangerous for one who doesn't
know the area, and especially to someone who doesn't know
how to swim."

	Ranma cursed as he stood up to fetch both his wife
and Akane for what seemed like the millionth time that day.
Only he and Nabiki would be able to scale the small cliff
with ease, and he didn't relish the fact that he would be
meeting face to face with Kodachi again so soon after the
'trial'.


				~~~


	Akane realized immediately that a fight between
Kodachi and her in the middle of Serpent's Bluff was leaning
more towards Kodachi's win than hers. Although Akane was
familiar with the territory, Kodachi seemed to be intimately
aware of it.

	As if sensing her question, Kodachi broke off from
Akane, landing lightly atop the tree, her hand flashing out
in the grand gesture of a host showing paradise. "Serpent's
Bluff shows just how far Ranma's powers reach, Akane. My
father brought me here the day he announced I was to be
betrothed to Saotome Ranma."

	It was a reminder that Rose Brier was hers. It was
also the bait to let her agree to the wedding quietly. The
Kuno head knew his daughter well. Rebounding off the branch
Kodachi tried to strike Akane with a ribbon. Akane
sidestepped, thrusting her left hand forward in defense. The
ribbon wrapped around it painfully.

	Kodachi smiled gleefully at the small victory,
pulling the ribbon and letting Akane stumble closer to her
as Akane resisted its pull. "You have taken care of my body
well, Akane. Let me thank you for your services."

	"I'd rather die," Akane sa0id scornfully.

	"That can be arranged," Kodachi warned in her
lilting tones.

	Akane stopped moving against the ribbon, rushing
Kodachi instead. Kodachi let go of the ribbon as soon as she
felt it slacken, somersaulting away from Akane. "Akane, you
do realize that I've just been toying with you, don't you?"

	Akane chose to ignore the comment as she tried to
force air into her constricting lungs. Exertion was already
humming in her veins. Kodachi was much more in tune with her
own body than Akane's own balance in the body she currently
occupied. Although similar to her own, it was not its mold
and the glaring differences came when she tried to hit more
than she could reach or exert power that she didn't have.

	She was on the losing end of this fight, but she
didn't back down. She never backed down. This was her
challenge and she would win it, no matter how difficult the
odds.

	Disentangling herself from the ribbon, Akane watched
Kodachi wearily as Kodachi held the comb tauntingly in front
of her. If she weren't on the pointed edge of Kodachi's
current weapon, she would have admired the way Kodachi's
grace flowed. *That* was how her body was meant to move. Her
fists weren't meant to deliver forceful blows, but rather, a
deadly flexible dance that Kodachi now exuded.

	Kodachi could sense the admiration in her gaze, as
well as the glaring hatred, and she preened under it. "I am
easy to talk to, Akane. It is obvious that this match should
not commence. Let it not be said that I force fights upon
those who are weaker than I."

	A noble speech, if it were sincere. Akane doubted if
Kodachi had a noble bone in her body.

	"There was never love in our marriage," Kodachi said
softly, and Akane knew this was the reason why Kodachi
brought her to this place. Not because she wanted a fight,
rather because she wanted to stake a claim. "But there were
no expectations of it either."

	She turned to Akane, her eyes almost wildly boring
into Akane's own. "You didn't want there to be," Akane
accused.

	"No," it was said in half thought. "You disturbed my
house by coming here Akane Tendo. He belonged to me until
you came here."

	And suddenly, Akane knew that Kodachi was jealous.
She never had had reason to be before, because Ranma never
gave his other fianc�es much thought. He might have a
daughter, and she suspected dalliances, but she knew that
his oath to her kept her there. His hate kept her there. He
felt his strongest emotions for her.

	And now even that was gone.

	"Kodachi!" the warning shout rang in the air. Akane
didn't need to turn to find Ranma landing gracefully at the
perimeter of their battleground. His presence fueled the
desperation inside Kodachi.

	"If I cannot have him," Kodachi shouted as she drew
her hand back, Ranma's presence accelerating their fight.
"Then you cannot have him either."

She flashed the marital comb in the air, showing her that
she held it. The sleek ivory glinted in the night sky,
almost like white gold. Kodachi threw the comb over the edge
of the cliff. Akane lunged for the glittering arc, but
missed it, her fingers hardly deflecting its trajectory in
the night sky.

	As it fell down in the air, her eyes trailing the
object in the night sky, Akane could only do one thing.

	She jumped after it.





	Ranma watched dumbfounded as Akane jumped after what
Kodachi had thrown over the ledge. Giving a silent curse in
the night sky, he was left with only one thing to do.

	He jumped after her.

	Ranma's eyes narrowed as he watched her snag
something from the air, clutching it tightly against her
chest. He shook his head, bringing his hands to his sides to
lessen air resistance and facilitate free fall.

	Akane was falling head first to the ocean, and the
gods knew that she could barely swim in three feet of water
much less in thirty. As soon as he was face to face with
her, he watched her give him a small smile, and she opened
her arms to him, as if she was just waiting for his arrival.

	He resisted the urge to scream at her for idiocy,
and pulled her close automatically nestling her head against
the crook of his neck. They were still falling head first
into the water, but at least they were together.

	He hoped she had at least enough sense to close her
eyes. They dove into the water in one clean splash. Jusenkyo
took over almost immediately, giving Ranma-chan the problem
of dragging a larger woman towards the surface.

	As soon as they broke through the surface Akane was
coughing water, but this time, she wasn't resisting the way
Ranma held her up. She wasn't struggling. Fortunately for
them, though Serpent's Bluff was bordered by ocean with a
depth of more than thirty feet on one side, they didn't need
to swim far to reach shore.

	Ranma propped Akane up before collapsing on the sand
beside her. 'How many times does a woman need saving in one
day?' Ranma asked himself as Akane scrambled up to a sitting
position. The fact that it was already early morning of the
second day of the year did not present itself in Ranma's
mind as clearly as the complaint.

	As soon as his eyes cleared, Ranma shook his head at
Akane. The lecture in his head disappearing as Akane smiled
at him tenderly. Ranma stood up, unbuttoning the Chinese
shirt and flicking it in the air to release the water
droplets before donning it and walking away.

	Through all of this, Akane was seated on her
haunches, knees folded under her. "Wait," she called out, as
soon as she realized that he wasn't planning on taking her
with him. "Wait, Ranma."

	Ranma turned to face her. It was still dark, but the
moon was full and he could see her face. "Don't you want to
know what I would risk my life for?"

	It was a question that scared him. What would
someone like Akane Tendo want more than life itself? "I
don't think I could handle the answer."

	Akane walked towards him slowly, resting her hands
against Ranma's arms, the object she saved still clutched in
her right hand. She brought it in front of them, her hand
not opening, the question still in her eyes.

	Ranma tried to pull away, so Akane brought her hands
down, away from him. He focused his anger on something more
solid than her question. "What were you *thinking*?" he
demanded as he looked up at her. In his cursed form, she was
slightly taller than he was, giving him a disadvantage when
he scolded her. "You could have died!"

	"No, I wouldn't have. You wouldn't let me." There
was conviction behind those words lending strength to her
answer. Then she said the next words softer, but giving it
no less weight, "I believe in you."

	For the second time that night, her words scared
him. What was it like to have someone's complete faith? To
have someone's blind trust? To have someone's life on his
hands? He'd experienced those feelings on the battlefield,
but never with someone like Akane. What could he say to
that? "You don't know me well enough to offer me your
belief." He didn't intend for the words to sound as harsh as
they did, but he didn't know how else to say them.

	There was a flash of hurt in her eyes that he
ignored. "Let me thank you then," she begged him, the
breaking of her voice almost tangible. "At least, let me
thank you."

	Ranma stood there impassively, allowing Akane her
gratitude, waiting as Akane pulled herself close to him.
Because of the difference in height, Akane crouched low.
When her face stopped inches from his cheek, Ranma
whispered, "A simple 'thank you' would do."

	Ranma saw her smile from the corner of his eye as
she leaned closer, pressing her lips on his ear although
there was a lack of contact. He felt the words rather than
heard it. The waves were stronger than her shaking voice.

	And then she was an arm's length distance from him
again. Formal. He was the daimyo of Sagami once more, and
she was his guest. The transition was fluid and almost
undetectable.

	"My samurai should be by the edge of Serpent's
Bluff," Ranma informed her gruffly. "Excuse my wife, my
lady, she's touched by the kami. Your siblings are worried
for your health. I'll inform them that you're safe. It's
time you rested."

	As soon as he saw a samurai, he explained where
Akane was, and that her comfort was to be seen to. He
brushed his hand angrily against the splash of skin that
Akane's breath touched, but the phantom caress from her
whisper did not leave him.

	In his memory, in the entire eighteen years that he
had been cursed, Akane was the only person who treated his
girl form with the same weight as his normal form. Shampoo
might have professed her love whenever he was male, but she
always had a kettle of water ready when he was female. She
still actively hated his girl form, probably because she did
try to kill 'her' for weeks. Ukyo just didn't factor the
curse into the equation. She treated it like it didn't
exist, a nuisance to be dealt with when she must.

	"Stop it," Ranma berated himself as soon as he
ascended the pathway towards Rose Brier. 'She's leaving, you
can't keep her. You can't make her stay even if she's
different from all the rest of your fianc�es.'


		-----------------------



Disclaimer: Ranma co. were borrowed from the brilliant mind
of Rumiko Takahashi. The original story was based on a book,
When there is Hope.


Author's Notes:

I was going to research Japanese tortures, I finally ended
up with some rope tortures anyway. I used hojojutsu here,
and majority of the knowledge comes from the page made for
BDSM by Tatu. Let me say that Hojojutsu is different from
Shibari (a form of BDSM), because shibari is the 19th
century spin-off of the martial art. There's nothing erotic
about hojojutsu. Most of the info I learned were from Mr.
Tatu's page as well as Wikipedia and Hojojutsue by Richard
Cleaver also found in Mr. Tatu's page.
Mr. Tatu's page: http://www.ds-arts.com/RopeArt/hojo_cleaver.html

Sohin was largely reluctant for torturing Kikuko because I
was reluctant at torturing Kikuko. I did not want the
emotional baggage that was included with torturing people.
It's simply not good for the characters, but it couldn't be
helped. Besides Sohin is new at this entire liege lord
business, he's bound to be reluctant to do something so
inhumane.

Another difficulty I had was, Sohin, Ifuku and Akane were
leaving the very next day. Because they need to rally men to
them. A lot of the Japanese tortures involves a couple of
days. The ebi position or the prawn position is usually left
on the person until the person turns first red, then purple
then blue. If Kikuko is tied into the position after she
becomes light blue, she will die. And since this is a
torture for information, people did not like their prisoners
dying, just in a world of pain.

A good deal of Nabiki's sentiments about torture was
probably influenced by Anne Bishop's Realms of the Blood
trilogy. I think Nabiki slightly parallel's Daemonar in that
aspect. If you like fantasy and don't mind that the lead is
a woman, try reading it.

Another difficulty I had was the number of soldiers. I
realized after reading a good deal of fantasy books, Anne
Bishop's Tir Alainn, Patricia Brigg's Dragon Bones and
Dragon Blood, the entire Wheel of Time series by Robert
Jordan as well as Elizabeth Vaughan's Warprize and Warsworn
that a thousand soldiers were fullblown wars that involved
kingdoms, for battles involving keeps (unless it's of epic
proportions like JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings which was
classic good vs. evil) requires around sixty. So uh, Ranma
having three and holding a good deal of land would probably
have around 200-300 soldiers at his disposal. Happosai who
has the entire clan behind him around 1,000 or so. Sanuki
should have around 1,000 too, if they have time to rally all
banners to themselves, but has around 500 in the keep itself
(it's the main stronghold). Anyway, I've corrected that
here. I really should read more war books before I continue
making these kinds of things.

This is the continuation of the New Year's chapter from 15.
While Chapter 15 was the MORNING and AFTERNOON of ganjitsu,
chapter 16 is the evening and early next day. This has to be
the longest DAY in the entire fic, the inauguration coming
in second. I was thinking, 'What the hell, what the hell,
could all of this fit in one day?' It took me a while to
release this chapter because I had to finish editing all the
other chapters from "COMMON ERRORS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE"
go figure.

WELL, isn't everyone happy? Let's see a show of hands. Who
wanted Akane and Kodachi to exchange bodies? Who expected
Sohin to be Eruchii?

And the doozy. Did you expect Akane to be sent away?

Yes, I was leaning towards switching the bodies. --; You
don't understand how many SCENES I scrapped in four years
trying to write down how they would change bodies. I was
thinking, it was either too magical, too surreal or too ...
not rend material. I was going to post several of those
deleted scenes, but they got deleted with my harddrive crash
earlier last year, and therefore, are irretrievable. Some of
them had Ifuku and Sohin as caretakers of some ancient lore.

"The body and the soul are connected, and the soul yearns
for its half as well as its house. The kiss calls out to the
soul. The blood calls out to the body." Then we were going
to do an entire ritual where Kodachi has to kiss Akane and
Kodachi also wounds her. The wound would tell the body of
the soul. The kiss would tell the soul of the body. But it
was all so mystical, and all sooo, not rend material that I
had to rewrite it.

Cologne talks about going back to China before Chinese new
year. I have talked to a Japanese person last week and he
told me that Chinese New Year is really in a different date
from New Year in Japan. Next he told me that all the tolling
of the bells were synchronized in Japan, and finally that
the rhythm of the bells were bong 8 seconds bong 8 seconds
etc etc. There's this Ryoga-Ukyo fic where they do the nasty
in time with the bells... the author didn't know the rhythm
of the bells either so now that I know and I get that
picture... I realize that it must have been difficult for
them /

For this chapter, I researched Kyudo and archery.

I also researched poisons. I wrote out the poisons long
before I became a med student.

iCe


website: http://iCe.esmartdesign.com
email: siuane@gmail.com
livejournal: http://ice-of-dreams.livejournal.com
crossposted everywhere you can imagine.

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