Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ A Mother's Verdict ( Chapter 58 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

A Tale of Two Wallets

(An Altered Destiny)

Written by Jim Robert Bader

Proofread by Shiva Barnwell

Cologne was not having a good day and would be the first to admit it if anyone had dared to ask. Being exposed as both a liar and in her true form to her disciple had been…very annoying, to put it mildly, but to be trapped in this form by that miserable runt was more than she could stomach.

Walking the path from the Tendo estate to the Furinkan Financial District did not particularly lighten her mood any as it only gave her more time to reflect upon the sorry state that she was in, due in no small part to her own past actions. She would normally take to rooftop and go leaping and striding between buildings, reveling in the relative freedom she felt from the boundaries of the earth, though to outside appearances it would have appeared as if she were pogo-stick riding on her staff, a fairly ludicrous concept, but she always liked the effect it had upon those who saw her in motion. Being taken for granted by others was something she had generally relied upon to give her the edge in most encounters, only now the term, "What you see is what you get" had come to replace the old adage, "Big things come in small packages" when it came to describe her.

For Cologne it was doubly embarrassing to be seen as she truly was by those whom she passed by in the street, most of whom no doubt took her to be a fairly attractive young woman of modest height and slender build wearing a gold ceremonial robe that had been in her family for countless generations. The shapeless shift she had worn previously with the earth symbol upon it had been as much a disguise as her appearance, but as Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku she had tended to view herself as above petty concerns such as appearance. Her seeming age had given her a dignity that her youthful bearing lacked, so now what people tended to see was not an ancient and mysterious hag but a girl barely old enough to be that long out of high school. Embarrassing did not begin to cover her status.

Soon she would have all the classic problems of her youth, such as being "hit upon" by countless male suitors who thought a "young beauty" such as herself was a prized possession to be coveted and collected. Cologne had little fear of meeting a man who could physically best her, for her skills were unaffected by the Jusenkyo water, and there were very few males on the planet who were her equal, let alone her superior, as a War Master. Still the mere fact that she would even have to fend off male attention (with a "stick" no less) was such a galling notion that it made her want to retch just to think of it. Cologne preferred to be the one who chose the time and place when she would seek male assignations, and always with the anonymity her youth would afford her, when she let down her disguise and appeared as her true self around the male whom she had chosen for her "entertainment."

No longer…now she had to cope with the fact that whatever she was seen doing from this point onward, it would be her true self that they were seeing. She could not erect her disguise no matter how hard she tried. Jusenkyo was obviously blocking her ability to focus the image of the "Hag" that she had so painstakingly erected over the centuries of her existence, not that Cologne truly desired to appear like that, but it saved her all kinds of trouble, such as having to explain her unusual longevity to others. There was dignity in looking to "look" her true age, and very little of that commodity in being old in a young body. If the other members of the Council could see her now they would laugh themselves sick, that the great and powerful Matriarch of their tribe should be trapped in the body of a…

"Halt, Delinquent!"

It took a moment for Cologne to react to the challenge, at first wondering if she had stumbled onto something that she was better off ignoring, but the challenge was repeated, and when Cologne turned in reply to confront the one who was addressing her so impudently, coming face-to-face with…

A child?

"Yes, I mean you!" declared a girl who appeared to be between nine and eleven years old, but around whom Cologne sensed a powerful negative aura, "Delinquent!"

"Delinquent?" Cologne could never even recall being addressed that way, not even in childhood. What was next? Was she going to be carded every time she entered a tavern? And yet this insolent girl-child was upbraiding her as if she were a rebellious teenager?

"Why weren't you in school today?" she demanded, "I've studied the faces of the profiles on all the kids attending all the local high schools and your face wasn't on any one of them, and that's not a regulation uniform either, so you must be a Delinquent!"

Cologne was almost amused as she regarded the child and said, "It's five o' eight, child, school is out for the day, and besides which I'm not from around here."

She was rather proud that she did not need to use a watch to tell the time. As Cologne had once told one of her son-in-laws, timepieces were a confidence game of the Swiss, and a true adept never needed a watch to tell time, being closely attuned to the flow by the internal rhythms of the cosmos.

"Child?" she declared, "How dare you! I'm an adult!"

"Oh really?" Cologne smirked, "Care to match pedigrees?"

The girl's hand suddenly flashed, and between her fingers she held up a five-yen coin, which she extended as if it were a weapon, "I am Hinako Ninamiya, and I don't stand for disobedient kids who talk back to their elders! Happo Five-Yen Satsu-!"

She started to invoke the names for pain and terror when Cologne felt the girl's power-level begin to rise dramatically. Too late she recognized the nature of the spell, realizing that it was a variation on an Amazon special attack form that could only be performed by specially conditioned adepts. The fact that the girl was using Japanese invocations was more than slightly alarming, and by the time the spell was completed Cologne could feel her aura start to drain away, which led her to one inescapable conclusion.

Happosai was involved. Only he would know the spell and be able to pass on the knowledge to this child, whom Cologne now realized was no child at all but an adult trapped in a child's body, much like herself only very, very different.

Had she recognized the attack form sooner she could have countered it or attacked the child directly and used the counter. Approaching her now, however, was out of the question, for the closer she came to her opponent the faster the drain would be completed, and already Cologne could see the child's body begin to grow and fill out in interesting places. She had to escape while there was still time, and so she turned and fled as fast as she could leap, putting distance between herself and the woman-child before the spell had sufficiently drained her.

"Drat!" a gorgeous woman wearing the exact same dress as the child before with a sultry voice declared, "She got away, but I'll recognize her the next time. She's fast that one, so I'll have to use a bigger coin to catch her."

Oh well, Hinako Ninamiya reasoned, at least the added life energy caused by the aura drain would give her more status for her interview with Vice Principal X about that new opening at Furinkan High School. Hinako had heard stories about the quarrelsome youths that ran rampant and disrupted the proper conduct of class order with their fighting and delinquency. Hinako relished the challenge this would afford her, the chance to put these hooligans in their place, as she had done for other high schools. And one student whose name kept coming up in school reports appeared to be particularly naughty, a fellow who deserved her "special" treatment as his example would be a deterrent upon others.

"Saotome Ranma," she declared in a haughty voice not at all diminished by the throaty purr in which her words were uttered, "Your days are numbered. Prepare to meet your destiny when at last I have you in my classroom…"

Nabiki's Journal Resumes:

After Nodoka was revived we all convened an emergency meeting in the dojo proper, where Ranma and his father sat side-by-side facing a less-than-pleased looking Nodoka. Hasty explanations had been made, and now she was sitting in a state not unlike an old Feudal lord about to pronounce her judgement against a pair of errant Samurai who could expect to find no mercy.

The sword that she had laid upon the space between herself and her family was proof of her seriousness. I know Ranma and Genma were both looking at the thing in between glances at Nodoka, because their heads kept bobbing up and down ever few moments, indicating that their line of sight was constantly shifting.

I could only judge this from where I saw with Shampoo behind the two Saotome men, as anxious about the outcome as I knew they were, and wondering if at any moment their deaths would be pronounced, and what in the name of the kami was I going to do to prevent this? As the two most concerned parties we were expected to plead our case before Ranma's mother, but one glance at her stony continence was enough to discourage even me from making some clever remark that I hoped might positively affect the outcome.

To both sides sat my father and sisters, Kuonji, Kodachi, the Amazon brigade, Ryoga and his mother, and of course a subdued-looking Happosai. As we were all, in a sense, part of an extended family they had a right to be present, but if this was anything like one of those old movies from the days of the Shogun I knew that they would have a lesser influence in Nodoka's decision. She alone held the power of the moment, and we were all tensely waiting for her to say the words that would doom or liberate both Ranma and his worthless panda of a father!

"So," she began to speak after a very long silence during which the only things I could hear were the creaking of the floor panels and the beating of my heart, "You are telling me that you both bear these curses due to the conclusion of your training mission. You turn into a girl and your father turns into a panda."

"Mother," Ranma hesitated, "It's not something we want…"

"I didn't finish speaking, Ranma," Nodoka said in polite tones that did little to hide their steel, "It's not polite to speak out of turn, especially with your mother. I will ignore it this time, but do be mindful not to speak out of turn unless I give you permission."

That silenced even Ranma, whose shoulders slumped as he said, "Yes mother."

"Now then," she continued, "Knowing that these curses could not be easily reversed, you chose to come to the Tendo house instead of returning home to me to explain about your condition. You, in fact, chose to lie to me rather than reveal this fact and instead have imposed upon Tendo-san's hospitality in order to avoid your duty to include me in your decisions. This was done because of the pact you signed, is this not correct, husband?"

Uncle Genma lowered his head and said, "Nodoka…"

"Answer me truthfully," Nodoka said firmly, softening her tone as she added, "For once."

I saw the fat man's shoulders sag as he lowered his head and said, "I was ashamed, Nodoka. I thought if you'd seen the boy you would have said he…wasn't manly."

"Now, that didn't hurt much, did it?" she did not smile as she said this, but I could see her incline her head by a fraction.

The silence was enough that I'd swear I could hear Uncle Genma swallow before answering, "Hai."

"So," Nodoka continued, "You ordered Ranma to conceal his condition when Silk found me and sought to reunite us. You then tried to pass him off as the daughter of Tendo-san's late sister, calling Saotome Ranko, and added to this deception by encouraging your iinazuke to play along in order to convince me that you have been behaving in a manly fashion, which I must say does not sound very…manly."

At the mention of the words, "not manly," I felt my heart lurch up into my throat and was about to voice my protest when Shampoo beat me to the punch and declared, "No one make Shampoo say Ranma is manly! Shampoo know him manly, and no need anyone to say it for her!"

"It is well that you like my son enough to say this, Shampoo-san," Nodoka replied with a level, disapproving glance in her direction, "But how manly can it be for him to hide behind you rather than to tell me the truth outright? Would a man of your village expect a woman to hide behind him in defense of her own actions?"

I saw Shampoo hesitate as her face registered surprise at being asked such an insightful question. I was beginning to appreciate myself that Saotome Nodoka had a lot more on the ball than I had previously expected, which put me even more on edge as this would tend to complicate any defense strategy that I might erect. I continued to sit stunned, wondering how circumstances could have gotten so wildly out of my control that we could even find ourselves in this situation.

"Shampoo…Shampoo no think warrior would do this," Shampoo finally concluded, "Amazon womans have much pride, no hide behind men, but Ranma no hide behind Shampoo! Shampoo gladly help Airen. Shampoo love Ranma very much, do anything protect him."

"So," Nodoka remarked, "You love my son?"

"Wo ai ni," Shampoo replied, giving Ranma one of her most adoring expressions.

"But is this genuine?" Nodoka asked her, "I know enough about your people to realize that it is expected for you to love the man who has defeated you in battle. By implication that would mean that you would have to declare your love for him no matter what sort of man he was, whether brave or cowardly…"

"Coward never defeat Shampoo," Shampoo said haughtily, "No as easy as Ranma defeat Shampoo."

"But I was given to understand that your losing to him was partly due to being careless," Nodoka continued, "You underestimated my son and so were defeated by your own lack of preparation."

I saw Comb half-lurch out of a sitting posture and glare hatefully at Nodoka, "You dare call my daughter clumsy? You haven't changed at all, you selfish-!"

"Comb!" Silk spoke up, her tone holding unusual authority, so unlike the casual ease with which she normally spoke, this sounding more like the tone of a Lore Master, "You are out of place. There will be a time for angry recriminations, but wait until the floor is open to such declarations."

Comb checked herself, glancing at her friend as if surprised to be addressed in such a way, then without further argument resumed sitting.

"I did not say that you were clumsy, Shampoo," Nodoka resumed as if not interrupted, "I merely pointed out that your first loss to my son was as much serendipity as any skill on his part. I ask again, what if he had not been the man you say you know him to be? What if he were a coward, or dishonorable, or a man other women would shun, would you still declare love for him without condition?"

Again Shampoo hesitated, but finally she lowered her head and said, "Law say Shampoo marry man who beat her, must say she love man and marry him…but Ranma prove himself to Shampoo, prove he man she no mind losing to. Shampoo no hesitate say how she feel, because she love Ranma complete, no mind even he proud guy think he better than womans."

"I see," Nodoka said neutrally, and then her gaze fell upon me and she asked, "What of you, Nabiki? Do you also love my son in the same manner?"

"Excuse me?" I think I could feel myself blanching.

"You were promised to him by an oath sworn by both of your fathers," she continued unflinchingly, "You obviously do get along fairly well, and I can see that Ranma is fond of you, as you are of him…but I wanted to know if you truly love my son. It's not so much for a mother to ask if the women who wants to marry him can say that she does so without hesitation."

"I…?" my mind went totally blank for an instant, and I felt more on the spot than I ever could remember. I had to say something now that would convince this woman that I was sincerely committed to making Ranma my husband, but how could I just come out and say the words the way Shampoo does, without hesitation? It goes against the grain of everything that I am or even thought I was to expose so much of myself before others, but to hold back and say nothing would be the death knell for Ranma. I was certain of this, and so I felt torn inside as the force of long habit warred against my conscience.

In the end it really was too much for me to say the words directly, so I said the first thing else that came into my mind, blurting it out without even thinking.

"I don't know if I love him!" I declared, "I don't even know what love is! I just know that I feel special when I'm around him…and I'd miss him…" my voice caught and I had to struggle to say the next words, "…if he wasn't with me…"

"Nabiki," I heard Daddy say, then he turned and said, "Nodoka-san, please reconsider for my daughter's sake, if not for the honor of both our families!"

"Honor?" I heard Nodoka say with a hint of challenge in her voice, "I know where honor lies, Tendo-san, that is why we are here, to hear my decision regarding the manly status of Ranma. I wanted to hear with my own ears that these two girls weren't coerced into participating in the lie that was orchestrated by Ranma's father…"

"He didn't come up with this!" Comb spoke up again, ignoring Silk's admonition this time as she cried, "I did! I'm the one who came up with the idea of having your son call himself Ranko!"

"You, Comb-san?" Nodoka's eyes registered surprise as she glanced at her former rival.

"You didn't really think Genma could come up with a plan like that, did you?' Comb declared haughtily, "As sneaky as he can be at times, he really isn't that clever! His idea was to take to the hills in hopes of avoiding you altogether, but I'm the one who chose to cover for him, to save Shampoo's husband from the oath you forced him to sign with a handprint!"

"Was it for my son that you did this?" Nodoka's eyes narrowed noticeably, "Or did you do it to protect Genma?"

"Protect…?" Comb's own eyes widened considerably as she reacted to the accusation, and then her face flushed as she angrily declared, "Don't be stupid! Why would I stick my neck out to help the old fool anyway?"

"That should be obvious," Atsuko snorted, "Even for you."

"Quiet, Oni!" Comb snapped, "You're not helping!"

"Oh no?" Ryoga's mother cocked her head as if about to issue her own challenge, "At least I don't have any hesitation about telling people how I feel. I used to stammer and get all tongue-tied, but nowadays I know that I'm the one who should have married Gemi-chan, because I'd never have tried to bind him with any stupid oaths! I'd have gone with him on his training missions, fought by his side night and day, raised our son to be a man just like his father, and never let a conceited witch like either of you lay a hand on him! He's mine-or he should have been! You just want to chop him up because you don't think he's manly enough for your standards!"

"So," Nodoka said coolly, "Nothing has changed for us since the old days, has it? Even though I'm the one he married, you two still covet my husband."

"Who's coveting him?" Comb declared with a wild expression, glancing to the side where her husband and daughters were watching her with real concern in their expressions as she pointed at Genma and cried, "He's weak, conniving, untrustworthy, a coward who abandons children along the side of the road, selfishly obsessed with both is appetite and raising his son to be a 'man-among-men…!'"

"Aiyaa," I heard Shampoo remark, "Shampoo never know Shampoo mother so much love Ranma father. Why you leave him to marry Shampoo father?"

"Eh?" Comb glanced at Shampoo, then she shot another guilty look towards her husband and her other two daughters.

"Yeah, whatever," Atsuko snorted, "But from your description Gemi-chan would make a pretty good Oni. I think that's partly why I was attracted to him in the first place…that deep down we're a lot more alike than he thinks, which is why he should have married me in the first place."

"Mom?" Ryoga looked at his mother with a scandalized expression.

"Well," Atsuko shrugged, "Can you blame me for being attracted by his good qualities? Sure he has his faults, but down deep he's still your father…"

"He what?" Nodoka asked archly, "Genma…?"

"I can explain, honest!" Genma immediately protested, then paused a moment before saying, "Well…actually, I can't…"

"He thought he was bedding you, 'Doka," Atsuko explained matter-of-factly, "I disguised myself with one of my illusions and crept into your bed during your wedding night, so if you're gonna be mad about it, at least be mad at me, because that's how we had our darling son, Ryo-chan!"

"Your…son?" Nodoka stared at Ryoga, then back at Ranma, then back to Ryoga again before she declared aloud, "Ranma…has a half-brother?"

"He is so dead," I heard Akane murmur from her side of the room, earning her a reproving glance from Kasumi.

"Ma'am," Ryoga spoke up, "I don't know if what my mother says is true, and I'd never question her for saying this, but if it's true and Saotome-san really is my father…" I saw Ryoga hesitate, glance at both Genma and Ranma, then swallow a lot more of his pride as he added, "Then I have as much of a right to object as she does! I've never gotten along with Ranma, it's no secret that we've enemies almost as long as I've known him, but he…did something for me just now…something that I never would have expected him to do…and…and I owe him for that favor, so please don't kill him, or my father."

"Besides which you want to have that option, right sugar?" Ukyo noted dryly.

"Ah…well…" Ryoga colored with some obvious reluctance.

"Now that you mention it…" Nodoka said slowly, "I do see the resemblance…"

"I didn't know, I swear it!" Genma pleaded, "I never deliberately cheated on you, Nodoka-san! You have to believe me…"

"Why should I believe you?" Nodoka asked him coolly, "And what's this about you abandoning a child along the side of a road?"

"That would be me, said Ukyo, sitting upright.

"Kuonji-san?" Nodoka raised her eyebrows, "My husband abandoned you?"

"When I was six," Ukyo said, "After he made an agreement with my father that I was to marry Ranma he stole our family yatai and left me stranded."

"Ucchan?" Ranma looked at his childhood friend as if trying to rate what she had turned into besides a Jusenkyo-cursed cross-dresser.

"It's all right, Ranchan," she smiled a little in what I think was supposed to be a reassuring manner, "Like I said, I was six, but I made my father promise to engage me to Ranma, and his father went along with the deal which involved my family yatai as dowry."

"Then…you really are a girl and not a boy?" Nodoka asked, "And you're also my son's…?"

"Iinazuke," Ukyo replied, "But not anymore. I release Ranma from any commitment he made to me then or now, knowing or unknowing, because he really didn't know I was a girl and just thought I was his little buddy, Ucchan. It's my fault, really, for never straightening him out about that, but I guess I did look kinda like a boy back then on account of the way I dressed. All I know is that Ranchan is my friend and he'd never deliberately do anything to hurt me. It was his father who made the deal, a deal he obviously never intended to keep, so why should I blame Ranma for that? It's not like he can be held responsible for every little mistake that's ever been made by Saotome Genma."

"Ucchan," Ranma murmured, obviously moved by the kind words Kuonji had just said towards him.

I began to see the glimmerings of her plan, and I silently thanked Ukyo for trying to undermine what I saw as the central weak point of the contract Ranma had been forced to sign without his knowledge or full consent. If we could make Nodoka see reason on that point then full responsibility would fall upon Genma's shoulders, and he deserved whatever fate Nodoka gave him. Just so long as Ranma would be spared we could at lease salvage a partial victory out of the ashes.

But then Nodoka asked a question that threw everything into a cocked hat, "You say my son is your friend, but why did you want to be engaged to him in the first place?"

"Huh?" Ukyo seemed to have been caught totally off-guard by the question, because instead of a clever reply she said, "Ah…well…I guess I kinda liked him…"

"And do you 'kind of' like him now?" Nodoka asked her.

"Ah…?" it was the kind of question that a prosecuting attorney might ask a witness for the defense, in a court trial, and it plainly exposed the meaningful hesitation in Kuonji's bearing as she store a glance towards Ranma and swallowed, "Well…sure, I guess I do. I mean…look at him! He's kind, handsome, considerate, got a great body, tries to do the right thing. Okay…so he can be a real baka at times, but so what? We all make mistakes, and I've made more than my share of them…including Jusenkyo."

I saw Akane look at her with a puzzled expression, and then she shot an angry glare towards Ranma. One of these days I have got to uncover the root cause for why my little sister feels such unremitting hatred towards my iinazuke. I mean, what did he ever do to get so much on her bad side? You'd think she would have gotten over the thing in the dojo and the furo months ago, but no, she keeps dragging them out like they were her favorite toy bludgeons!

"So," Nodoka said, "In other words you like my son, but you're willing to give him up so that he can marry another woman, correct?"

"Uh…" Ukyo glanced down and said, "Hey, it's not my thing, okay? He's got two great girls who love him, and it's obvious to me he cares a lot about them, so why should I get in the way and make his life more complicated?"

"But you wouldn't mind still being engaged to him?" Nodoka persisted.

Ukyo lifted her eyes again and looked directly at Ranma, then swallowed visibly before looking down again and saying, "Doesn't matter…he doesn't love me…not the same way."

I caught Ranma continuing to stare in Ukyo's direction, but then he glanced over his shoulder to see the looks both me and Shampoo were giving him and he blinked his eyes then said, "Hey…what did I do?"

"Ranma do nothing," Shampoo said very evenly, "If Airen want remain healthy."

"I think we can leave the question of a third engagement for now," Nodoka said, "But I would say that you certainly are a very respectful child, and you might even make a good wife for my son, so please don't make any rash decisions." She turned back and leveled an icy stare at Genma, "I will, however, agree that my husband is to blame for inconveniencing you, and he obviously had no thought at all what rejecting you as an iinazuke might do you and your reputation. Even as a child it must not have been easy to live with this stain to your honor."

"Yeah," I heard Kuonji say at barely the level of a whisper, "You could say that it wasn't like making okonomiyaki."

"Well, Genma," Nodoka addressed her husband, "What have you to say for yourself? It seems that you have inconvenienced a lot of people and served as a very poor role model for our son. That Ranma is manly at all is something to be remarked upon, but it seems that you did a less than stellar role as his father."

Though I couldn't see his face I'm certain that Uncle Saotome was all but literally dripping with fear, his body-posture so rigid that you could have struck his back with a two-by-four and hardly budge him. I was half-tempted to try and I had to keep to my place and look for some angle that might help us to salvage the situation. I might not like Uncle Genma very much, but I knew without asking that his death would not have a very positive effect on Ranma's prospects. Besides, much though Ranma would howl in protest if he saw me writing this, I think deep down he does still love the old panda, for all his many faults and failings.

"Nodoka…" Uncle Genma pronounced the word, but then surprised us all by lowering his head and saying, "You're right. I failed the boy. I didn't teach him to be as manly as I thought I could. He's disappointed me in so many ways, but the fault must lie with the teacher, and not the student," he looked up and turned his head to one side as he added, "Don't you agree…Master?"

"Eh?" Happosai blinked his eyes the seemed to notice the eyes that had fallen upon him, "What's everyone looking at me for?"

"Saotome-san," Daddy said with more formality than before, "I know your husband well, we trained together, fought together, stood side by side and groveled at the feet of the same Master, and I'd be the first to admit that he isn't always the most perfect friend that a man could ask for, but…Nabiki is my little girl, and if you condemn him and his son, then she will be a widow before she's even married!"

"I am far from unmoved by your daughter's plight, Tendo-san," Nodoka replied, "But there is a stain to the Saotome family honor, and it must fall upon the women of our clan to uphold that honor, regardless of the cost. I must decide if this merits the terms of the contract Genma signed with me long ago, or if he is in violation of his promises to me, for which his life will be forfeit…"

"NO!" Comb was on her feet in an instant, sword in hand as she cried, "That's not going to happen!"

"Excuse me?" Nodoka eyed her erstwhile rival with cool detachment.

"I can't let you do this!" Comb was literally shaking as her family stared at her, no less taken aback by her actions, "No matter what he's done, he doesn't deserve to die for it! I won't let you do this, Nodoka! Release them now from that promise of seppuku or…or I will challenge you on behalf of my daughter!"

"Mother?' Shampoo blinked her eyes, no less astonished by this turn of events than I was.

"You challenge me?" Nodoka said with no trace of emotion, "On what basis? You already have a husband."

Comb grimaced before she replied, "I don't need another husband, but if that's what it takes to spare his life, then I'll gladly take him away from you and have him for my second husband. I have the right as a senior representative of my tribe. Silk, back me up on this!"

"Actually," Silk began, "The law is pretty vague about having a second husband. Two warriors sharing the same husband is the usual accepted…" she stopped talking as she saw the look Comb turned on her, and hastily amended, "Well…obviously there are exceptions to every rule…"

"Interesting," Nodoka mused, "And what do you make of his, Hairbrush-san?"

"I think my wife is prone to making rash decisions on impulse," the man replied, "But in this case I must accept that she is acting from her heart, not her head, not that I think this Saotome Nodoka is worthy of her attentions."

Genma shot an evil look at the other man, which was returned calmly with an implacable glare from Hairbrush.

Atsuko sighed as she rose to her feet and said, "Typical of you to go and hog the limelight, Comb, but you always were one for the melodramatics."

"I see," Nodoka said as she eyed her second rival, "And are you also challenging me on behalf of my husband?"

"If someone's gotta do it, it sure as hell will be me," Atsuko declared with a snort in Comb's direction, "I'm the better warrior of the two of us, and I could take either of you any day you like, and if I win you can bet like hell that I'm keeping Gemi-chan for myself!"

"Is that so?" Nodoka asked mildly.

"Yeah," Atsuko extended her umbrella and assumed a fighting crouch, "So who's gonna stop me?"

I barely even saw Nodoka move as she leaned forward into a roll and came up with her sword in hand. As quick as an eyeblink she drew the thing and moved like lighting. Not even a half second later she stood her ground with her back turned to both of her nominal rivals, sword pointed at the ground while the other two women remained where they had been standing. For a full three seconds nothing moved and we all collectively held our breath, uncertain of what had just happened since Ranma's mother had hardly seemed to have moved at all while covering the four meters from where she had been sitting to where she now was posing.

And then we all collectively gasped as Comb massaged her wrist, her sword having been struck from her hand, and we all could see it protruding from the ceiling, wobbling slightly. Atsuko's umbrella very slowly dipped to the floor as the first seventeen centimeters were cleanly sheered through, metal lining and bamboo, leaving her holding a stump that was only half the length that it had begun with. Then the front wooden pegs holding Comb's tunic in place popped loose, causing her shirt to open in the middle while she stared down at herself in dismay. With a hasty help she covered herself up, losing what dignity she had left while Atsuko did likewise, having the front part of her tank top be cleanly sliced through.

Nodoka smiled as she reached down and retrieved the sheath to her sword, then closed it up as she regarded her rivals with a small smile of satisfaction.

"Forgive me," she said in the same matter-of-fact tone of voice, "I couldn't resist doing that. I trust my point is made. If I had wanted to I could have cut more deeply, but there is no reason to shed either of your blood since neither of your offspring is at fault for the sins of their elders."

"Nodoka," the voice of Genma suddenly brought attention his way, and to our surprise he bowed to her and said, "I know I've failed you, and I haven't been much of a husband, but please…I only did what I had to for the sake of the boy. Don't blame him for having a foolish father, and please don't take it out on Comb or Atsuko."

"You are asking me to forgive our son," Nodoka replied, "But I have already done this. Ranma is not at fault for your crimes. You alone should pay for the sins you have visited upon us."

"No!" Ranma lurched to his feet, "Mom, don't do it! I know he's a baka and a thief, but…but you can't kill Dad just because he's stupid! Like he said, blame the old man, he's the one who taught him!"

"Why is everybody making me out to be the bad guy?" Happosai frowned in obvious disapproval.

"Gee, I wonder," Akane growled, her glare almost matching that of our father.

"You ask to speak in your father's defense, Ranma?" Nodoka eyed her son levelly, "Are you prepared to answer for the promise he made on both of your behalf?"

"I…uh…" Ranma faltered.

"No!" Shampoo was on her feet, throwing herself into the space between Ranma and his mother, "You make Ranma kill self, Shampoo beg you no do this! Kill Shampoo first, no want to live without Airen!"

"Excuse me," I said as I was already on my feet and walking up to join my Amazon iinazuke, "But that should be my line. If you're gonna take him, then the promise to unite our houses is null and void, and that means I don't need to be around to serve as a reminder to my family. So if you're going to order his death, you might as well take us with him."

"Nabiki?" Ranma gasped, "Shampoo?"

"So," Nodoka looked from one of us to the other and said, "You'd both be willing to give your lives for him, even to share him as your husband?"

I made a point of taking Shampoo's hand in my own and meeting her stare with my own best effort at intimidation, "Just try us, lady. You want Ranma, you'll have to go through us to get him."

Then Ranma's hand fell on my shoulder, and his other hand was on Shampoo's and very gently he parted us to step between the gap as he said, "Nobody's gonna die today, not unless it's me. I won't let you hurt anybody else, so if you're gonna do this, Mom, then start with me and that's it."

Nodoka inclined her head to one side, then I saw her smile deepen, "And why would I ask anyone to die today, Ranma? It's such a lovely day, and I just can't see turning either of these beautiful young girls into widows grieving for you. I think you've demonstrated to me that you're manly enough to carry on the Saotome traditions."

"HUH?" we all gasped in one voice.

"Of course," Nodoka flashed her smile at the rest of those present, "I'd already decided to rescind the honor pledge even before I heard these explanations. I just wanted to make certain for my own peace of mind that it was the right decision, but since everybody was willing to sacrifice themselves for one another, I don't think there needs to be any doubt at all that Ranma is manly."

"You…you mean that, Nodoka-chan?" Genma gasped.

"In spite of everything, husband, you did teach our son to be manly," Nodoka informed him, "No one who was less than a man could have so many people willing to fight on his behalf, or so ready to forgive him for the wrongs that were done to them," she glanced towards Kuonji, who blinked back in owlish surprise, "Atsuko-chan and Comb-san were a surprise, though…but I guess that's only to be suspected since, as Comb herself admits, for all his flaws, Genma is still manly."

"Ah…" I never saw an Amazon blush like that before, but Shampoo's mother nearly went as pink as Ambergris's haircolor.

"Boy, do I feel stupid," Atsuko said as she glanced at the ruins of her umbrella.

"Must be your natural state of mind," Silk mused coyly as she came up to offer a hug to Nodoka, "Beautifully well played, even I was fooled! I never guessed under that sweet exterior that you could be such a cunning actress."

"I do have my talents," Nodoka smiled, "Only I haven't been able to practice them since my own high school days. I'm sorry if I put you all through a rough moment there, but as I said I had to be certain for the sake of family honor."

"Oh, think nothing of it, Nodoka-san," Daddy said with clear relief, "We weren't fooled a bit, were we girls?"

I saw Kasumi, Akane and even Kodachi eye our father with dubious expressions. I had to repress my own urge to kick him in the shins for acting like such a baka.

"Well then," Nodoka said pleasantly, "Now that all that's settled, I suppose we should start planning on a wedding date."

"Wedding date?' I saw Ranma's eyes go as round as marbles.

"Of course," Nodoka smiled at him, "After all, if you're going to be sleeping with these two girls on a regular basis, then sooner or later one or both of them is going to wind up pregnant, and it just would not be proper to have a child out of wedlock."

"Oh my," Kasumi covered her mouth, "That's right! If Ranma keeps on with Shampoo and Nabiki…"

"What?" Daddy blinked his eyes, "What do you mean? Who did what with Nabiki?"

"Huh?" Ranma blinked his eyes, "But…how did you know…?"

"I'm your mother," Nodoka smiled as she hugged Ranma to her bosom, "I just know these things. It's sort of like a talent, and it makes you look so manly."

About this point is where Shampoo and I collectively face-faulted…

Cologne's mood did not improve when she finally reached the Nekohanten and was able to catch her breath, muttering something dark and terrible about "miserable dwarfs" and the fate that awaited one in particular the next time they had an encounter. She had recovered from the drain to her battle aura but was in no great hurry to suffer a rematch with this Hinako Ninamiya. She was definitely taking to the rooftops on the return trip to the Tendo place, just as soon as she fetched the last remaining bottle of Nanniichuan water from the place where she had secured it. With luck she could be back in time to provide Ranma with the cure, and then convince Saotome Nodoka that the boy was manly.

Manly, Cologne snorted. The first time she had laid eyes on him she had briefly considered revealing herself and claiming Ranma for her own sake, but that would have deprived Shampoo of her lawful husband, and Cologne had a duty to look out for every member of her household, especially her designated successor. It had been a genuine thrill when she and Ranma had fought, enough so that she had opted to prolong the encounter rather than go for a quick knockout, and thus had given the boy the chance at defeating her, which he had come close to doing during the incident of the cat-fist.

Fortunately for young Saotome, Cologne had learned restraint over her years, or else he would have found himself saddled with a very different kind of Airen, one who was not as accommodating and submissive as Shampoo, nor as easy to satisfy. The boy had no idea how lucky he was that Cologne had thrown that match rather than be genuinely defeated, or that Elders were generally exempt from the usual rule regarding defeat by outsiders. It might have been fun whipping the boy into shape on a regular basis, or more fun than she had experienced in quite a while anyway. Cologne's loss was Shampoo's gain just the same, so in a way Cologne could be satisfied vicariously, and with any luck soon find a new generation of heirs to play with, ones with far fewer prejudices against Cologne and her methods.

Ah well, she thought as she removed the hidden floor paneling to expose her cache of special belongings, time enough to waste on idle speculation over what might have been, she had to rescue Ranma from his current fate first before she could deal with the issue of potential offspring…

Cologne's youthful hands halted as she exposed the cache to view, her senses alerting her to possible trouble as she saw an empty space among the wealth of jewelry that had been stored in her private family treasury. There was no sign of either of the two bottles of Jusenkyo water, but there was one thing she did find which raised the hackles on her nape fairs.

A single white feather, the kind that a duck might shed if he was molting.

Quite suddenly the world had turned a good deal more interesting than even she was prepared to deal with, and with that thought the young-seeming Matriarch gave an audible shudder…


Comments/Criticism/Cologne's "Baby" pictures: Shadowmane@msn.com