Sound Hearts


Author's Notes:

This is a story that I started many years ago when Ranma ½ was still new and Ranma ½ fanfiction still very popular on the internets. I recently stumbled across it again while going through my files and while I was a little embarrassed to read something so blatantly written as Ranma/Hotaru pairing wish-fulfillment, something about this story of their love and friendship still makes me smile. So while I do not intend to write more for this beyond what is already written, I decided to republish it now to ensure that those old readers who may have been searching for this story can easily find it, and in the hope that some new readers might also discover and enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it. Though I never finished writing more than 6 chapters (along with a rewrite, which is what this is) of Sound Hearts, I did complete and release on various forums a detailed outline of the story from start to finish so that if you start reading this you can still get closure as to how the story was intended to progress and end. You can grab the outline from the following link (with the blank space in the middle removed): "docdro. id/fpknDRl"

Knowledge of Sailor Moon S will probably add to the enjoyment of this story as I follow the episodes very closely and even borrow ideas from the manga. For purposes of this story, however, Setsuna was reincarnated earlier than any of the other Senshi and is around the same age as Genma. Ranma is the same age as Hotaru and Hotaru is the same age as the Senshi, which from what I have actually seen/read in both the show and manga, actually seems right to me.

Chapter 1

The air slipped silently past him as he dropped down. To him it was a comforting and familiar touch that seemed to gently embrace him, telling him in soft whispers to pull his legs up a little and relax his body: keep his form perfect. He landed softly, knees bent and one arm out to his side to steady himself. The wind rustled a little, a tiny sigh as it slipped away, and that was the only sign to mark Ranma Saotome's appearance.

The 14 year-old boy tore another bite out of the large meat bun that had been in his mouth, swallowing it down after a few quick chews. He glanced back up at the second story rooftop he had jumped from, oblivious to the startled looks from the crowd of people he had suddenly dropped into, and grinned. "C'mon old man, where are you?" he shouted tauntingly. "You must be gettin' slow in your old age!"

A split second later, an angry bespectacled face appeared over the side of the roof and screamed back down, "Ranma you disrespectful ingrate, get back here! I was saving that bun for my dinner!" Some of the pedestrians looked up at the angry father, while others stared at Ranma, but all wondered what exactly was going on.

Ranma simply laughed and took off running. "Gotta catch me first old man!"

The young martial artist darted down the street, a red-blur weaving in and out of the crowds of people around him without so much as a moment's thought to anything other than the feel of the wind once more rushing past him. He would narrowly slip by an old man here, burst in between a bewildered-couple there, even hop over a little girl with a lollipop once; but the only thing going through his mind behind the satisfied smirk on his face was the rush and thrill of the moment as he tore through the streets, making sudden turns and trying to outrun his father, who he knew was hot on his heels.

As he fairly flew around a corner, he heard his father give a loud curse a little ways back and instinctively glanced behind him. He grinned, catching a glimpse of the old martial artist waving his arms and trying to shove his way through a particularly large crowd, before slipping past the stone corner. Genma's large frame and the fact that Ranma had left the old martial artist with all their supplies were obviously making it hard for him to keep up the chase.

Laughing silently, Ranma turned his attention back to where he was going and nearly collided with a young girl coming towards him. His eyes widened and, with no time to do anything else, he instinctively jumped up. His free hand reached out and pushed lightly down on the girl's head, flipping him over her.

The girl gave a startled cry and fell down, but Ranma barely noticed, busy trying to steady his awkward landing as he hit the ground. He stumbled forward, feet scrambling and arms waving ind armscramblign undofntil that point of what had n a comically frantic attempt to regain his balance. After a few desperate seconds, he finally steadied and came to a stop. He stood frozen, leaning forward on one leg with the other raised off the ground. His left hand was thrust high in the air, clutching his meat bun up high as if he were trying to protect it from some hungry animal. Ranma gave a slow, relieved sigh. Safe!

Taking a moment to regain his composure, the young martial artist spun around, prepared for yet another shouting match with the locals. "Are you crazy?! What the heck were you doing?!" he demanded, mustering up all the self-righteous exasperation he could. He puffed up his chest and shot the girl an annoyed look, steeling himself for a rebuttal. She stared up at him from the ground, one hand held against her chest as if she were recoiling from his words, her short dark hair framing a pale, startled face.

"I'm sorry," the girl returned quickly, and he could see her hastily push herself back up to her feet and bow to him in the corner of his eyes. "I didn't mean to run into you. I wasn't paying attention, it was my fault."

Ranma faltered and stared at the girl, mouth open and confused himself. He had spent eight years on the road traveling from town to town, city to city, all over Japan since he was six, and in all that time he couldn't once remember a girl… bowing and apologizing to him? What he did remember were countless people chasing him, yelling at him, and in general blaming him for things that, when you thought about it, weren't really his fault. After a considerable length of silence, Ranma finally managed to vocalize his myriad thoughts in a word: "Huh?"

The girl straightened up and looked at Ranma. "I'm sorry," she said softly again. "Are you alright?"

Ranma blinked a few times then finally drew himself together. "Uh, yeah…" he said lamely, trying to think of something to say. "Just don't do it again," he finally tried. "Somebody could get hurt, you know!" He wagged a finger at her, imitating his father's lecturing voice and trying to look stern. He tried to think of what else Genma would say but froze as a large shadow suddenly loomed over him and the girl. Before he could so much as turn around, a rough hand smacked him on the back of his head, causing him to stumble a little. "Ouch!" he cried, rubbing his head.

"Oh what have I done to raise such a worthless son!" a deep voice lamented woefully.

Ranma sighed. His old man had finally caught up with him. He should've expected it after wasting so much time standing there. The only thing he didn't understand, however, was how the old man had gotten behind him. If Genma had been following him he should've come from the other direction. "About time you caught up-"

Genma cut off his son with another whack to the head. "Silence, Ranma! You disgrace the Saotome name! Our ancestors surely cry out in horror at the dishonor you have brought upon our family!"

Ranma looked at the meat bun still in his hand and then turned an incredulous stare on his father. "Aren't you overreacting just a little bit Pops?"

"It breaks my heart that even you could say such a thing! Ranma, you've destroyed the Saotome family heirloom, passed down through countless generations of proud martial artists!" Genma pointed at something on the ground.

Ranma looked at where his father was pointing and sure enough there were scattered pieces of… something… on the sidewalk. The young boy's eyes twitched as he stared at the haphazard collection of debris. The old man had to be kidding if he expected this trick to actually work on him. The piece didn't even look like they belonged together much less formed some family heirloom. Brightly colored bits of ceramic were mixed in with shards of plain glass, wood chips, twisted strips of metal, and even a few crumpled napkins. It was as if Genma had just scooped up a handful of trash from some random dumpster and spread it over the ground.

"What do you think I am, stupid?!" Ranma snapped at his father. "That's just some-"

"I'm so sorry!"

Ranma stopped in mid-sentence and turned to face the new voice: the girl he had vaulted over. She was staring in shock at the "family heirloom," seemingly horrified by what she saw. Ranma started to say something but was stopped as his father nudged an elbow into his side. He glanced up at Genma in annoyance, but the old man started speaking. "It's alright Miss, it's not your fault. If only my incompetent son here had been more careful, this could have been avoided." Genma made a great show of sighing in sorrow. "Alas, we must now return as slaves to the sweat shops and work 13 hours a day with no food or break for another year in order to earn the money to repair the treasure..." The old martial artist knelt down with another bitter sigh and began carefully gathering the pieces of the "heirloom" together, treating each bit as if it were some priceless artifact.

Ranma, however, was getting just about fed up with his father and on the verge of kicking the old man in the back of the head for this stupidity when the girl suddenly cried out, "This is my fault! Please, let me pay for it!"

Genma looked up at the girl, his eyes glinting mischievously, and suddenly Ranma understood his father's intentions. Ranma scowled and started to kick the old man anyway when his stomach growled hungrily. He paused, glanced down at his stomach and then at the meat bun in his hand, which suddenly looked very small and unappetizing. He looked at his father, who was kneeling on the ground and staring up at the girl in apparent surprise at her offer. Then he looked at the girl who now stood straight and stiff as an arrow, her head bent down and a small purse held in front of her in offering.

Ranma's stomach growled again, and the decision was made.

Ranma quickly scooped up another bowl of rice and fish into his mouth, barely chewing and nearly swallowing the thing whole. He washed it down with a cup of tea and gave a satisfying burp. "Hey!" he shouted at a passing waiter, pounding loudly on the table. "Some more food here!" The man gave a strained smile but nodded, and Ranma leaned lazily back in his chair. Across the table, Genma inhaled a bowl of ramen and echoed his son's demand for more food before leaning back against his chair with a satisfied burp.

Ranma eyed his father in amusement. "So the "Saotome Family Heirloom" is only worth the price of a meal for two huh?"

Genma looked at his son and raised an eyebrow. "So you wanted more money? Taking advantage of an innocent girl, what kind of son did I raise?"

Ranma rolled his eyes. "That's not what I said, and this was your idea, not mine!"

Genma snickered and waved at the bowls and plates of finished food. "You seem to be enjoying it just the same."

Ranma shifted uncomfortably and stared down at the table, feeling a tiny twinge of guilt as he remembered the girl's worried face.

Noticing his son's discomfort, Genma leaned forward. "Look Ranma, we do what we have to do." There was a serious look in the man's eyes, a flash of rough roads and an uncertain life from one meal to the next—a life father and son had shared for the past 8 years. And just as quickly as it had come, the look passed, and Genma was leaning back in his chair again, grinning. "And on the scale of things we have to do, this isn't so bad!"

Ranma stared at his father incredulously for a second before rolling his eyes and turning away, giving a short half-laugh. Any remaining twinge of guilt he felt faded away as he saw the server returning with another bowl of food.

The two ate in comfortable silence, enjoying the hot, freshly-prepared food. It was the first quality-food they had in weeks, since they had left Akita. They had been traveling constantly on the road since then, heading for Tokyo. It had been a long trip with many misadventures; and now that they had finally arrived, Ranma wondered what they were going to do.

"Hey Pops, what are we doing in Tokyo anyway?" Ranma asked in-between mouthfuls.

Genma swallowed and looked at his son as if he had just asked something incredibly obvious. "Training," he said simply. It was what they did everywhere for the past eight years.

Ranma downed a cup of tea and gave Genma an exasperated look. "I know that, but why Tokyo?" Whenever his father headed for a particular place, it usually meant there was something important there that could help him with his training. Sometimes it was a special training ground; usually it was some school with a unique style of martial arts Genma wanted Ranma to study. He could think of many famous schools that had dojos in Tokyo, and he was curious which one Genma thought worthy of their attention. It had been a year since Ranma had last studied with another master, and even that had only been for a few weeks. Genma had withdrawn him from the school after it became obvious that he surpassed the other students by far and there wasn't anything useful that the master was willing to teach.

Whatever the reason, Ranma wanted to know what it was to cause them to travel this far so suddenly. They had barely been at their old place—a rundown shack in a bad part of town—a week before Genma had woken him up one day and told him they were going to Tokyo.

"Some kind of special martial arts school?" Ranma asked after he had finished another bowl of rice and his father still hadn't replied.

Genma paused, a strange, distant look on his face as Ranma regarded him curiously. Finally, the man looked up and said "No, we're just going to settle down here for awhile."

Ranma blinked in surprise. That hadn't been the answer he was expecting. He stared as the old man resumed eating. Settling down for awhile…? Ranma chewed the thought over for a few minutes. It wasn't so much that "settling down" as Genma put it was unusual, but that Genma had given it as a reason—eight years on the road and Genma had never once said they were going to settle down—though it happened for short whiles often enough. Settling down for the sake of settling down...? That was a little weird. Ranma mulled over the thought for a few more seconds and finally just shrugged, turning his attention back to eating as much as he could. Whatever. As long as he got fed he didn't really care why they were here.

Ranma gave a loud burp and slouched down on his chair, rubbing his stomach in satisfaction. He looked at his old man, who did the same before calling for the check.

"Good meal boy?" Genma asked with a grin.

Ranma grinned back. "Great meal!"

Ranma allowed himself to relax and enjoy the ambience of the restaurant as they waited for the check. He closed his eyes and listened to the soft murmur of conversation, taking in the rich smells of the restaurant and enjoying the pleasant feeling of having a full stomach for the first time in weeks. It had been awhile since he had such a good meal, and right now he felt like taking a nice long nap. He hoped Genma had found a place to stay or even just had a site picked for their tent.

After what felt like a long while, in which he thought he might have drifted off to sleep, Ranma heard Genma saying something. The young boy opened an eye and watched as Genma got out of his chair, placing the check and a stack of yen on the table. "Er… Ranma, I'm going to go to the bathroom. If they ask for the bill pay them for me okay?"

Before Ranma could reply, Genma had walked off, heading for the bathroom. A small part of the young martial artist shouted a warning that the old man was up to something but was overwhelmed by that lazy feeling that always gripped him after a good meal. Ignoring the warning, Ranma closed his eyes and leaned back again.

He stayed that way for what seemed like an eternity, drifting in and out of sleep. Eventually, he started hearing an urgent voice calling to him through his sleepy veil. "Sir? Excuse me, sir?" Since it wasn't his father, Ranma ignored the voice. Who the heck would call him sir? "Sir?" This time somebody shook him and Ranma jumped slightly, his eyes snapping open as he turned towards whoever had woken him up.

"What?" he snapped in annoyance, regarding a man who appeared to be a waiter holding what looked like a bill in one hand and a stack of yen in the other.

"Your bill, sir? You need to pay it." The man seemed to have an edge of annoyance in his own voice as well.

Ranma looked at the stack of yen in the man's hand, an eyebrow raised. "Uh… you're holding it."

"It isn't enough," the man replied quickly, as if he had been waiting for that answer. His eyes narrowed now as he waited for Ranma's reply.

Ranma blinked, not understanding. "What are you talking about, that's what my dad left for the food."

"Well then your father didn't leave enough," the server replied carefully.

Slowly, understanding began to sink into Ranma and he fidgeted uneasily. "Look," he said. "Just wait until he gets back and he'll have the rest okay? He just went to the bathroom."

The server replied slowly, but it was clear that he was beginning to get impatient. "Your father left. He said you would take care of the bill."

And then Ranma knew with certainty that Genma had stuck him with the bill. Again. He slapped himself on the forehead and jumped to his feet. He was angrier that he had fallen for the trick—again—than that the old man had actually done it. Going to the bathroom! How in the world did he fall for something so stupid?!

Ranma took a deep breath and then looked at the waiter who stared back at him tensely. He had a feeling where this was going to go—already other waiters had stopped their work and were eyeing the two cautiously. A few started making their way towards him and, off to a side, Ranma could see the owner and his wife watching the scene carefully. Yeah, he knew how this was going to end… but still, he could try.

"I don't have the money-"

Before Ranma could finish his explanation, the waiter cut him off, yelling at him "What do you mean you don't have it! You two have been here for hours and you don't have the money?!"

Ranma glanced around nervously, seeing several other waiters surrounding him now and the owner and his wife heading over. "Hey, this isn't my fault! My old man stuck me with the bill okay?!"

"So that gives you the right to order us around like dogs and have a free meal?" the waiter snapped back angrily, seeming to be releasing some pent up rage.

Ranma glanced at the table piled full of plates and bowls. "Well actually it was more like a bunch of meals."

The server twitched as his anger mounted. "That makes it even worse!"

"Hey! I'm just trying to say it's not like I'm ripping you off or anything!" Ranma pointed at the stack of yen in the server's hand. "You have that huge stack of money right there!""

"It's not nearly enough!"

"Look at how big it is! How the heck can it not be enough?!" Ranma demanded incredulously.

The waiter started counting out the money aloud in front of Ranma while the other waiters, all of whom had served Ranma and Genma at some point, stared at Ranma menacingly. Ranma glared back at all of them defiantly.

"Kyuichi, what's the problem here?" Everybody turned to look at the restaurant owner as he approached. A stout, bearded man, he came to a stop by the waiter angrily counting out Ranma's money—Kyuichi no doubt—and stood by his wife regarding the scene carefully.

"This kid is trying to cheat us! He's been eating here for hours ordering us around like slaves but he doesn't have enough for half of what he ordered—he never intended to pay!"

"Who's cheating who?!" Ranma shot back hotly. "I can't believe you're actually charging money for this stuff!"

If it hadn't already, a downright hostile atmosphere began building up and everybody else in the restaurant was watching the scene nervously now, expecting trouble. The owner eyed Ranma silently, not looking pleased. Still, the man retained his composure and looked like he was carefully choosing his words

It was the wife who spoke first though. A large, big-boned woman, she pulled herself up and glowered down at Ranma. "Now listen here you little brat! Don't think we're going to let a dirty little thief like you get away with this! You go call your father right-"

Though already steeled for the confrontation from years of experience in similar situations on the road, Ranma still winced at the woman's words. "Who're you calling a brat, you fat hag!" he shot back instinctively."

There was a long moment of silence after that as everybody seemed to stare at Ranma in shock while he glared defiantly back. Then, there was a scream from somewhere and Ranma was suddenly on top of the table dashing away from an enraged woman. The next thing he knew he was running out the door with a large portion of the restaurant staff and the owner's wife right behind him.

Ranma finally stopped running and leaned against a bench, breathing heavily. He couldn't believe they had chased him for so long, or that they could even keep up with him for that matter. He had weaved in and out of the city through crowded streets, over cars and down narrow alleys—places that were supposed to be hard for a group to follow. Once, he had even run through a large department store, causing quite a lot of commotion in fact; but no matter what he did, the shouts and curses of the restaurant's staff, led by the screaming wife of the restaurant's owner, seemed not too far behind. Finally, however, after what seemed like an eternity of running, it had gotten dark and he managed to lose them. Even after that he had kept running for nearly half an hour just to make sure they couldn't possibly follow him.

Catching his breath, though his heart was still pounding from the exertion, Ranma straightened up and took stock of his surroundings. It was completely dark now, the sun having long since slipped beneath the horizon. Somehow, he had ended up in a large park, and, all around him, there was only dead silence and trees shrouded in deep shadows. The leaves rustled eerily in the wind, and Ranma shifted uncomfortably. He had no idea where he was, and though he was used to traveling through dark, empty forests something about this place set him on edge. The place just felt too… empty. Not a rustle of life, not even the chirp of a cricket could be heard. It seemed to Ranma that, being in a large city, there should at least be some people wandering the park.

That he stood by a wooden bench on a paved concrete path lit, though very sparingly and to almost no effect, by widely spread lampposts only served to heighten the sense of emptiness to Ranma. With all these signs of people here, it just somehow seemed… wrong that there wasn't so much as another soul in sight.

And as the desolate silence and emptiness of the place started to take its toll on the young boy's already-frayed nerves, then even the pale moonlight suddenly faded away behind a group of dark clouds. The shadows grew deeper and darker, seeming to be almost alive—long dark slivers stretching out at him like claws. His stomach suddenly twisting, he began quickly walking down the path, wanting to leave this place.

He hurried down the path, his light footsteps echoing into the darkness. The soft claps thundered in the silence and made him tense with an irrational fear that it was attracting shadowy figures stalking him in the darkness; but the thought only made him walk quicker, his staccato steps coming faster and faster, louder and louder, rising to a crescendo with the pounding in his chest until he thought he might go mad, might—and all of a sudden the sound drowned away in the rush of a cold wind.

The boy froze as it blew past him, almost seeming to moan sadly. He shivered and rubbed his arms, a foreboding sense of loneliness mixed with fear seeming to cut into his bones as the terrible gust wrapped around him, its despairing cry filling his ears. After a moment, it passed, fading away and leaving only silence again. But in its wake the air now felt somehow thick and oppressive, wrapping around him almost as if it were trying to smother him. Suddenly, the shadows seemed to press around him, the few dim lamps fading and flickering ominously like so many blinking eyes peering at him from the shadows. Desperately, he looked around for an escape.

The flash of moonlight off water beckoned to his left, and the boy hurried towards it. The light spread and grew, dancing mysteriously in the distance even as he fell off the path and into the shadowy embrace of the trees. Keeping his eyes on the light even as everything else faded around him, he kept walking, falling deeper into darkness. Around him shadows loomed menacingly, and a vague and a half-forgotten sense of terror began to stir deep within as he felt more and more pressed in. All around he began to hear movement—in the swaying of the trees and the rustling of the leaves—as if a thousand eyes on twice as many feet were hungrily stalking him; but the boy kept his sight on the dancing moonlight in the distance, and even as he felt more and more like he was falling down into some endless pit, he nonetheless, impossibly, felt like he was escaping.

Finally, after what felt like a cold eternity of walking, he stepped out of the dark forest and a large lake, sparkling beautifully under the moonlight, spread majestically before him. He stared at the dancing waters, his breath caught by its nocturnal beauty, and the oppressive feeling around him seeming to lift for a second. After a moment, however, he could it feel it beginning to return, grasping at him from all around, and he instinctively headed towards the water.

But after only a few steps, he stopped, his heart jumping slightly as he suddenly saw the slender figure of a girl sitting by the edge of the lake. She was facing the waters, her dark hair seeming to stretch into an endless shadow that wrapped around her; but at the same time moonlight danced all about, making her glow like some dark yet alluring vision. He hadn't seen her at all before, but something about her told him that she had been there all along, draped in the melancholy darkness as if she… belonged there The boy tensed, feeling frightened by and yet strangely drawn to this mysterious figure stepped out of some tragic fairy tale.

A part of him screamed at him to leave, that oppressive sense of terror from before seeming to grow each second he stood staring at the mysterious figure; but at the same time, something… something about her kept him rooted: a familiar sense of... And all of a sudden the girl turned and all he could see were deep, dark eyes. Everything around him seemed to fade away as he was caught by those endless orbs. They seemed to suck him in, pulling him into their depths. He could see sorrow, loneliness and… tragedy in them; but even more than that they seemed to bore into his own soul. There was no fear, no terror, but he felt an unusual sense of disquiet inside him, many strange and dark emotions shifting around within his chest as if they were slowly being drawn out into those eyes that stared at him as if they knew everything.

"It's you," the girl said softly, turning her eyes away; and suddenly the spell was broken. Ranma blinked, feeling as if he had just woken up from some strange dream and all at once the dark and foreboding atmosphere seemed to fade away. The shadows seemed lighter, the wind comfortable and the lake sparkled beautifully. Soon even the memories of the vivid emotions he had felt just minutes ago began to fade, leaving behind only vague impressions of discomfort. There was still a sense of mystery all around, but where before it had been subtly terrifying now it seemed soft and alluring.

Releasing a breath he didn't know he had been holding, he regarded the girl looking up at him. After a second, he finally recognized her as the one who he had jumped over earlier. Startled, he jumped back, pointing an accusing finger at her. "You!" he shouted instinctively, not sure what to say or even what he was doing. But somehow all the problems of the afternoon and the disorienting surge and fading of emotions from just before shook him and seemed to coalesce into this girl before him. "You!" he shouted again, eyes wide. "It's all your fault!"

The girl's eyes widened and for a second seemed to flash with guilt and pain. She softly bit on her lip and lowered her eyes, as if she were trying to hold back tears. Then, she pushed herself back up and quickly bowed her head. "I'm very sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you," the girl said, and quickly turned and walked away.

Ranma stood staring, mouth open and finger still pointing in accusation as the girl left. Once again he was struck by her strange behavior. She had… apologized to him? Suddenly he remembered how Genma had conned her this afternoon and he shifted guiltily. He glanced at her retreating back and in his mind saw the image of her staring up at him from the ground, once in the day and again at night. Both times, he realized, those dark eyes had stared at him sad, lonely, and… scared. In both light and dark they had been the same.

An unusual pang of guilt hit Ranma in the gut as he realized what he had just said to her in relation to what… he… had done to her. It was a completely strange and unusual moment of clarity for the young martial artist and he quickly ran after the girl.

"Hey!" he shouted as he caught up with her. "Hey, wait up!" The girl stopped and turned around, looking at him uncertainly. He stopped and looked at her carefully, not really sure what he was doing. "Hey," he repeated again.

The girl opened her mouth but quickly closed it, as if she didn't know what to say. Glancing down, Ranma could see that her hands were clutched nervously on her skirt, and Ranma felt another unusual stab of guilt. The girl looked so lost and confused.

"Sorry," he finally blurted out lamely. He turned quickly away as he let the word out, feeling uncomfortable about it. It was the first time he could remember ever really apologizing for anything.

The girl, for her part, stared at him in surprise, as if his apology was just as surprising for her as it had been for him. She quickly opened and then closed her mouth again, apparently at a loss for words. Then she stared down at the ground, seemingly flustered.

As the last of the strange feelings from earlier passed away and he began to doubt the reasonableness of his guilty conscience, Ranma began to get annoyed. Wasn't she supposed to say "thank you" now or something? Geez, he had put himself out on the line, apologizing to her and she hadn't even acknowledged it. His awkward feelings of guilt beginning to slip away, Ranma turned back to regard the quiet girl. She looked confused and uncertain.

After a second he made a decision and extended a hand, imitating something he had seen his father do. "Ranma Saotome," he said simply, grinning proudly at her as if those two words made him the most important person in the world or at least in the park at the moment.

The girl looked up and regarded Ranma strangely, still seemingly confused by everything that was going on. But Ranma's grin and the friendly sparkle in his eyes put her at ease and she took his hand, giving a soft smile of her own. "Hotaru Tomoe," she replied.

Ranma shook Hotaru's hand, his grin softening into a smile. "Nice to meet you."

Ranma stretched a little and glanced at Hotaru. She was walking next to him, her eyes seemingly locked ahead. They had been walking for awhile now, and he was starting to wonder where they were headed. He hadn't actually said anything, hoping she would lead him out of the park, because he had no idea where he was. Ranma suddenly stopped, a strange thought hitting him.

Hotaru stopped and turned around, regarding the young martial artist curiously "Ranma?"

Ranma rubbed his chin, eyes narrowed suspiciously as he looked at Hotaru. "Hey, you're not following me are you?"

Hotaru raised an eyebrow at the strange question. After a second though, she understood what he was really asking and smiled slightly. "I'm taking us out of the park Ranma. You said you're new to Juuban, so you don't know your way around right?"

"I said I'm new to Tokyo," Ranma answered tersely, walking back up by Hotaru and looking anywhere but at her.

"Juuban is part of Tokyo," Hotaru replied, taking the lead and feeling a little awkward. She got the feeling that she had said something wrong.

Ranma grunted. "It's not like I'm lost or anything," he half-muttered.

Hotaru didn't know what to say and continued walking, staring straight ahead. After a few minutes though, she glanced at Ranma, who seemed to be pointedly ignoring her. She shifted uncomfortably, sure she had done something wrong.

After another uncomfortable minute of silence, Hotaru asked softly, "You said earlier… that something was my fault. What did you mean?" She was half afraid of the answer. She knew it couldn't be like with the others for Ranma, but still… a part of her was afraid that maybe… she had somehow hurt him too.

"Ah, it was nothing," Ranma replied, and his voice sounded cheery and lighthearted again, the awkwardness of just seconds before seeming to have just slip off of him as if the previous few minutes had never occurred. Ranma quickly recounted the incident at the restaurant, drastically embellishing certain parts of it. "Geez, I can't believe they chased me for so long—even when I jumped on that bus they kept running after me!"

Ranma stopped, blinking as he realized Hotaru was no longer by him. The girl had suddenly stopped, falling behind. He turned around and looked at her questioningly. "What're you doing, I thought we were going to get out of the park?"

Hotaru appeared distressed. "I'm sorry, it's all my fault!" she blurted out. Ranma simply stared at her, not sure what was going on. "If I hadn't broken your family heirloom you would've had enough to pay for the meal!"

The girl's word hit Ranma in the gut like a ton of bricks, nearly knocking the breath out of him. It was not only that he had conveniently forgotten that part of the story along with its attendant feelings of guilt, but he was startled once more by the girl's seeming obsession with taking responsibility for it. If it were him, he wouldn't have even paid for the "family heirloom" in the first place, much less be apologizing for the indirect consequences of its "breaking" hours later. "Hey, look now," he said quickly. "It's uh… it's not your fault okay?"

Hotaru shook her head. "I have to go pay them for you. Let's go Ranma."

Ranma coughed and fidgeted uncomfortably. "You know, maybe that's not such a good idea…"

Hotaru suddenly realized something and looked away from Ranma, biting softly on her lower lip. "I'm sorry Ranma, don't worry about it. I'll go take care of it myself." She quickly stepped past the startled martial artist, heading towards the restaurant.

Ranma stared at Hotaru incredulously as she walked away from him, seemingly in a hurry to remedy his problems. Actually, it wasn't even a problem as he had cleverly escaped without paying, so what the heck was she trying to do? He stared at the girl, conflicting feelings struggling inside him. A few moments and a flicker of a nearby lamp later, however, he realized that he was still lost and quickly ran after her.

Ranma stood by Hotaru as she talked to the restaurant owner, carefully eyeing him, the staff, and, most of all, his wife. They were all staring him down, their faces displaying emotions ranging from curiosity to outright rage. Quietly, he began to map his escape route in case things got bad.

"Well, it appears we owe you an apology son," the owner said to Ranma.

Ranma turned an eye to the owner and simply grunted. Whatever, he just wanted to get the heck out already.

"But I believe you also owe me an apology." The owner's wife said, stepping forward and staring down at Ranma with open hostility. Hotaru gave Ranma a questioning look, not knowing what was going on since Ranma had left this part out of his recounting of the story. If Ranma noticed, however, he didn't show it and instead started edging back towards the exit.

"Dear," the owner started. "Maybe we should-"

"No! Stay out of this!" the woman snapped. "Well boy?" she asked expectantly, turning back towards Ranma and fixing a meaningful glare on him..

"Well what?" Ranma finally snapped back, fed up with all the pressure and hostility. "You already got your money, why do I have to apologize for your being fat?"

Hotaru stared at Ranma in open shock. There was another long moment of silence and then suddenly the much-abused wife was screaming at Ranma and there were plates, bowls and even a whole table flying through the air. Loud crashes reverberated throughout the room as the objects hit various things and Hotaru winced, frightened. Then, just as suddenly as it had started everything became quiet and the wife stood still. The rest of the restaurant staff, all in the middle of picking up various blunt instruments, also froze. They stood still, glancing around in confusion. Ranma had disappeared.

Hotaru was not sorry to feel the cool night breeze hit her as she left the restaurant. She had stayed behind to help clean up, but she had felt uncomfortable inside. The atmosphere felt too much like… school.

She took a deep breath and started to head home. Ranma had disappeared, and though a small part of her regretted that the boy had gone, she didn't really feel anything. People and faces came and went through her life, none ever staying. That was the way it had always been for as long as she could remember. Ever since her mother…

Hotaru screamed and jumped back as an upside down face suddenly appeared in front of her. "Is the fat lady gone?" it asked urgently.

Hotaru stared in shock at Ranma hanging upside down from the side of an awning in front of her, his long ponytail dangling down as he glanced around conspiratorially. Seeing that nobody, especially not a certain restaurant owner's wife, was around the dark street, he nodded (a strange image upside down) and flipped down to the ground, landing nimbly on his feet. Straightening up, he dusted himself off and looked at Hotaru. "You alright?" he asked, raising an eyebrow as he saw her. She looked like she had seen a ghost… His eyes narrowed as he seemed to suddenly realize something and dropped into a low crouch, glancing around nervously. "She isn't here is she?"

Hotaru stared at Ranma, the sheer absurdity of the whole situation from the upside down boy to his apprehension towards the "fat lady" slowly making her smile. Soon she was laughing softly, her eyes sparkling as she watched Ranma.

Ranma stopped and stared at Hotaru dumbly, not understanding what was going on. He stared at this girl he had thought so quiet and strange standing there laughing at seemingly nothing. It was a sweet and lovely sound, however, and as he caught her sparkling eyes for a moment, soon he too was laughing. Together they laughed, their voices echoing down the empty streets.

After a few minutes, Hotaru stopped, though she still stifled off a giggle every now and then. Wiping away tears and feeling lightheaded, she straightened up and composed herself. It had been so long since she had laughed like that, she thought. "Ranma," she said with a smile, "I've never met anyone like you."

The young martial artist took a second to stifle off a laugh and then grinned cockily. "Of course not," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm one of a kind!" He rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a second and threw in as an afterthought, "You too I guess."

Hotaru giggled at the strange reply, feeling more at ease and lighthearted than she had in years. After a moment, however, she bowed slightly at the compliment. "Thank you," she said. Then she stood up and took a deep breath, though she was still smiling. "Well everything seems to be taken care of. I'd better be going home."

Ranma blinked in surprise at the sudden statement. He had forgotten that she lived here and probably had a home, family and friends of her own. For some reason he thought she might have wandered with him all night, helping him look for Genma. Feeling a little foolish, he glanced around the empty streets. He had no idea where his father was, but now that he was back here he could probably figure out the general direction they had been heading in when they arrived in Juuban. He turned back to Hotaru, who was watching him, seeming to wait for a reply.

He thought for a moment. "I'll walk you home," he decided. "It's dangerous out here, and since you seem to get into a lot of trouble…" he trailed off and glanced around, peering into shadows where thieves and bandits might be lurking.

If Hotaru thought anything about that last comment she didn't show it and simply nodded. "Thank you Ranma, I'm grateful."

Ranma came up next to her and replied simply, "Well of course you are. Not everybody gets to have Ranma Saotome watching their backs."

Hotaru laughed, turning around and heading home. As they walked off, their voices echoed down the empty streets together. Though there was not another soul in sight and the shadows pressed around them, things didn't seem so bad; because the air was cool and the sky clear, and always… was the path before them lit softly by the moonlight.

After several hours of searching, Genma finally found Ranma sound asleep on a bench not too far from their new home. As he expected, the boy hadn't managed to find their new place last night, though he actually had come very close to the building. He was only a few blocks away, in fact. Well, whatever had happened, it was still morning and no matter how tired the boy was…

Genma grabbed his son by the back of shirt and lifted him up, yelling right into his face. "Wake up Ranma! Don't think you can escape morning practice just because you were too lazy to come home last night!"

Ranma didn't immediately respond, seemingly still asleep, but after a moment slowly opened his eyes, leveling a flat stare on his father. Then, with a burst of speed and strength that belied the fact that he had just woken up, he sent his father flying backwards with an uppercut. "You stupid old man!" Ranma shouted angrily. "What kind of father are you? I can't believe you stuck me with the bill!"

Genma looked up at Ranma from the ground and pushed his glasses back up. "You can't?" he grinned. "Ranma, you warm an old man's heart."

Ranma groaned, slapping his forehead, and then dashed at his father, hoping to get him while he was still down. It was time for their morning spar.

Ranma, of course, didn't get Genma while he was still down. The old man rolled away and flipped to his feet a scant second before Ranma's foot smashed down into the spot where Genma had been. Pushing his glasses back up again, Genma dashed forward to take advantage of the opening his son had left with the attack and their ritual morning sparring session began in earnest.

Ranma weaved in and out of Genma's attacks, some so closely they actually brushed against him. He moved brilliantly and with incredible confidence for someone of his age, his movements and attacks blazingly fast. But despite his youthful energy and his father's bulk, the old man was still somehow just a little faster; and although so far no hits had been landed, Ranma knew with certainty that Genma was also far stronger.

Even more importantly the old martial artist was still more skilled, and as Ranma spun behind a straight punch and tried to take his father's back he was forced away before he had even gotten into position by a back kick. As the attack instantly linked into a swift combination of kicks and punches that quickly had Ranma pushed on the defensive, the young martial artist got the feeling that Genma was just playing with him, a few steps ahead as usual.

A single mistimed kick later and Genma suddenly burst past Ranma's defenses—a concept that after all these years Ranma still found disconcerting considering his father's bulk—and Ranma found himself being tackled to the ground. He tried to twist to a side, knowing that a hard landing on concrete would leave some painful injuries.

All of a sudden, however, he found his movement turned against him and the next thing he knew the ground was rushing up to his face. Reacting instinctively, he managed to land correctly by stretching his legs out and absorbing the impact on his forearms. Before he could so much as even breathe a sigh of relief, however, a large weight slammed down on his back and Ranma found himself pinned to the ground.

Genma laughed as Ranma squirmed underneath the heavy martial artist, yelling to be let go. "You're a little slow today, boy! You only lasted half as long as last time—it appears you're still no match for my technique."

"What the hell kind of technique is this you stupid old man?! You're just sitting on me!" Ranma tried to twist around but couldn't. Desperately, he kicked at his father.

Genma simply grabbed his son's leg, locking it to his chest, and pulled while leaning back. Ranma shouted that he gave up, slapping the ground frantically as he felt his leg being twisted off.

Laughing, Genma released his son and jumped off. Ranma groaned and pushed himself to a sitting position. Nursing his injuries, he cast a baleful eye on his father as the old man continued laughing, seeming to really be enjoying himself.

After a few minutes, Genma finally stopped. With a satisfied sigh, he turned around and started walking away. "Come on, Ranma. Let's go home and get some breakfast."

Ranma raised an eyebrow at Genma's words but jumped to his feet and started following. He was still a little angry—more annoyed than anything actually—at his father, but now he was very curious. Home… they had stayed at many places in the past eight years but Genma had rarely used the word and they hadn't had a "home" in years.

Ranma's eyes had doubled in size and his mouth hung open as he stared at their new "home" in shock. He was standing just in the doorway of an incredibly large and beautifully decorated suite in an enormous luxury apartment building. The enormous living room was beautifully furnished with leather couches and recliners as well as sparkling glass and wood tables, stands, cabinets and shelves. Light flooded through a large sliding glass balcony door on the far side of the room. Soft white curtains fluttered lightly as a breeze blew in through the open doors; and as Ranma felt it gently touch him, rustling the simple yet lovely plants in the room, he thought this was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. And it was… theirs?

He looked back at Genma, thinking this had to be some trick, maybe somebody else's apartment the old man had broken into; but the look in his father's eyes and the smile on his face told Ranma that this was really theirs.

Grinning, the young martial artist kicked off his shoes and ran into the room. Mysterious white hallways, doors and, most of all, the attached kitchen beckoned to him from all sides, but he ignored them all and jumped onto the rich beige carpet with a laugh.

Carpet! They had carpet! Laughing, Ranma rolled onto his back and started waving his arms and legs against the luxuriously soft carpet like a little kid making snow angels. From the walls, strange paintings that others would have recognized as abstract and modern art peered down and to him they looked like the strangest and most amazing things in the world—perfectly suited to this unbelievable new home of theirs.

Jumping to his feet, Ranma scoured the living room, touching and inspecting everything, a million excited questions tumbling out of his mouth, but one standing out above them all: "How long are we going to stay here?"

Genma smiled as he headed towards the kitchen. "Awhile, Ranma. You're going to start going to school here, so get used to it."

Ranma paused, his exuberance faltering a little. School… He thought about it for a few seconds. Under almost any other circumstances he would've been certain to start arguing with his father over the idea of going to school, but… he looked around their incredible new home. Their new home.

"Sounds good, Pops," he said with a smile, and returned to exploring.

Genma stood staring over the side of the roof of their apartment building. It was dark now, making it difficult, but staring into the dimly lit darkness below he could just barely see the enormous and completely empty parking far down below. Just a little trip over the narrow foot-high edge of the roof and there was nothing but a long drop into that empty darkness. Empty… that was strange. An enormous and beautiful luxury apartment tower like this, and thus far there appeared to be nobody living here but him, Ranma and… her.

Genma glanced back at the figure of the woman standing hidden in the shadows of one of the large air conditioning units. "Doesn't anybody else live here?" he asked.

"A few," the woman replied. She shifted slightly and, for a moment, Genma could see her red eyes flash in the moonlight. "But for the most part, you and your son have this building to yourself."

Genma stared at the figure for a moment longer and then turned his gaze back over the roof, this time staring at the lights of the city, stretching out before him like a sea of stars. He didn't really see them, however, his mind caught up in nights long past.

"How long has it been, Genma? Nine, ten years?" the woman asked from the shadows after a long while. "And all this time you never even called." Her voice was light, the comment joking.

Genma didn't reply immediately, the humor apparently lost to him. Instead, he tensed, her words striking some chord within him. "You left right after that last battle without a word. That injury… none of us even knew if you were still alive." He sounded accusing, almost angry, but didn't look back.

"For awhile, I wasn't…" the woman replied softly. Genma was quiet, not knowing what to say. It was just like her to act so damned mysterious.

A few long minutes passed with nothing further said and, for a second, Genma wondered if maybe she had disappeared again. But then he heard her walking towards him, and suddenly she was standing by him again, the wind rustling her green hair as she stared out into the city with him just like all those years ago. "If you had known I was alive, would you have come see me?" she asked.

He didn't look at her, seeing her in his mind's eye as she had been all those years ago… as she still was now despite how much he had changed. "I'm here now," he answered simply.

A sudden gust of wind sent the woman's long hair fluttering, and though Genma still didn't look he saw her standing there as strong, silent and mysterious as the night sky; immovable and enduring against everything, even him… especially him.

"Yes Genma, yes you are." And though he couldn't see it, he could almost feel the smile behind her words—one of those rare small quirks of her lips that he had always found so beautiful.

Finally, he said, "It's good to see you again, Setsuna."

She nodded and together the two old friends stared into the night, thinking of things that were and things that might have been.