Disclaimer: Ranma ½ belongs to Rumiko Takahashi and various distributors; Ah! My Goddess belongs to Kosuke Fujishima and various distributors. No ownership is claimed or implied, and no money is being made from this work of fanfiction.

Ranma ½ continuity: manga, post-38
A!MG continuity: TV, post-Fighting Wings

Out of the Frying Pan
Chapter One

by Alathon


Ranma stared at the unvarnished wooden tray laying on the grass in front of him. On one side sat two onigiri, almost certainly made by Kasumi judging by the shape, and a small saucer filled with sake. That the sake remained untouched would have surprised few. The rice balls remaining uneaten, on the other hand, was most unusual. For one of the few times in recent memory, Ranma didn't have much of an appetite.

On the other side of the tray lay a sheet of paper, a brush, ink, and a gleaming short blade. As of yet, the paper remained blank.

And if I had any say in it, it'd stay blank too! Oh man...

With a sigh, he took his eyes from the tray. Judging by the light and the length of the shadows, it wouldn't be long now before sunset. Not long at all, and he still didn't have anything. Nothing good sprung to mind to serve as his eulogy.. epitaph.. whatever the traditional term for his death poem was.

Not anything I should put down, anyways.. and I really oughta know what that poem's called.

Ranma fidgeted. His legs were more than a little sore from maintaining a single position so long, but Nodoka had been clear on her expectations, and he didn't want to fail her. Not when he only had one more chance to get things right, one more chance to make her proud of him. Even if that last chance wasn't exactly an opportunity he would have jumped at by choice.

He sighed again.

Man was she pissed.. I guess she had a right ta be though. I knew it wasn't right and I just sat around and did nothin.. and if Mom was this pissed, imagine how angry Akane's gonna when she finds out. At least.. at least she'll put a stop to it for sure.

Of course, that didn't mean that he liked how things had turned out. In retrospect, Nodoka probably wasn't the best person to pick to ask for advice about that particular situation. But, he'd needed somebody who wasn't directly involved who actually gave a damn about doing the right thing, and there weren't too many people around who fit that bill And of the other people who might have given him good advice, well, most of them were tied up in the whole fiance mess, and involving them in anything always made it worse.

Heh, good job on that one.. really great.. how's it gonna get any worse than this?


Strolling down a top floor corridor of the Central Office, Mara looked every inch the class one unlimited Demon she was. Her outfit, composed of black leather, embroidered panels of fabric, and finely crafted jewelry was guaranteed to catch the eye, and meshed so well that with all its complexity it could not be described as gaudy. While she lacked the overflowing bust that so many demonesses sported, her carriage was more than sufficient to both convey her gender and imply sensuality. Despite her position, only yards and closing from the door to Daimakaicho Hild's office, her body language spoke nothing but confidence.

At least, that was what Mara hoped. She wasn't quite sure. While doing her best to put on a confident face, her stomach played host to more than a few butterflies. After all, she was only seconds from a meeting with the Boss, and for all that Mara stood high within the hierarchy of Hell, Hild was higher - at the top. Dealing with the Boss practically guaranteed that whatever purpose the meeting had was big, with no assurance that it would be very good, very bad, or plenty of both. And she never knew quite what sort of Boss she'd be dealing with.. she could go from a friendly equal, to a doting motherly figure, to the all-business Daimakaicho in a heartbeat.

Mara paused several yards short of the door and inhaled deeply, exhaling slowly.

Get a grip on yourself, girl.. she may be the Boss, but you're the best Midgard agent working for Hell. We've even worked together before!

The thought wasn't entirely comforting, as she hadn't been especially successful in those endeavors.

Damn the Norns, and damn Keiichi too.

Mara took a moment to give herself a once-over, making sure every aspect of her outfit was as perfect as could be. She took another moment to arrange her hair, a third to take a quick look in a mirror.. and a fourth to realize with disgust that she was stalling.

The mirror vanished. Mara opened the door and strode into the office belonging to Hild's executive secretary.

The room could be summed up in one word: tasteful. Furniture, art, and carpet, all of it conservative but well executed. No harsh or clashing colors, lots of earth tones with pastels here and there. A beautifully carved mahogany desk complemented by an impeccably attired secretary. Mara strode up to the desk, moistened her lips, and -

"The Daimakaicho will see you immediately."

Well. It wasn't the first time, but it was still just a tad creepy how Hild's nameless secretary could be focused entirely on the paperwork in front of her, yet speak up the instant one tried to address her. Ever so slightly disgruntled at having been caught out yet again, Mara moved to the wood-and-crystal door on the far side of the room.

She stopped just in front of the door and tried to get a glimpse of what was beyond. As always, the complex etchings in the door made it impossible to garner more than a very general idea of the room it lead to. Which, Mara mused, was probably by design. Unwilling to show even the slightest hesitation in front of the secretary, Mara opened the door and stepped through, closing it behind her.

As soon as Mara turned from closing the door to face the back of the office, Hild looked up from the folder on her desk and addressed her.

"Hello, Mara. It's been too long.. how are you?"

"I'm doing fine.. quite well. You?"

"Just fine.. have a seat, please. So tell me, how fares my daughter?"

In the process of sitting down, Mara suppressed a wince. Urd was doing just fine.. in fact, regardless of her many brushes with Heaven's regulations, she was doing far better than Mara by any reasonable standard. And she could hardly say otherwise about the Boss's daughter.. hell, the question was pointless in the first place. Mara knew damned well that Hild kept an eye on Urd. But admitting just how well Urd's quest to get her sister and Keiichi together was proceeding would be a tacit admission that Mara's own rivalry with her onetime friend was proceeding poorly indeed. Which was probably why Hild asked the question in the first place.

Mara's hesitation did not go unnoticed. Hild's face hardened ever so slightly from the warm expression it wore during her greeting, into something closer to 'friendly professional'.

"You have been keeping an eye on the Norns as directed, have you not?"

"O-of course. Urd has been doing very well for herself. To my knowledge, she's managed to avoid any more grievous violations of Heaven's rules and regulations in the last couple months, and she seems to be content with the state of affairs in her household."

"Good, good.. now, as for why I wished to speak with you. You are being reassigned."

On hearing the last word, Mara could not hide her surprise, "W-what? Why?"

Hild just stared at her.

"I mean.. if you would be willing to confide your reasoning in me. I - we've invested a great deal of time and effort in my present assignment, after all."

"Yes, yes.. we have indeed. We have expended an atypical amount of resources, and I cannot say that I am content with the state of this project. I believe that much of what we have done in this particular case has been long-run counterproductive."

Mara winced visibly. She knew damned well that her failures on the case were many, and some of her few successes could arguably be chalked up as failures thanks to the problems they created. That Hild agreed with her own assessment did not bode well. She liked her current assignment, one with many possibilities for mischief, avenues to entertain herself at the expense of Belldandy, and a wide array of opportunities to engage her rival, Urd.

Maybe this new job is just temp work, and I'll be back to business in no time? .. I hope..

"We have invested a great deal. Unfortunately, such investments are sunk costs, and cannot be recovered. Now, as to your new assignment..." Hild paused to ensure she had Mara's complete attention.

"You are tasked with preserving the wellbeing of your new client, and bringing him around to our way of thinking."

Mara blinked. Those orders sounded almost contradictory, and at the very least not especially compatible.

Hild stood, and passed one of the many sheets of paper from her desk to Mara, who immediately began to skim it.

"Hm... executive summary.. Ranma Saotome.. human.. good health.. age 16.. Tendo household.. Tokyo, Nerima Ward.. no previous contracts.. no affiliation.. nice picture.."

As she read the single paragraph above the picture of a pigtailed boy, Mara's expression darkened. No contracts and no affiliation practically guaranteed no previous Heavenly involvement, which in turn meant the assignment would likely be a cakewalk. None of the information she'd been presented with suggested a need for a Demon of her caliber.. this was more along the lines of scut-work for some class three. It would be glorified babysitting.

Her thoughts were interrupted by soft chuckle from Hild. Looking up, Mara noticed with no small amount of relief that her expression was once again friendly, with a slight smile, if not a little.. cutesy.

"Sounds easy, doesn't it."

"Uh, well.. I'm not entirely sure how you intend your orders to be interpreted, but -"

"You are free to interpret them as you see fit, so long as both requirements are fulfilled."

Mara's response was a vague sounding "Okay...", while she tried to puzzle out the meaning of this assignment.

As far as I can tell, he's a nobody.. no deals with Heaven for us to subvert, no divine ancestry or communion with a deity that could result in divine interference. He's cute, I'll give him that, but so are another hundred million of 'em. And I'm supposed to simultaneously protect him while instilling in him values which are not necessarily beneficial to his success or even survival.

It made no sense. It wasn't even simple scut-work. There was plenty of that and all of it had to be done for a reason, or resources wouldn't be wasted on it.

"There are a handful of difficulties you may face in handling this client. The most immediately relevant of these is that barring intervention, he will be dead in fifteen minutes."

As she processed the words, Mara snapped back to full attention, and Hild smirked ever so slightly.

"Given the time constraints you will be operating under, I've had a script and supporting materials prepared." With these words, Hild stood again and handed a thin manila folder across the desk to Mara.

Opening the folder immediately, she leafed through the contents: one short page of text labeled 'scenario script', three official looking documents, and some sort of transcript. On first glance, one of the documents appeared to be a lease, the second was all in fine print and not immediately identifiable; the third was rather curious, parchment rather than paper, done in a Gothic script in a reddish brown ink. Deciding that the scenario script was of the most immediate importance, Mara shuffled it to the front and began reading it in silence. Her silence didn't last for long.

"Um, Hild.. do you really think it'd be a good idea to operate in the open like this?"

"Yes, I think you'll find it will work quite well given the circumstances."

"Okay... hmmm... um... so what exactly are we going to claim he was sold for?"

"Your decision. Anything that can't be readily disproven is fine by me."

"Ahh..."

As she read through the short scenario, Mara's confusion solidified into something else: resignation. For this, the orders didn't have to make sense. She wasn't sure why Hild would choose to do things this way, but then, she'd never understood an awful lot of what the Daimakaicho did. At first, this assignment had seemed illogical, but now... Mara took a deep breath, and looked Hild squarely in the eyes.

"This is my punishment for screwing up the Morisato assignment, isn't it." There was no venom or sarcasm in her voice, but rather a flat and resigned tone. Regardless of how lame the situation was, Mara didn't think it'd be a good idea to further irritate the Daimakaicho. She had never demonstrated a great deal of tolerance for cheek.

Hild's expression remained the same, open and friendly, with a hint of a smile at her lips.

"Mara, you can consider the assignment whatever you like, as long as..."

"... as long as I what?"

"As long as you do it, and do it well. Oh, and Mara..."

"... yeah?"

"Fourteen."

Mara's eyes narrowed slightly as she tried to decipher the meaning of such an incongruous statement, then widened as she figured it out. Without a word, she grabbed the executive summary of "Ranma Saotome", shoved it in the folder with the rest of the Acme Company The-Jokes-On-You-Mara materials, and vanished with a slight 'pop'.

Finished with the interview, Hild's face took on speculative cast as she stared at nothing in particular. After a few moments, she leaned back, reclining the posh leather chair further than the laws of physics suggested it should go without tipping over. Now staring at the ceiling, eyes unfocused, she murmured something to herself.

"I wonder how this one will turn out?"


And so, evening in Nerima saw a new player enter the field. Mara exited a digital entertainment boutique some ten minutes walking distance from the Tendo compound. She hadn't taken long to decide on a destination. While she had the wherewithal to teleport directly into the target residence, Mara knew practically nothing about both her new client and the surrounding area. Further, she needed time. Time to research her new client, time to find out just how he was going to die so she could avert it. And most importantly, time to let the anger at this stupid, stupid assignment, the anger she couldn't risk displaying in front of Hild, simmer down to something less than insane rage.

Deep breaths... deep breaths.. c'mon.. even with your limiters, you could sneeze and vaporize half a block being this pissed off. And that'd be such a terrible shame. A true, horrible tragedy for a strip mall to be rendered down into it's component atoms. Where would the old folks buy their milk? Where would the popular girls get their fashion magazine mandated accessories? The hookers would have to walk a whole half mile down that way to get their rubbers and cigarettes!

As she contemplated the many possibilities that surrounded blowing a strip mall to Kingdom Come, Mara's anger lessened to a more normal degree of agitation... for a Demon that is. Banishing the pleasant fantasy she remembered her, heh, deadline, and decided that she probably ought to be making some headway on that matter real soon now.

A PDA was promptly produced from inside the left flap of her leather jacket, and a request fired off to Nidheg for a full file on one Ranma Saotome, male, 16 years of age, residing with the Tendo family. As seconds passed and nothing happened, Mara frowned, suppressing an urge to shake the damned newfangled device. Ten seconds passed and nothing changed, not even the spinning hourglass. Mara ground her teeth.

I know I'm not on a high priority mission anymore.. it's reasonable to expect that I'll have less processor time allocated to me... but this is ridiculous! One single file, and it can't -

The monologue was rudely interrupted by the impact of a heavy, hard-covered book on her head.

"Ow."

The book wasn't all that heavy, and being a combination of paper, cardboard, and cloth, wasn't all that hard either. Being a four dimensional object, it had hardly any potential to inflict true damage to Mara. It still smarted. Mara raised her eyes, to see who the hell was dropping books on her, just in time to catch a second volume square in the face.

"Oww, dammit!"

Correctly anticipating that more missiles were incoming, Mara lept backwards a good five feet and watched as four more Webster's Unabridged sized books hit the ground, or previous volumes, with a thud. She again scanned the sky for the perpetrator of this attack, and with only the clouds and a single duck visible gave up, muttering dire imprecations against whatever thoughtless jerk was dumping books on her. Getting back to business, she examined the PDA and was pleased to see her request for the Ranma Saotome file had been completed.. at which point she made the connection, walked over, and picked up one of the volumes.

Figures. No format specified, so I get the default: hardcopy. No delivery method specified, so I get another default.

Wedging the book between her arm and side, Mara returned her attention to the PDA. After tapping a few buttons, she held it up in front of her and spoke.

"Note to self: deliver indescribable beatdown to the developer responsible for the default hardcopy delivery algorithm."

With that necessary step behind her, she pocketed the PDA and took a good look at the volume now held in both hands.

Ranma Saotome, volume two. Apparently, of six.. what the hell? What kind of sixteen year old has this many relevant life events on file? Whatever. Now, let's see..

In short order, five of the six volumes disappeared into an inside pocket of the jacket. Despite their size, no bulges or deformation of the jacket was evident. Mara held the remaining volume in her hands, and promptly skipped to the last several pages. Once again walking in the direction of the Tendo compound, she muttered now and then as she digested the file description of Ranma Saotome's death.

"Suicide pact.. both parents.. mother arbitrating it.. going through with it.. damn, what the fuck kind of sick shit is this? Heh! One big happy family they ain't."

Damn.. I've seen worse, hell I've done worse.. still messed up. At least the scenario script makes a bit more sense now. If she had some kind of hold over him, forcing him into it, I could just drag him off. But if he's doing it willingly, I'll need an angle to diffuse the situation. As dumb as it is, this angle could do the trick.

The Ranma Saotome volume six went into the jacket along with the rest, and the manila folder came out.

Better make sure everything is in order.. wouldn't want to ruin such a carefully orchestrated waste of my time. One demonic pact, deliverables as yet to be determined, check. One apartment lease, check. One court transcript, check. And.. hrm.. yeah, I guess this makes sense, if you expect a prolonged assignment. Which Hild obviously does.

With this thought fresh in her mind, Mara stopped and took a deep breath.. exhaled slowly.. took another deep breath.. exhaled slowly. This pattern continuing for the better part of a minute. When she finished, she took a moment to examine both herself and her attire, taking note of the flamboyant leather-and-cloth ensemble. With a somewhat happier expression on her face, she resumed the trek to the Tendo compound, 'volume six' once again held in front of her with the court transcript beneath it.

If I'm gonna play a role in this farce, I'll damned well do it in style!


Ranma shivered. Not from the temperature, which was moderate, but from a look at the shadows, which seemed to be stretching out across the lawn and now the koi pond as fast as they could manage.

Is this really gonna be it.. no second chances or weirdness poppin' up to interfere? There was always somethin' happening to screw things up whenever things were goin' good. And now..

It sure didn't feel like there would be a reprieve. His thoughts turned to the usual suspects, those most likely to blow any sort of occasion out of the water, and while a handful were unaccounted for, the odds didn't look good.

Pops and the Tendos ain't doin squat. Kuno's been by and he just congratulated Mom on doin' the right thing to 'address the demands of honor'. Whatta jerk! Kodachi ain't been by, but I dunno if she could change nothin.

I hope she finds out that Kuno knew and didn't tell her, that'd fix him good.

Ranma's thoughts were interrupted briefly by a pleasant fantasy of Kodachi whipping Tatewaki around, legs wrapped in business end of her ribbon, whanging his head against all manner of objects. It didn't last long, but it was enough to bring a smirk to his face for a moment, before he remembered what prompted the fantasy.

Ucchan ain't been by, and I can't believe she'd stand aside unless she ain't found out. Her and Konatsu could raise a ruckus if they wanted to... but they shoulda been here by now if they were gonna. Ryoga ain't around, and thats for the best. Happosai's been outta town for days, an' who knows when he'll be around next? The Amazons have already been here and they ain't gonna do nothin'.

This thought brought a far less pleasant scene to mind, one that had taken place only hours ago. Cologne and Shampoo had arrived, having heard of his impending death, discussed the topic with Nodoka, and left, Cologne firmly keeping Shampoo in tow. The discussion had been too soft to hear, except for one phrase spoken by Cologne.

"It is her right, as both his mother and eldest woman of the household."

That one phrase had managed to carry, and it made their position abundantly clear. Ranma didn't think it was an accident that he heard. More likely it was Cologne's way of letting him know where they stood. It was a little irritating that like so many other issues with them, this one had been decided by gender, but it certainly wasn't anything new with the Amazons. And at least Cologne had the decency to give him a heads up.

So.. if nobody is gonna do nothin'.. then I gotta do it. There's no other choice, is there. Just like everything else in my stupid life.

The thought brought a bitter scowl to Ranma's face, and as he considered the train of thought, the scowl became just a tad bit angry and he remonstrated himself for the lousy attitude.

It's my obligation to fulfill, an' I shouldn't be a baby about it! An' it's what Mom wants.. she'll be happy with this.. she'll have ta be. At least this time I can do right by her.

The thought steadied his resolve, but brought little comfort. The sound of a door sliding open brought even less. Turning his head, he watched as Nodoka left the house, followed by Genma, who was in turn followed by Soun and the three Tendo daughters. Both his parents' faces were schooled to expressionlessness, and Ranma's heart sunk a little further as he saw their eyes. Genma's were scared, and Nodoka's were cold.

That Genma was scared was certainly no surprise. Nodoka had been quite clear that his turn would come at sunrise, and that his death was delayed only so that he could act as kaishaku for his son. This at least assured Ranma that his death would not be unnecessarily painful. For all his many, many faults, Genma could judge a blow to within the width of a hair.

Soun was next in line, his expression schooled to a stoic mask betrayed by his puffy, red-rimmed eyes. Ranma anticipated silence in the minutes to come, but had heard no lack of wailing as he kept vigil.

Kasumi was visibly scared, wringing her hands, eyes jerking from Ranma to his parents to the wooden tray on the ground. Akane was both scared and sorrowful, her eyes ever so slightly red-rimmed; she tried to maintain the proper stoic expression, and succeeded for the most part. Nabiki didn't bother; while her eyes were calculating, moving rapidly from detail to detail, her expression and carriage clearly denoted nausea and disgust.

"It's time."

The softly spoken words from Nodoka provoked a flinch from everybody other than herself. The Tendos and Nodoka moved to stand single file to his right, leaving the space to his left clear for.. what would come. Genma hesitated, eyes jumping all over the yard, trying to discover some way out of this disaster. Eventually they alighted on the tray, an item they'd previously been avoiding, and more specifically the blank paper. He pursed his lips for a moment, then spoke.

"Son.. the poem?"

"What? Oh yeah. Gimme a sec."

Ranma lifted the brush, dipped it in the inkwell, and held it over the inkwell for a moment, allowing an errant drop of dark ink to drip there, rather than over the paper. In these few seconds, a slew of thoughts rushed through his head.

Now what'm I supposed to do? I ain't got nothin' to write, and I ain't got no time to come up with somethin.. crap.. I knew I shoulda figured this out first and worried about stuff after. Oh well.. I guess I'll hafta wing it. Hmm. So.. somethin' about my state of mind, or how things are goin..

Unbidden, the one poem he had come up with sprung to mind.

Nuh uh, no way I'm gonna write that out. It ain't pretty or elegant or nothin', and I don't wanna screw this up with Mom watching. Even if it's true, it ain't..

Even as he tried to banish the improper poem from his mind, it remained, echoing almost as clearly as if it were read aloud. And it resonated.

It ain't pretty, but neither was my life.. or my handwriting for that matter. And this is MY death poem.. why shouldn't I write what I wanna? I'm doin' everything else the way it oughta, so why shouldn't I at least get this part for me?

Ranma set his jaw at that thought, the idea that he was once again doing what everybody else needed him to do grating on his mind. In an instant, a snap decision was made, and brush set to paper. With his arm trembling ever so slightly, Ranma's penmanship was even worse than usual, but in short order his poem was written, and the brush set aside. He watched as the ink lightened from a deep reflective sheen to a matte black as it sank into the paper and dried. The characters were poor even by his standards, but they were legible, and as far as he could tell he'd spelled everything correctly. All that was left now, was...

BRRRRRRING

This time, everybody flinched. Heads whipped around to face the house, but despite the startlingly sharp sound of the doorbell, indecision reigned. Seconds passed, and nobody made a move.

Regaining her composure, Nodoka opened her mouth to speak, and -

"I'll get it. It'll be just a moment. It'd be awfully rude to just ignore them, wouldn't it."

Nabiki nearly stumbled in her haste to get to the door, but made it without mishap. She had no clue who was there, but with any luck it'd be somebody who could interrupt up this whole stupid mess. Ranma wasn't exactly her favorite person in the world, but the idea of killing oneself over meaningless archaic values was more than just a little repulsive.

Without hesitation, she slid the door open.


Hmm.. a cute little bundle of anger and disgust dressed up in a formal kimono.. looks like I've got the right place.

While the odds of the file being wrong were infinitesimal, it was still something of a relief to have confirmation. With the clock ticking, Mara could ill afford a screwup. Reminded once again of her schedule, she took the first steps of what looked to be an embarrassingly stupid dance.

"Hi, I'm Mara. This is the Tendo's, right?"

"Yes, I'm Nabiki Tendo. I'm sorry, I missed your surname, Mara ..."

"Genma Saotome lives here, doesn't he?"

Nabiki was unable to entirely hide her relief at these words, but managed to twist her mouth into a more typical smirk.

"Yeah, he does. I take it you have business with him?"

"Yup. I'm here concerning an agreement which he is in danger of failing to uphold. May I speak with him?"

"Sure, come on in."

As Mara stepped inside, Nabiki took a moment to give her a once-over, her eyes lingering for a moment on the odd facial markings, before motioning her towards the back. Falling in beside her, she spoke up again.

"You should probably know that this isn't the best time. Genma's in something of a bind over another agreement that he hasn't manage to fulfill. Still, I think him and Ranma won't object to putting off their current business for a short while."

With this, Mara chuckled, a throaty and ever-so-slightly menacing sound, before replying.

"Oh, I can imagine. In fact, I'll bet they wouldn't mind putting it off for the rest of their lives."

This comment earned a sharp glance from Nabiki, but before she could question Mara's apparent foreknowledge, they arrived in the back yard. All eyes immediately homed in on the obviously foreign woman wearing face paint and a bizarre leather getup. Nodoka was the first to speak, with both Soun and Akane chiming in.

"Hello, I am Nodoka Saotome. Who..."
"Ah, hello.. welcome to the Tendo..."
"Who're you?"

Mara glanced between them for a moment, before deciding on Nodoka as the highest authority among them.

"I'm Mara; nice to meet you."

Turning to the other middle-aged man, she addressed him.

"Genma Saotome. It's been a while."

Genma blinked at this, but responded immediately.

"I'm sorry, but I don't believe we've met before. Are you sure you have the right man? Perhaps you were thinking of... Kenma Saotome? Yes, surely that's it."

With this, Mara grew slightly worried. While she was certain she could get this job done quick and dirty, Hild had made her intentions clear: she wanted the script followed. And that could be a real pain in the butt if the families circled the wagons against a newcomer. Her worries vanished quickly however as she observed the various reactions to Genma's words.

They don't believe him.. not even one of 'em. The youngest sister is pissed, the middle one is amused, and the elder is disappointed. Both adults are agitated, and the kid's rolling his eyes. At least that part went over well.. now, let's see how this goes.

"No, I'm quite certain that I'm looking for you, Genma. After all, we have an agreement. A contract, in fact, one concerning the boy kneeling before us. And here you are, trying to abrogate it!"

Soun and Akane's reactions were nearly immediate.

"Genma! How could you?"
"Another one? Oooooooooh... GENMA!"

As Genma attempted to convince Soun that no such contract existed, Akane lept at him and with a tremendous shout punted him across the yard, off one of the large rocks, and into the koi pond. Nabiki finally lost control and broke down laughing, and Kasumi sent a reproachful look in her direction, which she missed entirely. Nodoka stared daggers at the koi pond.

Mara herself couldn't quite stifle a snicker at the undeserved and highly amusing violence, though she wondered a bit at the degree of strength the youngest Tendo demonstrated in propelling a man at least half again her weight at least fifteen feet. She also wondered if the elder Saotome was unconscious underwater, but that concern was replaced as a large panda waded out of the pond. She turned and addressed the Tendos.

"Is that panda actually Genma?"

"Growf!"

Signs indicating that he was in fact just a simple panda and NOT Genma Saotome went unread, as Mara was facing the wrong way. Kasumi answered the question while the rest considered Mara's obvious lack of surprise.

"Oh, yes. I'm afraid he suffers from a rather unusual curse. He turns into a panda with cold water, and returns to his human form with hot water."

"Ahh, good. That's easy enough to fix, then."

Mara gestured at the pond, lifting her index finger perhaps a centimeter, and up came a globe of muddy water roughly a meter in diameter. It paused at eye level, began to bubble, and with another finger motion sped across the yard to drench Genma, who immediately yelped and began shaking himself off."

"Youch! It needn't be that hot!"

The rest of the audience was more interested in the water trick.

"What was that?"
"Hey, how'd ya do that?"
"Interesting trick there."

Noting the first words from her new client, Mara directed her response to him.

"Easily."

Half a dozen different questions on the same topic were about to be asked, but Nodoka preempted them with a forceful statement of her own.

"We seem to be getting sidetracked; there are more important matters to be addressed. Specifically, any agreement Genma may or may not have made. I am sorry, but my son will not be able to marry you, as he must fulfill a prior obligation which prevents this."

Mara's response wasn't quite what anybody expected.

"Heh, marry him? No thanks. I'll admit he's cute and all, but that's not what I'm here for."

"If your agreement with Genma was not another engagement, what business do you have with Ranma?"

With this, Mara paused a moment to wet her lips before continuing.

"Ranma is Genma's eldest son, is he not?"

"Yes, he is our only son, but what does that -"

"Good. As per my contract with Genma, I'm here to take custody of him."

At that statement, the entire yard abruptly quieted. Shock was clearly written on every face in the yard other than Mara's; even Nabiki's eyes bulged just a bit at the bold proclamation. Despite her surprise, Nodoka was quick to respond.

"I'm sorry, but I must have misheard. I thought I heard you say that you were here to -"

"Take custody of Ranma, yes. As per my contract with Genma, I am owed his eldest son. As Genma was about to abrogate the terms of our contract by getting him killed, I have been forced to collect now rather than later."

Nabiki's eyes narrowed slightly as she considered the implications of the phrase 'eldest son'. Other peoples' reactions were less restrained.

"Genma! Did you really..."
"Genma, how could you do such a..."
"Is what she says true, Genma?"
"Oh Genma, how could you?"
"Whaddya mean you're collecting me?"

Again, Mara chose to direct her response towards Ranma rather than any of the others. While Akane, Soun, Nodoka, and Genma bickered, she approached Ranma and produced a manila folder. From the folder she withdrew a piece of parchment, at which point she recalled the lack of services listed. Strapped for time, Mara decided to do what came naturally and stick it to someone. She glanced at the parchment, willed it just so, and held it out to Ranma who hesitated slightly before taking it.

"It's all right there, go ahead and read it."

She watched with satisfaction as he read it, facial expression moving from irritation to anger, and finally to eyes-bugged-out shock. She wasn't the only one watching.

"What's it say, Saotome?"

"Wha? Oh.. um.. I ain't gonna say that! No way!"

"Then give me a look."

Nabiki promptly grabbed the parchment from his hand, and began reading it aloud, as Ranma cringed back from the bomb that was about to drop.

"This document being a contract detailing an exchange of goods for services between Genma Saotome and Mara. Genma Saotome shall render up unto Mara his first born son, in return for which Mara shall arrange for Genma to acquire an attractive and naturally red-headed wife who is traditional, gullible, an exceptional cook, and who gives great..."

Nabiki managed to halt herself before finishing the sentence, but the meaning was lost on nobody. Once again, silence reigned over the yard, until Nodoka broke it with words both cold and harsh in their annunciation.

"Lies. Despicable lies. You would take my son from me on the grounds of such filth?"

Mara, unmoved by her tone, was quick to respond.

"I don't need to 'take' anything. He was yours for nine months, but he's been mine since birth."

Genma attempted to speak up, but was silenced by a glare from Nodoka. Returning her attention to Mara, she spoke again.

"I will not accept or honor such a monstrous bargain. Leave this place and take your lies with you!"

Mara just barked a short laugh, and spoke.

"I don't see why you're so bent out of shape. You had nearly seventeen extra years with him, you should count yourself lucky that I've been disinclined to collect until now. It may be true that you pissed away ten of those years, but then... you don't really seem like the motherly type to me anyway."

Her finishing gibe was accentuated by a smirk coupled with a pointed glance at the blade at Ranma's feet.

Nodoka stood still for a moment, practically trembling in her fury. Then without a word, she stalked over to where Genma had let fall the Saotome honor blade and grabbed it up. Turning to face Mara, she responded, her voice full of wrath and rising to a shriek.

"Ranma is my son, and you will not have him!"

Nodoka drew her sword, held it high, and charged Mara, murder written plainly on her face. For all that her movements were painfully slow by Ranma or Genma's standards, neither a Tendo nor a Saotome halted her, so stunned were they by the proceedings.

Good. Didn't know which one it would be.. glad it's this bitch. Time to make it clear how things stand around here.

To those watching, it seemed that Mara just stood there, smirking, waiting for the blow to fall. None had the capability to perceive the pishogue she suffused her flesh and clothing with. And then Nodoka was there, bringing the sword down in a right-to-left diagonal slash with all her might...

CRRRAAAAAAACK!

A thunderous report issued forth as the Saotome honor blade came into contact with Mara and shattered. The force of the blast ripped the hilt of the blade from Nodoka's hands and tumbled her on her ass. Several large pieces of jagged steel spun across the yard to embed themselves here and there, obsidian lightnings playing along the shards for a handful of seconds. The rest of the blade had exploded into molten droplets of metal, several of which managed to land themselves on Soun's arm.

As Soun shrieked and dove into the koi pond to put out his flaming sleeve, Mara buffed her nails on one of the cloth panels of her outfit and stared at Nodoka for a moment, before speaking.

"Oh my.. such a shame. I do hope that sword wasn't valuable."

Of all the bystanders, Nabiki was the least surprised by the pyrotechnics. Nodoka going berserk had caught her entirely off guard, but in retrospect it didn't seem that surprising; Nodoka was not, in her estimation, a particularly stable person. The explosion, though, had just served to reinforce an unpleasant conclusion.

Mara was capable of some kind of magic. Mara apparently considered a firstborn son legal tender. Supposedly this agreement had been made at least seventeen years ago, but Mara was by all appearances not yet past her twenties. And, apparently, Mara quite enjoyed provoking Nodoka to futile violence.

Nabiki licked her lips, paused for a moment to consider, and decided to go for broke. She had to do something, given that she was the only one in the household capable of putting two and two together. This certainly wasn't a situation she wanted to be involved in, the weirdness that Ranma seemed to attract was bad enough when it wasn't obviously dangerous, but it was too late to avoid now. Time for some damage control.

"Um, Mara.. if you don't mind me asking, what sort of being is willing to trade somebody a wife for an as-yet unborn son?"

Finally, someone gets a clue. Just how many hints did I have to drop, anyways?

Mara's response was no surprise to Nabiki, but quite enlightening to the rest of the household.

"A Demon, of course."


Ranma had watched, only commenting a handful of times, as the situation spiraled out of control in a fashion not dissimilar from a train wreck. As soon as the foreign stranger had appeared, he'd suspected yet another engagement. Just the thing he needed on the edge of death, another conflicting obligation that would probably get everybody pissed off at him.

Happily, they'd all got pissed off at Genma, which was just fine as far as Ranma was concerned.

The water manipulation had been so interesting he couldn't help but speak up. If only he could do that, the damned curse wouldn't be half as annoying. But no answers had been forthcoming, and the discussion had moved on.

He was surprised and a bit relieved when Mara indicated that she was not here to marry him. That relief was short-lived when she explained her true purpose. Ranma wasn't quite sure what custody meant, as he'd only ever heard it in conjunction with gossip about divorces and cops arresting people on TV. He was pretty sure it wasn't good though, judging by how everybody else reacted. Figuring out that she meant owning him was unpleasant, but nothing new.. everybody else pretty much felt that way already.

That contract had been a real gut-shot, practically knocking the wind out of him. He had no clue if it was for real or not, but knowing Pops, there pretty much had to be something fishy going on. And the sheer vulgarity of it... Ranma knew exactly what it meant, 'roshi and Dai had asked him often enough how good his various fiances were at it. Thinking of his parents doing that was just plain gross.

The confrontation between his mother and Mara had been terrifying in the same way that those dreams of Kuno in a furo were. Watching it happen, getting worse and worse, but unable to move and make it stop.

The relief he felt when the Saotome honor blade was destroyed was palpable. That damned sword represented everything that messed up his relationship with his mother, and for all that he knew he should mourn it's destruction, that feeling never came.

And then a question from Nabiki, and The Truth.

In what felt like a moment of clarity, Ranma realized that this was inevitable. There wasn't one part of his life that Genma hadn't managed to screw up somehow. His mother was his executioner, his best friend twisted into a fiance, his Art tainted by the c-c-c-that thing, his body cursed into it's opposite, and now he wasn't even going to be able to die cleanly. Oh no, that'd be too good for him. Pops just had to go and make sure that part would be ruined too.

Go directly to Hell. Do not pass go. Do not collect 20,000 Yen.

A parody of a line in a board game wormed its way through his thoughts and stuck. For a moment, he could do nothing but repeat it. It just seemed to sum everything up.

The moment passed, and Ranma resolved then and there that this time, he wasn't gonna take it on the chin like every other time Genma sprung some new stupidity on him. He lurched to his feet, muscles protesting ill-use as he stood for the first time in hours, and faced Mara.

"Nuh-uh. No way. Ain't gonna do it. No way am I gonna go to Hell on account of something Pops did!"

She just stared at him.

"Well, I ain't!"

She snorted.

"Obviously. If you go to Hell, it'll be on the merit of your actions, certainly not as a result of your fathers."

"Uh.. don't demons live in Hell, though?"

"Of course not! Who'd want to live there?"

The direction of the conversation and the fact that Mara hadn't immediately asserted her right to drag him down to Hell confused Ranma a bit, but he figured that since things seemed to be going better than usual discussion-wise, he might as well push onward.

"So.. uh.. where do demons live?"

"In Niflheim."

"Okay, well, I ain't gonna go there neither!"

Mara just rolled her eyes and began to chuckle. A far nicer sort of chuckle than earlier, with a smile on her face.

"Ranma, Ranma, Ranma.. you're reading too much into this."

"Whaddya mean? You show up, say you own me because of some stupid deal with Pops, blow up the Saotome honor blade and admit to bein' a demon."

"Own you? Oh no, I thought I was quite clear that I was here to assume custody."

"Uh, what's the difference?"

Mara just shook her head. As he waited for her to explain what she meant, Ranma took a moment to take stock of the situation. Mom was still stunned, and Pops was holding her, trying to get her out of it. Soun continued to soak his arm in the pond. Kasumi looked overwhelmed by the whole situation, Akane looked a little glassy-eyed as well but was paying attention to the conversation, and Nabiki -

"The difference is that ownership would imply slavery or indentured servitude, whereas custody is a legal term describing responsibility. Typically either the responsibility of an officer to detain a criminal, or an adult to care for a minor. Hopefully the latter in your case."

"Uh.. so.. it's like bein' a parent without bein someone's mom or pops?"

"Sort of."

Emboldened by Mara's seemingly benign attitude despite the earlier confrontation, Nabiki decided it was time to go fishing.

"Why are you talking about custody anyways? Genma and Nodoka had it, last I checked."

"That's already been taken care of."

Out came the manila folder, and out of the folder came two items, a single page and a sheaf of pages stapled together. Mara gave Ranma a considering look, then turned and handed them to Nabiki, who immediately began reading the first page. Ranma watched her read, wanting to ask what the heck it was, but wisely managing to reign in his impatience. A minute later, Nabiki looked up.

"This is legitimate?"

"Absolutely."

"It's dated nearly two months ago. Why haven't we heard from Social Services?"

Mara shrugged.

"Bureaucracies are slow and prone to error. A case slipping through the cracks for a few weeks is hardly surprising."

"Mmm-hmmm.. nothing surprising about the complaints brought against his parents either, though I am surprised they didn't show up to contest them. Even if they didn't know where to find Genma, they should have had no trouble getting a summons to Nodoka."

"Apparently they both chose not to show up for the hearings, repeatedly."

"And they weren't booked for it?"

"Perhaps the judge chose to focus on moving the case along rather than imposing penalties on obviously uncaring and negligent parents."

"Rrrright."

Mara shrugged again.

"If you have a problem with it, I'm sure our lawyers would be quite capable of helping you with it."

"Pick a fight with a bunch of demonic lawyers? No, I'd rather not."

By now, the back-and-forth had attracted the attention of everybody other than Nodoka, who was still out of it. At this pause, Soun and Genma both tried to get a word in edgewise, but Ranma beat them to it, addressing his question to Nabiki.

"So what's the deal?"

Nabiki smirked.

"One thousand yen, please."

"Gah! You know I ain't got any money on me in this getup.."

"Oh, all right. I'll put it on your tab, with a five percent transaction fee on top of course."

"Hey!"

"Do you want an explanation or not, Ranma?"

"Okay, okay.. "

"There are two angles that need to be considered here. First, the contract. While I consider the idea of honoring such contracts questionable, you've never hesitated to do so before, so I'll move forward on the assumption that you're willing to do so again. Mara claims that she arranged for Genma to get his wife in return for -"

"I did no such thing. I've never seen her before in my life!"

"- for his firstborn son, namely you Ranma. He denies it. Barring a third party with provable knowledge of the agreement or lack thereof, we're left with comparing the testimony of Genma and a self-avowed demon. Needless to say, it will be difficult to prove or disprove the validity of such an agreement."

Mara actually giggled at this statement.

"You wound me, truly you do!"

"Well, supposedly demons are masters of deception..."

"Flatterer."

Genma attempted to butt in again to protest his innocence, at which point Ranma stomped on his foot.

"Shut up Pops, this is important."

"How could you, striking an old man unawares! What a horrible fate it is to have a dishonorable son like -"

"Stuff it, Pops!"

As it so often did, the argument quickly degenerated into a sparring match, which soon worsened into 'hard' sparring. While both were well motivated to win, Ranma succeeded in maneuvering his father enough to get a clean shot off and pounded him with his Katchuu Tenshin Amaguriken. Genma kissed the large stone by the koi pond for the second time that hour, and a degree of peace returned to the yard.

Breathing only slightly more heavily than he was a minute ago, Ranma returned his attention to Nabiki.

"Uh, sorry 'bout that. Where'd we leave off?"

Unfazed by the now-familiar routine, Nabiki continued.

"The second angle which must be considered is the legal one. The position posited by Mara in these documents is that your parents have been stripped of the right to parent you, and custody has been granted to Mara. While some aspects of the situation are suspect, the core concept is not. By the state's standards, both of your parents have demonstrated gross incompetence in your upbringing, and granting custody to a third party is appropriate. Though I doubt they know that the third party is a demon..."

Mara smiled and replied.

"Typically, the state is uninterested in concepts such as Gods and Demons."

"And no doubt anyone trying to raise that issue in court would face stiff opposition, and likely a significant loss of credibility. Regardless, I cannot assess the validity of these documents without making inquiries, though unlike the contract we should be able to verify their accuracy."

Geez, it's like listening to a teacher talkin' about that Pythagoras stuff.

"Uh, Nabiki.. whaddya mean? Like, the short version."

Nabiki glared at him for a moment, before she took a deep breath, exhaled, another deep breath, exhaled.. and took another moment to compose the words she thought would best serve her.

"I don't know about the contract, but the court ruling could very well be for real. Even without magic in play, a human could have arranged it, and it doesn't make sense to falsify something so readily testable. We'll never know for sure about the contract, and it'll take a while to find out about the court ruling. Functionally, the contract is backup for the court ruling. If the ruling checks out, you'll be legally obligated to recognize her authority as your guardian, a surrogate parent."

"Though I find it somewhat curious that a demon would care about our laws in the first place."

Mara looked slightly insulted by this.

"I'm not stupid. There's no reason not to use them to grant my position added weight."

At this point Ranma spoke up again.

"Yeah, but you still haven't told me the most important part. If we ain't goin' to Hell or that Nifful place, then where do you wanna drag me off to?"

"Oh, I've got an apartment a few blocks east of here."

THUD

The ground shook with the force of the facefaults.

"What? I've got the lease right here!"

Standing and rubbing his sore jaw, Ranma responded.

"Naw, that's not it.. never mind."

With a groan, Genma finally managed to peel himself off the rock, made his way over to where Nodoka was sitting. Still somewhat shaky, he returned to his ministrations, attempting to snap her out of shock. Ranma continued, now with far less fire in his voice.

"Still.. I dunno how that changes things."

His gaze, obviously focused on the blade near his feet, made which 'things' he meant quite clear. Nabiki shot him a rather disgusted look for bringing up something she'd rather hoped everybody would forget in the commotion, and was about to take him to task for it when Mara beat her to it.

"That moronic suicide pact foisted on you by your parents? You seriously intend to go through with it?"

Hearing this, Genma puffed up as much as he could manage and responded in his most serious, and unfortunately for him obviously fake, tone of voice.

"It is a matter of honor!"

"How do you figure? Neither you nor Nodoka ever had any right to enter Ranma into such a contract, he's been mine from birth. Further, such a contract would never stand up to the slightest legal scrutiny. Both legally and morally, there's no obligation."

"Hmph! What does a demon know of honor?"

An' there he goes again with all that crap.

"Probly more'n you, old man."

"Oh, to think that my own flesh and blood would -"

"Cram it with nuts, Pops!"

Before they could get started on round two, Mara managed to get both their attentions.

"Ahem! Now.. aside from whether you are obligated to fulfill that suicide pact, there's something else you should consider: the consequences your actions will bring down on your mother."

"Huh? Whaddya mean by that?"
"Now see here, that contract is -"

CLONK

An oversized mallet took Genma square on the head from behind, interrupting his interruption. His legs gave out and he fell square on his butt, blinking owlishly at the little birdies circling his head.

"Heh, thanks Akane!"

Akane, who had in turn been shocked and horrified by the events of the last few minutes, and even before them run ragged by anticipation, smiled and nodded to him, and attempted to hide the mallet behind her back in while looking demure.

While Akane was dealing with Genma, Nabiki picked up on just what Mara was referring to. Shooting Ranma another sharp look for having the poor sense to bring up that damned pledge, she decided to run with it.

"Mara has a point. You do know what'll happen to Nodoka after you and Genma kill yourselves, right, Ranma?"

"Uh..."

"Oh, that's quite alright, I'm just as uncertain as you are as to how it'd pan out. If it was only encouraging a minor to commit suicide, it might be negligent homicide. On the other hand, it was planned ten years in advance.. it might just be murder one. It'd depend an awful lot on how the judge assessed her intentions."

"Wait a sec, you mean -"

"Of course, this is ignoring the most likely outcome. Looking at the pledge and her willingness to carry it out on her own son, not to mention testimony concerning her obsession with 'manliness', odds are Nodoka would be declared incapable of standing trial by virtue of insanity. They'd toss her in the nuthouse and throw away the key. Might be worse than jail, all things considered."

"Hey, no way'm I lettin' nobody put Mom in a nuthouse!"

"Uh, Ranma.."

"Yeah?"

"You'd be dead, you doofus!"

"... oh yeah."

"So if you don't want Nodoka to be held responsible for your death, you'd best figure out a way to not kill yourself, eh?"

On the surface, Nabiki looked entirely confident and sincere. Internally, Nabiki was kicking herself for not pitching this argument hours ago. Never mind that she'd been focusing on finding a way out that would line her pockets... speaking of which.

"Oh, and Saotome, if you want me to investigate the legitimacy of Mara's custody claim, I'm going to need some cash up front to cover expenses. Fifteen thousand or so ought to do it."

"You know I ain't got that kinda money Nabiki!"

Nabiki just shrugged.

"You'd best find it then. I'll get started as soon as you come up with it. In the mean time, I suggest you make yourself scarce, before Nodoka coerces you into doing something she'll regret."

"Wait a sec, you think I should just up and - "

"Get while the getting's good? Damn straight I do. You can sort this mess out later; for now, just keep it from getting any worse."

Silent for some time now, Soun took this opportunity to butt in, now that the discussion had moved onto more familiar ground.

"But Ranma and Akane are to be married, to uphold our vow to unite the schools. They should be living together!"

Both Akane and Ranma began to protest, while Mara took a slightly different position.

"Daddy, how could you!"
"Hey, who says I'm gonna get married!"
"Ranma, you're engaged? And what's this vow?"

Soun winced back from Akane's outburst, Ranma winced as Akane shot him a hurt look, and Mara waited for an answer. Not getting one, she decided a little prompting was necessary.

"Well? What's the deal?"

Naturally, Soun jumped at the chance.

"Genma and I made a sacred pledge that our children would unite the schools. As Ranma and Akane are the heirs to the Saotome and Tendo Ryus, and such a perfect couple too, they are engaged to be married."

"So.. what's the problem?"

"Well.. it'd be best if they lived together, in preparation for their marriage of course."

"What's the rush? They won't even reach majority for a couple years."

"Well yes, but, with parental permission..."

"Which I will not grant. They're kids."

"But, but, the schools must be joined!"

"What's your problem? If they want to get married, I can't stop them, they'll just have to wait until they're old enough."

Heh, that's a new one.. somebody actually stickin' up for me an' Akane.

Unsure just how to deal with the situation, Soun looked to his old friend for support. Sadly, Genma was still suffering under the effects of a mallet strike and had no aid to offer. Lacking backup, Soun wavered between exploding into a full-blown Demon Head Technique and insisting the schools be joined, and tearfully wailing that the schools would never be joined. While he hesitated, Mara went on the offensive.

"Why not let the future take care of itself and worry about the present. If the heir to the Saotome School dies today, there'll be no joining of the schools for sure."

"Well.. yes, but -"

"Perhaps you should take steps to ensure his survival. Such as finding out whether his nutcase of a mother still has custody of him."

While Ranma growled at the insult, Soun looked to Nabiki, who promptly held out her hand.

"Fifteen thousand."

Kasumi entered the conversation for the first time in minutes, her voice clearly disapproving.

"Now Nabiki, what have I told you about bilking your father?"

"Um.. that it's both fun and profitable?"

"Nabiki!"

"Relax, Sis, I'm just kidding. Besides, I really do need some money to cover expenses. I'll need to pay for copies of several court transcripts, and might just need to grease a wheel or three. So Daddy, you do want to make sure that Ranma will live to uphold the pledge, right?"

Kasumi sighed and shook her head as Soun immediately produced a wallet and forked over three five thousand yen notes. Unnoticed at first, Ranma walked over to where he had knelt in vigil, and stared down at the wooden tray holding his death poem and a tanto.

Now what'm I gonna do? I don't wanna let mom down, but I can't just let her go to jail cuz of me neither. I don't wanna run off with some demon chick, but Nabiki's right about one thing.. when Mom comes to, there's gonna be hell to pay. I really ain't wanna be around for that scene.

Absentmindedly, Ranma bent forward to grab one of the rice balls and stuffed it in his mouth. As he chewed, he pondered.

And.. what if I actually ain't supposed to have to kill myself? Not that it's likely, I mean, Pops wouldn't really sell me to a demon. ... Would he?

He couldn't really be sure on that one. It wouldn't be the first massively stupid thing Genma had inflicted on him. With a gulp, the riceball went down his throat.

And I don't wanna die if I don't gotta! Maybe we can work things out, find some way to smooth things over.. maybe even get Mom to give up that stupid pact. I mean, if it wasn't for real in the first place, she wouldn't have ta hold me to it, would she? And I know she doesn't really wanna if she doesn't have ta, it's just that it's a matter of honor and she can't just go and ignore it.

Still.. runnin' off with a demoness ain't the way I'd wanna do things. Who knows what kinda trouble that'll start. Though I dunno if she's even really a demon. I didn't feel nothin' when she did that water trick, or when she blew up the sword, and she doesn't have any aura that I can sense. My eyes an' ears say she's there but I don't feel nothin'. But that doesn't prove anything, she could just be really good at shielding it, like Tofu an' the old ghoul.

As he bent over to take the other rice ball, Ranma couldn't help but stare at the death poem and tanto. There was a kind of symbolism to them, though he didn't use that word but rather felt that they meant something important. The tanto represented one choice, the final choice, while the poem represented the other choice.. more of the same crazy shit going down as it always did.

Having unconsciously gulped down most of the rice ball, Ranma finished the remaining bit and knelt again. Without hesitation, he picked up the dish of sake, drained it, and replaced it on the tray. The alcoholic flavor, something Ranma was entirely unused to, seemed harsh to him. As he swallowed again, trying to get the taste from his mouth, he picked up one last item and, lacking pockets, slid it inside one of his socks.

Ranma stood, turned, and found every conscious member of the household facing him in silence. It was just a tad bit unnerving.

"...what?"

"So which is it gonna be, Saotome?

"Whaddya mean, Nabiki? Oh.. yeah.. which..."

Looking apologetic, he faced Akane and continued.

"Um, well.. there ain't really much of a choice to make, is there? I'll, uh, seeya at school Akane. An' you too Nabiki."

Audible sighs of relief filled the room.

"What? You thought I was gonna go and get my Mom thrown in the slammer or worse? No way!"

Nabiki looked a little cross at that particular comment; Akane and Kasumi just looked relieved. Soun looked decidedly unhappy but remained silent. Having said his piece, Ranma entered the house and made his way to the front door, Mara immediately behind him and the Tendo family following. He opened the door, and motioned Mara towards it.

"Lead the way, I ain't know where we're goin."

Mara left the house, and Ranma followed, pausing as he crossed the threshold to turn and face Akane.

"Um.. sorry 'bout this."

With that, he closed the door.


Nearly a minute passed in the Tendo household without comment. The first to act was Nabiki, who scuttled over to a window and looked outside, before pumping her fist and giving a great whoop of victory.

"Yes! Score one for the Beakster."

Akane looked betrayed, and stormed up to Nabiki to take her to task for the callous display.

"Nabiki, how could you! How could you!"

"Geez Sis, take it easy. I thought things went pretty well, all things considered."

"How can you say that? Ranma's been dragged off by some foreign woman, Nodoka is still lying out in the back yard, and the Saotome honor blade is shattered!"

"Like I said, things went pretty well, all things considered."

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that half an hour ago we were guests at a suicide party with a demon gatecrashing, and we got out of it with no fatalities, no property damage, and no other weird shit happening to us. Hell, you didn't even get kidnapped!"

Akane didn't like that last bit at all, regardless of how close to the mark it struck.

"Hmph. As if I would. And why were you so worried about this so-called demoness? All she did were a couple of tricks, no real fighting. I could take her!"

"Oh, for the love of.. never mind. Akane, let's just suppose Mara was a two-trick pony, capable of moving water around and busting swords. And lets suppose she decided to move one of those globes of water over your head and hold it there. Just how long can you hold your breath, Sis?"

"That's not the point, Nabiki. I'd.. I'd.."

"Drown? I'm told it's most unpleasant."

"Aggh! That still doesn't prove that she's a demon."

"What does it matter? Suppose she's some psychic, or a sorceress, or a cyborg, or who-knows-what who just calls herself a demon. What matters is that she has power and is willing to use it. Further, suppose she's not a demon, but calls herself that. What's that say about how she views herself, and what standards she holds herself to? I don't know about you, but I don't like having people with power and little in the way of scruples under the same roof."

"You mean other than yourself!"

"Of course."

"Hmmph. Okay, so she's gone, but she took Ranma with her!"

"Ranma's a big boy, he can take care of himself. And if he's keeping Mara interested in something other than us, that's just fine by me."

Glaring, Akane turned and stomped her way out to the Dojo. Soon enough, the cracking and tinkling death cries of cinderblocks filled the evening.

Nabiki caught her breath, irritated at herself for getting so involved in the argument, but hopeful that Akane had gotten the point. Perhaps just this once she'd pass up an opportunity to get herself in over her head. She decided to head out to the yard and see what shape it, and its tenants, were in.

Pretty well indeed.. no deaths or serious injuries, no massive collateral damage, Ranma got kidnapped instead of Akane for once..

Lost in thought, Nabiki almost cut herself on a steel shard embedded in the frame of the back door. Noticing it, she took a moment to catalog the various visible pieces of the shattered honor blade, and a smirk made its way to her face.

And nothing of value was lost!


Author's note: This is my first work of fanfiction, so I'd deeply appreciate any feedback readers have to offer. If something is good, or something sucks, please tell me why!

In the next chapter, Ranma has a typically crummy day at school, Mara gets to know the locals, and just what got Nodoka so bent out of shape comes to light.