Free Spirits -- Chapter Two

Disclaimer: The paints belong to Takahashi Rumiko (Ranma 1/2), Miyazaki Hayao (Spirited Away), and Akamatsu Ken (Love Hina). I'm just a peasant with an easel.

Notes: This is a crossover primarily between Ranma 1/2 and Spirited Away. The elements of Love Hina in this story are so abstracted and obfuscated as to hardly be relevant, but they are disclaimed, despite the fact that this is not listed as a crossover with that series. For a better explanation, refer to the Love Hina fanfic, 'Sky and Shore', written in the same continuum as this story. If you wish to read 'Sky and Shore', you can find it on my website.

-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-

Walking towards the school slowly, Akane frowned at the breeze that suddenly picked up, blowing past her ankles before rising, playing with a tree, and then subsiding. She had told Ranma that she didn't want to be engaged to him because she thought he was too strange. And as quickly as that, he had left.

She couldn't help but wonder if it was because of her telling him her feelings that he had left. And if it was her fault... Well, she didn't like hurting people, but the truth of the matter was that she didn't want to be in a relationship. At least, not with some young boy training to be a kami...

Smiling softly at the irony, she shook her head. What would thinking of such things do? He was gone. Gone to the kami plane, no less. Who knew how long it would take him to come back?

The poor boy... well, he was different from most other boys. Maybe ... he could use a friend? Akane's smile increased at that. She had no interest in marrying him ... but friends ... that was different.

She idly wondered what people would think, with him vanishing from school so quickly.

-+-+-+-+-

Ida-Ten looked down at the girl, only a few dozen paces below him on the street, though she couldn't sense his presence. "Ah," he mused quietly, shaking his head. "You will remember. But no others ... until it's time to return."

He closed his eyes, and the wind increased, ruffling the girl's hair for a moment before it passed on to the school. Smiling faintly, he vaulted upward, running across a gust of wind, crossing the entirety of Nerima in only a handful of heartbeats.

Pursing his lips, he thought for a moment on where he had sent Ranma, his path winding around Tokyo Tower before the winds drove on, turning eastward, and then slightly north. "He will learn," he said quietly. "The Lord of Ocean would not choose one who could not."

-+-+-+-+-

Ranma stood on a hillock, staring down towards the grassy slope below him, stretching as far as the eye could see. "What is this place?" he asked quietly, turning around, and seeing only endless grass in every direction. A soft breeze ruffled the blades of grass nearest to him.

He frowned, spinning as they warned him, and beheld a girl, seemingly his own age, waiting where no one had been only a moment prior. She wore clothes that matched his, the only addition a sword in a wooden scabbard at her side, and her much darker hakama than his. Her long black hair billowed behind her in the same breeze that described her to him, and he drew back a half step.

She bowed slightly, expression smooth and calm. When she rose, she said, "I am the daughter of Ida-Ten. What are you called?"

"My name is Saotome Ranma," he managed after a moment, forcing himself to relax. Ida-Ten had said he would be taken to someone who could train him more, after all. Not an enemy. "Who are you?"

"As I said, the daughter of Ida-Ten," she answered, smiling slightly. "You may address me as that for the time being. Names have power, young kami, and until you learn more..." She trailed off, and shook her head, still smiling. "But enough of that. We have much to learn. Are you ready?"

He nodded warily, and the girl spun away from him, marching down the hillock. "Come," she said tersely. "There is a river near. We will begin there."

"What exactly are you gonna be teaching me?" he asked, walking through the grasses and pacing her easily.

She glanced back at him, and her smile returned for a fleeting moment. "What I can teach you. I am young myself, but you are less skilled, I think."

He glowered at her, and she laughed, looking ahead again.

"You can hear the wind, and it tells you what it sees and hears. Is that not so?"

"That's... Yeah, I can hear it, and use it to sense things... with the wind it's like I can see with my eyes closed."

She nodded, not looking towards him. "Good. And the wind is eager to share, knowing few who will listen, is this not so?"

He nodded at her, guessing she would know, even if she weren't facing him.

"You cannot tame the wind... that is not within your power, though there are some that might. But you forget, with all the listening that you do, that you can speak to it, as well. Treat the wind as a friend, and it will aid you. If you ask it to only tell you what you need to know, it will."

Blinking, he stumbled to a halt as she stopped moving abruptly, at the edge of a small stream that wended through the grassy hills. "How do I ask it to do things for me?" he wondered aloud.

"You will learn, in time, more subtle ways, but for the moment, use your voice," she suggested, smirking.

He nodded, turning his attention to the breeze that coursed across the brook. "Can you... tell me what's upstream?" he asked tentatively.

Delighted, the wind told him exactly what was there -- the brook stemmed from a spring in the side of a nearby hill, surrounded by low bushes burdened with small berries. His stomach growled at that, and he turned a questioning look at the girl.

Her eyebrows rose. "The wind must like you," she said after a moment, shaking her head. "You will need to practice that, however. In time, you will learn to speak to the wind without your voice, and we will study what the wind will do for you... and what it will not. Always remember, young kami, the wind is fickle, and changes its mind easily."

"If... I'm running on the winds really high up, and they suddenly stop, does that mean I'll fall?" he asked, worriedly.

"Yes," she answered, smiling. "I'm impressed -- I thought you'd have to discover that the hard way. But that is for a future lesson -- for now, as you are still mortal, I would like to teach you about mortal beings in the kami plane."

He rubbed his stomach, smiling faintly. "Does this mean I can eat something?"

"Not immediately," she said, shaking her head. "Food of this plane will change you, and there is no way to tell what it will do to you if you are not cautious. Therefore, I will teach you how to make the food safe for yourself to eat."

She gestured him to follow, and dashed across the tops of the grasses, too quickly for him to follow on foot. Shrugging, he hopped onto a passing breeze, and began to overtake her, coming to an easy halt near the berry-laden bushes. They were exactly as the wind had described to him, a cheerful red color, but they looked like no berry he'd ever seen on earth.

"I imagine that this will be difficult for you, so pay close attention..."

-+-+-+-+-

Finishing the last of her homework, Akane sighed pushing her seat away from the desk. Two weeks had gone by, and much to her surprise, sometimes an entire day would pass before she thought about Ranma. Usually, of course, she thought of him more than that, but it was hard to take seriously something that ultimately had so little bearing on her life.

"I wonder when he'll come back," she mused, rising from her seat, and wandering out to the dojo. The first few days, Ranma's father had nodded at her as she passed, but after the third day or so, he'd gotten a part-time job working for Tofu. He'd also given the meager income he had earned to the household's finances, which didn't concern Akane as much.

At the same time, though, she was pleased that he was being responsible, as ... well, more than a guest, she supposed. He was home today, surprisingly enough, and nodded to her, cupping his tea in both hands and looking up at the clouds from the porch.

"Hello, Saotome-san," she greeted, bowing slightly.

He smiled at her, and nodded, before going back to study the clouds. "Afternoon, Akane," he said quietly.

"Are you waiting for Ranma?" she asked, biting her lower lip.

"Yes," he admitted, sighing. "A parent can't help but worry about their children, Akane. And ... my irresponsible behavior already got Ranma killed once." He shuddered at that. "I have only one son, and I'd rather not worry about him ... but I don't know where he is, so ... I worry."

Akane winced sympathetically, and patted the man awkwardly on the shoulder. "He's probably fine," she assured him. He's a genius martial artist -- he's better than me, at least, and he's ... well, he's being trained by Ida-Ten." She rolled her eyes at that. The boy was being trained to be a kami. How could Genma even be concerned? "I'm sure he'll be fine."

"I hope so," Genma said, rising, and offering an apologetic smile to the girl. "I should try not to worry so much. Tendo, are you up for a game of shogi?"

Akane opened her mouth to reply, but her father spoke before she could do so. "I thought you'd never ask, Saotome!"

She shook her head, watching the two men set up the board, and smiled. Her father seemed so much happier with someone around to keep him company. Perhaps it wasn't really so bad.

-+-+-+-+-

"Very good," she said, reclining against a hill carpeted in shorter grasses than the plain they had started out in. Her hands were crossed behind her head, resting against a tall tree. The stalk of long grass in her mouth bobbed slightly as she smiled at him, sitting cross-legged a short distance down the slope, eyes closed.

He couldn't see color, but he could see everything else with the sense that the wind granted him. It even allowed him to see some invisible things, he had found. He opened his eyes, sighing, and managed a weak smile. "I think I have it now," he said quietly. "So I can use this to make anything I can think of?"

"Anything you can understand," she said, bringing one hand before her, cupped slightly. A soft glow began to illuminate her fingers, slowly brightening until a large spherical glow encompassed the hand, then condensed, brightening and shrinking to the size of a marble. It winked suddenly, the light vanishing, and leaving only a large glass bead in her palm.

"What's that?" he asked, frowning.

"This is merely a bauble. When someone holds it, and speaks my name, it will cast light." She turned it in her fingers, looking through it critically. "It is fragile, and once broken, the pieces will vanish into the same thing that crafted them -- my will. But much like the things that you create, it will either require much of your strength to make it last ... or it will fade without your concentration."

With a shrug, she tossed it into the air, where it dissolved into a sparkling fountain of light, specks of pure white drifting downwards and winking out.

"I could make something like that?" Ranma asked, cocking his head to one side.

"I wouldn't suggest trying to make things that you wish to last -- not until you've had some practice. It takes strength, and you are young still. In time, your powers will grow, along with your knowledge and skill." She shrugged again, standing up, and gently smacking her knees to dislodge dust. Dust that didn't seem to exist in this place, as far as Ranma had observed. "However, for the time being, we are done."

"Done?" Ranma asked cautiously. "I'm finished training?"

"You will need practice, but you've learned what I was told to teach you. You have the skill, mastering it will be your own job." Her eyes dimmed slightly, and she looked distant. "I will take you to another teacher now." With that, she began to run, dashing through the trees. "You must learn more of the law, as well."

He followed her swiftly, running over the ground instead of across it, and said, "You've still never told me your name. Who are you?"

She smiled, shaking her head. "That... I cannot say. Not yet." A tear shone in one eye, a tear that vanished when she blinked. "When my father has gone on, as he wishes to, and you take his place, then I can tell you. Perhaps sooner, but not until my task in the mortal realm is finished."

Ranma had learned much about the kami over the weeks of training, and one of the things he had learned was not to question such comments. He sighed, nodding, and followed her wordlessly. At least he was closer to being able to go back to the world he was born on and visit his father again...

-+-+-+-+-

The skies had darkened, though not with the feel of the setting sun. They were not clouded, either, they just felt... darker. As though the sunlight simply held no dominion over the land before them. Ranma frowned, looking at the stunted trees with their thin branches waving slightly.

Colder winds blew in this place, from the north. "Who am I going to study with here?" Ranma asked hesitantly.

"Emma-o," the girl replied quietly. "I will go no further, but you must continue on."

Ranma shivered, shaking his head. "This place is darker ... it's not part of the kami-plane, is it?"

"It is ... but it is different. This is closer to the lands of the dead. Emma-o is their judge, after all." She bit her lip, looking away, one hand resting on the hilt of her sheathed sword. "You will be tested, and the testing will be harsh ... but it is important that it is done. Ida-Ten and Emma-o are not great friends, but Emma-o will tell you the laws you must learn, the ones he judges mortal souls by." Still looking away, she swallowed, and his eyes filled with the whispered wind's descriptions as she spoke. "You will journey far into these lands, and find a palace all of gold and silver. Pearls, sapphires, rubies... All manner of precious things have gone to craft the palace."

His vision cleared, and the girl's eyes flashed. He knew he would not get lost on the journey, and nodded wordlessly.

"This palace is merely a gateway ... the dead do not reside here. You ... may meet shinigami on the way. They can lead you if your path strays." The girl closed her eyes, sighing, and looking away.

Ranma shifted his feet uncomfortably, and bit his lip. She was babbling -- he knew enough not to get lost. Not now. But... "Thank you," he managed, finally, bowing slightly to the girl. "Will ... you be here when I get back?"

She nodded, opening her eyes but not meeting his. "I will wait," she answered quietly. "When you finish here, I will take you to Bishamon-sama, and then... Then I will return you to my father, and he will take you home."

-+-+-+-+-

"Time moves differently, here."

Ranma jerked his head up from his contemplation of the barren soil before him, and turned to look at the small creature that had addressed him. It was living shadow, in a misshapen spherical form, but within it glimmered a faint light. "What..." Ranma cleared his throat, shaking his head, and remembering what Ida-Ten's daughter had told him. "I am Saotome Ranma, servant of Ida-Ten. I come here seeking Emma-o, that he may teach me more of the law."

The shadow bobbed slightly, then wavered, and began rolling in the direction Ranma had been traveling. "And I am a shinigami," the creature responded. "I'm bearing a soul to Emma-o for judgment."

Ranma resumed walking, pacing the ball of shadow. "It's ... nice to meet you," he offered after a moment. "I've, uh, never met a ... shinigami before."

"We know you," it said, the voice sounding from nowhere, yet all over the shadowy ball. "We follow everyone, you know. Eventually, at least."

"Ah... I suppose ... that's what you do," Ranma managed, floundering. How did one properly address a being that spent all of its time retrieving the souls of the dead?

"So it is," the being answered vaguely. "Another turn of the wheel, another soul to retrieve ... but I thought I'd warn you that time moves differently here."

He nodded, understanding that much already, thanks to Ida-Ten's daughter and her explanations. "What's Emma-o like?"

"How would I know?" The shinigami nearly seemed amused, sparkling beams of light escaping holes in the shadow before it recovered its composure, and sealed them away. "Emma-o doesn't care to consult with us, as much as we work together. He is, in general, quite busy."

"Oh," Ranma sighed. He wracked his mind for knowledge of the kami, but ultimately wasn't able to come up with anything more than the girl had told him. At the same time, he couldn't help but think that there was some reason why he'd had to go alone. The thoughts spiraled around in his mind, as he tried to think of what he knew, and why she'd been unable to follow him.

Lost in the pattern he didn't notice where he was going, until the shinigami said, "And there is the palace of Emma-o," in a soft voice.

Shaking himself from the thoughts, he blinked, nearly reeling with the immensity of Emma-o's palace. It completely filled his vision, massive and glowing in the dim light that filtered into the region. Sparkling jewels adorned every surface, each of which was already covered entirely in gold or silver paneling.

"Wow," he croaked out, eyes wide. "It's ... impressive."

The shinigami offered a noise much like a dismissive snort and drifted forward to a massive, open gate. Stumbling, Ranma followed after, still craning his neck to try and take in all of the palace at once. How had he wandered to it without seeing?

He shook his reverie away again -- he was letting himself get too distracted. Squaring his shoulders, he strode through the gleaming gate, across the immaculate entryway. There were no winds here to tell him what was ahead or behind, or comfort him with their presence. Beyond the ominous aperture, he was unsettled to find himself alone -- the Shinigami with him had vanished.

Swallowing, he peered about a well-lit hall, kilometers across, with the high ceiling so distant it was lost to darkness. A figure was clearly illuminated on the opposite end of the hall, too distant to make out entirely.

He strode forward, his wooden sandals clattering loudly in the silence. As he walked, the steady rhythm somehow echoing back to him from the distant walls, he became aware of the other beings in the room. There were countless men and women, though only a handful would be visible to him at a time. Dressed in all manner of clothing, they stared at him in surprise, drifting a stride above the floor of the hall, their bodies indistinct, and vanishing if he looked directly at them.

Trying to ignore them, he squared his shoulders again, and marched resolutely forward. He was committed, now. It was unnerving to realize that he was surrounded by so many of the dead, considering that by all rights he should have been one of them... But he tried not to think about that, instead focusing on the image of Ida-Ten to ward off the other influences.

Ida-Ten's daughter had warned him that in the demesne of another kami, he would find himself being subject to their influences until he learned to shield himself. In the meantime, by focusing on his own image -- that of Ida-Ten -- he could resist ... he hoped.

He held that image, marching forward. Another of the timeless instants that filled the kami-plane passed. It was more than just trying to be patient, as he did in the mortal realm. It was a truly timeless moment, as he marched past the spirits of salarymen, old women, children... a samurai in full armor who glared at him, but vanished when Ranma tried to look at him directly. The specters of all manner of men and women who had lived, all still awaiting their judgment, and he, defying them by walking through the spaces where they waited patiently for what could have been countless centuries.

A twisting sense of ... wrong ... filled him. How could he defy the laws and rules of this place? How could he, who was supposed to be Ida-Ten's successor violate both the rules of this place, and a place that was also a monastery for the dead? He was supposed to be a defender for those things, not someone who would casually and carelessly ignore those laws.

The sensation grew, until it became nearly a physical pain, and his step slowed ... but did not falter. All else aside, rules or not, he had been sent here for a reason, and to stop now would be foolish. He pressed on, through ages of effort and an eternity of walking. His feet crossed so much distance he was certain that if his sandals hadn't been a gift from Ida-Ten, they'd have worn through. He lost track of the paces, and the miles, as he began to pass through groups of women in simple kimono, and men in the robes of ancient emperors.

And then... Then he stopped, looking up at the massive cushion where Emma-o sat, watching him wordlessly. He frowned, wondering how long it had taken, and stole a glance behind him. The distance did not seem so great, only a handful of kilometers, not the eons of unending distance he remembered. And too, the people seemed fewer, not as many.

Perhaps ... perhaps it hadn't really been that far after all?

Swallowing nervously, he turned back to Emma-o, still watching him silently, and bowed low to the ground. He waited a minute, and then rose, looking up at the silent kami. Emma-o was resplendent in the robes of a Buddhist monk. He sat on a massive pillow -- at least a half-dozen paces across -- with his legs crossed, and his hands resting on his knees. His face was calm ... a hint of curiosity the only mar.

He looked at Ranma, studying him in return in as much detail, and Ranma fought to hold himself steady, trying not to cower before the imposing will of the being before him. What was he thinking, barging into the palace of Emma-o, the judge of the dead? How stupid had he been, to be so rude -- to break the code of Ida-Ten himself?

"Peace," the kami said at last, frowning faintly.

Ranma calmed himself, nodding, and still saying nothing.

"This is most ... unusual. Tell me, what brings one of the living to my realm?"

"I am..." Ranma faltered, unable to repeat the formula, and heaved an unsteady sigh. "Ida-Ten said ... that you would be able to teach me the laws I would need to learn."

"Laws ... yes, I know of them," Emma-o allowed, a faint smile coming to his lips. "And why would Ida-Ten send you to me? What could he not teach you himself?"

"I don't know," Ranma admitted, breaking down, and finally fidgeting with the sleeve of his uwagi. "I am ... supposed to take over once Ida-Ten retires, and he asked me to train with you?"

Emma-o's eyes widened slightly, and he smiled. "Did he?" the kami asked, one hand rising to rub at his chin thoughtfully. "Well, that is something... So you wish to learn of the law from me, when I have so much work to do? Tell me, who sent you?"

"Ida-Ten's daughter," he managed, taking a half step backwards. "She taught ... she taught me how to listen to the winds, and said to come here to learn from you."

"Ida-Ten's daughter," Emma-o mused, tilting his head upwards towards the ceiling, and frowning. "The servant of the Lord of Ocean." He seemed to consider that for a moment before nodding abruptly. "Very well. For that, I will teach you. Give me your name, mortal."

"I am Saotome Ranma," he replied, bowing low again. "Heir to the... Heir to Ida-Ten, and the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts."

Emma-o nodded at that. "And I am Emma-o, he who sits in judgement. Sit upon this cushion, young mortal, and learn of the law..."

-+-+-+-+-

She rose to her feet the second he crossed the border of Emma-o's realm, smiling at him happily, and rushing to stand at his side. "You are well?" she asked anxiously. "Everything went as planned?"

"I ... think so," he said slowly. "There was a lot to learn." He shook his head, managing a smile for the girl. "It's been too long since I've seen someone aside from Emma-o alive. I think I must have spent months there." He paled suddenly, and bit his lip. "How long has it been?"

The girl composed herself, laughing quietly. "Hours, not even a day, Ranma," she assured him. "Be glad it did not go the other way. Sometimes you can spend a day in the land of the dead, and years will have passed."

He relaxed, shaking his head. "I'm tired ... and so hungry ... I did as you said, and did not eat anything while I was there." He swallowed, gesturing at nothing in particular. "I created food, like you showed me how to do, but because I made it myself it didn't do much but distract me. Emma-o understood, at least. Can we find some berries around here, or something?"

Her smile widened, and she shook her head. "Take my hand," she ordered suddenly, thrusting it towards him. Hesitantly, he did so, and she clasped it tightly. "Run with me," she insisted. "We will return to the mortal world for you to recover your strength. As skilled as you are, this is not your place, yet."

He nodded, breaking into an all-out sprint at the same time as she, the pair flying across the short grasses, their surroundings blurring in diffusion until they burst through something, coming to an awkward halt in an empty street. Ranma shifted his feet uncomfortably, dropping the girl's hand, and changing his clothes to the Chinese shirt and pants he favored.

Ida-Ten's daughter waited only until he looked at her before she immediately began walking forward, gesturing for him to follow. "Where are we going?" he asked, glancing around. The small road joined quickly with a larger one, this one revealing that they were on a hilltop, and the city was spread out below them... and south, the wind whispered.

He smiled, realizing how much he had missed the wind in Emma-o's lands. The girl paused, looking around, and shook her head. "A daughter of Marisha-Ten lives near here, as a mortal," she said after a few seconds. "She is, among other things, an excellent cook. I thought it best to take you some place where no one would know you -- I can only imagine that all you've learned will take a while to settle itself."

Nodding, he asked, "Is Yakushi-nyorai her father?"

"Yes," the girl admitted, surprised. "How did you know?"

"I ran into her half-brother," Ranma allowed, smiling. "Is she as nice as him?"

"I couldn't say," she sighed. "I've never met him. There is one small thing, though, Ranma. For the purposes of subtlety, only girls are allowed where we're going." As she spoke, the girl's clothing shifted to a schoolgirl's outfit. "We can ... take advantage of your curse for that part."

Ranma sighed, and began to shake his head, but a wayward splash of water from a man spraying some fruits at a roadside stand struck him. Shrugging, Ranma adjusted the hem of her matching school uniform, frowning at it distastefully before turning her attention to Ida-Ten's daughter.

The girl was struggling to conceal a small smile, and Ranma rasberried her obligingly. "It's not fun, you know. How would you like it if this happened to you?" she grumped.

"I imagine I wouldn't like it at all," she said, sobering suddenly. "And I am sorry."

Ranma shifted her feet uncomfortably, and managed a weak smile. "Aw, I didn't mean it like that." Her stomach growled then, and she swallowed, her mouth suddenly turning uncomfortably dry.

The girl laughed at him, smiling again, and shook her head. "Very well then. This way, Ranma."

In short order, Ranma found herself introduced to another girl -- no more than a child, really -- who looked up at Ida-Ten's daughter nervously, and nodded when told Ranma's name. Her own name was lost, somehow, and when she spoke, those sounds never quite reached Ranma's ears.

She assumed that it was for a reason, and merely nodded. "We've just come back from a training journey together," Ida-Ten's daughter finally said. "We will be leaving again shortly, unfortunately."

"Ah!" the younger girl -- Marisha-Ten's daughter -- exclaimed, clasping her hands together. "Then I shall make you something to eat before you go, Sempai."

Ida-Ten's daughter offered a slight bow to the smaller girl, which Ranma mirrored. After that, Ida-Ten's daughter led her outside, taking a deep breath, and sighing.

Ranma finally broke the silence, still fidgeting with the hem of her skirt uncomfortably. "What is this place? It ... doesn't feel quite like the mortal world."

"Think of it as a halfway house," Ida-Ten's daughter said after a moment of thought. "It is part of the mortal realm, but closer to the kami plane."

"What is it for?" Ranma asked, one hand going to rest atop a railing, as she turned to look across the horizon. The buildings and sky were frightfully familiar, and she closed her eyes, shivering until a stray eastern breeze wrapped itself around her, comforting in its familiarity.

"It is ... to be something, that much I know," Ida-Ten's daughter said slowly. "The Lord of Ocean comes here ... but the place belongs to another."

Ranma nodded, the wind whispering to him of a woman, one with a dour expression, dressed in a radiant kimono of shining golden and silver thread. Her voice... something told Ranma that her voice was a gift from that woman. "This place belongs to the Lord of Ocean's lover?" she asked after a moment, her eyes opening, and instinctively looking away from the too-familiar skyline.

"It may be," Ida-Ten's daughter said slowly. "I would not pry, though others here ... might. You are safe here, for there are no mortals in this place ... not at the moment."

"I see," Ranma said quietly, the wind whispering of plans and pieces on a chessboard. The view was familiar to her -- far too familiar to be comfortable. "I ... think I've been here before."

"Have you?" Ida-Ten's daughter asked, frowning, and turning to regard Ranma directly, her long black hair billowing in a sudden wind.

"I ... think so," Ranma said hesitantly, staring at the railing that would have been before her when she was dead. "I think ... I came right here when I ... died."

The girl relaxed at that, a sympathetic smile showing for an instant before her expression hardened, and she nodded solemnly. "Of course. The way of things ... can be strange, some times." She paused, looking over the shorter girl. "But, I think my father will be pleased -- you've learned ... well. Time for that later. There is one last thing, but it shall be simple in comparison." She allowed a smile to cross her face again. "Come. The daughter of Marisha-Ten is ready for us."

Ranma smiled back, looking forward to going home, and followed her to the larger entrance of the house where the small girl who had more power than any martial artist Ranma had ever known made a meal. It was strange ... but she knew that it was so -- the girl had more power, more potential than Ranma herself as a martial artist. As a kami ... Ranma couldn't guess, and was afraid to consider it. It was strange enough, trying to learn how to be something so radically different, but at the same time, learning of laws felt so right.

"I have prepared you something to tide you over until you return," the girl announced demurely, as the daughter of Ida-Ten led Ranma through the doorway. "I hope you like it."

It was a simple, if traditional meal. Rice, miso soup, and fish. A breakfast, usually, but Ranma's hunger was enough that she decided not to comment, instead following the taller girl's example, and eating. And the meal tasted better than any she'd had in recent memory. It was not, she imagined, just because she had gone so long without real food. There was something else... some simple magic in it that made it everything she desired, and everything that the girl who had made it had hoped it could be. The first bite alone sent spiraling memories through Ranma's mind, though she said nothing, merely wiping at the corners of her eyes when the others weren't paying attention.

How long had it been, she wondered, since she had seen her mother? How had she forgotten? Perhaps ... perhaps one the final step of training was complete, she could find the woman.

-+-+-+-+-

"You are distracted," the girl accused, pausing her walk, and turning to regard Ranma sternly.

He ducked his head, looking away, and nodded. The river that they paced along shimmered, faintly luminous in the sunlight. Across the water was a massive structure, bearing a sign too distant for Ranma to read. Shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand, he squinted, eyeing the building. It was many stories tall, ancient in bearing and design. Sighing, he shook his head, turning to face the girl again. "I am," he said slowly. "But it is because ... the daughter of Marisha-Ten reminded me of someone who I haven't seen in many years."

"Ah?" the girl noised, her frown lessening.

"My mother," Ranma said dismissively, walking forward.

The girl's frown deepened -- he could tell that much without looking -- and she hurried to walk at his side again. "Tell me about your mother."

He shook his head, not meeting her eyes.

"Feh," she grumped. "Fair enough, I suppose," she sighed. "Would you tell me of your mother ... if I gave you my name?"

This time he stopped first, turning to look at her, and raising an eyebrow. He considered it for a moment, then crossed his arms over his chest and nodded. "I would."

The girl sighed, shaking her head. "I was afraid of that ... because I cannot tell you yet."

Ranma smiled at that, chuckling. "Curiosity is a curse, isn't it?"

"Worse than some," the girl allowed, smiling faintly. "We've followed the road as far as it will take us to Bishamon-sama."

"What can you tell me about him?" Ranma asked, furrowing his brow.

"Tell me what you know, first," the girl chided, stepping away from the road, and into a stand of trees.

Ranma followed her, trying to remember what he knew. "He's one of the Shichi Fukujin," he said slowly. "And is a kami of war. Why am I going to learn law from him?"

"He is a protector of those who follow the righteous law, Ranma. He will teach you of the spirit of the law, as you only know the letter." She frowned, coming to a halt, and peering about the thin trees surrounding them. "I will wait for you here. Once more, you must go on alone. Are you ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," he sighed, looking through the trees hesitantly, and stepping forward, looking around. Ahead he could only see the forest floor, littered with thin sparse trees, though their combined foliage hid the sun from him. He shook his head, wandering on until he found a dense bush, blocking off what looked like a clearing. He raised a hand to brush it aside, then had a second thought, and closed his eyes. The wind heeded his unspoken request, and a faint breeze bore him across the greenery without disrupting it.

Within the circle of leaves, however, the clearing was far, far larger than the forest had appeared when he and Ida-Ten's daughter had strolled through it. A massive barren field stood before him, uneven and rough, littered only with rocks and bone. The skeletal remains of people, he supposed, and yet ... it was somehow less worrisome than the spirits he had seen in Emma-o's lair.

The breeze warned him, and he spun quickly, turning to face the man he knew stood there. No, no man, he realized, eyes widening, and jaw falling slack. Emma-o, for all of his own power, was restrained compared to this raging torrent of presence. The image of Ida-Ten threatened to falter before the onslaught of Bishamon. He stood easily eight feet tall, dressed in gleaming armor, stained, yet somehow bearing a sense of rightness about it. A massive turning wheel of fire hung behind the man's head, his face bemused as he leant against a spear that was at least his own height.

Bishamon leant down slightly, still some distance from Ranma, and grinned. "Now, now," he said softly, chuckling. "What brings you here?"

It took all of Ranma's courage to stand his ground, as he answered, "I'm here to learn."

"The arts of war?" Bishamon seemed amused, straightening up, and banishing the wheel of fire and spear. His presence became less imposing with the symbols gone. "You need to learn quite a bit more on the mortal plane before it is time to study with me."

Ranma shook his head quickly, still nervous about offending the great kami, and realizing that the hedges he had jumped over were gone, no longer anywhere within his field of vision. "No, I ... want to learn about the spirit of the law," he managed, swallowing nervously.

"Ah," Bishamon murmured, crossing his arms over his chest. "And how, young mortal did you find me? How did you come to the kami plane?"

"I was led by the daughter of Ida-Ten," he said more firmly. Her name reinforced the image of Ida-Ten within his mind, relieving more of the pressure of Bishamon's presence. "I am Ida-Ten's heir."

"Ah," Bishamon said quietly, grinning widely. "For him, then, I will teach you. Young mortal, tell me what you know of the law..."

-+-+-+-+-

This time, when he returned to her, she was not sitting, waiting for him, but practicing with her sword. He paused after stepping over the threshold of the trees that marked the entrance to Bishamon's realm, and watched her. The motions seemed fluid and practiced ... but tentative, lacking in confidence. He said nothing until she abruptly sheathed her blade and turned to face him.

Her expression was placid, calm, and she raised an eyebrow.

"Hello," he said finally, stepping towards her, and smiling nervously.

She managed the faintest hint of a smile, and asked, "And so, you've finished your studies with Bishamon-sama?"

"I ... think so," Ranma said, nodding. "He said I was done, and that I'd done better than he expected." He shook his head, then, lacing his fingers together and stretching his arms over his head. "Ah ... I can go back to the mortal plane now, right?"

The girl nodded, frowning. "You know well enough how to get there, right?"

"Yes."

She sighed, offering a melancholy smile. "I wish I could go with you for a while ... but I have things to tend to. We will meet again, Ranma-san."

He opened his mouth to thank her, but she vanished before he could say anything, disappearing as though she had never been. His mouth closed, forming a frown, and the winds couldn't -- or wouldn't -- tell him where she had gone. Sighing, he closed his eyes, and stepped onto a passing wind, allowing it to carry him through the barriers between the mortal world and the world of the kami.

Emerging high over Nerima, he flipped through the air, sliding along the winds, and spiraling towards the earth. How long had it been, all told, since he had left? From his vantage, it had been months, but he wasn't certain that were the reality. Shaking his head, he rode the winds down from his height, circling towards the Tendo dojo, ultimately settling to the earth outside the sliding back door. He couldn't see anyone immediately, though the house didn't feel abandoned.

As he considered, a familiar figure stepped into the room, blinking in surprise when she saw him. "Ah!" Kasumi exclaimed, smiling and clapping her hands together once. "Ranma-san, you came back! Would you like something to eat?"

His stomach rumbled in response, and he nodded sheepishly.

She giggled at him quietly, bustling him inside, and pushing him to the furo. "You wash up, and when you come out, I'll have something ready for you."

-+-+-+-+-

Shortly, Ranma had returned, washed and feeling refreshed. Kasumi had set out something for him that he couldn't readily identify, though it smelled good, reminding him of the girl that Ida-Ten's daughter had shown him to. It tasted good, too, though not as fine as the daughter of Marisha-Ten's cooking. "Are you well, Ranma-san?" Kasumi asked politely, sitting at the table opposite him.

"Just thinking," he replied absently, between mouthfuls. "This is pretty good. Not as good as the time Marisha-Ten's daughter cooked for me, but pretty close." He blinked, realizing what he had said, and blanched, quickly covering, "I mean, it's really, good, but uh, it's hard to..." Faltering he sighed, offering an embarrassed grin. "Sorry."

"No, no," Kasumi assured him, giggling quietly. "Finding my humble cooking compared to that of a kami is quite a compliment, Ranma-san."

Nodding hopefully, and sated, Ranma gathered the dishes he had dirtied, and bore them to the kitchen, ignoring Kasumi's protests. It was the least he could do after his careless slip. Once he was finished, he returned to the living room, and retook his seat, once more sitting opposite Kasumi. "Where is Pops, and everyone else?" he asked, while Kasumi poured a cup of tea for each of them.

"Well, Akane and Nabiki are at school, but they should be getting home in a bit. Saotome-no-ojisan is at work, and Father is reapplying for his business license at city hall, so he can reopen the dojo." She beamed a smile at him, her hands wrapped around her teacup. "I was afraid he'd never get around to it, but Saotome-no-ojisan persuaded him to -- isn't that wonderful?"

"I ... yeah, actually," Ranma mumbled, scratching the back of his head. "What..." He bit back the question before it could be completed, and shook his head. "How long was I gone?"

Kasumi set down her teacup and steepled her hands in thought. "I suppose it would be about five weeks, since you left." She paused for a moment, looking at something behind Ranma, and added, "Today is a Wednesday."

"Ah," he said quietly. "I... wasn't certain."

The woman offered him another smile, and cautiously asked, "Did everything go well, Ranma-san?"

"Just Ranma, Kasumi-san," he replied, wincing. "I'm only in training." He chuckled nervously, then slumped. "I'm just glad I don't have to learn about kitchens, yet," he confessed.

"Oh, that's right," Kasumi exclaimed. "I read that in China, Ida-Ten is associated with kitchens as well as law."

"Bishamon-sama said as much," Ranma admitted. "Ida-Ten himself didn't mention it, so I guess it doesn't matter as much to him, but I kind of noticed it when I was in your kitchen. It's so strange." He sighed again, shaking his head, and closed his eyes. "But... yeah, everything went well, Kasumi-san. I got to meet Emma-o, the daughter of Ida-Ten, and Bishamon-sama. It was... interesting."

His eyes opened in time to see Kasumi nodding appreciatively, though she said nothing.

"Uh ... anyway, I take it nothing else has been going on?" he asked, curious.

"Oh, I believe a friend of yours left a letter, come to think of it," Kasumi said, rising to her feet. "I'll fetch it for you." She strode quickly to the set of drawers below the house's phone, and produced a worn envelope. "He seemed confused when I told him I couldn't possibly tell him where to find you while you were training," she added in an apologetic voice, handing the envelope over.

"'Hibiki Ryouga,'" Ranma read off the front of the envelope. "I get the idea that this should remind me of someone," he mused. He shrugged, and opened it, removing the letter from within, and mumbling aloud, "'Saotome Ranma, for your dishonorable failure to fight me as you had promised, I challenge you to a rematch at the gates to Furinkan high school the day you get back from your training trip.'"

"My," Kasumi said, frowning slightly. "That doesn't sound good at all. Who is this boy?"

"No clue," Ranma sighed, folding the letter up and stowing it safely within his uwagi. "I guess I'll find out tomorrow at school." He rose to his feet, not realizing he had mimicked Ida-Ten's daughter by patting at his hakama to dislodge dust -- dust that wasn't there -- until he had done it. Shaking his head, he strode to the backyard, riding a passing breeze to the roof of the house, and sitting there to contemplate what he had learned.

The pressing of the wind was still heeded, but seemed more like the quiet whisper that it should be, instead of the roaring gale of information that it had seemed. He pushed that thought away for the moment, considering instead what he had considered, while eating with the daughter of Ida-Ten...

His mother.

What about his mother?

"Do you know my mother?" he asked the wind quietly, curious, and uncertain.

-+-+-+-+-

On the porch, Kasumi looked up sharply, as the wind carried Ranma's whispered voice down to him, asking, "Do you know my mother?"

She bit her lip, shaking her head. What must the poor boy be going through? She could only imagine, and she wasn't certain she even wanted to do that. He had seemed to be going half mad just before he left. Then, when he had returned, just a short while ago, he had seemed so much happier, and yet ... haunted. What hung over his head, she wondered.

And how could he not even know his own mother? Steeling her resolve, she decided that she'd question the boy's father about it subtly while he was at school -- he was only a child in turmoil, after all. If he wanted his mother, then he should have her. And if his mother wasn't available...

She fretted for a moment, wringing her hands together and afraid to go into the yard, where Ranma would see her to take down the laundry, then smiled. Picking up her laundry basket, she set aside her misgivings and marched into the yard, taking down the clothes that hung there. If he had no mother available, he would have to let Kasumi be there for him, in whatever capacity she could muster.

Smiling with her renewed resolve, she waved to Ranma, perched on the roof, before heading back into the house.

-+-+-+-+-

The following day found Ranma walking to school with Akane, the boy staring up at the sky as he jogged across the fence, Akane at his side, casting curious glances up at him every so often. "So," she said, finally broaching the silence, "your father seems really happy now that you're back."

Ranma nodded, not looking at her, and smiling faintly. "I could tell," he said quietly. "The old man's been acting different lately. It's kinda nice, though." He shook his head, frowning suddenly, and glanced at her. "Someone challenged me to a fight in front of the school this morning."

Akane nodded, offering Ranma a nervous smile. "He ... stumbled his way to the dojo a while ago. I'm not sure how he found out about you -- everyone else seems to have forgotten ... but, anyway, he said he needed to challenge you for some indignity." Her smile faded into a worried frown. "What's it about?"

He shrugged absently. The prior evening, he had been busy telling the story of what had happened while he was training to discuss the challenge. "I don't remember," he admitted. "I really don't. It could have been anything, I suppose. My memory seems to be getting better..." he trailed off with a rueful chuckle, hopping to the street at Akane's side as he ran out of fence to run across. "Kinda funny, but mostly I was focused on martial arts only, and that'd be mostly what I remembered ... but I can remember more. I guess it's just because I care about more, now."

"I suppose," Akane answered doubtfully. "Um, anyway, he's ... camping in front of the school, waiting for you. Every morning, he beats up all the boys that try and challenge me, even Kuno."

Ranma raised an eyebrow at that. "I ... see," he said quietly. "Well, they don't have a right to attack you, anyway, so what does it matter?"

Akane huffed indignantly, sticking her tongue out at him. "It's my challenge -- I don't need someone else to step in and just finish it off without even letting me try."

He nodded at that, frowning. "I guess I can understand. It's about honor, right?"

"Exactly!" she exclaimed, smiling at him again.

"But, what if his own code of honor says he has to protect people who are being attacked by a larger number of people? And it's probably pretty obvious that they're attacking you, and not you challenging them, after all," Ranma said quietly.

Her face fell. "I hadn't really thought about that," she answered slowly. "But, really, it's still my own affair of honor, and he's getting in the way by not even asking me, first."

"That's true," Ranma admitted. "Anyway, we're here..." He trailed off, surveying the fallen mass of students, including an unconscious kendoka. "I am Saotome Ranma," he called out loudly, looking from side to side curiously. "Hibiki Ryouga, I have received your challenge, and have come to meet you!"

A boy, somewhat taller than Ranma, stepped between the open gates of the school, and offered Ranma a fanged grin, cracking his knuckles loudly. "Saotome!" he called across the street. "About time you showed up -- I thought you were hiding from me like the coward you are!"

Ranma vanished from Akane's side, and was before Ryouga before she could recover -- moving so quickly that for a moment he seemed to be in both spaces at once. Ryouga took an alarmed step back, falling into a fighting stance. "Coward?" Ranma asked, frowning. "I don't think so -- my ... master sent me on a training journey."

Ryouga recovered his composure quickly and frowned, sizing Ranma up. Ranma was dressed in his school uniform, while Ryouga's own outfit was less than standard. "Master?" he asked, frowning. "Who's that? I asked your father, and he wouldn't answer me. What style are you studying now, Ranma?"

"The Saotome School of Anything Goes," Ranma replied, nonplussed. "My master wasn't teaching me martial arts." Ryouga blinked at that, scowling. "Anyway, class starts soon, so answer me a few questions before we start -- why are you challenging me?"

"I-- You don't even remember?" Ryouga yelled. "Every day, you would steal the bread from me at lunch!"

"Oh yeah," Ranma answered vaguely, his eyes distant. "I kinda remember, now."

"You 'kinda remember'?" Ryouga grumbled. "You-- Don't you remember that we had arranged a duel -- a duel which you ran out on before you left on your trip to China?"

"Sure, I remember that," Ranma answered more confidently, nodding. "But I also remember that I waited for three days, and you didn't show up."

Ryouga glowered in an accusatory tone, "And when I showed up on the fourth day, you weren't there. I followed you all the way to China for a rematch, but you were always just a step ahead of me!"

"Huh," Ranma mused, sticking his hands into his pockets, and rocking back on his heels. "Some would say that since you failed to show up on the agreed day, you already forfeited the original match," he drawled.

"Hey!" Ryouga protested.

"Then again," Ranma considered, frowning, "knowing your sense of direction, you were really trying your best to get to the spot."

"That's right," Ryouga added, calming slightly. "And I've been trying to catch up with you ever since."

"I suppose," Ranma sighed. "This is one of those gray areas ... but the spirit of the law says that I can accept your challenge..." he glanced at the clock before the school, "... once class lets out. See you in a bit."

With that, he walked past the stunned Ryouga, disappearing into the school building before the other boy could think to react. "Wait a minute," he growled, spinning around. "That coward ran off!"

Akane snorted, walking towards the school entrance. "No he didn't," she assured the boy as she passed him. "But we've got less than a minute until class starts. You just wait here." Not bothering to explain further, she sighed and quickly jogged, picking up her pace and running towards her classroom.

Of course, they both were still late -- she wasn't certain how Ranma was delayed, given how quickly he could run, but in short order they were standing in the hall, carrying buckets. "I get the feeling you're never actually going to get to attend a class," Akane grumped quietly.

"I'm just glad that they don't seem to have noticed that I was missing for so long," Ranma replied, smiling faintly.

Akane sighed, shaking her head. Honestly, he was so strange, even now that he wasn't constantly distracted...

-+-+-+-+-

Ryouga sat against the stone column of the gate, facing the school and frowning thoughtfully. If he remembered correctly, class would be letting out soon, and he would finally be able to make Ranma face justice for his crimes. He frowned darkly, remembering how quickly Ranma had moved, and shook his head. It didn't matter, in the end. Justice was on his side, after all.

He rose to his feet as the bell rang, wondering if Ranma would face him, or just run away. But as the students exited the school building, the majority of them milled around in a large circle, looking at him expectantly. He blinked, hefting his umbrella, as Ranma emerged from the crowd, and approached. The shorter boy stopped a few paces short of Ryouga, nodding at him. "So, you still want to fight?" he asked cautiously.

"Of course," snapped Ryouga. "This duel will settle the matter once and for all."

"Very well, then," Ranma said, shrugging. "Let's go." He slipped immediately into a loose, mobile stance.

Ryouga growled, and slipped towards Ranma, launching a punch at the boy's midsection. Ranma evaded it easily, stepping to one side, tucking his hands into his pockets. "Ranma, you coward!" Ryouga growled. "Fight me!"

"Well, the thing about that is," Ranma replied, jumping over a kick, then twisting in midair to evade a strike from Ryouga's umbrella, "that the bread fights were all about the survival of the fittest."

"What are you saying?" Ryouga asked in frustration, his blows all meeting with empty air -- even when it seemed like he should have struck the other boy, his strikes met no more resistance than fighting the wind would have caused.

"I got the bread because I was better than you," Ranma explained, grinning. "And now, you're trying to get revenge on me for it. But, laws are made to help protect people who can't protect themselves, so the law's on your side, I guess."

"Shut up!" Ryouga roared, his fist launching towards Ranma's face. This time, the boy didn't dodge, and was flung across the schoolyard, sliding backwards across the lawn and snapping a sprinkler head as he did so. The broken sprinkler gushed cold water, and Ryouga's rage faded, watching his nemesis, fallen and... A girl?

"What the hell?" he asked, drawing nearer in confusion. But Ranma's clothes had changed to a girl's uniform, and her once-dark hair was now red. Her face sported an unfriendly looking bruise, and her eyes were closed, as though asleep. Ryouga's jaw gaped, as time seemed to slow down for everyone except himself and the girl he defended every morning.

Akane, her name was. She dashed forward, ignoring the slowed students in their circle, and knelt at Ranma's side, checking up on the redheaded girl and shooting Ryouga a dirty look. "Ranma?" the girl asked anxiously, gently brushing her hair from her face. "Are you okay? Ranma?"

"He will be fine," someone said authoritatively. Ryouga spun, seeing a young man dressed in a white -- gleaming white -- hakama and uwagi, standing on the wall behind him and frowning. "He refused to fight a battle which the law suggested was against him, and so, mortal, you have defeated him." A vague smile played across his lips, and he leapt to the ground at Ryouga's side, gesturing, and suddenly holding a staff. "Not that it matters, now."

"Um," Ryouga managed, suddenly nervous about this young man. "Who are you?"

Ancient eyes stared at him from the young man's face, flashing a dangerous blue. "I am Ida-Ten, young mortal, guardian of the law, among other things." He gestured to Ranma, who was slowly stirring, and added, "This is Ranma, my heir." He paused for a moment, considering things as Ranma climbed to her feet, shaking her head and gingerly probing her bruised cheek. "Congratulations, young mortal, you have fought on the side of the law ... in some senses. In others..." He shrugged, turning to Ranma. "And you, Ranma, did you fail to consider some things?"

The girl shook her head to clear it, offering Akane a small smile before turning her attention to her master. "I had considered some things," she said carefully. "But ... this seemed to be one of those gray areas, where not everything applied."

"True enough," Ida-Ten murmured. "Personal honor is always ... messy, isn't it?"

Ryouga blinked dumbly, then shook his head. "Ranma ... what happened to you?" he asked, ignoring the older man for the moment.

"Jusenkyou," Ranma said, sighing. "I ... drowned in a cursed spring."

"I was there," Ryouga said, staring at his hands suddenly, fascinated. "I ... was lucky, I guess, not to fall in. The guide told me about it, and..." He shook his head. "Anyway ... that aside, I guess we're even now, Saotome."

"Yeah, that's what I was thinking," Ranma replied, nodding, dropping her hand from her cheek. "Good luck to you, huh?"

Ryouga nodded, hefting his pack. "Yeah, and ... uh ... good luck to you, too," Ryouga managed, shaking his head, and turning away.

Ida-Ten snorted and vanished, just as time seemed to resume its normal motion and the students looked around in confusion, quietly asking where Ranma had gone. Shaking his head, Ryouga made his way to the street, sparing a last glance towards the redhead, watching him with her cool blue eyes before he turned away and strode down the street.

"You're gonna need it more than I do," he said quietly, wondering what Ranma had gotten himself involved with.

-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-