Part 5



"Mrs. Saotome! What a pleasant surprise!" Soun exclaimed, bowing politely.

"How lovely to see you again! Please have a seat while I get you some tea." Kasumi offered her place at the table as she stood.

"Why thank you, Kasumi! That's sweet of you to offer." Nodoka smiled sweetly as greetings and pleasantries were exchanged. She noted that they all seemed to be slightly on edge, except for Kasumi, as usual. Nodoka had gotten used to it some time ago, but it was getting a little tiring. She wasn't getting any younger, after all. That's why she decided to tell them that the jig was up. She had suspected for some time, and every time she visited the Tendo household her suspicions were only confirmed. She knew she wouldn't see Ranma until she called their bluff. They'd deny it, of course, but she was prepared for that. She'd rather commit sepukku herself, rather than live this charade any longer. As far as she was concerned, Genma had lived up to his promise. Ranma was a man's man. So technically she hadn't seen him yet. She had seen enough in Ranko to see the truth. And, quite frankly, she enjoyed having a 'daughter'. She enjoyed Ranko's company immensely, but . . . she missed her son. She sighed inwardly, her smile never faltering. Genma . . . she could leave or take. She did think he made an adorably cute panda, though. He was holding up a sign reading 'When can we eat?' Kasumi told him they had to wait for the others, politely of course. This is what she missed the most. A family. Oh how she envied Kasumi! Being able to take care of so many . . . including her son and husband . . . She hiccupped, nearly losing her composure. Fortunately, no one noticed, as Akane chose that moment to enter.

"Well, Ranma must have left already. I can't find him." Akane smiled sheepishly as she sat at the table. "Shall we eat then?"

"What about the others? Aren't they going to join us?"

"Others?" Nodoka looked to Kasumi.

"Ranko and Ryouga. Surely they're hungry." Kasumi answered, now wondering if she shouldn't have said anything at all.

"They should be down soon, I'm sure." Akane sighed, wondering why they weren't down there already. She was really hungry.

"Ryouga . . . is that Ranko's boyfriend?" The reaction was almost exactly what she thought it would be. Wide eyes all around . . . a few chocking on their tea . . . Genma seemed to be frozen in place except for a nervous tic that had affected his left eye. She struggled to contain her laughter.

"Did we miss something?" Ranko asked as she entered the room, trailing Ryouga behind her. Nodoka noted the linked hands, even as they sat down.

"We were just talking about you! Aren't you going to introduce me to your boyfriend?" the pair blushed, not knowing what to say. They weren't going to get any help from anyone else either. The spot light was focused on them and no one was eager to take it.

"Well . . . um, this is Ryouga Hibiki." Ranko finally muttered. "Ryouga, this is Nodoka Saotome. Ranma's mother."

"Hi." Ryouga offered shyly.

"It's nice to meet you. So how long have you two been going out?" The silence was thick, broken only by rolling thunder and the pitter-pat of rain falling all around. Someone's stomach growled. Akane blushed as her hunger became evident to all.

"Where are my manners? Let's eat before the food gets cold." Nodoka smiled, letting them off the hook. For now.

The feeding frenzy began. Ranko lost a few seconds due to shock, giving Akane a head start. Genma was a close second, with Ranko snapping out of it for third. Kasumi deftly managed to serve their guests and herself without injury. Nabiki wisely snuck a bite to eat before hand, and was able to wait for a lull to snatch some food. Soun held his own, but had to fight Genma tooth and nail from stealing his food. Surprisingly, Akane matched Ranko in consumption, both giving Genma a run for the money. Kasumi was about to fix more when a thunderclap rocked through the house. As if taking it's cue from the thunder, the rain became a torrent, as if the heavens let loose a river of tears upon Nerima.

"Wow. It's really coming down out there." Nabiki stated calmly as she watched the water cascade down the windows.

"Looks like we'll have to batten down the hatches." Soun looked at Ranko and Ryouga pointedly. Ranko wasn't having any of it. She was not letting Ryouga get caught in that weather. She glared back at him. A battle of wills began as the two tried to stare each other down. Genma tried to fade into the background.

Five minutes later, Ranko, Genma, and Soun were securing the amado* in the pouring rain, much to their chagrin, and Akane, Ryouga, Kasumi, Nabiki, and Nodoka were taking care of things inside. Kasumi and Nabiki gathered supplies, leaving the others to secure the windows and doors around the house.

"Alright, the first thing we need to 'secure' is Ryouga. Mrs. Saotome, would you hold him for a second?" Akane quickly took control. She certainly did not want Ryouga wandering around in this weather.

"Oh, alright," she took hold of his shoulders, a puzzled look on her face, "but please call me Nodoka. Life is too short to be so formal with friends, especially under such conditions." Though still puzzled, she smiled warmly.

"Your right and I am honored you consider me a friend, Nodoka." Smiling just as brightly, she returned to her friends with some strong rope.

"I'm glad, but what's the rope for?"

"It's for me. No chains?"

"Sorry, Ryouga, but it's the best I could come up with on short notice."

"Excuse me?" Nodoka stared at the two wide-eyed, wondering just what kind of game they were playing.

"I have the world's worst sense of direction." Ryouga said matter-of-fact-ly.

"I'm sure it's not that ba- . . ."

"It's true. He gets lost in his own house." Akane interrupted, tying a knot in each end of a piece of rope. Ryouga nodded in agreement.

"Well, if it's a big house . . ." Nodoka was even more puzzled now than before. She was sure there had to be a rational explanation.

"I've gotten lost walking into a room."

". . ."

"I've turned around and been 300 miles away from where I was going."

"Now your just being silly! That's impossible! . . . Isn't it?"

"Well, I'm not sure about that last one, but the rest is pretty much true." Akane confirmed as she firmly tied one end of the rope around Ryouga's waist. She was surprised at how calm Ryouga was. He was usually a nervous wreck whenever she got close to him. Standing, she tied the other end of the rope around her waist, leaving a four foot slack between them.

"Okay, you can let go now." Akane said as she pick up the other piece of rope and knotted both ends.

"Huh? Oh, alright." Nodoka reluctantly let go of Ryouga. She had been using him for support as her head swam with the implications of a person who could get lost so easily. Of course, holding onto said person was not exactly the best thing to do.

Does Ranko know? She must, if she's dating him. Are they dating? They were holding hands earlier to be sure Ryouga didn't get lost, but is that the only reason? I swear I saw a spark between them, and the way they blushed when I suggested they were a couple . . . If they weren't, surely Ranko would have reacted differently, more violently . . . She certainly isn't acting like her usual self today, and a woman doesn't change her tune like that unless she's in love. Or pregnant . . . Oh, Kami, I hope not! Not Ryouga! If what they said was true, then even if he did want to take responsibility, he could still disappear at any moment unless he's tied to something! What kind of father could he possibly be? Or husband, for that matter . . .

"Are you alright?" Nodoka looked up to see Akane with a worried look on her face. She was holding a piece of rope that had already been tied to the one around Ryouga's waist.

"Oh, yes. I was just thinking and my mind ran away with me." Nodoka smiled apologetically as she accepted the other piece of rope and secured it around her own waist. The three now tied together, they set about their task.


*****

Rain plastered cloth to skin, hair to heads, and fur to body, the wind snatching at anything loose and chilling bones. Teeth chattered as numb fingers nailed loose boards to amado* panels in desperate need of repair.** Ranko cursed under her breath at Soun's inability to keep his own household in decent order. Granted, it's hard to keep a house in good repair when people keep flying through the walls, but the amado should have been in perfect condition regardless!

Ranko had no qualms about telling Soun this, but he, and Genma, through the use of signs, just barked at her to show more respect for her elders and that it will be good training, besides. Not that it kept them from muttering under breath every time they lost a nail or smashed a thumb. Well, Soun muttered, Genma growled. The three martial artists did, however, finish in a timely fashion, despite Genma's handicap and the driving wind and rain. By the time they returned inside, sodden and chilled to the bone, the others had finished their own tasks and were gathered in the living room.

"Oh my, three drowned rats." Nabiki's comment announced their arrival and three people leapt to their feet and rushed to their dripping companions, towels in hand. Kasumi rushed to her father's side, while Nodoka handled a soaked "Mr. Panda". What was surprising was the fact that it was Ryouga who rushed to Ranko's aid.

Akane blinked as she watched Ryouga wrap Ranko in a towel and dried her hair. What was more surprising than Ryouga's behavior was Ranko's. She not only accepted his help, but seemed to enjoy it as well. Akane was too stunned to be angry or much of anything. Ryouga, the sweet directionally challenge boy who always ate her cooking and stood up to Ranma for her, even though she didn't need it, was fussing over her fiancé! It was almost too much for her mind to handle. She had been certain they were rivals and equally certain Ryouga had a crush on her, but this? This was completely out there! It didn't make sense and Akane decided to stop trying to find any, for the time being.

Nabiki, on the other hand, only saw potential for more money. She knew a few girls who would pay top dollar~ for pictures of Ranma and Ryouga in compromising positions. If their behavior now was any indication, and she played her cards right, she could make a fortune by the end of the week!

"You must get out of these wet clothes before you all catch a cold! Here, I brought down some nice warm bathrobes and blankets earlier for you to wrap up in and Ryouga built a nice warm fire." Kasumi handed out the robes and blankets and gathered the wet garments as they were shed. As they settled down on the low-lying couch and zabuton~* placed around the room, the lights went out.

The room plunged into near total darkness, the soft glow from the fire being the only light, save for the occasional lightning flash. Silence filled the house, the only sounds breaking it were thunder and the crackling of the fire. It seemed that life now stood still, as if needing electricity to breathe. The clock on the mantle ticked loudly, counting down the seconds to some unknown event. Perhaps it was until someone remembered to breathe and break the humans' self-imposed silence.

*BANGBANGBANG*

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHH!" Everyone fairly jumped out their skin, hair and fur standing on end from the sudden noise.

"My goodness! Who could that be?" Kasumi wondered aloud, hand resting over her pounding heart. She started to rise to answer the door, but Nodoka placed a hand on her arm, motioning her to remain seated.

"I'll get it, dear." Before Kasumi could politely object, Nodoka stood and made her way to the door, taking a newly lit candle with her.


*****

Kuno step back from the door, startled from the frightened screams resulting from his determined knock. It was a response he had not expected. He composed himself once more, his determination returning. He was here, after all, for a reason.

The door before him opened, revealing a woman holding a candle. The meager light kept most of her features in shadow, but what he could see was a lovely face, one he couldn't identify, but was somehow familiar. He was once again stunned by something unexpected and found himself at a loss for words.

"Sir?" Kuno blushed slightly, realizing that the woman had been speaking and he had only stared at her.

"My pardon, dear lady. I had not expected to be greeted by such beauty." Kuno bowed gallantly, as a knight would to a lady.

Nodoka giggled, blushing like a school girl. She hadn't been complimented like that since . . . well, she couldn't remember when.

"Tell whoever is to either get in or get lost! You're letting all the warm air out!"

"Ranko! How can you say something like that?"

"Well, it's true!"

"My apologizes. Won't you come in, young sir?" Nodoka smiled sheepishly as she moved away from the door to let Kuno in, embarrassed by Ranko and Akane's outbursts.

"I don't mean to impose . . ." Kuno started, even as he stepped inside to the relative warmth of the genkan+. He suddenly felt awkward, standing there only half-dressed, his hakama# drenched and clinging to his legs, while clutching his water-slicked bokken~#. His purpose for being there slipped his grasp, confused by the turn of events. This wasn't suppose to happen . . .

"Oh, you're all wet, you poor dear. Come on, let's get you dried up." Nodoka took Kuno's hand and half-dragged him into the living room. Stunned, Kuno stumbled after her, trying to keep up.


To be continued . . .


*Amado: rain doors, sliding covers for windows, glass doors, etc.

**These happen to be made of wood. ^^;;

~Dollar, yen, whatever. ^^;; I consider "top dollar" to be a phase indicating one will pay the highest price, if necessary, and use it as such. :P

~*Zabuton: cushions (I'll leave it at that. ^_~)

+Genkan: entryway, just below ground-floor level, where you remove your shoes before entering the main part of the house

#Hakama: loose trousers often associated with samurai (at least, I make that association ^^;;)

~#Bokken: wooden sword, often used for practice

A/N: *hugs her copy of The Anime Companion by Gilles Poitras* If it wasn't for this book, I probably wouldn't have bothered with those references. ^^ I believe details add to atmosphere. ^_~ Complaints? Corrections? Feel free to inform me! ^_~ Okay, so not everything is "authentic", I'm no expert, after all. Besides, the first three pages were written quite some time before the rest. I prefer to keep the names in a familiar format, anyway. Less confusing. ^_~ I'd rather explain what a bokken is than what -san means, ya know? One more thing, while I'm certain Nodoka hadn't met Ryouga in the manga, I'm not as certain if she's met Kuno or not. For the sake of this story they haven't. Okies? ^^