Nodoka gently rocked the child in her arms while her mind attempted to process the horrors and realizations of the last few hours. Looking down at Ranma, her only child who had just now managed to fall asleep in the security of his mother's arms, Nodoka finally allowed the tears and later the soft crying escape her...
...because no child, whatever their age, should ever utter such a terrible prayer.
A Child's Prayer
She answered the door that morning thinking that it was her neighbor wanting company on her usual Sunday shopping, an event which she had grown to anticipate in her lonely life. Which is why, upon opening the door and finding two uniformed policemen waiting for her, she paused in confusion.
Pushing herself into speech she replied, "Yes. Can I help you gentlemen?"
"Mrs. Saotome, we were hoping to get your help on a matter. We've found a young boy and there is a possibility that it's your son, but we aren't able to confirm his identity at this time. We were hoping that you could come with us to take a look at him."
Shocked now into silence, all she could do was stare at the two men as the possibilities of such a statement ran through her mind. Almost as if he knew what she was thinking the second officer added, "The boy is alive and is being taken care of at the Tokyo Main Hospital we just need help identifying him."
"Of... of course... certainly. Um... let me get my things and I'll be right out." After grabbing her purse and coat she followed the uniformed officers to their car, and quickly found herself underway through the noon rush.
"Mrs. Saotome, do you know where your husband and son are at this time?"
"No, I'm afraid I don't. My husband left 4 years ago on a training trip to teach our son the family school of martial arts. It was a very important matter of honor. I've occasionally gotten post cards from them, but that is all."
Silence was their only reply, and after waiting for several minutes she took a deep breath and finally asked, "If... if you don't mind me asking, where did you find the child?"
Grimacing at the traffic, the officer driving answered with, "He was found about 15 kilometers outside of town headed in this general direction. He'd been obviously injured, and looked to have not eaten in several days. We managed to bring him in, however, three officers managed to get injured in-" only to get cut off as his partner discreetly jabbed him in the ribs. The motion was not lost on her.
Giving his partner a glare the second officer finished by saying, "The boy was delirious when we found him, though considering his condition that was not surprising. That was four days ago. We've been trying to identify him since, and he's currently getting the best medical care we can provide."
"We did some checking up in the area where we found him, along with any possible towns or villages that he may have passed while moving, and we eventually found a missing child report that had been filed by your husband, Saotome Genma, 6 days ago."
Turning sympathetic eyes towards her he continued, "As the investigation was started, however, your husband was shortly afterward picked up on charges of petty theft, vagrancy, assault, and... and child abuse. He escaped custody less then 12 hours later and is still at large."
Her hand covering her mouth in shock, Nodoka was unable to say anything further. If the officer had added anything else, it didn't register.
When they finally reached the hospital, a feeling of absolute fear suddenly grabbed her and it took everything within her just to stand on her own two legs as they helped her out of the vehicle. The short walk through the main lobby and the quick trip up the elevator only served to agitate her more and she started to shake when she noticed that they were getting off at the psychiatric ward.
Slowly following the two officers onto the floor she waited as one of them caught a passing nurse and asked for a status update of the child in room 413. She cringed as the nurse answered with, "He's still in a catatonic state at this time, just staring at the wall. However, the delusional feline complex hasn't come back either, so we think of this as good at this point in time."
She jerked when one of officers gently touch her shoulder, the shaking almost uncontrollable at this point. Pausing to look at her the officer finally said, "When you are ready, Mrs. Saotome."
Closing her eyes she took several deep breaths as she tried to collect herself. After a couple moments she finally looked at the officer and nodded her head, not trusting herself to speak at that particular moment.
A quick walk later she found herself standing before the doorway of room 413, her view inside momentarily blocked by the two officers as they talked with a third officer who appeared to be standing guard there. After a few words were exchanged the two entered the room. Taking another moment to steel herself, she also stepped inside.
And was confronted by the sight of a boy whom she already knew had to be her son. Bandages covered a large portion of his body and multiple IV drips were hooked up to him, though these did not conceal the large white straps that tied both his arms and legs down to the bed. His face was as gaunt as the rest of his body, and dark shadows surrounded his eyes as testimony of the rest he obviously had not been getting. And then there were the boy's vacant eyes...
Taking a single trembling step forward she suddenly found herself falling to the floor, her legs no longer able to hold her. Strong hands grabbed under her arms from behind, and she found herself being supported by the officer who had been standing outside when they'd arrived.
Getting back to her feet took more effort then she'd anticipated, and approaching the bed itself turned into possibly the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life.
The officer's voice cut through the room startling her. Slowly taking her gaze away from her son, she looked at him.
"Mrs. Saotome? Is this your son Saotome Ranma?"
Moving her gaze back to the bed as the memory of a smiling five year old boy was totally destroyed, she finally managed tochoke out a quiet "Yes. Yes, this is my son."
"Thank you Mrs. Saotome," said the officer, and with a bow they left.
Suddenly alone in the room she reached out and with a shaky hand touched her son's cheek softly saying, "Ranma? Can you hear me?"
For several long minutes nothing happened, but finally the boy's head slowly turned and he looked directly at her, though no recognition showed in his eyes. Caressing his face once more she said, "Ranma? It's me. It's Mom. Don't you recognize me?" but stopped from saying more as her voice broke.
Gently taking one of his hands the two of them continued to stare at each other and several minutes later the boy's eyes slowly closed and his breathing deepened, signaling his fall into slumber. Carefully lowering his hand back to the bed she closed her eyes as shock, despair, and anger warred within her. It had taken a moment to notice them, but once she had...
The scratches were everywhere, covering every inch of exposed flesh that she could see. Most were tiny, shallow, though there were many deep scarring ones as well. What had he done, the man who called himself her husband, to cause such a thing to their only son?
Hearing the gentle knock on the door, Nodoka looked up to see a nurse standing in the doorway. Walking in, she glanced down at Ranma and asked, "Is he sleeping?"
Trying to smile, and failing miserably, Nodoka said, "Yes."
"Finally," the nurse replied. Catching the look the boy's mother suddenly shot her she added, "This is probably the first natural sleep the boy has had since he was admitted here." Taking a quick look around the room she added, "I'll bring in a nice chair for you," and left.
The hours crawled by as Nodoka sat by her son's bed, often holding his hand while watching his easy breathing, as every so often a nurse came by to check up on them.
She was half-asleep herself when Ranma woke up screaming.
Jerked awake Nodoka just sat there staring at her son as he screamed at some horror that only he could see, the restraints tying him to the bed straining to hold him in place. Finally shaking herself out of the daze that she was in, she leaned over the bed and caught Ranma's face between her hands forcing him to look at her.
"Ranma! It's me! Do you hear me? You're safe now, do you hear? You're safe now. It's Mom. I'm here."
The boy continued to yell for another couple of seconds, before cutting off suddenly. He stared at her face, and she watched as his eyes really looked at her for the first time, and then tears began to fill them.
"Momma?" The tiny voice, weak like a small child's, reached out to her and twisted her heart.
"It's me, Ranma, I'm here."
Right then the officer stationed outside her door and four orderlies ran into the room, only to stop at the sight before them. Nodoka turned to face them, tears threatening the corners of her eyes, and said in a shaky voice, "Everything's fine, we're both fine."
Turning back towards her son she watched as he began a moaning cry, the only word even intelligible being "momma." Holding onto him as best she could, she started to rock a little while trying to sooth him. Several minutes later when the crying had died off, she turned towards the officer who was still standing in the doorway and in a demanding voice said, "I would like my son released from these restraints."
"Mrs. Saotome, I don't think that would be wise. Your son-"
"My son is going to be just fine, and I am going to watch over him. Right now I'd like to see these restraints removed." When he failed to move, she practically screamed "IMMEDIATELY!"
With a sigh the officer spoke with the orderlies, and a few minutes later the boy's arms and legs were once more free. Carefully crawling onto the bed, Nodoka gathered her son up in her arms and held him. "I've got you now, Ranma. You're safe. Everything is going to be fine"
Moments later Ranma started to shake his head and in that same tiny voice said, "I don't want to go back into the pit again Momma. I don't want to anymore... I don't want to..."
Holding him tightly she beat down the furious anger that those simple words created within her and in as soothing voice as she could muster said, "You don't have to anymore Ranma. You're safe now. You don't have to go anywhere you don't want to. I've got you now. You're safe."
His tears soaking through her shirt he clung to her, shaking, while she held him. It was some time before he shifted a little into a more comfortable position and relaxed. And just when she thought he'd finally fallen back asleep she hear him whisper.
"And now I lay me down to sleep..."
It took everything in her to not suddenly laugh out loud as memories of teaching Ranma that silly prayer because of his fear of the dark momentarily flashed through her mind.
"I give to Cat my soul to keep..."
And suddenly the joyful moment vanished. This wasn't-
"And should I dream, before I wake..."
"I pray to Cat that death me take."