By Andy Searls
Characters are creations of Rumiko Takahashi
I promise that this is not a dark fic. Ok, maybe a bit shadey, but not too dark. Technically, it is an alternative story line that just starts out a bit on the dark side.
NOTE: My father's printer ran out of ink and my sister's printer stopped feeding paper while trying to print this story. I feel the title might fit a bit too well. I have not tried to print it out on my printer. Consider yourself warned...
So I walk up on high
And I step to the edge
To see my world below.
And I laughed at myself
As the tears roll down.
'Cause it's the world I know.
It's the world that I know.
- Collective Soul, "The World I Know"
Prologue: Anything that can ever go wrong will.
(Consider the first episode of the first season to be the prologue. Genma and his son, Ranma, visit the Tendo’s home in their cursed forms of a panda and a girl, respectively. Cold water activates the curse, while hot water returns them to their normal bodies. The Tendos, not aware of the curse, are confused. Akane quickly makes friends with Ranma as a girl, and they have a friendly sparring match in the Tendo Anything Goes Martial Arts dojo. Akane walks in on Ranma as he is soaking in the warm water of the furo (bathtub), once again a boy. Enraged, Akane walks into the dining room and picks up the table to attack. Ranma, clothes back on, steps into the dining room behind her.)
Akane pivoted around, holding the table over her head, to look at the source of the sound behind her.
"I'm Ranma Saotome....sorry about this." *Man, I sound like a broken record*
The all-too familiar looks of shock filled the room. There was a bang as Akane let the table drop onto her head. Each person, excluding Genma, had the face of three big "O"s. Genma, arms folded, just shook his head. Ranma had seen it all before. Genma started his little show, which always struck Ranma as a sympathy plea for himself, rather than understanding or even pity for his son. Ranma tuned him out. He just needed to wait for the story to be told. The Tendos would begin to get over the shock, and he would get a first impression of what they really thought of him.
"I guess I should begin..... with this!" Genma grabbed Ranma and threw him into the koi pond. Ranma twisted in the air to land feet first. He had also managed to get a good breath, so she didn't choke and cough too much when she stood up. She opened her eyes and saw a koi on one of the bordering rocks. Her splash had sent the koi out of the pond. Now, it thrashed about and gulped at the air. The only sounds were the constant chirping of the crickets, the drips of water from her clothing landing in the pond, and the helpless slapping of a fish out of water.
"Hey, don't just stand there, you jerk!" Akane angrily marched up to the pond, "I like those fish!" She gently nudged the koi back towards the water. The fish gave another thrash before rolling down the side of the rock and splashing into the water. Ranma still hadn't moved from where she stood. She just looked at Akane, who was a completely different person from the Akane she had sparred with in the dojo. She waited for Akane to smile and laugh like she had before, but she just spat out "Baka!" as she turned and marched away.
Ranma watched Akane walk back to the house. She saw everyone else stare at her. Even Kasumi was speechless. She felt her face get hot yet again. Then she saw Genma. His arms were folded, and his eyes were closed. "I can't bear to see my son like this," Genma sighed before turning his back. Ranma's knees shook, either from her father's dismissal or from being wet in the cold evening air.
Without saying a word, Ranma stepped out of the pond, and walked straight out the front gate.
Chapter 1: The light at the end of the tunnel is the headlamp of an oncoming train.
Kasumi recovered before turning to her youngest sister. Akane was still steaming, "I can't believe that insensitive, perverted jerk!"
Akane deflated at the sweetness in Kasumi's voice, "Yes, oneechan?"
"Could you clear the table for me? I'm going to make Ranma's bed for him. He might be tired when he comes back."
Nabiki let out a doubtful humph, "IF he comes back."
Genma opened his eyes, "If my boy knows one thing, it's how to defend himself."
"Mr. Saotome, I don't think Nabiki was afraid for Ranma's safety," Kasumi suggested, "Would you like to see your room?"
"It's been a long day," Genma agreed, "I could use some rest." Soun and his younger two daughters watched silently as Genma casually stretched and followed Kasumi upstairs.
Ukyo followed the Saotomes into town and waited outside the Tendo's wall. Once she had heard that the Saotome's were back in Japan, she grew excited at the prospect of getting her revenge. She climbed up to the top of the wall and peeked into the yard. She wanted to see what they were doing there before she challenged them.
On the side of the house, the door was open. She saw a young man step to the doorway and say something. It looked like Ranma. She could not make out the discussion from her distance, so she craned her neck to get a better view. Suddenly, Genma grabbed Ranma and threw him out into the koi pond in the side yard. Ranma stood up, and Ukyo stifled a gasp as she saw that Ranma's hair had changed to a brilliant red. *What did he do to his hair?* she thought. Ranma stood there in silence for a moment before a girl with long dark hair walked up to him, yelling at him. The girl flicked what looked like a fish back into the pond before storming back into the house. *Things are definitely not all as they seem,* Ukyo conceded as she watched Ranma stalk out of the pond and through the front gate. *Is it my imagination, or is Ranma smaller now?* After looking back to the house to see that no one else came out, Ukyo followed at a safe distance.
She followed Ranma up to a bridge that spanned the drainage canal. The water in the canal was still rising and churning from the recent rain. Ukyo stopped at a convenient hiding place as she saw Ranma stop in the middle of the bridge. Ranma put his hands on the railing, regarding the swirling current below. Suddenly, he swung a leg over the railing. Ukyo caught a breath and ran around out towards the bridge. Ranma swung his other leg over the railing and stood on the narrow ledge. Ukyo started to run faster. She released her breath as Ranma sat down on the railing, legs dangling over the edge. He did not move as she approached. As she neared, she realized that the person in front of her was not the Ranma she knew. He looked smaller. His shoulders were hunched over in despair. His red hair wet and mussed from his recent landing in the koi pond. This wasn't the Ranma she had sworn revenge over. He looked like he had already seen more trouble than she intended to give him. He reminded her of the Ranma she had first met. A Ranma that needed a friend. She stopped a short distance from him and called him, not entirely successful in keeping her voice from cracking. "Ranma?" *What the heck is going on here?*
Ranma didn't move. "Go away." His voice had the same pitch of the young boy she had met so long ago....
"Ran-chan please, I want to help. It's Ukyo."
Ranma didn't move. Ukyo took a careful step closer. *Dare I get too close?* she wondered, "Don't you remember your friend?"
"I ain't got no friends."
Ukyo took a chance and stepped directly up to Ranma to give him a hug. "Ran-chan, that's not true. You know... what?" Something felt different as she hugged Ranma from behind. She didn't feel the hard, muscular chest that she remembered. Ukyo could feel Ranma tense up as she gasped. Ukyo carefully put her hands on his arms, ready to grab him if he leaned forward...."Ran-chan, please tell me what's going on."
"I'm not the little boy you made friends with."
"I can see that," Ukyo tried to keep the surprise out of her voice, trying to be soothing and pleading instead. "Please tell me what's happened."
"I've been cursed."
*Now I’m getting somewhere.* "Is that why your hair's turned red?"
"Feh, the hair's nothin'."
"What about the rest of y..." Suddenly, Ukyo realized what she had felt before. "Are you...a g...a girl?"
Ranma remained silent. Her shoulders dropped even more, and she began to lean forward. Ukyo wrapped an arm around Ranma's stomach and pulled her back, "Ran-chan, no!" Ranma offered little resistance, but remained silent, still staring at the churning waters below. Ukyo pulled her back on to the railing, "Ran-chan, I don't care if you're a boy or a girl. Please come off the railing."
"Y....you really mean it? You don't care?"
"I care about YOU," Ukyo confessed. "Maybe we can find a way to get you switched back."
Ranma looked up to the shore on one side of the canal. "Warm water works fine."
Ukyo blinked. "If you can change back, it's not so bad then, is it?"
Ranma looked back down to the water. "The way everyone treats me, it's bad enough."
"I think you are one of the best friends I’ve ever had," *-and a fiancé that I want to keep.* "Please, PLEASE come back off the railing."
Ranma stared into the churning waters a few moments more before taking a deep breath and allowing Ukyo to take her back onto the sidewalk. Ukyo smiled and wrapped her arm around Ranma's shoulders, "Good, now lets go back to that house and see if we can't straighten things out." Ukyo took a step forward, but Ranma didn't budge. "I'm not going back there." Ukyo looked up. Ranma's face was hard to see through the red, wet bangs. She still wouldn't look up. Ukyo took a deep breath, "Okaaaaay, we won't go back there. We need to find a place to stay, then." Ukyo started walking again, and this time, Ranma followed. "We also need to get you out of those wet clothes and warmed up before you get sick."
Akane simmered in the kitchen, noisily banging the plates and cups around the sink. *How dare he stare at me like that? The pervert! Why did he just sit there and watch our fish suffer on the rock? That insensitive jerk! Why did he run off? Spineless wi..* A crash and tinkle stopped her short. In her anger, she had hit two of the plates together a bit too roughly, and they had shattered.
"Oh my," a voice said behind her. "Did the plates do something to anger you?"
"I'm so sorry," Akane gasped.
"That's okay," Kasumi soothed as she stepped up and held Akane's shoulders, peering over her shoulder at the pieces. "At least they were just plain serving dishes, and not one of mother's good bowls that we had out tonight."
Akane paled as she looked into the sink at the bowls she had been angrily clanking together. None of them looked damaged. Kasumi stepped beside Akane and held her hand. "Akane, what made you so upset tonight?"
"That pervert saw me with nothing but a towel."
"Did he apologize for walking in on you?"
"Well, um, I sorta walked in on him."
"And you're mad a him for that?"
"I didn't know it was Ranma. All I knew was that some weird guy was stepping out of our bathtub."
"He didn't answer when you knocked?"
"Well, um, I didn't.....really... knock."
"So, why are you mad at him?"
"Well.....," Akane hesitated, "I think I mainly got mad because I thought I had this new friend, and it turns out that he's just another BOY!"
"Do you not like boys?"
"I HATE boys. They're all the same."
"What do you mean, 'They're all the same'?"
"They all want to beat me up so that they can date me."
"Oh my. Have the boys at school been beating you up?"
"No, I've always won."
Kasumi thought for a moment, but decided to put that issue off for later. "So, Ranma wants to beat you up so that he can date you?"
"Well,.... no, but Dad and Mr. Saotome pushing him on us as a fiancé is just as bad."
"And you're angry at Ranma for how he feels about this?"
"Um..." Akane was getting more sheepish by the minute. "Actually, I don't know how he feels."
"So," Kasumi sighed, trying not to sound too exasperated. "Why are you angry at Ranma?"
"I.....I don't know." Actually, Akane thought she did, but the answer bothered her.
"Just a minute," a muffled voice said from inside the restaurant. She and Ranma waited patiently for an old man to shuffle up to the door. He opened the door, and looked the two girls over before saying, "I don't suppose you two know I'm closed."
Ukyo bowed deeply, "I'm really sorry to bother you. I'm Ukyo, and this is my friend, Ranma. We're not here for okonomiyaki."
"Oh, then why are you two here?"
"Well, we're kinda out without a place to stay. I happened to notice your 'Help Wanted' sign in the window. I was hoping we could stay here for a while. I can cook and help out with your restaurant in return."
The old man looked over at Ranma, "How about you?"
Ukyo spoke up after Ranma said nothing, "She's pretty depressed right now, and we're both from out of town. Please, I wouldn't ask if there was somewhere else we could go."
The old man looked back at Ukyo. "You say you can cook? I see you have your own spatula." He regarded the pair of girls at his door for a moment, "Well, I can't have you two out on the streets overnight. You can stay in my guest room upstairs for tonight. We'll see what to do about a job and the rest in the morning. My name is Asaoka Nobuyoshi" Nobuyoshi held the door open as he stepped back to let the girls inside.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Asaoka" Ukyo said as she stepped inside.
Ranma followed with a whisper, "Thank you."
Akane rolled over in her sleep. She began murmuring in a dream.
She was kneeling in an open field, admiring a small flower, when a raven landed on her shoulder and began pecking on her back. The pecking wasn't painful, but it was very annoying. She brushed the bird off. Just as she was stepping away, a sparrow landed on her shoulder and began pecking at her head. "Ow, that stings." She pushed the second bird off. The raven was beginning to approach her again when a small peacock landed in the field and shooed the raven away. The raven squawked "Nevermore!" and flew off. The peacock walked up to Akane and began pecking at her knees. Akane kicked the bird, which spread its wings as it lofted into the air. The peacock landed softly, and began walking back towards her. Yet another bird landed on her arm and began pecking at her shoulder.
She felt something brush her foot as she turned to run. She looked down and saw an egg. The egg was a bit larger than a chicken egg, definitely too large to belong to the blue jay that was now pecking at her back. She picked the egg up. It was half black and half white, the border between the two colors forming a wavy pattern around the egg. There were four birds pecking at her when the peacock stepped up and started pecking at Akane's knees again. She began to get angry at the egg. "Leave me alone!" she yelled, throwing the egg. The birds jumped into the air, but returned immediately and resumed their nipping. The egg, however, hit the side of a bridge, its contents spilling into the water below. Akane looked around and noticed that the field she was walking in was really a sand bar in a drainage canal. The birds continued pecking, but she suddenly didn't care. She watched helplessly as bits of egg shell dropped from the impact of the bridge and fell into the water, floating away. She had destroyed the innocent egg out of her anger at the birds. Her vision of the bridge blurred as tears filled her eyes. She tried to say "I'm sorry", but a lump was forming in her throat, and no sound came out. More birds were coming and pecking all over her, but she no longer cared. She saw herself, standing in the field, as nothing but a mass of pestering birds. A mass with no heart.
Kasumi hummed to herself as she prepared breakfast. The song reminded her of her mother. She was concentrating on simple and happy thoughts so that she could be her best for the family. Last night was difficult for all of them. At least most of them. Who knows what today would bring?
Akane walked in, yawning. Her hair was a mess, and her pajamas were wrinkled up. "Oh my, " Kasumi chimed. "You're up awful early this morning. Have a good night's sleep?"
Akane rubbed her eyes. "No, I kept having these strange dreams." Akane walked up to Kasumi, who put breakfast down and turned to her sister.
"What is it, Akane?"
"I feel bad about last night. Is Ranma up yet? I'd like to talk to him."
"Akane," Kasumi wiped her hands on her apron and held Akane's shoulders, "I'm afraid that Ranma didn't come back last night. I looked in the guest room this morning, and his futon is still made up."
Akane's mouth opened and closed a couple of times while the news soaked in; then she ran out of the kitchen. "Oh no! I've got to go find him!"
"Akane!" Kasumi yelled after her. "Don't you think you should have some breakfast first?" Akane was already out the front gate.
"Sugoi!" Nobuyoshi smacked his lips between bites, "You really know how to cook okonomiyaki!"
"Oh, stop it!" Ukyo giggled.
"Tell you what, I'll give you a shot at the lunch rush. If that turns out, we'll see what kind of working and living arrangements we can work out."
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Asaoka. I'll do my best."
"I'm sure you will. Please, call me Nobu."
"Thank you, Nobu."
"So, how is your depressed friend doing?"
Ukyo deflated a bit, "H…she's still sleeping. She's had a rough night."
"Looked like she was at the bottom of her bucket."
"I..... found her at a bridge not far from here. She was ready to jump into the storm run-off. We were childhood friends, and it's hard to see her this way."
"Well, I'm glad to see that one of you is feeling better, now."
Genma, despite his human form, growled a panda-ish growf as he came down the stairs. He spied Kasumi stepping out of the kitchen. "Well, what's for lunch?"
Soun, who was reading the paper, looked up at his old friend. "Genma, did you know that Ranma didn't come back last night?"
"I didn't notice him in my room." Genma rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "I'm sure he's all right."
"Are you sure he isn't in some sort of trouble?" Kasumi asked.
"My son is a great martial artist," Genma proudly stated. "He can take care of himself."
"It seemed just last night that you were ashamed of him." Soun put his paper down. "I'm having difficulty recognizing my old friend, Saotome."
"If I have changed, it is because of the difficulties of making a man out of my son." Genma folded his arms.
"Oh yeah," Nabiki deadpanned. "That Ranma is ALL man."
"Don't say that, Nabiki!" Everyone turned to the entry way, where Akane stood. She was still in her pajamas, and her hair was even worse than before. Her face around her eyes was wet, red, and puffy. "We were mean to him! He was our guest and we hurt him!"
She took a few steps into the living room when Kasumi gasped, "Oh my! Akane, your feet are bleeding!"
"I don't care!" Akane huffed, tears forming again. "I was mean to our guest, and he ran away." Akane ran upstairs to her room.
"Nabiki," Kasumi finally said, "could you clean up the blood on the floor while I go take care of Akane?"
Nabiki sighed and stood up from the table. "Sure thing, sis."
Chapter 2: The toast always lands butter-side down.
"Is your cute new chef here a permanent fixture?" a happy customer asked on his way out.
"She's my protégé, taught her everything I know," Nobu joked. *Just wish I'd have met her some sixty years ago.* He sat down on a barstool to survey his restaurant. The lunch rush went as well as any other he had dealt with. He had a much easier time and was much less tired with the new help, and the compliments came much more often. *No doubt about that,* he chuckled to himself, *this one is an asset to the business.* He grabbed a jar beside the register as he walked over to Ukyo, who was cleaning the cooking area. "Here's your cut of the tips," he said, handing the jar to her.
Her jaw dropped at the sight of the contents of the jar. "Oh no, I couldn't take all that."
"Nonsense, you've definitely earned it. Besides, you're going to need to buy yourself some groceries if you want to stay here."
Ukyo dropped her spatula and hugged Nobu, "You really mean it?!"
"Oh goodness, yes," laughed Nobu. "Now, let the old man get a breath. It's not everyday I get a hug from such a kawaii young girl."
"Thank you, Nobu!" Ukyo blushed and turned away. "I can't wait to tell Ranma!"
"You go on ahead, I'll take care of the tables."
"Thank you again." Ukyo pecked a kiss on Nobu's cheek. He laughed. It was his turn to blush.
Ukyo ran upstairs to the guest room. She leaned against her folded futon as she gently shook Ranma, who was still sleeping on her own futon. Ranma rolled over and blinked. "I've got some good news," Ukyo beamed as she rubbed Ranma's shoulder. "Nobu is letting us stay here."
Ranma managed a weak grin before she sat up. "Umm, Ukyo.....I just.....um.....I...........uh..."
Ukyo sat down beside Ranma and gave her a hug. "Anytime, sugar. Just don't go swimming without talking to me first."
"Heh, I think I'll stay away from water for a while."
"Do you feel sick or anything from staying wet so long last night?"
"Would you like something to eat?"
Ranma looked thoughtful for a second before answering. "Yeah, I guess so."
Ranma was biting into her breakfast at the counter just as Nobu was finishing cleaning the last table from the lunch rush. He walked up to her just as she had a big mouthful. "Well, I see my other kawaii young one is feeling better today, ne?"
Ranma nodded as she finished chewing the mouthful and swallowed. "Yes, thank you for taking us in."
Nobu sat down on a barstool beside Ranma. "You know, over in Fukuoka, I have a granddaughter about the same age as you two. She's a real kawaii one, giggles a lot." Ranma snorted, almost losing the next bite. "I hear you were about to end your troubles last night." Ranma dropped her head, her only other answer was a deep sigh. "Well, as I see it, you have a roof over your head, now, something to eat, and two people who want to see you sticking around. Things can't be all that bad, can it?"
"Things don't seem that bad right now," Ranma admitted, "but last night, things seemed really hopeless."
"Some sort of boy troubles I suppose?"
"Trouble with the law?"
"Trouble with family."
"Well, you can relax here with us as long as you'd like. If you want, I can go with you to see them sometime and we can try to sort things out, ne?"
"I....I don't think I wanna ........try that.....for a while."
"No pressure. Ukyo is doing well enough for the both of you, so you just concentrate on healing, right - in - there." Nobu tapped on Ranma's chest above her heart.
Ranma swallowed before whispering back, "Domo arigatou gozaimasita."
Nobu chuckled as he stood up, mussing up Ranma's hair even more with his hand, "Rest well, magomusume."
Akane, casual clothes on and hair brushed, was rushing through her lunch. She almost forgot to chew the last bite before swallowing and jumping up into the hallway.
"Akane," Kasumi warned, "you really should let your feet heal."
"Nabiki helped me wrap them up. They're not as bad as they look. Besides, I really need to find Ranma."
"You should wait. In a minute, your sister and father will be down and you can search for him together."
"We'll have better luck if we split up anyway."
"She has a point," Nabiki stepped away from the stairs. "If we don't find him today, then Akane and I will be too busy at school tomorrow to find him."
"Splitting up will be fine." Soun came down the stairs behind Nabiki. "You two just be careful."
"Yes, Dad," Akane and Nabiki chimed in unison.
Soun stepped up and put his hand on Kasumi's shoulder. "Just sit tight, hold the fort, and keep the home fires burning. If we're not back by dawn, call the emperor."
Kasumi smiled and nodded. "Hai."
Akane ran ahead of her father and elder sister. Having no other ideas, she headed towards a place that had been on her mind, the drainage canal. She looked under the bridge, noticing a sand bar similar to the one in her dream. She shivered. There were no birds nearby, though. Feeling encouraged, she looked around in the nearby shops. There were a batch of restaurants she knew of just around the corner of the other side of the bridge. She headed that way, hopeful that her dream was more than her conscience giving her a hard time.
After going past most of the restaurants and finding them mostly empty, she was beginning to think that her dream was less than she hoped. Her run around the neighborhood that morning was also taking its toll. Her feet were really beginning to feel sore. The rising temperature of the day was making her tired. The next store, an okonomiyaki place, had a red head sitting at the counter. *A red head!* "Ranma!" Akane yelled as she burst through the door. "I'm so glad I found you!"
Ranma choked on her bite. Ukyo looked up from the cooking surface to see Akane running up to her fiancé. Ranma recovered enough to swallow her mouthful before looking up at Akane. Akane shuffled her feet, thinking about what she should say for the first time. "I... uh...Ranma, I didn't...um..." Ranma merely blinked. "Darn it, Ranma. We want you back home. We've been so worried about you."
"I'm...fine," Ranma lied.
"Well, we've all been worried sick about you. You're father....... has been up all night."
Ranma snorted. "Now I know you're lying."
"I'm just trying to get you to come back with me, you dolt."
"I don't wanna go back."
Ukyo stepped from behind the counter to stand beside Ranma. "She's had a rough night."
Akane blinked at Ukyo. "Who are you?"
Ukyo put a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "I'm a friend."
Akane was feeling teamed-up against, and didn't like it. "Well, your father is waiting for you back home, so let's go home."
Ranma calmly stood up. "I'm not going anywhere, and I have no father." Ranma quietly walked around the counter and upstairs.
Akane, mouth agape, stared at the empty stairs for a few seconds. Ukyo stood, hands on her hips, watching as Akane blinked and looked back. The two faced off for a moment, before Ukyo sighed. "You know, she's had a bad night, and I think there's more than just last night on her mind. I think she needs some time to heal and think." Ukyo glanced behind herself to see Nobu step into the back room. "In the meantime, you know where we are, but I think Ranma needs some time to himself."
Akane's eyes widened. "Yes, I suppose...HE....does. I just-"
Ukyo cut her off. "I'm sorry, but I don't think it would be good for you to spend much time here. Not for a while."
Akane's shoulders slumped as she sighed. "I...I guess you're right." She trudged over to the door.
"Akane, I'm sure his father will want to know that he's all right."
Akane silently nodded and then walked out the door, bumping into a man in a suit as he was walking in. He stepped around her and walked up to Ukyo. He looked around the nearly empty restaurant. "Is Asaoka Nobuyoshi in?"
Ukyo bowed to the newcomer. "Hai. I will go get him. Who should I say is asking?"
"Asagoro. I have an appointment to discuss a legal matter with him."
"I will get him right now."
Ukyo was rubbing Ranma's back in the guest room while Asagoro talked to Nobu downstairs. "Akane knows about your curse."
"I know." Ranma quietly regarded his feet.
"I haven't said anything to Nobu." Ukyo felt Ranma tense up.
"I.....don't want him to find out....if I can help it."
"So, you want to stay a girl?"
"You want to change back eventually, right?"
"Not for now."
"Is warm water the only thing that works?"
"Well, we can try to avoid that problem, then. Ranma, I will do what I can to help you. I promise." Ukyo took her silence as acceptance, and continued massaging her shoulders.
A few minutes later, Nobu knocked on the door. Ukyo called for him to come in. "My visitor is gone, you are welcome to come back downstairs and help me prepare for dinner."
"I'm coming," Ukyo acknowledged before turning back to Ranma. "You OK, sugar?"
Ukyo went downstairs and looked at Nobu a moment. He was busy with preparations. Ukyo hesitated before asking, "May I ask why that man was here?"
Nobu looked up at Ukyo and patted her on the shoulder, smiling wistfully. "Nothing you need to worry about right now. Could you get some dough ready for me?"
"Oh my, you're back so soon." Kasumi was folding laundry as Akane walked in.
"Yeah," Akane sighed. "I found Ranma."
"You don't seem very happy about it. Is Ranma all right?"
Akane plopped onto the couch beside the laundry pile and began picking at a shirt absent-mindedly. "He's not coming back here, at least not yet."
Kasumi could see that Akane was disappointed. "I'm sorry, Akane. Maybe when he feels better, he might give us another chance to show him how we usually treat our guests."
"I don't think that's the whole problem."
Kasumi blinked, and she put down the school dress that she was folding.
"He...she is staying at a restaurant near the bridge. One of the cooks said she thought that Ranma is upset about more than last night."
"I wonder if something besides the curse has happened on their training trip."
"Where is Mr. Saotome, anyway?" Akane stood up angrily. "He sure didn't seem too upset when Ranma left."
"I think he's in the dojo, working out." Kasumi put a hand on Akane's shoulder. "I think we should wait for our father to return before talking with Mr. Saotome. Besides, I need some help putting the laundry away."
Akane's anger deflated, not standing a chance against a request from her eldest sister.
Ukyo sighed with relief as the last few customers walked out. The dinner rush had been busier than lunch. More than one customer had mentioned that a friend had talked about the cute new chef and even better food that had been enjoyed at lunch. Nobu sat down on a barstool and surveyed the mess.
The cooking area was surprisingly neat and tidy, despite the amount of food that had been prepared there. All the tables had plates, cups, and napkins that needed to be cleaned off, but not much uneaten food. Nobu had enjoyed spending time talking with some of his regular customers, something he hadn't had much of a chance to do before. He even gave Ukyo a couple of customers to handle at the register when he felt a bit winded from serving. The whole evening had been a pleasant change from being stuck behind the counter all the time.
"Can I help you clean up?" Ukyo stepped up to Nobu once she had finished a little straightening at the grill.
"You can clean the dishes, and I'll clear the tables."
"No problem." Ukyo cheerfully bounced into the back room.
Nobu shuffled over to the tray he had placed on the counter. *Sure wish I could have a bit of that energy.* He picked up the tray and, with a deep breath, shuffled over to the first table.
"Um, Nobuyoshi sir?"
Nobu turned to see Ranma, her hands clasped in front of her, her head still hung low.
"What can I do for you, Ranma-chan?"
"Actually, I was feeling like a fifth wheel here. I was wondering if there's something I can do."
Nobu smiled warmly. "Why yes, dear. You can help me clear the tables."
"Thank you." Ranma bowed her head a bit before she stepped over to the next table.
"When we're done, I'd appreciate it if you could sweep and mop the floor."
"I'll do that."
Nobu kept an eye on Ranma as they cleared the tables. *Getting her mind off of her troubles seems to be doing her some good,* he chuckled to himself. *She's holding her head up enough that I can actually see her face.* Ranma, with a pile of dishes in her arms, met eyes with Nobu as she walked past him to the back room. *Was that a grin I saw?*
They finished clearing the tables much more quickly than Nobu was used to. He stepped behind the register and began going through the days receipts. At this rate, they would be finished earlier than he could remember. Ranma put the chairs on top of the tables at an astonishing rate, usually lifting two chairs at a time. Nobu wondered at the hidden physical strength while she swept the floor quickly and thoroughly. As she walked back to the counter with the broom, Nobu noticed that she wasn't winded in the least. "Where can I get the mop and bucket?"
Nobu pointed to a closet in the back room. "Same closet I got the broom from. You can get some soap and hot water from the sink." He noticed she eyes widen at the mention of hot water, and she stood there for a moment. Something seemed to be frightening her. "If that's a problem, I can-"
"It's not a big deal," Ranma gently interrupted, "I'll do it." She trudged into the back room, obviously dreading what she was going to do next. Nobu was curious about what Ranma could be scared of, and after a minute or two, he put the receipts down and walked into the back room. Ukyo was filling the bucket for Ranma, who was standing a small distance away. Once Ukyo finished, Ranma stepped up and lifted the bucket. As she reached over for the mop and took a step, her foot slipped on the wet floor. Ukyo caught Ranma by her shoulders. Ranma went white, holding the bucket out at arms length like it was a deadly weapon.
"Are you two all right?" Nobu stepped up and took the bucket from Ranma's hand, noticing that he had to struggle against her white-knuckle grip. "You almost had a bad spill there." Ranma paled even more, eyes wide at Nobu. Nobu, still puzzled, attempted to sort out this little event. *She's not really that afraid of falling. There's something about this bucket of water that's got her upset.* He looked into the bucket, seeing nothing but soapy, warm water before asking, "What's wrong with the water?"
Ranma eased herself up from Ukyo's grasp, still nervously eyeing the bucket. Ukyo silently pretended to scrub a plate. Ranma finally managed to whimper, "It's warm water."
Nobu's confusion was getting worse, not better. "So what's wrong with a bucket of warm water?"
Ranma looked over to Nobu with wide eyes, and saw a calm old man who was mildly curious about the incident. She couldn't think of what to say, and only kept whimpering, "I.....it's just.....don't like....."
Nobu looked at the frightened girl in front of him. His heart went out to her, and he put the bucket on the floor and smiled. "Don't worry about it, Ranma. You don't have to tell me. I'll mop the floors."
Ranma didn't relax, tears began to fall. "No.... I said I would.... you don't have to..."
"Nonsense. Ukyo saved you a bit of dinner. Why don't you set yourself on that crate over there and take a break."
"But I said I would-"
Nobu stepped over to her and wiped one cheek with his hand. "Don't worry yourself over it."
Ranma smiled back through her tears, no longer whimpering. "Arigatou gozaimasita."
"I told you my son was fine," Genma stated over his game of Go with Soun. "We've been through the wilderness, living off the land. He's made it though tougher times than this."
"A martial artist's training is often fraught with peril," Soun agreed. "Still, I am relieved to hear that your son hasn't done anything brash."
"He's one of the best I've had the pleasure of training, my friend."
"You must have trained many."
"Well, ......um........not exactly. Our training took us everywhere. We didn't stay at any one place for long, so we didn't deal with the same people for more than a day or so. But, we never had problems with road bandits or even wild animals. I tell you my son has made me proud more than once taking on a large boar on his own and defeating it. At times, we ate more from the animals that were stupid enough to attack us than from our own rations."
"I'd love to hear about your adventures." Kasumi smiled brightly.
Genma thought for a moment before beginning his story. "Right after Jusenkyo , we stumbled upon a village of Chinese Amazons. We were hungry from our journey, and low on rations. The Amazons had a feast ready, but it was reserved for the champion of a martial arts tournament that they were holding. Ranma, even in his hunger, took on the challenge and bested their champion so that we could eat."
"Oh my." Kasumi sounded genuinely surprised. "Didn't that make the defeated champion angry?"
Genma carefully avoided answering the question by leading into another story. "Another time, before Jusenkyo , we came across a traveler and his daughter. He cooked the best okonomiyaki I've ever tasted, but he was also well versed in the martial arts. Ranma and I challenged him and his daughter for a meal, and won." Genma avoided mentioning anything about the second marriage arrangement, or running off with the cart and leaving Ukyo behind.
"Glad to hear that your training trip always went so well," Nabiki deadpanned. "I can see why Ranma is such a happy guy."
"Not everything went as well as planned," Genma conceded. "My son's training didn't always go smoothly, to be sure. Before we left for China, I felt my son could get to the next level of training if I could get him to understand the neko-ken."
Soun, not realizing that he was still holding a Go piece through Genma’s stories, dropped the tile on the floor. "You tried to teach Ranma the dreaded cat-fu?"
"It wasn't easy..." Genma related yet another tale. This time, he told most everything that happened. The preparation of the chamber of hungry cats. Wrapping his son in sausage, or fish, or other meats. Placing his son in the chamber. Hoping that while attempting to defend himself from the large number of attackers, his son would learn how to draw on the feral fighting instincts of a cat. The repeated failures, including the last attempt ending in a psychotic episode where Ranma actually believed he was a cat. "…Only one of our neighbors, a gently old lady, was able to coax him down from the tree and bring him out of his state."
The room was quiet when he finished. The crickets could be heard chirping outside. Kasumi's folded apron dropped out of her hands, and she managed to squeak out, "Oh my."
A week had gone by, and Nobu's was now one of the busiest restaurants on the street. Ukyo's cooking was the talk of the town, and Nobu's regular customers were more than happy to spread the word for their old friend. Nobu himself seemed to be enjoying a kind of second wind. Not being tied down behind the counter all the time changed his spirits for the better. The fact that Ranma now regularly bussed tables and cleaned dishes made all three of them feel better.
That Sunday, exactly one week after Ukyo started working at Nobu's, the dinner rush had almost escalated into a big party. A friend had brought a portable stereo which was pouring out cheerful music. Ukyo spun and flipped the okonomiyaki, making decorative designs with the toppings. Nobu bounced from the register to the tables, smiling and joking with everyone. Ranma still avoided talking to anyone, but Ukyo caught her tapping dishes to the beat of the music more than once.
Ranma was clearing another table when a young man walked up to her. He had his hands in his pockets as he shyly spoke, "Um, excuse me, miss......?"
Ranma looked up at the man and blinked. "Uh, Ranma."
Now the man blinked, but he was not discouraged. "I was wondering if you might want to ...um ...see a movie ...when you get off work."
Ranma nearly dropped her armful of dishes. She stood there a few moments, mouth and eyes wide open. "You're ...asking me on a ...date?"
"Yeah, ...if that's all right."
Ranma took a couple of deep breaths before answering, "I'm .....uh... sorry, but that's not possible."
"It's not? Why is-"
"I just can't, I'm sorry." Ranma bowed her head, looking down at the dishes in her arms.
The young man put his finger under her chin and gently lifted her head. He could see that something he said had made her upset. "Don't worry about it, I'll live, I guess." He flashed her a smile and walked away.
Ranma carried the dishes towards the back room. Ukyo put her spatula down for a moment and met Ranma at the end of the counter. "Did he just ask you out?"
"Yeah, I just got asked out by a guy." Ranma wrinkled her nose at the thought.
"Well, it's a good thing you didn't get yourself stuck as a guy, then," Ukyo laughed. "You'd be fighting all the gals off right and left." *As long as you weren't pushing me off as well,* she added to herself. Ranma stared at Ukyo as if he had just realized something. Ukyo looked back at his expression. "What?"
"Um, nothing." Ranma threw Ukyo a grin before going back to the sink to unload the dishes.
As Ranma was walking out, an older song started to play. The song was lighthearted and happy. Nobu caught Ranma's eye and walked up to her. "I would be so grateful if you would have this dance with me."
Ranma gaped again before stammering, "I....can't.....dance."
Nobu looked thoughtfully at her for a moment before turning to Ukyo. "Would you have this dance?"
Ukyo looked at Ranma, who was suddenly very relieved, before finishing an order and stepping around the counter. "I'd love to."
A couple of customers stood up and moved their tables at Nobu's request to make a small clearing as the three walked up. Ranma leaned against one of the tables as the other two began to hop and prance, hand in hand. The customers quickly began clapping in time with the music, and Ranma found herself clapping as well. Ukyo beamed happiness to Ranma as she turned with Nobu. Ranma smiled back, and Ukyo began to laugh. The song ended, seemingly too soon, but Ukyo was winded as she stepped up to Ranma. The both of them with large smiles for each other. Nobu shuffled up to the pair, breathing heavily. "Whoooeee (puff). I haven't (puff) had that much (puff) fun (puff) since (puff) my daughter's (puff) wedding."
Ranma giggled despite herself and put her hand on Nobu's shoulder. "So, where does your daughter live now?"
Nobu's smile faded. "Ah, (puff, puff) she doesn't (puff) come around (puff) much anymore." He bent over, putting his hands on his knees and tried to control his breathing. "They moved (puff) away (puff).....(puff)....(puff)...." Nobu looked up at Ranma, his face suddenly pale. His expression made Ranma gasp. Ukyo merely blinked.
The sounds of the customers and the radio faded out of Ranma's mind as she noticed that Nobu was no longer puffing. She squeezed Nobu's shoulder gently. "N....Nobu?"
Nobu's eyes rolled up as he fell backwards. Both girls cried out, "Nobu!" in unison, getting the attention of everyone in the restaurant. Ukyo helped Ranma catch Nobu as he fell.
Ranma sat down on the floor and cradled Nobu's head in her lap. Tears blurred her vision as she shook his shoulders. "Nobu, don't you dare leave me!"
His eyes fluttered, his voice was raspy and weak, but Ranma could hear over the suddenly silent crowd, "Ranma, don't dwell on things that bother you. Enjoy the good things you have." Ukyo, kneeling beside the two, put a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Tell, Ukyo to read the letter Asagoro helped me write. It's in the top drawer of my desk." Nobu's voice sounded very tired, and his face was very calm, as if he was talking in his sleep. "I guess even too much success can be a bad thing, ne?"
As Nobu's last breath escaped, Ranma buried her head in his chest. Ukyo bent over the two, wrapping her arm around Ranma's shoulders. She could hear Ranma's muffled whimper, "No...not you too..."
Chapter 3: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, in the opposite direction.
"Ohayu, students. Settle down. I have a new student to introduce to you." Akane looked up as her teacher waved a dark-haired Ranma in from the doorway. He looked drained. Even though he was in boy-form, he didn't seem any taller than his girl-form. The teacher patted him on the back and continued, "He's lost a family member a few days ago, so I would like all of you to help him feel welcome here."
Akane raised her hand and stood when the teacher nodded at her. "If it's all right with you and Ranma, I'd like to sit next to him." She waved at the empty desk next to her.
"That's very nice of you, Akane," the teacher praised.
Ranma stared at her a moment before he slowly shuffled up to the desk. Akane looked at his face as he approached. She couldn't make out any emotions. Even his eyes had no expression. She held a hand out to him, "I'm very sorry about your father."
Ranma looked sharply at Akane, a couple of expressions flickered across his face, too quickly for her to make them out. He turned back to the teacher, who nodded back. After a quiet moment, Ranma walked across the room to an empty desk by the window and sat down, looking out at a nearby tree. Akane sighed and sat back down.
As the teacher went through the lesson, Akane kept looking over at Ranma. He held the same, expressionless gaze at the tree the whole time. For a short while, she stared at him to see if he was even blinking at all.
At lunch, Ranma picked at bits of his food under the shade of a tree. Akane sat down beside him and leaned against the trunk. "I think I'm beginning to understand why you don't like your father," she started. He continued to poke at a piece of pork in his rice. "He's told us a bit about your training. I've never heard of anyone putting a student through some of the things your father has done to you."
"He's not my father. I don't have a father."
"I can imagine how you feel."
Ranma didn't sound like he believed her. "Can you?"
"When I lost my mother, I was angry for a while that she had left me."
Ranma sighed before snatching a small piece of pork to his mouth. "I don't know my mother."
Akane was unsure what to say about this when a shout startled both of them. "SAOTOME RANMA, PREPARE TO DIE!"
Akane jumped up and saw a young man. He had dark pants that were tied off at the bottom, a yellow shirt, and a yellow bandanna with black squares. He was also brandishing a red umbrella as if it were a weapon. She looked back to Ranma, who continued to pick at the pork in his lunch. She turned back to the newcomer, asking, "Who are you?"
"I, Hibiki Ryoga, have come to seek revenge against this fiend for the anguish he has caused me!"
There was a pregnant silence as Akane and Ryoga watched Ranma quietly poke at his rice. Ryoga swung his umbrella back, yelling a kiai as he swung his umbrella with full force. The umbrella impacted with the trunk of the tree, centimeters above Ranma's head. The trunk sustained a sizable notch where the umbrella hit it. Ryoga pulled his weapon back. The tree creaked and groaned in the wind before finally falling over, snapping and splintering at the notch. Ranma put a few grains of rice in his mouth and slowly chewed. Ryoga stared at Ranma for a minute. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked. Ryoga shouldered his umbrella and looked over to Akane. "What's with mute-boy here?"
"He's been through a lot lately," Akane quietly explained. "He's recently disowned his father and run away from home."
"That is nothing compared to the horrors that I've been through!" Ryoga impatiently tapped his finger on his umbrella.
"Just what have you been through, Ryoga?" Ranma quietly asked, still not looking up. "Some silly bread-feud?"
"You accepted my challenge," Ryoga accused, "and then never showed up at our agreed spot."
"I was there," Ranma looked up at Ryoga. "I waited for three days for you to show."
"And when I arrived on the fourth day, you were gone."
"Wait just a minute," Akane stepped between the two, holding a hand up to Ryoga. "It took you four days to get to this challenge spot?! Where was it?"
Ryoga nervously kicked at a few blades of grass. "Well, it was an abandoned lot beside my house."
Akane was incredulous. "It took you four days to get to the lot next door?!?"
Ryoga nudged an innocent rock with the tow of his shoe. "It took me four days to find it."
Ranma snickered. "You never did have the best sense of direction."
"Saotome!" Ryoga sneered, pulling his umbrella back into a ready stance. "Prepare to def-"
Akane stepped up to Ryoga, thoughtfully putting a hand on his shoulder. "Just a minute, I don't understand something here. You got yourself lost on the way to meet your challenge, and you blame Ranma for it? Ranma didn't get lost. He didn't break his promise."
Ryoga was undaunted. "Yes, but I followed him to try to regain my honor. The horrors that I went through while I did were just......just...."
"Let me guess, you kept getting lost and into trouble."
"Well, um, yeah, and it's all Ranma's fault!"
"It's Ranma's fault you kept getting lost."
"Well, um, not exactly."
"So," Akane attempted her older sister's deadpan, "what you're saying is that you're trying to kill Ranma because he caused you grief over some bread and what else?"
Ryoga's mouth opened and closed a few times, and no sound was coming out, but he was making a good impression of a goldfish. Finally, he stammered, "I....he....well.... I wouldn't have followed him if he hadn't made me angry enough to challenge him."
Ranma plopped his lunch to the ground and stood up. "Fine then," he said, dropping into a ready stance. "Let's get your silly challenge out of the way here and now."
Ryoga pushed Akane to one side, hefting his umbrella again, "Fine by me, Saotome." Ryoga swung his umbrella back and made a strike at Ranma's head, but Ranma wasn't there. Ryoga looked up to see Ranma land on his umbrella.
"By the way," Ranma said, "I am no longer a Saotome."
"What?" Ryoga said. He didn't get an answer, as Ranma's foot connected with his head, knocking him out. Ranma landed easily as Ryoga's umbrella fell to the ground beside the unconscious lost boy.
Akane stood there, astonished. Finally, she managed to gasp, "Wow, you were so fast." She met Ranma's eyes. "You're really good." Ranma returned the stare for a moment before flashing a small grin and walking back to his lunch.
Ukyo was preparing the shop for the dinner rush by herself when Akane and Ranma stepped inside. Ranma walked up to the counter and sat down, looking over at Ukyo. "How was the lunch rush?"
Ukyo took her eyes off Akane to smile at Ranma. "Not bad. Some of the customers were kind enough to clear their own tables." She looked back to Akane. "There's a lot of nice people in this town." Akane shifted uneasily, but bit her tongue. Ukyo looked back to Ranma again. "How was school?"
"You were right," Ranma admitted. "It was better to get out of here and do something."
"Ranma accepted a challenge fight and beat the guy," Akane offered.
"It was a fluke." Ranma dismissed the praise with a wave of his hand. "He was confused and I caught him off guard."
"Well." Ukyo grabbed Ranma's hands over the counter. "At least you're definitely feeling better, then." Ranma held her hands, nodding in silent agreement. "Ran-chan," Ukyo asked as she let his hands go. "Could you go in the back for me and clean up the dishes from lunch? We're going to need them for the dinner rush."
"No problem." Ranma stood up, swinging his backpack under the counter. He stopped at the doorway to the back room and turned to face Akane. Akane had stood up to leave, but hesitated when Ranma turned around.
"I... uh... Thank you,... for trying to stand up for me."
Ranma went into the back room and started cleaning the dishes. Akane picked up her pack and took a step towards the door. Ukyo put her towel down to talk, "Excuse me, Akane?"
Akane stopped, unsure what Ukyo wanted. "Um, yes...?"
"Ukyo. I wanted to thank you for helping Ranma out at school. He really needs a good friend to stick up for him."
"I felt I owed it to him." Akane twisted the strap on her pack, not looking at Ukyo. "You see, our fathers have arranged Ranma to marry one of us - me and my sisters. We took it kind of hard. Ranma seemed to have a harder time than we did. Not that I helped."
"Wait a minute, Ranma is engaged to one of you?"
"Actually, I think, to me, since we're about the same age."
"That can't be right."
Akane's anger flared. "What do you mean, 'That can't be right'?! You don't think I know my own father?"
"No, that's not what I mean. Mr. Saotome promised MY father that Ranma and I would be married. He got my father's yatai as a dowry."
Akane's anger disappeared to be replaced with shocked recognition. "A cart? An okonomiyaki cart?"
"That's right, sister. What's it to you?"
"Well, it's funny. Mr. Saotome told us about your father and the yatai, but he said he fought your father for food. He didn't mention an engagement."
Ukyo became thoughtful. "Well, that explains a little of why Ranma is so angry at his father."
"Um..." Akane bit her lip a moment before continuing, "Ukyo, you like Ranma, don't you."
Ukyo nodded. "What about you?"
"I... I dunno. I misjudged him before." Akane looked sorry for a moment before brightening. "He is definitely cute when he smiles."
Ukyo regarded Akane. "Well, when the time comes, I think we should give him a chance to say... how he feels."
Akane nodded before hefting her pack to her shoulder and walking out.
"Saotome!" Soun's voice rang through the Tendo home. "Kasumi, have you seen Mr. Saotome?"
Kasumi shook her head, noticing how her father addressed his old friend. "No, father, not since dinner."
"If you see him, let him know I wish to speak with him."
"Hai." Kasumi bowed her head before going back into the kitchen.
Soun stepped out of the house to look in the dojo when he saw a wet panda bear sitting next to the koi pond. If he didn't know better, he would have thought the panda was trying to whistle casually. "Saotome," Soun addressed the panda. "I will speak with you at my table." Soun walked back into the house without looking back. The panda sighed before getting up and shuffling into the house.
As he stepped into the room, a hand appeared over him with a kettle of boiling water. The hand tipped the kettle to pour the water over the panda. "Yeow!" Genma yelled. "It needn't be THAT hot!"
Soun, without a word, lowered the kettle and placed it in the center of the table before sitting down on the far side. Genma sat down opposite.
Soun silently regarded his old friend before speaking, "Why did you put your son through the neko-ken?"
Genma relaxed a little. "He is a martial artist. I was trying to help him reach the next level-"
"What else happened at the Chinese Amazon village?"
"What? Nothing, we-"
"Why did you promise your son to Ukyo after you had already promised him to one of my daughters?"
"I...... they.....we were starving, " he stammered. "That cart fed us for days."
"Why did you leave Ukyo after accepting the cart?"
"Ranma said he liked okonomiyaki better than his friend."
"You abandoned your future daughter-in-law because of the feelings of a starving, young boy?"
Genma fell silent, mouth open.
Soun closed his eyes. "I cannot tell you how to raise your own son, though I must say that I am thoroughly depressed at the thought that any father can treat his own child in such manner." Soun gave Genma a chance to answer. Genma remained silent. Soun opened his eyes. "You engaged your son to another after you had promised to join our families for the sake of the Anything Goes School." Again, Genma offered silence. "You have broken your promise to me and my family. I do not know who you are. You are not my friend. Do not place a shadow over my home with your presence again." Soun turned to face away from Genma.
From the top of the stairs, Akane watched Genma stand up and bow deeply to Soun, his voice cracking, "I only hope to find my honor, and your forgiveness, my old friend." Genma then quietly walked out of the Tendo home.
Akane failed to suppress a smile of hope.
Akane could hardly wait for lunch the next day. She thought she saw Ranma actually look at her during class. At least he wasn't staring out the window anymore. When lunch finally came, she quickly ran to the tree stump where she and Ranma had lunch the day before. Ranma wasn't there, but he was sitting under the shade of another tree nearby. She noticed with a frown that his lunch this time was a miniature okonomiyaki. She didn't notice that he had stopped eating to watch her approach, so she was a little startled when he greeted her, "Hi, Akane."
"Hi, Ranma." she smiled warmly. "Mind if I sit with you during lunch?"
Akane sat down beside him, noticing that the toppings of his lunch were arranged in some sort of decorative fashion. It looked as though the noodles had actually been placed to have a message, but all Akane could make out was ".....nma".
"Ukyo... she, ah... made a nice lunch there for you, ne?" Akane added to herself, *I'm such a chicken.*
"Yeah, she's helped me a lot since I came to Nerima."
"You.....must really.....like her." *That's better.*
Ranma nodded. "She's been a really good friend."
Akane let her breath go and tapped on her unopened lunch box. "Ranma?"
"Father.....Mr. Saotome was banished from our home last night. Father refuses to speak to him anymore."
Ranma stopped eating and looked at Akane for the second time. "Why?"
"Because we found out about Ukyo and the yatai. Because he broke your engagement with me. He broke his promise to my father." Ranma stopped eating to think about what he just heard. "You know, " Akane offered, "you are still welcome in our home."
Ranma put his lunch down. "Akane, Ukyo saved my life. She's been there for me more than once. She needs help with the restaurant she's inherited." Akane blinked back tears as Ranma turned to face her. "I can't stay with your family .....because I can't leave Ukyo."
"I understand," Akane finally sniffled, before standing up and walking away. She spied a trash can through her tears and tossed her unopened lunch box in it as she walked past.
Chapter 4: Attempts to prove Murphy's Law will always fail.
Ukyo hummed to herself as she prepared a special dinner for Ranma. The song reminded her of her father. She expected Ranma to be back from school in a few minutes, and the okonomiyaki, complete with the message "S'ki da, Ran-chan", was going to be perfect and fresh off the grill for him. Just as she was lifting the food off the grill with her spatula, Ranma walked through the door. He smiled as he walked over and sat down on a barstool. "Hi there, U-chan."
"Hi there, Ran-chan." Ukyo smiled as she slid the dish in front of him. "A special dinner I made just for you."
Ranma read the message on his dinner and his smile disappeared. "Um, Ukyo?"
"Is something wrong?" Ukyo tried not to frown, but there was a nagging feeling in the back of her mind that told her she didn't want to hear what he had to say.
"We need to talk...."
Kasumi walked upstairs to tell Akane that dinner was ready. She walked up to the door, smiling a little at the little yellow wooden duck bearing the English letters "Akane". She could hear sobbing sounds coming from inside. She paused for a second, took a deep breath, and knocked. Between sniffles and sobs, she heard Akane mumble, "Come in." Kasumi slid the door open to see her sister laying on her stomach in her bed. Her hair was a little mussed, and her eyes looked as though she had been crying nearly all day. Kasumi fought back a tear at the sight of her sister. She quietly stepped across the room and sat down beside Akane. She began to gently rub her little sister's back.
"Oh, oneechan," Akane sobbed. "I blew it."
"Is he....still angry about that night?" Kasumi asked quietly.
"I don't think so. He's been nice to me sometimes at school."
"So, he doesn't hate you."
"No, he smiled at me." Akane rolled over and pulled her knees up. She wrapped her arms around her legs and put her chin on her knees. Kasumi shifted closer to her sister, putting her hands back on Akane's shoulders. Akane looked at Kasumi before muttering, "I told him about Mr. Saotome."
Kasumi silently continued massaging her shoulders, letting Akane tell her at her own pace. Akane took a deep breath. "I told him he's welcome here, but he told me that... he can't leave ....Ukyo." Akane buried her face in her arms, shoulders heaving again.
Kasumi waited until Akane calmed down again. "Akane." She waited a second for her sister to look up. "Do you remember Mom being in the hospital?"
Akane stared into space for a moment before shaking her head.
Kasumi nodded. "You were pretty young. I remember you kept asking when she would come home."
Akane nodded thoughtfully. "I remember that."
"Even after she passed, you were still asking when she would be back."
"I remember not understanding what had happened. Then there was some book I read at school or something that made things click."
Kasumi smiled. "I remember you coming home from school that day. I was in the kitchen, feeling lonely and sorry for myself. I was angry that I was going to be stuck doing chores in the house all the time instead of going to school and meeting boys." Akane snorted a little. Kasumi smiled again, then continued, "I wasn't even really making dinner. I just threw some stuff around, wondering what I was going to do with myself."
Akane smiled a little. "I remember wondering why the kitchen was such a mess."
"You walked in and asked if I needed help making dinner. At first, I thought you were asking me to teach you some household duties so you could be a better wife." Kasumi looked at Akane apologetically. "I just laughed at you."
Akane's brow gently furrowed. "I don't remember that."
"I asked you why you wanted to bother, and you said that Father and Nabiki were probably getting hungry." Kasumi put her hands on Akane's arms. "It was then I realized you just wanted to help your family feel better." Kasumi paused again, taking a deep breath. "That was when I told myself that my family's happiness and well being was more important to me than anything else. I decided that taking care of you and Nabiki and Father was the greatest honor that I could wish for."
Akane let go of her legs, and held Kasumi's hands. "I'm glad that something good came out of that disaster."
Kasumi chuckled quietly a little. "I remember Nabiki saying something sarcastic about you trying to kill the rest of us off. I was afraid that that remark was going to break your heart. Then I saw you laughing at the joke."
"I cried the next few days. I missed mom so much."
"We all did, but you had the strength that night to laugh at dinner, and after you cried you had the strength to heal your heart and move on. What I'm trying to say is that no matter what happens between you and Ranma, I know that you are strong enough to be able to bounce back."
Akane smiled, and hugged Kasumi, whispering, "Thanks, mom."
Ukyo had mechanically handled the dinner rush. A few concerned customers said they hoped that she would feel better. Ranma bussed tables quietly, or stayed in the back room washing dishes. As the last customer left, Ukyo flipped the "closed" sign and locked the door. Ranma stepped out from the back room to clear more tables. "Ranma," Ukyo's voice cracked, making him stop in his tracks. "This is driving my crazy. We can finish up here in the morning. I need to know what you need to tell me."
Ranma silently nodded and followed her upstairs to the master bedroom. Ukyo sat down on the edge of her bed, and patted beside her. Ranma hesitated. He held up his finger, saying "Just a minute," before going back downstairs for a moment. Ukyo heard a muffled splash, and was even more curious when Ranma came back in to her bedroom as a girl.
She just stood in the doorway for a moment before looking up at Ukyo. "For some reason, I find it easier to talk about mushy stuff when I'm a girl. I hope it isn't too weird for you." Ukyo quietly shook her head, and Ranma stepped over and sat down on the floor.
Ranma sat down cross-legged and grabbed her ankles. She looked down at her hands for a few seconds, gathering her thoughts. She looked up to Ukyo and spoke quietly, "One thing I learned from the old man on our training trips, something other than martial arts, is that if you have something you want to deal with regarding someone, you take care of it while you can. You never know when you'll be leaving, or they'll be leaving." Ranma sighed. "I was reminded of that again last week." Ukyo nodded, shedding a silent tear for Nobu.
Ranma took a deep breath. "I want to tell you how I feel about you." Ukyo wiped the tear from her eye and nodded again. Ranma looked up. "You saved my life, I'll never forget that. You've been there for me several times, and I can only hope to be there for you sometimes as well." Ranma looked away to the wall before continuing. "I....I...remember meeting you at your father's cart. I thought you were a boy. We became such easy friends, I didn't give it a second thought. Even when you found me on the bridge, I remembered you as a boy."
Ranma looked back at Ukyo and laughed a little. "I must have really been out of it. It didn't click to me that you were a girl until we were giggling about that boy asking me for a date last week. Later, I was angry with you because I felt you had been lying to me about who you were." Ranma swallowed hard before speaking again. "Then, I realized that that was how people must have felt when they found out about my curse. I'd try to hide it from them, afraid of what they might think. And then they'd find out and they'd be in shock, and they never looked at me the same way again. But you just accepted me, as I was. You helped me as if I was part of your family." Ranma got up on her knees and put her hands on Ukyo's knees. "What I'm trying to say is that even back at your father's cart, you were honest and accepting and treating me like family. And I felt like you were part of my family.....like.......like a sister."
Ukyo closed her eyes, her face pale. Ranma closed her eyes as well. "I'm very sorry, Ukyo, but I can't love you as more than a sister." Ranma watched helplessly as Ukyo took a deep breath and let out a shuddering sigh. Suddenly, Ukyo's expression changed to confusion, but only for a moment, before it was replaced with a kind of peace.
Ukyo opened her eyes and smiled at Ranma. "When you said I was like family, I began to realize that that's how I've been feeling for you. I feel like you are already family. The whole engagement thing made me think that what I felt was to have you as a fiancé, a boyfriend." Ukyo put her hands on Ranma's. "I just realized that Mr. Saotome's disgrace means the engagement is no longer valid. Getting that out of my mind, I saw that I really see you as....a brother.....er....sister."
Ranma giggled for a moment, then the laughter of two little women rang out through the restaurant.
Akane slowly stepped through the door at Nobu's. The lunch rush had not yet begun to pick up. Ukyo looked up from her preparations and smiled cheerfully. "Konnichiwa, Akane. Ogenki desu ka?"
Akane noted Ukyo's happy mood and shuffled over to a nearby barstool. She stared down at the counter, almost mumbling, "I haven't seen or talked to Ranma much at school the past few days. I stopped by right after morning class to ask you how he was doing."
"He's been feeling much better," Ukyo chimed. "We had a little talk a couple of days ago. Now we're just a happy little okonomiyaki family."
"I see," Akane muttered. "Sorry to bother you."
Akane quickly went back to school. Ukyo allowed herself a few thoughtful moments before returning to pre-lunch preparations.
Akane slowly trudged down the sidewalk towards home. She hadn't eaten lunch when she got back to school. She ignored her stomach's muffled rumblings all through evening class. She almost didn't hear the shy voice behind her say, "Um....A.. Akane?"
She stopped and stared straight ahead for a few seconds, wondering whether to dare to recognize the voice. Slowly, she turned to see Ranma scratching the back of his head. "Ranma? What is it?"
"Well.... I wanted to ask ...you...something....."
"Well, I just wanted to see if.....you.... maybe wanted.....uh.....sometime........maybe we could.......ya' know.......um.......go see a movie....or something.....sometime?"
Akane's mouth hung open for a while, before she managed to get something out, "What about Ukyo?"
Ranma looked confused for a moment. "Ukyo? Oh, yeah...heh. She and I had a talk a bit ago. We're just good friends."
"She said you were family."
"Well, yeah. She's my new sister, but we're also good friends."
Akane stared, trying to understand what she was hearing, not sure whether to believe her ears.
"So, um, is it OK, then?"
Akane took a couple of deep breaths before closing her eyes. "Yes,..... yes, I'd love to!"
Ranma relaxed. , "Great. I gotta work for dinner rush tonight, but maybe after we can get some ice cream or watch a movie?"
"That would be just fine."
Ranma stood there, unsure what to do next. "Great...... yeah.....um," he held his elbow out, "walk you home?"
Akane gratefully took his arm, sniffing back a tear. "Sure."
"....Happy birthday to Ranma, happy birthday to you!" The song could be heard out on the street in front of the restaurant sporting a new sign "U-chan's".
Ranma smiled as he looked around the crowd. The Tendo sisters were giggling. A couple new friends from school were smiling and laughing. One of them was constantly looking over at Nabiki, who pretended not to notice. Some of the regular customers had stuck around after dinner to bring good tidings. Ukyo sat next to him with a hand on his shoulder. She was laughing at his expression of the okonomiyaki in front of him. The toppings formed a profile of Ranma's face, the seventeen candles outlining his hair, complete with ponytail.
"I'm a chef, not an artist," she giggled. "Now make a wish."
"I wish for...." Ranma closed his eyes for a moment. "....I'm not gunna tell ya'." He leaned forward and quickly blew. The flames and smoke went quickly out, and a couple of the candles fell over from the gust. Ranma grabbed a knife and began to cut slices.
Ukyo pulled a letter out from her pocket. She eyed it thoughtfully before speaking, "Um, Ranma? I got this letter this afternoon. It's from a Saotome Nodoka."
Ranma stopped cutting. "From Mom? Ukyo, could you serve out some slices so I can read it?"
Ukyo held the letter out. "No problem, ototosan."
Ranma opened the envelope and looked over the note inside before reading aloud: "My dearest Ranma, After my husband's return, I feared that we had lost our only son. I visited with the Tendos to see if I could find out more about what had happened during your trip. I was glad to hear that you have been taking good care of yourself lately. It makes me very proud that you have been able to overcome so much. My only wish is that someday you might forgive your father for his empty headed attempts to help you grow, and that you might forgive me for allowing him to take you away. We live quietly with the hope that someday we will have the honor to be able to call you 'son' again. All my love, Saotome Nodoka."
Akane stepped over and gave Ranma a hug from behind. Ranma put the letter down solemnly. He sighed and smiled at Ukyo and Akane.
Ukyo dropped her knife on to the table. "Oh drat! I forgot the ice cream!"
Ranma put a hand on her shoulder as he stood up. "No problem, I'll get it."
Akane watched for a moment as he headed to the back room. "Um, I think I'll give him a hand."
"K'mon, Ukyo," Nabiki whined. "We're starving."
"All right." Ukyo finished serving out the slices. It wasn't too long before she was slicing up second helpings. As she finished serving that out, she looked over towards the back room. "How long does it take for him to find a box of ice cream?"
She walked through the door to the back room, noticing first that the door to the freezer was closed. On the other side of the room, she found Ranma and Akane holding each other. Ranma had just whispered something, and they pecked each other a kiss on the lips. They smiled at each other before kissing again, this time a bit longer. Akane put her arms up around Ranma's neck, pulling him closer to kiss him a third time. This time, it was much longer, and Ukyo could see that their mouths were open. She waited a few seconds, then a few seconds more, then, just a little longer, before happily chiming, "Hey guys, there's got to be an easier way to get some desert around here!"
Ranma and Akane jumped. Ranma took a few breaths before smiling back to Ukyo. "Yeah, but this way works for me!"
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