By Andy Searls
Characters are creations of Rumiko Takahashi
Prologue - Opposites Attract
Ranma sighed as he moved the mouse and clicked the button. Slowly, the list appeared on the screen. The white noise of several fans filled the room, muting most of the other sounds the students made. A dropped book became a mere muted thump. The scribbling of a pencil was a faintest whisper. The incessant noise made the download seem to crawl. Ranma turned to Nabiki. "Are they always this slow?"
Nabiki looked over at Ranma's screen. "Not always, but the school connection isn't the fastest in the world. Are you finding anything?"
Ranma sighed again. "I dunno. I keep getting these lists, but they don't say much about where they go."
Nabiki rolled her chair to get a better look. "You're still just going through the Yahoo search?"
"Yeah, I guess. Even if I did find something, what do I do to check it out?"
"Just click on the underlined words. See where the pointer turns into a hand?"
"Yeah. Too bad there ain't no martial arts web surfing or somethin'. I'd be able to figure this out more quickly." He scrolled the list down and squinted at an entry. "What does three X's mean?"
Nabiki giggled. "That's a hentai / ecchi site. Is that what you're looking for? Jeez, Ranma, you think you'd be getting enough of that around here."
"I ain't done none of that stuff!"
"Don't tell me you don't like girls."
"That's not what I mean. What I meant was..." Ranma paused.
Nabiki looked at him, waiting for a few seconds. "Yes?"
Ranma blinked. "You're actually gonna listen to me?"
It was Nabiki's turn to blink. "Well, it sounded like you were going to explain."
"Well, it's just that every time I start to explain somethin', I get interrupted. Even when I can explain, nobody believes me anyway."
Nabiki folded her arms. "Well, I'm listening."
Ranma thought about a way to get his point across. "What's you favorite food?"
Nabiki leaned back in her chair. "That's easy, chocolate."
"What if you had a bunch of people trying to shove chocolate down your throat all the time."
"Wouldn't that be nice."
"Until you got sick."
"That'd take a while."
"If you had to eat a whole lotta chocolate every day, it wouldn't take long."
"So, what you're saying is that you don't like having girls all over you all the time. I know a lot of guys that would pay me to take your place."
"Maybe for a while, but you can't even talk to one of them without the other girls gettin' all angry. I don't mind fighting Kuno and Ryoga much, but I don't like to hit girls."
"Oh, having girls fight over you must be oh so terrible."
Ranma leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. "That's not how it is."
Nabiki leveled a predatory gaze at him. "Oh really. Tell me how it is, then."
Ranma thought a bit before answering. "Remember how Akane met P-Chan a couple a' days ago?"
"Well, you don't know the half of it..."
Chapter 1 - Discovery and Ignorance
Ranma was walking home from school. As usual, he followed Akane to the Tendo home from the top of the fence. Akane marched at her own pace, not even looking in the general direction of the fence. Ranma picked up his pace to catch up with Akane. "Yo, Akane, wait up."
Akane did not slow or turn, but yelled over her shoulder. "I have nothing to say to you, Ranma!"
Ranma jumped down from the fence, landing in front of Akane. "Will ya' just list-"
"No! You can just go home with that hussy for all I care!" Akane did not slow down, walking around Ranma without missing a step.
Ranma wrinkled his nose. "Walk with Kuno Kodachi? Are you nuts?!"
"Why not? She's pretty enough! She sure got your attention during lunch!"
"I didn't ask her ta-"
"Oh, Ranma, my darling!" Akane said, trying to imitate Kodachi's voice. "I am so glad to meet such an adorable man! Watch for me at the rhythmic gymnastics competition!"
"I don't even know what she's talkin'-"
"Why was she so familiar with you, Ranma?! She couldn't keep her hands off you!"
"But Akane, I-"
"Just leave me alone, you baka!" Akane ran off towards home. Ranma looked down the direction she had gone, sadly shaking his head.
"SAOTOME!" Without even looking, Ranma stepped out of Ryoga's strike. Pieces of sidewalk and rocks pelted the two young men as Ryoga's umbrella impacted with the ground.
Ranma sighed. "Jeez, Ryoga. I ain't a Saotome, and I don't wanna fight. Didn't you get enough when you beat me last month?"
Ryoga hefted his umbrella out of the crater. "Not after I heard what you did to Akane today!"
"What do you know about what happened at school?"
"Never mind how I know. How dare you hurt her feelings like that!"
Ranma folded his arms, ignoring Ryoga's threatening stance. "Why do you care about Akane? Are you jealous?"
Ryoga's face turned red. "Never mind how I feel about Akane! I've come to pay you back for hurting her!" Ryoga opened his umbrella and threw it at Ranma. Ranma dodged the umbrella and landed a kick in Ryoga's stomach. Ryoga fell over onto the ground. Ranma looked behind himself in time to dodge the umbrella as it circled back.
Ryoga got up as the umbrella landed beside him. "Your little kicks can't hurt me, remember?"
Ranma opened his mouth to reply when a splash of water landed on Ryoga. Beside him was a little old lady, who was splashing water onto the sidewalk. Ranma watched Ryoga disappear, his clothes and backpack falling to the ground. He knelt for a closer look, carefully avoiding the water splashes, as something began to rustle in the pile of yellow and black material. His eyes opened wide as a small, black piglet worked its way clear of the shirt and bweed angrily. The piglet wore a collar that was strikingly similar to the headband that Ryoga wore. Ranma chuckled and picked Ryoga up by the collar. "Spring of drowned piglet, ne?" The piglet squealed and shook its paws, trying to swing at Ranma's face. "Oh, you are SO dangerous as a pig." Ranma stood, backing away from the old woman. "Well, I'd stay and chat, but I've got an errand to run for Ukyo. I also gotta have a talk with Akane. Besides..." Ranma disdainfully dropped Ryoga back onto the pile of clothing. "...this little piggy shoulda' stayed home."
Ryoga shivered with anger as Ranma chuckled and walked away. He growled as only a little piglet could.
Ranma walked up the stairs at U-chan's, still thinking of the significance of Ryoga turning into a piglet. *I wonder what Ukyo would think about that?* he thought, opening the door to her room. He heard a gasp and looked up to see a partially clothed Ukyo. He squeaked out a "Gomen" and quickly shut the door. He could hear his heart thump as he went into his bedroom. *What was I thinking? I didn't even knock!*
A couple of minutes later, Ukyo knocked on his door. "Come in," Ranma said.
Ukyo opened the door, peeking in as Ranma hung his head. She stepped up to Ranma, holding his hands. "Ranma, don't worry about it, just knock next time."
Ranma looked down at his hands in hers and felt his face get warm. He pulled his hands away. "I don't know what I'm gonna do, Ukyo."
Ukyo put her hand on Ranma's shoulder, noticing that he blushed again at her touch. "Did something happen at school?"
Ranma nodded. "Akane got jealous again."
"What did you do?"
"I found this chick that was beating up on some of my classmates. I told her to leave them alone, and the next thing I know, we're fighting. She had these weird weapons, and she was pretty good with them, but she didn't have any speed."
Ukyo nodded. She couldn't think of anyone she knew who could even come close to Ranma's speed, even without his chestnuts on an open fire technique.
"I tried not to hurt her, but I threw one of her clubs back to her and it hit her on the knee. She fell down, and I kinda felt sorry for hitting her. I asked her if she was okay, and helped her stand up. The next thing I know, she's giving me this weird look. She glomps me and starts talking weird, like Kuno Tatewaki."
"Another girlfriend?" Ukyo folded her arms in mock anger. "Really Ranma, you need to get that ego back under control."
Ranma shuddered. "Ugh, this one was nuts."
Ukyo blinked. "Like how?"
"Like she's got this insane laugh. She calls herself the black petunia or something, and she spreads these stupid black flower petals and runs off."
"So, when did Akane come in?"
"Right when this Kodachi chick glomped me. I didn't even have time to push her away when Akane stepped up and slapped me."
Ukyo sighed. "Ranma, sugar, why are you hanging around someone who hits you without giving you a chance to say a thing?"
Ranma looked down at the floor. "Remember when she first found me here? She was shuffling like her feet hurt."
"Ranma, honey, talk sense."
Ranma looked up. "She's a really nice person, most of the time. She went through a lot to apologize to me. She can be really nice."
"She just has a short temper."
Ranma sighed. "I want to go talk to her."
"I just wanna chance to tell her what really happened. Maybe if she knew I wasn't interested in these other girls, she wouldn't get so jealous."
Ukyo shrugged. "Well, I'm not your mother, but I would appreciate it if you could be back in time to help me with the evening rush."
Ranma paused a moment at the front gate to the Tendo home. Now that Akane had some time to cool off, she would listen to him. He would tell her that he wanted nothing to do with Kodachi and her insta-love, especially if the rumors about her using drugs on her opponents were true. He shivered at the thought. All the martial arts in the world couldn't help you if you were unconscious or couldn't move. *Why do I always attract the crazy ones?* he thought for a moment. *Xian Pu was a bit off center, but she was just determined. But drugs and black flower petals? Kodachi is just plain nuts.* He opened the front gate and walked down the rock path to the front door.
Kasumi answered the door when he knocked. "Oh, Ranma. Come on in. Akane is in the tea room."
Ranma thanked Kasumi and walked down the hallway. As he neared the room, he could hear Akane's voice. She was speaking in calm, soothing tones. Feeling encouraged, Ranma stepped into the doorway to see Akane sitting at the table. She was holding a little black piglet up to her chest, feeding it rice from a bowl. She was so absorbed in the little animal that Ranma felt sheepish interrupting her. "Um, Akane."
Akane smiled up to him. "Oh, hi Ranma. Look what I found. I was shopping for food for Kasumi, and I nearly tripped over him. Isn't he cute?" She held the piglet up for Ranma to see.
The piglet shivered and bweed angrily. Ranma saw the yellow bandanna around the piglet's neck. The piglet snuggled up against Akane. "Ryoga!" Ranma yelled, snatching the piglet out of Akane's hug. "What the hell are you doing?!" The piglet writhed and swung its paws to get out of Ranma's grasp.
Akane stood up. "Hey, what are you doing to P-Chan?!"
Ranma blinked at Akane. "Who the heck is P-Chan? And why are you feeding Ryoga like that?"
Akane blinked. "Ryoga? Where is Ryoga?"
Ranma held the piglet at arm's length. "He's right here."
Akane blinked again. "P-Chan? Ranma, it's a little piglet. How can P-Chan be Ryoga?"
"Because he-OW!" P-Chan bit Ranma's hand. Ranma smacked the pig with his free hand, sending it to the floor.
"Ranma no baka!" Akane slapped Ranma across the face. "Don't pick on my little P-Chan!"
"He's not P-Chan, he's Ryo-ooof!" P-Chan leapt into Ranma's stomach, catching him off-guard. Ranma stepped back to keep his balance, hefting the piglet to throw it.
Akane grabbed the pig with one hand and punched Ranma with the other. "Don't you treat my P-Chan like that!"
Ranma flew out the door and landed in the pond. After a few seconds, an angry redhead slowly stood up. She glared back into the house. "Ok, fine. Get all snugly with Ryoga then. See if I care."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Ranma, but if Ryoga is half as smart as you, I'd feed him dinner anytime! Do you hear me, Ranma?!"
Ranma didn't listen. She marched straight out the front gate and headed home.
Akane gently picked P-Chan up. "Now what was he babbling about?" It almost looked like the piglet shrugged his shoulders.
"Wait a minute," Nabiki said, holding her hand on Ranma's shoulder. "You're telling me that Ryoga IS P-Chan?"
Ranma nodded. "He was in Jusenkyo. Spring of drowned piglet."
Nabiki leaned back in her chair. "This sets up some interesting possibilities. If you couldn't convince Akane that Ryoga is P-Chan..." Her voice trailed off, as yen signs seemed to float in her eyes. She blinked, realizing that Ranma was giving her a weird look. "Well, Ranma, I also have some information that you would be interested in knowing."
Nabiki put her hand out. "1000 yen."
Ranma blinked. "What?"
"I have information I know you're interested in. To find out what it is, you need 1000 yen."
"You're charging me to tell me something? You didn't charge me to help me with my assignment."
"That was because I was already here in the computer lab. Telling you this information is going out of my way, and it's going to cost you."
"What makes you think I care about what you know?"
"The price just went up to 2000 yen."
Ranma tried to study Nabiki's expressionless face, then growled as he dug into his backpack. He handed over a couple of bills. The money disappeared and Nabiki smiled. "P-Chan is not only Akane's new pet. She's been sleeping with him on her pillow the past couple nights."
Ranma banged his hand on the mouse. "Why did you tell me that?"
Nabiki smiled. "You paid me to."
"You.....you....you..." Ranma stammered. He looked around for something to throw. The mouse was tethered, there were no unused chairs handy, the monitor was... His jaw was still moving, but only whimpers were coming out.
Nabiki blinked, realizing that Ranma was looking at the computer screen. She leaned over and read the web page title aloud, "Jusenkyo FAQ Home Page." She read it again. The title was in English, but the text was in Chinese. The two of them stared at the display for several seconds before Nabiki managed to say, "How did you find this?" Ranma shrugged. Nabiki looked back to the monitor. "I guess you really can find anything on the Web."
Ranma clicked on the Japanese flag, and the page re-loaded with Japanese text. He scrolled down and stared at a link: "Are there any cures?". Nabiki silently watched him click on the link and read the next page that loaded.
After a few minutes of intense reading, Ranma turned to Nabiki. "Is there any way to get this stuff on paper?"
The old store clerk didn't look up at first when he heard the door open. He was content to allow the potential customer to browse the selection. Too much pressure never closed a sale. Instead, he casually pretended to straighten some of the antique clocks on the shelf behind the counter.
"Um, excuse me."
The clerk turned and looked over the counter at the young man. "May I help you?"
Ranma held up a piece of paper. "Yeah, I'm looking for this."
The clerk looked down at the paper. It was a computer printout. The portion Ranma pointed to was describing some sort of old formula. "Hmm, I don't know that much about that kind of thing. The cherry blossoms should be easy to come by. Not sure about this other stuff."
Ranma sighed. "Do you know anywhere I might be able to find out about the other stuff?"
The old man thought for a moment, chewing on the tip of a pencil. "You might try a place I've seen once or twice. It's called 'Little China Herbal Shop'. They have all sorts of powders and oils there."
"Great, where is it?"
"A couple blocks North from Shinjuku station. Across the street from the Pizza Hut."
Ranma called out over his shoulder as he ran out the store, "Thanks a lot!"
The old man chuckled, watching the young man run down the street. "Kids and fireworks."
The Pizza Hut was easy to find. The herbal shop was tucked into a small alcove, almost hidden in a dark alley. Ranma could smell the incense before he reached the door. He stopped for a moment in the doorway to give his eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness. He looked around at the shelves of baskets and bags, each nearly full with different colored powders and grains. Herbs hung from the ceiling. He almost couldn't pick out the old woman, whose clothes were the same rough brown cloth that many of the sacks and bags were made of. The old woman shuffled towards him. "What are you looking for, young man?"
Ranma silently held the paper for the woman to see. She read the paper silently, then looked back at him. "Do you know what this could do to you?"
Ranma nodded. "I hope so."
The woman studied him. "Why do you want to mess with dangerous things like this?"
"Ever heard of Jusenkyo?"
The woman shrugged. "I've heard that there are training grounds for martial artists there. Are you a martial artist?"
The woman sighed. "Well, I guess you know how to deal with danger then." She looked back down at the paper. "I think I might have most of this stuff around here." She picked up a woven basket and handed it to Ranma. "Follow me."
Ranma followed the old woman around the shop, trying to keep his patience. She would shuffle over to a shelf and pull a small bag out of a nook before filling it with a handful or two of some powder from one of the bags on the shelf. She would slowly tie each bag shut with short leather straps before handing it to Ranma. He noticed that most of the straps had labels attached. Finally, she shuffled over to a small table, handing Ranma's paper back to him. "I was able to find most of the ingredients on your recipe here. The cherry blossoms are in bloom, so you can get those just about anywhere for free."
Ranma looked at the basket of bags. There were more of them than he thought there would be. He didn't give a real close look to the different materials listed on the web page, but now he was beginning to wonder how much trouble this cure was going to be.
The woman spoke again. "There were a couple of things I know I don't have here. I don't think you can get them at any store. At least not here in Japan."
Ranma sighed. "Oh great, how am I going to get this to work then?"
"I didn't say you won't be able to get them. I just said you won't be able to buy them. This spell you plan to attempt is a potentially dangerous spell. Iím not going to pry into your private life to find out why you want to mess with this, but I will tell you this: What makes this spell work is the power of these two ingredients. This power isnít something that is easy to come by. If you can manage to get the two ingredients together, I am confident that you can handle whatever you plan to do with the spell."
The evening rush had already begun when Ranma arrived back at U-chanís. He apologized to Ukyo before running upstairs and putting his basket of goods on his bed. He had to pause and look at the basket for a moment, promising himself that he would get the rest of the pieces together as soon as he could. He let out a small sigh before going back downstairs to work.
After the customers left, Ukyo thankfully locked the door and hung the "closed" sign. She walked back to the counter, where Ranma was taking his shoes off. She sat down beside him and began to massage one of his feet. Ranma squirmed uncomfortably. "Um, Iím not sure you wanna do that."
Ukyo looked up to see Ranma blushing. "Why?"
"Uh, Ďcause my feet smell."
Ukyo shrugged. "Iíll wash my hands later." Not being able to think of another excuse, Ranma relaxed for a while. Ukyo put one foot down and started rubbing the other. "So, what kept you late today? You know it's starting to become a habit. When you went to talk to Akane, you were gone late."
"I'm sorry Ukyo, I've had a lot on my mind."
"Well, sugar, it's been tough for me, trying to get ready. The crowds have been getting bigger since the slump from our trip to China."
"China, oh yeah!" Ranma jumped, thankful for the distraction. "Man, I almost forgot. I found a cure for my curse!"
Ukyo stood up and hugged him. "A cure! Thatís great, honey!"
Ranma smiled and nodded. "I was late today because I was trying to get the stuff I need together. I still got a couple of things I need to get."
Ukyo sat down and picked up his foot again. "Ok, you're forgiven. So, when do we go?"
Ranma stared at Ukyo for a moment. "It won't be easy. This could take days, maybe even a week."
"I can close the store for a while."
"For a whole week? Ukyo, what are customers going to think if we keep closing down with no warning."
Ukyo's lower lip stuck out a bit. "You don't want me to go with you. Ranma, honey, I don't want you to leave me again."
"I didn't say that. I just don't think we have a choice. Ukyo, I really wanna get this cure, but I won't go if it means losing what we've got with this place. Weren't you just telling me the crowds are just starting to come back?"
Ukyo dropped Ranma's foot and put her hands on his shoulders. "You're right. Ranma, honey, I can handle this place. You go get rid of this curse."
Ranma smiled back. "Thanks, U-chan. I'll pack tonight and leave tomorrow morning."
Ukyo pulled Ranma closer, hugging him tightly. "You just take care of yourself."
Ranma blushed again, but hugged Ukyo back. "I will. And I'll be back as soon as I can to help you out with the store."
The two finished cleaning the store for the next day, leaving each other to their thoughts. Ranma mindlessly set the chairs on the tables, cleaned the floor, and washed the dishes. He smiled at Ukyo as they walked upstairs together. She gave his shoulder a squeeze before walking into her bedroom. Ranma went into his bedroom and began packing.
He quickly realized that he hadn't forgotten how to pack for a journey. *At least there's something I got outta those trips,* he thought as he organized the items in his pack for space. Once the pack was full, he looked around his room to see if there was something he forgot. He was surprised to notice that there was little in the room left to pack. He had spent most of his life on training trips, and he never exactly had a lot of money to be collecting souvenirs.
He stretched out on his futon. He wondered why he hadn't settled in more. *Am I that ready to take off again? Why? What am I afraid of here? Isn't U-chan and the store a good thing? Shouldn't I be hanging on to the things that seem to be working? Are challenges that important to me?* Ranma drifted into sleep, uneasy about the answers that came to him.
Chapter 2 - Small and Large
The next morning, Ranma rolled off the futon. Ukyo knocked on the door. Ranma opened the door, holding his pack beside him. Ukyo peeked inside the room. "Wow, Ranma. How long were you planning on being gone?"
Ranma looked around the empty room. The basket of ingredients looked small sitting in the corner by itself. Besides that and the futon, the room was bare. "I dunno. I hope not long."
Ukyo stepped into the middle of the room and looked around, chuckling. "You mind if I rent this out while you're gone?"
Ranma put his pack down. "I don't wanna be gone that long."
Ukyo looked at Ranma before walking over to him. She put her arms around his neck and pulled him close. She could feel his breath on her forehead as she leaned a bit to put her head on his shoulder. Ranma could feel himself blush yet again from being so close to Ukyo, but he put his arms around her and gently scratched her back. They hugged each other for a while before Ukyo stepped back. She reached up and teased a few strands of his hair. "I really don't want to have to run this place by myself. You take care of yourself so you can come back to me."
"I'll be back soon. I promise."
Ukyo wiped her eyes. "Look at me. I promised myself I wouldn't get all mushy."
Ranma put a hand on her shoulder and opened his mouth. There were a dozen things he wanted to say. None of them were things he was sure of. Instead of speaking, he smiled at her before picking his pack up again and silently walking downstairs.
Ranma walked quietly to the Shinkansen station, trying not to think too much about anything in particular. His training trips before would always start with a large amount of jabbering and babbling by the old man over how great the trip would be. Most of the time, the old fool was just vague enough that Ranma realized he had no idea of where they were going or what they should be training in. Occasionally, the trip would be for something specific, like training in Jusenkyo. Now, Ranma was on a journey to undo some of the damage that had been done.
The ticket at the Tokyo station was more expensive than he thought. He would have to be careful to keep enough for a trip back. The good news was that switching between the faster Hikari and the slower Kodama allowed him to get near the foot of Mt. Fuji in about an hour. He would have a good start and should be able to get back down to Gotemba before it got too cold. Even though it was spring, and the cherry blossoms were beginning to open, the temperatures up at altitude dropped quickly after sundown.
He reached Gotemba uneventfully and prepared himself for the hike. There was a gate at the beginning of the trail. A sign on the gate read "Closed until July 1." Ranma took a quick look around to make sure that no one was around before jumping over the gate and running along the trail.
After reaching a comfortable distance into the forest, he slowed down and enjoyed the scenery. There was a stillness in the air that Ranma hadn't known for some time. There was no wind to disturb the trees. Occasionally, he could hear some small animal scurry away as he approached. The air was crisp and cool. He soon found himself at the first resting spot, a small, simple lodge with basic amenities. He wasn't surprised to find the door locked. No one was expected for three months. He continued on, hiking past other lodges and rest stops, and enjoying the stillness and solitude.
It was near lunchtime when he reached a lodge that was at the tree line. There were spots of melting snow clinging to the shadows. From that point on the trail, he could see the snow line a few minutes walk away. He relaxed for a moment at the lodge, taking the opportunity to dig the instructions out of his pack. After reading the instructions again, he realized that he would have to be careful not to lose any landmarks in the snow. For a moment, he wondered if it might be better to wait until the trails were officially open and more snow had melted. He re-tied the flap on his pack put it back on, leaving the instructions in his hand. He didn't want to wait.
He didn't get too far into the snow before he realized that he should have gotten a set of boots. The snow stuck to his shoes and had begun to melt. He could feel the cold, but he had put plastic bags on under his shoes, so he wasn't getting wet. He wondered how long it would be before his feet got numb. *A martial artist is ready to give his life for the cause. Surely, some cold feet can't keep him back.* Ranma pushed the encouragement out of his head. It reminded him too much of the old man.
The next lodge still had some snow on the roof. A small breeze gave Ranma a shiver as he looked at the white blanket. The trail continued on at a decently steep climb. After looking down at the instructions for a moment, Ranma turned and headed across the slope. He trudged on for a few hundred meters before clearing a ridge and looking into the small gully that ran down the slope. He looked along the bottom of the gully and saw nothing but snow. He looked back at the instructions. A gust of wind gave him a chill. He walked straight across to the bottom of the gully, noticing that the ridge offered little protection from the wind. He looked at the instructions yet again before climbing straight up the gully, counting each step as he went.
Ukyo enjoyed the short walk to the park. She would only need an hour or so to open the restaurant and prepare it for the evening rush. Even so, she didn't have a lot of time. She reached the park, clutching an empty bento box in both hands. She stared at the cherry trees with breathless wonder. A little gust of wind swept through the park, knocking some of the blossoms loose. She watched the parents and children sitting under the trees, the dropping blossoms falling on them like light, fluffy snowflakes. The children were running between the trees, laughing and shrieking with joy. The parents watched the kids calmly, many of the smiling openly.
Ukyo stayed just outside the scene and sighed before walking up to the nearest tree. She opened the bento and held it beneath a low branch. When she tapped the branch, the entire tree dropped a blanket of blossoms. More of the blossoms landed on her than in the box.
"Are you trying to cover yourself?" a voice said from behind her.
Ukyo turned around and saw Akane. She was still in her school dress, and Ukyo thought that she must have just gotten out of school. "Akane, what brings you to the park?"
"It's not that far out of the way, so I like to stop by every once in a while on my way home and notice how the seasons change."
Ukyo blinked. "Notice how the seasons change?"
"Yeah." Akane reached up and plucked a small blossom. "In the summer, everything is so green. The kids are playing and everything seems bigger and fuller. In the fall, the trees turn the most beautiful colors and cover the ground with their leaves. In the winter, I can sometimes come to see a fresh new white blanket of snow. It looks so peaceful when there aren't any footprints in it, and when there are footprints, there's usually a few snow angels or snowmen decorating the park."
Ukyo stared at Akane. "You actually take the time to stop and look at all that?"
Akane nodded, smiling. She twirled the blossom in her hand.
"Wow, I've always been so busy with one thing or another that I rarely had the time to look at the scenery. When it snowed, I just thought about how cold it was going to be, and in the summer, I just thought about how hot it was." Ukyo looked back at the scene she had enjoyed moments before. "Well, I have to admit that the park sure looks nice right now."
Akane held the blossom up to Ukyo. "You should stop every once in a while and smell the blossoms."
Ukyo took the blossom and smiled back to Akane. She smelled the blossom. It made her wonder when the last time was that she smelled a flower. At the same time, she realized what Ranma must see in Akane.
Akane looked down at the bento. "So, what cha' doin'?"
Ukyo put the flower down in the box. "I'm gathering up cherry blossoms for Ranma."
Akane furrowed her brow. "For Ranma? He likes flowers?"
"No... I don't think so. He's trying to get some sort of cure together."
Akane blinked. "You mean he's found a cure for his curse?"
"He thinks so. We won't know for sure until he's gotten everything together and tries it out."
Akane took some time to allow the news to sink in. Each time she had seen Ranma deal with his curse, he was either very angry or more than a little sad. She could barely imagine how deeply he would want to get rid of it once and for all. "Wow." Finally, Akane came back to the present and looked back at Ukyo. "Hey, you want some help getting blossoms?"
Ukyo lifted the bento box, which had a small handful of flowers in it. "Yeah. You saw how well my first attempt worked. I just wish I had time to go back for a blanket."
"Well, you can put the box down here, and I'll sit down in front of it and hold my dress out. That way, all the flowers that land in front of me will fall into the box, too."
"Thank you," Ukyo said, putting the box down beneath one of the lower branches. Akane kneeled in front of the box and held her skirt out, forming a partial funnel leading into the box. Ukyo shook the branch, and blossoms were quickly covering Akane's head as well as falling down into the box. After a few more shakes, Akane swept up several handfuls of blossoms from the ground with her hand and put them into the box. It wasn't long before the box was full of blossoms. Akane put the lid back on, stood up, and handed the box to Ukyo.
Ukyo took the box and watched as Akane held her hands out like a ballerina and turned a few quick pirouettes. The blossoms spun off her head and rained down at her feet. Ukyo watched until Akane finished. Akane giggled. "I like doing that." She knocked some more blossoms down and twirled again, watching the petals fall off her head. Ukyo tried it, and thought it was fun.
Akane looked at the blanket of blossoms around the tree. She sighed and then looked up at Ukyo. "So, where's Ranma now?"
Ukyo looked off to the east. "He should be halfway up Mt. Fuji by now."
Akane looked in the same general direction, even though the mountain couldn't be seen. "Isn't it still closed to hikers?"
The snow in the gully was much deeper. Despite the fact that he was in full sunlight and partially sheltered from the wind, Ranma felt his legs get colder as he stepped in the snow nearly up to his knees. If it weren't for his martial arts training, he would have tired out long ago. When he had counted two hundred steps, he stopped and looked at the snow in front of him. It was as smooth as the snow he had been hiking over for the past hour, giving no clue as to what was underneath. He read over the instructions yet again, unsure of how to proceed. *It's gotta be around here somewhere.*
He took another step forward and sunk in past his knee. Another step and he was in the snow up to his hip. He quickly tucked the instructions into his pack and began to dig. His hands quickly chilled, but he didn't stop. He had dug a hole and still hadn't found the bottom of the drop-off. He paused a moment to brush the snow off and breathe warm air into his hands, noticing that the surface of the snow was now over his head. He took a few more deep breaths before resuming his digging. Suddenly, his hand fell through the snow into open air. He quickly opened the whole and peered inside. There was just enough light getting inside for him to see the floor of the cave.
He took his pack off and pushed it through the hole in front of him, using it to make the hole big enough for him to crawl through. He took a couple steps past the snow and looked into the blackness, allowing himself a few moments to warm up a bit in the shelter of the cave. He was also thankful that he hadn't gotten wet enough to change. He fumbled through his pack in the darkness and pulled out a flashlight. The light allowed Ranma to see a small spot on the rock wall in front of him. He pointed the light around and saw that the cave twisted down and to the right. He straightened up to stand and promptly banged his head. There wasn't room to sit up straight, let alone stand. Grumbling, he pushed his pack ahead of him and supporting himself with one hand, holding the flashlight in the other.
He followed the cave around the corner and stopped at what looked like a dead end. The pack was lightly wedged in at three sides. He pulled it back a little and the far end of the pack dropped. Firmly gripping one of the straps, Ranma let the pack fall down the hole to the length of his arm. He stretched his arm, but still could find no hint of the bottom of the hole. He pointed the flashlight down, but could only see the top of his pack.
Grumbling, Ranma backed up to the corner where he had more room, pulling his pack with him. When he reached the spot, he crawled over the pack and tried to turn around. He tucked his head and felt himself wedge in from his hips to his shoulders in the narrow passageway. He fought to keep control over the rising panic of being stuck. He exhaled and tucked just a bit further, allowing his shoulders to scrape past the rock. He pulled his feet behind him one at a time. Then he backed over to the hole, pulling his pack behind him. When he reached the hole, he carefully lowered his legs down and waved his feet around. He could feel the rock wall, but still no floor. He pulled the flashlight over to try to see down, but he couldn't turn enough to see past the corner of the ledge. As he pushed against the wall, a few rocks came loose from the small ledge and tumbled down the hole. He inched further down the hole, holding the pack as an anchor in one hand. He held his other arm out to brace against the wall with his elbow, flashlight still pointed down the hole. With each centimeter, he could see a bit further down the hole, but not further than his thighs. His feet still dangled against the wall, no floor in touch. He allowed himself down to his chest and wiggled his feet. Still nothing. He carefully pointed the flashlight down and pushed himself against the wall to make a larger gap to see if he could get a view of the floor.
He did. Not only were his feet were mere centimeters from the bottom, but he could see that the hole opened up to one side. He dropped the short distance, holding the pack above him as he ducked into the opening. The cave opened up into a small room, where he could nearly stand up without bending over. He walked over to the other side of the room, which stopped abruptly with a large, dark boulder. He didn't need to read the instructions again. This was obviously it. He half-heartedly pounded on the boulder. *Man, Ryoga's breaking point technique sure would be handy here.* The air felt hot and heavy. He hit the rock again, harder. The rock developed a small crack. Encouraged, he stepped back and kicked. The boulder shattered, spilling rocks onto the floor. A bad smelling steam started coming out of the wall where the boulder was. The stuff smelled like rotten eggs. He looked through the rocks. There was a hole in one of the larger rocks. He kneeled down and reached to poke his finger through the hole. His finger stopped. He looked closely and realized that the thing he was looking at was not a hole, but a VERY black rock. The other rocks were dark and jagged, but this rock was black and very smooth. He picked up the rock, noticing that it was almost egg-shaped. His breathing was becoming noticeably harder, and the smell was getting worse as the steam filled the small cavern.
He carefully packed the black rock in his pack and pushed it up the hole. He climbed up after it, and when he reached the top of the hole, he realized just how hard it was getting to breathe. He took a deep breath and felt a little dizzy. Pushing the pack ahead of him, he crawled the short distance back to the mouth of the cave. His flashlight shone against the snow, which completely blocked the opening. He clambered over the pack and began digging at the snow. He could feel himself hyperventilating. He dropped the flashlight and franticly began throwing the snow behind him. His vision began to narrow, and the blue of the snow turned to gray. He could feel his strength leaving him as his digging slowed. He fell forward onto the snow, feeling the cold against his cheek as he lost consciousness.
Akane was practicing in the dojo. She had broken a few bricks, but decided that she would do better by going through a few kata. It was refreshing for her to remember some of the more basic ones. She finished with a smile, and looked over at the dojo shrine. The dojo felt suddenly so dark and empty. The feeling of dread that suddenly came over her confused her. She ran into the house, nearly sliding around the corners and skidding to a stop in the kitchen. It was empty. The feeling became stronger. She ran into the tea room, which was also empty. She sprinted to the wash room, where she found Kasumi putting clothes into the washing machine. Kasumi took one look at Akane and dropped the clothes she was holding. "Akane, what's wrong?"
Akane looked around the wash room. "Where is everybody?"
"Father is soaking in the furo. I think Nabiki is in her room. Why, what's wrong?"
Akane relaxed and sighed. "Oh, nothing. I just got this weird feeling. I was scared that something had happened."
Kasumi stepped over to the bathroom door. "Father?"
Soun's voice drifted through the door. "Hmmm?"
"How is your bath?"
"Just fine, Kasumi. I'll let you know when I'm done soaking."
Akane said, "Thank you," loud enough for both of them to hear before walking back to the dojo.
Ukyo was comfortably in a cooking rhythm. Some of the customers had to wait while she served and waited on others, but no one complained. They seemed to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, and the food was definitely worth the wait. She walked back behind her counter for the umpteenth time and poured batter for the next order. She suddenly felt cold despite the heat coming from the cooking surface. She shivered and looked up. None of the other customers seemed to notice any temperature difference, and the doors were closed.
No, it wasn't a chill from a breeze. There was something else. Something was wrong. Something had happened. It... no, it wasn't him. It couldn't be him. She shook the thought out of her mind and tried to concentrate on cooking.
Ranma was floating. He was cold. Slowly, he became more aware of himself. His hands and feet were numb. His nose hurt. His face was wet. Her face was wet. She corrected herself once she realized she had changed. She lifted her head and opened her eyes, grunting with the effort. She could see her arm stretched out in front of her. Her hand was sticking out of the snow into open air. She looked around, and realized that her head was nearly clear of the snow as well. As she felt her strength coming back, she gratefully pushed herself the rest of the way out.
She sat at the opening, breathing deeply and gathering her strength. She stomped her feet and beat her hands on her shoulders. Painfully, she began to get feeling back into them. After she felt a bit better, she looked around. Her pack and flashlight were still in the cave. She crawled into the opening and saw the flashlight almost immediately. She picked it up out of the snow and looked around for her pack. There was a small mound of snow where she had been digging. She pushed some of the snow away, smelling the sulfur in the cave air again. The pack was lightly buried in snow, and she grabbed a corner and pulled it out of the cave just as she was getting dizzy again.
She shouldered the pack and stood up. Her footprints to the cave were faded, but still visible in the early evening sunlight. She gathered more strength and climbed up to the ridge. The wind was picking up, and the air was quickly growing colder. She had already spent too much time on the mountain. She looked across the slope to the shelter of the lodge, barely visible in the distance. She looked down the slope. It would be dark before she could hike back down below the snow line. The lodge was a better choice.
She was exhausted and shivering when she reached the lodge. She dropped her pack and rested. The wind was getting stronger, and the cold was biting at her hands and feet. Her nose and ears hurt. She took a few deep breaths and kicked the locked door open. Inside, she found a closet with emergency supplies, including fresh water and blankets. She unpacked her blanket and a dry change of clothes before closing the door and leaning her pack against it. She changed into the dry clothes, hanging the wet ones over the closet shelves. It wasn't long after she laid down on her blanket and piled blanket after blanket over herself that she began to feel warm again. Very soon after that, she fell asleep.
Ranma woke up, not remembering at first where she was. She stretched and looked over at her pack. *Oh yeah!* she thought. *I got one of the stones!* She opened the pack and looked for the dark stone. She felt the hard, cold sphere and pulled it out. In the shadows, the blackness of the stone was absolute. She opened the door for more light. There was no reflection in the stone, just the blackness. She picked up the flashlight and held it close to the stone. The flashlight revealed an only slightly less black, but very smooth surface. It felt and weighed like a normal, fist-sized rock, but the image of it made Ranma shiver. Or was that the cold? The morning sun had not yet warmed things up. Ranma decided to pack up and get down the mountain quickly. If she could get back down to Gotemba in the morning, there was a good chance she could sneak back into civilization without being noticed.
The hike downhill was easier and uneventful. She could see the town in the distance, and decided to leave the trail. She headed for a couple of buildings that were closer to the forest, giving her a better chance of walking into town before being seen. She walked between two of the buildings and nearly bumped into a police officer.
The man looked down his nose at Ranma. "Hey, little girl. Have you seen a young man with his hair in a pig-tail around here?"
Ranma silently shook her head.
The man held his hand out. "He's about this tall, black hair, wearing a Chinese outfit. Someone said they saw him heading up towards the trail."
"I'm sorry sir, I haven't seen him."
The officer grunted and walked away. For the first time she could remember, Ranma was thankful that she was in girl form.
Deciding that the Shinkansen was too expensive to take everywhere, Ranma decided to save her money and hike to the standard rail line. From there, she took the train to Shizuoka. Her stomach was grumbling loudly when she arrived, so she stopped by a yatai for some ramen. Once her stomach was happy, she hiked along the shore to a rocky peninsula.
She sat down and watched the waves gently splash the rocks for a while. She was glad the ocean was calm. The second stone would be much more dangerous to get to if the waves were any bigger. The tide also helped. She could see by the algae on the rocks that the peninsula would be completely under water at high tide. She took the instructions out of the pack, noticing that the paper was beginning to get worn. She was glad she wouldn't need it much longer. She read the description of the location of the second stone before putting the paper back into her pack. The shore on one side of the small peninsula was entirely made up of large boulders, creating an array of small caves and tide-pools. She found a suitable cave to hide her pack in and climbed down to the water.
There were a couple of small pools at the end of the peninsula, both sheltered from the waves by a pile of rocks that formed a pair of jagged circles. *Hey,* she thought. *That's not fair. The web page didn't say anything about there being more than one pool.* The two pools were about the same size, and contained similar amounts of kelp, starfish, and other aquatic life. Small fish darted in and out of the shadows of the still waters. She shrugged and carefully stepped into one of the pools. The water was cool enough to keep her in girl form. The fish disappeared into hiding places as she stepped around the pool, looking for a large cave. The rocks were slippery with algae, and she fell down a few times despite her excellent balance. She was more than a little frustrated when she marched out of the pool and yanked a strand of kelp out of her hair. *It's gotta be in this one,* she thought as she stepped into the second pool.
The second pool had a large, shadowy corner on the shore side. The boulder above it hid it from view until she stepped down to one side. *That must be it,* she thought, and took a deep breath before plunging underwater. She swam towards the corner, and could see that the corner was really the opening to a cave. She swam into the cave, using her hands to pull herself along the rock. The cave went straight in towards shore for a few meters before opening up into a small cavern, similar to the one in Mt. Fuji. Ranma could see that there was air at the top of the cavern, and surfaced to take a breath. She looked up, noticing that light fell through a small hole at the top of the cavern, nearly a meter above her head. She took another deep breath and felt around the walls of the cavern. She found nothing, and eventually had to come back up for air. There wasn't much to see above the water. She looked down at the surface and noticed a reflection of the hole in the water. As she tread water, the ripples from her movements made the image shimmer, but the round shape of the hole gave her an idea. She dove down to the bottom of the cave and dug around the loose rocks on the floor. She picked up the smoother rocks, looking for one about the same size as the black stone. Most of the rocks were jagged, but she still had to come up for air a couple times before she found a round one. She quickly brought it to the surface and looked at it. The stone was the same size as the first, and just as round, but instead of a deep black, it was a pure white. She smiled as she held the stone. She turned, and hit her head on the top of the cave.
She looked up and watched as she dropped away from the ceiling. The water level dropped, and then rose again, causing her to nearly hit her head again. She swam directly under the hole and looked up at the sky. The hole was way too small for her to fit through. She was going to have to swim back the way she came. Even as she thought of it, the water level in the cave rose a bit more, and she had to push against the ceiling to keep from hitting her head again. She took one last deep breath and dove for the underwater exit.
She quietly wished that she had brought a bag with her to keep the stone in. As it was, she had to hold it in one hand and pull herself along with the other. The surges of the ocean thrust her back, and then pulled her forward, making it very difficult to tell how much headway she was making. She finally found her way to the cave entrance and looked up at the surface of the water. It seemed to be much further away, but that was probably because she was running out of breath. She blew bubbles as she kicked for the surface. She reached the surface in time to gasp and sputter a bit. The tide pool wall was completely under water, and the waves were now breaking against the rocks with more force than before. She swam for a large boulder, still clutching the rock tightly in one hand. A wave picked her up and dropped her onto the rock, causing her to slide down the slippery surface as the water dropped away. A second wave pushed her back up, and she managed to hold on and climb to the top of the rock. She walked back to the small cave where she left her pack. She couldn't have waited much longer before the waves would have reached the cave and gotten her pack wet. She opened it up and looked at the two stones together for a moment before packing them away. Then, she shouldered her pack, climbed off the peninsula, and hiked back to Shizuoka.
Ukyo quietly cooked for her evening customers. She tried not to miss Ranma. After all, he had only been gone for two days. She had no idea how long it would be before he would come back. One of her regular customers seemed to notice her mood. "Did you lose another helper?" she asked. "I notice he hasn't been around this evening."
Ukyo sighed. "No, I didn't lose him. He's just on a journey. He'll be back."
"What about the kawaii red head? Did you ever track her down and convince her to come back?"
"Oh, I don't think we'll be seeing much of her."
"Why not? She seemed to enjoy it around here." The customer paused. "Was it because of the previous owner?"
Ukyo sighed again, remembering Nobu. "Yeah, I guess you could say that."
"That's too bad. She's so young. I hope she's doing okay."
"Yeah, I hope so, too."
"She's doing great!" Ranma said as she walked up to the counter.
Ukyo jumped. "Ranma, I didn't see you come in. When did you get back?"
Ranma sat down beside the customer and put her pack on the counter. "Just now. I ran all the way from the Shinkansen." She puffed a bit as if to make her point.
The customer stood up and put her hand on Ranma's shoulder. "I'm glad you came back. You make such a good waitress. I hope you can stay for a while this time."
Ranma looked up at the customer. "Um, I dunno. We'll just have to see."
"Well then," the customer said, patting Ranma's back, "matane." She smiled before turning and leaving.
Ranma and Ukyo looked around the shop. A couple of customers at a table, the last in the restaurant, smiled and walked out. Ukyo dropped her little spatula and jumped over the counter to hug Ranma. "I'm so glad you came back so soon!"
"I'm glad to be back, U-chan," Ranma replied, hugging Ukyo back. "Now, let's get the store closed up."
"Oh, no you don't" Ukyo stepped back, folding her arms. "You are going to go upstairs and unpack your room. I'm going to close the store, and then you are going to tell me what you've been up to these past couple days."
Ranma giggled. "Sure thing, oneesan."
Chapter 3 - Separate but Equal
The next morning was the first time ever that Ranma had woken up before Ukyo. He jumped out of bed and landed in front of his pack, nearly tripping on the kettle he had used to change back into a guy the night before. He opened the pack and removed the two stones. He removed the instructions, put the paper down, and put the stones on top of it. Having gotten them out of the way, he tore through his pack for a clean change of clothes. He had changed, put the paper and stones in the basket of other ingredients, and was walking down the stairs with them when he heard Ukyo's door open.
He stopped and looked back up the stairs. Ukyo poked her head out and yawned. "Just a minute, Ranma, and I'll help." Ranma waited impatiently for Ukyo to get dressed. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes as she stepped down to the main floor. She took the paper out of the basket that Ranma was holding and read through it. "Fire and brimstone! I hope you don't plan to try this in MY store!"
"Oh, no," Ranma replied. "I was gonna go to the empty lot down the street."
"Well, you're obviously in a hurry to get this over with, so let's go."
The two stepped out of the restaurant and Ukyo locked the door. As they walked down the street, she could hear Ranma singing quietly to himself. "Never gonna be a girl again. Never gonna be a girl again..."
She smiled and looked to see if she could see much of the sunrise. As they passed an alley, she saw someone walking towards them. "Hey, Ranma. Didn't you say that Ryoga always wore a yellow bandanna?"
Ranma stopped humming to himself. "Yeah, with black rectangles on it. Why?"
Ukyo stopped and pointed down the alley. "Because he's right there." Ryoga looked up, recognized Ranma, and started running towards them.
Ranma groaned. "Oh man, why did he have to find me now. Here, hold my basket a sec." He gave the basket of ingredients to Ukyo and watched as Ryoga came closer. Ranma stepped over to meet Ryoga in the middle of the street, a safe distance from Ukyo and the basket. "Hey, Ryoga, what's up?"
Ryoga hefted his umbrella threateningly at Ranma. "You tried to tell Akane about my curse! You've crossed me for the last time! Prepare to-"
"Wait a minute there, Ryoga. I got somethin' good for ya'."
Ryoga stared at Ranma a second. "What do you want?"
"You got me all wrong, Ryoga. I have something for you. Think of it as an offer of friendship."
Ryoga folded his arms. "An offer of friendship? From you? It'd better be good."
"Oh it is." Ranma smiled and patted Ryoga's shoulder. "How interested would you be in a cure?"
Ryoga's hands dropped to his sides. He had to close his open mouth enough to talk. "Don't you toy with me, Ranma!"
"I'm serious. That's what Ukyo has in that basket over there. The instructions say that more than one person can be cured at a time."
Ryoga looked over Ranma's shoulder at Ukyo and the basket. Ukyo smiled and waved. Ryoga looked back at Ranma. "If you are trying to pull some sort of joke, you'll be sorry."
"Hey, Ryoga, you got even when you beat me up at the school, in front of everyone, but it's still my fault that you're cursed. The least I can do is share the cure with ya'."
"How can I trust you?"
"Ryoga, I'll be right there with ya'. I wanna get cured too, ya' know."
Ryoga regarded the two for a few seconds before relaxing a bit. "Ok. I'll give you a chance, but any pranks and you'll regret it."
"Relax, Ryoga," Ranma laughed, patting Ryoga's shoulder again. "This is the best day of our lives."
The three finished the short walk to the empty lot. Ryoga walking behind the two in order to keep his eye on them. It wasn't because he didn't want to get lost. Really.
The lot was mostly clear, save for some grass in the corners. The middle portion was hard, dry dirt, and there were no trees or bushes nearby. The lot reached from the street they were walking along to the next street over, so there were only two buildings bordering it, one on either side. Both of them were only one story tall. A perfect spot for pyrotechnics.
Ukyo put the basket down in the middle of the lot. Ranma fished the instructions out of the basket and looked over the last couple of paragraphs. He began preparing the spell, stopping only to read. The cherry blossoms were spread onto the ground in a circle that was about a meter across. The first pouch of gray powder was poured around the border of the circle. He emptied the pouch drawing a curved line through the circle, forming two symmetrical teardrop shapes. A few bags of black powder filled one of the curved teardrops, and a few bags of white powder filled the other. Ukyo helped Ranma carefully spread both colors evenly around the shapes, being careful to stay inside the gray lines. Ranma placed the black stone in the widest part of the white teardrop, and the white stone in the widest part of the black teardrop, completing the symbol. Ranma noticed that there were two pouches of gray powder left and read the instructions to see what to do with them. He emptied them along the curved line that separated the black and white sides, making a small pile in the center of the circle. Ukyo leafed through the empty bags in the basket and held up a glass vial. Inside the vial was a colorless liquid and a small, off-white rock. She handed the vial to Ranma, who carefully removed the cap without spilling any of the liquid. He carefully put the vial in the pile of gray powder in the center of the circle and stepped back. "Um, Ukyo, you should go back to the corner and watch from behind the neighbor's wall." Ukyo sighed and walked to the corner that Ranma had pointed to.
Ryoga looked up from the spell symbol. "What now?"
Ranma kept his eyes on the vial. "The stuff in the vial should escape into the air fairly quickly. We need to be ready. Stand over there, and be ready to duck."
Ryoga stepped to the other side of the symbol from Ranma and watched. The liquid in the vial evaporated quickly, exposing the small rock to air in less than a minute. The part of the rock that poked out of the liquid immediately began smoking and sputtering, causing the remaining liquid to boil away. Once it was free of the liquid, the rock burned brightly and spewed smoke out of the vial. The heat of the reaction melted the vial, and the rock fell through into the gray powder, which also began to burn. The smoke from the gray powder did not billow up into the air, like the smoke from the rock. It hovered and built up, never getting more than a few meters from the symbol.
Ukyo watched as the gray smoke built up around the two young men. She could clearly see where the smoke reached some sort of barrier and stopped, forming a kind of solid hemisphere over the middle of the yard. She could see both Ranma and Ryoga cough a little, but they didn't seem frightened at all. Soon, black and white smoke began to pour out of the symbol. The two shades of smoke did not mix, but swirled and spun inside the gray hemisphere, forming complex, curvy patterns. The gray smoke seemed to disappear, being replaced by the white and black smoke. The smoke grew thicker, and she could no longer see Ranma or Ryoga inside. Soon, it grew so thick that it looked like a solid dome that someone had splashed black and white paint on, except that the patterns were constantly changing. A breeze sent a chill down her back, not because it was cold, but because the hemisphere of smoke was not affected by the wind. She could hear the hissing of the burning powders stop, and began to wonder how long she should wait before calling out to them. Several long seconds passed, and she couldn't hear anything coming from the smoke.
She took a step towards it and opened her mouth to say something when a flash from the center of the spell blinded her. The flash was accompanied by a loud bang. Stunned, she closed her eyes tightly, cupping her hands over her ears, as she fell to her knees. She waited until the spots stopped swirling before trying to open her eyes. Her ears were still ringing as she blinked through tears to look into the yard. "Ranma, are you alright?" She could hear nothing over the ringing, and she could barely see well enough to tell that the smoke was gone. After a few seconds of not hearing an answer, Ukyo began crying. "Ranma! Talk to me!" She sobbed as she crawled on her hands and knees towards the center of the yard. "Ranma!" She was relieved when she heard a groan in front of her. She crawled forward and found Ranma laying on his back. She put her hand on his chest. "Are you ok?"
Ranma groaned again. "Did someone get the number on that truck?"
"How do you feel?" Ukyo helped Ranma sit up.
Ranma rubbed his temples and looked at Ukyo. "Ugh, I've got a splittin' headache. How about you?"
"I can see a little now, and the ringing is beginning to go away."
Ranma sat up. "Ringing? What happened?"
"Didn't you see the flash? Or hear the bang?"
Ranma shook his head. "I must a' passed out."
Ukyo sighed. "Well, at least you're all right." She squinted around the yard. The morning sun still seemed unbearably bright. "I hope my eyes get better. Can you see Ryoga anywhere?" They were answered by a groan, but it didn't sound like Ryoga. Ranma looked at the symbol. The two spheres were split into four pieces each, like orange slices. The black sphere shards sat in a teardrop of black ashes, and the white sphere shards sat in a teardrop of white ashes. The core of each stone was a smaller sphere of the opposite color. Ranma looked beyond the remains of the spell and saw Ryoga roll over and sit up. Ranma and Ukyo head the groan again, but it definitely didn't come from Ryoga. Ukyo squinted around the yard. "Who's there?" Ranma turned around and looked at the figure that was laying down behind him. She looked so familiar, but it took him a moment to realize who he was looking at. The figure sat up, and Ukyo was able to tell that the person had red hair. Ukyo rubbed her eyes and tried to blink the spots away so she could get a better look. Ranma silently watched as the person held her temples.
She groaned again. "Oooh, did someone get the number of that truck?" She looked at her red hair. Her eyes went wide and she looked down at her chest. "Oh, no!" she moaned. "It didn't work! Ukyo, I'm-" She stopped short as she looked up and saw the two people in front of her. She rubbed her eyes again and looked at the young man. "Who are you?"
The young man finally found his voice. "I'm Ranma."
She shook her head vehemently. "No, you're not. I'm..." Her voice trailed off as she was suddenly unsure of herself.
Ukyo, still unable to see clearly and frustrated at not being able to figure things out by the conversation, yelled over the ringing in her ears. "Will somebody tell me what happened? Who are you?"
The redhead spoke so softly, Ukyo almost couldn't understand. "I'm Ranma."
Ukyo shook her head. This wasn't making any sense. "How can both of you be Ranma?"
She was answered by a squeal. Ranma and Ranma looked over at Ryoga, who was quietly trying to soothe an angry black piglet.
Akane knocked on the door to Nabiki's room. There was no answer. Akane knocked again, more loudly. There still was no answer. *That's funny,* she thought. *Kasumi was sure that Nabiki was in her room.* She leaned her head closer and could hear the muffled sounds of music. "Headphones," she grunted, and banged her fist on the door.
A moment later, Nabiki opened the door and looked out at Akane. "Yeah, what is it?"
"I'm looking for P-Chan. I haven't seen him since last night." Akane sighed. "I hope he hasn't wandered off."
"I'm sure he's around somewhere." Nabiki bit her lip for a second before saying more. "Do you remember the last time Ranma was here?"
"Yeah. He went nuts over P-Chan. He actually seemed to be jealous of the little piglet. Can you imagine?"
Nabiki nodded. "Oh yeah, I can imagine."
Akane looked at Nabiki wearily. "You know something, don't you?"
Nabiki put her hand on her chest. "Moi? Now what could I possibly know?"
"Come on, spill it. It's about Ranma and P-Chan, isn't it?"
Nabiki put a finger to her head. "Well, not exactly. It's kinda more about Ryoga and P-Chan."
Akane furrowed her brow. "Ranma was saying something about Ryoga...." Her voice trailed off as she tried to remember what he had said.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the front door. A few seconds later, Kasumi called up the stairs. "Akane, Ryoga is here to see you."
Nabiki watched Akane run down the hall and around the corner. She could hear her footsteps thump down the stairs. Akane's voice carried through the house. "Hi Ryoga. Oh, you found P-Chan! How wonderful!" Nabiki ran after her sister. She had to see this for herself.
Both Ranmas and Ukyo stepped into U-chan's and sat down at the counter. The boy-type Ranma put the basket with the stone shards down on the counter. The girl-type Ranma noticed that Ukyo needed a little help finding the barstool. "Are you sure you're okay, U-chan?" she said.
Ukyo nodded. "I feel ok. I want to know who both of you are and what happened."
"Well, gee, U-chan," the boy-type Ranma said. "I dunno where she came from, but I'm the original."
"Jeez, Mr. Professor," the girl-type Ranma replied. "From my point of view, the spell was a disaster. Instead of curing me, Iím now in the same cursed form I was trying to get rid of."
"Hey," the boy-type Ranma said. "At least it seemed to work fine for me."
The girl-type Ranma sighed sadly. "Well, Iím happy for you."
Ukyo coughed. "Ranma..."
Both Ranmas answered in unison. "Yeah?"
"No, I mean Ranma. I mean..." Ukyo held her head. "You know. One of you needs to change your name before I go crazy."
The boy-type Ranma answered first. "How about Ran-chan and Ran-kun?"
Ukyo thought for a bit. "Um, Ö no."
The girl-type Ranma spoke quietly. "You can call me 'Ranko'."
Ukyo stared blankly at the fuzzy image of the redhead. "Are you sure?"
Ranko nodded. "I'm not sure if we're both stuck as we are. Since I'm girl-type now, well, I guess it's only a name. I probably should get used to it sooner rather than later."
Ranma looked over Ukyo's shoulder. "Whadya mean you don't know if we're both stuck?"
"Well, the spell didn't really explain how it worked. It didn't say that we'd be separated like this. It just said that I... that we would ... get rid of it." Ranko looked down at her hands. "And now I might be stuck this way."
Ranma walked around the counter. "You don't know that. Wait a minute." He grabbed a large cup in the kitchen and filled it with cold water. He walked back out to the counter and poured it on himself. He got wet.
Ukyo blinked. "What happened?"
Ranma released a sigh of contentment. "Nothing." He walked back to the kitchen and filled the cup with warm water. He returned to the counter and poured the water onto Ranko. She got wet. Her shoulders dropped.
Ukyo looked in Ranko's general direction. "Well?"
Ranko looked up at Ukyo, and then to Ranma. She waved her hand in front of Ukyo's face. Ukyo moved her head a little. "What was that?"
"Ukyo," Ranko said calmly, her hands in her lap. "How many fingers am I holding up."
Ukyo squinted in Ranko's direction. She concentrated for a few seconds and then sighed. "Um, two?" Ranko sadly shook her head. Ukyo looked down at the floor after Ranko's silence. "I guess my eyes aren't getting much better."
Ranko took Ukyo's arm and stood up. "We need to get you to the doctor." Ukyo didn't resist.
Ranma helped Ranko guide Ukyo out of U-chan's. "There's the doctor the Tendo family goes to," he suggested. "I think I know where he is."
Ranko nodded. "Yeah, I know."
Ranma looked at Ranko. "Oh yeah. Um, Öright."
It didn't take them long to find Dr. Tofu's clinic. It was still morning, and they didn't have to wait long to be seen. Dr. Tofu walked up to the trio as his previous patient waved and left. "So, what can I do for you?"
Ranko stood up and pulled on Ukyo's arm. "We had a kind of accident."
Ukyo stood up and smiled blankly. Dr. Tofu stepped up and looked at her. Ukyo uncomfortably grabbed her elbow. Dr. Tofu looked Ukyo over before waving his hand in front of her face. He noted her reaction. "Hmm, ok. Why don't we come into this room..." He led Ukyo into his examination room, and Ranma and Ranko followed. "Can you tell me what happened with your eyes?"
Ranko shuffled her feet. "It's a long story."
Dr. Tofu looked at Ranma and Ranko again. "There's something familiar about you two. Are you related?"
Ranma answered first. "Yeah. In a way. You see, we were working on this spell... and I... I mean Ranko... I mean we were... um."
Ranko finished. "What he's trying to say is that he and I are the same person. We made a spell to try to cure our curse, and ended up like this. We're fine, but Ukyo saw the spell, and now she canít see very well."
Dr. Tofu looked at Ranma and Ranko for a moment, deciding to dismiss the discussion for the moment. He turned to Ukyo. "How close to the spell were you standing?"
Ukyo sighed. "Um, I dunno. I was outside the part where the smoke was."
"Would you say 10 meters? 20? 50?"
"Um, maybe 10 meters when the flash went off."
"The flash?" Dr. Tofu looked over Ukyo's face. "You would think that something powerful enough to blind you would have burned your face a bit at that range."
"It didn't feel hot."
"Close your eyes." Ukyo did. "What do you see?"
"I see shapes, swirls."
"What colors are they?"
"Black and white."
Dr. Tofu blinked. "Really? No other colors?" She shook her head. He turned to Ranko. "What kind of spell did you cast?"
Ranko tried to remember the name. "Um, Hanasu Tataru, or something like that."
"A separation spell, you say? Well, it appears to have worked. I would have to look at some of my books, but I would say that you probably caught some sort of eddy in the spell."
Ranma furrowed his brow. "Eddy?"
"If I remember correctly, separation spells usually only affect people in a certain area. However, the borders of the spell are not always clear, and the magic can cover more area than just the effects that you can see."
"You mean the smoke," Ukyo offered.
"Exactly. Even though you were standing outside the smoke, some of the magic of the spell probably reached beyond the smoke and got in you."
Ranko looked at Ukyo. "Wouldn't that have Ďseparatedí her, too?"
"Not necessarily. If she was outside the smoke, she must have been far enough to avoid the brunt of the spell, but the flash she saw was likely to be more than just light."
"So," Ukyo said. "What does this mean, exactly?"
"The good news," Dr. Tofu explained, "is that there might be some sort of cure. I'll look through my books and see what I can find."
"What if there ain't none?" Ranma asked.
"Usually the side effects of a spell can be reversed by breaking the spell."
Ranko blinked. "You mean if Ranma and I reverse our cure Ukyo will be able to see again?"
"Well, there's no guarantees, of course, but that's usually how they work. On the other hand, this could be temporary, and wear off by itself."
Ranko sighed. "You donít sound too confident that it will."
"Well, magic of this type is usually permanent. Again, I canít say for sure until I find out more."
Ranko stepped over to Ukyo and held her shoulders. "Oh, U-chan, I'm so sorry this happened."
Ukyo took Rankoís hands in hers. "Ranma, Ranko, I want you to know that we can try everything else, but I don't want you to break your cure. You worked so hard to get rid of that curse, and it was my own fault for getting too close."
Ranma stared at Ukyo and Ranko quietly. *Oh, Ukyo,* he thought. *What have I done?*
Dr. Tofu put his hand on Ukyoís shoulder. "Thatís about all I can say for the moment. I will look through my books and tell you if I find anything." He turned to Ranma. "Now, why on earth would you want to do this to yourself?"
Ranma fidgeted uncomfortably. "Well, itís kind of a long story..."
By the time the trio got back to U-chanís, it was almost lunch. A number of customers were standing around the front door, peering inside to see what was going on. Ranko apologized to them, unlocked the door, and helped Ukyo in. Ukyo stopped in the doorway and turned around. "Iíve been in a little accident, but Iím ok. I donít want to abandon the people who have done so much for U-chanís. We will do our best to serve you as we have in the past."
There were several supportive voices from the crowd as the three stepped inside. Ranma turned on the "OPEN" sign and propped the door open. The customers filed in and sat themselves as Ranma and Ranko helped Ukyo into the kitchen. Ranma took Ukyoís hand. "You sure you wanna try this?"
Ukyo nodded. "We donít know how long Iíll be this way. We might as well start dealing with it now."
"Yeah," Ranko added. "Not like we have much of a choice."
"I know the two of us can handle things," Ranma replied. "But whoís gonna cook?"
Ranko stepped up behind Ukyo. "I guess I will, if Ukyo will help me."
Ukyo smiled. "Well, letís not keep our hungry customers waiting. Ranma, could you get the counter ready?" Ranma patted Ukyoís shoulder and walked out of the kitchen. "Ranko, Ranma usually helped me start by getting one of those bags of flour."
Ranko hefted a bag. "I know Ukyo. Itís me, remember?"
Ukyo snapped her fingers. "Oh yeah. You know, itís not that difficult to remember who you are when you two are separated, but when youíre together, I keep thinking that youíre someone else."
"So you think that Ranma is the original, and that Iím some sort of copy? A fake?"
"Oh Ranko, Iím sorry. I didnít mean it that way."
"Thatís all right. I thought the cure would help me get rid of my girl-type. Instead, Iím stuck with it." Ranko sighed. "At least I donít have to worry about changing back and forth."
Ukyo reached out and patted Rankoís back. "Come on, Ranko. Letís go see how well you can cook."
Ranko smiled a wry grin. "Remember who youíre talking to."
"Well, we have to start somewhere."
Lunch went by without any major disasters. Even under Ukyoís guidance, Ranko burned a few orders, but most of the customers said that her cooking wasnít half bad. The evening customers were even more positive. A number of them recognized Ranko from the time the restaurant belonged to Nobu. They were happy to see her back. Ukyo was surprised at how quickly Ranko seemed to take to the Kuonji School of Okonomiyaki. Then she remembered again that Ranko was really Ranma. A Ranma. One of the Ranmas. She sighed and bumped into the doorway. This was going to take some time to get used to.
At the end of the day, Ranma and Ranko closed the restaurant and quickly had the place cleaned and ready for the next day. Ukyo sat at the bottom of the stairway, feeling a bit helpless. She was happy to see, um... hear, that the two could finish things up at least as quickly as she had with Ranma in the past.
Ranko kneeled in front of Ukyo. "Well, we got the place cleaned. The dishes are put away. The money in the register is counted. Weíre ready for tomorrow."
Ukyo blinked. It didnít help. "You counted out the register and put the dishes away, too?"
"I know you usually deal with that in the mornings, but I thought it might help to get ahead in the chores for once."
Ukyo smiled. "Sugar, I would love to teach you how to handle a REAL spatula."
"Are you offering? The Kuonji School of Okonomyaki isnít complete without knowing how to handle that thing." Ranko thought a bit, looking at the battle spatula that hung behind the counter. The formidable weapon had been hung beneath the menu since Ukyo changed the name of the restaurant.
"Sure thing, Ranko honey."
Chapter 4 - Black and White
Ryoga soaked in the furo, lazily petting the black piglet that sat on the edge of the tub. He scratched behind P-Chan's ear. P-Chan grunted in pleasure. Ryoga stared blankly into space. "What am I going to do?"
P-Chan blinked at Ryoga and bweed a reply.
Ryoga looked at P-Chan. "Well, that's easy for you to say. You can stay here as Akane's pet without a problem. I just can't stay here and live off them, but I can't get a job and expect to find my way there and back again." Ryoga and P-Chan sighed together. Ryoga resumed stroking behind P-Chan's ears. "You know, I thought that being cured would solve all my problems. Now it looks like my cursed form is the one that has it easy." P-Chan looked to Ryoga with wet eyes and grunted sadly.
At the far corner of the house was a knock at the front door. Nabiki jumped from her seat at the table. "I'll get it, Kasumi."
Kasumi, who was about to stand up, relaxed back down and sipped her tea. "Thank you."
Nabiki walked down the hall and slid open the door. "I was right," she said to Ranma. "I just knew you would be by here sooner or later."
Ranma stood in the doorway, blinking. "What dya mean, Nabiki? I've visited Akane here before."
Nabiki peered down her nose at Ranma. "You have some explaining to do, mister. I don't take kindly to being lied to. Neither does Akane."
Ranma was speechless. He was used to not being able to explain, but he had never been accused of outright lying before. He finally found his voice. "Wha... what... why... um, huh?"
"Come with me." Nabiki led Ranma around the side of the house to the door to the tea room, pointing to the rock path that led to the pond. "Wait here." Nabiki disappeared into the house. Ranma could hear her walk down the hall and knock on the door near the end. Her muffled voice drifted across the house. "Hey, are you about done in there? There's someone here to see you two." Ranma heard a voice reply, but he couldn't make out who it was or what they said. Nabiki, apparently satisfied, walked back to the tea room and sat down beside Kasumi at the table. The two girls sipped their tea quietly without looking up at Ranma.
Ranma shivered from his spot on the rock path. *What the heck is going on?*
After a couple minutes, he heard the door down the hall open and close. Footsteps approached from the far side of the tea room. Ranma's jaw dropped as he saw Ryoga carry P-Chan around the corner and sit down at the table, facing away from Ranma. Kasumi quietly handed Ryoga a bowl of rice. Nabiki leveled a predatory gaze in Ranma's direction. "Well, Ranma?"
Ryoga turned around, noticing Ranma. "Oh, hi Ranma. How's it going?"
Ranma stared at Ryoga. "Ry... Ryoga. What are you doing here?"
Ryoga smiled. "I found P-Chan. I thought Akane might be looking for him."
"You... you thought Akane..."
Ryoga stood up and carried P-Chan over to the rock path. P-Chan growled at Ranma. "She needs someone who will take care of her and make her happy, not someone who hurts her feelings by cheating on her and telling her lies."
Ranma's fists shook at his sides. He trembled with anger, and a growl rose out of his throat. "Ryoga, after what I did for you, you do this?"
"I consider us even," Ryoga said smugly. "What I did here was for Akane's sake."
Ranma dropped into a stance. "Well, then, put the pig down, Ryoga. It's time for a re-match."
Akane walked into the tea room and looked at the two young men standing outside. "What's going on?"
Ranma didn't take his eyes of Ryoga, but spoke to Akane. "I wanna talk to you, Akane, but Ryoga and I have a score to settle first."
"But Ranma," Akane pleaded, carrying P-Chan back into the tea room. "The last time you fought Ryoga, you got hurt."
Ranma's anger continued to build. "Aw, Ryoga only beat me once. I've fought him since then, and he didn't beat me."
"That fight wasn't finished," Ryoga yelled, "and you know it!"
"Ryoga," Akane scolded. "Don't pick on those weaker than you."
Ranma scowled. "That's it! I'll show you who's weak!" He took a step, putting Ryoga within reach. "Kachu tenshin amaguriken!" Ranma's hands became a blur. Ryoga blocked a number of the punches, but a good number of them got through. Ranma put most of his power into hitting the same spot in Ryoga's stomach as quickly as he could. Ryoga was sliding backwards from the force of Ranma's blows, but he didn't appear to be getting hurt. The three Tendo women watched as Ranma forced Ryoga back against the wall beside the door to the tea room. He pounded Ryoga another twenty times or so for good measure before throwing a roundhouse kick to Ryoga's head. Ryoga cart-wheeled across the doorway from the force of the kick.
Akane blinked at Ranma's attack. She had forgotten what he had learned in Joketsuzoku since Ryoga's triumph over him.
Nabiki turned to Kasumi. Kasumi smiled back. "Two batches."
Nabiki didn't flinch. "Two batches and half a batch uncooked dough."
Ryoga stood up, holding his stomach. "Nice try, Ranma. Cologne's training has made me invincible." He jumped back to Ranma. "Bakusai tenketsu!"
Ranma caught Ryoga's hand mere centimeters from his chest. He stretched his leg vertically, connecting with Ryoga's chin on the way up. Ryoga was sent skyward by the blow.
Kasumi turned her cup of tea casually. "Two batches, uncooked dough, and a bar of chocolate."
Ryoga landed in the pond and jumped out. He paused a moment as he realized he didn't change, then jumped into the air, kicking at Ranma's head. Ranma blocked the blow, the force sending him back on the rock path. Ryoga landed, spun, and threw his fist at Ranma's chest. He connected, and Ranma flew back and landed in the pond.
Nabiki watched with interest. "Special dark chocolate."
All three women stared in shock as Ranma jumped out of the pond, unchanged. Ryoga threw another bakusai tenketsu punch to Ranma's head and connected. Ranma watched in horror as Ryoga's outstretched finger hit him between the eyes. He batted Ryoga's hand away and waited to see what it would feel like to have his head explode at the breaking point. The both of them stood, waiting, for a few seconds. Nothing happened.
*I hit his breaking point,* Ryoga thought. *Why didn't it work?* He blinked, and Ranma leapt into the air. Ryoga jumped up to meet him with his foot. Ranma twisted and caught Ryoga's foot. Ranma tucked, sending both of them tumbling. He twisted Ryoga's leg and stood on his back. Ryoga landed on his stomach, Ranma standing on top of him. Ranma put his hands on his knees and peeked at Ryoga's face. Out cold.
Nabiki snapped her chopsticks in her rice bowl. Kasumi smiled at her younger sister before getting up and walking into the kitchen. Nabiki grumbled something unintelligible.
P-Chan shrieked pure rage as Ranma stepped off Ryoga. The piglet launched himself out of Akane's arms, aiming for Ranma's head. Ranma snatched P-Chan out of the air by his collar. The piglet flailed helplessly as Ranma held him at arm's length. Ranma triumphantly stepped into the house, holding P-Chan up to Akane. "I will explain only after you get this waishou buta out of my sight."
Akane was impressed with Ranma's quick victory as well as curious about what he had to say. She took the piglet and ran upstairs. She quickly came back, empty handed.
Nabiki, however, was less than enthused. "Ok, Ranma, you said you had an explanation. Out with it."
Ranma sat down at the table. Kasumi returned with a small tray. "Ranma, please have some rice and tea," she said sweetly, placing the tray down in front of him.
Ranma gratefully took a sip of tea. "Thanks, Kasumi." He took a couple quick mouthfuls of rice before turning back to Akane. "Akane, I said it before, and I stand by my word. P-Chan and Ryoga are the same person."
Nabiki kept her voice level. "Call it intuition. Either that, or the fact that Ryoga's unconscious just outside the door and P-Chan is squealing angrily in Akane's bedroom. Either way, I find your accusation hard to believe."
Ranma sighed. "Look, I found this cure. A Han-something spell. It was supposed to cure me of my curse. Instead, it split me into two parts. Except that the other me is a girl."
Akane folded her arms and nodded towards the pond. "Ok, we can see that you're not cursed, but what does that have to do with Ryoga?"
"I let Ryoga try the cure with me. He got split, too."
Akane furrowed her brow. "You hate Ryoga. Why would you do that for him?"
"I don't hate Ryoga, at least I didn't. Some friend he turned out to be. Besides, the spell could handle both of us fine." Ranma looked down at the floor. "And, it was kinda my fault that he got cursed to begin with."
Nabiki propped her head up on the palm of her hand, her elbow on the table. "This should be good."
Ranma ignored Nabiki and turned to Akane. "Remember when he complained about that stupid bread thing?" Akane nodded. "Well, he followed me, right?" She nodded again. "The old man and I went to Jusenkyo AFTER Ryoga started followin' me."
Akane shrugged. "I don't get it. How is that your fault?"
"It isn't, but the old man and I were fighting after we fell in. I rushed past Ryoga and accidentally knocked him into the spring of drowned piglet."
"That all sounds convenient," Nabiki conceded. "So, where's your better half?"
Ranma sighed. "She stayed at U-Chan's to take care of Ukyo."
Akane blinked. "What happened to Ukyo?"
"She got some of the magic of the spell. She don't see so well, now."
Nabiki grunted. "That all sounds convenient, considering you don't have any evidence with you."
Akane nodded. "Yeah. It's kinda hard to take you for your word when everything I see says you're wrong."
Ranma clenched his fists. "Jeez, just come to U-Chan's and see for yourself, then!"
Akane shook her head. "Why should I, Ranma? So that you can string me along until the next kawaii girl comes up to you and bats her eyes?"
Ranma's face got red. He stood up and silently walked towards the front door. He slid open the door to the tea room, stood silently in front of the door for a couple seconds, and then closed the door again. He turned around. "I'm not going to leave. You may not believe me, but I'm not going to give up." He looked up at Akane. "Akane, I chose you over Shampoo, didn't I?"
"You had to think about it. What about Kodachi?"
Ranma wrinkled his nose. "I don't wanna get anywhere near that crazy chick. I ain't goin' to that rhythmic gymnastics thing next week." He sighed. "Look, just come to U-Chan's. I'll get you some lunch."
Nabiki stood up and faced Ranma. "I'm coming, too. I've lost a lot of dough to you today. I want to see this double of yours for myself."
Ranko and Ukyo were in Ranma's bedroom. Ranko waved vaguely around the room. "Well, I donít see why we canít just put another futon in the corner there."
Ukyo looked at Ranko. "Are you sure youíd rather sleep in here with him?"
Ranko shrugged her shoulders. "Itíd be like sleeping next to a mirror. Iíd feel more comfortable than I would sleeping in the same room as you. No offence, U-chan, but despite how I look, I still feel like a guy."
Ukyo sighed. They heard the front door open. Ranko led Ukyo down the stairs. Ranma motioned for Nabiki and Akane sit down at the counter. Both young women did double-takes when Ranko stepped down the stairs, holding Ukyo's arm to guide her. Ranko stopped behind the counter. Ukyo blinked her eyes and squinted at Akane and Nabiki. "Um, hello..."
Ranko smiled. "Hi Akane, Nabiki. I suppose you've heard about that great cure I found, ne?"
Ukyo smiled blankly. "Oh, hi Akane. Is Nabiki one of your sisters?"
Akane nodded. Ukyo squinted at the gesture. "Was that a 'yes'?"
Akane blushed. "Um, yeah."
Nabiki nodded courteously. "Pleased to meet you, Ukyo."
Ukyo bowed. "Hello, welcome to U-Chan's."
Ranma sighed gratefully. "Now, do you see?"
Ranko looked at the expression on Akane's face. She turned to Ranma. "Uh, Ranma, could you take care of Ukyo and entertain Nabiki?" Ranma nodded, and Akane followed Ranko back into the kitchen.
Ranko fidgeted for a moment while Akane stared. "It's still me, Akane. Just... stuck as a girl. Call me Ranko. Saves on confusion."
Akane thought for a moment, then sighed and nodded. "Ok, Ranko. What is this about?"
"Akane, Ranma and I were literally the same person up until yesterday morning." Ranko sighed. "I'm just realizing that being stuck as a girl means that you and I can only ever have a friendship."
Akane blinked. "What are you saying?"
Ranko regarded Akane for a moment. "What happened at your house?"
"Ranma beat up Ryoga."
Ranko shook her head sadly. "I thought he might find trouble. That place has been nothing but trouble for me... for us." She closed her eyes and sighed before looking at Akane again. "Why do you think he went over there?"
Akane blinked. "He wanted to convince us that he wasn't lying about Ryoga and P-Chan."
"And why would he care about Ryoga and P-Chan?"
"Why do you think he gets jealous of that piglet? Why did I... why did we pick you over Shampoo?"
"Because our parents arranged us to be married. You want to keep your honor in the-"
"What did you say?"
"...Because our parents-"
Akane looked at Ranko a moment. "Our parents."
"I don't know why people can't remember. He and I have no parents. I don't care what that stupid old man arranged."
Akane shrugged. "I give up then. Why?"
Ranko sighed. "Because when you're not being so stubborn, hot-headed, thick as a mule, uncute-"
"Get to the point, Ranma," Akane growled between her teeth.
Ranko put her finger up, but decided against correcting Akane. Instead, she sighed and continued. "The first time I came to your house, I was a little scared. I wasn't given the warmest welcome, either." She put her hand on Akane's shoulder. "But you offered me friendship. Twice more since then, when I really needed help, you were there for me. I don't forget favors like that."
Akane grunted. "So, that's all it is to you? A couple of favors?"
Ranko stepped closer to her. "I don't know, Akane. Is there more to you than helping people when they're in need? I haven't really been able to find out. I know that Ranma wants to find out."
Akane folded her arms. "What about what I want?"
Ranko looked hurt. "If you donít care about me... or him, then you should say so. He will leave you alone if you ask him to. He may not like it, but he will."
Akane opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, but no sounds came out.
Ranko sighed. "Look, if you want to give it a try, you need to listen to him. I donít know how many times Iíve wanted to explain something to you when you wouldnít even give me a chance. When you see something you donít like, whether itís my fault or not, you just lash out at me. Next time, count to ten, ok?"
Akane nodded. "I donít mean to be such an angry person sometimes. It just happens."
Ranko folded her arms. "Would you lash out at Kasumi if it looked like she did something wrong?"
Akane looked shocked. "I could never hit my sister."
"Even if she did something to make you angry?"
Akane shook her head. "Sheís my sister."
"Then please remember this: I used to be considered Ďalmost familyí not too long ago. When I left that house, it was you who came after me. If thatís still what you want, you need to give him a chance. If not, then leave us alone."
Akane looked off into space. "Yaí know, it was not long ago that Kasumi asked me never to hit someone out of anger again." She sighed. "I think Iíve already broken that promise a couple times."
Ranko regarded Akane for a moment. "Maybe you should decide if that is the kind of person you want to be." Ranko paused a second and walked out of the kitchen.
As she stepped to Ukyoís side, she overheard the last part of Nabikiís sentence. "...just lost a bet to you, Ranma, and now I see you were telling the truth. I promise I will not underestimate you again."
Ranma shuffled uneasily under what appeared to be praise. Ukyo leaned against the counter. "Ya know, you two are welcome to stay for lunch. On the house."
"A free lunch?" Akane asked from the doorway to the kitchen. "Sounds good to me."
"Itís not free," Nabiki complained. "Itís already cost me two and a half batches worth of chocolate chip cookie dough."
"And some special dark chocolate," Akane cheerfully reminded. She turned to Ranma. "In return, we could invite the three of you to dinner tonight. On the house."
Ranma squirmed a bit. "At your house?" Akane had to remind herself what Ranko had just said about their feelings for the Tendo home. She didnít see Ranma and Ranko exchange glances, or Rankoís wink.
Ranko put her hand on Ukyoís shoulder. Ukyo smiled. "We would love to."
Akane chopped the pork while Kasumi handed the dinner plates to Nabiki. "Now, remember, Nabiki, this is probably our last chance to show Ranma and Ukyo what Tendo hospitality is really like."
Nabiki took the plates. "Are you insinuating that MOI could be causing any trouble?"
"Of course not," Kasumi chimed cheerfully. "You wouldnít want anything to sabotage Akaneís chances with Ranma."
Nabiki nodded silently before carrying the dishes into the tea room.
Soun stepped into the kitchen. "How is dinner going?"
Kasumi smiled cheerfully. "Just fine, Otousan. Akane is helping me."
Her father suppressed a whimper. He swallowed hard. "And, weíre having guests?"
Akane pointed a rather large knife at the doorway. "Relax, Dad, Iím only cutting stuff."
"And sheíll help toss the salad, too," Kasumi added.
Soun relaxed a little. "I suppose thatís okay, as long as she doesnít actually-"
"Watch it, Dad."
Soun looked again at the large, shiny knife in Akane's hands and left the kitchen.
By the time Akane was done tossing the salad and cleaning up the pieces that fell on the floor, the rest of dinner was ready. She helped Kasumi put the food out on the table. She was satisfied that everything was perfect. The knock at the door came at the perfect time.
Akane ran down the hall to the front door. She opened the door for Ukyo, Ranko, and Ranma. "Konbanwa. Welcome to the Tendo home."
"Wow," Ranko chirped. "I almost feel underdressed."
"Donít be silly," Akane said cheerfully. "Come inside and make yourselves at home." She led them to the tea room, where Kasumi was putting finishing touches on the presentation of dinner.
Both Kasumi and Akane smiled at the expressions made upon seeing dinner laid out before them. Ranma blurted out a "Wow."
Ranma smiled, eyes wide. Ukyo stared blankly into space, a polite grin on her lips. Ranma turned to Ukyo, holding her arm. "You should see it, U-chan. Theyíve got teriyaki pork, shrimp-"
"Crab, rice....," Ukyo interrupted, sniffing the air, "....and miso soup. I wish I could see it. I bet itís delicious."
They waited until Soun had entered the room and sat down. Kasumi, Nabiki, and Akane sat along one side, then Ranma, Ukyo, and Ranko sat on the other side. As they began to eat, Ranma was one of the first to speak. "Wow, Kasumi. Itís delicious."
"Thank you, Ranma. Akane helped."
Soun coughed a bit, but recovered quickly. Ranma and Ranko stopped and looked at their plates. Ukyo, noticing the change in eating noises, tilted her head. "Whatís wrong about Akane cooking?"
All eyes turned to Akane. No one dared speak. Ranko smiled as she heard Akane whispering to herself. "Ichi, ni, san, shi...." A few more seconds later, Akane replied. "I havenít been exactly the best cook."
Ukyo tasted another sample. "Well, this pork is delicious."
Ranko snapped her chopsticks, as if she suddenly realized something. She looked uneasily at Akane. "Um, Akane, this pork isnít...." She couldnít bring herself to finish.
Akaneís eyes went wide. "Of course not. Ryoga and P-Chan were gone when we got back."
Ranko relaxed. "Of course. Iím sorry for even thinking it."
Akane smiled. "Donít worry about it. Here, have another pair of chopsticks." She handed Ranko an extra set.
Nabiki looked over at Ranma. "What do you think, Ranma?"
Ranma was busy stuffing his face, and took a moment to swallow his food. "Itís great."
Ranko watched Ukyo put her chopsticks down. "What is it, U-chan?"
Ukyo smiled, picking them up again. "Nothing. Just that sometimes I can see a bit, and sometimes I can't see much at all." She began eating again. Ranko, satisfied for the moment that Ukyo was fine, continued eating as well.
"Man, I am stuffed." Ranma rubbed his stomach as the trio walked back to U-chan's.
Ukyo smiled. "You gotta admit that it was nice at the Tendo home this time."
"I was just waitin' for some disaster to happen."
Ranko looked at Ukyo. "Speaking of bad things happening, how are your eyes?"
"Not bad," Ukyo said. "I can pick out enough to get around."
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Two. I'm fine Ran-chan."
Ranko sighed. "I just hate feeling that you have to pay the price for my cure."
"I'll say it again, Ranko. It was my own damn fault for getting too close to the spell."
Ranma stepped between the two. "Don't try to make yourself responsible for someone else's actions, Ranko."
Ranko blinked at Ranma. "How could you talk like that about U-chan? You dismiss the fact that she's hurt because you don't think it's your fault?"
"I told her to stay back by the corner."
"Yeah, I know. WE were there. I also remember that U-chan accepted me ... accepted us as we were. No one, NO ONE else did that, and now she's hurt because we had to go try that stupid cure."
"Aw, you're just upset because you're stuck as a girl."
Ranko grabbed Ranma's shirt, nearly hoisting herself up to meet his eyes. "I'm a guy, and don't you forget it. I... just kinda... look like a girl."
Ukyo put her hand between the twins. "Come on, you two. Stop fighting."
Ranma looked at Ukyo and whined, "She's the one that started it."
"Feh." Ranko dropped her grip on Ranma's shirt. She walked back to U-chan's, not waiting for the other two to catch up.
The next morning, Ukyo stretched as she went down the stairs. Ranma and Ranko were already getting the store ready for the Sunday breakfast crowd. She walked up to Ranko, who was taking a tray of clean spatulas out of the kitchen. "Let me take that."
Ranko blinked at Ukyo. "Are you sure?"
Ukyo took the tray from Ranko. "I'm not a damn invalid. Standing around like I did yesterday is going to drive me crazy. If my eyes are going to be this way for a while, I might as well deal with it now."
Ranko released the tray and smiled.
Ranma walked past, carrying a sack of flour. "Told jya' she's fine."
Ranko lost her smile. "Why do you care? You got what you wanted."
Ranma tossed the sack into Ranko's arms, nearly knocking her off-balance. "You just can't admit that you were wrong. It's obvious that I'm the better half."
Ranko narrowed her eyes. "Is that what this is? You think that we're competing against each other?"
"Ranko, you of all people should know that I am ALWAYS in competition. A true martial artist doesn't train only on weekends and evenings. It's a commitment. All day, every day."
"You sound like the old man."
Ranma grabbed Ranko's arms, lifting her and the sack off the ground. "Don't you compare me to that loser! I've got more honor than he ever had!"
Ranko looked through the doorway in Ukyo's direction. "You have a funny way of showing it."
"Feh!" Ranma dropped Ranko and stormed out the back door.
Ukyo stepped up to Ranko. "Why is he being such a jackass? I thought you two would get along."
Ranko sighed, hefting the sack to her shoulder. "He's scared."
Ukyo blinked. "Ranma? Scared?"
"He got this cure to solve his biggest problem. Now that I'm here, he is probably afraid that I want to break the spell and get things back the way they were."
Ukyo regarded Ranko. "Do you want to break the spell?"
Ranko stared at Ukyo for a few seconds. "I've got to get this flour behind the counter." She hefted the sack into her arms and walked through the door.
"She's wrong." Ranma paced along the top of the fence. "I can't go back. What would it prove, anyway? That I lost?" He sighed and looked up at the sky. "Ukyo, you were always there for me. Why does SHE think it's our fault? You said yourself that you don't wanna be... be...." He clenched his fist. "It's not MY fault, it's her fault!"
"Whose fault? Who are you blaming now, Ranma?"
Ranma looked down in the direction of the voice. "Ryoga, P-chan. You should talk about blaming people. You always say everything is my fault."
Ryoga shook his fist. "That's because it always is! Especially this time!" Ryoga held P-chan up towards Ranma. P-chan growled and bared his tiny teeth.
Ranma flicked his bangs out of his eyes. "You should thank me for letting you in on the cure."
P-chan bweed an angry response. Ryoga nodded. "That's right, what kind of cure do you call this?"
Ranma blinked. "Um, the Hansolo something."
"I don't care what its name is! I want to break the spell!"
Ranma blinked again. "What? What's wrong with the cure?"
"Ask poor P-chan." Ryoga held the piglet up even higher. P-chan bristled and bweed again. "Now that you've told Akane about us, he can't be her pet any more. Your stupid cure is worse than the curse. At least then, I could be myself most of the time. I can't let him stay this way."
Ranma knelt on the fence. "Can't be Akane's pet? Oh, Ryoga. I'm all broken up."
Ryoga took his umbrella out with his free hand. "You're gunna be, Ranma. You're gunna be."
To be continued...
Episode 2: Battle Chess Return to Fan Fiction Page Episode 4: Joining Forces
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