By Andy Searls
Characters are creations of Rumiko Takahashi
Prologue - Omens
Ranma lay back on the roof of the Tendo dojo, staring at the stars. The night air was still warm. The cicadas were chirping softly. The sounds of sparring drifted from inside. Since he was done practicing for the night, Ranma meditated, easily feeling at peace with himself. Things seemed to be going well.
Ranko had agreed to help teach Akane. Their fight at the martial arts gymnastics meet seemed to do both of them good. They had gained some respect for each other, maybe even a little understanding of how the other felt. Ranma sighed. They actually seemed to be getting along together.
A thump, a dull thud, and an "Ow!" was heard from inside. Akane limped out. She jumped up, grabbed the edge of the roof and pulled herself up. She limped over to where Ranma lay. "Remember when I got angry with you for pulling your punches?"
Ranma turned his head so he could see Akaneís expression better. "Yeah?"
"Maybe that wasnít such a good idea." She rubbed her shoulder with one hand and massaged her ankle with the other. They stopped and listened as Ranko practiced a particularly noisy kata. She seemed to yelling every other move. Several loud thumping noises suggested that she was jumping around as well. Akane looked down at her ankle. "Yaí know, I kinda wonder if sheís still trying to keep us apart."
"Nah." Ranma looked back up at the stars. "If she were, sheíd be up HERE doiní somethiní."
Akane stopped rubbing her ankle and looked at Ranma. If she hadnít known better, she would think he was studying the constellations. "Donít think too hard, Ranma. You might hurt something."
Ranma didnít respond for a second. He turned and looked back at Akane blankly. "Huh? Oh, I was just thinkiní."
Akane giggled. "Thatís what I was warning you about. What WERE you thinking?"
Ranma ignored Akaneís jibe. "Remember when I first got here?"
Akane nodded, feeling her face grow hot with guilt as she remembered how she had treated him.
Ranma pointed at a spot not far down the street. "The old man told me just a couple blocks away that he and his friend had already arranged for me to marry. I was so mad that he didnít even ask me what I wanted."
Akane looked back at Ranma. She hadnít thought about how he might have felt at the beginning of that evening. "Father told us just that night, too. I was so angry that such an important decision was being taken from me."
Ranma stared at the intersection in the street. "I fought the old man. I wanted to go back to China and find a cure. The only reason we ended up here was because he knocked me out with a street sign."
Akane looked at Ranmaís eyes. "He must have wanted to join the two families pretty badly."
Ranma sat up. "Thatís just it, Akane. What if your father hadnít kicked the old man out? What if that whole arranged marriage thing was still a problem?" He looked back at Akane. "What kind of lengths would they have gone to get us together?"
The thought made Akane shiver.
Ranko stepped outside and looked up to the roof. "Hey, Akane, are you going to call it a night or what?"
A crash echoed from inside the dojo. The three jumped inside to see the remains of the altar on the floor.
Ukyo hummed as she put the last of the pans away. All the lights were out at U-Chanís. With Ranma and Ranko gone, they werenít needed. Not that they really needed to worry about keeping the bills down. Rankoís cooking was steadily improving, and the customers who didnít recognize her from Nobuís time gave compliments on the quiet determination of the fiery redhead. Business had been good enough that they had been rebuilding the savings that had been spent getting to and from China.
Ukyo yelped in surprise as a loud clang boomed throughout the restaurant. Was someone else there? She stepped quietly to the doorway, straining to listen for any signs of an intruder. Hearing nothing, she decided to get her battle spatula off the wall before investigating further. She tip-toed to the side wall, reaching up for the weapon.
It wasnít there.
A chill went down her spine. If someone was there, they might have already taken the spatula away. She turned to face the rest of the front room. Her foot kicked something metallic. She knelt and put her hand down. It was the battle spatula. She leaned it against the wall and felt for the mounting studs that had held it up. One of them had fallen out, allowing the weapon to fall.
Ukyo sighed. *Things WERE a little quiet around here,* she thought. *I hope Ranma, Ranko, and Akane are okay.*
Chapter 1 - Trouble Always Comes in Pairs
Ukyo turned the heating surface on in preparation for the new day. She was trying to ignore the feelings of dread she had from the omens of the night before. Rankoís news about the altar at the Tendo Dojo didnít help. The morning sky was overcast, and the radio was giving updates on an approaching storm.
Ranko stretched and yawned loudly as she reached the bottom of the stairs. "Hey," she said, looking down at the floor. "How did this big notch get in the floor?"
Ukyo looked at the mark on the floor. "It must have happened when the battle spatula fell last night."
Ranko sighed. "Another bad omen?" She slumped down onto the last step. "Thatís just great!"
Ukyo stopped and walked over Ranko, putting her hand on her shoulder. "Hey, weíve been through scrapes before, ne?"
Ranko swatted Ukyoís hand away. "Donít try to patronize me, Ukyo!"
Ukyo blinked. "Wh... what... Ranko, whatís wrong?"
Ranko stood up, clutching her stomach. "Iím just not feeling all cheery today, alright?" She walked past Ukyo and into the kitchen.
Ukyo watched Ranko walk away, mouth open. *Did I just hear what I thought I heard?* She dismissed the thought. Ranko snapping at people was hardly out of the ordinary. Ukyo just couldnít remember the last time that Ranko had snapped at HER.
The rest of the morningís preparations went by smoothly enough. Ranko worked quietly, spending most of her time in the kitchen. Ranma seemed to be avoiding Ranko, but that could just have been Ukyoís imagination. She did notice that the usual fight... discussion over who would serve and who would keep the kitchen was skipped this time. Ranma simply began to serve the first customers, and Ranko remained in the kitchen. Before the lunch rush began, Ukyo pulled Ranma aside. "Have you noticed anything unusual about Ranko?"
Ranma shook his head. "Um, no. Why?"
"Well, it looked like you were avoiding her."
Ranma looked back into the kitchen. "Really? Itís not like Iím scared of her or nothiní." He looked back to Ukyo. "Why?"
"Doesnít she seem a little moody today?"
Ranma shrugged. "Didnít notice."
Ukyo made a dismissive gesture. "Never mind." Ranma shrugged again and grabbed the next order. Ukyo stared, momentarily distracted by the shifting patterns in the distorted image. *Is he avoiding her subconsciously? Itís almost like he has an extra sense for when to leave a woman alone.* Ukyo giggled to herself, rejecting the idea as silly. Avoiding trouble was NOT one of Ranmaís strong points.
Ukyo blinked, not recognizing the voice. "Yes?"
"I have a certified letter for you. Please sign here."
Ukyo put her hand out, allowing the delivery man to put the clipboard and pen in her hand. She scribbled her name on the paper, missing the signature area completely. The courier looked at the signature, grunted, and put the letter in her hands before leaving. She held the envelope in her hands for a few seconds, unsure if she wanted to know what news it contained. She felt Ranma walk past her on his way to the kitchen. She waited for him to return before calling him.
Ranma looked at the letter in Ukyoís hands. "Whatís that?"
Ukyo held it out. "Itís a letter, Ranma. Could you read it to me?"
Ranma looked at her for a moment before silently taking the envelope and opening it. "Kuonji Ukyo," he read. "I hope this letter finds you doing well. I have spent the past four years with your father at the Lake Biwa temple, near Kyoto. It is with a heavy heart that I inform you...." Ranmaís voice trailed off.
This sounded seriously bad. "What?!" Ukyo grabbed Ranmaís arm. "WHAT?!"
Ranma sighed. "...inform you that your father passed away on the 10th of April."
There was more, but after seeing Ukyoís reaction, Ranma didnít have the heart to read it. He called Ranko out to the front room. Ranko stepped out of the kitchen, arms folded. "What?" Ranma showed her the letter. She sighed and nodded. "Iíll take over the cooking here. You can take care of Ukyo."
Ranma put his hands on Ukyoís shoulders and guided her up the stairs. Her breath was choked with sobs as she stumbled into her bedroom. Ranma stood awkwardly in the doorway. "Anything I can do?"
Ukyo shook her head. "Iíd like some time alone."
Ranma watched Ukyo cover her face with her hands. Her shoulders began convulsing as sobs escaped. Ranma quietly closed the door to her bedroom and sat down in the hallway.
As Shampoo and Cologne reached the building, they could see a sign in the window that said, "No Foreigners." Cologne took out the newspaper clipping and crossed off another entry.
Shampoo blinked at the sign. "Another? This fifth one in row. What if all have sign?" The overcast sky was a good match for her mood at the moment.
Cologne looked at the next circled ad in the clipping before returning it to her pocket. "Not to worry, young one. Thereís more than one way to skin a...." She stopped at the look on Shampooís face. "Itís just an expression."
The next building was only a block away, and the door had no such sign. Shampoo pulled the door open and poked her head in. "Ni hao."
A middle-aged man was sweeping the floor in the large, empty front room. A wall separated the front room from the kitchen. A door and a large window allowed access from one room to the other. The man stopped sweeping the floor and bowed to the two visitors. "Konnichiwa. I am Morita Toshio."
Cologne gave him a curt nod. "Hello, Mr. Morita. I am Cologne. This is Shampoo."
Toshio bowed again. "You must be looking for a place to start a business, Khu Lon."
Cologne blinked, surprised for a moment. "Er, yes. Yes, we are."
Toshio blinked. "Did I mispronounce your name? It is a Chinese name, isnít it?"
"Yes it is. How did you know?"
"I used to go to this Chinese buffet, Chen Sung Smorgy. Great food. I went there so often that I came to know the owners. Their names had similar sounds in them."
Cologne nodded. "I think we might get along very well." She looked around the room. "This is quite a large place for this area of town...."
Shampoo recognized her great-grandmotherís negotiating technique and tuned out the rest of the conversation. She was distracted by the view of the kitchen through the doorway. The kitchen here had similar colors to U-Chanís. A wave of emotions flooded over her as memories surfaced.
Her disgrace at her failure in Joketsuzoku. The pain of her punishment at Jusenkyo by Cologne's hand. The shame of being shipped out of China as a parcel. The joy in seeing Ranma, even if she was in her female form. The confusion in the kitchen, seeing Ranma in both forms at the same time. *Two Ranmas? How could that be?*
Shampoo looked at her great-grandmother. *She would probably know what happened to Ranma, but would she tell me?*
Shampoo wasnít completely sure why Cologne had left her place at the Council of Elders and once again come to Japan. Judging by how Cologne treated her when they met near U-Chanís, the thought that Cologne was there to help her was absurd. Shampoo had felt yet again like a mere package to be thrown on a shelf somewhere and forgotten. The fact that Cologne no longer referred to Shampoo as her great-granddaughter re-enforced the banishment Shampoo now suffered. Now, she was being dragged along as Cologne was obviously looking for a more permanent stay in Japan. Cologne was keeping her around for some purpose, but Shampoo felt that she would only find out when Cologne decided to tell her.
Cologne probably already knew as much as Shampoo did about Ranma. Shampoo thought again of seeing both Ranmas at once. *Is it some sort of cure, or another curse that they have?*
After the noon rush died down, Ranko picked up a moist washcloth. *I donít know how Ukyo keeps the place so clean during lunch,* she thought as she scraped at a dried piece of dough. *I havenít been able to master a single part of her cooking style. The Kuonji school of martial arts okonomiyaki....* Her train of thought derailed as she looked over to where the battle spatula had been leaned against the wall. It wasnít there. She looked back towards the kitchen and saw Ukyo.
She was wearing the same blue outfit she had worn when they had met on the bridge. The bandoleer was filled with little throwing spatulas. The larger weapon was slung behind her back. Her face, while recently washed, still betrayed the fact that she had been crying for hours.
Ranko blinked. "Well, it looks like youíre dressed to kill." Ranma silently stepped from behind Ukyo.
Ukyo spoke calmly. "I have something to do. I should be back by tomorrow night at the latest."
Ranko reached for Ukyo. "Do you have to leave? I donít want to be alone."
Ranma tapped Rankoís shoulder. "Hey, what am I?"
Ranko swatted Ranmaís hand away. "Who asked you?"
Ukyo blinked at Ranko, trying to decide if this behavior was awfully moody, even for Ranko. She dismissed the thought again. More important things needed to be taken care of. "Iíll be back as soon as I can."
The calmness in Ukyoís voice was eerie. Ranko also seemed to be acting strangely. Ranma could tell that something was going on, but he couldnít figure it out. Not that he was good at understanding women to begin with. He looked at Ukyoís determined expression. "Where are you going?"
Ukyo sighed. "Several years ago, I swore revenge on someone who betrayed me. I promised my father that I would recover my honor if not my dowry."
Ranko sighed. "Youíre talking about the old man."
Ukyo nodded. "I know youíve disowned the Saotome family, but I still canít ask for either of you to help."
Ranma grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and scribbled furiously on it. He handed his work to Ukyo. "Hereís a map to the Saotome home. Good luck."
Ranko nodded. "Give him a piece of my mind, too. Weíll handle U-Chanís until you get back."
Ukyo smiled as she took the map. She looked at the twins for a few seconds before realizing that she couldnít think of anything to say. Her smile disappeared as she walked outside.
Ranma locked the door to U-Chanís and jogged down the street to catch up with Ranko. The street lights blinked on as they neared the bridge. Both of them, as usual, maintained a heavy silence as they crossed the bridge. The waters underneath were calm enough, but the air was damp. Before they got off the bridge, it began to rain. The two ran the rest of the way to the Tendo home.
Akane opened the door. "Oh dear, you two are soaked. Come in and get warmed up."
Ranma gratefully stepped inside. "Thanks, Akane."
Ranko stood at the doorway, holding her stomach for a moment, before taking a couple of stiff steps inside.
Akane put her hand on Rankoís shoulder. "Are you alright, Ranko?"
Ranko swatted Akaneís hand away. "Iím fine," she spat.
Akane looked back to Ranma, who shrugged. "Ukyo said something about her acting all funny and stuff," he said.
Ranko put her hands on her hips. "Oh, now Iím Ďacting all funny and stuffí, eh? Iím sorry. I didnít know I wasnít allowed to feel anything other than sweetness and happiness." Ranko stood there and shivered, grabbing at her stomach again.
Akane looked back to Ranko. "Is your stomach bothering you?"
Ranko nodded. "Must have eaten something that didnít like me."
Nabiki came down the stairs. "Hi Ranma, Ranko. Uh, Ranko...." Nabiki stopped and looked at Ranko.
Ranko shivered again. "Whatís everyone looking at?" Her face went pale.
Akane stepped back as she saw a stream of blood trail down Rankoís wet leg. "Ah, Ranko?"
Ranko bent over, still holding her stomach. Her eyes rolled back and she collapsed in the entry way.
Chapter 2 - Looking for Answers
Cologne walked over to the stairway that led to the loft. She stopped as Shampoo stepped over to follow. Cologne held her hand up. <Iíll be back.>
Shampoo sighed and watched as Cologne disappeared up the stairs. She looked around the dark kitchen. There were no utensils, dishware, or bowls. They also needed supplies. *Unless Great-Grandmother has plans other than opening a new restaurant,* Shampoo noted to herself.
Cologne returned with a throw pillow. <You can sleep in the front room.>
Shampoo looked at the pillow. <Donít I even get a blanket?>
<You donít need one. Itís summer. You should be warm enough. >
Shampoo took the pillow and sighed again.
Cologne gave her a sharp glance. <Donít forget what you are. You are an outsider. Now go to sleep. You will have a busy day tomorrow.> The old woman turned the kitchen light out and returned to the loft.
Shampoo stood in the darkness, allowing herself a moment of self-pity. She carefully felt her way into the front room, dropping the pillow in a corner and sitting down beside it. The sound of the rain echoed in the empty room.
*How can I regain what I have lost?* Her thoughts drifted yet again to Ranma. Both of them. *If he found a cure, I wonder if I could convince him to share it with me?* Their parting had not been entirely under the best of terms. Still, Shampoo hoped that she would get the chance to talk to him again.
On the other hand, reversing Cologneís punishment for her probably wasnít the best way to become an Amazon again. She had lost so much the past month, she began to wonder if she might recover anything of her former pride.
She sighed once again, feeling the weight of past events, and lay herself down on the floor. She soon fell asleep, only to dream of humiliation and loneliness.
Ukyo looked once again at the map before knocking on the door. Even though Ranma had used large symbols and letters, she had to stare at it closely to make anything out through the distortions.
She could feel her heart racing. What did she think she was doing? She hadnít trained much at all since she lost most of her sight. She wasnít even sure she had read the address correctly. Now, she was going to challenge the man who taught Ranma? Maybe it wasnít too late. She could just walk away and....
No. She had already waited too long. She had vowed to her father that she would recover her honor at all cost. Even if she lost this match, she must get some training and demand a rematch. She had to deal with this sooner or later, and now was just as good a time as....
The door opened. Ukyo tried to make out the figure in the doorway without squinting. The figure bowed and spoke. "Konbanwa. How may I help you?" It was a womanís voice.
Ukyo bowed. "Good evening. I am Kuonji Ukyo. I have come to see Saotome Genma."
The figure paused, probably looking at the bandoleer and battle spatula. "I am Saotome Nodoka. Please wait here."
A large white and black thing appeared in the doorway and grunted. It sounded like a panda. Ukyo heard Nodoka walk up behind the panda. "Baka," she spat. Ukyo heard spilling water, and could see the large black and white figure shift and shrink.
"Yikes," a familiar voice cried. "It neednít be THAT hot." Nodoka walked away, muttering something under her breath. Genma grunted again and looked Ukyo over. "Looking for some training? Well Iím not teaching. I havenít even practiced myself in a couple of months."
Ukyo paused, taken aback by his confession. "You donít know who I am?"
Genma folded his arms. "Should I, Miss Kuonji?"
Ukyo could feel her anger building. There was no turning back now. "You left me by the side of the road and took off with my fatherís cart!"
Genma snapped his fingers. "I knew the name sounded familiar. Howís the old man these days?"
His casual tone made Ukyo furious. "Heís DEAD!" She pointed her finger in his direction. "Tomorrow morning at dawn, meet me at the park down the street! I will not wait any longer to restore my family honor!" Not waiting for a reply, she turned on her heel and walked back out the front gate.
When she reached the park, she stopped. The rain had stopped, so she lowered the battle spatula from over her head. She shook the water off of it before returning it to the sling on her back. She looked at the wet grounds. She had intended to wait there for Genma, but she realized that spending the night at the park might not have been the best idea. *I guess I could go back to U-Chanís,* she thought as she reached an empty bench. *Iíd have to find my way back in time for the fight.* She took the map out and looked at it again. It had taken her several hours to make her way over to this side of town. Making the trip home in the dark and finding her way back before dawn wasnít an appealing idea.
She sat down on the bench. *Maybe Iíll just calm down a bit before I head back.* She realized as she relaxed that she had been standing all day. A warm breeze soothed her as she rubbed her knees a bit, trying to decide what she should do. The spatula clanked between the slats of the bench as she moved.
Akane spread her blanket over Ranko, who was still lying in the entry way.
Nabiki looked at the blanket. She recognized it as one that Akane favored, a quilted affair that was covered with patterns of different floral images. "You sure you want Ranko bleeding on your blanket?"
Akane shrugged. "Itís washable. Besides, Ranko needs it. Weíre not sure why she fainted."
Nabiki counted off her fingers. "Lessee, thereís the running in the rain, the going into shock, the loss of blood. This is probably the first time sheís been through this."
Ranma shook his head. "Itís not like I never bled before."
Nabiki gave Ranma a doubtful look. "Oh? And just how many times have you had a period?"
Ranma blinked. "A what?"
Akane turned to Ranma. "You know. A Ďmonthly billí. Each month, when a woman...."
Ranma waved his hands. "I donít need to know about that... that... Ďthat time of the monthí thing. Itís a woman thing, thatís all I need to worry about."
Nabiki looked down at Ranko. "I take it she doesnít know much about it either, then?"
Ranma shrugged. After seeing the expressions on Akane and Nabiki, he stood up. "Ya know, I think Iíll go practice in the dojo for a while."
Akane looked down the hall after Ranma left. "Whereís Kasumi?"
Nabiki put her hand on Akaneís shoulder. "Sheís cleaning up after dinner. Besides, I get the feeling that the sweet and cheery approach isnít going to be the best way to handle this."
"The best way to handle what?" Ranko opened her eyes and looked at Akane and then Nabiki. "Whatís happening to me?"
Akane put her hand on Rankoís shoulder. "You see, Ranko, itís like this...." Akane played with her fingers fretfully.
Ranko raised her eyebrows. "Like... what?" She sat up to get a better look at Akaneís futile gestures.
"Well, when a young woman... you know." Akane nodded hopefully.
Ranko nodded at first, and then shook her head. "No, I donít know."
"Um, well... the... ah... fact is that...."
"The fact is," Nabiki intervened, "you have been a young woman long enough that you are going through something that all women have to deal with. Each month, there will be a few days when you get cramps. Then you will bleed a bit. Itís a natural thing that all women have to live with."
Ranko nodded. "So, every month Iím going to be uncomfortable for a while and then bleed a little." She thought about it a second and took a deep breath. "I guess thatís... not... TOO bad."
Nabiki took a deep breath. "Well, thatís not all. You should also know that since you have started having a period, it is possible for you to get pregnant."
Ranko lay back, staring at the ceiling. She could feel the weight of the information press her against the floor. "A... period... preg..." The word choked her throat. She swallowed to clear it. "I see."
The three were silent for a couple of minutes. Akane and Nabiki were trying to judge Rankoís reaction. Ranko was attempting to understand some of the depth of her new knowledge.
Kasumi stepped out of the kitchen and walked down the hall. She found the three in the entryway. "Oh my, is Ranko alright?"
Nabiki nodded. "Sheíll be fine. Sheís just learned about menarche."
Kasumi smiled. "Congratulations, Ranko. This is wonderful. Would you like some red beans and rice?"
Nabiki shook her head, making a forceful cut-off gesture at her neck.
Ranko slowly sat back up. "Thank you, Kasumi, but I donít feel much like celebrating right now."
Akane looked at Ranko. "You should probably eat something. When was your last meal?"
Ranko stared at Akaneís blanket. "Breakfast. I skipped lunch and dinner because I was covering for Ukyo."
"Well, THATíS real healthy," Nabiki deadpanned.
Kasumi put her hands together. "Oh, you poor girl. Did you faint?"
Ranko looked sharply at Kasumi. "Iím not a girl! Iím a...." Her voice cut short, and she looked back to Akaneís blanket. She shook as she silently traced one of the blooms with her finger.
Nabiki put her hand on Rankoís shoulder. "Ranko, you might feel like a guy on the inside, but you need to come to terms with the fact that you have the body of a young woman."
Ranko stood up uneasily, noticing that her legs had been wiped clean. "Is it okay for me to take a bath?"
Nabiki stood up. "Sure. Just rinse yourself good before going into the furo."
Ranko took a couple of tentative steps down the hall. "I suddenly feel filthy."
Kasumi watched her trudge down the hall before giving Nabiki a quick hug. "You know, Nabiki, she might need some company right now."
Nabiki nodded as she watched Akane pick up her blanket. Akane stood and smiled. "Thank you for helping out. Iím still not really comfortable around her."
Nabiki grunted. "Really? I didnít notice."
Ranko poured another bucketful over herself, noticing that the water stayed clear this time. She stepped carefully into the furo, trying to take comfort in the warm water. Despite the warmth, the memory of Nabikiís words made her shiver. *Period? Pregnant? How could this be happening to me? Iím a guy!*
Nabiki knocked on the door. "Ranko, is it okay if I come in?"
Ranko sighed. "I donít care."
Nabiki opened the door and sat down next to the furo. "You know, itís not all that bad. Women have been dealing with it for ages."
Rankoís fists splashed into the water. "Iím NOT a...." She stared down at the waves as they bounced back and forth. She started again, but more quietly. "Iím not a woman. Iím a guy."
"You just have the BODY of a woman."
Ranko sighed. "Nabiki?"
"What makes a person? The body or the mind?"
Nabiki thought a bit. "I would have to say both. Neither can survive without the other."
Ranko sighed again. "Youíre a big help."
"If you want everything sugar-coated, talk to my older sister."
Ranko waved her hand, watching the ripples in the water absently.
"Look, Ranko, if you want my advice, I would recommend that you stop this self-pity thing and instead spend your energy finding positive things you can do about your life."
Ranko didnít look up. "You mean learning how to be more like a woman? Forget it."
"I didnít say that. You donít have to be feminine to be accepted in todayís society. There are women out there who have stayed single and made a successful career for themselves."
Ranko grunted. "I guess so. Being around Akane has showed me that itís okay to be a tomboy."
"Well, that doesnít make it seem much easier, but it does help. Thanks, Nabiki."
Nabiki winked. "Iíll put it on your tab."
Shampoo woke up feeling a small foot jab into her side. <Wake up,> Cologne ordered. Shampoo sat up, feeling the ache in her back and the fog in her head. She hadnít slept well at all. <Put these on.> Cologne dropped a plain black shirt and pants that resembled clothing of the Chinese lower class. She changed quickly before Cologneís impatient stare. <Now follow me.>
Shampoo silently followed as Cologne went to a nearby restaurant. Cologne got teriyaki pork and salad, while Shampoo got a small bowl of rice. Shampoo ate her breakfast quietly. Cologne ate slowly. After Shampoo finished her rice, she stared at the table. She made no move and no sound while Cologne continued to eat.
Cologne finished her breakfast and left the restaurant without a word. Shampoo followed obediently. They stopped at a couple different stores in the area before finding a handful of tables and chairs that were acceptable. They were very dirty, and some of them needed repair, but the price for the collection was good. Cologne concluded her negotiations with the salesman and turned to Shampoo. <You will need to carry these back.>
Shampoo blinked. Cologne had to be kidding. It was a two or three kilometers back to the their new home. It would take all day to get them all carried over.
Cologne glared at Shampoo. <Is there a problem?>
Shampoo sadly shook her head.
<Unless you think you are above work. Maybe you should hire a common person to carry them for you?>
Shampoo shook her head again.
<Then youíd better get started.>
Shampoo sighed and lifted the first table. It wasnít quite as heavy as it looked. She put it down, hoisted it onto her back, and began to walk.
Ranko rolled out of her futon, being careful not to step on Ranma as she walked out of their bedroom. The pad thing that Kasumi had given her felt strange. She ignored it, opening the door to Ukyoís bedroom.
Ukyoís bed was still made.
Ranko went downstairs and looked around for any sign that Ukyo had been back the night before. She noticed that the battle spatula was also gone. *So, she hasnít had her fight yet,* Ranko thought. *I wonder where she spent the night, then?*
Ukyo rolled over, falling off the park bench. She spit the mud out of her mouth and sat up. Her battle spatula dug into the ground behind her, keeping her from sitting completely upright. She took it from the sling and stretched. Tried to stretch. Her back was cramped from the cold, unyielding metal of the spatula and the hard surface of the bench. She gasped, realizing that she was still in the park. It was nearly sunrise, and she was sore, groggy, and definitely in no shape for fighting.
She stood up, looking around the park. It was still deserted. If she left now, she might not be noticed. She fingered the handle of her spatula uneasily as she tried to decide what to do.
"So, you think you can beat me, eh?"
Ukyo spun around to see the distorted image of Genma. The anger returned, washing away any doubts she had. "Iím gonna make you pay for stealing my fatherís cart and breaking your promise, you jackass."
Genma folded his arms. "Those are pretty strong words for a girl. Can you back them up?" He used the same casual, taunting voice she had heard last night.
She grabbed a couple of throwing spatulas and threw them at Genma. He leapt to one side. She almost lost sight of him as he jumped. She glared through her distorted view, trying to ignore the shifting patterns. She hefted the spatula and struck at the image, ignoring the painful protests from her back.
Genma easily dodged, stepping in behind the swing. He backhanded Ukyo across the cheek, and she fell to the ground. Genma blinked. He hadnít hit her that hard, but he had expected her to duck or block or something. It was like she hadn't seen it coming, even though she had been looking right at him. He watched her movements. She seemed to be more silent from shame than writhing in pain. "Let that be a lesson. You need more than a big...," Genma blinked at the weapon, "...spatula to get the better of Saotome Genma." He watched Ukyo a moment longer before walking home.
Ukyo held her cheek. She closed her eyes tightly, her shame and anger burning hotter than the pain.
Chapter 3 - Another Attempt
Shampoo opened the door with her foot, staggered into the restaurant, and nearly dropped the chairs she was carrying. She put her hands on her knees and rested for a moment.
Cologne was sitting at one of the tables Shampoo had carried over earlier. She was eating ramen from one of two bowls on the table. <Sit down and eat.>
Shampoo silently sat down and began picking at her noodles.
Cologne watched Shampoo sigh and sadly lift a single noodle to her mouth. This wasnít working. It hadnít even been two days, and already Shampoo had gone from quiet acceptance of her new position to a deepening depression. This would not do at all. Cologne decided to take a different approach. <Great-Granddaughter.>
Shampoo looked up from her bowl and blinked.
<I know that recent events have been hard on you. It might help you to know that what we are doing here is not intended to be more punishment.>
<What are we doing in Japan, Great-Grandmother?>
Cologne stirred her ramen a bit. <We are... preparing for the future. We must be ready to face the challenges ahead of us.>
Shampoo studied her elder for a few moments. What challenges did she mean? Was Ranma involved? If he wasnít, why were they in Japan? She found herself thinking of more questions than she had the night before.
Cologne finished her ramen. <You may have a short break before you finish getting the rest of the tables and chairs.>
Ranko was struggling to keep up with the Sunday noon rush. Ranma helped out by taking care of everything but the cooking. Things were beginning to settle down when Ukyo stumbled in.
Her hair was muddy and tangled. Her face was bruised and dirty. She was still wearing her blue fighting outfit, which was dirty and wrinkled.
Ranko called Ranma out from the kitchen. Ranma was immediately at Ukyoís side. Ranko got his attention as they reached the counter. "Iíll be up as soon as I can." Ranma nodded and continued up the stairs.
Ranko looked down at the counter. The okonomiyaki she was working on was burning. "Iím sorry," she said as she slid it aside. She looked at the customer who was waiting for his order. "Iíll have to start over. I hope itís not too much of a bother."
"Are you kidding?" the customer remarked. "Thereís always something interesting going on here. That and the food is why this place is so great."
Ranko blinked, unsure whether to take that as a compliment or not.
She hung the closed sign on the door. Thankfully, business dropped off fast enough that Ranko caught up quickly with the existing customers and ran upstairs.
Ukyo was crying into Ranmaís shoulder. He was patting her back and picking at bits of mud that were in her hair. He gave Ranko an uncomfortable look.
Ranko sat down on the bed. She patted the mattress beside her, and Ukyo sat down quietly. Ranko waited quietly for Ukyo to talk.
"I was so stupid," Ukyo began. "I stayed at the park when I shouldíve come home and gotten some sleep and then I woke up so tired and sore and then Genma was there and it was too late to call it off or anything and I got so mad because he was being a real jackass and I tried to fight but he read my moves so easily and broke through my defenses and...." Ukyo waved her arms helplessly, trying to come up with words that expressed how she felt.
Ranko tenderly touched the bruise on Ukyoís cheek. "He hit you, didnít he?"
Ukyo nodded. "I didnít even see it coming. He hit, and it felt like my cheek was gonna explode. I fell down, not because he hit me so hard, but because I was totally unprepared for it."
Ranma watched Ukyo for a moment. "The old man is pretty fast, but you should have been able to see it coming enough to keep your balance."
Ukyo said nothing. She just sadly shook her head.
Ranko took Ukyoís hands. "Ukyo. Look at me. How well can you see?"
Ukyo sighed. "I can see general shapes. Itís kinda fuzzy, and thereís this black and white pattern that keeps changing."
Ranma stared at Ukyo. "Ukyo, the old man was a challenge for me to spar with, and I can see fine. How did you expect to fight him like this?"
Ukyo shook her head. "I was just so..." She took a deep breath. "...So sad and angry. I was determined to make him pay for what he did."
The room was silent for a couple minutes, each person lost in their own thoughts.
"Well," Ranko finally began. "Weíll make him pay, alright."
Ukyo blinked. "Ranko?"
Ranko nodded. "Thatís right, Ďweí, but before our re-match, you need some training."
"Thatís right," Ranma agreed. "Youíre battle spatula is handled kinda like kendo, right?"
Ukyo nodded. "Kinda."
Ranma thought a bit, then he smiled. "How much Jujitsu do you know?"
The softball game was over. The students headed for the locker rooms. As usual, Ranko ducked around the corner while no one was looking. She peeked back and watched the guys walk into the boyís side. One of them started laughing and slapped another playfully on the back. Ranko sighed. Sadly, she trudged over to the equipment shed and stepped inside to change.
She changed and walked out of the shed, nearly bumping into Nabiki. "What are you doing here, Nabiki?"
Nabiki casually poked at a rock with her foot. "Yaí know, I would have thought that a guy in your situation would have jumped at the chance to be in the girlís locker room."
Ranko shouldered her bag and walked away. "Feh."
Nabiki caught up. "Hey, what are you doing during lunch?"
Ranko stopped walked and looked at Nabiki. "Why?"
"I know someone who wants to meet you."
Ranko stared at Nabiki. "What are you up to?"
Nabiki put her hand to her chest in an expression of mock shock. "Moi?"
Ranko shook her head. "Whatever. Letís get this over with."
Nabiki led Ranko to a corner of the gymnasium. Standing there was a woman who looked vaguely familiar.
"Hello, Ranko," she said, bowing. "Iíve been looking for you."
Ranko pointed a finger at the woman. "Youíre the one who was coaching for Akane at the gymnastics thing, werenít you?"
"Thatís right," Mrs. Kosagi said. "I was very impressed with your performance at the competition last week." She looked at Nabiki.
Nabiki waved her hand. "You can pay me later, sensei." Kosagi nodded and Nabiki left.
Ranko folded her arms. "So what is this about?"
"I was wondering if you might be interested in doing more work in martial arts rhythmic gymnastics."
"You want me to compete again? For the school?"
"Actually, I was thinking about having an assistant coach."
Ranko blinked. "A what?"
"Nabiki said that you were having a little trouble finding friends. I thought that helping us out would be a good way for you to meet more girls."
*Well,* Ranko thought. *Nabiki is full of surprises.* She looked at Mrs. Kosagi. She seemed like a friendly person. Maybe Nabiki had a point. "I guess we could give it a try."
"Thatís great," Mrs. Kosagi said, holding Rankoís hand. "The next practice is on Thursday night, but if you donít mind, I would like to talk with you a bit after school."
After talking with Mrs. Kosagi about the team, Ranko headed home. The closed sign was on the door, which was unusual this close to the dinner rush. She stepped inside and heard muffled sounds coming from upstairs.
She slid the door open to Ukyoís bedroom to see Ukyo and Ranma entangled on the floor. Ranko folded her arms. "Well, well. I would hate to be around if Akane saw this."
Ukyo let go of Ranmaís arm and sat up. "Ranma was teaching me a Jujitsu technique."
Ranko nodded. "Of course."
Ranma released his hold of Ukyoís leg and stood up. "I thought that she would do better with a form where she could feel what her opponent was doiní."
Ukyo stood up. "Maybe you and I could wrestle a bit, eh, Ranko?"
Rankoís eyes went wide. "Wrestle with...."
Ukyo walked over to Ranko. "Yeah, I want to try to spar with different partners. Itís helped keep me flexible before. Whaddya say?"
Ranko stared. Ukyo was standing very close. Ranko felt her face get hot. "Uh, maybe later."
Ranma shrugged. "Why not? Doncha wanna help out U-chan?"
Ranko glanced at Ranma. "Itís not that."
"Well, why not then?" A small light bulb glimmered in Ranmaís head. "Itís not because youíre still... you know...."
Ranko glared at Ranma. "No, Iím over it."
Ukyo blinked. "Over what?"
Ranko quickly waved her hands. "Nothing. Itís nothing."
Ranma turned to Ukyo, oblivious of Rankoís glare. "She had her... um... you know."
Ukyo shook her head. "Her what?"
"Now how did Akane say it?" Ranma snapped his fingers. "Monthly bill."
Ukyo looked over at Ranko, eyes wide. Ranko stared at her shoe. Ukyo stepped up to Ranko. "I thought there was something going on. Here I am worrying about myself, and I didnít even spend a minute to tell you about what you were going through. It mustíve been scary for you."
Ranko moved her foot uncomfortably. "Nabiki told me."
"Ranko, Iím so sorry I wasnít there for you." Ukyo stepped closer and gave Ranko a hug. Ranko closed here eyes. Ukyo let go and took a step back. "Ranko?" Ranko opened her eyes. "Why are you trembling?"
Ranko avoided Ukyoís gaze. "I gotta go clean the dishes." Ranko turned and headed straight for the stairway. She was barely conscious of making her way down to the kitchen. She found herself at the sink, her hands soaking in the cold water. The emotions and sensations she was feeling were things she was not accustomed to. Her heart raced. Her head swam in the confusing maelstrom, and she leaned against the sink for support.
Ranko turned to see Ukyo standing behind her. Ukyo watched her for a few seconds before speaking again. "Ranko, this must be a really confusing time for you. I know I was pretty confused when I was going through this, and I didnít have a curse to deal with." Ranko looked back down at the floor. Ukyo sighed. "I just wanted you to know that if you need a friend to confide in or a shoulder to cry on, I will always be here for you. I promise."
Ranko looked up at Ukyo, tears in her eyes. She reached for Ukyoís shoulder, but stopped short. She looked at her hand. Her hand was shaking. She pulled her hand back and sat down against the cabinet. "Thank you, Ukyo," she whispered. "I think I need some time to myself right now."
The next time Ranma coached Ukyo, he decided it would be better to have Akane present. Not only would it cut down on potential rumors causing him trouble, but he could teach both of them at the same time. He stood back and watched them go through the movements.
Akane gave Ukyo a throw. Ukyo rolled into the landing, stopping herself with her foot rather than her back.
"Very good," Ranma said. "You guys are learning really quickly." Akane blushed a little.
Ukyo nodded. "I think your teaching skills have improved since you started working with Ranko on the gymnastics stuff."
"That is a good thing," Soun said in the doorway. The three teenagers bowed as he entered the dojo. He returned a bow and walked across the room to the shrine. He looked at the shrine as he spoke. "Ranma, watching you teach has brought back some memories. There was a time when I would hold classes several nights a week." He looked over at Akane. "That was a long time ago."
Both Soun and Akane stared quietly at each other for a few seconds. Ukyo guessed that Mrs. Tendoís death had something to do with Sounís decision to quit.
Soun finally sighed. "Things have been pretty quiet lately, and I have been thinking if there is something better I can be doing."
Akane walked over to the shrine. "Daddy?"
Soun looked back up at the shrine. "Iíve decided to begin teaching again. We could use the extra money anyway."
Akane gave her father a hug. "Thatís great!"
From the kitchen door, Nabiki smiled. She closed the door and turned around.
Kasumi smiled cheerfully. "Nabiki, what are you doing in the kitchen?"
Nabiki waved her hand vaguely. "Oh, just arranging more spare time for myself." She ignored the confused look on her older sister as she left the room.
Back at U-Chanís, Ranko sat on the roof of the restaurant, staring at the stars, trying to make sense of her life.
Chapter 4 - Retribution
Ranko sat just outside the doorway to the gymnastics room. The door was open, so she could hear the girls inside without being seen. She hugged her knees and tried to pick out as much of the conversations as she could.
"This is a little big. Maybe I need to order another one that fits better."
"You donít wanna be jumping out of it in the middle of a match. You might just...."
"...speaking of nosebleeds, you hear about Kooji?"
"Oh yeah! He got dumped by Akira AND Tamiko after they found out that he...."
"...Serves him right. If I was...."
"...I noticed that she was looking at me."
"How gross! Is she perverted or what?"
Ranko sighed. What was Nabiki trying to get her into, anyway? There didnít sound like there was much room for a tomboy in there. This didnít look like it was going to work. She stood up and looked at the doorway down the hall. It didnít look very far away. She could just quietly walk out and go home.
Then, she heard Kosagiís voice. "We can start warming up now. My assistant coach should be here any minute."
"I saw her at the competition. She was great."
"I wish I could fight as good as her. Kodachi wouldnít be beating us up all the time."
"Yeah, just once Iíd like to beat her at her own game."
So that was it. They needed her. Ranko found herself standing in the doorway.
Kosagi turned to greet her. "Ranko. Iím glad you could come. Girls, this is Ranko. She was the one who beat Kodachi in last weekís competition."
Ranko folded her arms and walked to Kosagi. The other girls were grew respectfully silent. Ranko looked at the floor. "So... um, whatís first?"
"Well, I was planning on letting them have their normal warm-ups before letting you get to know them."
Ranko shrugged. "Well, I could watch them spar a bit."
Kosagi waved a hand at the hushed whispers. "Ranko has come from a martial arts background. I thought taking an approach from her side of the sport would improve your fighting skills." She looked at the doubtful and unsure expressions. "You want to beat Kodachi, donít you?" The girls shrugged and nodded. "Well, then, letís get started."
Cologne stepped out from the kitchen. She looked around the front room. Over the course of the week, it had been transformed from a dusty, empty room into a dining room with a Chinese flair. A shoji screened the doorway into the kitchen from view. A desk with a cash register sat near the front door. Shampoo had just finished putting flowers in vases on each table. Cologne waved her staff around the room. <Well, it looks like weíre as ready as we will be. I just hope that a Friday night is the ideal time to open a restaurant.>
Shampoo nodded. <Great-grandmother?>
<I came to Japan because I had nowhere else to go. Why did you come here?> Shampoo waved her arms around the room. <Why are we starting this?>
Cologne smiled. <If you think that I came here to keep an eye on you, I will accept that as my answer.>
Shampoo watched her elder. <Thereís something else, isnít there?>
Cologneís smile wavered. <You neednít worry yourself about that.>
<Is it about Ranma?>
Cologne thought about her answer for a second. <If Ranma happens to come here to eat, then you could say he was involved.>
Cologne decided to keep Shampoo busy before she thought of any other questions. <Go open the front doors. Lets cook some ramen.>
Shampoo happily bounced over to the front doors. She looked through the window and blinked. A handful of people were waiting outside. She hadnít opened the doors yet, and they already had customers.
She unlocked the doors and placed the open sign, waving happily to them. "Ni hao! Welcome to the Nekohanten!"
It was only a couple of weeks since Genmaís last challenger, a young girl who appeared to have a grudge against him. Nodoka had not heard all that the girl had said, but it appeared that Genma had caused trouble for her. Genma, of course, had been sketchy on the details. Something about a misunderstanding over a second fiancée to Ranma. Nodoka figured that Genma must have either failed to avoid the problem or was too self-involved to get himself out.
Nodoka paused her musings enough to look over at the katana. It was resting on the display stand along with her shorter sword. The morning sunlight from the nearby window had not yet reached the weapons. Despite Genmaís assurances, she was sure there had to be some good reason why Ranma stayed away. Surely, it couldnít be because of the oath. Could it? She had asked neighbors about him, as some of them had been to U-Chanís. He seemed to be happy, business seemed to be doing well, and he was working with two girls. During a serendipitous conversation with Kasumi at the grocery store, Nodoka discovered that Ranma was still friends with the Tendo household. Indeed, he was still interested with one of the Tendo girls.
She ran her hand down the sheath, pausing with her fingers against the hilt. Despite the foolhardy meddling of the two men, the families might be united after all.
There was a knock at the door. She sighed, staring at the display a moment longer, before crossing the living room and walking to the door.
It was the Kuonji girl again. Nodoka blinked. Genma had said little about the match. "How can I help you, Miss Kuonji?"
The young woman was dressed once again in her fighting outfit. She bowed. "I wish to see the old man again."
This one was determined. Not only that, but she was no longer using his name. Nodoka could see the anger and determination in the girlís eyes. "Forgive me, but is it wise to face him again after such a short time?"
Ukyo stood there, showing no outward signs of emotion. "I have been training. Please let me see him."
Nodoka sighed and nodded. She walked back through the house and into the back yard. Genma was watering his bamboo garden. Nodoka watched for a moment. Each time she was reminded of Genmaís curse, she couldnít help but wonder if Ranma had also found misfortune during their journey. Genma was, as always, sketchy in the details. She stood on the deck beside the garden, but did not bow. "The Kuonji woman is here again to see you."
Genma stopped watering the bamboo and stared at the watering can. "So soon?"
She could see it. He was thinking about it. He held the watering can there in front of him. "You should see her in your non-cursed form, Ďold maní."
Genma put the can down, but continued to stare at it. "Now just a minute. What kind of language is that to be taking with your husband?"
Nodoka said nothing, but stared as Genma stood silently.
Genma sighed and walked inside without looking at her.
Nodoka stood on the deck, staring at the bamboo. Since he had returned, Genma had not looked into her eyes. She couldnít determine if he was ashamed or angry. She had tried several different tactics to get her husband to open up, to tell her what went wrong. She thought that she could find out what had happened. She thought that she could have a family once again. She thought that she would no longer be lonely when he came back. She was wrong.
She walked back into the house. Genma and the Kuonji girl had already left.
She was about to walk into the kitchen when there was another knock at the door. She frowned. Whoever was there surely must have seen Genma and Ukyo leave. They must be there to see her. Perhaps it was her neighbor, insisting on hearing or telling the latest gossip. She opened the door to see a young man who looked familiar. She took a step back to keep her balance. It was no good. Her knees gave out, and she sat heavily on the entry step.
It was Ranma.
She stood there, her hand over her mouth, afraid to speak or move in fear that she would disturb her dream. Her son was home at last. Nothing else mattered, now that they were a family once again. She would find out what went wrong. She would make it all right. She would do her best to bring her family back together.
Then he spoke. "Hello, Mrs. Saotome."
The words echoed in her mind. She remembered that he had disowned the Saotome name. He had come to her as a stranger. Even so, all was not lost. He was here. She stood and bowed deeply. "Forgive my rudeness, sir. Please, come inside."
Ranma stepped inside and took off his shoes. "We got a lot to talk about."
Nodoka silently nodded, turning away to hide her smile.
Genma rolled over and stood up again. He grunted as he lifted his body to stand once more. He watched the young woman as she slowly circled him. She did not seem like the same person he fought just a short while ago. This one was confident. She didnít seem to be able to read his moves, but she knew how to react. Not only were his punches and kicks ineffective, but more often than not, she was able to get a hold of him. Once she did, he was headed for the ground.
He grunted as he tried to hide his sore knee. "Had enough?"
Ukyo laughed. "As a matter of fact, I think itís time for something different." She stepped forward, grabbing his arm. She pushed her hip out, pulled on his arm, and catapulted him over her back. Genma hit the trunk of a nearby tree, back-first and upside-down. Before he fell down, a handful of throwing spatulas embedded themselves in the tree. A couple of them pinned him to the tree by his gi. A couple of them hit the trunk, missing him completely.
Ukyo stepped back. "Oh, did I mention that my sight isnít at itís best, right now?" She smiled and took a few more spatulas from her bandoleer.
Genma nodded. "Thatís why you reacted to my moves instead of... of...." His voice trailed off as he watched Ukyo hold a spatula ready to throw.
She took her time, throwing a single spatula before pretending to take aim with the next.
"No, youíre not!"
"Youíre right. Iím not."
"Well, that was high pitched. I hope I didnít hit anything you might need later." Ukyo stopped as she heard a couple of people approach. She turned, holding a throwing spatula ready. "Whoís there? I am in a fight for honor, so youíd better not stop me."
"Donít worry about us, Miss Kuonji," Nodoka said. "Even after what Ranma told me, Iím capable of waiting my turn." Nodoka held her sheathed katana comfortably over her shoulder.
Ukyo bowed. "Mrs. Saotome, I believe that Iíve had enough."
Ranma looked at Genma. He was bruised and cut. He was also hanging upside-down against a tree. Either Ukyoís target practice had not improved much, or she was toying with him. Ranma couldnít decide which.
Nodoka turned to Ranma. "Very well. Ranma-san, do you have business with this man?"
Ranma turned his back. "I donít wanna say nothiní to him."
Nodoka turned to Genma. "I see." Genma paled at Nodokaís expression. Nodoka stared back. "So, now you look at me." Ukyo stepped away. Nodoka took a few steps towards Genma. "I could not fathom what would keep you from looking at your own wife for two months." Nodoka sat down in front of him, laying the katana on her lap. "I have heard some things from this young man, disturbing things, that you have done." She stared at the sword for a moment. "Is it true that you arranged a second engagement between Ranma and Ukyo during your training?"
Genma hung silently.
Nodoka looked up from her sword. "Answer me!"
Genma quietly nodded his head.
Nodoka sighed. "Did you take him to Jusenkyo?"
"Did you knock him into a cursed pool AFTER you have been cursed YOURSELF?"
Genma closed his eyes and nodded.
Nodoka looked back down at her sword. "So, you have single-handedly dishonored three families and cursed your only child. If it was only that, I could forgive you and help you rebuild what you have destroyed. As a proper wife, it would be my duty to help you as best I could." Genma watched her as tears began to fall in her lap. "I would have been happy to help you, had you not been so cruel to me as well." She took a deep breath before continuing. "You took my son away from me in the name of the art. I was so lonely those long years, but I was able to be strong, because I knew that one day my son would return to me, proud and strong." Her face was red as she looked sharply at him. "Not only did you fail to bring him back, youíve driven him away!" She looked back at Ranma, who was peeking over his shoulder at her. "Youíve driven my only son out of our family, and that I cannot forgive!"
She stood, unsheathing the katana. With a quick stroke, she cut Genma free of his gi. He fell to the ground, bleeding on his panda boxers. He turned and kneeled. "Please, Nodoka...."
"I only ask for one thing from you." Nodoka reached into her kimono, producing a ceremonial knife. She dropped the knife on the ground in front of Genma and held her sword ready. "I ask that you fulfill your oath."
Genma stared at the woman before him. He could see the barely contained anger in her eyes, and heard it in her voice. He looked over at Ranma, who still had his back turned. He looked over at Ukyo, who watched with morbid fascination.
He reached for the knife with a shaking hand. He touched it, feeling the cold metal on his fingertip. Before picking it up, he turned and ran.
Nodoka held her sword as she watched him run out of the park. "Hiretsukan."
Ukyo watched him run away, nodding her head in agreement. "Bastard."
Ranko sighed, putting the hand towel back in the sink. Her sneezing seemed to be over. She washed her hands before stepping out of the kitchen.
Fortunately, there were only a few customers. "Are you alright?" one of them asked as she poured an order.
Ranko waved her hand. "Iím fine. I just donít know what came over...." She stared at the front door, suddenly unable to speak. She dropped the bowl, ignoring the mess it made on the floor.
Ukyo and Ranma had just stepped inside, and were welcoming Mother in. "Mother. Mother? Mother! Mother?!" Her head was throbbing, she could barely breathe. Something inside was screaming for attention. A memory. Something she had promised. An oath. She whispered the words as they came to her. "A man among men."
Nodoka looked at her. She covered her mouth with her hand as she gasped.
Ranko took a few steps back, shaking her head. She whispered, "No, please."
Ranma and Ukyo watched silently as Nodoka took a step forward.
Ranko took two steps towards the stairs. "Please," she said.
Nodoka reached out with her hand. "Ranko."
Ranko screamed, "NO!" and ran up the stairs.
Nodoka stood in shocked silence. Ukyo walked behind the counter. "Iíll go talk to her."
Ukyo went up the stairs to find Ranko curled up in a corner of her bedroom. She hugged her knees and shivered. "Please donít make me see her. I donít want to die."
Ukyo sat down beside her, putting her arm around her shoulders. "We talked about the whole oath thing on the way here. Mr. Saotome is the only one in trouble."
Ranko looked at Ukyo. "She... she doesnít hate me?"
"I think she might be more afraid of what you think than youíre afraid of her."
Ranko stared at Ukyo. "Afraid of.... Why?"
"Please, just come down." Ukyo smiled. "And try not to be too hard on her."
Downstairs, Nodoka turned to Ranma. "I should not have come. This was too much too soon." She looked back at the stairs as Ukyo and Ranko came down. She stared quietly as Ranko stared back.
Ranko huffed a few times before running into her motherís arms. She shook as muffled sobs escaped. She cried on her motherís shoulder before being able to speak. "Iíve tried to be manly. Iíve tried to be honorable." She began to cry again. "I tried oh so hard!"
Nodoka hugged Ranko and shushed her. "Ranko, from what Iíve heard, you have been very honorable. Youíve been honest with people. Youíve helped out your friends."
"But..." Ranko stepped away. "Well, look at me. What kind of a man looks like this?"
Nodoka smiled. "Even with a curse, you are the most beautiful child I could have ever asked for."
Ranko stared at the floor. "What kind of a man can I be? What can I do with myself?"
"It sounds to me like youíve already begun to answer that."
Ranko looked back up. "Huh?"
"Miss Kuonji tells me that youíre an assistant coach for the martial arts gymnastics team."
Ranko sniffed and nodded.
"Well, both you and Ranma may become very good instructors. Would that be so bad?"
"Um, last Thursday night wasnít bad."
Nodoka picked a nearby chair and sat down. "Tell me about it."
Ranko grabbed her arm. "Well, um, they were graceful and stuff, but they had no speed and no power."
"So, what did you do?"
"I suggested some stuff that would help."
"Iím sure that they will improve with your help."
Ranko shrugged. "Yeah, it might. I just...."
"You just what?"
"I just donít feel like I belong with them. Theyíre all so... so...."
"So what? Feminine?"
Ranko nodded. "Yeah. I just donít look like...."
Nodoka sighed. "Ranko, what you look like is not as important as the kind of person you are on the inside."
Ranko looked into Nodokaís eyes. "Am I a good person?"
"From what I heard on the way here, you are a very nice person." Nodoka took Rankoís hands. "I would like to get to know you better, though. I would like, if itís okay with you, to visit you." She looked over to Ranma. "Both of you." She looked back to Ranko. "Could I visit you here once in a while?"
Ranko took a hand away to wipe her eyes. She looked over at Ranma. Both of them began nodding at the same time. Ranko looked back to Nodoka. "I... I think I would like that."
Nodoka nodded. "Thank you." She stood up and walked to the door. She stopped before she reached it and turned around. There were tears in her eyes. The future was once again a thing of promise. "Thank you."
Episode 4: Joining Forces Return to Fan Fiction Page
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