Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ Brother, Oh Brother... ( Chapter 21 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

A Tale of Two Wallets

(An Altered Destiny)

Written by Jim Robert Bader

Proofread by Shiva Barnwell

Shampoo had returned late after having her strategy-session with Nabiki over the Kuonji Ukyo matter, slipping into the Nekohanten and curling up on her bed in her cursed form to grab a few winks of shut-eye. It was truly fortunate that she had discovered how much easier it was to refresh herself taking shot catnaps when there was not sufficient time for her human form to recover with a single long sleep, and her great grandmother indulged her the privilege so long as she was careful to clean up her cat-hairs off of the bedroll the next morning.

So it was that she was able to rise up and change back to her human form early the next morning with plenty of time to make it to her promised meeting with her beloved co-wife. The situation around Ranma was growing more complicated by the minute and they both had to head this problem with Ukyo off fast before it became a full-blown crisis.

So it was that she was rushing out the door when her great grandmother appeared clutching a small black pig in one hand and looking very pleased with her find, saying what a delicious meal he would make once he was boiled and prepared Cantonese-style. Shampoo agreed that he would be too-too delicious and headed out the door with an apology, only to halt in her tracks as a belated memory nagged at the fringes of her consciousness.

Now where had she seen that cute little black pig before…?

All at once her eyes got very wide, and she rushed back into the kitchen and cried, "<No, great-grandmother, this one is not to be eaten!>"

She was just a few seconds too late to prevent Cologne from dropping the pig into a wok of already boiling water, the predictable result being that a very angry boy emerged screaming in pain and outrage. He at once tried to attack the Elder but got flattened for his troubles, then Cologne calmly looked down and asked for his name, as if this sort of thing were a common enough experience with her, talking to just-discovered victims of Jusenkyo.

Shampoo was still catching her breath at the brief scene of a naked male form that looked surprisingly a lot like that of Ranma when she caught the name Hibiki Ryoga. She closed her mouth, knowing very well from her experiences at the Tendo Dojo just who this Ryoga was, and his relationship with a certain Tendo sister whom Shampoo had recently begun training.

She already knew the story of how he got his curse, but she listened in and caught from his side of the matter how he had been surprised at Jusenkyo and knocked into Heituenniichuan, the Spring of Drowned Piglet. Shampoo thought it could just as well have been the Spring of The Drowned Stubborn Fool, for he had an obsessive rage complex directed at her beloved Ranma over the incident in question, and some prior misunderstandings involving bread, or so she had gathered from various hints and suggestions in the notes of her other beloved.

Cologne seemed quite fascinated with the boy, who was in many ways a superb martial artist and would have no doubt have easily captured himself a wife back at Joketsuzoku if his endless wanderings were ever to take him in that direction. Shampoo was not as interested in the particulars and excused herself to rush to her delayed appointment with Nabiki, thinking to herself that the Lost Boy would probably still be there when she got back, what with his problem finding a door that lead to something other than a closet.

Nabiki was waiting outside the new establishment that had not yet opened, this place called "Ucchan's," after its primary patron and the object of their mutual interest. As she half dreaded her beloved flashed an annoyed look her way and said, "You're late."

"Very sorry," Shampoo said in Japanese, "Small matter turn into big problem at restaurant, but great grandmother taking care of it. Shampoo here now to help Nabiki with other problem. This place belong to new rival?"

"Uhuh," Nabiki nodded, dismissing the issue of Shampoo's tardiness, "And now that you're here we can see if she's home. If we present a united front we may be able to straighten matters out, otherwise…"

"Shampoo understand," she nodded, turning to face the building while Nabiki rang the front door buzzer. They both waited for a few moments until they saw a figure move from behind the window, and a few seconds later Kuonji Ukyo appeared at the door already dressed and ready for travel, judging by the baker's peel she had strapped with her bandoleer of miniature spatulas.

"What do you two want?" she asked gruffly, still pretending to be male, which Shampoo had to concede was a pretty effective disguise and she chided herself for not seeing through it earlier.

"Kuonji-san," Nabiki began, "We need to have a few words with you concerning Ranma…"

Ukyo stood back from the door and waved them in, "Make it snappy. I've got someplace to be in a hurry."

"Kuonji-san," Nabiki paused before saying, "May I call you Ukyo? We know why you're here and what your beef is about Ranma."

Kuonji's eyes narrowed as she locked the front door, then in neutral tones replied, "Go on."

Nabiki sat down on a chair while Shampoo took a position to her left, like a faithful guardian, letting Nabiki do the talking as her wife's negotiation skills were admittedly much better refined, not to mention her command of the language gave her a very strong advantage. Shampoo had opted to play the defender role, knowing her strength could back up her Airen's words should this Kuonji person prove to be less cooperative than desired.

"About ten years ago Saotome Genma and his son were traveling through the same province as you and your father," Nabiki began with her usual brevity in cutting to the chase, "Being a couple of vagabonds with no stable source of income, it was quite natural that they were starving when they caught the smell of your yatai cart and decided to investigate. Since Genma had no money he sent his six-year-old son on a raid, telling him it was a game and all part of his training. Ranma stole some okonomiyaki in spite of your efforts to fend him off, and the next day he did the same thing to you again, over and over. You'd try to prevent him from taking your food and he'd laugh as he easily bested you and made off with the okonomiyaki."

Kuonji's eyes narrowed dangerously as she said, "Go on."

"Your father, rather than be outraged at this continual theft, was actually quite amused and finally invited Ranma and his father to come out of hiding, sharing some okonomiyaki with them while he and the father chatted away, and you got to know Ranma on a more personal level. Six years old and a young girl in training to be a great martial artist…"

"Hold on, Sugar," Ukyo interrupted, "What makes you think I'm a girl?"

"No Adam's Apple," Nabiki replied matter-of-factly.

Ukyo's hand went up to her throat, where the collar was tightly buttoned, "How did…?"

"I'm a pretty good observer, Ukyo-chan," Nabiki pronounced the name with careful emphasis, "It is a little surprising that Ranma still thinks that you're a guy, but he was six when you two met, and thanks to the influence of his father he probably didn't think girls practiced the martial arts like you do. I have to admit that you are pretty good at playing a guy…I didn't spot you at all yesterday, and it was only after I had time to put two and two together that I figured out why you were really angry with Ranma."

"Ranchan," Ukyo murmured, her eyes now haunted by a memory, which same caused her to harden a moment later, "So, you figured out my secret, big deal! It still doesn't change the fact that he and his father owe me for ten years of my life! Ten years I've trained for this day! Do you have any idea the suffering I've had to endure because of that jackass?"

"Why you blame him?" Shampoo sniffed, "It panda father who steal cart and abandon girl, no Ranma."

"And what is it to you?" Ukyo's brown eyes flashed in the Amazon's direction.

"Ranma is Shampoo Airen," Shampoo replied with a narrowing of her own reddish-brown eyes and a smile that was almost predatory as she laid a hand on Nabiki's shoulder and said, "Nabiki also Ranma Airen, no think Spatula Girl threaten one and no make Shampoo very angry."

Ukyo frowned, "Whoah…let me get this straight…you're both engaged to Ranchan? How did that happen?"

"Ah…" Nabiki colored slightly, "It just sort-of happened, you know? Ranma's father and my dad made an arrangement for our two Houses to be united before any of us were born, and a few months ago they came back from China and formally engaged us. Shampoo here is a Chinese Amazon who Ranma defeated in combat, which-by the laws of her tribe-means she was obligated to marry him. We're still working out the details, but for the moment I guess you could say that we're both engaged to Ranma."

"Whoah!" Ukyo waved a hand to call a pause, "Did you say he beat you in a fight…so now you've got to marry him?"

"Is Amazon way," Shampoo replied, "Ranma strong fighter, bested Shampoo, who is best of her generation. Law say Amazon marry outsider male who defeat her, and Shampoo very happy to obey law and marry Ranma-Airen."

"And you two don't mind sharing him?" Ukyo shook her head, "Weird. Okay, so that's your decision, but where does that leave me?"

"That's pretty much what we're here to determine," Nabiki replied, "I take it the arrangement was that in exchange for the yatai, Genma would take you with him as Ranma's iinazuke?"

"You got it, Sugar," Ukyo said flatly, "Only the jackass dumped me along the side of the road just a few kilometers out of town. I had to walk back to my father and admit my humiliation at being rejected! My dad never said a word about the matter, but he didn't have to! His eyes spoke volumes at how disappointed he was with me. He always wanted a son, you know, and here I was, a girl who couldn't even hold onto her fiancé!"

"That hardly sounds fair," Nabiki reacted to this news with dismay, "Didn't he know what kind of an irresponsible person Genma was when he made that stupid agreement? And why the heck did he want you taken off his hands anyway? Didn't he care about his own daughter?"

"Not as much as he'd care if I'd been born the right gender," Ukyo sounded disgusted, "Why do you think I started dressing up and pretending to be a boy? I wanted to gain my father's approval, so I tried to be the son he always wanted, and it was the only way I could escape the humiliation of other kids taunting me because I'd been rejected by my betrothed! Ten years I've been a guy, going from one school to the next, registering as a boy, getting special dispensation from PE coaches because of some weird medical condition my father invented. I think he even convinced himself that I was his son after a while, only a few years ago he seemed to change his mind about it. I think it was on the anniversary of mom's death that he started looking at me funny, and then he went and did the damnedest thing and put it into his will that I'll only inherit his restaurant chain if I find and punish-or marry-my iinazuke!

Shampoo frowned, wanting to ask the first question that popped into her mind, which was why anyone would prefer to have a boy over a strong girl child like Ukyo. Before the opportunity presented itself, however, she heard Nabiki voice her own question, "Chain?"

"That's right, Sugar," Ukyo sniffed, "Dad had salted away enough hard cash to open his own restaurant, which he planned to do when he gave his old yatai cart to Genma. I went to work for him, of course, in-between attending classes at a local school, and training for my revenge against the Saotomes. The business took off when we drew a lot of customers to the Tomobiki district, and that eventually gave Dad enough hard currency to open a second restaurant, then a third and a forth, and so on, and now he's rolling in the money. We're not indigents any more, which is why he's giving me this restaurant for my own to run, and if I manage to turn a profit in the next five years it's mine on a permanent basis."

Nabiki whistled, doing some quick mental calculations, and recalling vividly the taste of the free sample she had eaten the previous day, and the close proximity to Furinkan High School. Very slowly she noted, "So…your dad decided the engagement was valid anyway? Even after Genma had reneged on the agreement?"

"Dad's a great businessman, but when it comes to some things, he's a real jackass," Ukyo snorted, "I guess he thought I was becoming too much like a guy and wanted me to carry on the family line, which can only happen if I get myself a husband. Since no guy will look at me the way I am without feeling like a hentai, he figured that Ranma would be a pretty good fighter by now and might make a decent husband. I was planning to beat his head flat when I saw him again, only he's not…quite what I expected."

Both of the other women in the room noted the sudden change in her tone. Shampoo and Nabiki exchanged looks, then Nabiki said, "Yeah, well, regardless of that, you ought to know that Ranma's not up for grabs to just anybody who makes a claim on him. We've already gone through that with two other claimants that Genma cheated in his travels. I don't want to make light of your position, but you have to know that Shampoo and I are having enough trouble sorting things out as it is. We don't need a third party to make things even more complicated."

"So you say," Ukyo studied their faces then said, "Do you both love Ranma?"

The question took both Nabiki and Shampoo by surprise, but their reactions were slightly different as Nabiki looked away, feeling her face burn with embarrassment, though she could not keep a smile from her features, while Shampoo got a dreamy look in her eyes as she imagined her beloved's handsome face in vivid detail.

"That's what I thought," Ukyo sniffed, "And what does Ranchan think of the pair of you? Does he feel the same way?"

"Ah…" now Nabiki's face was almost as crimson as a sunburn, while Shampoo gained a sad, wistful expression as she privately admitted her uncertainty on that question.

"So," Ukyo folded her arms over her chest, "You're telling me you both want him, but he hasn't made a formal declaration towards either of you. That's quite a guy you got there, a real Casanova."

Shampoo frowned, "What is…?" but before she could finish the question Nabiki reacted more vocally declaring, "He's not like that! Ranma's the nicest guy you could ever hope to know! Oh, sure he's a bit arrogant and he says things without thinking it out, but he cares about people, and I know he cares about me! I'm pretty sure he cares a lot about Shampoo here…" she stopped herself, realizing what she had just said and what she was giving away to both women. Shampoo was eyeing her with a wondering expression.

"Okay," Ukyo frowned, "So what do you two think about each other? Are you really going to share him, or is this a contest you haven't resolved, and you'd like to cut down on the number of outside players?"

Now Nabiki really was fidgeting in her chair, but Shampoo came to her rescue with a heartfelt smile and said, "Shampoo decide she like share Airen with Nabiki. When Shampoo first come to Nerima she meet husband and fall for him big time…no know that him already have Sneaky Girl for Airen. Shampoo make Nabiki very angry and jealous for a time, but we work out in end, make agreement, no be enemies over Ranma. Is Amazon Way, two warriors share strong husband."

"Weird," Ukyo shook her head as if to clear it, then her gaze narrowed again as she said, "One more question…what was with that trick he pulled last night with the hot water?"

"Ah…" now both Shampoo and Nabiki looked momentarily stumped by that question before Nabiki managed to say, "That's right, you saw that, huh? Would it help to say it was done with mirrors?"

"Don't try to con me, Sugar," Ukyo sniffed, "I was standing right next to him when it happened. One minute I was defending a half-naked girl, the next I see a really cute guy with a strong, bare MASCULINE chest, and you can't tell me that was done with mirrors!"

"Is curse of Jusenkyo," Shampoo quietly answered.

"Come again?" Ukyo arched brown eyebrows.

"Ranma under powerful curse of Shampoo homeland," Shampoo replied, "Cursed Springs of Jusenkyo, one hundred pools, each one with tragic story of thing or person who drown there. It used for centuries as training grown for Amazons, but it banned for generations because whatever fall in pool become thing that last drown there."

"Cold water turns you into your cursed shape," Nabiki said, "Hot water changes you back to normal. Ranma fell into the pool of the Drowned Girl…"

"Nyanniichuan," Shampoo said for clarification.

"Right," Nabiki resumed, "It was Genma's fault, of course. He took Ranma there to train even though neither one of them spoke a word of Chinese and each one fell into a different spring. Now whenever he gets wet Ranma becomes a girl…"

"And hot water changes him back," Ukyo said thoughtfully, "I hope you don't mind me saying that this story is a little hard to swallow."

Shampoo sighed and left Nabiki's side, walked over to the counter of Ucchan's and turned on the tap, filling a glass with water. She then turned the warm-water tap on and left it running.

Holding up the cold water glass she looked at Ukyo, then poured the contents over her head. Almost instantly she began to collapse inwardly as her Chinese dress billowed out until it was a pile of silk on the floor with a fluffy pink kitten forcing its way out from beneath her garments.

Ukyo just stared as Nabiki said, "Maonniichuan, the Spring of the Drowned Cat. In case we forgot to mention it, Shampoo here is also a Jusenkyo victim."

The cat sprang up onto the counter and went at once to the sink, and a moment later a naked Shampoo emerged, stepping onto the floor as unselfconsciously as though she were dressed in a ballroom gown. Ukyo's eyes went wide while Nabiki took a moment to enjoy the view the Amazon was presenting.

"Curse make life very difficult for Shampoo," she said as she reached down for her clothes and started to dress herself once again, "But sometime it come in handy, such as when Shampoo want to go somewhere and learn something. Ranma curse at least leave him with hands to turn on tap to water."

"So…" Ukyo began very slowly, "Ranma turns into that cute girl I thought I was rescuing, then changes back to a boy when he gets splashed with hot water? Is there also another spring that does the same thing in reverse?"

"Nanniichuan," Shampoo replied as she finished buttoning her shirt again, "Spring of Drowned Man. Why you ask? You think of going there?"

"Ah," now it was Ukyo's turn to blush, "Well, the thought does have it's appeal, and it would have gotten my father off my ass more than a few times if I really could be a boy, at least some of the time. But I guess a curse like that is a lot of trouble…"

"Exactly," Nabiki said, "Just the kind of trouble I'm sure you don't want to get mixed up in."

Ukyo narrowed her brown eyes, "Now just a minute, Sugar, don't go making assumptions that I'm some kind of provincial hick just because some of this stuff is new to me. I've seen a lot of stranger stuff going on in Tomobiki, believe me! After a while nothing really much phases you."

"You mean you no mind that Ranma have curse?" Shampoo asked in surprise.

"You don't seem to mind," Ukyo's eyes flicked from one girl to the other, then she said, "Tell you what, I'll reserve judgement about that. I know you guys are only doing what you think it best in your own interest, but I've got a lot riding on this too, you know, so I just can't let this thing slide because you find it inconvenient."

"You mean your father putting that provision in his will?" Nabiki asked, "How much do you stand to inherit?"

"It's not the money I worry about," Ukyo sniffed, "But Dad and me worked real hard to build up his restaurant empire, and I won't see it get broken up by the banks because I forfeit my right to inherit! I earned more than my share of Dad's business, I have every right to see it's properly managed, and besides…it is a lot of money, about seven billion yen of it at last estimate…"

"Seven billion-?" Nabiki's voice squeaked as she took this in with dismay at the implications.

"Right," Ukyo replied, "So before you ask me to put that all aside in favor of your individual claims, allow me the courtesy of sounding things out a bit so I can make my own determination."

Shampoo looked sidelong at Nabiki, "She have more in common with you than just pretty Japanese girl. Shampoo think maybe we need make better offer she no refuse?"

"Such as?" Ukyo eyed her warily.

Shampoo smile, "Maybe Shampoo test you, see if you worthy of spending time with Ranma. Amazon no let strange girl have husband without challenge, especially pervert girl who dress like man and probably have same preference."

"Now just a minute here!" Ukyo was outraged, "Are you calling me a pervert? I'll have you know that I'm just like either of you, even if I do dress up like a guy…"

"And flirt with other girls?" I noted softly.

Ukyo colored, "That's just something I got in the habit of doing to keep people from getting suspicious. Girls come onto me all the time, and I just fend them off by pretending to be like other guys, only I never let things get too far. Flirting's a game and you learn the rules pretty quickly at Tomobiki, but I did kind of start early when I was enrolled at Jubei Crossroads Middle School."

"You see?" Shampoo sniffed at Nabiki, "She real pervert girl. Maybe she try make on Ranma when he girl, you think?"

Ukyo unslung her peel and snarled, "I don't have to take that from you, especially not in my restaurant!"

Shampoo flexed her arms and suddenly was holding a bonbori mace in either hand, "We fight? Maybe Shampoo take it easy on Pervert Girl. You think you maybe win and become third Airen?"

"Ladies!" Nabiki got up out of her chair and interposed herself between the would-be combatants, even as Ukyo looked ready to lunge forward in spite of the obstacle, "Back off, this is no time or place for this sort of thing, okay? Ukyo…you don't want to fight with an Amazon, especially, if it means wrecking this place. Shampoo, behave! I told you I was the one who was going to do all the talking, all right?"

The Amazon sniffed but said, "Airen speak for Shampoo, and you right. This no time for contest, we settle maybe later." So saying she flexed her arms and her maces vanished.

"Fine with me," Ukyo retorted, "Just name the time and place."

Nabiki made a point of sniffing the air, "What's this I smell? Testosterone? You two are acting like a couple of guys here! Lighten up, will you already? We were supposed to keep this brief and social."

"All right," Ukyo replied, still holding onto her huge iron spatula, "You two have said your peace, you both want me to back down about Ranma. I've said I'll think about it, now you'd better leave because I've got some arrangements of my own to take care of, and your classes begin in less than a half hour, am I right?"

"More or less," Nabiki relaxed as the okonomiyaki chef slung her weapon back into its usual place across her back, "Can we continue this later when you've had time to come to a decision?"

"Sure thing," Ukyo replied, "I'll let you both know what I decide as soon as I know for myself, but first I'm going to settle accounts with Saotome. Once I do that, then I can get on with the rest of my life and you can both pick up the pieces."

She showed the two of them to the door, then locked it behind herself before starting out on her own in the general direction of Furinkan while Shampoo and Nabiki hung back to confer with one another.

"What do you think?" Nabiki asked softly.

"She very determined," Shampoo replied, "No think she give up on Ranma-Airen so easy."

"That's what I was afraid of," Nabiki said grimly, "If she presses the issue it could me trouble for both of us and Ranma. Genma made an agreement with her father and reneged on it, but the contract is still valid, especially in light of the fact that he accepted the yatai."

"You think maybe she need persuading?" Shampoo glanced back at the building they had just exited, "Restaurant no open yet, is only brick and mortar, no?"

"Shampoo…" Nabiki growled in low warning.

"What?" the Amazon said defiantly, "You mean you no think of it youself? Maybe she need example that Amazon law no worth ignoring."

"I'd rather avoid doing anything that drastic, thank you," Nabiki said levelly, then sighed, "But maybe we could consider it…as a last resort. For now I think it'd be better if we tried to keep on her good side, leave the rough stuff for when it's necessary."

"You probably right," Shampoo sighed, "So what we tell Ranma?"

"I don't know just yet," Nabiki considered, "He deserves to know the truth about his old friend, but if he finds out about the engagement…"

"You think maybe he feel responsible for mistake made by father?" Shampoo wondered.

"Anything is possible at this point," Nabiki heaved a weary sigh, "You know Ranma and that macho code of his. He'd never deliberately hurt a friend, and if he hears about the kind of sacrifices Ukyo has gone through over their engagement…"

"You right," Shampoo nodded, "Maybe better we wait and see what Spatula Girl do before we tell Ranma."

"Which means I'd better head onto class and see if I can catch up with him," Nabiki said, "And you probably should be heading back to your restaurant…"

"No need." Shampoo said, "Great grandmother decide take day off, so no open for business. Strange boy you know show up and talk to Great Grandmother. You remember stupid Pig Boy?"

"Ryoga?" Nabiki started, "We haven't seen him around lately, now that you mention it. I suppose he got lost again…and you say he went to talk to your great grandmother?"

"More like he almost wind up in sweet and sour sauce again," Shampoo smirked, "Only this time I no be one who do that to him. Great Grandmother recognize he Jusenkyo victim when he pop up naked in wok. He no very happy about that."

"I can imagine," Nabiki could not help smiling, "Well, I don't suppose you'd mind walking me to school, then? It's not very far."

"Can no think of anything Shampoo more want do," the Amazon smiled, "Except maybe if do with both Nabiki and Ranma."

"Uh…right," Nabiki said uneasily, then started off on her way with Shampoo pacing easily at her side. On the whole, she reflected, it was turning out to be yet another strange morning in Nerima…

Nabiki's Journal Continues:

Sometimes I wonder exactly at what point my life entered the Twilight Zone. Sometimes I think it started on the day a cute boy named Ranma entered my life, but then I remember that weird stuff pretty much happened long before he showed up in Nerima.

Case in point: Kuonji Ukyo. Sure it's weird to find out that the hunky guy you started drooling over one morning turns out to be a really cute girl who's out to steal your boyfriend, but that's almost average compared to the fact that the boyfriend in question is also sometimes my equally cute girlfriend, or the fact that we both have a girl with naturally purple hair in our lives who wants to engage the both of us in a permanent threesome.

Okay, chalk that up to the general run of weirdness that's become fairly typical around here. Add the fact that we have a couple of old witches who've taken a personal interest in our mutual development, and add in one perpetually lost boy who has a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Fuji. That the boy is also a pig who happens to be interested in my baby sister is just sauce on the fishcakes, and that doesn't even begin to deal with the loon who seems to have taken an interest in my other sister…

But who am I to complain about new business opportunities? I just wish the people who showed up on our doorstep were not falling into one of two categories: 1.) Out to date my iinazuke or; 2.) Out to kill him. In some cases both, which brings me back to our dear Ucchan.

I arrived at Furinkan with Shampoo just in time to find a commotion going on, then Ryonami shows up to inform me that the "cute guy" from the day before had challenged Ranma to a fight out by the gym and that everybody was gathered there to watch the morning duel before classes started. Of course we hurried up to find out what was going on when we discovered Ukyo standing in an already assembled arena that looked somewhat different from the one that was used in the fight against Mousse. For one thing the edges were curved suspiciously upward.

I'd like to take a moment to comment on our schools lamentable policy concerning fighting on campus. Considering the amount of mayhem wrought by the morning attacks that Akane used to have to wade through you'd think the administration would clamp down on such delinquency. Instead they all but encourage it with their silence, shrugging their collective shoulders as if there were nothing to be done about it. Kids will be kids, they say, as testified by the number of students who wind up in the infirmary on a regular daily basis.

You would also thing that there would be some pressure from the parents of those kids who get beat up a lot to do something to protect their children from bullies. Unfortunately for the last two years, things have been steadily going downhill ever since the former Principal went on a long sabbatical and left the Assistant Principal nominally in charge of things. Mister Omi-san is a good man, and he does try his best to keep on top of things, but with the lack of support he gets from the local school board it's a wonder he can even keep the budget balanced, let alone put a stop to the rampages of delinquents like Kuno.

So it was that I was hardly surprised to find a noted absence of teacher authority in this situation. Here was a non-student showing up to challenge the local Champion of our school with the PE Coach and Home Economics teacher standing to one side watching the whole affair as though it were an athletic event and not a fight between teenagers.

It seems that "pressing business" that Ukyo had been talking about was setting up for her challenge match against Ranma, something she obviously had been planning to do the whole time we talked in her restaurant. Shampoo looked about as unhappy about that as me and no doubt regretted heeding my advice not to wreck Kuonji's restaurant, but she was in agreement that we had to sit on the sidelines this time and watch what happened, hoping the opportunity would arrive to warn Ranma about his "old buddy."

Ranma showed up, of course, never having been one to refuse a challenge, but he tried to dissuade Ukyo against fighting. He tried to apologize for his father's behavior, to promise that he would somehow seek to make amends for any inconvenience caused by their abandoning Ukyo instead of taking "him" along with them as promised. Ranma even called Ukyo his brother and swore he would treat him like family from now on. All of that just served to enflame Kuonji's anger, which surprised Ranma very much though Shampoo and me had no trouble figuring out her motivation.

I caught sight of Genma slinking around in the crowd and apologized to Shampoo as I went to seek him out. The fight was just getting underway with the opening volley being Ukyo taking a few swings with her baker's peel, which at first glance seemed random until I realized that she was trying to direct Ranma towards the edge of the arena. Ranma, on the other hand, was giving the edge a wide berth and wouldn't let himself be steered like that for some reason, and it wasn't until a few moments later that I found out why: His hypersensitivity to heat was telling him to avoid it.

"Ojisan," I said rather than the more formal Ojisama, "What a coincidence you being here of all places. How did you know that Ukyo was going to be seeking Ranma out with a challenge?"

Uncle Genma gave me one of the guiltiest looks he has ever manifested and tried to act innocent, telling me he was just looking out for the boy and trying to see that two old friends did not wind up mortal enemies, and who knew that Ukyo would carry things this far? I listened with one ear while watching the fight take a really bizarre turn with Ranma suddenly perched on top of Ukyo's outstretched spatula trying once again to talk peace. I noticed with some dismay that Kuonji's arms never even wavered at supporting Ranma's weight on the peel in spite of the awkward way she had to shift her balance. The girl was a lot stronger than I'd imagined, possibly even in Shampoo's class, no doubt the result of some mighty intensive training.

Ukyo was only incensed that Ranma did not seem to be taking their fight very seriously and flipped Ranma off a few moments later. She tried again to corner Ranma against the edge of the arena, but I saw him shy away as if magnetically repelled, which tipped me off that there was a very good reason for confining himself to a much smaller area of combat.

Then Ranma fell into one of the large bowls that Kuonji had set about the arena like obstacles, and suddenly he could not remove his legs as if he were glued to the pot. Ukyo wasted no time taking advantage of his immobility and tangled him up with what looked like ramen noodles, then used them to tip Ranma over. She then grabbed up a barrel of what she declared to be tempura flakes mixed with gunpowder and chucked the contents onto Ranma. I watched in dismay as I saw some flakes touch the edge of the arena and suddenly ignite, creating a cloud of smoke that momentarily obscured one part of the arena.

I felt my heart in my hands, realizing what the heat of those sparks might be doing to poor Ranma, but if Ukyo thought that would conclude the fight she was corrected in her assumption moments later when Ranma emerged from the smoke, having freed his legs from entanglement. He promptly turned the tables by snaring Ukyo with her own noodles, then used them to spin her about before tossing her out of the arena.

I followed a hunch as I kept one hand firmly gripped on Genma's collar while approaching the arena to satisfy my suspicions. Sure enough it turned out that it was indeed the very same arena that Mousse had used the day before, only the outer edge had been lined with interlinking metal plates that were connected to an electrical heating system that turned them into very large hot plates. The surfaces were non-stick coated, which meant that effectively the outer part of the arena had been turned into one very large skittle.

I can't imagine what agony that heat caused Ranma just being near to them, but he had braved the barrier in order to try and make peace with a girl whom he thought was a boy from his childhood. Knowing how Ranma felt intense isolation from his years of travel, I could understand him wanting to go to any lengths to repair such a friendship, only now he seemed to have reached the breaking point of his temper. He vaulted out of the arena in pursuit of Kuonji while Shampoo turned to me and said, "Airen very angry! He no think she girl, so he no hold back from fight."

"Ranma," I said, then together we dragged Genma along as we made haste to follow the ongoing fight as it carried to the fringes of the schoolyard. We paused when we found Kuonji's peel bent in half, another sign that our mutual betrothed was mad as hell and fighting more intensely than usual.

It was with some amazement that we found Kuonji was holding her own in avoiding Ranma's furious attacks, but she was clutching at the front of her shirt as if afraid it was about to come loose at the seams, which hampered her defenses. She was very fast and could probably have held out a lot longer had she been fighting at full strength, but without her baker's peel she was at a decided disadvantage. She finally stumbled under Ranma's onslaught and was suddenly at his mercy. We all (by which I mean Shampoo, me, Genma and the flock of students following after us) all held our collective breath and waited for Ranma to deliver the finishing blow.

Instead Ranma checked himself, holding back as Ukyo studied him from her prone position. Ranma was breathing hard, but not from his exertions. I could see from the strain on his face that he was trying to rein in his emotions, to get his anger back under control, and then he finally began to calm a little, then to relax and stand more at ease than in a martial arts posture.

He lowered his head and said, "I'm sorry…I shouldn't have lost my temper. You don't deserve that."

"Huh?" Kuonji gasped as she looked up at him, no doubt surprised by his tone more than his show of mercy.

"I meant what I said before back there," Ranma replied, "I don't want to fight you…in fact, you had every right to be mad a me. What my father did was unforgivable, and even if I was just a little kid I owe you better than to get all worked up about you coming looking for revenge on me, Ucchan."

"Why are you being so nice to me?" Ukyo asked as she got into a sitting position, "Aren't you mad that I just tried to hurt you?"

"What about it?" Ranma shrugged, "Lots of people are always trying to hurt me for one stupid reason or another. You're just the first one in a long while who had a good reason. It's not like I can blame you or nothing."

"Huh?" Ukyo blinked at him in confusion.

"Ucchan," Ranma got down on his knees and assumed a traditional position for meditation, but instead he bowed down to Ukyo and said, "Please forgive me for what my father did. I never personally meant to hurt you, and I'd like to make it up in any way that I can."

"You mean that?" Ukyo asked, sounding hopeful as she also sat in the same posture without bowing.

"I sure do," Ranma straightened out again, then said, "Pop made a deal with your father to take you with us. I'm not sure I know why your Pop wanted to make a stupid deal like that, but it sure would have been nice having you with us, especially since you knew how to cook and all. I mean, what'd the stupid old man want with your yatai since he doesn't even know how to cook okonomiyaki?"

The latter part he delivered with a glare towards his father, who raised both hands and clapped them together in the sign of petition for forgiveness.

"What…what became of the yatai, do you know?" Ukyo asked softly.

Ranma lowered his eyes, "I guess we just left it somewhere, or the old man sold it, or something. I don't remember too much about it, I just know it was a stupid thing for us to do. I can't excuse it, and I can't ask you to overlook it. All I can ask is that maybe you find it in your heart to put it aside and let bygones be bygones. I want us to be friends again, just like we used to be, remember?"

"I remember a lot of things," Ukyo said evenly, "I don't know, Ranchan…after everything I've been through, all the things I've suffered because of you two, you're asking me to forgive a lot."

"I know," he replied, "And I don't have a lot I can give you to make up for it, but I've been thinking about it since yesterday, and…well…I've always wanted a brother…"

"A brother?" Ukyo asked in evident confusion.

"That is what the deal was between our folks, right?" Ranma asked, "We were supposed to take you along with us, which means you could have been like my little brother, or something. I'd like it if you'd be my brother now, if you'd let me call you that, for old times sake?"

"I see," Ukyo's tone suddenly seemed poignant with unvoiced emotions as she stared down for several seconds, "So that's the way it's going to be for now, huh? I…I guess that's more than I deserved…for blaming you and all…"

"It's not much, but it's all I can do at the moment," Ranma replied, "Maybe we can even trace the yatai down and get it back for you. Would you like that?"

"You'd do that for me?" Ukyo's eyes were suddenly very moist, and I can only guess what kind of turmoil she was in, but Ranma was getting through to her and working his usual charm on the opposite sex, as usual without even being aware that he was making another conquest.

"I'd do that for my brother," Ranma smiled, "C'mon, let's shake and be buddies, okay?'

Kuonji's mouth quirked along the edges and she smiled, "Okay, I guess we can be…buddies. At least for now, Ranchan. However…there is one thing I'd like to do first."

"Name it," Ranma asked her.

Ukyo's gaze slid by him and focused squarely on Genma, "I'd like to beat up on the real culprit here, the guy who betrayed me and left me on the road, who made every day of my life a living hell!"

She reared to her feet as Genma reacted in panic, making a warding gesture. Ranma got up as well and said, "Ukyo…regardless of what he's done, he's still my father."

"Yeah?" Ukyo's tone was hard, "So what?"

"So," Ranma said as he smoothly turned around, "If anybody's gonna beat the stuffing out of him it's gonna be me!"

I let go of Genma's collar, not because I wanted him to get a head start or anything like that but simply because I knew better than to let myself be dragged around as he made a hasty exit, followed closely by an irate Ukyo and Ranma, who seemed to have agreed that venting their anger on the old panda was a good way to forge togetherness and repair their ruptured friendship.

Of course later on Ranma returned and straightened out the baker's peel, giving it back to Ukyo as good as new, which brightened her mood almost as much as the vengeance she apparently had visited on Uncle Saotome. She later sought me and Shampoo out and got us to agree not to reveal her secret to anybody since she was going to enroll in Furinkan as a boy. Both me and Shampoo had our suspicions about that, but Ukyo said she had decided to take Ranma up on his offer to become his official "brother," that she was reserving her judgement about the engagement thing and giving herself more time to get to know him "as a buddy." We decided to let it go like that, knowing full well that her agreement to rescind the engagement would be to our advantage. Maybe she really will become little more than a buddy to Ranchan, and he certainly could use another guy around to unload his problems.

I mean, I'd be jealous as hell about him unburdening his heart with anyone besides me, but let's be realistic about this. There's no way Ranma is going to confess things to me that he'd be willing to tell another guy. So what if the "guy" he trusts with his secrets just happens to be a woman in disguise?

Yeah, that's what I tell myself, but who exactly am I kidding…?

Nabiki paused in her typing to look up at Shampoo, who was leaning over at the side of her desk as if reading what Nabiki had just printed.

"That's a very good question," she said aloud, looking at the Amazon, "Who the hell am I kidding?"

Shampoo shrugged in reply. Both knew that the matter regarding Ukyo Kuonji was anything but resolved, and what happened next was up to the gods, if even they were privy…

Earlier in the day:

Akane had been on her way home from the market when she came upon the by-now-familiar sight of Ranma and Ryoga fighting. She hurried her pace to catch up to them in time to see the fight carry them over to a public fountain. Her trained eye could tell that poor Ryoga was at a definite disadvantage, throwing punch after punch without coming anywhere near to connecting, his kicks being even less effective. Ranma was like smoke floating away and around his attacks, then counter-attacking with a devastating offensive that Ryoga had no hope of avoiding. It was like watching a grown up beat up on a child, and it outraged her into redoubling her momentum.

Ranma knocked Ryoga flying, only to catch him at the last instant before he could land in the fountain and trigger his transformation. Ryoga made a furious attempt at recovery in spite of his position but it was to no avail as Ranma easily deflected his assaults, catching Ryoga again before he could hit the water.

The sound of someone growling caused Ranma to turn, seeing Akane bearing down on him, and he tried to make light of the situation, only to see her furious expression. At the last instant he recognized his peril and tried to talk her out of it, but that half-second delay cost him dearly as Akane's hand flew with greater speed than he had anticipated, and this time her punch connected as Ranma could only have avoided her if he had released his hold on Ryoga.

As if everything were in slow motion Ranma's head jerked back and he let go of Ryoga. The lost boy went flying straight upward on an unavoidable trajectory that would carry him back down into the water below him while Ranma preceded him in a splash that caused him to transform instantly to his cursed form. Ryoga was only seconds away from impact when he was suddenly snatched out of the air and deposited safely on dry concrete.

Ryoga's head spun a little with dismay as he turned to see Akane looking up at him, asking if he were all right while ignoring the angry high-pitched protests from Ranma, who was cursing out Akane for trapping her in female form again after she had gone a full day avoiding contact with any water!

"Be quiet, Ranma," Akane snapped, "You were beginning to stink anyway! Now at least you can take a cold bath!" Akane turned to Ryoga and said, "Don't let him bully you. He's been working out with Shampoo's great grandmother, which is why he gave you such a hard time, Ryo-chan. I want you to forget all about him. Besides…it'll be a while before he can get back his male form, thanks to what that old lady did to him."

"What she did to me?" Ranma sputtered like a wet hen, "You stupid tomboy! Look what you did to me! How could you?"

Akane turned with a sniff and led Ryoga away from the fountain, dragging the unresisting lost boy with her until she had calmed down enough to speak with him again, and then she had looked at him with soulful eyes and begged him not to fight with Ranma again, protesting that she could not stand to see Ryoga hurt, that it would hurt her worse than he could imagine.

That was several hours ago, and now Ryoga found himself underneath a bridge punching at the concrete wall, heedless of the deep holes his fists made as he vented his anger and frustration. Ryoga felt worse than any pain that such blows would have caused to an ordinary young man, which he hardly felt at all, in spite of the wall looking like it had been used for target practice by a sledgehammer.

"Curse you, Ranma!" he cried out, and after wandering lost for two weeks, practicing hard and training himself for their rematch. How in the name of all that was holy had Ranma improved so much in the same amount of time? In spite of Ryoga's strength and skill he might as well have been fighting with a ghost! Ranma's speed had simply not been human!

"He's been working out with Shampoo's great grandmother," he seemed to hear the words echoing in his mind in response to his unvoiced question. "That old woman," Akane had called her…old woman! Ryoga thought back to earlier in the day, to the lady who had almost cooked him, who had casually displayed an amazing skill being able to chop wood with her bare hands, hands that moved with a speed that defied description, hands that moved…

Just like Ranma's.

Ryoga stared at the wall, revelation gnawing at his consciousness as he remembered the old woman's words from earlier in the day: "So, you're a friend of my son-in-law, eh? Want to team up for a little training? I think I can help you give Ranma a little run for his yen…"

As if in reply to his thoughts he heard that same voice say behind him, "What about it, Sonny-boy? Have you changed your mind yet about accepting my help in training?"

"You?" Ryoga turned around to see the old woman smiling up at him, leaning on her staff as if reading his thoughts. Ryoga actually smiled and began to relax a little, "I was hoping you'd turn up. Maybe you really do know something that could help me…"

Not far away, perched atop a building, another old woman stared down at the exchange between the boy and her fellow elder and sighed a little. How predictably like Cologne, using a catspawn to obtain her objectives. She would teach the boy all right, just enough to give Ranma a challenge, not necessarily to win. All part of the Matriarch's grand scheme to hone Shampoo's husband into the great fighter that they both knew was his potential destiny. In all likelihood that boy-now trapped once again in female form-was in for a match that would test and refine his mettle.

Lotion smiled inwardly, knowing that Cologne had made one error in regards to Saotome Ranma. The boy's fighting spirit was unlike anything either one of them had seen in a very long while, and once again she was reminded of her almost-husband, the one who had gotten away from her thanks to Cologne's meddling where she was not wanted. As with the man she had first loved and bore a child to there was a determination not to be forced into a pattern that was not of his choosing. Ranma would fight tenaciously for his freedom, and Shampoo was very likely to be the loser of such an encounter.

She had no intention of making the same mistake with Nabiki. The girl showed tremendous promise, and having once again untangled a nasty web of conflicting destiny was proof that she would one day become a formidable Lore Master. True the matter was hardly resolved, but with the lines of destiny now open to subtle manipulation there were many things now possible that would have been closed off had the Kuonji woman determined early on to affirm her engagement to Saotome.

Now all that was needed was for Ranma to regain his manhood, and for that he would either need the Phoenix pill or a certain counterpoint to the Full Body Cat Tongue that both Elders well knew, but which Lotion was promised not to share, much though she might want to. She had to admit that Ranma was a capable enough fighter to find his own way to a cure, provided Nabiki continued to help him with her perceptions. With Shampoo on their side the three of them might even thwart the ambitions of an Elder, which would greatly please Lotion.

Ah well, she reflected, resolving to return to the restaurant for a good nights rest and meditation. The next few days were bound to have many surprises, and she wanted to be fully alert and at her best to offer the advice she meant to share. Lore Masters were pledged to putting right the tangled skein of destiny, the gods being somewhat negligent in their duties. Come the morning a brand new day would be looming, and with it many interesting surprises…


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