Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Urusei Yatsura Fan Fiction / Sister Princess Fan Fiction ❯ Lonely Souls ❯ The Prologue, R Side - Dark Before The Light ( Chapter 1 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Saotome Ranma's eyes fluttered as he found himself on the roof of the Tendou home. A chill warped through him as he tried to recall what he had been doing, and then he yawned. Damn, he was tired! Then again, should he be surprised? Getting into the fight of his life against an immortal PHOENIX of all things, and then getting involved in that farce that should've been his and Akane's wedding, would've sent most people to their graves.
Sitting up, he stretched, and then he hopped to his feet. Sliding into a warm-up kata, he took time to glance at the surrounding city. It looked to be a nice day. Well, even if he and Akane weren't wed, things were all right. Akane was alive and safe. The doojou was intact. The idiots were leaving him alone, as was that freak that thought he was Ranma's "master." His mother was here, trying to catch up on their long separation. His friends . . .
He scowled. If anything, the failed wedding proved one thing: He had fewer friends than he had assumed, not to mention next to nothing when it came to family. The instant the cask of Nanniichuan water was brought out, Ryouga, Mousse and Genma immediately decided their problems mattered more, and then got into a free-for-all over who'd get to use it first. Hell, he would've tried to share that with the others; it only seemed fair since Jusenkyou had wound up under several metres of water thanks to the fight on Mount Phoenix.
Would they've shared it with him . . .?
Hell, no!
Of course not!
And then Ukyou . . .
Ranma slowed to a stop, gently squeezing his fists together. Damn, how did THAT happen, anyway? Given how determined Genma and Souun were to see him married to Akane, didn't it stand to rights that Ukyou, much less Shampoo and the Kunous, should NOT have been invited, thus risking that sort of nonsense?
Who had invited them anyway?
"No, you're not getting paid anything back."
Ranma perked, and then he crouched. Nabiki. Doing his kata, he had slid across the roof from over Akane's room to a point over her sister's room. And given his sharp senses, he easily heard Nabiki's voice even up here. Crouching, he tuned his ears to listen: "Forget it, Kuonji!" Nabiki barked. "You come flying into the doojou with bombs -- some of which got close to Ranma-kun's mother, by the way -- and you expect to get your money back?"
Ranma tried to hear what Ukyou said in return, but that was nothing more than a faint murmur. Then Nabiki: "I don't care about your stupid problems with the panda. If you want to know, it was the panda and my father who arranged this." Another quick pause as she listened to Ukyou's response, and then she added, "Though given what I've heard about what happened in China, it's pretty obvious now that Ranma-kun HAS chosen who he wants to marry."
Longer pause. No doubt, Ukyou was currently ranting over Akane's many deficiencies. Ranma shook his head, and then he perked as Nabiki replied, "Well, gee, I guess you don't know Ranma-kun as much as you'd like to know him, eh? Doubt he'll be coming by to visit you in the future, Kuonji." Another pause, and then she said, "Don't bother. We've got loads of witnesses ready to testify against you, Shampoo and Kunou-chan about what you did. Your claim on Ranma-kun won't mean squat after that, girl. Have a nice day." She hung up.
Hearing the click! of the phone, Ranma blinked before sighing. She's right about that, wafted through him as he slid away from Nabiki's bedroom window before he moved down the roof to an area near the sitting room . . .
"You should've told him the whole story, Akane-chan."
Ranma paused. Kasumi. A quick glance around confirmed he was standing over the entrance. Kasumi and Akane were in the sitting room. He crouched to listen in. Down below, Akane sighed. "There wasn't enough time, Onee-chan."
"Enough time?" Kasumi echoed her words. Though the eldest Tendou daughter's voice would sound normal to most, to Ranma, the edge in her words spoke volumes. "Akane, you know Ranma-kun has dreamt for a long time to obtain a cure to his curse. The fact that Father would actually try to hold back that keg of Nanniichuan water as a bribe to force Ranma-kun to marry you is bad enough in my eyes. That you didn't bother telling him is just as bad . . . "
A bang! echoed from the room; no doubt, Akane just struck a table with her fist. "It didn't matter, Onee-chan!"
Ranma blinked. Akane knew that Mr. Tendou wanted to use the Nanniichuan to force me to marry her? he gasped, his eyes widening as her words echoed again and again in his mind. Why the hell didn't she tell me . . .?
Quaking, he slid away from the sitting room, and then he made a spring for a nearby telephone pole. He needed to go somewhere.
But where could he go?
**** **** ****
Lonely Souls
By Fred Herriot
pyeknu@hotmail.com OR fherriot@yahoo.com
**** **** ****
Based on Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2, created by Takahashi Rumiko; and Sister Princess, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako.
**** **** ****
Set in the universe of the fan-fiction series Urusei Yatsura - The Senior Year, created by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot
**** **** ****
NOTE: The writer's notes are in a separate text file. This part of the story begins the morning after the end of the "A" Side Prologue.
**** **** ****
"Did it really?" Kasumi demanded. "Akane-chan, you could've easily taken that cask from Father and hid it until after the wedding was over. You KNOW the Jusenkyou Guide sent the casket to Ranma-kun for what he did when you were kidnapped. Why didn't you think of that?!"
"I . . .!" The youngest Tendou daughter blinked as Kasumi's question sank in, and then she sighed. "Alright! I didn't think it through! I admit it, but . . . " She paused. "It didn't really matter to me, Onee-chan. He said it! He said he loved me! I remember him saying it after he ki- . . . " she stuttered on that word before she sighed again. "After he beat Saffron."
Kasumi took that in. She had obtained an abridged report on the events on Mount Phoenix from Hibiki Ryouga. "Yes, I suppose seeing you so close to death would make Ranma-kun let go of his inhibitions." She nodded, and then she shook her head, her displeasure apparent. "I confess, I'm disappointed in Father and I'm VERY disappointed in Uncle Saotome. I'd believe that after what happened all the other times they've tried to force you two to wed, they'd have learned by now. Not to mention Uncle stealing Ranma-kun's gift . . . "
Akane sighed. "Well, we can wait for it. I know what Ranma feels right now about me. I know what I feel right now about him. There's no need to press it. And with those two out of the way . . . " A snort escaped her before she smiled. "At the same time, I think Ukyou and Shampoo have finally learned their lesson. Ranma could tolerate a lot put on him, but his mother was nearly caught in the crossfire, too. He won't easily forgive that."
"True," Kasumi conceded. "Perhaps it's time we force Uncle Saotome to face up to the things he did wrong with Ranma-kun and move to correct those matters once and for all time. WITHOUT him sloughing it off on Ranma-kun."
"Do you really think he'll do anything, Onee-chan?"
The oldest daughter smiled as she winked. "There are ways."
* * *
"Damn! He's not open yet."
Ranma turned away from Nerima's only American-style hamburger yatai, whose owner normally set up operations in the middle of Hikarigaoka Park, to head into another part of the park located on the border with Itabashi Ward. Well, he wasn't too hungry, though he would be soon. He had no intention of visiting Okonomiyaki U-chan's or the Nekohanten anytime soon. Heck, if he could avoid it, he wouldn't visit either place ever again . . .
Ranma sat on a bench, leaning his chin into his hands. Thinking wasn't his real strong suit, but he needed to do it now. Fighting it out wasn't doing him any good these days. Yeah, it was excellent exercise, but too many others took it the wrong way. Where did it really end up after the dust settled?
He closed his eyes. The time had come for some changes.
First was Kuonji Ukyou. He had pretty much ignored her claims of being the "cute" fiancée, basking in the fact that his oldest childhood friend had returned. No more. Ukyou would have a choice to make. If she wanted his friendship, she'd have to let go of whatever marital claims she had on him. If her help in destroying his family home wasn't bad enough, the wedding . . .!
Ranma shuddered. Idiot! What was she doing lobbing food bombs in the doojou, with dozens of innocent people in the way?! Shampoo, he understood; the harshness of her tribal laws demanded things like that! But Ukyou . . .?
What the HELL was she thinking?!
He sighed. No. It was one way or the other. If she wanted to be his friend, she couldn't be his fiancée. If she wanted both, she'd have to take it out on Oyaji and resolve it with him. Ranma smirked, imagining what Genma would do if he got wind of that. Well, the idiot started it, after all.
But now . . .
Akane . . .
His fists squeezed together. Damn it all, didn't she understand? Didn't she CARE?! How could he possibly hope to marry her, start a family with her, if he was still stuck with this damned curse?! Didn't she . . .?!
I said I loved her.
His eyes narrowed, the wet sting of oncoming tears forcing him to squeeze them shut. No! No, damn it all! He wouldn't cry . . .!
Did she really mean it?
Damn! Why were things so confusing . . .?
Does she love me?
What could he do now . . .?
Or is she no different than Ukyou and Shanpú?
Shuddering, he took a deep breath. Wiping his eyes, he stood.
Am I a person to her?
Ranma slowly walked back towards the doojou.
Or just a prize?
* * *
"Ranma, are you okay?"
"Eh?" He looked down at Akane. Given the numbers of days both had missed classes, the couple had been forced to attend make-up classes during winter vacation to keep their grades up. That had wound up being true for a lot of students at Fuurinkan, Ranma soon learned yesterday, though not much teaching was done given the gossiping students engaged in about the wedding.
Unlike yesterday, where they had walked side-by-side to school, he had returned to fence walking. However, this time, he was keeping a sharp eye out for a certain warrior-maiden on a bicycle. Much that he didn't like the idea of fighting a girl -- especially given all the troubles he had endured thanks to Shampoo and her clan laws -- he could try to avoid that.
"Didja say somethin', Akane?" He then looked around.
Akane was quick to notice him gazing around. Ranma seemed tense at the dinner table this morning, hardly speaking at all to anyone save to his mother when she asked him about school. Genma had tried to engage in some tabletop sparring with the chopsticks, but one slice of Nodoka's katana put a stop to that. In fact, Akane could've sworn that she saw Ranma forming a ki ball in his hand when Genma tried to snatch his food. If Nodoka hadn't cut in when she did, Genma might've got a dose of the Mooko Takabisha at point-blank range.
That would've surprised everyone.
"Are you alright?" she asked. "Something's bothering you."
"Huh?" He rolled the question through his mind before shaking his head. "Nah! Nothin's botherin' me, Akane. It's cool."
Liar! she sharply retorted in her mind before she chastised herself for feeling anger at him. Ranma always had trouble vocalising his thoughts. That was one of the things Genma had failed to teach his son. Vocalising things was a weakness and Genma always wanted his child to be as invincible as possible. An understandable wish given the number of enemies Ranma had, but still . . .!
Taking a breath, she concentrated on the walk to school. Glancing at Ranma from time to time revealed that he was busy keeping an eye behind them. Oh, of course! On the lookout for Shampoo. No doubt, after what happened, whatever trust Ranma might've had with that gaijin slut had vanished. Good thing, but it would clearly make for some tense days ahead. What would happen?
Finally, they reached the stretch of road leading to the front gate of Fuurinkan High School. Seeing that, Akane relaxed. Shampoo would normally have tried to persuade her "Airen" to go on a date long before this.
Maybe the stupid hussy had learned her lesson . . .
"Hold, foul fiend!"
Ranma perked as Kunou Tatewaki placed himself on the main path leading to the doors, bokken in hand. Shuddering as the kendou club captain launched into his usual spiel, Ranma felt ki surge through him, and then he locked on target.
The students on the lawn screamed as the bolt of ki slammed into Kunou, sending him flying back to smash HARD into the concrete steps leading to the doors! Akane stopped, her jaw dropping in disbelief as Ranma hopped off the fence, then calmly headed through the gates. People looked at him, a mixture of fear and shock on their faces, several moving to back away from him.
Ranma stopped before he spun left to see Kodachi standing near a tree. As usual, the martial arts rhythmic gymnast was in her black, rose-embossed competition leotard, a handy battle whip in hand. Strangely enough, a storm of black rose petals had NOT preceded her entrance. Taking a deep breath, Ranma relaxed, though he allowed a ball of ki to form in his hand.
"A problem, Kunou-san?" he wondered.
More gasps from the crowd. Most people at Fuurinkan knew Ranma wouldn't strike a woman. If he didn't believe in that "no hit girls" rule, Akane and a host of others would've spent time in traction for the times they lashed out at him for whatever reason struck their fancy at the time. Given Kodachi's lack of sanity, not to mention her reputation as a cheat, maybe this time . . .
"No problem." Kodachi seemed to remain outwardly calm, though inside, she was shivering at his look. Deciding to change the subject -- and the focus of his attention -- she glanced to her brother. "No doubt, Onii-san had THAT coming to him given what happened two days ago. Much that I adore you, Ranma-sama, I've come to realise you don't like being forced to do anything . . . "
"Hey, someone! Get an ambulance!"
Ranma dispersed the ki ball as he glanced at Kunou, the kendou-ka being tended to by several of his club mates. Hearing the shout from one of them, several students drew out cell-phones. By then, Akane has come to stand beside him. "Don't you think you overdid that?" she demanded with a wave at Kunou.
Ranma glared at her. "He drew live steel at the doojou, Akane. In a middle of a friggin' WEDDING. As far as I'M concerned, he has no honour!" he growled loud enough so that as many people as possible would get the message.
"If that is what you believe, Ranma-sama, I will not stop you." Kodachi turned to leave. "Please do have a good day."
She bounded off. Ranma and Akane watched her. He shook his head. "Man, she's just as much a loony as he is." He thumbed Kunou before turning to head inside. As he approached the crowd surrounding the downed kendou-ka, he quickly noted their tense looks. Given they were members of the same club, it stood to rights they probably respected their captain. Too bad.
"Any of you care to be stupid today?" he then coldly asked.
They moved to extract Kunou from the hole Ranma made for him. With that, he headed inside. Behind him, Akane remained in place, stunned that her fiancé was being THIS vicious to anyone, even a blockhead . . .!
She shook her head before heading in. Yes, he certainly had a point about Kunou having no honour. Besides, all the times Kunou tried to fight Ranma beforehand hadn't done anything to make him go away and leave them be.
Maybe this time . . .!
* * *
"Ah, Saotome-kun! I trust you'll be staying in classes for the next few days," Ninomiya Hinako noted. "We've missed you."
Ranma curtly nodded. "Hai, Sensei."
"Alright then. We'll begin."
Ranma sighed, his eyes hooded as he tried to pay attention. Around him, other students concentrated. Most. Akane was dividing her attention between the lecture and Ranma. She then blinked as the student beside her placed a note on her desk. Seeing it was addressed to "Ran-chan," Akane turned towards Ukyou's seat. The chef gave her a look that was plain for Akane to understand:
Pass it to him -- and no, it's NONE of your damned business.
Akane glanced at the head of the room to see Hinako writing something on the blackboard, and then she handed the note to Ranma. Ranma perked on sensing Akane's hand come in range, and then he relaxed. While most people believed he paid no attention at all when he was in class, that wasn't exactly true. He did try to stay aware of any potential overt threats against him, especially from others of the "Nerima Wrecking Crew." It didn't always work; look at all the times Shampoo smashed her way into the school to deliver lunch? And given the boredom he felt with the lectures, it was just plain hard to concentrate on the important things and not avoid a spell with the buckets in the hallway. Didn't anyone understand what he felt? Did anyone care . . .?
Glancing down, he noticed the note. Recognising Ukyou's handwriting, he glanced towards the front to see Hinako writing things, and then he looked at the chef. She beamed. Ranma then turned back to his book, his hands gently gripping the folded paper. Sighing, he casually ripped the note up, piling the pieces at the corner of his desk, and then he turned back to his book.
Seeing what he just did, Akane's jaw dropped. Gods, he did THAT to a note from UKYOU of all people?! Glancing towards the chef, she saw that Ukyou was busy writing something down to have seen what he had just done. Turning to her book, Akane shuddered as the implications of Ranma's actions sank in.
He's rejected her!
Akane blinked. Kuonji Ukyou, Ranma's oldest, best friend. His "kawaii" fiancée. The one person Ranma told all his problems to. The most serious rival to Akane for Ranma's love. The one Akane wanted as a friend. The one Akane hoped would step in just in case something happened to Akane herself.
The one . . .
He's rejected her!
Akane blinked again, and then she gazed at Ranma before a light smile crossed her face. Then that means . . . She tried not to scream out. He's finally chosen! She took a deep breath. He's finally chosen me!
* * *
Lunchtime quickly came. Ranma, who had long been trained by Genma to consider every meal potentially his last, quickly got out the bentou box Kasumi made for him. He blinked on noting a Saran-wrapped bowl full of brown-greyish sauce intermixed with vegetables awaiting him there. "Hey, Akane," he called out to his fiancée. "Did you make some curry today?"
"Actually, they're leftovers from last night," Akane reported, and then she moved to moderate. "Kasumi helped me make it."
"Oh, that's nice."
He dug in. Hearing this from nearby, Ukyou smiled. "Hey, Ran-chan! Do you want some okonomiyaki? I got my grill."
Akane jolted, she trying not to quake. Damn it all! The instant she mentioned that she cooked something for Ranma, the other idiots always, ALWAYS moved to "save" him with their own food. No doubt, Shampoo was on her . . .
"No thank you, Kuonji-san."
Way . . .?
What did he just say?
Akane blinked before watching Ranma rise, he heading to the door. The whole classroom was stunned silent by his reaction. Then as one, they gazed on Ukyou. The chef looked as if Ranma just stabbed her in the heart -- and then the back for good measure. "R-r-Ran-chan . . . " she sputtered. Ranma stopped before giving her a look that could burn diamonds. Ukyou balked. Trembling, she then averted her eyes from him. Without another word, he walked out.
The others said nothing, stunned into silence after they had just watched something like THAT between Ranma and Ukyou, before Chanpatsu Hiroshi turned to Bosabosa Daisuke. "Me thinks, to quote our dear ol' Kunou-sempai, Ranma-kun is still a mite bit angry at a few people today," the former mused.
"Not surprising," Tokoro Yuka commented from across the way, ignoring the fact that Ukyou was overhearing them. "From what I heard, when everything fell apart, bombs got thrown at Ranma-kun's mother." A pause. "I'D be angry if my mother was threatened like that!" she then added.
"True," Asano Sayuri added.
Hearing that, Ukyou quaked before quickly withdrawing from the room, trying to mask her tears from everyone else. The others watched her before Sayuri turned to Akane. "I bet you're happy now. Aren't you, Akane-chan?"
"Maybe," Akane admitted. "I guess Ranma's still angry at a few people for dumping the whole wedding on his head just like that, not to mention stealing what might be his last chance at a cure to his curse." She scowled as she remembered Mousse, Genma and Ryouga -- why RYOUGA wanted the Nanniichuan cask, Akane hadn't figured out -- fighting over it, and then she sighed. "And yes, he has a right to be angry at Ukyou and Shampoo. I still can't believe he'd tore up a note she passed to him without even bothering to read it!"
Everyone stared at her. "He did THAT?!" Daisuke gasped.
Akane nodded. "He did! I watched him do it, too!"
The others hummed.
* * *
Unseen by any of them, Ukyou was in the hallway gazing out the window. Her ears perked up on hearing Akane mention the note. She then nearly screamed out in disbelief when she heard Akane describe what Ranma had done to it.
What Ranma had done . . .!
What of the other notes she had written today?
Had he read ANY of them AT ALL?!
Did he . . .?!
Did that mean . . .?
"Ran-chan," she whispered before bowing her head. "I'm sorry."
* * *
"Kasumi . . . "
"No, Father! This has gone on long enough!" Kasumi glared at Souun. Both were presently sitting in the living room. Nodoka had gone with Genma to survey the repairs on their family home. "Everyone has been deliberately ignoring the fact that Ranma-kun is emotionally ill-equipped to deal with all the suitors your friend . . . " -- one could coat the whole of the living room floor with the scorn dripping from that word -- "Forced on him. That ESPECIALLY includes you AND Auntie Saotome, Father. If you REALLY want to see Ranma-kun and Akane-chan develop a healthy relationship, you have to help Ranma-kun settle all his problems with the others."
Souun began to sob. "But Kasumi . . . "
"No, Father!" Kasumi slapped her hand on the table, making him jolt as his eyes widened even more at her outburst. "If you want to see Ranma-kun and Akane-chan married, you WILL MAKE Uncle Saotome deal with the other suitors or else I guarantee that Ranma-kun and Akane-chan will NEVER be married . . .!"
Kasumi sighed. "Oh, Father . . . "
* * *
"I hear you've been giving Ukyou the cold shoulder."
Ranma perked before looking to see Nabiki walking alongside him and Akane just after the end of final class, they having just passed through the gates of the school. He tensed for a moment before relaxing. "If I did?" he commented.
"Well, I wouldn't blame you at all if you decided to tell her to go straight to Hell." Nabiki snorted before she breathed out, "By the way, thanks to what you did this morning, Kunou-chan will be in the hospital for a week."
Akane sighed. "A week's peace. Pity it couldn't last forever."
Ranma snorted. "Well, we'll just have to make him see that. That ain't gonna cause us any other problems, will it?"
"After he drew steel at a wedding? Not likely." Nabiki's eyebrow arched, and then she smirked. "We've got loads of witnesses who'd be willing to testify against him if we wanted them to. I seriously doubt that his father or his sister will help in his defence. If this gets out into the general public, his reputation could potentially be permanently tarnished (not that it already IS tarnished). I think that if we threatened him with that, he'll want the whole incident swept quietly under the rug and forgotten in the long term."
"True." Akane nodded before blinking on seeing someone to her right. "Sasuke?" she then called out on recognising him.
"I apologise for intruding, but Mistress Kodachi would like to see you, ma'am, as soon as possible." Sarugakure Sasuke gazed expectantly on Nabiki. "She states it is a matter of considerable import to her and she promises she will compensate you for taking your time, Tendou-san," he then added.
"I . . . okay!" Nabiki quickly nodded before turning to follow the ninja down a side street. "See you guys later!"
They returned her wave, and then they headed on toward the Tendou home. "I'm surprised she hasn't said anythin' about her bein' the one who invited all those dorks to the wedding," Ranma muttered under his breath.
Akane perked, and then she sighed. "Yeah, you're right! I shouldn't have been surprised that she did that! Then again, if things started to really calm down around these parts, she wouldn't be making as much money."
"Is that all she cares about?" Ranma wondered, shaking his head.
"Does seem like that, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, ya gotta point." He then turned to her. "Look, Akane. I wanna go take a walk. Clear my head an' all that."
She nodded. "Oh, sure, go ahead! After what we've been through, I think we both need the chance to relax for a while."
"Right." He waved before bounding onto the fence and taking off. "See ya later!" he called out before disappearing around a corner.
Akane watched him, and then she sighed before she stopped. "Would he go visit . . .?" she then wondered before shaking her head. "No, he wouldn't go to that tramp's place!" she spat out. "Not after what just happened. And he wouldn't go to Ukyou's place either. Maybe if she apologised first . . . "
Sighing, she headed home.
* * *
"He was on the lookout for you this morning?"
"Yes." Shampoo nodded. She was seated at the Nekohanten's bar. Both the young warrior-maiden and Cologne were speaking in the Nujiézú dialect of Mandarin, as they always did whenever matters of great import came up. "I knew I'd be risking Airen's wrath by attacking him and the Kitchen Destroyer after what happened at Mount Phoenix, but I had no choice but to defend my hold on him, Great-grandmother. And now . . . " She shrugged helplessly.
"And now, thanks to you placing Son-in-Law's MOTHER in harm's way, what trust he may have had in you has vanished into the abyss," Cologne countered. "Leave him be for the next while, Shan. I've already sent a full report about what happened on Mount Phoenix to the Council. Maybe we can navigate our way out of this mess, but if we continue to antagonize Son-in-Law like . . . "
"I can't let him go, Great-grandmother!" Shampoo hissed.
"You CAN give him breathing room," Cologne countered. "Don't forget, he's just KILLED for the first time. Despite the insanity his father forced him through, Son-in-Law has NEVER been exposed to the idea of ending another's life. Right now, I can't predict WHAT he might be feeling. It's best to give him space and let him organize his thoughts. I don't want to push him to the point where he would forever reject any idea of coming to the village. Remember, all the elders together couldn't defeat Saffron! Though it was difficult and he was fighting to save the Tendou girl, Son-in-Law DID defeat him! He DID kill him!" Her eyes narrowed as she gave Shampoo a look. "Do you think you can control Son-in-Law if he ever went OUT of control?"
Shampoo shuddered. "I still can't let him go."
"Give him space and time," Cologne ordained. "It's not a permanent separation, not by far. As the people of the West often say, 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder.' Relax. He needs it and so do you."
The younger Amazon blinked, and then she slowly, reluctantly, nodded.
* * *
"I didn't know you were a connoisseur of ice cream, Kodachi-san."
"It's a treat I can sparingly indulge in because of my career." Kodachi smiled. She and Nabiki were relaxing near an ice cream vendor's yatai in Hikarigaoka Park. "Well, thanks to Ranma-sama and what he did this morning, things will be very peaceful in the house for the next week."
"You're not angry at him?" Nabiki asked.
"Feh! Of course not! The fact that Onii-san still roils on and on about your sister and that red-haired harlot, vowing to destroy dear Ranma-sama just to 'free' them . . .? Bah!" The gymnast rolled her eyes before shaking her head. "I am tired of listening to that, Nabiki-san. Very tired. Dealing with that honourless fool who happens to be my father is bad enough at times."
Nabiki chuckled. "Yeah, I suppose I can understand that. My father can be a stupid idiot from time to time, too."
"Such as forcing Ranma-sama and your sister to wed almost immediately after your sister nearly faced her own death in China."
Nabiki stopped, turning to stare at Kodachi. "Who told you about China?"
"Sasuke overheard the Hibiki boy make his report to your sister Kasumi." Kodachi smiled, taking delight in seeing the middle Tendou daughter panic. "You're not the only one who takes great value in gaining vital information, Nabiki-san. So," she then asked as she looked on her cone. "Is it true?"
"That Ranma-sama actually killed an immortal?"
Nabiki sighed. What sort of position could she take here? "Yes."
"Remarkable." Kodachi swooned, and then she relaxed. "Do you believe this Saffron might come back to haunt Ranma-sama anew?"
"I sure as hell hope not."
"Yes, I'd understand that." Kodachi took a lick, and then she gazed on Nabiki. "There is one thing I have to ask, Nabiki-san. And I wish you to answer me directly about it. It concerns these rumours many have persisted in spreading about Ranma-sama and the red-haired girl actually being one person."
Nabiki blinked before gazing intently at Kodachi. Wait a minute here! What was going on? Wasn't Kodachi supposed to be as blind to things like that as her brother? When the HELL did she catch onto that . . .?
"So it is true, isn't it?"
Nabiki blinked again, and then she sighed. "Yes, it's true."
"A place way in the highlands of China -- actually close to where Saffron lived -- called Jusenkyou," Nabiki began to explain.
* * *
Souun tearfully gazed on Genma. "It's true, old friend! I can't believe that my own daughter forced me to demand this of you!"
The patriarch of the Saotome family shuddered, fear and outrage battling for control over his heart. "She actually wants me to . . .?!"
Souun nodded. "Yes."
"I can't do that!" Genma protested as he made a dismissive wave with his hand. "If I do that, all my training with the boy would be for naught! How can the boy be the best if he's made to rely on others to fight his battles?! That's not what the Art demands, Tendou-kun! You know that as well as I do!"
"I . . .!" Souun shuddered. "Yes, I do know that. But still, maybe it would be easier on Ranma-kun if you settle matters with the Kuonji girl. Her claims on Ranma-kun DOES have validity because her father did recognise the yatai as a dowry. The China girl's claims on Ranma-kun are laughable and the Kunou girl has no claim on Ranma-kun at all." He perked before giving Genma an intent look. "Unless . . .?!" he began with a threatening tone in his voice.
Genma gargled before shaking his head. "No! No! No! Of course not! Why would I try to do THAT with a lunatic like her, Tendou-kun?!"
Souun nodded. "Then you'll at least try to do something with the Kuonji girl? Remember, Saotome-kun, you DID take her dowry!"
The Tendou patriarch wagged a warning finger at Genma. "I . . . " he paused, and then he sighed. "All right! I'll do it! But I don't like it! We shouldn't tell the boy about it, either!"
"Agreed, then."
* * *
"That's incredible!"
"That it is." Nabiki licked her cone, and then she stared at Kodachi. "So now that you know, what will you do? Tell your brother?"
The gymnast smiled knowingly. "Do you honestly believe he would accept something like that, Nabiki-san?" She rose, turning to leave. "No. As you might suspect, he might decide that you yourself have been 'enchanted' by the 'foul sorcerer' to say such 'lies' about his 'pig-tailed goddess.' At least after hearing that, I can try to understand my Ranma-sama better."
Nabiki's eyebrow arched. "'Your' Ranma-sama? I thought I once heard you tell someone that you knew Ranma-kun didn't like you."
Kodachi smirked. "That does not bother me. Have a good day."
She bounded off. Nabiki watched her go before sighing. "Oh, shit!"
* * *
Next morning, everyone was jolted out of bed on hearing Ranma's shout. That was quickly followed by the crash! of a body slamming into the tree in the front yard, followed by the splash! of said body hitting the koi pond near the front door. The door to the Saotomes' guestroom flew open, revealing Akane. "Ranma, are you al- . . .?!" Her voice ground to a stop on seeing him up, stretching himself. There was no sign of Genma. "What happened?!"
Ranma stared at her before taking a deep breath. "I wasn't in the mood to spar with Oyaji today. Sorry to wake you guys up."
Akane blinked as she absorbed his explanation. She then walked to the window, gazing onto the front yard. In the koi pond, a nicely cooked, semi-conscious panda drifted over to one rocky shore. "Oh." She nodded, sighing. "Well, since we are up . . . " She then headed out of the room.
Nodoka quickly stepped in. Since the destruction of the Saotome home, she had been sleeping with Kasumi. "Son, was that TRULY necessary?" Ranma's mother demanded as she reproachfully gazed on him.
"Like I just told Akane, Mom. I wasn't in the mood to spar today." He shrugged, moving to get his toiletries to start the day. "And since he don't listen to me normally, I hadta persuade him another way," he then added.
Nodoka nodded. "Understandable, especially after what you just went through in China. I'll speak to your father about that when he recovers."
Ranma smirked. "Make sure you got the katana with you, Mom."
"I'll remember, dear."
* * *
An hour later, Ranma and Akane walked through the front gate of Fuurinkan High. They then slowed down, automatically tensing. A pause as they thought about what just might be making them brace up, and then they relaxed. "First, no Shampoo and her stupid bicycle. Now, no Kunou and his bokken." The latter smirked. "I just hope this doesn't end soon. It's a nice change."
He considered that, nodding. "Yeah, ya gotta point. C'mon, let's get to class . . . " He stopped as his internal danger alarms began to ring. Then he leapt into the air to avoid oncoming barber shears. "Spoke too soon!" Ranma back flipped behind the Principal, cupping his hands as he locked on target, ensuring Akane was not in danger. "MOOKO TAKABISHA!"
The tree-topped school administrator cried out before the ki blast sent him flying headfirst into the wall. "De Big . . . " he grunted as he slid to the ground, " . . . Kahuna . . . don't feel . . . that . . . "
He passed out. Akane stared wide-eyed at her fiancé. "Ranma, for heaven's sake, that was the PRINCIPAL!" she snapped.
Ranma straightened himself before heading into the school. "So?!"
Akane watched him, and then she raced in after him. Around her, others began to whisper, many of them sending fearful glances Ranma's way.
* * *
"Hmmm . . . this is NOT good."
Genma grimaced as he watched his son head into school, Akane behind him. Even though Kunou's father WAS an idiot, he was the principal of Fuurinkan High, a figure that merited some respect. And yes, given the twit's insane addiction to cutting people's hair and forcing his charges to obey his lunatic "rules," Ranma was well within his rights to deal directly with him. But to limit his response to a quick-strike Mooko Takabisha? Yes, it got the fight done right away and Ranma, as usual, came out the clear victor, but . . .!
That was NOT good.
Not good at all.
Genma extracted himself from his perch in a tall tree at the corner of the school property before heading back to the Tendou doojou. Damn it, why was THIS happening NOW? He and Souun had been within a hair's breadth of seeing Ranma and Akane finally married, and then all of Nerima had crashed in to stop it! For what? All so Nabiki could garnish money from the wedding gifts? Stupid girl! What business was it of hers to interfere in what they had worked so long to see happen? Then Souun turned around and decided to hold off on things until all the other potential problems were fully dealt with.
In other words: Ukyou, Shampoo, Kodachi and the rest of those loons.
And unfortunately, Ukyou WAS his fault, but what could he have done back then? He had been hungry and the boy was growing too close to the Kuonji girl for his own good. The fewer friends Ranma had to deal with in his life, the better; there was NO way that Genma's son could ever have become the martial artist he was these days with so many petty distractions getting in his way.
Thinking that, the patriarch of the Saotome family then stopped, his eyes narrowing. Wait. If he actually paid back the Kuonjis for their lost yatai, wouldn't that make things between Ranma and Ukyou easier? Actually . . .?
Create a TRUE friendship?
That just could NOT happen!
Ranma just couldn't afford such a thing!
Genma scowled. All right, what could he . . .?
His eyes widened. Of course! It was so simple. So elegant!
He knew what to do.
* * *
Days passed.
The remainder of the first week after the wedding at the Tendou doojou was uncommonly quiet for Nerima's citizens, people used for so long to see the "Wrecking Crew" -- not to mention the sometimes frequent super-powered visitors from beyond -- go at each other on an almost daily basis. For those who disapproved of such violence, the peace was welcome, a chance for them to put their minds and souls at ease. For those who looked on the fights and other odd occurrences as some live-action, real-time soap opera, they began to look beyond Nerima's borders for a daily dose of logic-defying merriment.
They didn't find it in Tomobiki, the town on Nerima's west side.
However, for those who preferred their entertainment much closer to home, the sight they confronted over those days was . . . was . . .!
Well, it just made NO SENSE!
There was Saotome Ranma, walking on the fence to school beside one of his fiancées, Tendou Akane. Yet where was one of the lad's other fiancées, Shampoo? Almost every day, the warrior-maiden, out on her morning delivery, would "visit" her Airen via smashing her bicycle into the back of Ranma's head. Odd way of expressing one's love, indeed, but people had come to accept it.
Yet . . . ever since the wedding, it seemed as if Shampoo was going out of her way to AVOID meeting up with Ranma. Why? Had she come to hate him? Had he come to hate her? How? What was going on with those two?
And speaking of fiancée problems, what was THIS? Ranma and Akane actually speaking to each other CIVILLY? As if they were actual FRIENDS as well as iinazuke? What had happened to all the bickering? Where were all the crass insults? The "un-cute, un-sexy tomboy" and "sex-changing pervert" charges that spiced their conversations in the past? Yes, things between Ranma and Akane HAD calmed down a lot in the last few months. But even during that time, scarcely a week passed when people in Nerima hadn't at least ONCE heard Akane scream "RANMA NO BAKA!" for one reason or another before attempting to send the lad into lower Earth orbit via her fist or her trusty Mallet-sama.
Even more, what was going on between Ranma and Kuonji Ukyou? Why, people were presently saying that Ranma wasn't even SPEAKING to Ukyou. Reports confirmed that he had not visited her shop ONCE since before the wedding. He turned back all attempts by her to strike up a conversation, either spoken or via scribbled notes. He refused her offerings for food by just walking out of the classroom. Even offerings of freshly cooked food left on his desk by Ukyou "anonymously" wound up in the garbage instead of Ranma's stomach.
This . . .!
This was . . .!
This was so ABNORMAL!
What would happen next?
* * *
Watching this was Saotome Genma, who could only grin.
Not once had that China girl come out to "greet" her precious Airen in the mornings via her bicycle hitting his head. Even more, Ranma was keeping a deliberate eye out for Shampoo on his walk to school, ensuring Akane stayed safe, too. Genma recognised the signs. Still, it was a pity. He would have delighted to see what Ranma might have done if Shampoo DID seek him out.
Perhaps give HER a dose of the Mooko Takabisha . . .?
Thinking that, Genma shook his head. No, Ranma might not like Shampoo, but he wouldn't hurt her THAT way. Perhaps simply jumping clear, letting her crash-land on the fence, would be enough. Yes, that WOULD be an enjoyable sight. Maybe he should try to do something to stir that pot up again . . .?
Even better, Ranma had cut off all contact with the Kuonji girl. And it was hurting her, badly. He would not speak to her, would not acknowledge her save with a curt reply, addressing her as "Kuonji-san" in lieu of "U-chan." And from hearing the local gossips, Ranma had not gone to her restaurant any time during that week. That was simply adding delicious insult to injury. If Akane could avoid entering the Tendou kitchen for the next while and trying to concoct one of her "special" recipes, it would be simply perfect.
And Akane . . .
It was a dream come true! There they were, walking alongside each other, talking to each other. No fights, no name-calling, no taunts and ESPECIALLY none of that stupid ki-mallet sending the poor lad on an impromptu flying lesson into the Shakujii River. Remembering that, Genma shook his head. He had to teach the boy how to destroy that mallet some day soon. It would simply not DO to have Akane dominate Ranma like that. Heaven ONLY forbid what might happen if Nodoka handed the Saotome honour blade to Akane after they wed.
And the Kunous . . .
What fools! The father was a joke. Tatewaki? A moron, but a dangerous one. Not much for Ranma to deal with, as he demonstrated the second day after the wedding. As for Kodachi, her "claim" on Ranma was a drug-induced dream.
And Ryouga and Mousse . . .
No problems there. Ryouga was clearly drifting towards that Unryuu Akari girl. Even better, Akari had accepted the lad, curse and all. Besides, if he proved to be bothersome, all that had to be done was to threaten to reveal his dirty little secret to Akane, then make sure she wouldn't blame Ranma for it. As for Mousse, he was so obsessed with Shampoo, he'd welcome any chance to see Ranma out of the way. Having the boy marry Akane would do precisely just that.
Yes, it was just perfect.
Now, all he had to do was convince Souun and Nodoka.
* * *
If Genma only realised how off base he was about one factor.
Six evenings after the attempted wedding found Ranma in Hikarigaoka once again, this time sitting close to a fountain. It had been nice at school. Ukyou hadn't bothered to send any notes his way, much less tried to cook lunch for him. That always bugged Akane. Even better, there had been no sign of Shampoo, either in the morning or at lunchtime. No sign of Kodachi and Kunou was still in the hospital. Even more, the Principal seemed to have learned his lesson; Ranma hadn't seen that nutcase since he had ki-blasted him into a wall.
Things at the Tendou home were okay. Nabiki was still going through the money and gifts the wedding generated for the family, so Ranma didn't have to worry about the middle Tendou daughter trying to get new photographs of his girl-form. Akane helped in the kitchen occasionally, but always under Kasumi or Nodoka's stern supervision. Of course, Akane's curry was pretty okay and she was finally getting the hang of cooking rice the right way. Akane's father was keeping to his promise and laying off on wedding plans. Even better, Oyaji was keeping his peace about morning training after Ranma ejected him from the bedroom one day with the Mooko Takabisha. Having his mother wave the katana around the fool panda's neck shut him up real quick. But still . . .
Does she love me?
Ranma gazed at the evening sky. He STILL wasn't sure.
Yes, he cared for her. Yes, he l- . . . lo- . . .!
Why couldn't he say it NOW?!
He perked on sensing a billboard painter step into close range. Glancing over, he watched the man paste several advertisements on a stretch of wall. Ranma's ears twitched on hearing the other mutter, "Folks here will like a change from okonomiyaki and Chinese. Yessiree! She's one good cook . . . "
Ranma blinked. Cook? Rising, he walked over to stand close to the painter. "Hey, Oji-san! What's this about?"
"Eh?" The other fellow looked over before laughing. "Oh, Saotome-san! It's you!" He waved to the posters. "Read for yourself."
Ranma looked, blinking as the message sank in. "'Tampopo's Ramen and Beefbowl Bar?' About to open . . . hey! That's next week!"
"Got that right!" The painter chuckled. "Damn good cook. She offered free dinners to me for the whole of next week instead of paying me to get these posters set up. She's setting up in Kasuga-chou if you want to check it out. Matter of fact, I think she's there right now."
"Good cook?" Ranma stared at him, remembering the important point.
"Very good cook! Trust me on this one, boy!" The painter winked. "After all, people have been noticing you avoiding the Nekohanten and that okonomiyaki place your friend runs since you tried to wed Tendou Akane."
The young martial artist sighed. "'Friend?'" He gazed nowhere in particular before shaking his head. "I dunno, Oji-san. Right now, I'm not sure who my friends ARE these days. Anyhow, thanks for the tip. Ja ne!"
He waved before heading towards one of the park gates.
* * *
Ranma decided to take his time since it was a nice night and he didn't want to head back to the doojou. An hour later found him standing on the Kanpachi-doori, one of Nerima's main thoroughfares. On the north side of the street, wedged between two office blocks, was a two-floor house-like edifice being remodelled to serve as a restaurant. Already, the marquee, emblazoned with TAMPOPO'S in scripted Roomaji, had been erected over the door. Inside the main eating area, a small army of workers was busy getting tables and booths set up. Directing them was a woman Nodoka's age, though possessing brown hair and eyes. She looked as stocky as Genma, but to Ranma's trained eyes, there was a considerable firmness to her. Even more, Ranma could barely pick out something of a battle aura. That was understandable. Nerima was chock-full of martial artists of every calibre and ability, from the standard to the totally bizarre. Given the frequency of odd things that hit this place, having some martial skills wasn't just prudent. It was, at times, a survival requirement.
"It'll look like a nice place when it's done," Ranma whispered.
He jolted on hearing an ominous crack! Looking up, he gasped on seeing the sign peel away from the wall, just as the door opened to allow the proprietor out. "LOOK OUT!" Ranma screamed as he sprang across the street.
The woman cried out as she looked up. She dodged as the sign pulled away from the wall. Instantly, a black-and-red blur from across the street turned into a tall, slender man as he caught the sign before it could shatter on the sidewalk. He collapsed as several of the workers came out. "Are you alright?!" she cried out, lunging over to pull her sign off the young man.
"Y-yeah, I'm okay . . . " Ranma sputtered, feeling several bruised ribs, though it wasn't that bad. He then nodded thanks as two of the workers helped him back to his feet. "You okay there, Oba-chan? Didn't trip over anythin', didja?" he asked as he gave the proprietor a concerned look.
"Oh, no! No! I'm fine!" The woman smiled. She then looked to inspect the damage. "Hmm. Looks like the wood beams were rotted out."
"We'll get them fixed up right away, Kamekichi-san," a worker vowed.
"Do so." Tampopo nodded as she handed the sign to another worker. She then noticed the plaster on Ranma's jersey. "Good grief! You're a mess!" She walked over to bat the dust away from him. "Here, c'mon inside and let me whip you up something. You look hungry."
"I . . .!" Ranma then chuckled. "Oh, it was nothin' at all!" He rubbed the back of his head. "I was gonna go home anyway . . . "
"Hush! I won't hear a word of it!" Tampopo waved him down before she beckoned him inside. "Lucky for you, I have the stoves and refrigerator all set up. C'mon in and relax. You deserve it."
"I . . . w-well, if you're sure . . .!"
She gave him a disarming smile. "I insist!"
Ranma felt his cheeks heat. Oh man! If this woman was his age, he wouldn't know WHAT to do in the face of a smile like THAT! "Um, well . . . " he stuttered before nodding. "Okay!" He then stopped. "Oh, sorry about that! I'm Saotome Ranma. Pleased ta meetcha." He bowed.
"Ranma?" Tampopo blinked as she recalled the name. She then tittered. "Pleased to meet you, too, Ranma-chan. I'm Kamekichi Tampopo; this is my shop. I must confess your reputation has preceded you. Shall we go inside?"
He started to sweat. Oh man! He HATED it when people did THAT to him. "Don't tell me Oyaji tried ta swindle you outta something!"
Tampopo hummed. "No, not that I recall. And no, I don't have a daughter who's engaged to you." She then winked at him. "Besides, given what I've heard of your father, Ranma-chan, if he ever tried to do something foolish to me, I'd take it up with him, not force it all over you."
Ranma blinked as his jaw dropped in shock. That's a switch!
* * *
"Husband, this is totally foolish!"
"Indeed, Saotome-kun! This is not the way to do things, especially after I promised them that we'd stop pressing them about that!"
"Please." Genma held up a hand. It was late the next morning, sometime after Nabiki, Ranma and Akane had left for classes. As Souun and Nodoka calmed themselves down, he took a deep breath. "I realise this is an odd approach to take, but this is not a normal situation. However . . . " -- he fixed them with a look -- "There are merits in doing this the way I propose."
"In what way?" Nodoka demanded as she squeezed the family sword. "It's been a week since the last attempt at getting my son to marry Akane-chan, Genma. A WEEK!" she shrilled. "That's way too soon . . . "
"But can we deny the fact that they love each other?"
"I . . .!" She stopped as she considered that point, and then she nodded. "Of course not. But still . . . "
"But NOTHING, my wife!" Genma soothed. "Akane-chan admitted her feelings for the boy the day of the wedding. And Ranma certainly SHOWED how he felt for Akane-chan on Mount Phoenix, did he not?"
Souun nodded. "Of course he did, Saotome-kun! But what of all the other suitors? What do we do about them?!"
"They're disorientated now!" Genma asserted. "I've kept my eye on the boy since the wedding. Not ONCE has that China girl tried to approach him. Even more, Ranma has been on the lookout for her since the wedding. Who knows what might've happened if the China girl DID come out to meet her 'Airen?!' Also, not ONCE has the boy spoken to the Kuonji girl. He turns her away at every opportunity. It's obvious to me that the boy doesn't want anything to do with them. Why? Tendou-kun, those two girls BETRAYED him, plain and simple."
Nodoka nodded. "Yes, my husband, you have a point. And deep down, I find it bothersome that outlanders like that Shampoo girl believe they can inflict their barbaric laws on us like that. Yes, it IS understandable that girl would be forced to obey her clan's laws even while she was living here in Japan. But to have such laws inflicted on us too?" She took a deep breath. "I would gladly state that I would not recognise any claim she has on our son, Genma. But given how supposedly powerful her great-grandmother is . . . "
Souun shook his head. "Almost like dealing with the Master."
"Agreed. But can even she stand up to the laws of this land when they're brought down full-force on her?" Genma asked. "Perhaps, instead of making trouble for the boy and her sister, Tendou-kun, you can persuade Nabiki-chan to find some way to drive those Amazons out of this country once and for all."
"Yes, that is true . . . " Souun sighed. He then stared at Genma. "But what of the Kuonji girl, Saotome-kun? How do we deal with her?"
Genma sighed. "I agree that I made a mistake when it came to that girl. But given the boy's change of attitude towards her, I think it won't be long before she realises the futility of it and withdraws her claim on her own accord. If she does that, fine and fair. Besides, she DID have a hand in the destruction of our home -- which, if she DID marry the boy, would have become HER home -- plus she endangered the wedding guests AND your daughters, Tendou-kun AND Ranma AND you, too, Nodoka, when she showed up with her bombs. We can apply criminal charges against her, can't we? Certainly, that could be another thing Nabiki can do to make up for what she did to ruin things last week."
Souun tensed -- he just HATED it whenever Genma bluntly brought up his daughters' shortcomings, no matter how true they were -- and then he sighed. "Yes, you are right. If Nabiki-chan hadn't overstepped her bounds last week, they would have been wed. But how can you be truly sure Ranma-kun does love Akane-chan?! He's denied it vehemently for a long time, even on the day of the wedding itself! It's clearly obvious he doesn't want to be pushed into this."
Genma nodded. "Agreed. And yes, that was a mistake on our part when it came to last week. I propose this: We tell them we want them to wed as soon as possible. No set date, but as soon as we get their agreement to this, we make preparations. We warn them that the sooner they do this, the better it will be for all concerned. Once they are married, then we can be rid of the Amazons and deal with the Kuonji girl from a position of strength. As for the rest of them, they have no legal claim on the boy, so it doesn't matter."
"Can we still be sure?" Nodoka wondered.
"My wife, as I said, I've watched them over the last week. There has not been a SINGLE argument between them. In fact, they've been very civil to each other when they've talked to each other. No insults, no taunts, nothing of that sort. Even more so, Ranma has actually eaten all of Akane-chan's cooking without a single complaint. That's always been a big problem between them. And with Kuonji and the China girl out of the way, all that has to be done is to ensure Akane-chan can cook more things than what she can and they're set!"
"Yes, that has been a problem between them," Souun mused.
Nodoka sighed. "I still have problems with this, Husband."
"My wife, don't you want your son to do the MANLY thing?"
Nodoka's brow furrowed. "Are you saying that Ranma may be failing in that regard?" she asked as she squeezed her bundle.
"No. What I AM saying is the boy needs to be CHALLENGED!" Genma held up a finger. "And rising to those challenges IS a manly thing, Nodoka! How do you think he could fight an IMMORTAL to save Akane's life? Because he was challenged day-in and out to be the best. He NEEDS it, Nodoka! He THRIVES on it! And if we don't give it to him, then WE are doing him an injustice."
Silence fell as they considered that. Souun sighed. "Let's give it a while before we press this," he said. "I still don't like the idea of going back on my word, especially so soon after last week. I do want them to marry and if they are showing signs that they want this, we should help. But . . . "
"Tendou-kun, you won't regret this at all," Genma vowed as he gave his host a nod. "We made mistakes last time. We must learn from them, and THEN strive to do better THIS time. This is something we've wanted for a long time. I don't want to see us come so close to that goal only to have it taken away because of a few trivial problems. What are the concerns of others compared to bringing the schools together like we've wanted all these years?"
Souun nodded. "One week, Saotome-kun. Let's watch them over the next week. And then we'll decide. Alright?"
Genma nodded in agreement. "Alright."
* * *
"Oh, my!"
Nabiki grimaced. "You got it."
She had been on the patio outside the sitting room, about ready to go to school, when Genma, Souun and Nodoka had their little kaffeeklatsch. And it was a VERY lucky thing she had her personal dictation machine with her at the time. It struck Nabiki as odd that the adults hadn't waited until she was out of hearing range before Genma dropped his bombshell on Nodoka and Souun. Then again, despite their skills, Souun and Genma certainly were NOT the swiftest people on the block. It had been child's play for her to avoid being spotted until the chance came that she could get to Kasumi and pass on the news.
Kasumi took a deep breath. The sisters were meeting in the kitchen just after Nabiki had returned from school. "I can't BELIEVE they'd be so callous about Ukyou or Shampoo and their claims on Ranma-kun!" The eldest daughter shook her head. "What are they trying to do? Start a three-way blood feud?!"
"Nah! They just don't like the idea of losing control over things like that, I think." Nabiki shook her head before she spat, "Damn it all! Neither of them are ready to get married, Onee-chan, especially while they're still in high school! And to have THIS dropped on their heads so SOON after Akane-chan was nearly killed, not to mention what might be going on with Ranma-kun?!"
Kasumi perked. "Oh, my! Is there something wrong with Ranma-kun?"
"I . . . " Nabiki paused, and then she slowly exhaled. "I'm not really sure about it, Onee-chan. But over the last few days, I've sensed that SOMETHING'S bothering him." She sat down before tracing a finger in a circle on the counter. "Yeah, I can see the idea of him avoiding anything to do with Ukyou or Shampoo. And having him be very civil to Akane-chan is pretty good in and of itself. But . . . " Her eyes narrowed. "Something's bugging him big-time. Problem is, I can't see what that something might be, Onee-chan."
"What could it be, then?"
"I dunno. And we better find out what it is before the idiots decide to do something stupid. Not just the ones here, but also the ones elsewhere. If they do and Ranma-kun happens to take it the wrong way . . . "
She raised a finger in warning. The eldest sister nodded. "Agreed."
* * *
"And that's what happened!" Ukyou wiped her eyes as she spoke into the receiver. "I thought I was doing the right thing, but I . . . "
"You WERE doing the right thing, Ukyou!" her father's voice echoed over the earphone. "They had no right in forcing a marriage between Ranma and that girl without taking into account what happened to you over the last ten years. I don't care what supposedly happened afterward. You HAVE a right, a DUTY, to see to it the Saotomes adhere to what they agreed with us, child!"
"I . . . yes, Dad! I know! But still . . .!"
"No, Ukyou!" Kuonji Haruka sharply replied. "There is no choice but to do this. And if they try to fight it out, we'll fight it out. Our honour has precedence here. Listen, didn't you tell me about this 'man-above-men' contract Ranma was forced to sign with his mother?"
Ukyou nodded. "Yes, I did."
"Well, if his mother supposedly goes along with THAT, you have to wonder what sort of mother IS she! Do you REALLY want to see Ranma living under that sort of threat for the rest of his life? Believe me, if you offer Ranma the chance to get away from that woman, he'll take it!"
Ukyou shook her head. "I dunno, Dad. Ran-chan's been getting along pretty well with her, so I've heard . . . "
"Come now, Ukyou! I know her type. She'll want to do to the boy what people like her have done to their children for ages. Lord it over their child to the point where he won't be able to do anything without getting her approval first. Tell me, Ukyou, do YOU want to have someone like her for a mother-in-law? You know how some of them can be at times!"
The chef blinked, sighing. "Yeah, Ran-chan does seem to defer a lot -- hell, a little TOO much, if you ask me! -- to her."
"My point! Ironically, his father did the lad a favour in keeping him away from his mother! You love how strong Ranma is! How could he be that way, STAY that way, if he's being forced to defer to his own mother like that?!"
"Yeah, you got a point . . . "
"I'm glad you understand that." Haruka chuckled. "Don't give up hope, Ukyou. You're in the right. Don't forget that!"
"I . . .!" Ukyou reluctantly nodded. "Alright, Dad."
The conversation was soon concluded. Konatsu, who had been cleaning up tables, looked at his employer. "Ukyou-sama, do you really think Ranma-sama will acknowledge what you might demand of him after what happened last week?"
Ukyou stared at the male kunoichi before sighing. "I dunno, Konatsu." She grimaced. "But I DO know that I have to make up to Ran-chan somehow. When I do that, then we'll see what we'll do next. Okay?"
He nodded. "As you feel is right."
* * *
Shampoo blinked, a grin slowly crossing her face as she read the letter that just arrived by carrier pigeon from her home village:
To the Warrior Nu Shanpú,
In the wake of the report sent by your honoured great-grandmother, the Elder Nu Kelun, concerning the events several weeks ago on Mount Phoenix in the battle with Saffron, the Council decrees the following:
That the marriage, as established by combat, between yourself and Saotome Ranma, is acknowledged as true under our laws.
That you, Shanpú, must continue to strive to bring your husband to the village as soon as possible to consummate said marriage.
And that you, Shanpú, will eliminate, by whatever means possible, all obstacles standing in your way of consummating your marriage with your husband. This must be done in the light of the many crimes your husband's father, Saotome Genma, student of the hated Happoosai, eternal enemy of the Nujiézú, has committed against womankind.
We wish you the Goddess' blessings as you pursue those goals and hope to see you and your husband returned to the village soon.
With the Goddess' blessings, I remain,
Nu Misú, Chair of the Council of Elderwomen
Shampoo sighed. Misú -- "Mist" -- was not just the supreme leader of her tribe, but a great-grand aunt several times removed. Mist and Cologne had been friends for ages, standing together against the tribes' foes in battle after battle. To receive a letter like this from her had as much impact on Shampoo as anything Cologne might demand. Sighing, she read the post-script, written in Mist's beautiful calligraphy: "Remember, Shan, the one who killed Saffron and fought Herb to a standstill must NOT elude the Nujiézú."
That settles that! she mused as she folded the letter and left it on the bar. But will Airen accept it, especially after what happened last week?
Since the letter was personal, neither Cologne nor Mousse had read it. Remembering the weapons-master, Shampoo grimaced, and then she slipped the letter into her jersey. She would have to talk to her great-grandmother, but clearly, an apology to Airen was in order. Indeed, threatening Airen's mother, even by accident, was NOT a smart thing. And she would have to speak to the Mercenary Girl about what precipitated that mess in the first place. Shampoo strongly believed Airen's fool father and Tendou Souun had forced him into that farce. If so, she'd have some words with them, especially the stupid panda.
He had long deserved that!
* * *
"So this is Moroboshi Ataru, huh?"
"Hai, that's him." Tampopo smiled as she cleaned up her dishes, just unpacked out of their boxes after she moved them from Tomobiki.
It was the next afternoon after school. Ranma hooked the framed picture on the wall near the doorway into the kitchen before moving to set up the rest of the pictures Tampopo hung around her restaurant to make things homely. "Heard all sorts of things about him. Not all nice, y'know."
The cook sighed. "Hai, I know. I know. But people can say the very same things about you, Ranma-chan. Not to mention the other members of the 'Nerima Wrecking Crew.' Don't forget that." She winked at him.
Actually "her." Before coming to Tampopo's, Ranma had been splashed by the old lady near the Tendou home. He had told the cook about Jusenkyou the night they met. Much to Ranma's delight, Tampopo simply shrugged it off. Even more, when some of the workers who had been moving stuff into her shop tried to flirt with the martial artist, Tampopo laid them all low with a battle spatula that put Ukyou's to shame. And her threat about not cooking a THING for them in response to their trying to "pick up" Ranma was effective, especially after Ranma himself got a sample of her cooking. Kasumi? Who was Kasumi?!
Ranma sighed. "I guess we all got our enemies, huh?"
"Yes, that's true. Too many people, especially your age and male -- and some of the females, too -- in Tomobiki just HATED the fact that I waylaid Lum every time Ataru-chan ducked into here to avoid her cooking, not to mention being bullied by the rest of them. Pity she got sent home; the last few nights she was on Earth, she was starting to show some progress with Ataru-chan."
Ranma stared at her. "Did you want them to get married?"
"I really wish I could answer that. My . . . " She paused, shrugging. "My main concern was the fact that there was this boy. A person who could've gained friends and had a healthy adolescence if he had ever been given a chance. Suddenly, he is picked to become Earth's 'champion' in a silly tag game to protect us from being invaded by aliens. THEN he winds up being 'married' to an alien who didn't understand what her presence on Earth was ultimately doing to him! I . . . " She turned to sit at the counter. "Lum is a nice girl, Ranma-chan. But she has no CONTROL over herself. Even more so, her behaviour influenced her cousin, a little BOY of five, to act in the very same manner she did. And then you tack all her friends from outer space, pile Ataru-chan's classmates on top of that . . . " She then made an exploding motion with her hands. "And when it was all said and done, things got destroyed and people's lives were disrupted. And look what happened? They turned and blamed ATARU for it. Every DAMN time!"
Ranma sighed, walking over to sit beside the cook. "I guess that would get to anyone, even me." She leaned her chin on her palm.
"That's why I did what I did," Tampopo admitted. "I gave Ataru-chan ONE place in Tomobiki where he could be free of them all. And because of that, he came to trust me about things no one, not even Lum, knew. And I . . . " She sighed. "I was happy to be there for him. He really needed it at times."
"So where is he now?" Ranma wondered.
Tampopo shook her head. "No. I know you're curious, but I won't say anything. There are those who'd take those words and totally ruin his life. Chief of which are the twits who're Ataru-chan's biological parents. He renounced all legal ties to them before Lum was sent home."
Ranma gaped. "He's roonin?!"
"No, he's not. His clan is a matriarchy where the succession goes from grandmother to granddaughter, not father to son like in most other families," Tampopo reported. "It skipped his parents' generation and went to him. Muchi and Kinshou -- they're Ataru's parents -- have no power in that respect." She then added in a whisper, "Especially now that his grandmother is dead."
"Whoa!" The transformed martial artist whistled, gazing at the ceiling. "He's lucky. Did anyone in Tomobiki know about this?"
"Not really, thanks very much to Kinshou. And I'd rather not talk about that now. It IS violating Ataru-chan's privacy." The chef playfully batted Ranma's nose before she stood up to prepare something on the stove behind the counter. "Besides, it's pretty much all settled now. He's somewhere where no one can try to hurt him further, so he'll finally have a chance to get his wits about him, and then decide what he wants to do with his life. And you did tell me about your fiancée's sister Nabiki." She wagged a finger at Ranma. "By the sounds of it, she might take whatever information I might give you about Ataru-chan and sell it to the highest bidder. I don't want that."
Ranma snorted. "Don't blame you."
"So what do you want to have?"
"Hmmm . . . how good are you at making okonomiyaki?"
"Pretty good. What type?"
"Hiroshima-style. Beef and shrimp with soba."
Tampopo got to work. Watching her, Ranma was instantly reminded of Ukyou and the magic that she could unleash over a stove. A frown turned her lips as she banished the chef's image from her mind. No, she couldn't think of Ukyou now, especially after what happened. If she wanted reconciliation, Ukyou had to make the first move. And if she got uppity, that was no problem. Ranma had no intention of marrying her even BEFORE the fight on Mount Phoenix. Was it really Ranma's fault that Ukyou never got the message?
"Hey, Tampopo-chan! Can I ask you something?"
"What is it, Ranma-chan?"
"Was Lum really that bad of a cook?"
Tampopo chuckled. "I'm not so sure. The chances are good that she was pretty bad no matter what she tried, but I think that the real problem was that she was busy preparing Oni food for a Terran."
"Really?" Ranma's eyebrow arched. "Damn, pity she had to go home. We could've introduced her to Akane." She then stopped before a chill warped through her. "Excuse me! On second thought, that's NOT a good idea!"
Tampopo glanced at her. "She's bad?"
"Bad . . .?" Ranma sighed. "Well, it was plain awful to watch her go at it at times! And I got stuck eating it all. It was a miracle that I didn't wind up dead or in intensive care from the things she made. But . . . " She shrugged. "She's got better. She does a good curry, but . . .!" Another shrug. "I think her big problem is that she thinks she's good because Kasumi does it every day, three times a day, so Akane assumes she can do the same. It doesn't work that way, Tampopo-chan. You probably know that, don't you?"
"Yes, I do know that. Does she read the recipe at least?"
"Not that I know of."
"Oh, dear. That IS a problem, then. So how many times did you have your bilges pumped from her cooking, Ranma-chan?"
"I've lost count."
"And no one's tried to stop her beforehand?"
Ranma shook her head. "Not really, I'll admit. I guess the only one who could is Kasumi, but she doesn't do it often."
"Kasumi? The eldest sister?"
Tampopo hummed. "And their mother's dead?"
"Yeah. She passed away about ten years ago or so. I don't know the exact date and all that. I . . . " Ranma shrugged. "Well, I figure it's kind of personal with them and they are hurting from her dying and all that . . . "
"Wise thing. Still, if Kasumi has been forced to become the home keeper, I wouldn't be so surprised if she went easy on Akane. To turn from an 'older sister-to-younger sister' relationship into a 'quasi-mother/older sister-to-younger sister' situation would be disorientating. If their father had been smart, he would have remarried. It would've done the girls a lot of good."
"You think so?"
"I believe it would've been the proper thing to do." Tampopo sighed. "Ranma-chan, can you tell me something?"
"What do you see in Akane, anyway?"
"I . . .!" Her brow furrowed as she considered that. "I don't know."
Tampopo stared at her. "Just like Ataru-chan."
She chuckled. "When Lum first came to Earth and it became obvious that he was becoming seriously attracted to her, I asked Ataru-chan that question. He . . . " She shrugged, turning to monitor the okonomiyaki. "It's nothing to be ashamed about, Ranma-chan. When you feel an attraction to someone, things do get quite confusing. Let me ask you this, then: What IS love?"
"I . . .!" Ranma stuttered, and then she sat back in her chair to think about it. "Well . . . I guess ta be in love with someone means you're taking a commitment ta be there for her. Ta protect her and support her and . . . well . . .!" She shrugged before giving her host a hopeful look. "I . . .!"
Tampopo flashed a sympathetic look. "You haven't really had any chance to talk this over with anyone, haven't you?"
"Not really."
"Is there anyone you can trust to have a conversation like that?" the chef then wondered. "Because it looks to me that you really need to get your thoughts in order before you contemplate doing ANYTHING." Tampopo flipped the okonomiyaki onto a plate before placing that before Ranma.
Her nose twitching excitedly as a mouth-watering aroma zeroed in on her mind's pleasure centres, the martial artist picked up her chopsticks. "Well . . . " she mouthed around a morsel of food. "Not really, I guess." She gulped it down. "I mean, there's Kasumi." She cut another slice. "But I don't wanna put her into a position where . . . " She downed that. "She might end up standin' up to the rest of her family." She then cut up another slice. "Man, this is really good, Tampopo-chan!" Ranma grinned. "And there was Doc Ono Toofuu. He was a chiropractor who lived here sometime back. Don't know what happened to him . . . " Her voice trailed off, and then she sighed. "Then again, I remember one time when he used a shiatsu point on my back to force me to be carried home from his office by Akane," she ruefully lamented.
Tampopo's eyebrow arched. "Oh, really? That's not behaviour I'd condone from my doctor. What about your mother? I can sense you have no trust in your father anymore, but surely, your mother might understand some things."
Ranma shook her head. "Not really. Mom's pretty traditional and all that. I . . . I guess, deep down, she . . .!" She paused before shrugging. "I don't know what she wants. Giri means a lot to her . . . "
"Giri? What about your happiness? Good grief, doesn't she want you to be happy with your life, Ranma-chan?"
"I . . .!"
"ARE you happy with your life?"
Ranma shuddered, squeezing her eyes shut as the concern in Tampopo's voice sheared through her emotional guards like a knife through butter. Before she could do anything, fingers touched shiatsu points on her temples. Ranma quaked. The dam then broke as gentle sobs burst from her lips. Almost immediately, arms wrapped around her as she felt Tampopo comfort her. "Let it out . . . " the chef cooed into the martial artist's ear. "Let it out, Ranma-chan. It's okay. It's okay. It's okay to cry, Ranma-chan."
"N-no . . .!" Ranma burbled. "Men don't cry . . . "
Tampopo shook her head. "Who told you that? Your father?" she asked. Feeling Ranma nod, she sighed. "He lied to you. Kami-sama, I can't believe he'd force you to accept a lie like THAT! What was he trying to do to you?"
Ranma listened to the question, sniffling back her tears before staring at her host. "N-no one . . . " she stuttered before looking down. "No one's ever asked me things like that 'b-bout me, Tampopo-chan . . . "
"Is that a fact?" Tampopo gazed on her for a moment, and then she nodded as if she had just made a great decision. "Ranma-chan, I want you to listen to me for a moment. I'm going to make a promise to you. And I really want you to believe that I will adhere to this promise, okay? Are you listening?"
The martial artist nodded. "W-what?"
"I want you to know that if in ANY way you feel you have to break away from these people you're dealing with now -- your parents, the Tendous, the others -- I will be there for you," she vowed. "That's a promise I am making to you right now. I want to be your friend, show you what REAL friendship is about. And I want to help you figure your way out of this MESS you're in. I really do, because you need it more than anything else does. What's more, you DESERVE help. Do you understand what I'm telling you? Do you?"
"I . . .!" Ranma stared wide-eyed at her. "Why?"
Tampopo shrugged. "Can't I help you?"
"I . . .!" the younger woman stuttered before rapidly shaking her head. "No! I can't ask ya to do somethin' like THAT, Tampopo-chan! You don't wanna get involved in my life! You don't! Trust . . .!"
A finger landed on her lips. "That's part of your problem, Ranma-chan." Tampopo chuckled. "I take it the idea of you being the ONLY person to settle your problems is another thing your father taught." Her eyebrow arched again on her seeing the younger woman's eyes widen. "Well, am I right?"
"It ain't that!" Ranma said. "I mean, yeah, a lot of the crap I've gotta deal with was because Oyaji's a lunkhead! But believe me, you don't wanna get inta this whole mess. People, especially Akane, Ukyou and Shanpú, not ta mention Oyaji and Akane's dad, won't like the idea of someone buttin' . . .!"
"And why is that?"
Ranma blinked. "I don't get it."
"Why is it they're trying to stop you from finding some way out of this mess?" Tampopo wondered, and then she paused before taking a breath. "Perhaps I should ask that this way: Why are they so AFRAID of you making your own decisions about your life? Why? It's YOUR life that you have to live! It's not Akane's. It's not Ukyou's. It's not Shanpú's. And it certainly isn't your parents'! WHY?! Why are you letting them get away with this nonsense?!"
"I . . .!" Ranma shuddered, tears flowing down her cheeks, and then she leaned in as Tampopo comforted her. "I don't know anymore."
Sobs stole her voice as Tampopo sighed. "Then you have to find out, Ranma-chan. For your sake most of all."
* * *
"So where were you yesterday? You were gone the whole day!"
Ranma blinked. Then glancing around to ensure Shampoo was nowhere near, he gazed at Akane. "It was somethin' personal. Don't worry about it, okay?"
She tensed before she stared at him. "'Personal?' About what?"
"Akane, if I tell ya something's personal, it's personal, okay?!" he snapped. Taking a final sweep of the surrounding area to ensure Shampoo wasn't close, he hopped down as they headed to the front gate of Fuurinkan High. "Sheesh! You don't hear me buggin' ya about somethin' ya wanna keep personal if ya tell me to mind my own business! So why're you doin' it to me?!"
She stopped, staring wide-eyed at her fiancé. Her body then quaked as a surge of anger roared up her spine. "Hey, don't tell me something like that, Ranma! I'm trying to show a little concern for you, you know!"
He stopped some distance away before he stared at her. "Why don't I believe what you just said?" he wondered before heading into the school.
Akane watched Ranma head inside, her legs rooted in place as his question echoed through her mind. "Ranma . . . " she whispered.
"You okay, sugar?"
Akane gasped, spinning around to see Ukyou staring at her. "Ukyou?!" she breathed out. "Ah! Um, is there something wrong?"
"Is there somethin' wrong with YOU?" the okonomiyaki chef countered. "Did you and Ran-chan have a fight or what?!"
"I . . . " Akane blinked, and then she shook her head. "No, no fight. It was just a little disagreement. So . . . "
"If you say so. Look, can you ask Ran-chan to come to the cherry tree . . . " -- she pointed to a tree at one end of the campus -- "At lunch? I REALLY have got to talk to him. You, too. Please, will you two come there today?"
Akane stared at her rival, quickly noting the flash of pain and fear deep in Ukyou's dark eyes. "I . . . al-alright."
* * *
"Akane? Ran-chan?"
The couple and Ukyou sat under the cherry tree the chef had specified before classes had begun. Akane and Ranma gazed on each other before the former turned to Ukyou. "I forgive you." She reluctantly nodded. "I can't blame you for getting so upset at what happened last week!"
Ukyou blinked, and then she smiled. "Well, since you say it was those two dingbats you have to call fathers that started it, not to mention what Nabiki did to milk it along . . .!" She chuckled before turning to Ranma.
He sighed. "I forgive you, Ukyou-san."
Ukyou jolted, her mind clouding over on hearing the words she needed to hear from him. She was then brought up short by the way he just addressed her. Akane was also taken aback. "Ranma . . .?" She gazed on her fiancé.
Ranma sighed. "And yeah, you certainly had a right to do what you did last week, Ukyou-san. I don't hold it against you."
Akane exploded. "SAY WHAT?! What the hell does THAT mean?!"
Ranma spun on her. "What about her honour, Akane?!" he demanded, the ice in his voice making both girls duck. "What about the fact that she spent TEN YEARS as a boy 'cause of what Oyaji pulled on her?!"
Silence fell. "Ran-chan . . . " Ukyou repeated.
Ranma stood. "Ukyou-san, I can't begin to apologise for how much that fool father of mine hurt you. I can't start to think of any way to pay you back for your sufferings. I know you love me and want to marry me but . . . " He paused before shaking his head. "I'm sorry, but I can't give that back to you. To me, you will always be my oldest and best friend. But I can't accept you as BOTH friend AND fiancée. Ya have to be one or the other, not both. I . . . " He stopped, and then he shrugged. "I'm sorry."
He walked away. Akane and Ukyou watched him. The latter then shuddered. "Now, wait just a damned minute here, Ran-chan . . .!"
Akane stepped into her path. "No!"
"Wha . . .?!" Ukyou sputtered.
"Leave him alone, Ukyou!" Akane ordered, glaring the chef down. "Don't you understand what you're doing to him?!"
"But he has to . . .!"
"Has to what?!"
They stared at each other, and then they glanced together towards where Ranma had gone. The martial artist was nowhere in sight. Both women blinked. Akane sighed. "Damn, this is such a mess!" She shook her head.
Ukyou took a breath. "Yeah, you got that right," she muttered. "Akane, I'm sorry. I know how much you care for him and all that, but I gotta warn you now." She held up a finger. "I can't and WON'T give up my claim on Ran-chan."
Blinking, Akane stared back at her. "Why?"
"'Cause that's what my dad wants, okay?!" Ukyou snapped. She shuddered before calming herself. "I'm sorry. Look, it's not your fault and it's not Ran-chan's fault. I happen to like you, but I just . . . " She squeezed her eyes shut. "I can't give up on him. If I do, I give up EVERYTHING that makes my life what it is. I'd be made roonin so fast, it'd make your head spin. I'd have to start from scratch again, both as a chef and as a martial artist. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. I'm trapped and the only way out is through Ran-chan. I . . . " She shook her head, shrugging. "That's the way it is."
Akane stared at her. "Ukyou," she breathed out before gazing intently at her. "I can't believe that your dad would . . . "
"Believe it," Ukyou flatly announced.
* * *
Ranma and Akane were silent as they headed home after classes. Both had small bundles in their hands, boxes full of fresh okonomiyaki; Ukyou had prepared them before final class. Ranma kept his eyes peeled for Shampoo and her bicycle. Akane stared at him. "Ranma?" she then ventured.
He glanced at her. "What is it?"
"You know, you were right." She took a breath. "She was hurt because of what your father did to her. What could we do to help her?"
He shrugged. "I dunno. Try ta find her family yatai if we could, but I don't remember what Oyaji did with that. I can't just duck out of helping her, Akane. She definitely deserves ta get something out of this. But . . . " he stuttered. "What?" he then asked with a shrug.
"Yeah. What could we do to pay back ten years of misery?"
Ranma sighed. He needed to talk to Tampopo about this. "Akane, look, I'm gonna go for a walk, alright. I'll see ya later."
"Eh?!" Akane stared at him. "Where are you going?"
"Somewhere ta clear my head." Ranma bounded to the nearest fence. "Tell Kasumi she don't have to cook anythin' for me tonight!"
Akane watched him race off. "Ranma," she whispered, lowering her head. "Why won't you tell me what's bothering you?"
"Aiyah! Is Airen alright?!"
Akane jolted, spinning to see Shampoo walk her bicycle up, an empty lunch box on the cargo rack over the back wheel. "Shampoo!"
"Did you have a fight?" the warrior-maiden asked.
Akane blinked, surprised that Shampoo had asked her something like THAT, and then she shook her head. "No, no fight. What's wrong?"
"This . . . " Shampoo's voice halted. "This one wants to apologise for what she did to stop the wedding last week." She lowered her eyes. "This one heard from Mercenary Girl that Airen's stupid father and your father set that up. But can you . . .?" She paused before staring at her rival. "Can you tell this one something? Did you really want to marry Airen last week or was it because of the Nanniichuan water the Jusenkyou guide sent to Airen?"
Akane shuddered before nodding. "Yes, I did want to marry Ranma, Shampoo. He's saved my life so many times, that . . . "
"You think it's an honour-debt, right?"
Akane stared intently at Shampoo before relaxing. "It's more than that. I love him. I . . .!" She paused. "I don't know when it started to happen, but it did. I can't deny it, Shampoo. It's not fair to Ranma and . . . "
She pointed to herself. "You think it's no fair to you, too?"
"This one understands. In fact, this one understands much more than you might think. But . . . " She closed her eyes. "It doesn't change one thing. This one still loves Airen. And this one can't give up on Airen. It . . . it's not over yet," Shampoo then breathed out.
Akane shuddered as a chill warped through her. "No . . . "
"If this one can't bring Airen back, she . . . " She gazed at Akane, helplessness flashing in her eyes. "This one will face disgrace and worse. Even more, the Council doesn't want to let Airen go. After Airen killed Saffron and defeated Herb, what do you think the Council should do?!"
Akane stared at the warrior-maiden, the phrases "disgrace or worse" and "Council doesn't want to let Airen go" echoing in her mind again and again. "No . . .!" She shook her head. "No! No! No! DAMN IT ALL, NOT THIS!"
"Akane!" Shampoo cried out.
Too late; the youngest Tendou daughter was out of earshot. Shampoo watched her go before she closed her eyes. "This one is sorry, Akane. This one really, really wishes there could be another way."
* * *
A forlorn "Tadaima!" echoed through the Tendou home. Hearing that, Nodoka stepped out of the kitchen, blinking on seeing tears in Akane's eyes as she slipped off her shoes. "Akane-chan, what's wrong?!" she gasped as she immediately moved to comfort her future daughter-in-law.
Akane jolted, staring blankly at Ranma's mother. By then, Souun had come. Quickly noting the look on his youngest child's face, he panicked. "Akane-chan! Are you alright?! What's wrong?!" he parroted Nodoka's question.
"I . . .!" Akane blinked. "Nothing's wrong, Dad, Auntie. I'm okay."
She turned to head upstairs. "Akane?" Souun gasped.
"Was it something Ranma did?" Nodoka demanded.
Akane stopped, her eyes widening. She spun around, outrage exploding from every point on her body. "NO!" she bellowed loudly enough to blow them into the floorboards. "RANMA DID NOTHING TO ME! NOTHING!" She then turned on Souun. "WHY IS IT EVERY TIME SOMETHING GOES WRONG, YOU TURN AROUND AND BLAME RANMA?!" Then she pointed accusingly at Nodoka. "AND WHY CAN'T YOU TRUST YOUR OWN SON FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE, ANYWAY?!"
She marched upstairs. Souun and Nodoka remained quiet before exchanging a surprised look. "You think your husband might be right?" the former asked, glancing up the stairs as the door to Akane's room opened and slammed shut.
* * *
The week marched on.
Tuesday lunchtime saw Shampoo come to the school cafeteria to deliver lunch for her Airen. Before presenting a bowl of hot ramen to Ranma, the warrior-maiden apologised for her part in the failed wedding, especially in putting her Airen's mother into harm's way. Hearing that, plus hearing that Shampoo had not put any drugs into the ramen -- a fear Ranma had possessed concerning Shampoo's meals for a long time -- he accepted her apology.
Then, to everyone's shock, he added, "Shanpú, you've had to live with your laws for your entire life. I don't really understand the reasons behind them, but they're something you can't deny, even living here in Japan. Because of that, I admit that you had every right to do what you did last week. I can accept it. I can even try to understand it. Please, it's alright."
Shampoo floated back to the Nekohanten on Cloud Nine.
After school, Ukyou gave Ranma another packaged okonomiyaki. He accepted it, though he still addressed her as "Ukyou-san," something that still clearly hurt the young chef. Once she was gone, Ranma parted from Akane, declaring he wanted to go for a walk. Akane accepted that, still bothered greatly by the words Ukyou and Shampoo had spoken to her the previous two days.
She needed a chance to be alone, too.
Once they were separated, Ranma proceeded to a playground to gobble Ukyou's okonomiyaki before he headed to Tampopo's to spend some time with his new friend. There was no way he was going to insult the older chef by bringing samples of Ukyou's cooking into her restaurant. And besides, he had enough room for whatever Tampopo might make him, plus any surprises that might be waiting for him back at the Tendou home. Before leaving the chef for the day, Ranma received several special packets of a homeopathic cure Tampopo had once given Moroboshi Ataru in case he had to deal with Lum's cooking and couldn't duck out of his home to avoid it. "It should be more than enough to deal with whatever Akane might want to prepare for you," she advised him.
Ranma certainly appreciated that.
* * *
"She said that to you?!"
Genma stared hopefully at his wife and his best friend. Nodoka nodded. "Yes, she was quite boisterous about it, my husband. It appears that, even if they are uncomfortable openly expressing it, they do feel it."
Souun sighed. "I do agree, Saotome-kun. Perhaps you were right, but I do want us to wait until this weekend before we approach them. And we keep the wedding date as flexible as possible. Let them decide when they want to wed."
"That sounds more than fair enough," Nodoka mused.
Genma blinked before sighing. "Alright, I can go along with that. I'll keep an eye on the boy anyway, just in case. I still haven't figured out where he goes to when he parts from Akane after school."
"Spying on our son, Genma, may not be the wisest thing to do."
"Yes, Saotome-kun, he might take it the wrong way."
"Still, I want to make sure he isn't slacking off." Genma held up a hand to forestall any protests from Souun or Nodoka. "Don't worry. I won't press anything with the boy, but I don't want him to lose his edge."
Souun and Nodoka stared at him, and then they nodded.
* * *
"Oh, my!" Kasumi whispered; she was in the kitchen, having been there since before Genma had got together with his wife and the Tendou patriarch.
Saturday, she mused with a grimace, and then she sighed.
She had to talk to Nabiki about this as soon as possible.
* * *
Wednesday was a quiet day, save lunchtime. Like the day before, Shampoo came to Fuurinkan High with lunch. When she got there, a trivial annoyance imposed himself on her. "De Big Kahuna say there be NO take out in the . . .!"
"This one doesn't care what you say, Palm-Tree Man!" Shampoo snapped before swatting the tree-topped school administrator into the afternoon sky with her bonbori. With that, she marched into the cafeteria. "Nihao, Airen!"
The warrior-maiden was quick to notice that Ukyou had already given Ranma some okonomiyaki to enjoy for lunch. Even more so, there was a bowl of some brown-grey sauce -- curry? -- too. Who had . . .? Her eyes then fell on Akane, she having a very expectant look on her face. Oh, no!
"Oh, hi, Shanpú!" Ranma perked up. He then noticed her staring warily at the bowl of curry rice Akane had made the previous evening. "Oh, relax! Relax!" He waved her down as Shampoo came up. "This is pretty okay!"
Shampoo stared intently at Akane, who gave her a neutral look in return. "Akane's never cooked good before, Airen."
Ranma sighed before taking his chopsticks, forking out a small hunk of curry rice for Shampoo. "Here! Try it."
Everyone stared at the warrior-maiden. Shampoo blinked. Then realising that Ranma would NOT try to intentionally poison her with bad food, she took the curry rice into her mouth. Munching it, her eyes widened as the spices hit home, and then she swallowed it. "You're right, Airen! This IS good curry!" She nodded, gazing at Akane. "There might be hope for you yet, Akane!"
Akane grinned. "I am trying."
"And ya gotta keep ON trying, Akane," Ukyou moderated. "And listen to your sister and Ran-chan's mom, too. Remember, they've been at this a lot longer than you have. You can't get it right overnight."
Hearing that, Akane nodded. "Yeah, that's true."
The other students watching this scene then exchanged worried looks. Many of them were clearly wondering when Rod Serling was going to show up and tell them that they just took a trip into the Twilight Zone. By then, Shampoo had served out the lunch she made before heading out. Just as she was about to mount her bicycle for the ride to the Nekohanten, she noticed a folded note tucked into the frame. Drawing it out, she opened it to read:
Come to Hikarigaoka Park, near Yamada Fred's yatai, tonight at eight o'clock. Don't be late. Ukyou and Kodachi will be there, too. It's about something you all need to know about Ranma and Akane.
Feel free to tell your great-grandmother, but DON'T let Mousse know. You'll understand when you hear what I have to tell you.
Shampoo stared at the note. Nodding, she hopped onto her bicycle.
* * *
Thursday and Friday buzzed past almost in a blur.
Matters between Ranma and Akane remained cordial, which pleased Genma very much. Souun and Nodoka also accepted what was happening, realising that if things were to happen between the two, they best happen very soon.
Genma didn't bother to report his failure to trace Ranma when he went off to "clear his head." Try as the Saotome patriarch might, he couldn't trace his son several blocks before losing him. How was that possible?
Was the boy keeping an eye out for him?
School was still boring for Ranma, though he did try to pay attention to the lectures. Lunch and physical education classes remained his favourite times in the day. Noting that, his classmates were comforted by one seemingly "normal" thing. Though lunchtime did stretch it a bit. On both days, Ukyou and Shampoo showed up with fresh meals for their fiancé. Akane also added in her curry, plus a reasonable attempt at a stir-fry she made with Kasumi's help.
Seeing Ranma's conditional approval -- some habits DO die very hard! -- made Akane's smile glitter like the sun.
After school, Ranma parted from Akane and made his trek to Tampopo's for dinner and chat. He had been quick to notice Genma trying to track him down when he started to do this, which forced Ranma to dip into his knowledge of the Umisen-ken to ensure the panda didn't learn of Kamekichi Tampopo. Hearing what Ranma had been doing on her behalf, Tampopo could only smile, telling him that it was no real problem. She was prepared to stand at his side against Genma. Noting the chef's obvious martial art skill, Ranma could agree, but still felt it was only proper. One just did NOT put one's friends into danger like that!
During his times with Tampopo, Ranma soon evolved a basic strategy to get some control over his life and resolve a lot of the outstanding issues hanging like Damocles' sword over his head. Indeed, Akane's father had it exactly right the day after the wedding attempt; things could NOT happen with the extra fiancées, not to mention all those other hangers-on, looming over Ranma's head.
And Ranma certainly could do with some peace and quiet.
First priority was Ukyou. He had to do something to repay the debt his family ultimately owed hers. This basically meant that he couldn't use the actions of the Gambling King concerning the Kuonji family yatai. The infamous gambler WAS a well-known cheat and Ukyou had only been five years old when she "gambled" the yatai away. Kuonji Haruka, as head of Ukyou's family, would have been within his rights to ignore what had happened between Ukyou and the King -- and since Genma had taken the yatai shortly afterward . . .!
There was one possible solution concerning Ukyou: Finding the Kuonji yatai and returning it to her in the same or better condition that it had been when it had been taken. Regardless of which, he was not interested in marrying her. Ranma just couldn't envision doing something like THAT with his friend. He wanted his "U-chan" back, the person he trusted so much when they were kids. He didn't want her as a wife. And he sure as hell didn't want a mistress, even if that might be something Nodoka would consider proper.
If Nodoka wanted to press an insane idea like that, Ranma would refuse.
It was just unfair to all concerned, especially Ukyou.
Next would be Shampoo. Ranma would have to spend some time looking over the Nujiézú laws to find some loophole in the Kiss of Marriage. If not . . .! Well, Ranma couldn't think of much beyond that point. He did owe Cologne a lot for teaching him the Chestnut Fist and the Rising Dragon Ascension. Could his actions on Mount Phoenix be parlayed into something for both Ranma and Shampoo?
That would have to be investigated.
Then there was Kodachi, but that had an easy answer: The gymnast needed therapy and couldn't be allowed to duck out of it until she agreed to get it. How that could be done, Ranma had no idea, but he'd try to figure it out.
With that done, he'd have to decide what to do with Akane. Ranma liked her very much. He cared for her a lot and certainly didn't want to see her hurt. But the whole matter with the Nanniichuan still rankled him. Yes, Akane had admitted she loved him just before the wedding. But with the revelations that came after that event, he was unsure of what sort of love she meant.
Ranma sighed while he was considering that point. He didn't want things to go back to the way they were when he first met Akane. Yes, he instinctively knew that he could, if he wanted to, avoid her punches and mallet strikes -- how he let that keep happening, he didn't understand -- but if he did that, what would happen? Would Akane be so offended by his "avoiding his just punishment" that she'd want to end the engagement once and for all?
Did he want that to happen?
What would his mother think?
Nodoka did like Akane and Ranma didn't want to disappoint her.
"I want to learn how to love her, Tampopo-chan. That much I think I want to do with Akane," Ranma admitted to the chef Friday night before he headed back to the doojou. "But I gotta know first what her feelings are."
"Do you think you should tell her that soon?" she asked.
"No, not yet. I gotta clear the air with all the others first before worryin' about that. I'll talk to her about the cask soon, though. Maybe when I find out about that, I'll decide what to do then."
"That sounds pretty rational," Tampopo admitted.
* * *
"Okaeri nasai," Kasumi called out as Ranma, Akane and Nabiki stepped into the sitting room after classes on Saturday. "How was school today?"
"It was alright," Akane admitted before she noticed Souun, Genma and Nodoka awaiting them by the dinner table. The determined looks on their faces made the youngest Tendou blink. "Is there something wrong?"
"No, Akane, but there is something we should talk about," Souun declared, waving them to the floor mats across the table from them. "Please sit down. The sooner we get this over with, the better for everyone."
Akane and Ranma exchanged a look. Uh-oh! they thought, though they sat themselves. "What's this about?" Ranma asked.
The adults exchanged a look. Souun sighed. "Ranma-kun, two weeks ago, I promised you that we'd set aside all talk about weddings until such time as all the potential suitors have been fully dealt with."
Ranma nodded. "Yes, that's true."
The Tendou patriarch took a breath, glanced at Genma, and then he carried on, "Well, when we made that decision, we didn't take into account you aren't . . . well, trained to deal with this sort of thing. Since you came, we've assumed you would do the right thing. Clearly, you don't fully and properly understand what the right and honourable thing is in this case. For that," -- he bowed his head apologetically -- "I personally apologise to you for making so many assumptions about you in the past. It was wrong and it brought a lot of disharmony and mistrust between yourself and my daughter, Ranma-kun."
Akane's eyes widened. "Dad . . . "
"I . . . " Ranma blinked. He hadn't expected this. Taking a deep breath, he nodded. "It's okay. You did what you thought was best."
Souun and Genma brightened. "Well, you might be pleased to hear this," the latter declared. "Son, when we made our decision two weeks ago, we assumed the problems were many and difficult. We were wrong to assume that, and then mislead you and Akane-chan. The problems are actually quite trivial."
The younger people blinked. "I wouldn't think of them as 'trivial,' Oyaji," Ranma protested. "They do matter, you know . . . "
"No, my son, you're wrong," Nodoka spoke up. "You've only been led to believe they are more than what they seem." She held up a finger. "Outside the Tendou Clan, you have an engagement with Kuonji Ukyou. After her actions, in the matter when our house was destroyed, then two weeks ago, she clearly demonstrated she would not respect the family she supposedly wishes to marry into. I won't have her be part of our family. Yes, she will be compensated for her dowry, but she will not be, from today on, recognised as your fiancée."
"Mom, she deserves more than that," Ranma automatically countered. "Yeah, I don't want to marry her, but she spent ten whole years actin' as a boy so she could get her revenge on us for what Oyaji pulled on her. And I want her to be my friend. I'm not gonna cast her off like Oyaji did."
Nodoka stiffened. "I'd hardly call someone like her worthy to be your friend, my son, much less a fiancée," she frostily intoned.
Ranma shuddered, ducking Nodoka's look. Akane sighed. "Dad, what about Shanpuu? What do we do about her, then?"
Souun snorted. "She's an outlander, Akane, trying to impose her laws on a place where they have no effect. She has no right whatsoever to think of Ranma-kun as her husband, 'Airen' or what have you!"
"What happens if she goes back to her village empty-handed?!" Ranma demanded. "You know how harsh their laws are!"
"That is her problem, not ours," Nodoka stated. "Perhaps if she is punished because of her 'failure,' then her people will see reason at last and learn to treat other outsiders much better than they treated you."
Genma snorted, he nodding in agreement. "Agreed. The Kunous have no claim on Akane-chan or yourself, so anything they say is worthless. And if they try to press the point, we'll deal with them. Outside that, there is nothing else to worry about. Now, given that we know what to do, we can get on with the wedding preparations and see you both finally married."
More silence.
Still more silence.
Then . . .
"SAY WHAT?!" Akane and Ranma screamed.
"Of course!" Souun nodded with determination. "Please. We realise how much you don't like to be pushed into this, but we DO want to see you wed. And we DO know that you two love and care for each other a lot. We are all in agreement about that, so why delay it anymore? Everything else can be brushed aside if you just let your hearts guide you to where you should go."
"It's the right thing to do, Ranma." Nodoka gazed on him, her hands squeezing the katana in her arms. "It's the manly thing to do."
Ranma jolted. Kasumi sighed. "Auntie . . . "
Akane blinked as her mind rolled through what everyone had just said. A smile then crept across her face, the same smile she had shown Ranma when he saw her in her wedding gown two weeks ago. Seeing this, Nabiki and Kasumi blinked before they exchanged a look. Why was she smiling? Did she WANT this to happen? Did she really mind being forced into this as soon as possible?
And what of Ranma . . .?
Ranma was still staring at Nodoka, a lost, hurt look etched on his face. As if he was asking himself who this woman was and what the hell had she done to his mother. Nabiki gazed on Nodoka, who was looking towards Souun and Genma, not taking notice of how much she had just hurt her son. Damn it, did she HAVE to bring that rotting old seppuku agreement into this damned mess?!
"Akane?" Souun probed.
Akane jolted, flustering. "Dad, I . . .!"
The door to the sitting room flew open as twin bonbori sailed in. Souun and Genma didn't react fast enough before they were knocked out. Nodoka bolted to her feet, her hands moving to unwrap her katana. A throwing spatula slammed into her wrist, making her drop the blade. A ribbon snapped up the katana, yanking it from Ranma's mother to dunk it into the koi pond.
"Just before you say anything, Akane, we got something ta say to these jerks!" Ukyou growled, battle spatula at the ready.
Kasumi smiled. "Oh, we have more guests."
She headed into the kitchen, quickly followed by Nabiki. "What are you guys doing here?!" Akane demanded, bolting to her feet.
"Stoppin' something that has no right to happen, sugar," Ukyou snarled before she spun on the adults. "Did you really think you'd get away with it so soon after we stopped you the first time?!"
"You have no right to be here, girl!" Nodoka snapped. "This is an honourable arrangement between two families, neither of which you belong to nor will you ever be ALLOWED to belong to . . .!"
She gasped as a throwing spatula wings past her, cutting several strands of her hair. Nodoka staggered, and then she turned to Ranma, who sat where he had been since the meeting started. Ukyou lunged in, whipping her battle spatula in an overhead strike. Genma smashed his fist into Ukyou's chin, sending her flying over Akane into the wall. Kodachi's clubs and another of Shampoo's bonbori slammed into Genma's head. By then, Souun was on his feet, he moving to disarm the girls and throw them out of his house.
The wall behind Nodoka exploded inward, the force staggering the older woman. "SHANPÚ!" Mousse screamed out.
Shampoo back-pedalled from Souun's fist before driving her bonbori into his stomach. "Stupid Mùsi! What are you doing here?!"
"Doing something that needs to be done!" Mousse focused on what he thought was Ranma -- his glasses were on his forehead again -- and then he lashed out with a storm of chains and knives. "DIE, SAOTOME!"
"Hey! You're aiming at ME, you idiot!" Akane screamed as she danced clear of the weapons-master's onslaught. "Get out of here!"
Shampoo grabbed one of her bonbori and flung it at Mousse. Nodoka was in her line-of-fire; the spheroid-hitting tool winged her in the side, sending her into a wall. Ranma, seemingly uncaring of what just happened to his mother, grabbed it out of mid-air, and then he fired it at its intended target. Mousse screamed out as the bonbori slammed into his head, sending him flying out of the house. Thunder then echoed from the direction Mousse vanished. "HOLD!"
Akane rolled her eyes. "Oh, shit! He's back!"
People turned as Kunou Tatewaki stormed in, bokken in hand. "I did not grant permission for this unholy union between my fair Tendou Akane and the foul sorcerer Saotome Ranma to occur! HAVE AT THEE, SORCERER!"
He wound up slamming into Mallet-sama. "Get it through your head finally, jerk! YOU HAVE NO SAY IN OUR MARRIAGE!"
"Beautiful Akane . . . " Kunou groaned, dropping to the floor.
Akane shuddered before she spun on Ukyou, Shampoo and Kodachi. "And that goes for you too! I've HAD it with you blasting your way into places where you don't belong! Ranma is MY fiancé!" She thumbed herself, and then she pointed accusingly at Ukyou. "Not yours!" -- then to Shampoo -- "Not yours and especially not YOURS!" She pointed at Kodachi before she pointed at herself again. "I would have been married to Ranma had it not been for you!"
Ukyou tensed herself. "Well, I'm afraid that it ain't gonna happen, sugar! If Ran-chan's gonna marry anyone, it'll be me! You got your dowry! I had mine stolen! So you better cough him over right now!"
"Not a chance!" Akane snapped before looking over. "Ran- . . . huh?!"
Everyone stopped on seeing an empty space where Ranma had been sitting not seconds before. "Where did Airen go?!" Shampoo demanded.
"I think he left when you started arguing over who was going to marry him," Nabiki announced, she standing at the kitchen doorway.
The four girls exchanged a shocked look. Ukyou grunted. "Damn it! We better find him before he gets too far away . . .!"
Everyone spun on Genma, who was now staggering to his feet. "My son will marry Akane even if it's over your dead bodies!" the Saotome patriarch growled.
He gasped as a ribbon snared him by the throat. Kodachi yanked Genma into the yard, sending him face-first into the cherry tree by the koi pond. Before he could recover, a storm of bokken strikes followed. "HOW DARE YOU PRESUME YOUR FOUL MAGUS OF A SON WILL MARRY TENDOU AKANE?!" Kunou thundered.
Shampoo looked at Ukyou. "Let's go find Airen!"
"Right!" The chef nodded, and then she screamed as chains wrapped around her. "Hey! What the hell are you doing, Mousse?!"
"Ensuring Saotome will NEVER have my Shanpú!" the weapons-master vowed.
He then screamed out as Shampoo's bonbori slammed into him. "Stupid Mùsi! Mind your own business for once!" Shampoo growled, and then she screamed out as Souun lunged at her with a table. "Aiyah!"
He unleashed the Demon Head. "RANMA WILL MARRY AKANE!"
That caused Mousse to release Ukyou. He then fired a storm of knives at Souun. "HOW DARE YOU THREATEN SHANPÚ?!"
Souun's battle cry turned into a panicked yelp. Ukyou growled, lunging into the front lawn before taking a look around. "Akane?" she whispered before cursing herself. "Damn! She must've gone after Ran-chan!" Her eyes fell on Genma, who was being deluged by a joint assault from the Kunous.
"Well, might as well get some practice in," she declared.
* * *
"Ranma! Ranma, where are you?!"
Ranma looked over as Akane ran toward the bridge over the Shakujii where he normally came when he wanted to be alone. He remained quiet as she jogged up. "Baka! There you are!" she breathed out. "Why'd you run off like that?"
He looked nowhere in particular. "I didn't want to get involved this time. Doin' that doesn't do spit for any of us, so I decided ta do something else. Feels nice not to be in the centre of some useless fight like that."
Akane sighed. "Ranma . . . " she whispered, and then she took a deep breath before continuing, "Ranma, they're not going to stop just because you left. Don't you understand?! It's YOU that they're fighting . . . "
Akane gasped, her eyes widening as Ranma's battle aura clicked on, surrounding him in a sea of pure crimson fury. "R-r-Ranma . . .!"
He pointed at her. "Is that all I am to you?! Just a THING for all of you to fight over?! Somethin' nobody, EVEN YOU, really cares a flying DAMN about?! Is that all I really am to you?! IS IT?! WELL?!"
She shuddered, her mouth fluttering as she tried to give him an answer. Staring at her, Ranma growled. "Fine! Since I'm not bein' given any chance to decide anything for myself, then I say this: You can beat each other senseless for all I care now! Hell, you can KILL each other for all I care! Either way, I'll be rid of you all! When you FINALLY decide ta treat me like I'm a person, THEN talk to me!" And with that, he stormed off.
Akane was rooted in place, her eyes wide as those words echoed inside her mind. Suddenly, a storm of anger welled in her as she felt Mallet-sama materialise in her hands. Growling, she lunged after him.
The mallet slammed home on the back of Ranma's head.
And then it shattered!
Akane gasped as the pieces cascaded around his head. He turned around to glare at her, clearly not the least bit affected by her attack. Her eyes then locked on his face as a grip of mortal TERROR snared her heart.
The look there . . .!
Oh, no!
Oh, Kami-sama, please, no . . . not this . . .!
Don't let it end like THIS!
Ranma shuddered. Then a strange calm crossed his face. "Fine," he declared before turning around and walking away.
Akane stayed rooted in place as he turned a corner and vanished. She then blinked as a voice in her mind began to warn her that what she had just done was probably the most STUPID thing she had ever done with her fiancé.
"Ranma." She shuddered, turning away. "I'm sorry."
* * *
"I'm surprised he didn't kill her for that!"
"For all his faults, Cologne-chan, the boy is not THAT!"
Cologne blinked, and then she stared at Happoosai before a slow nod shifted her head. She then glanced in the direction Ranma had disappeared. "He's going to that new restaurant that'll open this week," she reported.
"Smart, given who runs the place," the grandmaster of Musabetsu Kakutou-ryuu calmly noted as he drew his pipe and took a puff.
Cologne looked at him. "You know her?"
A grin split his face before he whispered something into the Nujiézú elder's ear. She blinked, and then her eyes went totally wide. "GODDESS! Happy, you m-MUST be j-joking!" she sputtered, staring at Happoosai.
He shook his head. "Nope." A deep breath. "It's time for some damage control here, Cologne-chan. I'll worry about the two dunderheads and the fool's wife. Keep Shampoo-chan and Mousse occupied for the time being." A tired sigh. "Maybe the boy will listen to us with them out of the way."
She watched him go, nodding. "I hope you're right, Happy."
* * *
"So, you are the one, aren't you?"
Chikage drew out a tarot card from her pocket to look at it.
The Fool, herald of new beginnings.
A befitting card indeed.
* * *
To be continued . . .