Disclaimer: Ranma ain't mine, folks. All characters and settings used without permission. Same goes for all the following chapters. Now that I've finished incriminating myself...
Prologue – Of Cowards & Oversized Spatulas
A pair of six year olds sat in companionable silence, or rather as close to companionable silence two six year olds hungrily munching okonomiyaki can get, while their oh-so venerable fathers discussed a business transaction –or sans cynicism– a family matter of great import.
"So your Ukyo wants to marry my Ranma?" asked one of the men. He wore a white bandanna and spectacles. Heavily built, he was possessed of a stoicism developed through many years of keeping a straight face, when questioned by disgruntled hotel owners and restaurant managers of his capacity to cover the bill. The man sighed. "Sorry to tell you this, but Ranma's already been promised." And to a fine fiancée at that, if what half of what his friend Soun said of his daughters was true. And of that there was no question. Tendo, his training partner of two decades and he trusted one another implicitly. Nothing would stand in the way of their mutual vow to unite the two schools of Anything Goes Martial Arts. Not while Genma Saotome drew breath.
"Ah, a pity," the equally burly man replied, "and here I was ready to throw in my yatai as a dowry."
"But aren't promises made to be broken?"
Genma Saotome was by no means an unfairly harsh man. He only wanted what was best for his boy. So, after presenting his son with a steaming pork okonomiyaki (Ranma's favourite), he asked Ranma whether he preferred the tasty dish on which he was happily chomping, or his little friend Ukyo. "Uhh," began the boy with some indecision before taking another bite, "okonomiyaki!" he cried, with certainty. Genma nodded. He would respect his son's decision.
"Come on, boy!" muttered Genma anxiously.
"Where we goin'?" asked Ranma as his father's muscular arms placed him on top of the yatai. Surreptitiously glancing about around, taking hold of the cart's handles, Genma answered,
"You and I are going on another training trip, boy. Say goodbye to your friend Ukyo." Nodding energetically, Ranma waved to his friend as he reappeared from the bushes on the side of the road, and called,
"Goodbye, Ucchan! See ya later!" He smiled broadly as Ucchan began dashing after them. "Hey, Pop," he yelled over his shoulder, "Ucchan is tryin' ta play catch-up!" Genma mumbled unintelligibly through the okonomiyaki in his mouth as he looked behind only to increase his pace at the sight of the pursuing child. Ranma laughed and kept waving, encouraging Ucchan and urging him to pick up his pace.
Genma relaxed a little as the child disappeared over the horizon. He looked ahead again... Only to skid to an abrupt halt. Just in time to avoid the ridiculously large spatula that imbedded itself noisily in the tarmac before him. The burly martial artist gulped back the rest of his okonomiyaki. It stuck in his throat as he beheld Ukyo's father in full battle garb. As imposing a figure he made in an adult version of little Ukyo's outfit, it wasn't he that made Genma balk. Rather, it was the half dozen similarly dressed muscular men, who stoodat either side of the okonomiyaki chef that concerned him. Sweat rolling down his brow, Genma laughed nervously, "Kuonji! Say, what brings you here?" He eyed the oversized cooking tool as the chef pulled it from it wedged position in the ground.
"Trying to renege on our deal, Saotome?" Kuonji growled accusingly. "I'll tell you now that this was one promise made to be kept."
Still laughing, and scratching the back of his head, Genma stuttered,
"W-why, of course, Kuonji! Whatever gave you that idea?" he asked as he stole a glance at the red-faced, puffing form of Ukyo making her way unsteadily to the yatai. He turned back to her father, whose grimace promised a most unpleasant end if he didn't quickly explain himself. "J-just speed and stamina training, Kuonji," he improvised. "Why, can't have my daughter-in- law too unfit to carry on the family school, after all, now can I?" Exhaling, Genma felt like patting himself on the back at his own cleverness. The chef's eyes narrowed as his daughter began climbing the cart to sit beside the younger Saotome.
Apparently convinced, he lowered his battle spatula. Genma mentally congratulated himself, and pondered how far outside the city he'd have to go to safely relieve himself of the burden of the girl. "After all," he continued confidently, "I'm responsible for her training now, aren't I?" Kuonji's grimace relaxed into a deep frown.
"Alright, Saotome. You've accepted the dowry, so I expect you to take good care of my daughter." Genma nodded enthusiastically, and readied the yatai cheerily saying,
"Right you are, Kuonji. Well, we'll be going," he was cut off as the chef flicked his wrist and levelled his weapon at his jugular. Genma paled. That combat spatula was sharp!
"However," Genma's eye twitched as Kuonji gestured towards his heavily built companions with the spatula, which was still very close to his throat, "the Kuonji's have family all over Japan. In fact, you'll rarely find a town the entire Orient without one practitioner of Martial Arts Okonomiyaki. Should you feel the need to 'speed train' my daughter again, I'm sure you'll always find a member of my extended family will be nearby to help supervise." Genma's eyes widened from a moment, but then his shoulders drooped.
"Of course," he grumbled, "that's very helpful of you Kuonji." With a resigned sigh, he began moving the cart at a more sedate pace, as Ukyo waved backed to her family, and was soon joined in by Ranma.
"What's 'fiancés'?" asked a puzzled Ranma. Giddily shaking her small legs off the side of the yatai, Ukyo rubbed her index fingers together and explained,
"Well, y'know that time I made my Dad's secret okonomiyaki sauce?" Ranma sweatdropped. "And you said that if it was good you'd promise to take care of me forever and ever?" Ranma acknowledged this with a high-pitched chuckle that carried the signature 'Saotome-Guilty Conscience" nervousness. "Well, 'fiancés' means that you promise to take care of me forever even if the sauce is bad!" She smiled. Ranma exhaled.
"Oh, well that's okay!" declared Ranma with relief. Ukyo nearly yelped with all the unrestrained glee of the six-year old she was.
"You, you mean it Ranchan? Really?" Cockily, he replied,
"Sure, Ucchan! I'll take care of you. You're the swellest guy I know." He paused for a moment, "and it don't matter how that sauce turns out!"
"But I'm sure it'll turn out great!" beamed back Ukyo.
"Eh-heh..." Ranma bigsweated.
"Where are you going?" hissed Ranma. Uyko frowned at Ranma. What was his problem? They'd gone to the baths lots of time together, but now she felt old enough to go over to the women's side alone instead of the men's side with Pops and Ranchan. "You're going to the girls' side!" he muttered through cupped hands.
"Well, of course, Ranchan. I am a girl after all."
"Pops, you got sum s'plainin' to do!" Genma glanced up at the indignant eight-year old, from his relaxed position in the public bath. "What did you do to Ucchan?" he demanded. "How d'ya make him think he was a girl?" The master of the Saotome School of Anything-Goes Martial Arts stared at his son dubiously.
"Sit down, Ranma my boy. I think you may be confused about some things."
Ukyo couldn't help but feel Ranchan's stare on her back, while she prepared a seafood special okonomiyaki on the grill. As she poured the mixture onto the griddle, she asked without turning, "What's the matter, Ranchan? You've been actin' strange all week." She tended the food and absently placed it in front of the customer, smiling sweetly, and turned to Ranma, glancing as she did, at Pop competently preparing a deluxe special. Neither he nor Ranma could match her exquisite touch, but nobody would complain. Her own customer seen to and Pops taking care of the other; she grabbed her fiancé by his ponytail and abruptly dragged him - howling indignantly - from the yatai with her. Sitting him down well away from their stall, she put her little hands on her hips and waited patiently. For five seconds. "Well?" Ranma pointedly stared at his feet.
"Is it true?" he mumbled, his high-pitched voice cracking. Exasperated, Ukyo asked what he was talking about. "Is it, is it true? I mean, are you really..."
"Yeah?" she prompted.
"Are you really...a girl?" She facefaulted... hard.
Twenty minutes later, Ranma was pale as a sheet, and Ukyo pale in the face from trying to get the facts through his thick skull. Downcast, Ranma asked, "So, how long?" Raising an eyebrow she asked puzzled,
"How long what?"
"How long've ya been a girl?"
"Please, Ucchan, ya gotta tell me!" She answered by reaching for her spatula. The big one.
Twenty more minutes and a thorough spatula pummeling later, the young cookfelt confident that she had beaten the truth into Ranchan. He sat crouched, rubbing at the growing lump on his cranium, and looked up into Ukyo's turquoise-blue eyes with something akin to regret. "I'm really sorry for ya, Ucchan." Her cheek twitched. Very calmly (for an eight-year old), she bid,
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, yer a girl, ain't'cha? Ain't nothin' worse that could happen to a guy right?"
If Ranma Saotome had known better, he wouldn't have tempted Fate. But how was he to know that not only did Fate have an impeccable memory, but a rather sick sense of humour, too?
They hefted their packs, Ukyo having to shift the extra weight of her double battle spatulas. Smiling triumphantly as they crested the ridge, Genma turned to his two students of the Art and proudly declared "Well, boys. We've finally arrived. Welcome to Jusenkyo!"
"Huzzah." They simultaneously deadpanned. Genma frowned.
Fate had a sick sense of humour, indeed.