Disclaimer: Takahashi created the paints, property of Viz video, while I am merely a peasant with an easel.
Saido -- Second
A Ranma 1/2 Fanfiction, and Miss/Fortune Side-story
The grill was hot. Simple to test. A drop of water flung from one finger skittered across the grill nicely, telling the experienced that, more than being hot, it was hot _enough_.
The chef gave a critical nod, then wiped the grill once with a special heat resistance cloth. Not truly necessary, but this was going to be special.
Ranma stood gasping for breath, one hand clasped over one of the numerous bleeding wounds on his arms. "Now you see?" he grated out between breaths. "You see how stupid this all is? How foolish..." Frustrated, he spun around, groaning with pain, and shook his head. "Futile. There's no point. If you don't understand, there's no point."
He took a halting step away from the mound of earth and rocks that had half buried Ranma's challenger, dressed in his fatigues, and easily as badly beaten as Ranma, if not worse. "Wait..." he called out weakly. "What are you trying to say?"
Ranma dropped his head, turning away from where Ukyou, Nabiki, and Shampoo stood next to Soun. Genma had run off, citing the need to distract Nodoka.
Straightening again, he strode back to the earthen pile, and crouched near Ryu, whispering intently.
Ukyou bit her lip and exchanged a nervous glance with Nabiki, who shrugged confusedly. Shampoo watched intently, mouthing occasional words and nodding to herself. Soun merely frowned, not understanding. Shampoo paled after a moment, her eyes darting from one moving pair of lips to another. "Oh..." she whispered, eyes watering. "So sad..."
The other girls rounded on her instantly, intently grilling her with their eyes, if not spoken words... but Shampoo simply shook her head. "No..." she said after a moment. "Shampoo-- I should not have listened. Is Ranma's story to tell."
Ukyou turned back, as Ranma smiled down at Ryu, the first smile she had seen on his face in far too long, and offered a hand to his fallen foe.
The other boy stared at the hand for a long moment, then nodded weakly, and reached his own hand out to grip it. Straining for a moment, Ranma heaved Ryu out of the ground, setting the other martial artist back down, where he wobbled unsteadily.
Ryu stared at his feet for a long moment, then looked away. "I'll apologize to her, then. And... Maybe I'll see you around again, or something."
Ranma nodded curtly, and whirled towards the girls, still limping slightly.
Ukyou licked her lips, as Ryu made his way towards the temple steps, obviously still in pain. Ranma stopped near the girls, unmindful of his horribly bloodied clothing. "I'm going to need to see Tofu-sensei, I think. I feel kind of dizzy."
Shampoo nodded slowly, not meeting Ranma's eyes. "Will... see you tomorrow. Great-grandmother has some salves we can give you..."
A bit of oil -- not much, that was the secret -- quickly spread out, and was further aided by a swift sweep of the spatula. Simple.
The chef stood still, waiting... it would be safe to pour the batter now, but it wouldn't be _perfect_ and that's what the situation required. Perfection.
Ukyou sat in a seat at the Ucchan's, nothing more than a box with a cushion on it, truth be told, and stared contemplatively at the grill. How different and alien everything seemed from this side.
She furrowed her brow in thought, and considered, not for the first time, closing the shop. In the grand scheme of things, she made money, but what was the real point? Shaking her head, she considered things. She didn't get Ranma; she had given up on him that day when he told her...
She shook her head again, and considered what she did have left.
Ranma? In a sense, yes. She had Ranma's friendship, and three weeks ago when a gaki had tormented her restaurant, Ranma had come over and battled with it -- no questions asked. He had simply shown up, fought with the unruly spirit, and then talked with her for a bit. And he didn't seem to mind... he did stop by occasionally when he wasn't fighting, and he did just visit with her, but there was so much of him that was just... distant... waiting for word of Akane through Nabiki, no doubt.
When she really stopped to think about it, she knew it wasn't that bad... she would have liked to have him as more than just a friend, but as time went on, she was more and more glad that she'd made the choice she had _when_ she had. If she hadn't, then she ran the risk of becoming bitter, and even if it wasn't as a 'fiance,' he was all she had left.
Shampoo knew better than to chase after him, after Cologne's stern admonishments and a few badly failed attempts at winning his affection... and her honor would be restored after failing to catch Ranma for more than a year and a day. Until then, they ran the bookstore, content, it seemed.
Ukyou knew that Shampoo, too, would have been happier with Ranma, or at this point, just without Mousse... but not everything was that perfect. Shifting slightly in her seat, she noted that the cushions were wearing thin, and would need to be replaced soon.
Heaving the weary sighing of those who must shoulder their burdens, she rose to her feet, pasting a smile she only half-felt on her face and greeting as someone stepped in from the rain, "Hello! Welcome to Ucchan's!"
She was behind the counter, spatula in hand before she took in the newcomer's appearance. Worn fatigues, various bruises, disheveled, and very wet, dripping from the current downpour. Ryu swallowed, frozen where he stood with the curtain held in one hand over his head.
After a moment, he flinched, and turned away, mumbling an apology.
"Wait!" Ukyou blinked, catching a surprisingly vulnerable Ryu's eyes with her own. It wasn't like she was going to get any other business anyway... "Come on in..."
Hesitantly, the boy nodded, and stood in the entryway, still dripping as he kicked his shoes off, and sat his pack down. Ukyou watched as he retrieved a towel from the pack and briskly rubbed himself dry. "Thank you," he managed, in a quiet and subdued voice.
Ukyou watched him, then smiled. "So, what'll it be?"
He fumbled in a pocket for a moment and counted some change before nodding to himself. "Uh... I'll have a pork okonomiyaki."
Ukyou gave him a curt nod and poured the batter precisely, watching Ryu carefully as he gingerly took a seat with exaggerated care. He watched the batter on the grill for a moment while Ukyou prepared the bowl of toppings she was planning on using, and un-lidded the jar of sauce. "So," she began, struggling for something to say. "What's your story?"
Anger flashed in his eyes, and he sat up straight for a moment before slumping forward. "Dunno... It's a sad story... But I'll tell you anyway." He sighed, sounding put-upon, and said, "When I was about four years old... a man came to my father's dojo. He gave my father a scroll that he said... my father said would let us rebuild our dojo."
Ukyou sighed, and shook her head. "And?" she prompted, testing one edge of the sizzling batter, despite her instinct telling her that it wasn't ready yet. Her instinct was right, too. Frowning, she smoothed the edge back out with a spatula, and locked her eyes on his. "So?"
Ryu frowned darkly. "I spent twelve years of my life... twelve years with no family and nothing more than the scroll that my dying father left to guide me. Twelve years looking for the other half of this art, and then..." he slumped even further. "It doesn't have a point. It's an empty art."
Ukyou raised en eyebrow at that. "How do you mean?"
Raising his head, he started weakly, "Ranma... Ranma told me what the arts were really for, and why they're so pointless... and I promised not to use the Yamasen-ken anyway. So twelve years of my life wasted, and I got nothing for it." Scowling bitterly, he dropped his head again.
The brown-haired okonomiyaki chef stared at the defeated martial artist, slumped over his stool and looking almost... empty. Then she set down her spatula, very calmly, nodded serenely... and laughed.
Laughed so hard that she knew the okonomiyaki on the grill was going to burn before she recovered herself enough to cook properly. Laughed so hard that she fell onto her bottom, her back striking the base of the sink that sat behind her. Laughed so hard that her sides ached, and tears ran from the corners of her eyes, leaving her to clutch at her sides.
Ryu clenched his fists, gritting his teeth and scowling. Who was this woman to mock him, to mock his pain and his suffering? How could she possibly hope to understand what he had gone through, and more importantly, why was she letting his dinner burn? The indignity of the situation was nearly unbearable, and he stepped to his feet, snapping, "What makes you think it's so funny!?"
The girl was on her feet in an instant, reflexively sweeping one hand out, flipping the burnt okonomiyaki into the air where it spun for a moment, before landing in the trash bin behind her. "Look, sugar, have a seat, and I'm going to explain a few things here."
Mollified, Ryu set back down, watching sullenly as she scraped the grill clean, applied a bit of oil, and poured the batter for another okonomiyaki.
After a few seconds of staring at the bubbling edge along the okonomiyaki batter, as the oil sizzled away, Ryu cleared his throat, fumbling in his pocket again. "Can I get some sake?" he asked plaintively.
"One moment, sugar." With that, she spun, traversing the small kitchen area and retrieving a jug of sake from under the counter, along with a smaller, empty bottle, better known as a tokkuri. "I'm not usually much for drinking, myself," she said conversationally, as she poured the sake into the tokkuri. "But I suppose you have to do what you have to do, huh?"
After the tokkuri was filled, she sealed the jug and returned it to its place beneath the counter. Placing the tokkuri in a pot of water on the stove, she set about warming the sake. "It's not anything special," she informed Ryu. "But, like I said, I don't drink much, myself."
Ryu watched, puzzled and confused as to why she was making such a production of things. Where was his explanation, anyway?
Ukyou caught his glance, and smirked. "Look, you'll understand better in a minute." Ryu said nothing, simply nodding as she effortlessly added the toppings and flipped the okonomiyaki. "There ya go... one pork okonomiyaki."
Ryu mumbled thanks as she served the okonomiyaki to him, along with a pair of chopsticks. She smirked, then shook her head, retrieving the tokkuri, and grabbing a choko along the way, then setting them across the grill on the narrow expanse of counter near Ryu. "Not the best, but there you have it," Ukyou stated, already pouring another okonomiyaki.
Taking the choko in one hand, Ryu studied it for a moment, noting the generic logo on the bottom of the white, ceramic, drinking bowl. Shaking his head, he set it down, and poured himself a drink. "Thanks," he muttered under his breath. A little louder, he asked, "So what are you going to tell me?"
Ukyou sighed, shaking her head, and staring off into space for a moment to collect her thoughts. "You know Ranma... a little... don't you?"
Ryu scowled and took a mouthful of his dinner. "Yeah," he said after he swallowed. "Kinda. I know you're his friend or something."
Grimacing, Ukyou nodded, pouring another bit of batter onto the grill. "Yeah... something like that. Anyway... you spent twelve years on the road looking for the other half of something that you was going to fix everything, right?" Ryu nodded, mirroring Ukyou's gesture of just a few moments ago. "Well, I chased after Ranma for ten years. Ten years I chased him, and was forced to live as..." she trailed off. "Well, let me just say this. You only had yourself to blame for everything. You could have found something else to do in twelve years. I had to do what I did in the name of my family's honor."
Ryu scowled, quaffing his sake in a single gulp and refilling the choko before replying, "So? At least you _have_ a family."
Ukyou's eyes flashed dangerously, but she said nothing at first, merely flipping the okonomiyaki over. "Yeah? Isn't that great?" she said, voice dripping with venom. "My father made me live as a boy to hide my shame for ten years. Aren't _I_ the lucky one. At least your father cared for you."
Slumping forward again, Ryu set down the choko. "Okay," he said evenly, "maybe that does suck, but look at the crap I had to deal with. Do you know how hard it is to survive on your own? What it's like to be without any family?"
The okonomiyaki chef snorted, and flipped the finished okonomiyaki onto a plate. "You think?" she said, gesturing to the restaurant around her. "I had to do everything pretty much by myself, and I've been pretty much cast out of my family until I can restore my honor. Is that much better?"
"Yeah? Well... well..." Ryu frowned, staring down at the choko he held loosely, as though it were going to back him up in his arguments as to how much he had suffered.
Ukyou smirked, handing Ryu the okonomiyaki she had finished a few minutes ago. "On the house. I can respect someone who's fallen on hard times."
Ryu hesitantly reached towards the plate then stopped, raising his eyes from the okonomiyaki to meet the chef's. "Wait..." he said tiredly. "I'm not taking handouts from you."
Ukyou shrugged, but didn't move to take the plate back. "If it stays on the grill, its going to be too hot for you to pick up soon," she admonished.
The boy stared sullenly for a long moment, then nodded. "Grab another choko," he said, waving his own. "I'll give you a drink for it."
"Sounds fair enough..." she said, retrieving another of the small drinking bowls.
A small dollop of batter struck the grill, spreading quickly into a perfect, concise circle.
Nodding in satisfaction, the chef poured another, larger splatter of batter onto the grill, watching as it too expanded, and absently scraped the smaller bit off to discard.
The first sensation he was aware of was the hard wooden floor beneath him; oddly comforting after the memories of nights on a soft futon that he was all-too-aware that he did not deserve. The second sensation was the slightest of headaches, and a minor chill.
Sitting up and scratching his head, he stared around himself blearily, noting that he had managed to fall asleep on the floor of someone's okonomiyaki restaurant. He scratched his head again in befuddlement, wondering at the lack of a more noticeable hangover.
Ukyou stumbled down the stairs, already dressed, and smirked at him from across the grill as he sat, leaning against the far wall. "Told ya so."
He nodded weakly, recalling how she had insisted he drink a great pitcher of water before he finally passed out. Standing, he gathered up the blanket that she must have thrown on him, and an apology sprang to his lips, dying as she set about preparing breakfast. "I'll go ahead and make you something," she called out, her back to him. "Need something for myself, and I'm guessing you still don't have anywhere to go."
Nodding again dumbly, he folded the blanket and took a seat at the counter, dropping the blanket to one of the stools next to him once he was done with it.
He frowned thoughtfully, considering the situation. She had given him something for nothing, letting him stay through the night on a dry floor. Unlike any of the other situations, he hadn't paid her, or had to do something for her first... Or like his most recent venture, posed as her son. His frowned deepened at that, leaving him to wonder. "Um..." he ventured nervously. "Can I ask you a question?"
She turned towards him, and quirked an eyebrow. "Yeah?"
Feeling a very faint embarrassed flush form on his face, he asked, "Where's your bathroom?"
After that, he ended up leaving with a stomach full of food and a head full of thoughts.
Gingerly, the chef unscrewed the lid to the jar containing the sauce, and tasted it slowly, rolling a thin bead of the sauce around the tongue before nodding in satisfaction, and turning to the carefully arranged bowls of ingredients.
Taking a deep breath, the chef reviewed the other ingredients in the okonomiyaki batter. Ground pork, first. Then some shrimp, which had needed to have the tails removed, but were carefully washed. Then a touch of onion... this okonomiyaki was going to be made with _care_ and the chef was going to make it show.
Ryu perched on a rock, peering down at the surf below him, surging up and pounding against the base of the cliff to send droplets of salt spray upwards, defying nature and according to it all at once.
He sank to his knees, placing one hand against an outcropping to steady himself, and really truly _looked_ at the sea. It pounded the rocks some twenty meters and more below him, then retreated with a certain irregular symmetry. The heartbeat of a world, he had once been told.
He frowned, shifting himself to lie flat against the rocky surface, and bring his face that much closer to the sea. Entranced, he lost himself in the timeless, eternal rhythm, thinking, not for the first time, of what he was going to do with his life.
His martial arts were the sum of his existence, and those had been taken away, leaving him... nothing. He had his own family's martial arts. Kumon. 'Official's Style,' as it were. And his own name, 'Ryu.' It could have been dragon, but it also meant 'school.' There was no doubt in his mind which his father had meant, though he didn't often have cause to write his own name.
In the dim recesses of his memory, his father told him of their clan's grandeur in their heyday, teaching the nobles of the emperor's court the finer points of unarmed combat. But it was a weak style, suited best for fleeing and calling for help, in all truth.
The thrill on his father's face when he had held aloft a scroll that he said would allow them to rebuild their dojo to its former glory was easily remembered, as it had been nearly the last time Ryu had seen his father alive... But those wounds were old, mostly healed. His father was really not to blame...
So he was left with his rusty memory of his father's style, and the one that Ranma had taken away from him. And he knew that Ranma was right to seal away the Yamasen-ken, because it simply wasn't an art that one should live by... He had higher standards than those of a petty thief.
But then Ranma's whispered conversation with him after that humiliating defeat... It always returned to him, reminding him that there were those that had suffered worse than he himself had. And the pain... the awful hurt he could see echoing in the man's eyes, the chilling aura of abject failure that seemed to hang to him like a sick, cloying perfume...
Shaking his head, he twisted around to look up towards the sky, squinting at the harshness of the noonday sun.
He turned back towards the sea, crossing his arms beneath him, and laying his chin on the back of one wrist. The sunlight made the individual drops of water sparkle like jewels in the air, glittering their promises of whimsy as they fell down, only to be swallowed once more into the sea.
Ryu closed his eyes briefly, wondering what he would do with himself, and where he would go...
Unbidden, an image came to him, one that had haunted him often recently. Ranma's friend, that girl whose name he hadn't even learned... U... something. Her restaurant was called 'Ucchan's', so her name probably started with a 'U.' But... the image refused to leave him, returning every time he closed his eyes. Why was she nice to him? She hadn't even let him pay for the okonomiyaki and wine he had taken...
He grumbled, closing his eyes again from his study of the sea, and was rewarded with a wet spattering against his face as a strong wind briefly combined forces with a particularly fierce wave. Sighing, he automatically licked his lips, grimacing at the taste as he edged away from the cliff, and stood again.
Maybe he could go back? He needed to repay her kindness somehow... and she had to be special. He remembered her saying that she was supposed to be engaged to Ranma... but that didn't seem right, because Ranma had mentioned his girl's name, to Ryu in their whispered conversation, and that was different... it had started with an 'A.'
He walked away from the coast lost in his thoughts, and didn't notice as his feet turned towards Tokyo again.
Another deep breath, and scan of the ingredients. Yes, everything looked to be in place. Readying a spatula in each hand, the chef very carefully prepared to flip the okonomiyaki.
Flipping it over, the chef cringed, knowing that while it was good, it could have been _better_... and if it could have been better, then perhaps the batter was flawed too, and if the batter was bad...
Ryu stared openly, seeing Ranma standing impassively atop a chain-link fence, watching a construction site with interest. Frowning, the short-haired boy bounded towards him, alighting nearby. "What..." he began, confused. "What the hell is that?" he managed finally, staring.
Flicking a partially amused glance towards Ryu, Ranma managed to dryly explain, "Ucchan's fighting off some takoyaki chef. Some old grudge."
Ryu watched as the girl leapt over a volley of octopus balls, deflecting a few more with her spatula, as her arc carried her halfway across a yard filled with haphazardly strewn construction equipment, steel bars and tubing scattered seemingly everywhere. She rebounded near a pile of discarded piping, leaping back into the fray with a savage cry, while her opponent, wearing a freakishly silly octopus mask, dodged and countered with an attack of his own.
The fatigue-clad martial artist narrowed his eyes, studying. She was obviously toying with her opponent, and was far more skilled. Keeping his eyes on her, he asked, "What's her name, anyway?"
Ranma broke off his observations to study Ryu for a moment before answering, "Kuonji Ukyou." There was a long moment of silence, as Ranma watched Ryu observe Ukyou before he spoke again. "I haven't seen you in a while, Ryu. Has everything been well for you?"
Ryu jerked his head to turn to Ranma, then shrugged, wilting slightly. "Yeah... I been okay, I guess. Mostly just trying to figure out what to do. I mean... my only skill in life turned out to be..." Sighing, he shook his head. "Okay, I'll admit it. It's sucked. I do odd jobs here and there to get by. Mostly travel the coast and unload stuff at the docks. It's about all I can do, really."
Ranma frowned at that, then sighed. "I'll tell you what... I've been thinking that... it would be good to have someone... to spar against."
Blinking, Ryu studied Ranma closely. "What do you mean? All I got is the Yamasen-ken, and that's... I can't use that anymore, so..." he trailed off lamely, turning to watch Ukyou beat the masked chef over the head repeatedly with her large spatula. "What are you really asking me to do?"
The pigtailed man frowned, shifting uncomfortably. "I'm willing to let you unseal the techniques if you will be my ally."
Ryu's face contorted in a scowl, and he opened his mouth to retort, only to be cut off by a shout from Ukyou. "Yatta!" she exclaimed loudly. "I did it!" Releasing a loud whoop of laughter, she turned towards Ranma, who smiled crookedly. "Thanks for the help, Ranchan... I probably couldn't have done it without you and Shampoo..." she trailed off with a frown, turning towards Ryu.
The boy swallowed, suddenly nervous and uncomfortable. What did her shampoo have to do with anything? "It looks great," he called out, seeing her hair settle across her shoulders like fine silk. "What brand do you use?"
She colored slightly, while Ranma just held one hand across his face, groaning. "Not this again..."
Mentally going over the batter preparations, the chef studied the okonomiyaki on the grill. The cabbage had been cut into strips, not too small, not too large. Then there was the dried shrimp... not much, just a hint for flavor... flour was in correct proportions. Chinese yam, too...
Eggs? Yes, those were right... and the sauce had already _been_ tested... so what was the problem? What had been forgotten?
Ukyou watched Ryu bemusedly from her corner, kneeling at one side of the dojo, near the door. Ryu staggered towards Ranma, finally slumping to his knees. "Damn," he groaned. "You're good. How the hell did you get so much better since last time? And why?"
The okonomiyaki chef caught Nabiki's wince, and held back a sigh. Ranma said nothing, turning away for a moment. Nabiki coughed politely, moving from her relaxed posture against the doorway of the dojo to step forward. "Well," she began slowly. "The mirror clones, usually... I guess you could say he fights against himself."
Ranma nodded, dropping his head. "I'm... I'm going to be on the roof, if you need me," he called out, bounding out of the dojo and leaping skyward.
Ryu shook his head slowly, rotating one arm gingerly, and rubbing at his shoulder. Ukyou stood up, clicking her tongue. "Tell ya what, sugar," she said warmly. "I'll give you a place to stay tonight. I think I'm in the mood for a little sake again."
He nodded at that, and Ukyou smiled, dazzling him, as she gestured for him to follow. The two walked in silence for a moment, Ryu again overcome with her kindness. He grabbed her shoulder, forcing her to stand still and look at him. She jerked her arm away from him and scowled, as they stood together on the darkened street. "What?" she asked, sounding more annoyed than she looked.
For a long moment, he simply stared at her dumbly, then he managed, "Why?"
Ukyou shook her head, her long hair rippling and managing to catch a hint of the moonlight, stealing his breath away even as he tried to resent her charity. "We both had it bad in the past, you know? But I have something you don't, and I think it's something you need."
He shook his head in response, frowning sullenly. "What is it?" he asked, upset at something that he didn't truly understand that still managed to frighten and intimidate him.
Ukyou cocked her head to one side and frowned. "You mean you haven't guessed yet?"
He shook his head again, his eyes captured by hers. "I... I don't know what it is." What _was_ it about her that had drawn him back? Back to the site of his biggest failure?
She sighed, and placed a hand on his shoulder, her expression solemn. "I have something you didn't, and I thought I would share it with you. I have friendship, Ryu. I know what it's like to be alone. Now c'mon, let's go back to my place and have a few more drinks, huh?" She smiled, swatting him on the shoulder playfully, adding, "And this time don't take so long to visit us."
He followed her in silence then, their soft footfalls echoing against the night air, as the screeching brakes of a very distant train sounded.
Mulling it over, he considered. Friendship? Was that what that strange feeling was? He smiled slowly at that. He'd never had... any... friends before. The closest thing was his father, and _he_ had died when Ryu was only a child.
Ukyou was handing him a choko before he realized that he'd followed her all the way back to her restaurant. He shook his head once more, smiling at his lack of attention. This wasn't really bad. Ukyou was a nice person, and... Ranma seemed nice too, when he wasn't letting his own problems eat away at him from the inside.
He raised the drinking bowl to meet Ukyou's, then said, "To friendship?"
The girl smirked widely, then nodded. "To friendship."
And then in one voice, they called out, the traditional cheer, "Kampai!" With that they gulped down their sake, Ukyou refilling Ryu's choko first.
Maybe, he reflected to himself. Maybe this friendship thing was pretty good...
The scent from the okonomiyaki wafted upwards to the chef, who then belatedly reached out with the spatula, pressing the okonomiyaki against the grill -- not too hard -- to make sure it cooked evenly.
It wasn't too late, though, the scent of the pork and shrimp were saying that it wasn't ready yet... there was still time.
When Ryu woke up on the floor, he spent a moment reflecting on his lot. Truly, it wasn't so bad visiting his... friend. He smirked, noting that she had thrown a blanket on him after he passed out again.
The hangover was more severe this morning, but he was used to that. He cracked his neck, and wondered what he could do to make it up to her. Again, despite his reservations, she had given him a place to sleep, food to eat, sake to drink, and asked for nothing in exchange.
With a sigh, he folded up his blanket, and plunked himself down at the counter, mulling it over. Ranma was right, though, he only ever learned to break things, with the Yamasen-ken. He needed to learn how to make things, somehow.
He frowned slowly. Who could he get to teach him to make and create, though? Not Ukyou, as nice as she was, he didn't like the idea of taking any more than he already had... Maybe Ranma? It was a thought...
Ukyou slumped down the stairs; her eyes only just barely cracked open. "Ugh..." she groaned. "You drink with the best of 'em... Morning, sugar."
Ryu nodded politely, not sure how to respond.
She set about preparing a glass of some concoction involving various ingredients, including a raw egg, while muttering to herself. After a moment, she paused, and turned around to stare at Ryu. "Did you... did you mean what you said last night, or was that just the sake talking?"
Not remembering, Ryu frowned, and shook his head. "What did I say?"
She turned away, but not before Ryu caught a slightly hurt expression. "Nothing important... you just said that you liked me, is all..."
That stunned Ryu, and he blanched. Had he said that? "Uh..." he managed after a moment, fighting off the turmoil that threatened to drown him, bringing him back to the sea spray again. "I don't... It wasn't the sake talking."
She turned back to look at him again, the hurt in her eyes fading. "Is that so? Heh... okay then. Here you go... Ryu-chan, have a glass of cure. My father used to use this stuff... Anyway, it really works."
He accepted the concoction, swallowing it as swiftly as he could, and made a face. "Ugh... nasty... Hey! It does work..." He stared at the glass in front of him, mystified. "Huh..." Then what she had said caught up with him. "'Ryu-chan'?" he asked, regarding her frankly.
She smirked, nodding. "It's a start."
"Oh..." he said, feeling at a loss. "Ucchan? Then... heh... I'll... I gotta go, but I'll be sure to visit sooner next time, okay?"
Almost time... but not quite. Another half-heartbeat, and the scent of the okonomiyaki on the grill changed _just_ enough to indicate that it was ready.
A quick motion of the spatula, and it was flipped back over, exposing the perfectly cooked okonomiyaki again, the side that had last been seen still as batter.
Ryu eyed the effeminate ninja before him, confused by the slow, disturbed ache in the pit of his stomach. What was it about Konatsu that bothered him? The kunoichi had done nothing wrong, but something about him just unsettled Ryu...
It wasn't the cross-dressing, Ryu knew he wasn't that shallow, but he wasn't sure what it _was_ and it frightened him. He shook his head, clapping the ninja on the shoulder. "Okay," he said brusquely. "You check on Ucchan, and I'm... I'm going to make a phone call."
The ninja nodded quickly, darting up the stairs with a speed Ryu almost envied. His voice echoed down the stairs, "Hai! I'll check on Ukyou-sama."
Ryu waited until he heard the fusuma panel that was the door to Ukyou's room slide across the floor before he bolted towards the phone. He didn't know Ranma's number, but there was a small list of names and numbers next to the phone, and he swallowed nervously, finding an entry labeled, 'Tendo dojo.'
The phone rang a few times, before a polite, feminine voice answered, "This is the Tendo dojo, can I help you?"
Ryu swallowed nervously again, wondering how he was going to explain this to his sparring partner... "Um," he began slowly. "This is... Kumon Ryu, and..."
"Oh!" The voice answered serenely, "Then you'll want to talk to Ranma. Just one moment."
There was a soft, muffled clicking noise as the receiver was set down, causing Ryu to break out in a nervous sweat. What if Ranma wasn't able to help him? Or wasn't willing?
The receiver clicked again, more sharply than before, as it was picked up. "Yeah?" Ranma's voice sounded tired, making Ryu wonder at the wisdom of interrupting him, but...
"Ranma? I need your help... you see, Ucchan's sick, and... and..." Ryu fell off, fumbling for words.
Ranma's voice cut through the silence like a whip, terse against the stillness "What's wrong?"
Taking a deep breath, Ryu blurted out, "I can't make okonomiyaki." Ryu swallowed as a deafening silence surrounded him, cutting off even the faint sound of Ranma's breathing. "Ranma? You there?"
Releasing a sigh that gusted across the receiver and made a horrid static-like noise, Ranma responded, "Yeah... I'll be there... I'll help you out." And with that, Ryu was left holding a phone with no one on the other end. He swallowed nervously, looking back towards the grill with trepidation.
There was a trick to making the perfect okonomiyaki... actually, there were hundreds, but one of the important ones was to make sure that the inside was still moist when it was done cooking, leaving the outside pleasantly crispy.
The chef quickly picked up a small brush, dipping into the sauce with a practiced gesture, then swiftly painted a pair of kanji on the surface of the okonomiyaki with it. The kanji spelled out the clan name of a long line of okonomiyaki chefs, 'Kuonji.'
Ukyou sat up and blinked blearily, noting that Konatsu was fretting over her, his eyes moist with worry. "Ukyou-sama! Are you feeling better?"
She groaned, falling back onto her futon and sighing. "I hate being sick..." She bolted upright in alarm, despite her illness. "The restaurant! I have to run..." she trailed off weakly, grumbling as Konatsu helped her stand. "Damn it... I'm tired, not dead..."
Stumbling to the stairs, aided by Konatsu, she fought back a feeling of dread, not knowing what to expect.
The sight that greeted her was one she would not soon forget; Ranma, in a waitress outfit as possibly the world's most sullen okonomiyaki chef, and Ryu frantically running back and forth, serving okonomiyaki and wringing his hands. She stared, wondering at the relative lack of chaos.
"Ranchan? Ryu-chan?" she asked, dazedly. Ranma glanced towards her and managed a very weak smile. "What's going on here?"
Ryu zipped behind the counter towards Ukyou, and stuttered, "Ah, and then, the uh... ack..."
Ranma snorted, rolling her eyes and absently flipping an okonomiyaki. Not her quality, Ukyou noted, but then the brown-haired okonomiyaki chef had years of experience over the redhead. The customers didn't seem to mind too much, and it seemed things were going better than they had with just Konatsu trying to run the shop...
Konatsu hesitantly offered, "Ranma-san and Ryu-san said that they could manage things, and I should keep an eye on you while you were recovering.
Ryu nodded quickly, stark concern showing on his face. "I've never done this before," he said hurriedly. "I kept thinking I was going to screw up, but Ranma showed me how to... uh..." Trailing off, he took a deep breath, assuming his more casual demeanor. "So... you feeling better, Ucchan?"
She nodded, watching as Ranma managed the cooking, snapping out over her shoulder, "Step to it, Ryu!" Jumping, the only currently obviously male martial artist glided back around the grill, returning to the arduous task of collecting trays and being pleasant to total strangers.
Ukyou blinked again, expecting to see flames, rampaging destruction, or angry customers. Konatsu sighed plaintively, "They didn't like my ideas for making okonomiyaki... but, Ukyou-sama, aren't they great?" He enthused, "Now you can rest, while they manage the shop!" Stumbling, Ukyou allowed herself to be led up the stairs, and back to her room.
Konatsu tucked her back into her bed, preparing a fresh cold compress for her, and she mumbled, "I'll have to thank Ryu-chan in the morning... And Ranchan, too..."
From the grill, the okonomiyaki was transferred to a fresh plate, with no small show of reverence. The presentation, too, was part of the ceremony, and everything _had_ to be perfect for this occasion.
The plate was then spun so that the kanji were facing away from the chef, and it was then presented to another figure, sitting across the gleaming expanse of grill. The judge of this okonomiyaki, and the one that it had to be perfect _for_.
Ryu poked at the grill under Ukyou's advice, managing to make a passable okonomiyaki after a few stuttering attempts. "Heh," he said. "I never thought I'd be doing this... I always thought that the Yamasen-ken would be the real answer, and once I got the Umisen-ken..." he trailed off, frowning, staring at the grill before him.
"Anyway," he said, shaking his head. "I gotta thank you for letting me help out around here."
Ukyou smirked, swatting him on the shoulder in her roughly companionable manner. "Nothing to it, sugar. I can always use the help."
Ryu rolled his eyes, noting Konatsu idling in a corner, having already scrubbed every surface short of the grill itself. "Yeah," the martial artist said, smirking. "I'm sure. Anyway, Ranma asked to meet me for some training... then... uh... I'll come back and say goodbye, you know... Then I'll probably be hitting the road for a bit."
Ukyou nodded, peering intently into the batter mix. "I gotcha, Ryu-chan. Go ahead, don't keep Ranchan waiting, okay?"
Ryu grinned, then seized by a sudden impulse, took Ukyou's hand in his own. "Hey," he said, squeezing gently. "I'll be back to say hi before I head on out, Ucchan. Don't worry 'bout me." He winked, adding a slightly greater bit of bravado than he felt.
Ukyou flushed, but didn't pull her hand back. "Y-yeah... I'll see you later, then, Ryu-chan."
He winked again, vaulting effortlessly across the room and landing before the door. Blowing her a kiss, he whirled, and vanished out the door.
Ukyou slowly began to flush, unable to fight down a smile. Konatsu interrupted her reverie, as she pondered Ryu again, the diminutive kunoichi shouting out, "Ohhh! Ukyou-sama! It's sooo romantic!"
The judge expertly cut a piece of the okonomiyaki off with a pair of chopsticks, lifting it to sniff at it, and test its aroma before tasting. Giving the slightest of nods, the morsel disappeared into the judge's mouth.
The chef swallowed, fighting back a wave of nervous tension, and tuning out everything but the judge and the okonomiyaki.
Ryu limped away, occasionally leaning on Ukyou for support. "Damn," he grumbled. "Next time, we're fighting closer to a hospital."
Ukyou grunted, having to support him suddenly as his ankle gave way on the unsteady ground alongside the deserted railway. She shook her head, glancing over to a bemused Shampoo. "Ryu-chan, shut up. That was really important to Ranma, and you know it."
Cringing from Ukyou's mere annoyance in a comically over-dramatic manner, Ryu prostrated himself on the ground, crying out, "Oh, please forgive me, Ukyou-sama!"
Groaning, Ukyou hung her head, complaining, "You know, I liked you better when you were shy."
Ryu rocked back to a sitting position, taking his ankle in one hand and feeling it over. "Yeah," he said after a moment of probing. "Sorry, but you know... the entire thing... I gotta admit though, I don't think I've ever seen Ranma looking that happy before. She's a nice girl. He's got good taste."
Shampoo snorted, kneeling to examine Ryu's ankle. "See?" she said, prodding experimentally. "This is why I always say that men are stupid."
Ryu made a face, unable to hide a smirk. "Yeah, Ranma's got great taste..." One eyelid twitched as Shampoo twisted his ankle slightly, while she gave him a smile that might have almost been apologetic. "But I've got better."
Ukyou flushed slightly, smiling. "You going to be staying around for a while, then?"
He met her eyes, over Shampoo's head as the amazon fretted over his injury. "I'd like that," he responded levelly. "I'd like that a lot."
The judge chewed slowly, making no sign of approval, rolling the morsel of okonomiyaki around like a fine wine to be tested thoroughly.
Waiting patiently, the chef focused intently on not paying too much attention as a single bead of sweat formed, and began working it's way towards the floor, starting near a temple, and journeying slowly downwards.
Ryu hesitated on the road, looking at the shop only a short distance down the street from him. Should he go? More importantly... Could he?
He swallowed, seeing the curtain bearing her nickname ripple in the breeze. He knew how he felt about her now, despite his previous confusion... but did he deserve her? What did he have to offer her that she didn't already have?
The overly effeminate Konatsu could do everything almost as well as he could, if not better. But... Drooping slightly, he managed a slight smile, and wended his way down the street, away from the okonomiyaki seller's. Ukyou was a friend... a very good friend, and everything was just so... nice... the last time he had stayed with her, after Ranma's big fight with Ryouga and Herb.
And there were tentative moments of real affection between them, too. He teased her a lot, but more out of fear of getting _too_ close than anything else... after all, he was a ronin. All he really had was a last name, and it didn't account for much when he remembered more of Ranma's family's style than his own.
He nodded, quickening his pace. To visit Ranma, then. He was also a friend, and he had no worries about what he could offer Ranma, though Ranma's interest in sparring had dropped markedly after the last battle... But he was a friend at any rate.
He came upon the dojo, haphazardly vaulting over the wall to land near the koi pond, startling a pair of the Tendo sisters. He grinned rakishly, remembering Nabiki vaguely, and Akane more firmly. Akane rolled away from him, somersaulting and landing on her feet in a ready stance while Nabiki just looked stunned.
Ryu took a half-step back, putting his hands in front of himself in a placating gesture, losing some of his rakish grin. "Whoa," he said. "Sorry about that. Didn't think I'd surprise you like that."
Akane relaxed, while Nabiki settled for scowling at him. The youngest Tendo sister righted the lawn-chair she had tumbled out of, and shook her head. "I shouldn't be surprised," she said apologetically. "Shampoo does that sometimes, too."
Nabiki's scowl deepened, as she climbed to her feet. "And it irritates me just as much," she snapped at Akane. Shaking a finger to admonish Ryu, she said, "I'll remind you that the house is equipped with not one, but _two_ completely functioning doors. There's the front gate, and if you must, the door for challengers."
Ryu cringed, watching Nabiki stride into the house, and stared at his feet while Akane scrutinized him. "Sorry," he mumbled.
She shrugged, then gestured to the seat that Nabiki had vacated. "I'm not too worried. She's just a little on edge because of her classes." She shook her head slightly, smiling in a welcoming manner. "We haven't seen you in a few months... how have you been?"
Ryu picked up the proffered seat and set it down a short distance away, facing Akane. Slumping into the seat, he shrugged. "Fine, I guess. Just busy, mostly..." he trailed off, thinking it would be rude to ask to talk to Ranma and ignore her.
She smiled at him slightly, trying to cover it with a faked yawn. "So," she asked, after the traitorous smile on her face was straightened out. "How are things with you and Ukyou?"
Ryu grimaced, shaking his head. "Not so great..." he admitted after a moment. He could trust Akane, after all, she was Ranma's girl, and Ranma was... well... Ranma was Ryu's only real friend, all things considered. Not counting Ukyou, but that was a real problem... "You see... I..." his carefully crafted mask crumbled, and he dropped his face to his hands. "I'm so used to... being alone, not having other people to worry about, and people to worry about _me_... I don't have any family, and I only have Ranma and Ucchan as friends...
"But... I think I... I think I really like Ucchan, but this is all so new to me, still." He shook his head, rubbing at his temples, pausing to strip off his gloves and tuck them into the ever-present waistband. His callused fingers worked into the skin above his face, as he tried to make sense of things. "I... I don't got anything to give her, even. All I really have is... Ranma's martial arts. My own aren't worth garbage, and there's nothing I can do for her that Konatsu can't already do, probably better..."
Shaking his head, he raised his eyes, meeting Akane's understanding gaze. Whispering, he asked, "You know what I mean?"
Akane nodded solemnly, pausing to wipe at her eyes. "I... I understand what you're saying, but I know that Ukyou really likes you..."
Ryu shook his head, smacking one fist into his opposite palm. "But that's just it! I don't have anything to give her!"
The girl bit her lip, raising a hand to her mouth while she considered. "Well..." she began, considering carefully. "There... might be something... but we'll have to ask Ranma about it..."
He blinked at that, surprised. "Where is Ranma, anyway?"
"Er... talking to his mother."
Ryu couldn't help but smile at those words. "Oh yeah? She's a nice lady."
Akane winced, looking away. "Well," she stated. "Sometimes."
Swallowing, the judge finished the morsel, then locked eyes with the chef, stern gaze revealing nothing. The chopsticks descended towards the plate again, separating another tidbit from the main portion.
The chef swallowed nervously. This _had_ to be perfect, the judge _had_ to approve, or... or...
Ranma stood, adopting the somber visage he typically wore before recovering Akane. Ryu tugged uncomfortably at the edge of his haori, worrying at the edge of the formal coat, then subsided at a gesture from Ranma. The pigtailed man frowned and took a step forward, reaching out to adjust the edge of Ryu's haori back to the way it should have been. Marked with the Kumon family crest on the back, it was the finest clothing that Ryu had ever owned, and he intended to make the most of it.
Schooling himself, he managed a weak smile towards Ranma, who smirked in response, clad in his own formal attire, though Ranma's haori bore his own clan's symbol.
Trying to distract himself, Ryu glanced around slowly. The Kuonji clan's meeting hall was large, and presently abandoned with the exception of a single steward, at Ranma's request for a more private audience. Locking his eyes on a tapestry, he willed mastery over his frayed nerves. He was going to get something to give Ukyou, one way or another.
Ranma smiled encouragingly, patting Ryu's shoulder in a companionable manner before slipping back into his 'formal' expression. Ryu swallowed, then emulated it, drawing on his past, as a pair of footsteps drew near.
The two martial artists turned to watch a burly man in his own formal clothing approach. He glanced between the two men wearily, standing in a relaxed and informal posture. Clearing his throat, he asked, "You wanted to speak to me privately?"
Ranma nodded solemnly, intoning, "I come bearing a request for Kuonji Akira."
Akira frowned, then nodded stiffly. "That's -- That is I. What do you wish?"
Kneeling on the floor, Ranma pressed his forehead to the wooden surface at Akira's feet, and Ryu did the same after a mere second of hesitation. Speaking clearly, and not raising his head, the pigtailed martial artist announced, "My name is Saotome Ranma, and I am here to ask to settle a debt of honor that my family owes..."
The judge sighed, pushing the plate away and finishing the morsel.
The chef's heart nearly stopped, until the small, nearly hidden smile on the judge's face became visible.
"You pass," the judge announced gravely. "I am willing to accept you in lieu of Saotome Ranma, as you are a student of his own school."
Ryu released the breath he hadn't known he was holding, unable to hold in a huge grin. "Thank you, thank you so much, Kuonji-san!"
Akira grinned broadly, his teeth showing through his bristly and graying beard, as he waved a hand. "Call me 'Father,' Son. I'd be overjoyed to adopt an heir as worthy as yourself."
Ryu heaved another grateful and happy sigh, glancing around the room at the assembled well wishers. Akane and Ranma stood near the back, Ranma giving his all-too-familiar 'I told you so' grin, while Akane clung to him and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, sniffling through her own smile.
Then there was Ranma's father, looking more than a little relieved at Akira's announcement, and next to him, Konatsu, wailing his eyes out into the edge of Genma's gi. To the side, smirking at someone behind Ryu, Shampoo nodded knowingly, her arms crossed beneath her chest. And of course, most importantly, behind Ryu, Ukyou.
He turned to face her, a nervous smile flitting from his lips to hide briefly. "Ah... Uch... Kuonji, Ukyou," he declared formally. "I would like to request your... your..." he cut off suddenly, as Ukyou frantically fought back laughter, clad in her own kimono for the occasion. "Stop that!" he whined, provoking another round of laughter from everyone in the room.
After catching his breath, he lay a finger on her nose pointedly, trying his best to glare. "Kuonji Ukyou, will you marry me?"
She fanned herself with a hand, blushing fiercely, then turned to her father, who nodded, still smiling. "You'd best be good to my little... girl... Ryu."
Giggling, she flung herself into his arms, kissing him -- their first kiss -- exuberantly.
It was a good start for both of them, giving them each something more than friendship. Even without Ukyou's father, and the rest of her clan, she would have had him. And that meant family. And it would have been enough for her anyway.
He was just happy to finally have given her something, making their relationship more equal. Breaking the kiss, he whispered, very seriously, "I love you, Ucchan..."
Flushing all over again, she gave a giddy laugh as he spun her in a circle. "I love you too, Ryu-chan."
Because... sometimes, true love wins out over everything else. And sometimes when you win, you win big.
Yeah, I left Shampoo alone, but not every character needs to be matched up every time.
I know that this was probably the last thing anyone who's read Miss/Fortune would have expected, and it didn't answer any more questions (probably created a whole lot more), but... it was one of those things, where my muse just couldn't be denied.