The Exit

Ninnik Nishukan

Ryoga groaned as he stumbled out of the cave, having just shaken off the last few annoying spirits. Letting go of a hiss, he winced as he prodded the scratches on his arms; the spirits may not have been very powerful, but there had been an awful lot of them, and they sure could scratch and bite.

"Hey! Jackass!"

The high-pitched curses coming from behind told him that Ukyo wasn't quite out of trouble yet. Rolling his eyes at the dreaded derogatory nickname she always used for him, he squared his shoulders and turned back to get her. She'd dispatched most of the spirits, but there was one or two still clinging stubbornly to her arms. She'd dropped her spatula on the ground a few feet away; Ryoga sighed and went to pick it up.

"You know," he remarked almost casually, twirling the spatula around from hand to hand to get the feel of it as he advanced on the spirits, "you should really practice fighting without weapons more often." He was fully aware of the fact that it was a terribly rude thing to say while she was in dire need of help, but his head and his ego were both still sore from all the spatula beatings she'd given him earlier that day.

As expected, Ukyo was furious. Her eyes narrowed, her face reddened; suddenly she wrenched one arm free from the ghostly grip and sucker-punched the nearest spirit.

It evaporated.

Suitably impressed, Ryoga decided to stop joking around and help her out. The second spirit was cut down by Ukyo's spatula.

"What the hell was that all about?" Ukyo exclaimed, kicking his shin as an afterthought.

Ryoga winced. "Ukyo?"

"Now what?" Ukyo asked irritably.


Ukyo blinked. Ryoga had just bopped her over the head. With her own spatula. With her own spatula. With her own—

"I always wanted to do that." He told her solemnly, and she simply snapped, ripping her spatula from his grasp. "What the," CLANG! "hell," CLANG! "is wrong," CLANG! "with you today!" She demanded, yelling at the top of her voice.

"Stop hitting me!" Ryoga shouted back, clenching his fists.

"You hit me first!" She retorted, falling back on school yard logic.

"Oh, please! That was barely a tap! You've been beating me all day!" He yelled, affronted and disbelieving. Who was she to talk?

Ukyo spluttered. "I certainly have not— "

"Besides, you kicked me!" He added, interrupting her.

She snapped for air. "You— you deserved it, you left me hanging there while... while making patronizing remarks!"

Ryoga shrugged it off. "Well, you really should learn how to fight without a weapon."

"None of your business!" Ukyo blurted out, knowing it was a last resort kind of response and that she'd be losing the argument. As they walked into the sunlight, she flinched when she caught sight of the claw marks on his over arms.

"Maybe then you'd stop hitting me with that goddamn spatula!" He barked back, nursing his head.

Ukyo was just contemplating whether to apologize, but then he just went on. "I don't know why I agreed to be a part of your stupid plans! They never work, anyway..."

"Hey!" She protested. "Nobody forced you!"

"What? You dragged me in there! Literally!" He reminded her, crossing his arms over his chest. "I had to stick with you or I'd be lost in there!"

Ukyo put her hands on her hips, unconvinced. "I seem to recall somebody being just as enthusiastic as me over this so-called 'stupid' plan."

"You talked me into it!" Ryoga insisted, growing red, "You tricked me!"

"Yeah, well... in that case you're not awfully hard to trick, are you, Einstein?" Ukyo said hotly, clutching her spatula until her knuckles went white. "Hah! As if you have no free will? As if it's all my fault?"

"I told you, I would've been lost if I didn't— " He shook his head, gritting his teeth, frustrated with her. "Y-you kept bossing me around, kept on telling me that it'd all work out— and of course it was all a bunch of crap!"

"Are you calling me a liar?"

Ryoga backed away in the face of her wrath. "I just think you might've misunderstood that whole ghost thing— it was all wrong!"

"Are you calling me stupid, now?"

Ryoga closed his eyes briefly, looking like he was fighting an oncoming headache. "Now, listen here— "

"Ryoga! Ukyo!"

They turned their heads and saw Ranma and Akane sitting at a snack shop, eating mochi balls and ice cream.

"Come over here, you guys! The snacks are great!"

They were trying to hide it, but Ryoga and Ukyo could tell by the looks on their faces that Ranma and Akane had witnessed most of the fight. Ukyo let a breath out, forcing her shoulders to relax; she glanced at Ryoga, who, like her, looked slightly red with embarrassment. Opening her mouth to apologize, Ukyo got caught in the full force of his glare, so she snapped it shut without a word uttered. If he's going to be like that...!

"If you hadn't let yourself get carried away like that..." she muttered, refusing to look at him, "if you'd just managed to stick to the plan, if you hadn't been running around like a headless chicken...then I wouldn't have had to boss you around."

"You didn't have to bash my head in while doing so!" Ryoga hissed, both of them trying to keep their voices down as they approached Ranma and Akane.

"Oh, yeah?" Scoffed Ukyo. "Then you obviously have no clue as to how far gone you can be at times!"

Ryoga's frame went even stiffer, his expression wooden, and she could tell by how red the tips of his ears were that the remark has struck home and more. He was very humiliated; so was she beginning to feel when realizing just how bad she was able to make him feel—when he suddenly made an unexpected comeback.

"And you obviously have no control whatsoever over your sadistic tendencies!" He muttered back poisonously.

She gasped. Did she really...? She had wanted to apologize, she honestly had, but she just couldn't bring herself to— and certainly not now when he had caused shame and anger to come to a boiling point within her soul.

Ryoga marched past her and sat down on the little bench in front of Ranma and Akane. "They're still fighting," Ranma mumbled under his breath so only Akane could hear him. Akane just shook her head and sighed. We just finished fighting about two seconds ago, she thought, exasperated, so who are we to talk? She regarded Ryoga, staring at the ground, his lips pursed, his eyes hard, and Ukyo, her fists clenched, her mouth a tight line...but her eyes slightly shiny. A worried frown flitted across Akane's brow.

Ranma cocked his head, studying them. "What happened to you guys?"

Ryoga shook his head, looking away. "Somebody got us into trouble."

Ukyo crossed her arms over her chest. "Somebody was being a stupid jerk and is blaming it all on me."

Ryoga was still looking away, scowling at nothing. "Somebody is refusing to take responsibility for her actions."

Ranma rolled his eyes. He had no idea what they were talking about, but they seemed almost as bad as Akane and he on a bad day. And there weren't even any rivals or fiancées about. "Sounds to me like 'somebody' could use some ice cream."

Ukyo stood up abruptly. "Great idea, Ranchan!" She breezed past them, walking up to the creepy old man to get some ice cream.

As she contemplated the different ice cream flavours, she noticed that they didn't have any macha ice cream, her favourite flavour. This only further added to her foul mood. Slapping 200 yen on the counter, she chose vanilla. As the old man prepared her ice cream, she couldn't help but to overhear the conversation between Ryoga, Ranma and Akane.

"...and where's your backpack?" Akane asked Ryoga, no doubt an expression of concern on her face.

"Think I lost it back, in the lake." She heard Ryoga respond hesitantly, then Ranma clearing his throat in a strange manner, as if there was something not entirely truthful about what Ryoga was saying. Ukyo wondered briefly what this might be. "What are you going to do for money?" Akane went on; Ukyo turned to glance at her and caught the furrowed brow, the worried look she gave Ryoga after looking helplessly to Ranma, a silent question in her eyes. What were they going to do?

"I...I don't know." Ryoga mumbled; as she turned back to the old guide, Ukyo could just picture his Adam's apple bobbing with nervousness. "I guess I don't r-really o-or..."

Ukyo felt a sudden, sharp pang of guilt at this. How is he supposed to get home? He has no money for a train ticket and he can't walk there because he doesn't have his sleeping bag or his tent or his food or— and it was all her fault. Well, a lot of it, anyway. He didn't have to blame it all on her, did he?

Ukyo glanced down at her ice cream, then at Ryoga, looking glum. "Give me another one." She told the spooky old man, sighing.

Ryoga sat staring at the ground, his back aching and the angry velts on his arms stinging. He had no idea what to do next. He had no resources whatsoever, and—

An ice cream cone suddenly appeared in front of his face, and he looked up, slightly startled. Ukyo, wearing an awkward expression— a little embarrassed, a little grudging— was offering him ice cream.

"Um..." He stared at her, baffled.

"Just take it," Ukyo mumbled, shoving the cone into his hand and plopping down on the bench next to him.

Ryoga studied her profile as she began eating her ice cream. She had a scratch on her chin from the ghosts, her hair bow was askew and her hair itself sticking out in all directions. The outfit she was wearing, already unusually revealing for Ukyo, had been ripped in the front, deepening her cleavage just a tad; his eyes darted quickly away from this area.

He was lost in thought as he ate his ice cream; there wasn't much left of the Ukyo he'd met back then, the first time.

Sure, she was still bossy as hell, but her face looked more mature, more feminine, her hair was longer and she'd certainly...filled out quite nicely. No one would mistake her for a guy anymore.

In addition, this had to be the first time she'd ever apologized to him, even if she hadn't said the actual words. Maybe she had changed? Grown up?

Ukyo watched as Ranma and Akane went to get some tea, glancing then at Ryoga. Maybe she should—

"I'm sorry," she blurted before she got to think twice about it. As Ryoga turned wide eyes on her, she found herself blushing again. "Sorry." She repeated quietly.

"I...I'm sorry, too." He replied in the same quiet tones. "I kinda lost my head, I guess."

"I was being a bitch." Ukyo said bluntly, which caused him to stare at her, mouth open. "Well, I was!" She exclaimed defensively. "That was the unspoken word, right?" She added through clenched teeth.

Ryoga cleared his throat then, deciding to end it before it got even more ridiculous. "We were both being idiots." He said hastily.

"Yeah," She agreed, starting in on her ice cream again. Glancing at him, she noticed that he'd already finished his, and an unexpected, random thought popped up in her head.

When was the last time he ate?

"So, headed back to Nerima?" He asked, managing to sound almost casual.

"Yeah, uh— this was only meant to be a one day trip." There was a moment of silence before she drew her breath. "You coming, too?" She asked, already knowing the answer.

Ryoga looked wretched. "I...I can't..." He trailed off timidly.

"You can borrow money from me for the train fare," she told him, immediately tensing, afraid that she'd been too obvious, that he'd wonder how she knew.

When she heard him exhale in relief, however— inaudibly enough that it was obvious to her that she wasn't supposed to hear it— she relaxed. "Just pay me back whenever. It's not that much."

For about two seconds, he looked like he was about to decline— for pride's sake, or just to be polite, who knew?— but simply nodded instead. "Th-thank you, Ukyo."

"Don't mention it." She flapped a hand in dismissal. "It's the least I can do after— anyway, it's no big deal."

"Still, thank you." Ryoga was actually smiling a little now; it dawned onUkyo that the sight was somewhat of a novelty, and she couldn't help but wonder why this was.

"See?" Said Ranma cheerfully as he and Akane regarded the two. "Ice cream always works wonders." Akane just shook her head at him, chuckling.

"You should seriously get patched up, get some bandages on those," Ranma prompted them as he and Akane returned.

"It does look kind of painful." Akane chimed in, a concerned frown etched on her forehead. "Did you meet any more ghosts?"

Ukyo looked a little ashamed at that; those ghosts had been meant for Ranma and Akane. They would be the ones all scratched up and bruised right now if it hadn't been for—

"I guess you can say that, yeah." She ducked her head, trying to avoid Akane's eyes.

Ryoga simply nodded.

"Well, here...looks like you'll need these." Said Akane, taking off her backpack and unzipping it to pull out a first aid kit. Ranma did the same.

Ryoga and Ukyo stared at them. "That's what you've been carrying around?" Ukyo raised an eyebrow. "First aid kits?"

"With lives like ours, it's better to be prepared." Akane said dryly.

"Why else would I be carrying around this girly-lookin' backpack?" Ranma added, which earned him an elbow in the ribs from Akane.

"Here," she said, smiling at them. "You get fixed up and we'll all go catch the train in a while." She handed them both the first aid kits. There was a strange, pinkish glow to her face suddenly, and she seemed almost giddy as she smiled at them, though she was obviously trying to suppress it.

"Th-thanks." Ryoga stuttered self-consciously as he accepted the first aid kit. Glancing at Ukyo, he could tell by her pained expression that she was thinking the same thing as he; how could Akane be so nice to them after they'd just dragged her and Ranma through a ghastly ghost cave for a few hours? Where the ghosts had been real?

Ukyo strained to hear what Akane was saying as she and Ranma walked into the old guide's shop again. "I just...still can't believe it— isn't this such great news? It's so— I'm just so happy for them!" Ukyo heard her say in a hushed, yet excited voice to Ranma, who nodded back, also looking quite pleased with his lopsided grin. She'd have to ask Ranma later what the big fuss was all about. Maybe Dr. Tofu had finally got his rear in gear about Kasumi or something.

As she started dabbing disinfectant on her wounds, she glanced at Ryoga, who was doing the same, before returning to her work. He didn't seem to mind the pain too much, while she, on the other hand, thought it stung like the blazes. Then again, he was probably much more used to being hurt like this than she was. He travelled, trained, sparred and fought in real battles much more often than she; he didn't have a restaurant to run and classes to go to, though.

The disinfectant was necessary, however much it stung, because after had been actual ghosts that did this to them, and you never knew—

"Let's hope we haven't been infected with any undead zombie rabies or whatever..." Ryoga remarked grimly then, and she couldn't help but giggle a bit at that— her sentiments exactly.

"Wouldn't be too far-fetched, huh?" She grinned wryly, shaking her head.

Suddenly she felt a soft, wet pressure on her elbow and she gasped, her eyes snapping around to meet his; she relaxed when she saw that he was only pressing a damp cotton ball against her sore skin. "Missed a spot." He said by way of explanation, his cheeks red as he carefully wiped away the grime and blood before tossing the cotton ball into the waste basket by the benches.

"You didn't have to do that," she told him in a low, indefinable voice, and he glanced at her, unsure of what to make of it. Was she grateful? Was she annoyed? She didn't look too mad, so he simply shrugged.

"Want a band aid on that?"

Ukyo blinked a little before nodding. "Probably should." Nodding as well, he cut off a strip of band aid for her and applied it gently to her wound.

"What about you?" She asked then, raising both eyebrows as she examined his arms. He shied away from her scrutiny, glancing to one side. "It's really nothing." He muttered.

Ukyo sighed exasperatedly. "Stop being such a big, dumb...male!" She complained. "This," she said briskly, indicating her left arm, where only half of her upper arm had been scratched, "is nothing!" Then she pointed at his right arm, where pretty much the entire limb, including the elbow, had been clawed at, as well as his lower left forearm. "But that...that looks like you've just barely escaped the tiger pits at the zoo or something!" She told him firmly. At the look he gave her then, she crossed her arms defiantly over her chest. "I don't care if you think I'm bossy, 'cause you know I'm right."

The sceptical look he was giving her went on and on until she'd had enough.

"Gimme your arms," she demanded and he reluctantly offered up the limbs in question. "It's kind of tricky to bandage up your own arm with one hand, you know," She muttered. With practiced ease she started rolling the soft gauze around his right arm, starting at the bicep and working towards his wrist.

"When I'm done, you can help me, okay?" She suggested, glancing at him.

Ryoga nodded, then sucked in a breath and held it, trying to calm himself down. He wasn't used to being touched as gently as this; Ukyo's fingers brushed the tiny, sensitive hairs on the back of his arm as she applied the gauze, and the contact send little jolts of electricity to the roots of them, forcing him to try not to squirm in his seat. Whenever she touched the thinner flesh on the more vulnerable underside of his arm, the feathery pressure of the pads of her fingers tickled his skin. It made him feel so jittery, it was like a full-body itch, but at the same time it felt so dizzying; it all made him feel like he would collapse or something if he let his breath out.

Ukyo fastened the gauze tightly when she was done, then frowned in perplexity; she'd felt him trembling a little all through her work and her eyes darted up to his, trying to figure out why. His face was carefully blank, however, the only thing showing his discomfort a small worry knot on his brow.

Ukyo looked over at Akane and Ranma, but they offered no clue as they were busy gawking at the bizarre souvenirs the shop had to offer, like freaky little ghost figurines and not-very-catchy T-shirts saying things like: 'My Sweetheart Took Me To The Cursed Tunnel Of Lost Love, And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt (Which I Even Had To Buy For Myself Because We Broke Up)'.

Ukyo rolled her eyes. Why do couples even come here? Turning back to Ryoga, she picked up another roll of gauze. "Are you okay?" She asked quietly as she started on his lower left arm. "Am I hurting you?" She added as the thought suddenly occurred to her, her hand halting in mid-air, hesitating.

"N-no!" Ryoga blurted, as if the question had been completely unexpected. "You're not— it's fine." He insisted, seeming somewhat dazed.

Reassured by this, Ukyo nodded and continued.

Her arm was an easy fix, but his fingers were trembling enough that it probably took an extra five minutes.

Ukyo took a quick glance at herself, reflected in the train window. She didn't look too bad; she'd borrowed Akane's hair brush and she'd put on some lip balm, and all things considered, she could've looked a lot worse, she told herself. After all, she'd just been attacked by a bunch of angry ghosts!

Still, she looked kind of tired, her clothes were scruffy and a little ripped, she had band aids on her chin and her elbow, bruises on her shoulders, ankles and arms, and of course there was her bandaged left upper arm...

...and then there was Ryoga. He had a few bruises here and there and a band aid on his cheek, but it was the bandages that really caught the eye. He looked like he was halfway through making his very own Return of The Lost Mummy costume for Halloween or something.

She'd been stuck with sitting next to him. There'd been few free seats on the train and Ranma and Akane had sat down next to each other. That's just how it was. There weren't that many seats.

...and yet she couldn't help thinking that this was the way the seating arrangements would've gone even if the entire train had been empty.

Ukyo wondered what they were talking about. And then she wondered what Ryoga thought about having to sit next to her and not Akane.

Akane, who was wearing a pretty little skirt and had perfect hair and didn't have bruise-covered skin or an unflattering band aid on her face...

Ukyo wondered if Ranma had even considered sitting next to her, or if he'd just assumed he'd be sitting next to Akane.

She noticed the conductor and some of the other passengers staring at her and Ryoga, and she averted her eyes, cheeks burning with shame.

If they were staring at Akane at all, it had to be to look at her beautiful face or at her long legs, sticking out from underneath that impossibly short skirt— Ukyo frowned then, giving herself a little mental slap. Who was she to talk, considering the state of her sizeable cleavage right now? Maybe she should've bought that stupid T-shirt to cover—

"What's wrong?" Ryoga asked out of the blue, sending her a worried look.

"We look like the poster children for domestic violence!" Ukyo hissed through clenched teeth. "They probably think we're...that we've..."

Ryoga shrugged. He was so used to being looked at funny that most of the time he didn't even notice. He was freakishly strong, permanently and bizarrely lost and on occasion he turned into a small, black piglet. There were plenty of reasons for people to stare at him, and he'd had to learn to ignore them. "What are we supposed to do?" He whispered back pointedly. "Tell them we were attacked by evil spirits?"

Ukyo groaned a little, her shoulders slumping in defeat. "I know, I just...never mind."

"Just ignore them." Ryoga told her in a firm tone. "They'll forget about us in a minute." He added, attempting to placate her. "Once the train's been rolling for a while, most of them are gonna fall asleep or put their long noses in a book or a newspaper and out of where it doesn't belong. Trust me."

Ukyo tilted her head at him, taken aback. This had been an unusually long speech for Ryoga, not to mention a bit more confident than she was used to seeing him. She hadn't thought he was the type to be able to easily brush off the stares of strangers; he always seemed so self-conscious. "Thanks." She said quietly, but still felt a little uneasy.

Ever since she was little, she had hated staring eyes, hated gossip, and hated being singled out. It had followed her from before the incident with Ranma and all through high school. She had already been gossiped about even before Saotome Ranma came into her life because her father was 'just' an okonomiyaki chef and because of her rigid devotion to the same trade and the odd style of martial arts that her family combined it with. Then there was the fact that her mother had passed away, and that after this, she had become more and more tomboyish, what with being raised by her father alone. After the Saotome incident she had simply become even more of an outsider.

Ryoga regarded her knitted brows and pursed lips, the obvious feelings of discomfort that were shining in her eyes. Of course he wasn't invulnerable to the opinions of other people, it was just that unlike Ukyo, who more or less stayed in one place, he was constantly on the move and didn't have the chance to overhear gossip about him or be given critical glances from anyone who was anything more than some random stranger. He'd probably never see them again and they didn't know the first thing about him, so why should he care? People he actually cared about, though...their opinions always struck him deeply. Perhaps too deeply at times.

"Ukyo?" He asked carefully, his hand hovering above her shoulder as he contemplated whether to reach out or not. "Do you want the window seat?" He offered, figuring it would move her further away from the curious eyes and give her the landscape whizzing by outside to focus on instead.

Ukyo's eyes went wide at that. "What? Are you sure— " She started asking, but he nodded and got up, ushering her into the seat by the window. It was a bit cramped as they did the little dance of trying to push past each to switch seats, and she bumped her elbow into his hip by mistake and he lost his balance for a second and his nose crashed into her shoulder, his bangs falling over her bare skin, and he flailed a bit and tried to all but throw himself into his seat to spare them both the awkward contact, but she regained his equilibrium by steadying him by his arm, both finally slumping down into their respective seats.

Ukyo cleared her throat and shifted a bit to get comfortable. "Nice view." She murmured after a while as she regarded the telephone poles and the rice fields and the distant hills rolling by in an almost Zen-like rhythm, lulling her and causing her tense shoulders to go limp.

"No problem." Ryoga smiled just a little, pleased that she was feeling better.

"Tickets, please." The conductor said gruffly, looking at them in a meaningful way, as if he was having great doubts about their abilities to produce even one ticket, let alone two. Ukyo nodded, hastily handing him the tickets from her pocket.

"All in order," The conductor said after a while, sounding almost regretful that this was so. Ryoga glared at him, but the conductor didn't seem to notice.

What he did notice, however, was the giant spatula currently resting against the seat in front of Ukyo. He raised a very sceptical eyebrow. "What is that thing supposed to be?" He asked suspiciously, eyes darting between the two teenagers and the spatula.

"None of your busin— " Ukyo snapped, but to her surprise, Ryoga interrupted her.

"We were just in Osaka the other day, and we bought this as a souvenir, sir." Ryoga explained, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. "You know…those kinds of oversized novelty goods? It's a novelty spatula for okonomiyaki."

"Really?" The conductor frowned, then shook his head, looking as if he's just had all his suspicions about people from Osaka confirmed. "And if I might ask...what's happened to you two?"

"We had a hiking accident," Ukyo told him in a deadpan voice.

The conductor narrowed his eyes at the two of them, but in the end just clucked his tongue and walked away, muttering to himself.

"What a complete and utter jerk! Who does he think he is, acting like some sort of policeman or something!" Ukyo hissed when the man was out of sight. "What in the world was his problem?"

Ryoga shrugged. "Underpaid?"

Ukyo scoffed at that. "Overpaid, if you ask me!"

"Well, you said it..." Ryoga sighed. "We don't exactly look"

"We don't not look like juvenile delinquents?" Ukyo asked flatly, and he coughed a bit.


Ukyo let out a huff and leaned on the window sill. After a minute or two of watching the landscape unfolding again, she had calmed down, but she had also started thinking about a few things. "Ryoga...d' you really think I use my weapons too much?" She asked timidly, absently fingering the handle of her battle spatula, propped up against the seat in front of her.

"Six times." Ryoga mumbled. Ukyo turned to him curiously and saw that he was just staring into space.

"What?" She asked, confused.

"Six times." He repeated. "That's how many times you hit me over the head with the spatula."

"That's not so— " She protested.

"And that was just today." He said bluntly, giving her a rather meaningful look.

"You were supposed to leave the cave with me, not Akane! How hard was that for you to understand?" She exclaimed, upset. How could he be starting this again? Didn't she feel bad enough already?

She scowled at him a little, but then she caught the eye of the old lady sitting in the seat on the other side. She was staring at them and clutching her handbag as if she was afraid they'd rob her, and it was abundantly clear that she'd heard every insane word about her hitting him repeatedly over the head with a giant spatula.

That shut her up.

Ukyo smiled sheepishly at the old lady before glancing at Ryoga, who appeared to have become just as flustered as she by her last comment. "You're not entirely wrong." She admitted eventually, looking down at her hands.

"Neither are you...I mean, in the cave, I just wasn't thinking. Or maybe I was thinking too much, I dunno. I should've listened to you." Ryoga mumbled. "Nothing wrong with weapons," he added quietly, shuffling his feet a little in the cramped space. "I use them as well. But sometimes you don't have them within reach, and then what are you gonna do?"

Ukyo nodded; she'd gotten the point by now.

The landscape outside was now dotted by the occasional building bigger than a house, and she could tell they were getting closer to home. She watched the clothes flapping in the breeze on the clotheslines on the balconies of the small houses in between the taller buildings near the train tracks, watched the rice fields getting smaller and smaller until they could no longer rightly be called fields, but patches.

Suddenly she giggled, and he turned to see what's up.

"Oversized novelty goods...!" She laughed, swatting him good-naturedly over the head; as far as she could tell, it was the only place he hadn't been hurt much. "You are such a jackass...!"

Ryoga jumped as something landed in his lap.

"Wake up, Hibiki!" Ranma shouted cheerfully, dumping a juice box in his lap and deftly tossing Ukyo a packet of yakisoba bread and a carton of oolong tea. "I've been to the food cart!"

Ryoga looked down. Beside the juice box, there was some curry bread. He scowled at Ranma, now busy throwing Ukyo a packet of melon bread, which she easily snatched out of the air. "Very funny." Ryoga growled, which caused Ukyo to blink in surprise. What was all this about?

"I thought you liked curry bread!" Ranma grinned, handing him a Meiji chocolate bar from the frighteningly big pile of food he was holding. Ryoga simply scowled at him further and made no move to accept the chocolate, and just for a second, Ranma looked uncertain. "All right, if you don't like curry bread, how about this pork cutlet bre— "

At this, Ryoga stood bolt upright, grabbing Ranma's shirt and shaking him a little, food raining down on the floor. "You are not making me any more inclined to be a good mood, Saotome!" He snarled.

Ranma frowned, actually looking troubled, actually looking as if he'd thought twice about what he'd just said. "Look, I honestly forgot about the pork, I just— "

There was a sigh from behind them, and they both turned to see Akane standing there. "Really, Ranma, even when you're being nice, you're not being nice. What did you say or do this time?"

"Yeah, I'm kind of wondering about that, too," Ukyo piped up behind Ryoga, who suddenly let go of Ranma's shirt and turned a bit red. He swallowed, then busied himself with picking up the fallen food items. When he was done, he replaced them on the pile in Ranma's arms. "Sorry." He mumbled. He hadn't meant to get so mad, especially when Ranma was just re-using those archaic insults for the thousandth time, but he was getting quite tired, and he'd been dozing off, and the seat had been comfortable, and the sound of the train had been soothing, and life had looked sort of nice there for a while—

"Oh, it's just that whole bread feud thing." Ranma told the girls, shrugging. "Guess I just stirred up a few bad memories."

Ryoga was impressed at that. Once again, Saotome Ranma had failed to mention his Jusenkyo curse.

"Bread feud?" Ukyo looked puzzled.

"Yeah, we used to fight over the bread at lunch in junior high school and I always won."

"Close enough." Muttered Ryoga under his breath. He didn't want to make a big deal out of it; not only because the girls were watching, but also because Ranma was suddenly trying to be nice to him in what seemed like an earnest if awkward way…and he didn't know why.

"Oh." Ukyo said, baffled. She hadn't even known that Ranma and Ryoga had went to the same school. She'd just never asked about anything from Ryoga's past...or his life in general, if it came to that. She'd never needed to know much beyond the fact that he wanted to date Akane.

"Here," Ranma tossed Ryoga a few items, which he caught easily. "Have some onigiri if you don't want the bread, and here's some ice tea. Sure you don't want the chocolate?"

"He does!" Ukyo grinned cheekily and leaned past Ryoga, reaching out to snatch the Meiji bar. She seldom ate any sweets, but today felt like the day to pamper herself, what with all she'd been through. Her antics earned a chuckle from Ranma, and she felt just a little bit better.

"Do you want to sit with us?" Akane asked then, pointing her thumb behind her. "Some people got off at the last stop, so now we've got two free seats back there that are facing ours, and there's even one of those little tables."

Ukyo took a quick glance in Ryoga's direction, but promptly checked herself when she realized with a certain shock what she was doing. Since when did she cease to be an individual and start seeing what Ryoga thought before making a decision? Then again, it would be kind of mean of her to just leave him here alone if he didn't want to sit with them...

She noticed, then, that he was also looking to her for an opinion, which frankly startled her. Then again, he was always so indecisive, so it wasn't really that much of a surprise, right?

"Sure." Ryoga agreed, trying to smile politely. How could they refuse without being rude?

Somehow they'd ended up playing a game of Truth or Dare— Ranma had insisted, said he was bored and wanted to pass the time—which turned into a game of Truth or Truth because the possibilities of doing dares were very limited in a cramped, public place like a train. The questions just kept on getting more and more stupid.

Ryoga wished desperately for the pack of cards that were in the backpack he'd just lost earlier that day.

He had been lost in a weird underground cave all night and all morning before he bumped into Ranma, Akane and Ukyo, and he'd been smashing his way through solid rock walls for most of that time, and then to be dragged through a ghost cave and manhandled by crazy spirits...

His favourite pastime right then would definitely be sleeping.

For some reason, though, he just couldn't bring himself to let Ukyo entertain these two by herself. Being the innocent third party around Ranma and Akane was never fun. You might as well get the popcorn out right away and sigh resignedly to yourself as you watched the mayhem and hope like hell that they wouldn't involve you in it somehow. But they always did.

It's almost as if they were constantly searching for yet another reason to fight when they were around other people. At least if he was awake Ukyo would have some sort of backup should a crisis occur.

Right then, though, bruised, bloodied, battered and fatigued, he thought that the only sort of backup he'd be able to provide would have to be moral support.

"Okay, this one's for you, Ryoga..." Ranma said, and Ryoga straightened his back and drew a breath as he could feel all eyes on him. "What's the furthest away from Nerima you've ever gotten lost?"

Ryoga cleared his throat self-consciously, ducking his head as he mumbled: "Iceland."

Ranma let out an explosive breath as if he'd been holding it.

"Say again?" Ukyo was leaning forward, her eyes wide.

"Iceland, all right?" Ryoga snapped, annoyed at all the unwelcome attention.

Ranma let out a low whistle. "I thought you hadn't been further than China, either! How'd you even get to Iceland?"

"I...I don't know...I must've fallen asleep on a plane or a boat or something." Ryoga sighed. "If I knew how I keep ending up in all these weird places, don't you think I would've done something about it by now?"

Akane watched Ranma opening his big mouth again to retort, and hastily interrupted him. "How was it?"

Ryoga blinked at the unexpected question, then shrugged. "Cold, I guess. Expensive." He thought for a while before adding: "They had some really nice hot springs, though."

"Bet they did," Ranma said under his breath, and got a well-placed elbow from Akane for his troubles.

"Okay, Ryoga, it's your turn," Ukyo said brightly; she was actually enjoying this silly game, but then she'd always been a bit of an extrovert. On the other hand, practically everybody could be considered an outgoing person compared to Ryoga.

As Ryoga looked at her, though, it occurred to him that suddenly, he actually did have several different questions he wanted to ask her.

What had it been like to pretend to be a boy for ten years? How did she even do it?

Did she ever get sick of okonomiyaki?

What did she do at night after she closed her restaurant?

Did she have any friends at school?

How was school life at Furinkan, anyway?

What did she want out of life besides being Mrs. Saotome?

For how many more years was she planning on wasting her life on Ranma when he clearly loved somebody else?

Did she think Ryoga was as weird as everyone else did?

Did she ever feel trapped, like she wished fervently to be someone else, but she could never, ever get away and—

"What's your favourite colour?" Ryoga asked her in a slightly far-away voice, ignoring Ranma's consequent protests.

"Man, what a boring question! That's almost cheating, it's so boring! That's not a 'Truth', not really!"

Ryoga didn't care if it was boring. He wasn't very good at entertaining people, and especially not at thinking things up under pressure, and besides...there was no way he could ask Ukyo any of those other things.

Ukyo blinked at him, evidently puzzled by such an easy question. She'd imagined him to cook up something difficult— that was the point of the game, right, to keep 'em squirming?

When she looked into his eyes, however, she found herself almost blurting out that brown was her favourite colour, and she literally bit her tongue, scolding herself for zoning out on something so straight-forward. It was like that age-old "What colour was Napoleon's white horse?" joke, where your brain just completely missed the word 'white', because you were expecting it to be more difficult. Instead the brain just took a wild stab at some random answer. She'd looked into his eyes as he asked the question and she'd only seen the brown of his irises.

For some reason, though, she couldn't get herself to say blue, which was her standard answer.

Ranchan's eyes were blue.

"Red." She said flatly, and caught him nodding as if in approval, which was odd. "Okay…that was easy— "

"Too easy," Ranma muttered, but this time Akane only sighed in resignation, her elbow staying by her side.

"Right, okay, let's see...oh!" Ukyo's eyes lit up. "Akane, I always many boys have ever been fighting for you at any one time? I mean, how many at the most?"

Akane coloured, looking thunderstruck. "I...I d-don't know, it's not like I counted— "

Ukyo raised a sceptical eyebrow, and Akane's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Thirty-seven." Akane sighed heavily.

"Whoa!" Ukyo laughed, looking extremely amused. "You go, Sugar!"

"Thirty-seven?" Ranma exploded. "You never told me there were thirty-seven!"

"W-well, that was before I'd even met you!" Akane spluttered, growing flushed. "The ones you saw were only the most stubborn ones left at the end!"

"There aren't thirty-seven guys born in this world that have tough enough skulls to keep up with your mallet!" Ranma said, tapping his knuckle on his own forehead to underline his point.

"I'm surprised it didn't make a hollow sound when you did that," Akane said snidely, and Ukyo had to hold back a giggle. Ryoga closed his eyes; he'd just been waiting for a fight to erupt. He was too tired for this.

"And I'm surprised that— "

"Ranma...she answered the question, which means it's her turn to ask the next one." Ryoga interjected pointedly, before things could get out of hand.

Akane smiled mischievously at Ranma. "Truth or Dare?"

Ranma raised both eyebrows. "We're back to dares now?"

Ukyo brightened a bit. "Oh, come on, let's do some dares! There must be something we can think of?"

Akane briefly considered making him arm wrestle Ryoga, but then they'd be at it all day. "No, I think we're gonna have to do a Truth." She said with finality.

Ukyo pouted a little—it would've been fun to do a dare, the questions had been sort of boring so far—

but leaned forward, curious as to what Akane would ask.

"Hey, ain't I the one who's supposed to get to choose what I wanna—" Ranma objected, but she simply ploughed on.

"When you had to conjure up Happosai's lust aura to be able to use the Hiryuu Shoten Ha on him…" Akane began innocently.

"Yeah?" Ranma asked suspiciously.

"Where did you get the underwear from that you were wearing when you posed in those pictures?" Akane went on, a small smirk slipping. She'd always wondered a bit about that. It had looked sort of pricy, too, that underwear.

Ranma's eyes bugged out, but then he cleared his throat noisily, trying to compose himself. "I, uh…"

His eyes darted nervously between the others.

Ryoga made a weird, strangled sound, as if he was trying to hold back a belly laugh. Ukyo was hiding her grin behind her hand. Akane was just looking expectantly at him, with a carefully neutral expression.

"Well?" Akane prodded.

"Some of it I stole from Happosai…" He told them reluctantly, letting the sentence trail off, unwilling to share what he'd probably be forced to say next.

"Yes?" Akane wouldn't let it go.

Ranma sighed in irritation, vowing silently to himself that he'd get Akane back for this when it was his turn. "…and the rest was mine."

"What?" Akane, Ukyo and Ryoga blurted in unison.

Turning red, Ranma scowled at them. "Look, it's not as if I've bought it for fun or anything, it's just that when I'm a girl, I need— I mean, girls need to wear bras, all right? Or else my back hurts, and—" He fired off all this in a quick succession, frantically trying to defend himself, but was cut off at Ryoga finally failing very badly at containing his laughter.

It was loud and obnoxious and Ranma felt himself starting to fume. Okay, if that's how he wanted to play things…

Suddenly, getting back at Akane wasn't his number one priority anymore.

"All it's my turn!" Ranma rubbed his hands together with malicious intent as Ryoga's laughter gradually ended. "Truth or Dare, Ryoga?"

Ryoga swallowed, a sinking feeling turning up in his gut. He'd just made fun of Ranma's curse, and here Ranma was, in a position to ask him whatever he wanted, and he'd be forced to answer, because those were the rules of the game. Suddenly Ryoga regretted laughing. There must be some awfully, dreadfully, horrifyingly awkward or embarrassing question he's got planned, there's no doubt about that, and in front of the girls, too—

There was only one way out of this.

"Dare!" Ryoga exclaimed, slapping his palm down on the small table for emphasis.

The Cheshire grin spreading across Ranma's face told him he'd walked straight into a trap. "Okay, Ryoga..." Ranma leaned back in his seat, stretching his arms behind his head. "I dare you to kiss Ukyo."

"Ranma...!" Ukyo gasped.

"On the lips," Ranma went on mercilessly.

"Come on—" Akane started to scold him, but he paid her no heed.

"For at least ten seconds." Ranma added, with an air of delivering the finishing blow in a battle.

"What?" Ryoga finally managed to speak, but it came out as nothing but a squeak, and he instantly turned red. What the hell was Ranma thinking...! He heard Akane let out an exasperated 'Ranma!", but it was as if he'd momentarily gone partly deaf and it sounded like Akane was talking under water. He turned his head cautiously towards the other victim of the game, and swallowed as she came into his line of sight.

Ukyo was staring at him, blinking rapidly, nervously, obviously as shocked as he, eyelashes moving like the wings of a frightened butterfly. When their eyes met, her eyelids snapped fully open and she froze; the butterfly had been pinned.

Suddenly Ryoga felt completely at sea, he had no clue what to do— was he really supposed to...?

Ukyo gazed deep into the black of his pupils drowning in the different tones of warm brown of his irises and her breath caught as she saw it, the truth that was there; part of him actually wanted to do it.

Automatically, and completely apart from any sort of conscious thought, Ukyo licked her lips and watched as his eyes flickered down to her mouth, just for a second.

He wouldn't do it.

would he?

"It's the rules of the game, man, you hafta do it!" Ukyo heard Ranma say, obviously enjoying himself immensely, and she felt a twitch of irritation. When it came to matters like these, Ranma handled them about as delicately as his father.

It's the rules of the game; I have to do it... Ryoga thought fuzzily, his entire head feeling like it'd been stuffed full of cotton.

"Last stop, Shinjuku Station!"

Last stop, Shinjuku Station, Ryoga thought, hearing all the voices as if they were being spoken by little tiny gnats buzzing around the ceiling lights. Last stop...He stared at a point somewhere in the middle distance, or maybe it was at Ukyo's hair falling over the bruise on her shoulder, and he—

Last stop!

"We're here!" Ryoga blurted, standing bolt upright and grabbing a protesting Ranma in a headlock. "Let's go, Ranma!" He said in a falsely cheerful voice, dragging Ranma with him out of the train compartment.

"I don't know what you think you're doing, but it's not funny!" Ukyo and Akane could hear Ryoga hissing to Ranma before he heaved him out of the train.

Author's note: I'm publishing this story in two parts because I've been holding on to this sucker for so long that I just wanted to let it loose, and the chapter was becoming a bit too long for a short story, anyway. Hopefully the next part will be done before the new millennium comes up.

Oh, and the gang's supposed to be seventeen, going on eighteen in this fic.

This is based on the manga, not the anime, which explains why only Ranma, Akane, Ryoga and Ukyo appear in this story and not everybody else as well, like in the anime episode.

The number thirty-seven (the number of people fighting for Akane) is of course a reference to that good ol' favourite, Clerks, directed by Kevin Smith. The number is repeated enough times in the movie for anyone who has seen it to get the reference. :) And no, that's not what I meant Akane did with all those guys.

I needed a random number and for some reason I picked that one, and then suddenly thought, 'Hey, haven't I heard that before somewhere?', so I went and checked, and sure enough, it was that number...

Macha: The powdered, green tea used in the tea ceremony; works pretty well as an ice cream flavour, too.

Mochi: Weird, white, sticky paste made of rice, used for a number of things, one of which is Japanese confectionery. They also deep-fry it sometimes, but I've only managed to eat half of one even though they're pretty small. Extremely fattening, I've heard. Goes well with macha.

Onigiri: Little, compressed portions of rice, usually shaped like triangles or hockey pucks. There are many different kinds of onigiri. Some are completely wrapped in sea weed, some only have a small strip of sea weed around a part of them, some are sea weed free and some are grilled. There are many different tastes to them, also. There's mushroom onigiri, chicken onigiri, leek and onion onigiri, bamboo sprout onigiri, fish onigiri, fish egg onigiri, sweet plum onigiri…the list goes on. These are what we often buy as a quick lunch in Kyoto. I've also eaten them in Tokyo.

Shinjuku Station: Literally the world's biggest train, bus and taxi station, as far as I know. Please feel free to correct me. I got slightly lost there once while I was carrying way too much luggage and was all on my own, and I was not in a very good mood, to say the least. That place is huge!

Since I have no idea which station you get off at in Tokyo to get to Nerima (which is in fact a real place), and since I have no idea where that ghost cave was, I just had them get off at Shinjuku; it's a pretty likely bet. They'll be taking the bus from Shinjuku to their respective homes in the next part of the story.

Thanks for reading!