Omiyage: Tanuki
By Ninnik Nishukan

It was about eight am, and of course she was up, already having showered and eaten her breakfast. She was having an ordinary, okay day until she found that thing on her front step. She'd discovered it when she tried to unlock her front door; something had been blocking the way. Being forced to go around the back to be able to leave her house, she finally saw the obstruction.

It was a giant tanuki statue, tall enough to reach well past her waist.

Someone had left it there, or dropped it there, by the look of things. The concrete steps to her restaurant were cracked, the concrete on the sides crumbling and calmly falling off in chunks, accompanied by the occasional small puff of dust.

She wasn't tired, she hadn't stayed up late or anything, she'd had a pretty good night's sleep, and she'd had a healthy breakfast, a long, warm shower and a piping hot cup of coffee. It was a good day. Yet, she twitched with irritation. How the hell was she supposed to open Ucchan's today?

Flexing her arms, she bent down and inched her fingers into a good grip on the statue before heaving.

All it resulted in was a pathetic little grinding sound, ceramic against concrete, as it got shuffled even closer to her door. Okay— she had thought it wouldn't be that heavy, and so she hadn't really put much effort into it at all. She'd thought it was one of those hollow ceramic statues, but apparently it was a solid mass all the way through.

"Gah!" She threw her hands up in exasperation before going for a second attempt. Setting her well legs apart for maximum lifting power, she braced herself and started pulling again. Gritting her teeth, she managed to lift it up to a little beneath shoulder height and dump it next to the steps so it wouldn't be in the way of her customers. Unfortunately, she was a little careless, so she almost got her toe caught under it, barely moving her foot away in time.

Huffing, she examined her newfound nemesis, as she padded back and forth, rubbing her chin. Hadn't she seen that damn tanuki somewhere before?

Ukyo snapped her fingers in realization. Of course! It used to be a lawn ornament at the Tendo house. Ukyo chuckled grimly; she'd even stubbed her big toe on the wretched thing once when visiting Ranma.

"You've killed my big toe and now you've come back for the other nine!" She muttered melodramatically, smirking to herself. Ukyo had nothing personal against tanuki statues— in fact she owned a couple of small, trinket-sized ones herself, for good luck— but she just couldn't fathom why anyone would bother buying this large a one.

The more urgent, nagging question was, however; how did it end up at her door step?

"Where the hell am I now?"

...and there was the answer.

"Aha." Ukyo mumbled to herself, rolling her eyes. Who would be strong enough to put the tanuki here? Ryoga, of course. His motives for doing it? Now there was a trickier one.

"You're at Ucchan's okonomiyaki, sugar." Ukyo turned around, smiling, her anger vanished as suddenly as it turned up; the whole incident was just too bizarre to be properly mad for.

Looking a little weary, but otherwise fine, Ryoga walked up to her, relieved to finally see a familiar face. "Good morning, Ukyo, could you show me the way to—"

"I think this belongs to you." Ukyo cut him off, pointing a thumb behind her.

"Uhh..." Ryoga grimaced uncertainly for awhile before recollection came to aid. "What's that doing there?"

"That's what I'd like to know." Ukyo said pointedly. "I'd very much like whoever owns it to get it out of my hair. What am I supposed to do with it? I don't want a tanuki outside of my restaurant, it's so unoriginal, I was thinking of buying something to do with okonomiyaki to put outside my door, like maybe a giant Osaka style—"

"Well, I didn't put it there! Why would I?" Ryoga interrupted her defensively, scowling. He was tired of always messing up and making mistakes, but at least he was sure he wasn't the culprit in this case.

"Whoa, tiger," Ukyo put her hands up, frowning slightly back at him, "did you get up on the wrong side of the tent today or something?"

Ryoga grumbled in the back of his throat; Ukyo always had some kind of snappy comeback for him, often making him feel uncomfortable and sometimes patronized. There were other times, though, when she could be quite civil. Now was not one of them, apparently. "Yeah, making fun of the "lost boy" is always entertaining, isn't it?" He shot back bitterly.

"Jeez, Ryoga! It's not like I'm trying to insult you! I'm only asking why you're so grumpy!" Ukyo exclaimed. "Why are you wandering this early, anyway?"

Drawing a breath, Ryoga contemplated telling her that he'd been sleeping very poorly as of late, but stopped himself at her next comment.

"I mean," Ukyo cocked her head to one side, "it's not like you have to get up to go to school or anything, is it?"

Ryoga paled a little, his jaw clenching. "That's right. I have nothing to get up for in the morning." He growled, his voice hard.

"Gods! Why do you insist on taking everything the wrong way?" Ukyo shouted at him, upset. She didn't like insulting people, even if it wasn't on purpose, and even if it was this big jerk here, who seemed like he wanted to be put down. Other people fished for compliments, while Ryoga's natural cynicism and guarded disposition made him often see insults where none existed.

Ryoga just looked away, jaw still clenching tightly, brows furrowed.

"Keep that up and your face is gonna stay that way," Ukyo said brightly.

Ryoga was about to send her a biting reply when he turned his head and caught her disarming smile. "A-are you still making fun of me?" He asked timidly.

Ukyo stared at him, shaking her head, worried; what was he afraid of? "When did I start?"

Ryoga let his breath out, rubbing his tired eyes.

"Listen, sugar," Ukyo suggested, putting a hand on her hip. "I don't have time to deal with this thing, and I don't wanna just throw it away since it belongs to the Tendos. Could you take care of it for me?"

Ryoga studied her expression for a while. "Why don't you just ask Ranma?"

Ukyo glared at him. "Well, thanks a lot, mister gentleman!" She rolled her eyes. "Anyway, I can't ask him, he's on a training trip with his father. He won't be back before around this time tomorrow."

Ryoga looked hesitant.

"If you don't, I'll have to take it there myself, and the breakfast crowd will wonder why Ucchan's is closed. You see, I do miso soup and onigiri and special breakfast okonomiyaki, so I'm the only restaurant in the area with a breakfast menu except the Nekohanten, and I really don't want to lose any business to them." Ukyo went on trying to convince him, then pulled out the secret weapon. "Please, Ryoga?" She asked sweetly, clasping her hands.

Of course, she knew she was being just a little manipulative; she could simply leave the tanuki there until closing time and then take it over to the Tendos, but dragging that heavy statue all the over to the dojo after a long day at work really didn't sound like much fun.

Ryoga swallowed, then nodded. After all, Hibiki Ryoga never turned down a damsel in distress, did he?

Walking over to the statue, he spat on his hands and braced himself before lifting it up. Aside from a small grunt, he didn't much indicate that this effort was that hard of a strain on him. Wiping his hands on his pants, he started tying the tanuki statue to his backpack.

Ukyo gave him a pleased smile. "Thank you, Ryoga."

"You're welcome." He replied gruffly. Ukyo shook her head, amused; spending all that time in the wild hadn't made him completely forget his manners...

"It's your statue, isn't it?" Ukyo said, nodding towards him as he finished fastening the tanuki securely to this backpack.

"It's Akane's." Ryoga corrected her firmly.

A smile suddenly sprouted on Ukyo's lips. "I remember you were lugging that thing around when I first met you."

Ryoga glanced at her, somewhat suspiciously. "Y-you do?" Why was she saying this? Was she going to accuse him of something he did back then or was she actually just reminiscing? Had she actually taken notice of him and remembered things about him?

"Yeah, of course," she said, nodding. "How in the world did you manage to carry it around all of Japan?"

He shrugged, hefting the backpack up onto his back, grunting slightly.

"You still think I'm a boy?" Ukyo then said, smirking a little.

Out of their own volition, Ryoga's eyes travelled across Ukyo's body, halting at her face. She was still wearing her okonomiyaki uniform, but she'd gotten rid of the chest bindings, and she'd grown up a little during the last year and a half, the swell of her bosom and her hips a little more rounded, enhancing her slim waist, a dash of adult femininity adorning her pretty face. It even looked like she was wearing a little make-up, and her hair had been brushed until it sparkled in the early morning sun.

"N-no." He replied shortly, blushing. Girls always had to ask him embarrassing questions, didn't they? "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Ukyo replied easily, grinning somewhat weakly at him, "It was kind of what I was aiming for, you know?" That didn't mean it hadn't still hurt, however. Odd that; she'd spent a large portion of her life trying to look like a boy, yet she'd been equally disappointed, angry and offended each time someone saw her for what she was dressed as. Deep down, she'd harboured the secret hope that someone would peg her as a girl right away.

Ryoga eyed her uncertainly. You're lying, aren't you? He thought sympathetically. "I'm still sorry." He told her, dipping his head in polite bow.

"Um..." Ukyo was taken aback; it was as if he'd read her thoughts. Was she really that transparent?

It was her turn to blush, and she tried to hide it by bowing to him. "Thank you."

Ryoga's eyes darting across her face, trying to read her. Something had just happened; he'd gotten an unexpected reaction out of Kuonji Ukyo. "I'd better get going." He said eventually.

"Yeah," Ukyo nodded. "I have to open up... the breakfast crowd's gonna start arriving soon."

Ryoga waved to her across his shoulder as he went down the street.

Carrying the humongous tanuki, he made for a comic sight, the tanuki bobbing up and down on his back as he walked. Ukyo giggled a little to herself before realizing something; Ryoga was of course heading in the wrong direction.

"Hey, Ryoga!" She yelled after him, her voice echoing between the buildings.

Ukyo saw him turn, looking curiously at her. "The Tendo dojo is that way!" She informed him, giggling.

Ryoga slumped his shoulders, groaned, and headed in the direction in which she'd pointed him.

"When you get there, find out who dropped the statue on my steps so I can bill them for the damage!" She added before he could get out of earshot.

"Okay!" He yelled back, a hint of laughter in his voice, waving to her again. She waved back, chuckling.

Ukyo could swear that she saw Ryoga grinning to himself as he rounded the corner. It was an unusual sight, she realized with a start; Ryoga never grinned like that. Frowning, concerned, she went inside to open up her restaurant.

Ryoga was walking a little slowly, lost in thought. He'd just been around to the Tendo house and returned the tanuki to Akane, who'd been politely grateful for it, but it had been apparent that she hadn't exactly worried about the souvenir he'd given her. After an awkward conversation and a cup of tea with her and Kasumi, he'd left.

That tanuki had worn heavily on his back during the day and a half it took him to reach the Tendo house. Even if Ukyo had pointed him in the right direction, he'd gotten lost, of course. Ryoga clenched his fists; a treacherous part of him wanted, needed, demanded praise for the hardships he endured each time he dragged gifts for Akane across half of Japan— but it wasn't as if he could whine to her about it. After all, it wasn't as if she asked for it, he did it all out of his own will. Yet there was just something slightly bitter about going through such pain for someone who never returned your feelings, no matter how noble he told himself that it was.

Nobility only kept you going for so long; after a while you needed something more tangible.

Akane was never rude, of course, she always thanked him, but they were polite words, not quite inhabiting the feelings he was looking for.

Groaning quietly to himself, he rubbed his aching shoulders. Sometimes he did wonder what in the world kept him going; Ukyo was right— it wasn't as if he had anything in particular to get up for in the morning. No job, no school, no real friends—

There was always the sunrise, but... sunrises and being noble? How stupid was that?

How pathetic wasn't it if those were the only reasons he could think of?

Well, of course...he helped people once in a while, during his travels. He had his strength going for him, at least. Ryoga liked helping people.

A thought that kept returning to him was about yesterday, when he'd helped Ukyo, and—

"...thank you, Ryoga..."

Ryoga had liked hearing that.

Ukyo could be quite sweet, really, but when they were scheming to break Akane and Ranma up, she turned into this little green monster, always slightly jittery, self-conscious, anxious, easily upset and snappish, and when things went wrong, which they always did, she took it all out on him. Ryoga didn't like being pressured and ordered around; it made him very nervous, and he always messed up when he got nervous; during junior high school he'd fainted in more than one school play. He just wasn't big on crowds and people expecting things from him; it made him ripe with performance anxiety.

Kuonji Ukyo was one of those ambitious, professional people who got things done effectively and expected everyone else to keep up with her, getting annoyed if they failed to do so, and who incidentally also had some dormant violent tendencies. Or more like napping violent tendencies.

Kuonji Ukyo was also one of those people who was a good listener, who tried to make you feel comfortable and whose bright smile understood you perfectly, who sympathized with you and who was friendly and companionable. How the two managed to co-exist in one body was beyond Ryoga's comprehension.

Unfortunately Ryoga had found himself too often on the business end of that damn spatula to feel completely safe around Ukyo. To be honest, he didn't have much reason to trust her, but the way she'd reacted to his scepticism yesterday had been unexpected. She'd been upset— not the violent kind of upset— and perhaps even a little hurt by the way he kept twisting her casual conversation into insults directed at himself. Furthermore, he could tell by her eyes that she'd also been upset back then, when he thought she was a boy.

Logically, her years of disguising herself as boy would have to be a sore point, but before yesterday, he'd never really seen such a soft side of Ukyo; she'd never really let on how much it had bothered her, and everyone just assumed that she was perfectly well-adjusted now that she had started dressing like a girl again. Seeing capable, self-sufficient Ukyo thrown off balance was a slightly disconcerting experience. Ryoga had simply told her that he was sorry, yet she had read interpreted it as exactly what he was thinking— the remark had struck very close to home. The fact that his words had the ability, the power to affect her like that, to catch her off guard— that fact really puzzled him. Kuonji Ukyo wasn't supposed to care less what Hibiki Ryoga thought.

It had felt strange to have a friendly conversation with Ukyo, just an ordinary conversation— as far as the mysterious appearances of tanuki statues in front of shop entrances went as normal— while their conversations were usually more like superficial shouting matches, neither really bothering to get to know the other, neither really considering the other's thoughts or feelings. Incidentally, yesterday's conversation had also involved a blissfully miniscule amount of references to Ranma...

"Yo, P-chan!"

Ryoga grimaced as Ranma came jogging up to him, the usual happy grin plastered across his face.

"Whatcha doin' here, Ryoga? Get lost on your way to the bathroom or something?" He enquired jokingly.

"Go away, Ranma." Ryoga said tiredly.

"What, no challenge this time?" Ranma cocked an eyebrow.

Ryoga's lips curled in disgust. "I'll send you a postcard, Ranma-chan."

Ranma grinned, cracking his knuckles. "Sounds like a challenge to me," He said, shrugging.

"Why don't you just take that challenge and stick it up your—"

"Ranma! Ryoga!"

Turning, the two boys saw Ukyo running towards them. "Hey, guys!" Ukyo beamed as she came to a halt.

"Hey, Ucchan!" Ranma grinned wider as he caught sight of her.

"Hi, Ukyo..." Ryoga mumbled, not sure where to put himself.

"I gotta run, I'm a little late for my theory class, just wanted to say hello and everything." Ukyo told them, bouncing slightly on her heels, anxious to get going.

"Hey, great! You finally managed to save up the money to get a driver's license?" Ranma smiled, happy for his friend.

"Yeah! Now I can drive out for supplies if I should run out and stuff, and maybe even visit home more often." Ukyo said enthusiastically.

"Maybe even give your old pal Ranma rides to school, eh?" Ranma grinned, nudging her conspiratorially.

She swatted his arm, chuckling. "In your dreams, mister! I have a restaurant to run, you know!"

Ryoga regarded them, his heart sinking a little as he tried frantically to think of some way of joining the conversation, but he knew little of their personal lives and had no idea of how to act like that, all friendly and chatty. He'd always been lonely in school, on the days he actually managed to get there, and now he felt excluded again. A thought that kept nagging him was that he only had himself to blame for it, and the horrible part was that it was probably true.

Now he felt like some kind of mannequin or like part of the scenery, having no active part in the conversation, simply filling up a void, numbly frozen in time and unable to leave.

As he looked up after a while, he noticed that Ukyo had turned her eyes on him.

"Hey, Ryoga," She directed that enthusiastic smile at him, and he was struck by incomprehension. "I just wanted to say thanks again for helping me out yesterday. Swing by the restaurant sometime, okay?"

"Uh...sure..." Ryoga replied, mouth shutting and opening uncertainly.

Satisfied, Ukyo's attention went elsewhere. "We're still on for tonight, right, Ranchan?"

Ranma nodded. "Sure, Ucchan. Meet you at seven?"

"Okay!" Ukyo smiled, hefting her bag more firmly onto her shoulder and turning to leave. "See you around!" She shouted, breaking into a run for her class.

As she left, Ryoga turned to Ranma. "So,'re going on a date with Ukyo?"

"Nah, s'just a movie." Ranma shrugged— then an idea popped into his head. He snapped his fingers, his face lighting up. "Hey, you can come too, if you wanna!"

"Wh-what?" Why in the world would Ranma—

"That way maybe Akane won't be so mad!" Ranma said triumphantly.

Ryoga frowned; so he was just trying to use him to his own advantage... "Why don't you just bring Akane too, then?"

Ranma shook his head. "No, they'll just start fighting and stuff, and besides, I don't want the whole fiancée mess going on when all I wanna do is catch a movie with Ucchan, you know? Some quality best friend time?"

"Look, you can handle your own problems. I don't wanna be your friggin' chaperone." Ryoga growled.

"What if I said you're gonna like the movie?" Ranma made another attempt.

"I don't really watch a lot of movies." Ryoga informed him gruffly.

"Then now's your chance to start!" Ranma exclaimed, exasperated.

"Ukyo won't like it." Ryoga said flatly, "And I'm not interested in being some sorta third wheel."

"Nah..." Ranma drawled, stretching the word.

"You know just as well as me that Ukyo expects to be alone with you. She thinks that it's a date." Ryoga gritted his teeth, glaring at Ranma relentlessly.

Ranma squirmed uncomfortably. "Jeez..." He groaned, tangling his fingers into his bangs, pulling his hair. "I'm not stupid, it's just that I keep hoping she'll...gods..."

"Give up?" Ryoga said pointedly.

Ranma stared at him. "I...I wouldn't quite p-put like that." He stuttered.

"No, you probably wouldn't, would you?" Ryoga said, almost hissing the words. "Because Saotome Ranma doesn't like the truth, does he? He doesn't like being honest?"

An angry scowl turned up in Ranma's face. "Looks who's talking, P-chan!"

Ryoga stepped towards him, baring his teeth in a vengeful grimace. "I wouldn't have to lie to Akane if it hadn't been for you! P-chan is your fault!" He shook his fist in Ranma's face. "And if we're looking at track records here, you're deceiving more people than me! Ukyo, Shampoo— hell, even your mother!"

"Don't you bring mom into this, you goddamn—" Ranma shouted, grabbing Ryoga's shirt.

"You hide your curse from her, don't you?" Ryoga said, his voice turning quiet and serious. "Because if you don't, there will be painful consequences?"

Ranma faltered, his grip on Ryoga's shirt weakening.

"You of all people should know what I'm going through, then." Ryoga nodded slowly, looking into Ranma's eyes, acknowledging the glint of understanding turning up in them. "We each have someone we can't reveal our curse to."

Ryoga stepped back as Ranma let go of his shirt. "You're right." Ranma agreed eventually.

"I won't tell if you don't." Ryoga promised. Ranma nodded, shaking Ryoga's extended hand.

"You wanna spar or something?" Ranma asked as they started falling into step, strolling down the street, heading nowhere.

"Spar?" Ryoga stopped, looking at him, puzzled.

Ranma held up his hands, eyes wide and innocent. "No strings attached, no challenge."

"Fine." Ryoga grumbled after staring him down. At least now he could vent his frustrations on someone, and it wasn't as if he had anything better to do...

Ukyo sat in her theory class, chewing on her pencil, staring into space when not taking notes from the blackboard. She would be going out with Ranma tonight, but her thoughts strayed elsewhere, to her restaurant, to the electric bill, to her driving lessons and, curiously enough, to the tanuki incident.

It wasn't as if something really earth-shattering had taken place, but the whole thing had got her seriously thinking. It was odd...when she'd given Ryoga the time of day for about five minutes, she'd scratched beneath the surface. He always seemed to be in some kind of funk, always grumbling over something, which was often annoying when she needed him to be alert when he helped her scheming, and he always seemed so— so pathetic! It was often quite hard to take him seriously, what with all his melodrama, but this once, when she'd— she blushed a little, feeling guilty and rotten— when she'd treated him like a person, suddenly it was very easy to see that he wasn't just whining. He really was that uncertain, that jumpy and bitter. This guy had some serious trust issues, he was lonely, and had little or no ambitions.

That's the expression she'd gotten, anyway, and in turn, he'd clearly seen through her on one quite sore point. He wasn't as dense as he seemed at times; she'd just been too busy shouting things at him to notice. This newfound information churning around in Ukyo's head, she started contemplating Hibiki Ryoga.

Hibiki Ryoga was prone to rage; it was the very essence of his fighting style, and what— as any reasonably intelligent martial artist could see— made him unable to beat Saotome Ranma. Ranma had an easygoing nature, an agile body, a flexible yet controlled fighting style, and foremost— confidence. It was all a mystery, really, how he managed to be as confident as he was, what with all the craziness that went on in his life. By rights he should be a nervous wreck.

Hibiki Ryoga had agility, too, but what he really had in abundance was brute strength, which was useful but didn't make for a good martial artist unless you knew how to harvest it and use it to your advance. Ranma had shown her this shounen manga once, about this monk-in-training who learned about the principle of the yielding bamboo and the tall, hard tree. There was a storm, in which the monk expected the slim bamboo stems to snap at once, and the mighty tree to withhold the windy attacks, but because the tree stood unyielding and faced the storm head-on, it snapped under the pressure, while the bamboo, made of bendy material, swinging and yielding underneath the wind, stood unscathed after the storm.

It was quite easy; Ranma was the bamboo, while Ryoga was the tree. Using his opponents strength to his advance, swinging, dodging, blocking, building up his flexibility, Ranma used the minimum of required strength while Ryoga, attacking in a blinding rage, tired himself out. Not to mention the oxygen he wasted on screaming threats and curses. Like anyone knew, you waited for your opponent to attack first, to be able to read his or hers moves before deciding what to do. Then again, Ryoga had never been one for patience, and Ukyo supposed that wandering for days on end before reaching your opponent would really have to be a premium rage-builder.

Hibiki Ryoga was angry, suspicious, depressive, violent, reclusive and melodramatic, had questionable social skills, held grudges easily and let them stew instead of solving them. On the other hand, he was also shy, sweet, helpful, polite, persistent, protective, brave, a hopeless romantic and had a sense of honour you could bend girders around. A truly curious combination of personal traits.

Milling this over in her mind, Ukyo sighed as she jotted down notes about traffic rules which applied when getting off and onto highways. There was just no two ways about it, she simply couldn't go on treating Ryoga the way she'd been treating him.

Passing the same route she used to get to class, Ukyo was surprised at what she saw.

"Are you guys still here?" She exclaimed, putting her hands on her hips, raising her eyebrows.

Ranma raised his head, grinning sheepishly at her. He and Ryoga were lying in a heap on the ground, panting from exhaustion, the dust around them kicked up, Ryoga's discarded backpack lying a few feet away. Their clothes were dirty and even a little ripped here and there, each sporting a juicy black eye. Ryoga blushed, getting up on his feet, dusting himself off, feeling awfully self-conscious.

Ranma, however, only looked like he found it all extremely hilarious. "Jeez, Ryoga, I think you cracked my rib!" He laughed, grinning like a madman.

"If you think it's that much fun, I could probably crack another one." Ryoga retorted.

"Lighten up, man!" Ranma chuckled, wincing as he clutched his side.

"RANMA!" Ukyo suddenly growled.

The two boys' heads snapped around to see Ukyo standing there, battle aura glowing fiercely. "You were gonna pick me up at Ucchan's in a while...and you planned to go looking like that?!"

Ranma blinked, then examined himself. Dirty clothes, dirty shoes, one sleeve of his shirt ripped and his hair looking like a haystack, not to mention the prettily coloured bruised adorning his face. "Oh." He said lamely.

"Why did you have to pick a fight right now?" Ukyo demanded.

Ranma grinned lop-sidedly. "It wasn't a fight. Right, Ryoga?" He elbowed Ryoga. "It was just sparring." Ranma laughed a little as he took in Ryoga's appearance. The lost boy's thicker hair looked even more frightful than his, he was just as sweat-stained as Ranma, and for some reason one of his shoes were missing.

"Honestly, you boys..." Ukyo sighed, bending down to pick up Ryoga's shoe lying by her feet, handing it to him. Predictably, Ryoga's face blazed with embarrassment as he replaced his shoe on his foot.

"You, mister," She said sternly, pointing to Ranma. "You go home and shower and change your clothes and meet me after that, okay?"

Ranma nodded, unfazed by Ukyo's scolding. He knew she wasn't really angry at him.

"Okay, catch ya later, Ucchan!" He smiled, waving as he ran home, leaping up on a fence a couple of yards down the road and continuing to run.

"And as for you—" Ukyo stopped herself as she turned to Ryoga, realizing that she'd let herself get caught up in the role of mother hen. Ryoga hadn't done anything wrong, and she had no right to yell at him. " do you get clean, anyway? It's not like there's any mountain streams or anything close by." She asked lamely.

Ryoga gave her an unamused look, mixed with embarrassment. "Ever heard of a public bath house?"

Ukyo reddened slightly, feeling like a moron all of a sudden. "Do they usually let you in looking like that?" She shot back.

Not always..."Whatever..." Ryoga grumbled, looking away.

Ukyo considered him for a while, his bruised face, stiff shoulders and tense body language. "You, you could use my bathroom to clean yourself up a little if you want to." She suggested timidly.

"A-are you serious?" Ryoga turned to her sharply, taken by surprise.

"Sure," Ukyo was grinning now, amused by Ryoga; he acted like she'd offered him a million yen or something. "Besides, I owe you one."

"Huh." Ryoga raised his eyebrows, scratching his neck in thought. "This isn't part of one of those stupid fix-Ryoga-up-with-Akane-to-get-Ranma-to-yourself plans, is it?" He narrowed his eyes at her sceptically.

"No," Ukyo said, chuckling. "It's part of one of those stop-Ryoga-from-stinking-like-a-pig kinda plans. Now come on!" She pressed, starting to move in the direction of Ucchan's, tugging impatiently at his shirt sleeve.

Wincing at the word 'pig', Ryoga followed her reluctantly. "Good. Because I'm not interested in those other kinds of plans anymore."

"What?" Ukyo asked incredulously, wondering if she'd heard him right.

"I'm not interested in those break-up schemes anymore." Ryoga said slowly, deliberately.

"Um...when did this happen?" She asked watchfully, sensing the strain in his voice.

"I guess you could say it's been building over time." He said dismissively.

"Oh." Ukyo said flatly.

"So you don't really have any use for me anymore." He added, a touch sourly.

For a long, drawn-out moment, she merely stared at him, shaking her head almost imperceptibly.

"My gods..." Ukyo moaned, pinching the bridge of her nose, as if she was getting a headache. "Why don't you just stop beating yourself up now, okay? Ranma's already done that for you."

Ryoga stared at her, mouth hanging open. He'd more or less expected her to make some lame excuse to leave when he told her that he wouldn't be her scheming partner any longer, and certainly not that she would make an attempt at cheering him up, of all things.

"Don't worry, though," she smirked wickedly, "by the look of things, you gave as good as you got."

"Uh...thanks?" He replied uncertainly after a while.

"That's right, Hibiki." Ukyo nodded approvingly, her smirk widening. "What happened just now is what we call a 'compliment' in layman's terms."

Coming back out of his fog, Ryoga glared at her. "Very funny."

Ukyo shrugged, smiling innocently at him.

They walked on in silence.

"Hey, you hungry?" She asked as they reached her restaurant.

"I dunno...what does an okonomiyaki cost these days?" He replied grumpily, still sulking over how she'd been teasing him.

"About as much as that shower's gonna cost you, sugar." Ukyo said as she locked them both inside.

"Uh...I'm not...I don't really have..." Ryoga mumbled nervously, his heart sinking. He'd thought this would be more Nabiki's style; just about charging people to breathe.

"It's free, Ryoga." Ukyo translated.

"Oh...of course..." He sighed gloomily, feeling stupid.

"The bathroom's upstairs," Ukyo went on, putting her book bag on a stool. When Ryoga hesitated, she smiled briefly. "Don't worry, I'll show you the way."

"I-I'm sorry..." Ryoga looked sheepish.

"No worries, I like playing the hostess." Ukyo informed him playfully as she led him upstairs and into the bathroom. "Okay..." Ukyo examined her bathroom. "The towels are in here..." She handed him a fluffy, white towel from a small closet beside the sink. "Do you have your own soap and shampoo?"

Ryoga nodded wordlessly as he stood there awkwardly in Ukyo's squeaky clean bathroom, clutching the towel like a life line. There was a pregnant pause as Ukyo looked at him expectantly, not really aware of what she expected him to say in the first place. For a moment her head spun a little with the unusual situation; she'd never really lent anyone her bathtub before, and inviting Ryoga into her private home like this felt...strange. Not many people had been up here, as her friends would usually hang out in the restaurant while she worked...well, by "friends" she meant Ranma, obviously, and maybe he'd bring Akane— he brought Akane quite often, to be honest.

Sure, she liked playing hostess, but it dawned on her as she regarded at the lost boy, looking more lost than ever, that she was always in the role of okonomiyaki chef while doing so. When was the last time she had a friend come over to visit her after work? And when, in fact, was the last time Ryoga visited a friend? Dropping off souvenirs for Akane at the Tendo dojo and stuttering incoherently for five minutes before running off in panic didn't count.

"Oh-kaay..." Ukyo drew a breath, clasping her hands together. "Just give me a shout or something when you're done, all right? I'll fix us something to eat."

"A-all right..." Ryoga said thankfully, all but holding his breath until Ukyo had left the room. Finding himself in Ukyo's bathroom hadn't exactly been his plans for today, although turning up in unexpected places was admittedly on the lost boy's schedule pretty much every day.

He felt so uncomfortable in this room, so out of place. When you were in a forest, everything was green and brown, and you didn't notice the dirt on your clothes as much. Besides, ever since the little incident at Jusenkyo nearly two years ago, Ryoga had felt slightly phobic about bathrooms. Here under the harsh glare of the white tiles, bathed in the yellow glow of electric light, Ryoga felt more self-conscious than he had in a very long while, even if he was alone.

The slightly sickly sweet, but above all clean scent of chlorine and various soaps and shampoos contrasted sharply with the rancid smell of his own sweat. He caught his reflection in the mirror, wincing when he realized this was how he'd looked, walking down the street with Ukyo. He'd thought he'd seen some people looking at them funnily, but he'd brushed it off as nothing. Jeez— no wonder Ukyo had pitied him enough to let him use her bathroom.

Feeling somewhat queasy in the confined room, he quickly turned the shower on to have something to focus on, letting it run for awhile to be sure that it would be hot enough not to trigger his curse, then started peeling off his damp, dirty clothes and even his bandanna before finding his bath things in his backpack. Feeling shy about being naked in a girl's house, he hurried into the bathtub, drawing the curtain as soon as he got in. After having scrubbed himself thoroughly and washed his hair a couple of times, he simply rinsed himself off, feeling that he had no right to take advantage of her hospitality by filling up an entire bathtub with hot water. Sure, her business was going well as far as he knew, but she was young and probably had enough of bills to worry about without having him add to her water expenses.

Ryoga sighed as he pulled on some more or less clean clothes from his backpack— anything was better than the ones he'd been wearing, either way. He felt like a heel, and wondered why in the world he ever agreed to come here in the first place. Why would Ukyo suddenly want to let him borrow her bathroom and give him free food? He'd helped her move the tanuki, that was true, but he was the one who'd brought the stupid thing to Nerima in the first place, and he didn't really deserve— did he?

There was a knock at the door. "Ryoga?"

"Uh, y-yeah?" He froze, uncertain.

On the other side of the door, Ukyo cleared her throat. "Um, if you're ready, you can come eat now."

"S-sure!" Ryoga was suddenly snapped back into motion, hastily putting on a fresh bandanna, donning his backpack and hurrying outside, almost in one fluid movement.

He was met by Ukyo looking at him strangely. At the resulting look of incomprehension he sent him, she started giggling behind her hand.

"What?" Ryoga asked, feeling his ears heat up under her scrutiny.

"That a new look or something?" She laughed.

Frowning, he turned to look in the bathroom mirror, and found that it was no wonder she was laughing. The hair on the sides of his head reminded him of some poor, road-squashed, small, furry animal— which he'd seen plenty of while wandering alongside highways— while his bangs stood straight up, drooping at the very tips, looking like something that a surfer would be delighted to ride his board through.

"Ergh!" He grimaced, pulling his bandanna out, tearing at his hair ineffectively.

Ukyo breezed past him. "Here," she said, handing him a hair brush from another small closet hanging by the mirror. "Use this."

Ryoga stared at her. "But...isn't this yours?"

"What, you have fleas or something?" She asked impatiently.

"Of course not!" He seemed offended.

"Well, then..." Ukyo shrugged carelessly.

Giving his hair a few swipes, feeling jumpy as Ukyo watched him, he was quick to return the brush.

Ryoga was surprised to find that what she'd prepared for them to eat wasn't okonomiyaki, but sukiyaki.

Looking at her questioningly, she seemed to understand his puzzlement. "I hope it's okay. It's leftover sukiyaki from yesterday." She smiled. "I am able make other things than okonomiyaki, you know."

Glancing down at his food, Ryoga noted to himself that he wouldn't have guessed it to be leftovers.

"Besides," Ukyo grinned guiltily, "I'm going out tonight, and I don't want to be reeking of fried food."

"Ranma told me you were going to the movies." Ryoga interjected.

"Yeah," Ukyo beamed as she brought him some chopsticks. "I haven't been in ages, because Ucchan's keeps me so busy." And because I have no one to take me there, she added to herself.

"Um..." Ryoga hesitated; he knew it probably wasn't his place to tell her, but on the other hand, didn't she deserve the truth? "Ranma...Ranma asked if I wanted to come along," He managed to press out eventually.

It was a horrible thing to see Ukyo's sunny smile drop away at his words, and Ryoga instantly regretted telling her, but after a few seconds, Ukyo composed herself, the delicate lines on her face settling into a determined, cynical expression.

"I'm not surprised." She said quietly, the tone of her voice and the flickering expression in her eyes making Ryoga desperate to find something to say to her, something to comfort her with, anything, yet he had no idea what to tell her. "Last time he even asked Mousse."

Ryoga gaped a little before shutting his mouth. The nerve of that Saotome! "So I guess I shouldn't feel too special, huh?" He commented sarcastically, taking a healthy chomp out of his dinner.

Ukyo chuckled dryly. "I don't mind that he asked you, Ryoga. At least you're kind of his friend, and mine, too. We all got each other's backs when it really counts. But Mousse— what an obvious lame excuse! I have nothing against him, but he doesn't even really know the guy, and neither do I." She sighed, picking at her food. "I just wish he'd tell me up front, you know? That he'd stop giving me the wrong impression?"

For some reason, Ryoga suddenly felt the urge to defend Ranma; or perhaps more the urge to stop Ukyo from feeling like she was being played around by some jerk. "He feels kinda rotten about it all." He told her, putting down his chopsticks.

Ukyo lifted her head, blinking at him. "Really? He told you this?"

He nodded affirmation. "He just doesn't know how to..." Ryoga said solemnly, searching for the right words. "How to let you down easy?"

Ukyo swallowed, fighting down a myriad of conflicting emotions as she finally got her answer. Ryoga would have absolutely no reason to lie to her about this; telling her this would not gain him in any way. "He really...he really just wants to be friends?"

Ryoga thought for a short moment, "I think he's kind of frustrated about it all, and I don't think he wants to hurt you. He said he was tired of the whole fiancée mess."

"Mess..." Ukyo mumbled absently.

"Listen, I'm not a shrink," Ryoga told her evasively; he wasn't used to talking to people this intimately, especially not girls. "He just wants his best friend back, okay?"

"It''s all right, Ryoga." Ukyo waved dismissively to calm him down. She turned her back to him, starting to rummage through the fridge. "You want anything to drink?"

"Ukyo..." He said wretchedly, "you're putting me in a difficult position here. I don't really have a way to repay your hospitality."

"You have your manners, at least," Ukyo smiled at him, but he could tell her heart wasn't in it. "Coke, Sprite, orange juice, iced tea...?"

"Water will be fine," Ryoga mumbled dejectedly, picking up his chopsticks again and resuming his dinner.

Ukyo raised her eyebrows. "Whatever you say, Hibiki..." She said in a sing-song voice.

"Aren't you going to eat your dinner?" He asked carefully as she handed him a glass of water, to which she'd added ice cubes, a straw and a slice of lemon, probably just to make a statement about his boring choice of drink. He ignored it, removing the straw and taking a sip of water.

"Somehow...I think it'll keep until tomorrow..." Ukyo pressed her eyes tightly shut, rubbing her temple. "Leftovers from leftovers, huh? That's kinda funny..."

"Ukyo?" Ryoga asked, suddenly feeling genuinely concerned.

"Look, Ryoga..." Ukyo sighed. "If you really feel like you're in some kinda debt with me, then there is something you could do for me..."

"What is it?" He asked reluctantly; she had a funny look on her face.

"Come to the movies with us tonight."


"I'll pay if you don't have any money for the ticket," she pleaded, holding her hands up, ending his protest. "Please? It'd be a big favour."

"Shouldn't you...shouldn't you straighten this out by yourself?" He looked at her gravely.

"I..." She faltered. "I just don't know what to do, what to say..."

"It's not gonna do any good if I'm there."

Ukyo bit her lip, looking to one side. "Ryoga—"

There was a knock at the door, both looking around to see Ranma waving to them in the window.

Shooting Ryoga a look bearing a silent plea, Ukyo moved towards the door. Sighing as he deflated in defeat, Ryoga nodded once to her, agreeing to come with them.

A flash of a smile crossed her face before she turned to open the door for Ranma.

"Heya, Ucchan!" Ranma said cheerfully. "And Ryoga! You still around, huh?" He grinned a friendly grin in Ryoga's direction. "Does that mean you'll—?"

"Yeah, I'm coming with you." Ryoga mumbled before Ukyo could say anything.

"Hey, great!" Ranma was beaming from ear to her, missing Ukyo's suddenly glum look. "This'll be fun!"

"" Snorted Ryoga.

"I'll just..." Ukyo said, fiddling with her hair, not meeting Ranma's eyes. "I'll just go and change. Be back in a few."

"Okay." Ranma smiled, turning to Ryoga when Ukyo had gone upstairs. "I'm glad you changed your mind, Ryoga."

"Yeah, I bet you are." Ryoga growled.

Ranma narrowed his eyes at Ryoga's foul mood, then simply shrugged it off. "Anyway...looks like Ukyo doesn't mind that you're coming with us."

Ryoga said nothing, and Ranma misinterpreted the silence as agreement. "You know, I think your stamina's getting pretty good. You're pretty persistent, always have been," Ranma slugged his rival lightly on the shoulder. "Maybe I should start taking more training trips, huh? Getting all lazy hanging around Nerima."

"I thought you just came back from one." Ryoga pointed out.

Ranma shrugged. "Feh. Pop ain't much to train with anymore. Sure, he's strong, and I know he's still got some things he hasn't taught me, but he's getting slower. I could use some more training with you, though; you're getting to be almost as fast as me. You really gave me a run for my money this time, P-chan." Ranma smirked.

Ryoga's eyes had widened a little in the face of all this praise, but regained their glare at the utterance of the hated nickname. "If you really do respect me as a martial artist, you could stop calling me that."

Ranma pointedly ignored that wish; he liked teasing Ryoga too much to oblige. "I didn't beat you today, Ryoga." He mused, looking up into the ceiling. "Then again, neither did you. No one won, it was a tie."

Ryoga's face was sour. "This wasn't a real fight, Ranma. This was just playing around. When the chips are down, Saotome Ranma always wins," He said darkly, bitterly, "no matter how much it annoys people." He added, through gritted teeth.

"Ryoga...?" Ranma tilted his head inquisitively, his brow knitting.

"I..." Ryoga scoffed. "Whatever."

Ranma pursed his lips sceptically, but went on. Ryoga was always having some kind of mood swing, anyway. "Hey, what'd Ukyo mean today, by the way? About you helping her?"

Raising his eyebrows, Ryoga eyed him warily. Usually Ranma just kept on nagging him; it wasn't like him to change the subject like that, at least not when it wasn't him on the line. "Some idiot had dropped my tanuki statue in front of her street door. I simply helped her move it." He told him grudgingly.

A grin slowly started building on Ranma's face. " that's where it wound up, huh?"

"I shoulda known that you—" Ryoga growled.

Ranma laughed loudly, apparently pleased with himself. "No, P-chan— the so-called 'idiot' you're looking for is Akane!"

Ryoga looked stunned, his jaw slack. "Whaaa...?"

Now Ranma was outright guffawing.

"Happosai was bothering her, so she just picked the first and best thing she could find and threw it, as usual!" Ranma rolled his eyes.

Ryoga looked crestfallen. She just threw it away?

"When will that uncute tomboy ever—"

"I'm ready!"

Ranma seemed oblivious, but Ryoga caught the somewhat strained tone in Ukyo's voice, belying the cheerfulness she had forced there. It's amazing what you don't see or hear when you don't want to, isn't it? Ryoga thought to himself as he cast a sidelong glance at Ranma.

Some part of him had half-expected her to come swishing down the stairs in a dress, and now Ryoga wondered why. After all, it wasn't a real date, she knew that, and especially not now when he was tagging along. And besides, this was Ukyo— not exactly known for prancing around in pink, ribbon-infested dresses. Even so, the outfit she'd chosen gave her an air of "I've-lost-the-battle-but-not-the-war".

Ukyo shivered inwardly, bracing herself for the awkward evening she was about to throw herself into. She'd aspired to look dignified, feminine, in control of herself. Her hair had been put up in a long, dark ponytail, small tresses of hair released to curl at her temples, she had reapplied her softly coloured lipstick, and the red sweater and faded blue jeans that she were wearing clung gently to her figure, accenting her femininity. The neck hole of the sweater was large enough to bare her long, elegant neck, a little of her shoulders and her collar bones, but no cleavage. It looked casual enough, yet to the trained eye it was apparent that she'd put a little effort into it.

She'd contemplated wearing a dress, but decided that she couldn't have dealt with the questioning looks. Besides, if Ranma didn't want a date, he wouldn't find her pretending that it was one, either.

Ukyo drew a breath. "Well, let's go, guys!"

Ranma looked excited. "Yeah, come on, or we're gonna be late!"

Ryoga groaned to himself, wearing a pained look as he wondered how he got himself into these kinds of situations. Ranma's idea of "fun" was often Ryoga's equivalent of having root canal for three hours straight. Sometimes it seemed that boy could have fun no matter where he happened to find himself. Ryoga heaved a long-suffering sigh.

The grateful smile that Ukyo gave him as they left her restaurant somehow made it all seem less bad, though.

As they walked home from the movie theatre— well, home in her case; he wasn't sure where he was going, simply letting himself get swept along with the current— Ryoga noticed that Ukyo was smiling a strange little smile, chuckling quietly to herself. Turning inquisitive eyes on her, he nevertheless averted his gaze when she looked up.

She sighed as they walked on. "I was being very silly in there." She confessed off-handedly.

"What?" He turned to her again.

"After a while I realized that I was sitting there, brooding to myself, trying to point out everything wrong with Ranma, every insignificant little thing that bothered me the slightest bit, like how he made comments about the movie or how he slurped his soda—" Her breath was a little shaky as she laughed. "It's a terribly petty way of trying to make yourself feel better."

Ryoga kept his gaze glued to the pavement for a while before clearing his throat. "He...he was kind of annoying," He told her. "I mean, the way the kept slurping his soda even long after it was empty?"

She laughed a tired, yet mirthful laugh. "You don't have to cheer me up, Ryoga."

Grinning shyly, he went on. "It's true though, isn't it?"

She nodded, biting her lip in thought. "Yeah," she agreed. "It doesn't make me any less pathetic, though."

"I think the whole audience would agree," he went on, almost babbling, trying to keep her from putting herself down. "The way he kept—"

Ukyo turned a wry smile to him. "They would probably agree that you were snoring like a buzz saw, too."

Ryoga froze. He knew he'd nodded off a couple of times, but surely he hadn't— "I-I'm s-sorry, I didn't mean to be r-rude..." He stuttered.

She gave a short giggle. "Relax, you weren't snoring! But I'm surprised you even noticed what Ranma was doing, seeing how busy you were visiting Slumberland and all."

Ryoga kept his head down, relieved at first but feeling increasingly humiliated. Luckily he hadn't been snoring, but now she was laughing at him...

"Hibiki, you jackass..." Ukyo said softly. "The movie wasn't that boring."

"I kn-know, I'm sorry..." He repeated, ashamed.

"Jeez! Where's your spine, sugar?" Ukyo lamented, rubbing her forehead. "That's not what I meant."

"Hmm?" He turned to her, curious but wary.

"I mean..." Ukyo continued in the same soft tones as before, inwardly scolding herself for the outburst. It was just that at times, he could be so infuriating! One minute he was yelling in rage, and the other he would just about apologize for being born! "What's been keeping you awake at night?"

Staring at her, Ryoga took a cautious step back. "What are you...why are you asking?"

"Because you look kinda tired, like you haven't been sleeping well." Ukyo explained flatly. "It's okay, Ryoga," She added sympathetically, "you can tell me."

Ryoga sent her an odd look. "Listen, Ukyo, I don't have a big secret or anything, it's just that I...I really don't know why you want to know."

"Oh." Ukyo blinked once, twice, for some reason feeling kind of cheated of something. This should have been like one of the moments in those sappy movies where the troubled friend opens up to the heroine, and she tells him something really substantial about life and— she shook her head. What am I thinking? "Okay, I guess you would, um...look, Ryoga, I just...noticed that you looked kind of exhausted, that's all. You should take better care of yourself."

"Well, trudging through forests and cities all day and all night kinda doesn't leave much room for that, you know." He grumbled.

Against her better judgement, Ukyo was almost starting to be fascinated; first anger, then the depressive "I-don't-deserve-to-be-born-I'm-sorry" and then this! This...this sulking, self-pitying attitude, this "everyone-annoys-me" attitude— what would be next?

"Listen, you! I don't know what they teach you out in the woods, but where I come from, we have a little thing called empathy, you know? Caring? Compassion?" She almost barked.

"Actually, that's three things—" Ryoga interjected, but got cut off by Ukyo grabbing his hand and placing his palm on her chest, over the faint thump of her heart. He opened his mouth to protest, but was cut off again by her flat palm slapping against his chest, resting there.

"Do you feel that?" She demanded, indicating the heartbeats underneath his hand. "Human!" She pointed to herself, then him. "Human!" Then she pressed her palm harder against his heartbeats. "Empathy!"

Ryoga only stood there, completely still, mouth hanging slightly stupidly open, resembling the tanuki that started this whole weird turn of events, whatever this was. Against his better judgement, Ryoga was almost fascinated by Ukyo. First there was the friendly joking, then the wistful, depressive, self-destructive lamenting, then the soft, caring words, and then her anger flaring up at strange things and she was acting all crazy— what would be next?

"Get it?" She demanded again, only more gently this time.

He nodded, and she watched with something akin to awe as the blush rose on his face like the sun rising over a mountain range. There his wacked-out mood swings went again, this time from Mr. Self Pity to this shy, blushing guy, completely inept when it came to dealing with the other gender. And, she realized, right now he could probably feel, very directly, that she wasn't of the male persuasion. Ukyo sensed Ryoga's hand trembling, felt his frantic heartbeat under her own palm, and caught the look of fear in his eyes, the look of incomprehension and embarrassment. He was expecting violence, even though they both knew that this was all her doing. Was she really that bad?

But there was nothing to be ashamed of, really. It wasn't as if he was fondling her breasts or anything. In fact, he was barely touching them, his hand lying over her heart, the heel of his hand resting on the beginning of the swell of her left breast, his fingers on her collar bone.

Carefully, she removed his hand from her, and released him.

"I'm sorry." Ukyo said, frowning. "I shouldn't have done that, Ryoga."

"S-sorry for what?" Ryoga swallowed.

She looked up sharply. "Wh-what are you...?"

"You didn't do anything." Ryoga insisted. "I shouldn't have been so rude."

"I...I don't just mean now, I mean in the past...when I used you to get what I wanted." She sighed. "You said so yourself. Ukyo's infamous 'Get Ranma' schemes."

"It's okay," He shook his head. "I went along with them, it was my own decision."

"But I always bossed you around, always..." Ukyo choked on a sob. "Always hit you, and...and now you don't trust me!"

"Ukyo..." Ryoga fidgeted, looking around for help, any help. He wasn't good at these sorts of things. "I can take being hit, I'm not made of porcelain, you know."

"Only a heart of glass, right?" Ukyo smiled as she sniffled a little.

"Wh-what?" He looked absolutely mortified. How did she...?

Ukyo almost regretted her words. Maybe he didn't want anyone to know. "I heard you talking to yourself sometimes," She told him. "When you're upset, sometimes inner monologues refuse to stay inside, you know?" She smiled feebly.

Ryoga made a sound much like a strangled, plaintive whimper. Someone had heard what he'd been muttering to himself, and boy, had he said some stupid, theatrical, wannabe-Victorian poet stuff in his day—

"It happens to me sometimes, too." Ukyo confessed.

"R-really...?" Ryoga's voice trembled a little. Maybe she didn't think he was being stupid after all...

"Although I usually try to wait until I get to the privacy of my own home." She smirked wearily.

"Oh." Ryoga licked his dry lips. "I don't...I don't really have a home. Or, um, I do have a home, but I usually can't, uh..."

"Get there?" Ukyo finished for him, nodding empathically.

"Yes," He said on an outtake of breath, like the air got knocked out of him.

Ukyo studied him; suddenly Ryoga seemed so young to her, so exhausted, and they were young, weren't they? Sure, they were eighteen— well, she was, anyway, since her birthday was in January; she didn't know when his was— hence almost "adult" and were able to take care of themselves, but...but he looked so forlorn. When he wasn't racing around in some kind of berserker fighting rage, his eyes gleaming, ki blazing and fists clenched, he was like a picture of downtrodden misery. She couldn't feel pity, though— he was strong in his own way; how else could he have survived all those years alone in the wilderness or wherever he ended up? The boy had heaps and heaps of will power, that was for sure. That, or just abundant amounts of sheer stubbornness. What she did feel, however, was concern.

"Listen," Ukyo blurted, toying with the hem of her sweater sleeve. "I can take you there. Home, I mean."

Ryoga's eyes suddenly glinted with something like excitement before it got snuffed out as quickly as it had arrived. "No, I couldn't ask you's getting late and, um..."

"You're not asking," She said firmly, "I'm offering. You have the address, right?"

Drawing a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh, Ryoga nodded. "Yes, I do have the address, at least."

Ukyo smiled. "All right, let's go."

It was a fairly large house by Nerima's standards, and it looked nice from outside, but from what Ukyo could see of the hall as Ryoga let himself into the house, it was quite dusty. Tidy, yes, but dusty, like nobody had taken a vacuum cleaner to it in at least four months.

Slipping off his backpack, Ryoga turned to her as he rubbed his shoulders were the straps of the heavy pack had been chafing his skin and muscles.

"Well, um...thanks for getting me home." He said awkwardly, grinning sheepishly.

"No problem," Ukyo said, sending him one of her trademark cute and friendly Ucchan smiles.

"Uh...I'd invite you in, but..." He twiddled his thumbs.

"It's getting kind of late, yeah." She agreed.

"So, um..." He began uncertainly. "About Ranma..."

She drew a shuddering breath. "I...I know it's kind of pitiful, but I don't think I'm...I don't think I'm ready to give him up yet."

Ryoga frowned a little. "Are you...are you gonna be okay?"

Ukyo shrugged, sighing. "Hope springs eternal, I guess. I think I'm gonna keep trying, Ryoga." She looked him directly in the eyes, making him shift uncomfortably. Ryoga wasn't used to intense eye contact, especially not with girls. "How about you?"

Ryoga swallowed. "I...I don't know. I don't know if I can...sometimes it's so hard, and I...and Akane, she doesn't— I mean, she's always so...sometimes I just wanna forget it all..."

He started when Ukyo put a hand on his shoulder. "I know." Ukyo murmured. "Sometimes I just wanna forget I ever knew the jerk, but the way he makes me feel sometimes...that makes it hard to just ignore it all."

Ryoga gulped. "Y-yeah. Sometimes I think it's all gonna be over, but then something happens, and..."

"And you realize you're still caught up in it." Ukyo whispered, staring at her feet. "Good night, Ryoga," she said then, looking up at him, squeezing his shoulder lightly before letting him go.

"Good night, Ukyo," Ryoga replied, actually smiling a little. "You kn-know, I haven't had anyone to say good night to since...well, I don't know when, exactly."

For an instant, Ukyo's eyes lit up, and she chuckled; a soft, rich sound. "You're welcome. Sweet dreams, sugar!" She told him before she left.

"I hope so," Ryoga whispered tremulously to himself as she disappeared down the street. The nightmares of nights past would, with any luck, stay away just this once.

Author's note:

Correction of logical flaws

1. In the first version, Ukyo couldn't pick up the tanuki statue by herself. Correction: Ukyo is strong enough to pick up the tanuki, so now she does it herself. She still needs to get rid of it, though.

2. Akane threw the tanuki at Ranma. But how could Akane throw the tanuki at Ranma when he was at a training trip? So now I had her chuck it at Happosai instead. I'm assuming Ranma noticed it was gone and asked about it since it's a pretty big and noticeable thing.

3. According to the Japanese school year, the first semester begins in April. This is supposed to be late January/early February, so it has to be at the very end of their second year at Furinkan, not at the second month of their second semester of their last year at Furinkan. I messed up a bit since I was probably counting by the Norwegian school year, which begins in August and ends in June. So, correction…they're not both eighteen. Ukyo is only eighteen because I made her have her birthday in January, but Ryoga isn't eighteen yet. They— Ranma, Akane and Ukyo, anyway— have their graduation ceremony in March.

Omiyage: Souvenirs, usually food items.

Tanuki: Raccoon dog, a species native to Japan. It appears frequently in Japanese folklore and popular culture and statues of this creature are commonly found outside bars and restaurants in Japan. They can also be bought as souvenirs for good luck, though people would normally buy smaller versions than the huge, bar/restaurant-statue-sized one that Ryoga was dragging around. I've wanted one ever since I first read that issue of Ranma where Ryoga and Ukyo first met and so I just had to buy one when I went to Kyoto.

Miso soup: Soup made from fermented beans. The usual stuff to put in it is sea weed and fried tofu…maybe some leeks. "Sounds Disgusting, Tastes Great" should be its slogan. Mmm, miso soup…

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.

Yep, that's the same explanation of onigiri that I used in The Exit.

Sukiyaki: Sukiyaki consists of meat, vegetables and other ingredients, slowly cooked or simmered in a shallow iron pot in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin (Kantou style). In Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto region), the meat is first grilled in the pan greased with tallow and then flavoured with soy sauce, sugar etc. and the rest of the ingredients added. Before being eaten, the ingredients are usually dipped in a small bowl of raw, beaten eggs. A common joke in Japanese comedy is that making passable sukiyaki can be done with a very tight budget, especially if one is poor. (Source: Wikipedia)