Characters are the brainchild(ren) of Takahashi Rumiko. No disrespect is intended in their use.

Gender's a little tricky in this story. I'll be using pronouns based on how the characters see themselves - ie, onna-Ranma is still 'he'.

"Lone and alone she lies,
Poor Miss 7,
Five steep flights from the earth,
And one from heaven;
Dark hair and dark brown eyes-
Not to be sad she tries,
Still - still it's lonely lies Poor Miss 7"
- "Poor 'Miss 7'" by Walter De La Mare

Morning. A time for rituals. For one person, it may be the simplest of things: brushing the teeth, perhaps a quick jog, maybe reading the newspaper, or even eating breakfast. For others, there are more complicated or esoteric rituals: morning prayer, martial arts workouts, meditation. Rituals tend to be tailored to the individual.

There are ways and ways of looking at things. One way of looking at a ritual was to see it as a habit that has taken on special meaning. In a small flat, a girl of about thirteen years was performing a habit of very special meaning. It was a relatively new ritual for the young girl, but a fairly necessary one.

Kuonji Ukyou was binding her breasts.

It hurt like hell to do it. It made every breath an effort. It terrified her to think how much worse it would be, as she grew. But it did its job. It hid a side of her that she no longer wanted anything to do with, that she hadn't wanted anything to do with for seven years. She'd assumed the duties, responsibilities and honour of a man. Up until recently, all she'd needed to affect her male persona was the right attitude - she'd always been a bit androgynous in looks.

But recently, nature had been showing Her disapproval at Ukyou's choice to live as a man. Nature had, being the interfering Mother that She is, decided that it was time Ukyou become a woman, even if the girl so wanted to give up that side of her. Nature was not to be denied. Merely cursed.

Do you know what it's like to be thirteen years old, and to wake up one morning to find yourself bleeding from... there... for seemingly no good reason? What it's like, when you go to your only parent, your father, to try and seek comfort and explanation, only to have him angrily deny your 'injury' because it implies that you aren't a man? Do you know what it's like to find out what's going on to yourself only by shamefacedly sneaking into an embarrassing part of the library, and reading about it in an all too frank book?

Ukyou knew, and wished she didn't. As far as she was concerned, she could really do without having to bind her chest, she could really do without all the other inconveniences of being a girl. But, despite wishes to the contrary, even if one could choose which gender to pretend to be, one couldn't choose which gender one was. That just wasn't possible...

With one last tuck, the tight binding was in place. Ukyou stood for a few moments, taking in shallow breaths, adjusting her lungs to the reduced air intake. Then, she picked her shirt off its hanger, putting it on quickly, economically. Once that was on, it was the turn of the bandolier that acted both as a house to her throwing spatulas, and as a holster for her primary weapon, a very large combat spatula. Needless to say, unpredictability was an important part of her combat style. One quick ribbon-tied ponytail later, and she was finished dressing.

A lightning fast breakfast later, she was out of her tiny apartment, the property of an uncle who, thanks to extensive business trips, used it infrequently. From the apartment, it didn't take all that long to reach her new school. She stood outside its gates for a few minutes, just staring. Other students walked past her, not sparing her a second glance, as they all entered the grounds. Every student was a boy, there wasn't a girl in sight; Ukyou's new school was boys-only.

Her... his father had tried to convince him to go to a boys-only school closer to home. But home had become a wooden construct, a house, and not the warm and loving abode he vaguely remembered from his childhood. Home was not a place he wished to be. Besides, he was trying to forever hone his martial arts skills, for the day when vengeance could finally be his, and this particular school had a certain reputation for producing martially skilled students.

So here he was instead. Still a boys school; to tell the truth he thought that a good thing. Ukyou had been uncomfortable around girls of his age recently. They were going through the same... changes that he was, and they were starting to notice boys. Fortune(good or bad depended on perspective) had decided that the girls were convinced that Ukyou was a very handsome boy. He was not so far gone into his adopted gender that he was enamoured with such scrutiny. A boys school meant that he could get away from the girls for a while. He was ready for it; he'd worked out all sorts of ways to privately change clothes for things like PE. And he already had a doctors note detailing a most painful sounding medical problem, in preparation for swim class...

Ukyou shook his head to clear himself of the strange sense of foreboding that he was experiencing. With a determined expression, he walked into his new school. No, he reasoned to himself, his foreboding must just have come from anxiousness about going to a new school. What could possibly go wrong?

Five minutes later, an exasperated boy, his hair tied in a short ponytail, literally dragged another boy into the schoolyard. The second boy had a sullen expression on his face, which was framed with a shaggy mop of hair.

"Dammit." the second boy snarled. "Let go of me! It's humiliating! I don't need your help!"

"Yeah, sure." the first boy snorted. "You couldn't find your way out of a room with an open door. You should be thanking me, Ryouga."

Ryouga snorted. "Thank you? Keep dreaming Ranma..."

"There's a new addition to our class."

Ukyou kept his gaze forward as his home room teacher, a grim-looking man with a strong build and greying hair, introduced him to the students in his home room.

"Kuonji Ukyou." The teacher, Kumagai, continued in his gruff, abrupt speech.

Ukyou bowed.

"From Kyoto."

Ukyou looked around. The boys were staring at him, their expressions ranging from boredom, through neutrality, to slight interest, which seemed to be mainly directed towards his unusual weaponry. There was always that slightest of fear, when he met new people, that they would see through his disguise. From the looks of it, he realised with an inner sigh, these bright boys would be lucky if they discovered fire in a volcano, let alone his secret.

"Give him a day or so to settle, or I'll have your heads." Kumagai-sensei finished, scowling.

Ukyou raised his eyebrows slightly at his teacher's last sentence. It wasn't hard to see how this school had built its tough reputation if this guy was, as the Principal had put it when he'd welcomed Ukyou, 'an easygoing man'.

A chaotic, anarchic, roiling mass of humanity crashed like angry waves against the counter of the school cafeteria. Seemingly random arms, and, in some cases, legs, rose from the group of boys, who were each trying their best to get food before the cafeteria ran out of meals. Screams rose from the packed crowd; it was hard to tell whether the screams were of pain, or of comraderic, joking delight.

This place was a madhouse.

And does that make me mad, for coming here? Ukyou wondered as he stared at the shuffling horde of boys who were, through liberal use of elbows and knees to non-fatal areas(stomach, heads, and groins), showing their displeasure to each other at the cramped cafeteria food line.

"Last chance for soup bread!" The cafeteria worker cocked his arm, before he cast the plastic packaged prize, a sandwich, into the air, aiming for the middle of the hungry pack before him.

Ukyou turned. This was pointless, he'd heard of clan wars that were less bloody than the lineup to get food around here. He could cook his own food, he decided as he started to walk to the exit. There was an okonomiyaki recipe he had been trying to perfect, he needed to practice on that. It would serve well for lunch; far better, no doubt, than food created enmasse by uncaring cafeteria cooks. There was nothing here he wanted.

"Ranma! How dare you steal my bread yet again!" a voice bellowed from somewhere within the rowdy jumble of humanity behind Ukyou.

Ukyou froze. Mid-step. Which is far harder to do than some may think. He stayed there for a second or two, one foot raised slightly onto the balls, the other unsupported, half-way through coming down for the next step. His eyes were wide, deer-caught-in-the-headlights wide, and his lips were whitening from the way he was gnashing them together. Then, his eyes narrowed. He completed his step, settling both feet flat to the floor.

The chef turned around smoothly, before he squinted for a few seconds at the centre of the commotion. He slowly, calmly tapped the shoulder of a nearby boy. The student turned, annoyed at the interruption to his view of the brewing fight.

"Excuse me, what would the name be of that ponytailed boy?" Ukyou asked politely, calmly.

"Him? Ranma." The boy was abrupt, he wanted to turn his attention back to the commotion.

"And his family name?" The faintest quaver marred an otherwise dead-calm voice.

The boy sighed. "Saotome, okay? If you want to play 20 questions, why don't you do it with him?"

"Thank you." The slightest schink of metal rasping against a leather clasp, as a giant spatula was drawn from its back-holster. "I will."

"Whadya mean, your bread?" Ranma asked, rolling his eyes. He gulped down the last of the sandwich before tossing the plastic wrap into a faraway bin. "It was in the air, it was fair game, it certainly wasn't 'your' bread."

"It was so my bread!" Ryouga raged, shaking his fist at the other boy. "I haven't eaten in two days, Saotome! Only a thief like you would snatch my meal like that, practically from my very mouth!"

"Oh come on, we go through this every time." Ranma smirked, before adding "That is, every time you actually find the lunch room."


Ranma blinked. That was Ryouga's typical response to a taunt like that, true, but how did he shout that without opening his mouth? And why was Ryouga looking past him?

Ranma turned in time to see another boy bearing down on him. The charging boy looked furious, his mouth was stretched back in a rictus snarl, and he held a huge weapon aloft, ready to strike. Ranma's eyes widened. Even for this school, sudden attacks by strangers were a little uncommon.

When the boy brought the weapon around in a slicing manoeuvre, Ranma abandoned wondering about the madman's reasons, and jumped back, just missing out on what could have quite possibly been disembowelment.

"Hey!" Ranma shouted, avoiding another swing from the stranger. The kid must be new, he thought, but why's that mean he attacks me? Is he trying to prove he's a bigshot or something? "What the hell do ya think you're doing?"

"You... you..." Ukyou gave up, and let his spatula give the general gist of what he was trying to say. The surrounding crowd edged back after some of the cook's wilder swings.

"Look, I'm not in the mood for this." Ranma warned. Why was it that almost no-one who attacked him explained why? He looked at Ukyou's face, searching for familiar features. Damn, he thought, I do know him. But from where...?

"Uh..." Ryouga said weakly, forgotten in the commotion. "It's only bread, guys. You don't have to overreact..."

"Shut up!" Ranma and Ukyou shouted in unison, before Ukyou scowled at Ranma and tried another spatula swipe.

Ryouga growled. This was too much; first Ranma and his constant thieving and insults, now some psycho guy with a stupid weapon thought he could get in the way of an honourable fight between him and Saotome.

"Don't." He clenched his fists. "Tell." Ranma and Ukyou ignored him, absorbed in their dance. "Me." The surrounding crowd backed away when they saw that Ryouga was so angry that he was trembling. "To." Ranma dodged another swing, before he smirked slightly. He'd worked out his opponents timing, it was time to stop dodging. "Shut." Ranma tensed almost imperceptibly, as he prepared to launch a counter-attack. "Up!" Ryouga finished biting off his words. He leapt at the other two fighters, snarling rabidly.

Did the gods smile on him, Ukyou wondered, to allow him to find Ranma after all this time, by such a thing as chance? Or, he thought, wiping the blood from his lip, were their smiles concealing mocking laughter?

He had dreamed of this moment. To find the Saotomes, to beat them into the ground, to make them feel pain like sh... he felt, to have them apologise, to have them beg for forgiveness, to see them sorry for abandoning her... him.

Another dream turned to dust.

Everything was falling apart. In his dreams, Ranma recognised him immediately, instead of acting like he couldn't remember his 'childhood friend'. In his dreams, he was the far superior fighter, instead of the reality that Ranma was obviously holding back but still beating him. And in his dreams, no fanged idiot butted in and sucker punched him out of a closed second storey window.

At least they'd lost the idiot somewhere along the way. Now it was just him and Ranma, just like old times. But in the old times, their fights had been for fun, no-one got more than the faintest of bruises, and laughter had come often.

Ukyou wasn't laughing now. He was being driven back by the quick, testing jabs of his opponent. He still hurt from being hit through a window by the other guy; his right side ached from the jarring impact of a two storey fall. Sweat was pouring off him, he could literally feel his energy drain out of him from the intensive fight. After all the time he had spent training, all the time he had spent trying to be the best, he was being beaten. The only comfort he could take, and it was a small comfort, was that he was being beaten in a small, dingy lot, unseen by others.

Ranma grinned. It was one of those 'Thanks for the workout, but I am gonna be late for class soon' grins. Ukyou couldn't stand it, it made him feel like he wasn't being taken seriously. He redoubled his efforts in swinging his spatula in erratic, unpredictable patterns. His muscles were screaming at him, he just couldn't do this for much longer.

Chance was gazing upon Ukyou today; as Ranma took a step forward, the first move in a finishing attack, his foot slid on some loose gravel. His balance was good enough that he didn't fall, but it did mean that he couldn't dodge the next of Ukyou's incessant attacks. With a clang, the overlarge spatula impacted into Ranma's face, throwing him back and to the ground.

Ukyou looked down at his foe, as Ranma struggled to get up. He drew his spatula up, ready to drive it down. Was this it? What victory was this?

Where was the apology? Where was the vindication? Where was the sense of worth that he had always subconsciously longed for from this moment? All he felt as he stared into Ranma's unfocussed eyes was a lump in his throat and a weight in his stomach, like he'd just eaten a batch of okonomiyaki dough.

Vengeance was in his grasp. All he had to do was bring the sharpened edge of his combat spatula down, and Ranma would finally pay. All he had to do was kill his childhood friend, and... and... Ukyou opened and closed his mouth, his hands trembled.

Ranma used his opponent's hesitation to gather his wits, scrambling back and into a defensive stance. Now if only those four guys with spatulas would stand still for a second, he thought, I'd be able to finish this fight.

Ukyou looked at Ranma, then he looked down at his spatula. His hands were trembling worse than before, he couldn't hold the weapon steady. He looked up at Ranma again, before, with an almost inaudible choked sob, he turned and leaped away.

Ranma's eyes focussed in time to see Ukyou disappear over a head-high fence. What the hell was all that about? Ranma rubbed his chin, trying to think. The guy actually got lucky enough to get me in a bad position, and he runs off. Maybe he hadn't been out for blood after all, maybe he'd just been sorta play fighting, like... like... Ranma stopped rubbing his chin. Those weapons, that face, that fighting style. It had to be. He remembered now why the guy had seemed so familiar.

Ranma smiled. Ucchan.

Ukyou sobbed, burying his face into his arms. He was hunched over a small table in his apartment, having ran all the way from school.

Men don't cry. Do they? Right now, it didn't seem to matter. He'd had Ranma at his mercy, and he'd wasted the chance.

It's just that... that... he couldn't do it. All he could think of, in the few seconds that he had held Ranma at his mercy, was of the old days, of the fun days when they were children.

"Damn him." he muttered as the tears were slowed, then stopped as depression was replaced with anger. "Damn him and his father." Damn them that he could still love Ranma, when he hated him too.

Ranma eased himself into place at the window, hanging upside-down, batlike.

"Damn them both!" Ukyou hissed, thumping the table with his right hand. "Why didn't they take me with them? Genma promised Dad he'd take me with Ranma! Did Ranma hate me so much, did Ranma tell his dad not to take me?" He thumped the table again, and again, trying to drive out the frustration.

Ranma held his hand up, ready to knock at the window pane. He hesitated, before he dropped his hand again. The seal between the window and the wall was shoddy; he'd heard every word Ukyou had said. Ucchan was hurting, and he needed a friend. But one thing made no sense. Why would Ukyou's dad get a promise out of Pop to take Ukyou with him?

Ukyou stopped banging the table when his shirt brushed against his injured side. He almost welcomed the pain, it was a distraction from things he no longer wanted to think about. With a hiss, he gingerly took his shirt off so that he could look at the damage.

Ranma narrowed his eyes. What was with the gigantic bandage?

"Geeze, talk about overreacting." Ukyou muttered as he walked over to a small cabinet. He opened it, and drew out a small bottle of disinfectant. After returning to the table, he sat again, with his back to Ranma, setting the bottle on the floor next to him.

"I mean," he muttered to himself as he started to unwind his chest binding, "acting like that over some bread. What was with that guy?" He sighed in relief as the binding came free. "Damn fool." he muttered, turning around to pick up the disinfectant bottle. Too preoccupied with his thoughts to see the mop of dark hair and steel-grey eyes peeking at the window, he turned back again.

Wow, weird, Ranma thought. If I didn't know better, I'd almost have to think that Ucchan had br... wait a minute. He... he... did have... Ranma's eyes widened in shock. His concentration shattered, he couldn't maintain his perch, and he fell out of sight. A second or two later, there was a clattering crash.

Ukyou looked up from examining his injuries. "Can't those dogs leave that rubbish pile alone for once?" he wondered, before he shook his head and returned to examining his side.

He didn't have a clue what was wrong with his friend, but one thing was clear. Ucchan blamed him. And he didn't want that, he wanted it like the old days.

He narrowed his eyes. Damn, he'd never done this before, but he couldn't see any other way around it. It'd hurt, but there was only one way to get Ucchan back to not being angry at him.

Ukyou winced as he finished dabbing the disinfectant onto his side. He didn't know who that guy with the fangs was, but he was never going to let him get another sucker punch like that one in.

When someone rapped at the door, Ukyou was only too glad to use it as an excuse to stop using the stinging liquid. After putting his shirt back on, he walked over to the door and opened it.

"Ucchan..." Ranma began. He didn't look that great, there were small bits of garbage hanging off him, and he had a slightly hangdog expression that looked really out of place on his face.

Ukyou's eyes widened. Then he sprang away from the door, leaping for his bandolier and the weapons it contained.

Ranma dove past the chef, grabbing the bandolier belt and combat spatula. He rolled, coming up to face Ukyou.

"Come to attack me in my own home?" Ukyou snarled, trying to snatch his weapons. Ranma kept them out of reach as he looked at his childhood friend.


"Don't call me that!"

"Ukyou, I..."

"You what? You want another fight? Don't worry, I'll be glad to fight you again tomorrow, and I promise I won't let sentiment from the old days get in the way this time."

Ranma looked into Ukyou's eyes, and did the hardest and easiest thing he had ever done. "Ucchan... Ukyou, I'm sorry." he said, before he bowed low.
"Please forgive me. If I'd known, I would have convinced Pop to bring you along."

Ukyou blinked, shocked. Ranma had said sorry? After all that fighting, he'd done it of his own free will?

They remained like that, frozen, Ranma keeping still in mid-bow, and Ukyou standing there staring at him. Ukyou looked at the slightly stiff stance that Ranma had taken. How much in pride had it cost him to apologise? Unless he had changed with age, Ranma was not one to apologise for anything. From everything Ukyou could read of his posture, he seemed to be sincere in his amends.

Tears flowed from Ukyou's still red-rimmed eyes. A warm glow suffused the chef's stomach. After all this time a dream had come true. All the hate, the pain, the sorrow sloughed away, replaced by an almost numbing sense of well-being, of contentment, of happiness. Ranma still cared.

Ukyou lay a hand on Ranma's shoulder, and looked into his eyes. The cook nodded. "Let's talk." And she smiled.

"You mean I never told you Ukyou was a girl?" Genma asked.

"No!" Ranma vigorously stirred the pot of stew between them as he stared over the campfire at his father.

"Oh well." Genma shrugged. "Back when you were young, you chose okonomiyaki over Ukyou. I thought you knew. Actually..." the balding martial artist murmured, rubbing his chin, "that engagement would still be valid."


Genma stopped rubbing his chin as he realised his son had overheard him.
"Aheh... did I forget to tell you about that too?"

Ryouga couldn't believe it. He'd made it to the cafeteria. At the right time. The very next day after he'd last been here. Without help. And the only person who dared to snatch his food was, he had been told by one of his classmates, going to be late because he was being berated by a teacher for falling asleep in class. That meant... oh gods... he'd actually get lunch today.

"Pizza bread coming at ya!" a cry came from the cafeteria counter. There was a futile surge from the crowd of boys surrounding the food counter, but Ryouga wasn't worried. He knew from experience that he could always get the bread before the others, as long as there weren't any ponytailed thieves around.

He leaped, his arm extending, ready to gain his prize. Sunlight glinted off of the plastic wrapping, giving the food an almost holistic glow. And it was all his, his alone. His fingers opened slightly, ready to grasp the precious bread.

Then, he was falling, being forced down by something or someone. The sandwich package sailed out of his flight path, and all he could do was watch, impotently, as someone flew into view and caught the bread. To add insult to injury, that someone had leaped off his head to get the food, it was this person's weight that had sent him back to the ground prematurely.

Ryouga growled as he landed. He knew without looking that there would be two footprints on his head. And he was sick of it happening. The nearby boys backed away when they saw his face. They knew the signs by now.

"DAMMIT RAN--" Ryouga stopped short, realising that this time, it wasn't Ranma who had stolen his bread.

Ukyou looked over at him, before returning her gaze to the wrapped piece of pizza bread in her hand. "I heard from the guys in my class today about you and Ranma. Your lunchtime fights are school legend. But... bread? You're fighting over bread?"

"Don't get all righteous with me!" Ryouga growled. "It's more than bread. It's the honour of the thing! And like you can talk about grudges, the way you acted yesterday. Who are you anyway?"

"Kuonji Ukyou. Class 1-E." she replied semi-pleasantly. "And like I can talk about grudges!? You attacked me from the side yesterday! While I was fighting someone else, no less!"

"You interfered in a man-to-man fight!"

"My fight took precedence!" Ukyou protested. "It was over something better than a hunk of bread!"

"Oh, and what's that?"

"None of your business!"

"Don't talk to me like that!"

"I'll talk to someone who punched me out a window anyway I like!"



"Pretty boy."

"Fanged fool."



"You going to eat that bread?"

"-sigh- Here."

"You're his friend?!" Ryouga leaned against one of the schoolground's trees.

Ukyou nodded as she used her portable grill to cook up a couple of okonomiyaki. So much said between her and Ranma last night... so much unsaid. The way he'd apologised had made her wonder; did he even know about the engagement? She had been too afraid to ask, if he hadn't known, if all that time she had spent alone and angry had been for the wrong reasons... she didn't want to think about it.

"If that's your greeting for an old friend, I'd hate to see how you handle an old enemy." Ryouga muttered.

"A small misunderstanding." Ukyou answered absently.

"How can you be friends with him anyway? He's arrogant, loud-mouthed, and worst of all he steals my food."

She smiled wistfully. "He used to do that with me, it's how we met, how we became friends."

"You mean he's trying to be my friend by stealing my fair share of the food? What a load of..." Ryouga trailed off, as he thought about how Ranma kept leading him to and from home, how Ranma always tried talking to him, how Ranma was one of the few not scared by his temper and strength. "Who'd want him as a friend anyway?" He crossed his arms to emphasise his point.

"Me." Ukyou answered softly.

He looked on from his hiding spot as Ukyou and Ryouga actually got along with each other.

So much had been said last night, and so much had not been said. They had tread on eggshells, a strange experience for one as brash and as unthinking as he. But... he'd never been good at making friends, she was his first, she was his best friend. It was strange, to find out she was a girl. It was bad, to think that maybe he had something to do with this acting like a boy thing, although that was another topic they had edged around last night.

Damn it all to hell, he had cried himself to sleep the first night after he had left Ukyou seven years ago. His father had caught him, and had admonished him on his lack of manliness, of course. He'd only ever cried once since then, with the... cats.

Ukyou was something special. And, Ranma swore to himself, he wasn't going to let anything as stupid as gender, or misplaced anger, or the intervening years destroy their friendship. He nodded, accepting his promise to himself, before he walked out to join his friends.

"Heya Ucchan."

"Ranchan! I was just telling Ryouga here about the old days."

"Ucchan? Ranchan?" Ryouga twisted his lip slightly. "You've got pet names for each other? Isn't that a bit childish?"

Two sets of baleful eyes glared at him.

"Although I guess plenty of normal kids our age still have nicknames like that." Ryouga acquiesced under the combined glare.

"This is where you live?"

"Yep." Ranma nodded. "What do ya think?"

I think it's a dump, I think I wouldn't let my worst enemy live here, I think you're in real danger of catching some sort of illness from the filth surrounding that tent, I think that tent's pretty cramped for two people, I think... "It's fine, Ranchan." I think none of that would've have mattered, if I'd gone with you when we were six.

"Home I see, son." A figure lumbered out of the tent entrance. Genma. "Who's your friend?"

"Pop, this is Ukyou. You remember her." Ranma emphasised the her, since Genma had admitted last night that he had known Ukyou was a girl. Thought I knew my ass, Ranma thought to himself.

"This is little Ukyou?" Genma asked, amazed. "How are you, girl?"

"Hi Unckie Genma." Ukyou smiled, waited until Genma's guard was down, and then she kicked him in the shins.

"Ow! What was that for!?"

"You tell me!" Ukyou retorted, pulling out her combat spatula. It was a ludicrous sight, Genma easily outmassed the smaller girl, but she was threatening the elder Saotome. "Why didn't you take me with you? You made a deal with my Dad. Why didn't you honour it!?"

Ranma looked on, astonished. His father, Mr Gruff Martial Artist, was being cowed by a thirteen year old. Man, he wished he could do that. What was her secret?

"Ah... well..." Genma's eyes searched the landscape for inspiration, finally alighting on Ranma.

Ranma fought the urge to sigh. Here we go again...

"It was Ranma's decision! You see..."

"Ucchan..." Ranma crouched down next to his friend. It had taken a while to find her, after Genma's little speech. Luckily, while he had been searching the schoolgrounds, he had seen moonlight glinting off her weapons.

She dangled her legs, staring out at the faintly starred sky.

"I don't remember anything about choosing okonomiyaki over you, I swear."

"Then why'd you apologise to me?" Her voice was barely above a whisper.

"Because... well, because it was the only way I could see to get you to stop hating me," he admitted. "I knew you blamed me for something, and I didn't want it like that. You're my friend, you're my best friend. I don't want to lose that over what Pop did."

"Friend?" A moment of silence, then "Do you like me, Ranchan?"

"Sure I do." He eased from his crouch into a sitting position, putting what he thought was a friendly arm around her shoulder. "You're smart, you're fun to be with, you can cook great, you've got a great sense of humour..."

"That was me seven years ago." She didn't protest the arm, though. "You don't know what I'm like now."

"Ahhh, I know enough. Sure, finding out you're a girl was weird, but that's okay. You're still Ucchan, I can tell that just from the day or so we've been back together."

"Oh?" She turned her gaze from the sky, and looked into his eyes. "What about the engagement?"

"Uh... uh..." He started to blush. "I..." He noticed how his arm was resting across her shoulder, and how it might be more than a 'buddy' gesture. "Ah"
He drew his arm back like it was on fire.

"I... I see..." Ukyou turned away again.

"Awww... don't be like that. I mean, it's a bit of a shock to me, finding out you're a girl and we're engaged. It's too much too soon. Anyway, we're only thirteen. Don't ya think it's a bit early to be worrying about that?"

We're engaged. Oh gods, he said it, he said it like he meant to honour it. She couldn't help it, tears formed in her eyes.

"Ucchan? What's wrong? I... I... uh... oh damn."

She smiled, wiping her eyes clean. "It's okay. You're right, it is a bit early to worry about the engagement."

Ranma sighed in relief.

"We can worry about it later on. I can wait..."

Ranma gulped.

Ukyou stared at the white paper. It stared back. She looked around her small apartment, looking for inspiration, but none came. Finally, she sighed. "Just write, he deserves to know."

She set pen to paper, and wrote.

'Hello Father. It has been a while. This is the first time I have been able to write since I came to the new school, and I have some important news for you...'

"There's something we never really talked about..." Ranma twiddled his thumbs as he leaned against one of the trees set in the schoolyard.

"Mmm?" It was turning into a ritual for the two, to find a shady tree and talk or play, while she practiced her cooking skills with the portable grill she could pull seemingly from nowhere.

"I mean, I don't want to pry or nothing..."

"Spit it out Ranchan."

"Why are you dressed as a boy, at a boy's school?"



"They laughed at me, you know. There I was, a girl who had been stood up by her fiance, who'd had her dowry stolen. Like it had to be my fault, because I was the girl. It still stinks to be a girl in this country, Ranchan. Don't fool yourself thinking otherwise. It's the girls fault the guy ran away. The girl is unmarriable without a dowry. The girl lives in disgrace if she's left by her fiance. 'S not the same for a guy.

"I was nothing, I was a girl with no dowry, no income to help the family, I was in fact a source of shame. There were really only two choices. Keep living in shame, or start again as a boy. It didn't matter to a male Ukyou that a female one had been disgraced. It didn't matter to a male Ukyou that a female one had no dowry. Guys don't need dowrys, right?

"Why am I dressed as a boy? Because in order to keep on with my life, in the eyes of society, and, for that matter, the law, I became a boy. The boys school was supposed to be a way of making sure I was comfortable in the role. You were the added bonus of coming here." She listlessly poked at an okonomiyaki that was well into the inedible stage of being burnt.

"Oh." Ranma grimaced. He had to do something, but what? He was no good at this comforting stuff, what could he say? "Ucchan," he began as he lay a hand on her shoulder, "it's okay."

She shocked him by responding with a hug.

He stiffened as she hugged him. After a second or two of hesitation, he awkwardly patted her on the back.

"Hey, it's okay. It's okay."

"I'm telling you I don't need your help!"

"Yeah, yeah Ryouga. You always say that. If you don't need my help, then point which way the toilet is. It is your home, after all, you should know."

"It's that way."

"That's the kitchen, baka."

Ukyou looked around as the two boys settled down into a long argument. They'd helped Ryouga find his way home, apparently the guy had atrocious directional problems.

"This is a really nice place you have here." she noted when there was a pause in the argument for both boys to draw in air.

Ryouga shrugged. So it was a nice place. So what? He rarely found it, and even when he did, his parents were never there. This wasn't his home, it was just a house he occasionally slept at. "It's okay."

Ukyou resisted the urge to shake her head. Okay? Her family had scrimped and saved every yen for years to buy their own business; the yatai that Genma had stolen had been all that was left over that the Kuonjis could afford as a dowry. If there was one thing she couldn't stand, it was people not appreciating what they had. She shrugged, in the end it didn't matter, if Ryouga didn't appreciate what he had, then she couldn't do anything about it. "Yes, it's okay."

"I'm telling ya, I'm not afraid of anything."

"C'mon Ranchan, only an idiot isn't afraid of something."

"So what are you afraid of then?"

Silence. "I... I..." Being left alone.

"Whoa! Ya... ya don't have to tell me, Ucchan, if you don't want to."

"Thank you."

"But I ain't afraid of nothing."

"Prove it then."

"Okay, how?"

She glanced around, before her eyes alighted on a grill set against the school. "There." she pointed. "The basement. Dark, full of rats and roaches,
bet you can't stay down there for five minutes."

"You're on."

"Geeze, it's dark down there." Ranma eased himself into the hole that the grill had covered, until he was hanging by his arms. "Can't even see the ground."

"Ranchan... wait. I believe you, you don't have to do this. If you can't see the ground, you could get hurt jumping."

"Hey," he smirked, looking up into her worried face, "where would I be if my best friend thought I was a coward?"

"I don't think you're a--"

He let go, and was engulfed in the darkness below. A moment, and then a slightly panicked shout. "Where's the floor!?"

"Ranchan? Ranchan!?"


"Dammit. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Can't believe the floor was so far down. Hmmm... never gonna make it out the way I got in. Gotta find another way. How'm I gonna do that, I can't see a thing down here."


"Hey! Who's there?"


"No..." Barely a whisper. If there were rats, was it a wonder there were cats?

Purrrrr...rub, rub.

"C... ca... CAAATTTT--" Gotta run... gotta run... gotta... Wham.


"Get away. Get away. Get away." Scrabble, scrabble.

"Get away. Get away. Get away." Scrabble, scrabble.

"Get away. Please get away."





"Ranchan?" Worry welled within her. Even after all they'd been through, they were still kids, and it had been a kids thing, to challenge Ranma to go down there.

Who knows what could have happened to him. He could be hurt, crying from pain. He could be dying, cursing out her name. Or he could be dead. She could lose him forever. "All my fault..." she whispered.

A flash of movement below caught her eye. "Ran--" Someone, something burst from the darkness, sailing up and past her startled eyes, before landing next to a nearby tree. "--chan!?"

It had the body of Ranma, it had the clothes of Ranma, it was not Ranma. Ranma would never stand on all fours, back arched, meowing like a cat. He hissed at an approaching teacher, before he clawed at a nearby tree. Everyone backed away when they saw that the cat-boy was slicing away at the tree without actually touching it.

"Ranchan?" What was wrong? What had happened? Had he hit his head when he fell? Would he be all right? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH RANCHAN!?

He stopped clawing, and turned his attention to her. The boys that had gathered near her backed away, nervous at the way neko-Ranma stared at Ukyou.

"Ranchan?" No easy smile from the boy, no glib remark, no intelligent glimmer in his eyes, nothing but a feral grin. The shell was there, but Ranma wasn't. And what if he was always like this...

"Ranchan... please. Come back to me." Ukyou pleaded.

Neko-Ranma cocked his head, mrowled, and then, he leaped at her.

She fell back, stifling a scream, disbelief in her eyes as her friend bore down on her, ready to...

Neko-Ranma nuzzled her cheek for a moment, before he curled up into her lap.

"Ranchan?" Ukyou whispered. His only response was to purr slightly. "Ranchan?" The surrounding students murmured over the fact that Ukyou hadn't pounded Ranma for kissing 'him', which would have been the action of any normal guy. "Ranchan?" Nothing. Her fiance just wasn't there.

Ukyou gently rocked the beast in her lap, ignoring the murmurs from the other boys. When neko-Ranma mewled, she couldn't hold it any longer. She hugged her confused fiance, sobbing "Ranchan..." over and over.

She shrugged off any attempt by the students or teachers to touch Ranma, and she pulled her combat spatula when they became more insistent. After that, none approached her. She just sat there, rocking the animal with her fiance's body. She kept rocking and rocking and rocking and...

"U...Ucchan? What's wrong?"

Relief replaced grief, and the tears flowed on as she hugged him even tighter.

Genma looked from the quivering throwing spatula that had missed him by a hairsbreadth, to the grim cook who had thrown it.

"He told me about the Neko-ken, about the pit of cats." Ukyou noted. "One day, I hope to marry Ranma. But even on that day, I will not call you Father."

She turned, and leaped away, hurrying to get away from the campsite.

"Run away with me Ranchan." There, she'd said it. She had to drag him to the most private place in the school she could think of, the roof, to do it, but she'd finally said it. "Get away from your father, please. We could go somewhere, anywhere, just you and me."


She winced, glad that she was facing the fenced edge. His tone was all the answer she needed.

"I can't. You know the authorities would never let us live by ourselves. And he is my father."

"He doesn't deserve to be."

"That's not fair. He's always tried to do what he does best, train me. Sure,
he's royally stuffed up a couple of times, but the old guy still does it, and he does it pretty well. Not that I'd ever admit that to him."

"I don't want you to end up like him, and I can see it happening if you stay with him."

"No. I'll never be like my father. I will be better. I swear it."

"You were defending him a moment ago."

"I didn't say he was perfect, he ain't, and I sure wouldn't want to turn out like him. I'm just saying he ain't as bad as you think."

"I've yet to see proof of that, Ranchan."

Ranma sighed. Sometimes, he wondered about his dad. But Genma was his father. That counted for something.

"Hey, uh, Ucchan, I..."


"I saw a poster for an interesting movie. I managed to get some money out of Pop, do ya, well, wanna go?"

"A... a movie? Who else are you inviting?"

"Well, no-one. Ryouga's gone off somewhere, like that's a surprise. No-one else around here I want to go with, so it'd be just me and you."

"I... I'd love to go."

"So what's this called again?" She nervously shifted in her seat. She and Ranma were out on a... well, it couldn't be called a date. They had gone to see a movie, anyway. Just a buddy thing. Just him and her in a dark theatre, the nearest person three rows away, one tub of popcorn between them... Curse it, she thought happily, it's a date in my books.

"Death Ninja Robot Attack Force Versus the Killer Brain-Sucking Alien Horde" Ranma mumbled between mouthfuls of popcorn.

Silence, out of respect for the cheesy giant monster death scene playing out on the screen. Slowly, nervously, she edged her hand over so that it rested up against his. Silence again.

"Uhh... Ucchan..."

"Yes?" Please, let him say something romantic. Please.

"Want some popcorn?"

It'd do, she decided. "Sure."

Several students sat around, discussing matters.

"Look, you see the way those two act around each other. They're pretty cosy,
even for best friends."

"Remember when Saotome went all weird, with that cat thing? He kissed Kuonji,
and Kuonji didn't get angry at all."

"Maybe he was too worried. I mean, how'd you feel if your best friend up and started acting like that?"

"Even so, it was pretty understanding. And what about that time Kenji and Yoshio saw Ranma and Ukyou hugging?"

"I saw them sitting pretty close in a theatre once. I was a few rows back,
but it was still pretty obvious."

"Ever notice, sometimes, the way Kuonji looks at Saotome? Pretty damn friendly look, if you ask me."

"But what about Ranma?"

"He sure doesn't seem to mind..."




"So they're gay. Whadda we do?"

"Hope they don't think we're pretty? They could wipe the floor with us, they're far beyond us in martial skill."

"I reckon it'd be best if we just keep quiet. If they think their secret's threatened, they might beat the living tar out of us. You saw the way that Kuonji guy acted the first day he got here. Sure, he's been okay since then, but I still don't think he's stable, especially not after that time when Saotome went weird like a cat."

"I wonder if Hibiki is gay too?" Deathly silence from the last speaker's friends. After a second or two, the boy sighed. "He's behind me, isn't he?"

Nod. Nod. Nod.


Nod. Nod. Nod.

Ryouga seethed. He was good at that. All that talk about trying to be friends, all a lie. It was obvious now what Ranma had been trying to do, all those times Saotome had led him home.

Ranma had been trying to take advantage of him.

Ryouga clenched his fists. He'd have none of it, he wasn't that way. And Ranma would pay, for playing with his emotions like that. Ranma would pay, for lying to him. Ranma would pay, for not being the friend he claimed to be.

"Heya Ryouga!" Ranma slapped the other boy on the shoulder.

"Get offa me!" Ryouga squirmed out from under Ranma's grasp.

"Geeze, what's up your butt?"

Ryouga's face turned slightly green as some images ran through his mind. He started to say something, but decided that rushing to the bathroom was a better idea. He raced off, in the vain hope that for once, he could get to where he wanted to go. Otherwise, things were going to get messy.

"What the hell?" Ranma shook his head. Lunch around this school just got stranger and stranger.

He sat with a sigh next to her, as she practised her cooking on her portable grill. This time of year always brought him down, and the weird way the other guys had been acting around him lately just made it worse.

"Something wrong Ranchan?"

"Nah, it's nothing."

"Well, here." A flip of a hand spatula, and an okonomiyaki sailed off the portable grill. Ranma caught it with detached ease. He was about to eat it when he noticed that for once, Ukyou hadn't drawn a silly face on it.
Blinking, he took a closer look. "Happy birthday Ranchan?"

"I did remember the right date, didn't I?" She was worried, she'd been so sure she had remembered the date correctly, but it had been seven years. How embarrassing...

"Yeah, it's..." All that moving about, living on the road, no-one ever knew it was his birthday. Pop didn't even bother mentioning it anymore. "Thank you." barely a whisper, and he was embarrassed to acknowledge gratitude for such a small thing.

"You'd remember for me, right? I couldn't do any less for you."


"Ucchan! Hey, what's up?" They walked into the schoolgrounds, ready(if not willing) to start another day.

"I managed to convince the local okonomiyaki store owner to hire me, under the counter since I'm so young. I'll be able to get in practice, and I'll be earning some extra money."

"That's great! Man, I wish I could earn money like that. It just drags sometimes, having to borrow offa my dad."

"Don't worry, if worse comes to worse, I can always support you."

"No. No, I'm not gonna be a freeloader like my dad. I'll think of someway to support myself eventually. If nothing else, when I'm older I can always teach martial arts or something."

"Hope you're a better teacher than a student."


"-snicker- Sorry, couldn't resist."

"So this is where you work, huh?" Ranma looked around. Not a bad place, as far as okonomiyaki stores went. A little dingy though.

"Yep." Ukyou never looked down, but still she managed to expertly flip two okonomiyaki over. It was no wonder the owner had hired her despite her age, she was a prodigy, it would be a waste for her talents not to be used.

"Not bad."

Ukyou glanced around, making sure that no-one else was near. Turning back to Ranma, she whispered "One day, I'll have my own place. Then you'll see what an okonomiyaki store was meant to be."

Ranma grinned, holding up his soft drink in a mock toast. "And I'll be your first customer."

"Heya Ucchan."

"Hmm? Oh, hi Ranchan." She looked up. She had been staring at something in her open palm as she sat on one of the store's stools.

"You on break?" He sat next to her.

"Uh huh." She looked back down to her hand.

"What are those?"

"Hmm?" She showed her palm to him. Nestled there were two tiny silver earings, shaped like spatula.

"Hey, they're pretty nice, I guess, if you're a girl of course."

"They were my mother's. They're the one thing of hers I always kept, no matter what."

"Oh. So why are you looking at them now? Thinking of wearing them?" He smiled at his joke.

"Maybe." She sighed, before she pulled a small jewellery box out of a pocket, and carefully put the earrings into it. With a snap, she shut the jewellery box.

Ukyou closed the apartment door behind her. She rested against the door for a second, before she sighed. Going to school, hanging out with Ranma, and then working at the restaurant was a real killer. And she'd have it no other way.

With a groan, she pushed herself off the door. After she had divested herself of her bookbag, her bandolier, and its weapons, she took a closer look at the letters she had brought in with her.

"Bill, junk, junk, and lucky last is..." she trailed off as she looked at the strong, economical penstrokes on the last letter. She didn't need to see the sender's name to know who this came from. It was from her father. She stared at the letter. It stared back.

"So, do you haveta go?" Ranma asked, trying to look nonchalant by scuffing the ground with one of his shoes. He looked over at Ukyou, who was scanning a large board for bus departure times.

Ukyou turned from the board to look at Ranma, putting down her travelling bag as she did. "Hey, you okay?"

"Yeah." Ranma muttered, turning his gaze out to the bus bays.

"He's my father, Ranchan." Ukyou said after a few seconds of silence between them. "And he wants to see me. I... we... well, we're not the closest of families. But he is still my dad, and I can't not go. It's funny, but I still don't want to disappoint him. I think you'd understand that if no-one else could."

"I guess. I just... I dunno... I still remember your father. What's he gonna do when you tell him what happened? He was an okay guy, with the way he always gave me free food, but he never seemed like the happiest guy around. I bet he won't like ya renewing the engagement."

"Don't worry!" Ukyou assured, smiling, as she lay a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Nothing's going to happen. You worry too much," she grinned, before she added, "Sugar."

Ranma flushed at being called 'Sugar'. She'd done it before, when she was cooking something for him. Somehow, the word took on a different meaning altogether in the uncomfortable setting of saying goodbye.

A slightly crackled announcement burst out of the bus depot's intercom.

"Well, that's my call." Ukyou said, reluctant to end the moment. She opened her mouth, about to say something, before she changed her mind, shutting her mouth. "I gotta go." She bent down, picked up her bag, before she straightened, looking back to Ranma. "I'll be back in a couple of days, so I guess I'll see you then, Ranchan."

"I'll be here." Ranma promised.

Ukyou nodded, before she turned, and started to head over to a nearby lineup for the bus she had booked for. She'd only taken a few steps before she slowed, hesitated, and finally stopped. Impulsively, she dashed back, lightly kissed Ranma on the lips, before she darted back to stand in the queue.

Ranma stood there, unmoving, until long after Ukyou had boarded the bus. He shook himself out of his standing coma just in time to wave to her as the bus left, before he walked off, absently touching his lips.

"You lied to me Ranma!" Ryouga pointed an accusing finger at his 'friend'. It had taken him days to get back to school after his last encounter with Ranma.

"Huh?" Ranma replied wittily.

"Don't try and act innocent with me Saotome!"

"What the hell are you talking about Ryouga? I thought we were past this stage of our relationship."

"R... relationship!? That does it! I almost didn't believe what they said about you, Saotome. I almost didn't believe the rumours. But I can see now what you really wanted from me, and it wasn't my friendship. Tomorrow, the empty lot near my house. A duel."

"A duel? Why do ya want a duel? And what rumours?"

"I thought I could trust you. I thought what you really wanted was to be my friend. I thought wrong. You want to know what rumours? Then be at the duel. Be there, if you have any honour at all."

"Fine, I'm there. But..." Ranma sighed as Ryouga walked away. "What rumours?" he growled, but none of the boys within earshot chose to answer.

Ranma sighed as he ducked into the tent that served as his home. School had been pretty boring today, he hadn't realised just how much he'd come to rely on Ukyou for companionship. Without her there, he had tried to hang out with some of the other boys, but, for some reason, nearly everyone had been nervous around him. Sort of like how the guys had been reacting in the showers lately, like there was something wrong with him. It was frustrating, and it had made for a bad day. It didn't help that he'd waited for Ryouga at the spot nominated, the second day he'd done this, and Ryouga still hadn't turned up. At least now the day was over.

"Ah, home from school, eh boy?" Genma asked, looking up from where he was sitting cross-legged on his bedroll.

"Ya." Ranma grunted, collapsing onto his own cramped-up roll. He closed his eyes, sighing, half-knowing that his father would take it as an opportunity to 'train' him by doing a sneak attack.

"Well, good news. I've finally managed to earn..." Genma's face twisted a little, certainly far less than he had the truth in that sentence fragment, "...enough to support us over in China for a while."

"China?" Ranma's eyes shot open. "Whaddya mean China!? Since when were we going there!?"

"Since always, boy. I just never told you. Just think, some of the greatest and oldest martial training sites will now be open to us. Think of what you can learn, think of the opportunities!"

"Aw man..." Ranma groaned. "What'll Ucchan say when she gets back, only to find out I'm going to the mainland?"

"Gets back? I'm afraid that we'll be leaving before she gets back. Tomorrow, in fact. Sorry, son. That's just the way it happened."

"Come on Ranma, it's time to go." Genma shucked his pack, glancing around the empty lot that had served as their home for the past six months. Satisfied that he hadn't left anything behind, he turned to face his son.

"I ain't going." Ranma declared.

"What do you mean you're not going?" Genma asked. "Boy, we are going to China. You've had enough time to play with your friends, now it's time to accept a man's responsibilities. You are the heir to the Saotome School of Martial Arts. You are a Saotome. And, as your father, your sensei, and as the head of the Saotome clan, I am telling you; come with me now, or be neither heir to the School or a Saotome any longer. Obey your father in this one, son. I know what's best."

Ranma clenched his fists. "I'm leaving Ucchan a note."

Genma scowled slightly, before nodding.

Ranma looked around at the cramped living/leisure/dining/tv room of Ukyou's apartment. He'd only been here a couple of times, but Ukyou had given him a set of spare keys, in case he wanted to 'Just come over' or 'Get away from your father for a while' as Ukyou had put it.

There wasn't much of Ukyou's character in the apartment, she'd apparently left it as her uncle had. In fact, the only things that Ukyou normally had to mark the apartment as hers were her portable grill(which she had taken with her on her trip), and...

Ranma walked over to the small, low table that took up a precious amount of space in the cramped quarters. Dining table, card table, study desk, it served all those purposes, and one other: mantelpiece. There was only one photo frame currently on the table, Ukyou had taken another couple with her as reminders, but the remaining photo was still enough to make Ranma wince slightly from guilt. It was of him and Ukyou, arms around each other's shoulders in a 'buddy' pose, each with wide grins plastered on their faces. Man, he thought, she is not going to be happy about this.

"I want to be the best, I want to be the heir," Ranma muttered as he pulled a slightly rumpled letter from underneath his shirt. "I can't afford not to go, I think he was actually serious about disowning me if I did. If I'm not a student of the Saotome Ryuu, if I can't one day teach the style as a honoured master instead of some outcast vagrant, then what am I? Nothing, I ain't ever been good enough at anything else to make a living."

"But Pops ain't as smart as he thinks." Ranma continued, as he carefully propped the letter up next to the photo frame. "He might be able to justify kicking me out if I don't go with him, but if you follow us to China, then there's no way he'll be able to do anything about it. Heh, he always does lose that holier-than-thou honour thing whenever you're around. No way he'd try anything like this if you were here."

"So... uh..." he nervously scratched his head as he backed up to the door. "It's all there in the letter, Ucchan. Where we're going in China, which training sites we'll be visiting, everything you'd ever need to find us. So... that is, if ya want to, you can... you know..." Ranma struggled for words. Finally, he just gave up, opening the door. "See ya Ucchan. See ya soon...?" he trailed off, shaking his head for wasting so much time speaking to an empty room, before he left, closing the door behind him.

A few seconds after the door shut, there was a slight clink as one of the apartment's windows was opened. With a muffled curse, Genma fell into the room. He darted his gaze around the room as he adjusted his thief's mask. When his eyes alighted on the letter, he gave a small smile as he walked over to the table.

"I am sorry, Ranma, but this isn't the best course for you." Genma muttered, pocketing the letter. "The Saotome and Tendo lines are to be united through you and one of Soun's daughters. Too much is riding on that for it to be ruined by one moment of hunger when I was younger. Ukyou was a mistake, one I'm rectifying right now."

Genma padded over to the window. He climbed out, closing the pane behind him, before he nodded. "Better for both of you if she never sees you again. One day, you'll thank me son, when you're the master of the Saotome-Tendo dojo."

She had come back from her trip home with new determination. The time at her father's house had finally convinced her; it was time to get Ranma to take her out on a proper date. The very first thing she had done when she reached her apartment was to take off her chest binding. Then, for the first time since she was a little girl, she put on a dress. It had not been easy to buy that dress, it had been a fight against a part of herself. Having the store clerks giving 'him' strange looks hadn't helped either. But it had been worth it, she decided. It'd knock Ranchan's socks off.

Twenty minutes of brushed hair later, Ukyou had pulled her mother's earrings out and, after a second's hesitation, she affixed one to each ear. They had been a final gift from her mother, and were the one feminine thing Ukyou had kept during the time she had been totally immersed in her male disguise. Even so, it had not been easy to go and get her ears pierced. She had done that while she had been home. Her father had been furious; she didn't care.

After she had performed the last touch - twining a bright little flower into her hair - she left her apartment, ready to talk to Ranma, to catch up on anything that had happened while she was gone, and to take him out somewhere where, for once, they could enjoy each other's company as girl and guy.

Ukyou left hand nervously bunched up the unfamiliar feeling fabric of her skirt. With a small smile, and a slightly uncertain blush from the looks she was getting, she strode towards the Saotome campsite. As she walked, she snuck a slightly apprehensive glance at the clouded sky. Yes, she thought, definitely have to go to a movie or something else indoors. I wonder what Ranchan'll think when he sees me like this...

It was a miserable afternoon. Angry clouds, muttering with thunder and glaring with lightning, had unleashed their fury in a torrent of rain.

At an abandoned lot, Ukyou stood. Just stood, as she stared at a large puddle that had once been the base of the Saotome's tent. The driving rain plastered her clothes to her thin frame, turning her hair into a stringy mess. The flower in her hair had suffered from the rain's force, it was already missing several petals.

Her knees gave out, squelching into the muddy ground, spraying flecks of wet earth all over her dress.

Nothing, no explanation, no apologies, they just left, leaving her behind. Again. All of it a lie, all of his pretend friendship, just to keep her from his throat until he could slip away like a thief in the night.

There was one good thing about the driving rain; it masked the tears that flowed down her cheeks.

It's got to be a misunderstanding, he can't have left.

She bowed her head.

He wouldn't have left if he loved me.

She dropped forward, burying her arms into the mud.

If he loved me...

She shivered, curling up in the mud.

He doesn't love me...

Author notes: Ranma might seem to people that he's pretty desperate to keep Ukyou's friendship. Yes, he is. He has no Akane, no Tendos, no miscellaneous Furinkan boys(Hiroshi/Daisuke), no Shampoo, just Ryouga. I think at this stage of his life(at any stage of his life), Ranma was a lonely soul. Look to the way he kept trying to be friends with Ryouga, when indications were that Ryouga wasn't anywhere near as friendly back. It seems like the actions of someone desperate for a friend to me. Any wonder he does what he can to regain his oldest, best friend?

New Note (Jan 2007): This was a story that had the first two chapters originally written (and submitted to Usenet's RAAC) in 1997.