Gender pronouns in this fic are used very deliberately - they rely on a character's attitude,and not their body. For example, onna-Ranma will be referred to as he. So it's not a mistake when you see Ukyou sometimes being referred to as 'he' and sometimes as 'her'.
"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
There should be a wind. There ought to be a cold wind blowing, it ought to scream out in almost human frustration, it should howl around her, it should bite at her with its frozen teeth. It should ruffle her clothes as she stood there, feet on the edge, staring out at the night view from the top of the multi-storey school.
But there was no wind, no sweetly bitter bite of air, only silence. Sweet mercy... such silence...
One step. One easy step, and the pain would go, the self-hate would no longer matter, the questions that hurt and hurt and hurt would stop.
Stop. Ignore the siren's song. This way would not give the one thing left that was so desperately wanted: an answer.
Why? She raised her head to the dark-lit sky.
Why did he lie to me?
She waited a moment, almost as if expecting a reply to the unvoiced question.
Why didn't he love me?
She looked down at the empty schoolyard.
If he did, why did he go?
She clenched her fists.
I have to know.
The way the boys looked at her, the way the conversations dulled and stopped whenever she got close, the way laughter would follow behind her like a yapping lapdog, the way the teachers talked to her in tones that reeked of hidden pity...
They knew. They all knew.
It was happening again. The mocking would start again. She couldn't handle it again.
She left at lunchtime, to chase up an overheard rumour.
"Where the hell is he? He's supposed to be here! Why isn't he here?" Impotent rage, fury directed to an uncaring summer sky. "Where is he!?"
"He isn't here."
Ryouga whirled to face the new voice. "Oh, it's you. What do you mean, he's not here? Where's Saotome, Ukyou?"
"Don't tell me you're here to fight for him?"
"Then...?" Rage ebbed slightly, as curiosity surfaced.
"I looked for you to see if you knew why... but you don't know, do you?"
"Why... why did he leave...?"
The owner of the Super Soba Store scratched his head, looking at the brown haired youth before him.
"Huh. Don't know much about his kid, besides what Saotome told me, whenever he ate here. But I remember how he kept talking about how he was going to take his son to all sorts of places."
"Could you please tell me where?"
"I don't know, really, I think he was talking about going south, or possibly over to Korea or Taiwan, possibly even China, or maybe up north along the coast. It all depended on the day, Saotome was changing his 'itinerary' all the time. Kept saying it was all for his son. Guess the kid really wanted to travel, huh?"
"Saotome Ranma?" The school administrative officer blinked. "Yes, he and his father arranged for him to be transferred out of the school two days ago."
"Could you tell me if they said why?"
"Just moving to a new area. Happens all the time. Why exactly do you want to know?"
"He was my friend."
The farmer scratched his head. "Short ponytail huh? Yeah, yeah. Damn right I saw him and his father. About a week ago. Came through here, the old guy said they'd work for food. Damn thieves ate the food, and ran off. You gonna pay for what they ate?"
"No. But thank you, for the help."
"I think maybe they went that way. Don't know, got better things to notice than that."
"Saotome? Never heard of them."
"No, haven't seen anyone looking like that. A ponytail, huh?"
"Can't help you."
"Go away kid."
Ukyou stared out at the sea, hands around the shaft of a battle spatula. Nothing, the trail was cold. The Saotomes were gone, and the young chef didn't know where to look next.
Why did he leave her?
The okonomiyaki ninja was a mess; grime and tattered clothes evidence of a long, hard search.
Why? Because he didn't want her...
Ukyou screamed out, yelling primal frustration, smashing the weapon deep into the hard ground.
"Fine! Fine!" he raged, angry tears washing some of the dirt from his face. "So he doesn't want me! Fine! Then I don't want him! Hah! That's right! As far as I'm concerned, if I never see him again, it would be...
"Never..." he sighed, slumping to the ground, the rage seeping out. Somehow, it didn't seem worth it anymore. Nothing seemed worth it.
"Come on, come on..." Ranma scanned the horizon again, turning through 360 degrees, straining his eyes to their utmost.
"Let's go, Ranma."
"Just five minutes more, Pop."
"Why? Admiring the scenery?"
"Well you can admire it as we walk. We're done with this training ground. It's time to move."
"In a minute."
"Alright, alright." He scooped his pack off the ground, grunting, before he mumbled to himself "Be at the next place for sure."
He shook his head. "Yeah, yeah! I'm coming! Keep your hair on!"
"Have you seen a fat bald man and a guy about my age, with black hair tied in a small ponytail?" The words had been said so often, they were burned into his memory. Ryouga waited for a response from the small man he had asked.
He waited a little longer.
He started to steam as the little man said something in another language, probably Chinese.
Giving up the conversation as a bad joke, he left the man, growling as he walked away. "Dammit! Don't people speak Japanese in Japan!?" he snarled, annoyed at his fruitless search. "I'll never find that coward at this rate," Ryouga muttered as he walked out of Beijing's city limits.
Time. They say it heals all wounds.
"I'm telling you, she wants to go out with you." The small, frizzy-haired boy grinned at his silent, ponytailed companion.
"I don't really--"
"Come on! She's cute, she's funny, she's available and she wants you! Sweet sixteen, never been kissed... you know, all that stuff. What more do you want?"
"I don't know anymore."
"You're ruining my reputation as school matchmaker, you know."
"If you don't like girls, it's, you know, okay. If you'd like, I could arrange--"
"No! Not a boy! Never a boy." Never again.
"So what's the problem? You've got the looks, the smarts and the charm. If you stopped moping around, you'd have the girls falling all over you."
"Maybe that's not what I want."
"So what do you want? You're ruining my perfect matchmaking record!"
"I don't know..."
"-sigh- Fine, fine. I know when I'm beat. Pity, she'll be very disappointed. The other girls will never let her live it down, being rejected by a handsome guy like you." The small boy sighed again, shrugged, and turned, ready to walk away.
The small boy grinned. Gotcha.
"...I'll... I'll take her to the movies."
"Great! Great! It'll be good to see you get out, you know. You're so gloomy, Ukyou. You could do with a bit of a female's touch."
A nice little street, somewhere or another, just after a pleasant summer shower.
"YOU DID WHAT?!"
Pause. Silence. More silence. And then...
"Come here, Pop."
"No, no really. Just come here."
"Where are you going, Pop?"
Pause. Then the growing sound of running feet and... paws?
A panda bear tore around a corner, hoving into view. It almost fell over from its sharp turn, before it regained its balance, racing down the street.
"POP!" A redheaded girl raced out after the animal. "I can't believe you! Engaging me! AGAIN!"
The panda was too busy running away to make a reply.
"Get back here!!!"
Get real, the panda thought.
"I can't believe I'm doing this." He groaned, rubbing at his temples, before he shook his head. "Too late now. Far too late. Can't back out, can't do that to the girl."
He leaned down, looking into the mirror of the small bathroom, making sure his clothes were on right. After he rearranged a few strands of his chestnut hair, he straightened his stance.
"I can't believe I'm doing this." he repeated. He squared his shoulders and walked out of the bathroom as he tried to remain calm.
He walked over to the small drawer that stood next to the empty space where his futon was placed at nights. He crouched down before opening the top drawer with a protesting wooden scrape.
"Guess I had to start this sooner or later, if I'm to fulfil the obligations of 'first son'." He drew out a small jewellery box and stared at it. Slowly, carefully, he opened it. The teenager stayed there for five minutes, staring at the open box, keeping in his crouch.
"Damn." The jewellery box snapped shut, covering a glint of silver. After gently placing the box back in the drawer and closing it, the boy stood.
"A date," he muttered, walking over to the front door. He opened it and stepped through, shaking his head. "Madness." And he closed the door behind him.
"Hot enough for you?" The beachside drinks vendor sighed, mopped his brow, before he looked at his customer.
The boy did not reply, he was absorbed in staring at the sea.
"Is something wrong?"
"What?" Ryouga blinked, tearing his gaze from the water. "No. Just thinking how nice it would have been to go for a swim."
"So why don't you?"
"Because... just because."
"So that's five deluxe okonomiyaki." The fortyish, slightly balding chef blinked, looking at his customer.
Ranma nodded. "Yeah." Damn, wish I could afford more, I'm really hungry.
He looked around at the small shop. It had been a bit of a trek to find the place, but... "Hey... you wouldn't have a girl, about my age, working here? Brown hair, er... probably kinda cute?" He tugged nervously on his pigtail.
"Afraid not." What, does my shop look like a dating agency?
"How about a guy?"
The chef tossed the first okonomiyaki in front of the boy. "Just eat your food."
A group of girls gathered.
"He was so... so understanding," the girl who was the centre of attention said excitedly.
"Go on, go on."
"We went to the movies. I thought I'd test him by choosing a romantic film. He didn't complain once, he sat through the entire movie, even though I could tell he wanted to go to the Jackie Chan one instead."
"Yeah, don't stop there, girl!"
"We had a bite to eat at the local beef-bowl, we talked, and then he walked me home via the park gardens."
"Ooohhhhh, the gardens. Did you..."
"No, and that's just it. Most guys, you go out with them, you know they just want one thing."
"For you to pay the bill?"
"Okay, okay. Two things. But Ukyou wasn't like that. I even offered to kiss him goodnight--"
"Well that was a bit forward!"
"Stop living in the past. I'm a modern girl, and modern girls can be forward if they want. Anyway, I offered to kiss him, but he said he didn't want me to get hurt."
"You weren't insulted by that? Sounds like a brush-off to me."
"You didn't see his face. I think he's just been hurt in a relationship before, and he's afraid to get close to anyone."
"He always seems so sad."
"Maybe he just needs the right person to cheer him up."
"I wonder if he's free on Saturday night..."
Ryouga snorted. Finally, after all this time, he was facing his enemy. Finally, he had found Ranma. He pointed to his once-friend, as a crowd of students looked on at the showdown.
"You think this is about bread?!"
Ryouga glanced around. Of course, it would have to be in a schoolground. How appropriate, to be facing him again in a place like the one where the duel challenge had been made.
"This was never about bread. It isn't even about you being gay, and how you tried to take advantage of me. No, my quarrel goes beyond such petty things!"
Silence. Eerie silence. And then, a quiet, too quiet response from Ranma. "Excuse me? My being what?"
A cold ball of embarrassment settled into Akane's stomach as she watched the showdown between Ranma and the bandannaed boy break down into a brawl.
He's gay? He's gay? She shook her head; trying to ignore the looks the other students were giving her as she sorted things out in her head.
It didn't make sense. Did it? Ranma, Mr Macho, was homosexual? This Ryouga boy had obviously thought so, despite Ranma's violent response.
Ranma had not acted like a normal guy on the first day he had met Akane. What were those words again? 'No big deal for me to see a naked girl'? Maybe he hadn't been referring to his being used to seeing his female side after all.
And there was one time, where she had barged into his room after a fight. He'd been lying on his futon, staring at a photo. In that split second, before he'd covered his expression with the usual stupid look, she'd seen a strange... almost longing look on his face. Their conversation had taken a turn for the worse, she'd knocked him unconscious, and out of curiosity she had looked at the photo.
The photo had been of a young boy, with unusually long chestnut hair, tied into a ponytail. The date on the back indicated that the boy would be around the same age as her and Ranma. She had figured maybe the boy was an old friend of Ranma's. Maybe she'd figured wrong.
But if he was gay... why hadn't he had the decency to tell her? They were engaged for pity's sake! She deserved to know!
She sighed, shaking her head as the two boys continued to battle in the background. Of course he wouldn't have told her. After all, he hadn't told her about the curse until he had to. And her reaction to that probably ensured that any further secrets of his would never be told to her.
And Mr Saotome always took great exception to Ranma's acting as anything less than a true man, always getting angry at the slightest hint of weakness from the boy. Would it be any wonder, then, that Ranma would deny to any and all his true nature, if he were gay, if he feared that word would reach his father?
Not to mention how her own father would react, if he found out that the only Saotome son had little chance of fulfilling any marriage obligations. Was it any wonder Ranma had kept quiet, with all these reasons? No, she admitted to herself, as much as she wished otherwise, she couldn't blame him for this.
The embarrassment faded, replaced by an almost guilty relief. The engagement didn't matter anymore; she had an acceptable reason to back out now. And without the ever present threat of wedding kimonos, perhaps... perhaps there was a possibility of something happening, something that had first been destroyed by her belief that Ranma had enjoyed seeing her naked on that first day in the bath. Perhaps, without the threat of having to keep him at arm's distance, like any normal boy, she and Ranma could...
She and Ranma could be friends.
"C'mon Ukyou, we're friends, aren't we?" The matchmaker grinned nervously.
"I'm starting to wonder. What the hell is this?" The cook waved a sheet of paper at the smaller boy.
The matchmaker pulled at the collar of his tight school shirt.
Ukyou cleared his throat, and started to read the sheet of paper. "Saeko, Saturday, lunch. Mai, Saturday, dinner. Kimiko, Sunday, breakfast. Breakfast?! What the hell is this all about?"
"Umm... It's your date list."
"Your date list. I don't know what you did on that first date, but I'd be willing to pay money to learn. Some of the girls are very interested in learning more about you. So, of course, they came to me to arrange things."
"Maybe I don't want them to learn more about me. Did you think of that?"
"I don't see what your problem is here. You said you enjoyed the movie, right?"
"As a one-off, innocent, two-friends-at-a-movie sort of way, yes! That didn't mean I wanted to do it again with half the girls from school!"
"You know, I've never seen you this emotional. Emotion is good, right?"
A click, a leather rasp, and a battle spatula brought to the ready as an answer.
"Oh, I see. Emotion is bad."
Onna-Ranma muttered as he stripped, keeping one foot on the struggling piglet that Akane had just found. "Damn Ryouga. Attacking me at school and at night. And damn him for spreading those rumours about me! He's gone too far."
He picked up the piglet, and looked at the bath. "Even Akane believed him! Argh! Why doesn't anyone ever believe me?" He looked the piglet in the eyes. "Do you believe me, little pig?"
The piglet shook its head in a negative gesture, before it went back to trying to escape.
"Damn," onna-Ranma muttered. "I swear, when I see Ryouga again--" he casually tossed the piglet into the hot bathwater.
Ryouga, returned to his human form, quickly covered himself with his hands. He didn't want Ranma to get any ideas.
"...I'll kill you!" onna-Ranma screamed, lunging forward, wrapping his hands around Ryouga's throat. Normally, he was a most even-tempered person. But with one short sentence in front of the Furinkan students, Ryouga had given an almost fatal blow to his male ego. Right now, Ranma wasn't overly rational.
"Ack!" Ryouga acked. "Stop... trying to... hug me! I've told you... I'm not... that -wheeze- way."
"I AM NOT TRYING TO HUG YOU!"
"Mr Saotome." Akane turned from the half-open outer bathroom door to look at the panda. She glanced down at the bath equipment in his paws.
Rain thundered in sharp staccato onto the roof, forcing her to raise her voice. "Do you mind if I use the bath first? I just can't get back to sleep, I was hoping a quick hot bath might help."
Akane stepped into the bathroom annex as the panda shuffled back to his room. She was about to take off her clothes when she heard a slight thump from the bathroom. It was hard to tell what the sound was, over the background noise of the rain.
"Ranma?" He couldn't still be taking a bath, could he? "Is there anyone in there?"
She hesitated, waiting for a response. Another thump, followed by the sound of what may have been flesh striking tiles. "Ranma?" She knocked, waited again, before she cautiously slid the inner bathroom door open.
She looked. She blinked. She looked again. Then she silently slid the door closed again.
"Ranma. In his girl form. Rolling around the floor with Ryouga. Naked." She pondered this for a few moments, rubbing her chin. "I'll kill him. I'll kill him dead. I'll..." She shook her head. "No, no I guess if that's the way he is, hitting him won't do anything to help. Still, he should be more careful. If his father had walked in..."
She shook her head, walking out into the hall. "At least now I know for certain..." she mused, walking back to her room.
A small piglet, bleeding from several small wounds, burst out of the Tendo house. Seconds later, a red haired girl dressed only in a towel, followed. A few minutes of fruitless searching later, onna-Ranma gave up looking for Ryouga.
He took one last look around the dark street, before he walked back into the Tendo yard, muttering to himself.
"This ain't over, pig."
"Ranma, where's that piglet I found?"
"I'm sorry, Akane. He ran off before I could get him."
"Dammit Ranma, I trusted you to take care of the poor little thing while you were bathing him. I can't believe you got so distracted in..."
"...Nothing. But you shouldn't have lost the piglet like that."
"Well, I'm sorry about the pig. I honestly wished he'd stuck around. I really did want to take care of him."
The walk to school was a good time to talk.
"Look, I swear, it's all a lie. I don't even know where Ryouga got this stupid idea from!"
"You don't have to worry, Ranma. I understand. You don't want people to know because it might get back to your father. It's okay. I understand now why you were so angry at my accusing you of being a pervert that day when you arrived."
"Akane, I wasn't angry at you calling me a pervert because I was gay, I was angry because you called me a pervert. Wait a minute. That didn't come out right..."
"Hey, it's okay. Kind of a relief, really. It takes a lot of the pressure off this stupid engagement."
"But I... but... damnit." This sucks.
Where in the world am I now? It was a question that was ingrained into Hibiki Ryouga's soul. As much as he hated getting lost, as much as it embarrassed him, there was a paradoxical ease of familiarity in looking around, and not recognising anything. After all, he'd been getting lost all his life, was it any wonder he could sometimes find comfort in not knowing where he was? It was one of his oldest fears that one day he'd develop a sense of direction, only to find out that he missed getting lost.
One example of something he'd miss, if, by chance, he could no longer get lost was that of chance meetings. They seemed to happen to him a lot when he got lost.
"Ukyou?" Ryouga sat on one of the counter stools of a small okonomiyaki store as he looked at the cook. Nearby, the store owner talked to one of the regular customers, leaving one half of the counter to be serviced by the younger chef.
Ukyou's features were slightly more effeminate since last time Ryouga had seen him, and the moody, almost grim expression was something he wasn't used to on the face of someone he remembered as almost always smiling.
"Ryouga. Long time no see." No exclamation of surprise at seeing a long-lost friend, no happy smile or angry frown or even a noncommital grunt. Nothing but a listless nod of the head.
"Er... yes. How have you been?"
Ryouga grimaced, tapping deep into his conversation skills. "Uh... did you ever catch up to Ranma?"
"Don't mock me Ryouga. I didn't catch up to them; they didn't want to be caught. I looked and looked, but it didn't matter because there was nothing to be found. Nothing matters..."
"Gods... snap out of it Ukyou! Are you a man, or what?"
"Depends on who you ask." A shrug, a flick of the wrist, and another order was served onto a plate. An almost careless toss of the plate to the customer later, he looked back to the bandannaed boy. "What do you want, Ryouga? Our 'happy school days' are behind us. You're a bit early for a ten year reunion, it's only been two years."
"Saotome. I found him."
"Ran..." Life sparked into the dead eyes. Then the spark died again. "Yes, of course it would be you to find him and tell me. The only person I know who couldn't direct me if he wanted to. Don't do this to me, Ryouga. Don't..."
"I have an address. Written down. He's there, Ukyou. He's there to stay. I'll give you a fair chance: if you can arrive before I can get there again, you have next chance at him. Well?"
The spark had returned to the eyes. "Yes... but why?"
Ryouga shrugged, handing over a piece of paper. "I just think you've got a fair beef too. Not one I agree with, but still... It wouldn't have felt right to have not given you a chance."
"Nerima? The Tendo Dojo?" Ukyou looked up from the writing on the paper. "Why did he stop there? What's important about this place?"
Ryouga chuckled. "You'll love this. Aheheh... you see... snicker he's. he's... heh... engaged! Bwahahahahahaha! I love it! It's almost revenge in itself, for him to be engaged to a girl!"
"Engaged?" The chef's face whitened. "To anoth... to a girl?"
Ryouga nodded, wiping laughter tears from his eyes. "Yes. Isn't it the funniest thing you've ever heard?"
The hand scrunched the paper as it clenched hard. "Far too funny for me," Ukyou snarled, her eyes almost glowing.
Two weeks. Two weeks of protesting, arguing, and telling the truth, for nothing. Ranma cursed, throwing a vicious punch at the unoffending air in front of him.
The only light in the blight of the last fortnight was that neither his or Akane's father had heard the lies about him. The blight in that light was that it was costing him all his allowance to keep Nabiki's mouth shut.
Why didn't anyone believe him? Why didn't Akane believe him? Every time, every damned time he'd tried to assert his sexual preferences, Akane would smile slightly and say something along the lines of 'Sure Ranma' or 'I believe you, Ranma', but it was obvious to him that she didn't believe...
Maybe she didn't want to believe. She'd been very pleasant to him, ever since she had 'found out'. Very friendly. Very like she was relieved that he 'was' gay.
He increased the speed of his kata, almost blurring through the moves, leaping from one part of the dojo to another.
Maybe he could prove he liked girls, not guys. Maybe then she'd stop treating him like... like... well, just a friend.
He kept up the increased pace, leaping, kicking, punching.
But how? How, what way was there? He'd tried telling her, he'd tried the more obvious things, like commenting to her on how good-looking some girl on tv was, he'd tried everything he could think of that was socially acceptable, short of...
He stopped in the centre of the dojo, slightly sweating. He stood there, motionless for a moment, before he smiled.
Of course. He'd ask her on a date.
Genma sighed in contentment as he ambled home from Tofu's clinic. His son was engaged, in an arrangement that would inherit them a dojo, he had an easy job that required little real work, his evenings were spent playing shogi with his best and oldest friend, he partook of wonderful meals that were cooked by a girl who was all too happy to do all the housework... life was good.
He smiled as he thought about what Kasumi had probably cooked for dinner. Maybe sukiyaki, or perhaps some yakitori, possibly even okonomiyaki.
He frowned. What had made him think of that? His nose, sensitive to the delicate scents of food, answered for him. "Strange. I didn't realise there was an okonomiyaki restaurant around here."
"Hello Unckie Genma..." The words sing-songed from the shadows.
"So... uh... you know... that is... well, I..."
"Ranma, what are you trying to say?"
"I was... was just wondering, Akane, if you weren't doing nothing, you know, tonight, if maybe you'd like to... to... go out to eat? Just you and... me?"
"What, a friends night out or something?"
"Wellllll... I was thinking more as a chance to... well, get to know each other as iinazuke. Didn't think that the dojo was the right place to do that."
"Oh, I see. Keeping up appearances for your Dad. Okay, sure. I can go."
"But it's not just for keeping up appearances..."
"Sure, Ranma. I understand."
"..." Fine, this is just another battle. And I swear that by the end of this date, you will believe that I am straight, or my name ain't Saotome Ranma. Heh, I'm gonna get you to admit I'm not gay even if it kills me.
"Why hello Mr Saotome. Did you have a nice day at work?"
"It must be very hard work, for you to be resting on the sidewalk like this."
"Hard work a pain? I never thought of it that way..."
"Why yes, I was going to Dr Tofu's. How did you know?"
"No... need doctor..."
"Why, Mr Saotome." She blushed. "It's not like that at all. Dr Tofu is just a good friend."
"I'll leave you to your nap, Mr Saotome. If you get back home before I do, I left your meal in the oven. I'll be glad to reheat it for you when I get back. Goodbye!"
Show her through your actions. Show her through your actions.
Ranma repeated the mantra over and over, using it as a ward against the nervousness of being out on a date. "Er... wow, look at that waitress. What a looker."
Akane turned and looked for a few seconds, before swivelling back to face Ranma. "Ranma... why do you keep up the charade twenty-four hours a day? To keep in practice? You're getting good at the protests, I admit, you've even almost convinced me a couple of times. But... but it really hurts that you feel you can't tell me the truth, even when I already know it. Do you distrust me that much? Does our friendship mean so little?"
"-sigh- Look, I tried everything I can think of to convince you, Akane. But you just don't seem to want to believe me. What do I haveta do to make you believe me?"
"Why is this so important to you? Fine, if you want me to believe your 'truth', there's an easy way to prove you like girls and not boys. Kiss me." She smirked. No way he'd take up that challenge.
"What? But I... you... we..." Indecision firmed to resolve. Here's the chance he'd wanted... she'd have to believe him if he took her challenge! All it would take was one kiss. Just one quick, lousy kiss.
He started to sweat.
"Well?" He'll never do it. Maybe now he'll finally stop treating me like an outsider to his problems, maybe now he'll start treating me like a friend that he could confide in.
"Okay, fine. I can do it. I'll give you a kiss you'll never forget!"
"Fine. Ready when you are." Look at him sweat. Come on, just break down and admit it...
"What, here?" He looked around at the semi-crowded fast food restaurant.
"They're not even looking at us. Do you think that cuts it as an excuse?"
"I don't need no excuse. Here I come." He leaned forward, sweat pouring off him.
I don't believe it, he's actually going to do it. Akane forced herself not to blink, keeping her eyes on Ranma's lips as his face drew closer.
I can't believe I'm doing this... Ranma placed both hands on the table, starting to lean across, making sure to give Akane plenty of time to back out if she wanted, hoping that she would, and hoping that she wouldn't.
Akane's wide eyes trembled slightly. What if she'd been wrong? What if he really was a normal guy? Should she stop him? Should she let him kiss her? Should she...
A gigantic spatula cleaved the space between the two teenagers, shearing through the table.
Akane and Ranma stumbled back from the broken table. Their eyes both travelled from the unusual weapon to its wielder, who was looking at Ranma.
"Pig! Scum! Betraying son of a betraying bastard!" Swing, kick, backswing.
"Aw... come on Ucchan. Don't be back to this way!" Block, dodge, vault.
"You left me! No word, no explanation, no nothing!" Head, stomach, groin.
"What!? I left you a letter! I swear, I would have waited for you to get back if Pop hadn't--" Duck, sidestep, deflect.
"Letter? There was no letter! And now I find out you're engaged to someone else! How can you be engaged to two people? How!?" Blow after blow, never settle into a pattern.
"Pop--" Dodge and dart and block and avoid and never fight back, never hurt her.
"No! I'm sick of it! Always, always it's your father's fault! Always! I bought it once, I'm not buying it again!"
The two teenagers darted out of the restaurant, Ukyou attacking, Ranma dodging. Another moment, and Akane jogged out after them.
"Don't do this Ucchan..." Don't hate me...
"Damn you! Don't you DARE call me that!"
"This isn't you, Ucchan." Don't let these feelings be you...
He caught the battle spatula, twisted around the knee that Ukyou drove at him, and he looked into his old friend's eyes. "I thought we were friends." I thought we'd always be friends...
"Let me go!"
"Not until we sort this out." Not until it's all alright again...
"I'm not going to listen to your lies!"
"Look, I'm sorry I couldn't wait around to tell you I was going. Pop forced it on me at the last moment. Damn it, you were supposed to find me! I swear, I left a le--"
"No! No easy solution this time, Saotome! No quick apology and then it's all-is-forgiveness! No nice, simple way out for you!" A quick twist, and the cook was free, leaving the spatula to Ranma as a sacrifice of the escape.
"Ucchan, don't leave like this!"
"Why should you care if I do?" Ukyou leaped to a nearby rooftop, shouting back before disappearing into the night's dark "If you'd cared, you would have told me you were going, two years ago. You would have asked me to come with you..."
Akane blinked, returning her gaze from the roof to her iinazuke. Well, the 'date' had been ruined. She was surprised at how disappointed that made her feel.
Ranma lowered his eyes from scanning the roof to stare at the spatula in his right hand. "No letter?"
She cleared her throat. "Ranma, I--"
Ranma glanced up at her, blinking as if he hadn't even realised she was there. "Akane!"
"Ranma, who was that?"
Ranma shook his head. "I'll answer that later, Akane. I've gotta find Ucchan first." He grasped the spatula with both hands, and he leaped onto the roof of one of the buildings, bounding off.
Akane clenched her fists. She couldn't believe it, she'd just been ditched in the middle of a date. "And what did he mean by 'engaged to two people'?"
"Damnit!" Ranma sat down, staring out at the adjacent rooftops. She'd gotten away.
"What the hell's wrong with her? Why's she back to trying to kill me?" He grimaced, looking to the combat spatula he still held, as if it would give an answer.
"What was with her? She was so sloppy with her attacks, what happened to her training? And what did she mean no letter, anyway? How could she not have seen it? Damn it Ucchan, I thought you didn't want to find me. This is screwed..."
"Damnit!" Ukyou slammed a fist into an unoffending wall, caving it in.
The best laid plans... screwed by his temper. He'd wanted the truth, more than anything else. No, no not quite true. What he wanted more than anything else was the truth to be that Ranma didn't run away. But still, he wanted to know, he wanted to know so bad the answer to the simplest of questions: why? Why was it so bad for the Saotomes to take one extra person along on their trip?
Did they hate him that much?
Had all of Ranma's friendship been a lie?
Perhaps why wasn't a simple question after all.
Not that it really mattered now. Ranma couldn't be trusted. Kami-sama knew that Genma couldn't. He had planned to come to Nerima, to fade into the background for a while, to spy on the Saotomes until he found out the reasons.
And he'd screwed it all because he couldn't keep hidden, he couldn't control his anger when he had first seen Genma. And then he'd compounded the problem when he'd spied on Ranma. He'd almost kept himself in check, spying on Ranma, but then... but then...
Damnit, Ranma was going to kiss that girl.
Why? Why was that girl so much more desirable to Ranma? He'd never tried to kiss... well, the Neko-ken didn't count. And neither did the bus station. Why did that girl rate such attention, what made her special? Why did Ranma love her more?
She sighed, rubbing the hand he had used to punch the wall, before she started to walk home. Why was never an easy question.
"Ah, good morning Akane. Up at last, I see."
"Uncle Saotome! What happened to you!?"
"Nothing that you should worry about. I'll be fine in a day or so. I hear you and Ranma went on a date. It must have been a good one, he didn't get home until after I went to bed, and he was gone again before I got up. Must be off celebrating his good fortune, eh? Are those wedding bells I hear?"
Considering how beat up you look, it wouldn't surprise me if you were hearing ringing. "Uncle Saotome... could you tell me something?"
"Certainly. What would you like to know? Need some advice on handling my son?"
"In a way. What do you know about Ranma being engaged twice?"
At last. After years of planning, hoping, yearning, the dream that had kept him going through the worst times had come true. Kuonji Ukyou was the proud owner/operator of his very own okonomiyaki-ya.
It had taken every yen he had earned over the years, along with a fair chunk of his father's savings. It had taken calling in favours from friends of the family, for permits and approval and such. It had taken leasing in Nerima, with its depressed, and therefore cheaper real estate market. And it had taken luck; the luck of looking for the store at the right time in the right place. But now, it was his.
He looked around the small restaurant's interior one last time. It was as clean and tidy as it was going to get. He certainly wouldn't be able to afford paint or better furniture for a fair while, so he had worked with what he could. The important thing was that the grill worked fine. All in all, it was not bad for his first restaurant. And it was time for the grand opening.
Satisfied, he walked over to the large entrance door and slid it open without preamble. He looked out at the customerless street and sighed. As if on cue, it started to rain. He sighed again.
"Great grand opening," he muttered as he walked back inside to get the store banner to hang out.
"Rain, rain, go away. And don't come back any bloody day." onna-Ranma muttered, pulling his soaked shirt away from his breasts. "Last time I try searching for someone when there's a 'chance of showers'. Maybe I should have just kept looking last night."
The clouds rumbled menacingly, and the rain increased its tempo.
"Great. Just great. Wonder if there's anywhere around here I can shelter in?" His eyes roved the rain-gloomed streets before they rested on the lit entrance of a store.
"Huh. No store curtain out, but the door's open... What the hell, it's worth a try."
"Hello there! You caught me unprepared for customers!"
He froze, his head lowered because of his attempts to wring some water out of his shirt. His eyes widened until they hurt from the strain. That voice... no, he couldn't be this lucky, could he? He slowly raised his head, never blinking.
Ukyou looked at him, polite concern on his face, resting the store curtain against the grill counter. "Are you okay?"
"I... uh..." He wasn't mentally prepared for this, he wasn't prepared at all. He'd still been running over what to say to her when he saw her again. But to meet her by chance like this...
Ukyou shook his head. "You're soaked! I'll get you a towel. So," he grinned, "what's a girl like you doing out in weather like this?"
"I'm not a girl." A reflex line, out of his mouth before he'd consciously thought it. He winced.
Ukyou looked at the girl's clothes, the totally non-demure stance, the unkempt haircut as he thought about the redhead's rough, almost boyish way of talking. "Ah." He smiled. "I think I understand. I'll just go get that towel. Have a look at the menu, the first okonomiyaki's on the house since you're my very first customer." He winked before he walked out to the back room, as onna-Ranma regained his wits.
"Damn." She didn't recognise me. She... she was so different. Happier, friendlier. Is she only bitter and sad when she's around me, around my real form? Damnit, damnit, damnit...
He blinked, starting to feel miserable. He was about to turn around and leave, when he remembered Ukyou's parting words. "Very first customer..." He reached into his pockets, drawing out a measly wad of yen. It was all that was left from what Akane's father had given him for the date the night before. He'd been trying to think of something to buy Akane as way of apology for the busted date, something that would be seen as manly. Maybe flowers or something.
But... but he was Ucchan's very first customer...
His resolve firmed, he stalked forward to sit on one of the grill stools. "I've got a promise to keep."
Ukyou placed the seventh okonomiyaki before the redhead.
"You... certainly appreciate your food." What's wrong with the girl, why's she so nervous?
"Uh... It's really good food, and I guess I'm a little hungry." What do I do?
If I tell her it's me, she might go back to her angry mode. But I don't want to lie to her either...
"So, what's your name?"
"So you're saying that when you engaged Ranma to Ukyou, you thought that Ukyou was a girl?" Akane blinked.
"But if Ukyou had been a girl, wouldn't that have meant that both engagments would--"
"What's past is past. We should worry more about the present. From what you told me about Ukyou's actions last night, it would be best if you kept away from him, and helped keep Ranma away from him too. Ukyou is obviously dangerous." Especially to a Tendo-Saotome union... Damn that girl, why did she have to turn up now?
Onna-Ranma sighed, stepping out of the okonomiyaki shop. All in all, that could have gone worse...
He winced, his shoulders slumping, before he turned and waved at the chef. "Aheh. Bye!" He shuffled down the street, cursing himself. Well, he had to say something when she started asking questions...
Ukyou completed his wave as the redheaded girl walked out of sight of the okonomiyaki-ya entrance.
"Nice girl. Real nervous though." He shook his head, idly scraping stray bits of okonomiyaki off the grill.
He smiled, twiddling one of his cooking spatulas. A kindred spirit. What were the chances? The girl, Nanami, was a tomboy. Oh boy, was she ever a tomboy. Hell, the only other girl he'd ever seen come as close to being a guy was... well, was himself.
Perhaps that was why he had felt an instant rapport with the girl.
And then, there were his protective instincts. He had studied her during their talk, and he hadn't liked what he saw. The slightest tightening of her muscles whenever he made a sudden motion. The widened eyes and slightest drop into a defensive stance when he had put his hand on his new combat spatula, which was strapped to his back, to steady it when it overbalanced. The nervous pauses before she answered a question, even if it was something simple such as her name or where she grew up...
Ukyou didn't know who had made the girl so afraid of others, but if he ever caught up with them...
With a slight grunt, Ukyou slotted the store sign over the okonomiyaki-ya entrance. He stepped back to get a better view of it.
His smile was slight, unreadable. A smile of pride? Happiness? Wistfulness? A smile for the future? The present? Or for the past?
After one last lingering look at the sign, he walked inside.
The store sign swayed slightly, the words UCCHAN'S OKONOMIYAKI bending and contorting on the wind-fingered cloth.
"Argh!" Wham! "Moron!" Wham! "Idiot!" Wham! "Stupid, stupid..." Wham! Wham! Wham!
The impromptu punching bug, a lamppost, gave one last metallic sigh before it keeled over, snapped clean through by several angry blows. Onna-Ranma flushed guiltily, looking around for witnesses to his unintentional vandalism.
He had lied to his best friend. It didn't matter that she'd been trying to bash his brains in, the night before, the fact was still there. He had lied to her, just to be able to have some peaceful time talking to her.
He felt low.
And the thing was, to see her smile at him, to see her laugh and joke and talk without anger with him, he'd... he'd do it again.
Gods, he felt low.