By M. Zephyr
Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is a trademark of Rumiko Takahashi and VIZ Communications, and its characters have been borrowed without permission. This story was written for non-commercial purposes only.
Akane and Ranma call off the engagement, and Kasumi decides it's time to take matters into her own hands.
Chapter 5. Restaurant Troubles
"Damn it!" Ukyo yelled into the telephone, "The delivery was supposed to be Thursday! Two days ago! I'm going to run out before closing, and now you tell me it won't get here till Monday?!"
She paused while the voice on the other end spoke. "Well find a way! Shrimp okonomiyaki is at least fifteen percent of my sales! And I can't make it without shrimp!"
She listened for several more seconds before replying bitingly. "No, it's not okay! That truck had better be here first thing Monday morning! And I just might take my business elsewhere in future!" She hung up the receiver with a loud clatter.
"Damn them!" she exclaimed once more, loudly. On turning around she gave a start to find her waitress standing right in front of her.
"Is something the matter, Ukyo-sama?" Konatsu inquired, his concern evident. "We could hear your voice from out in front."
Ukyo almost snarled, but fought it back under control. It wasn't Konatsu's fault. "The seafood delivery got messed up again. Somehow. Now they say they won't be here until Monday. I think we've got enough of everything else to last the weekend, but we're almost out of shrimp."
The kimono clad young man nodded in sympathy with her concern. Ukyo had been unhappy when the delivery failed to arrive on Thursday. On contacting her supplier that afternoon, she had been informed it would be here today. Now it was delayed again. Small wonder that she was upset.
"Is there anything I can do, Ukyo-sama?"
The chef shrugged, then gave him a hard look. "Why aren't you out front, taking orders for the lunch rush? I know business was slow this morning, but people should be coming in now. Get out there."
Konatsu cast his eyes down. "There are only two customers. Both have been served. I've been listening for the bell on the door."
"Oh." Ukyo walked to the doorway, looking out at the two men eating at the counter. No one else was present.
"Huh," she said, as Konatsu stepped up beside her. "Is someone else running a special today? Except I'm supposed to get word of things like that." She scowled. "If this keeps up, the shrimp might last through the day. Still ..."
She went to the register and pulled out some cash. Turning, she held it out. "Here. Head over to the Bargain Club. Pick up a couple of boxes of shrimp to tide us over. Looks like I'll be able to handle things here by myself."
Konatsu took the money and bowed, then turned and left. By now he'd learned enough about the restaurant business to be trusted with this sort of task, although that hadn't always been the case. Ukyo turned back to the front with a small frown of worry, hoping that the dinner crowd would make up for the empty seats she had right now.
As it turned out, dinner wasn't much better than lunch, and Ukyo felt a touch of dismay as she counted out the cash drawer and put the contents in the safe. It wasn't the worst day she'd had - quite - but the only other times as bad, there had been something going on to explain the lack of customers. Well, no doubt business would pick up again tomorrow.
Saying good night to Konatsu, Ukyo climbed the stairs to her apartment, closing the door behind her with a sigh. She tried to think of what her next step should be concerning her fiancé. Of course, she'd heard about Shampoo and Kodachi attacking Kasumi. That had been useless and stupid as far as Ukyo was concerned, and not something she'd ever do - she was a martial artist, not some sort of barbarian. Unfortunately, talking to Kasumi hadn't helped either. Nor had talking to Ranma. At the moment, Ukyo wasn't sure what more, if anything, she could do. Other than wrecking the wedding like last time. She cringed at the thought of doing so and then having to face the sad look on Kasumi Tendo's face.
After finishing the homework which was due Monday, Ukyo changed into pajamas and a robe, then knelt in front of her table with a cup of tea. She regarded the blank television screen in front of her, but made no move to pick up the remote and turn it on. Her thoughts drifted relentlessly to Ranma. And Kasumi. And herself. And weddings. And love.
If only she could convince Kasumi to step aside. However, the brief conversation they'd had on the subject had made it clear the older girl had no intention of doing so. Unbidden, Kasumi's question about Ukyo's own feelings toward Ranma returned to trouble the chef. "Would you dare to ask yourself on how many occasions you have put Ranma's needs ahead of your own?"
"Of course I put Ranchan first," Ukyo said out loud, even though there was no one else to hear. "I gave up on killing the jerk and renewed our engagement, didn't I?"
The thought occurred to Ukyo that doing so had been less a matter of giving up, then that she hadn't been able to kill the jerk. Once Ranma had stopped fooling around and gotten serious, the day they fought, she hadn't been able to touch him. The young chef sighed heavily.
"I do a lot for Ranchan. I feed that bottomless stomach of his every time he comes in here, don't I?" Ukyo nodded to herself. "And what about that time Happosai made him too weak to fight. I offered to take care of him, didn't I? Though come to think of it, Akane did too, at the end. Huh. Hard to remember that sort of thing, as often as she seems to lose her temper with Ranchan."
Ukyo smiled in reminiscence at the incident. "I also went with Ranchan to search for the moxibustion chart to cure him. Of course, so did Akane. And I went with Ranma and his father to train in Yomogi Valley, and Akane and I helped Cologne to train him in the Soul of Ice." The young woman blushed at the memory of the photograph Genma Saotome had shown her, of a naked Ranma. Damn the man for putting his thumb over the important bit.
Ukyo frowned as she remembered Akane and Ranma returning later that night, with Akane wearing Ranma's shirt. The story she'd been told later was that Akane had set her arms on fire, to help Ranma train in the next part of the technique, except her shirt had caught fire. Ukyo shook her head. It had been reckless and stupid of Akane to run such a risk.
That thought triggered a memory of standing nearby a couple of days later, spellbound, staring at the massive tornado which signaled Ranma's defeat over the four men attacking him. Of watching in disbelief, mouth dry, as Akane dove into the whirlwind herself, trying to save the chart which held the promise of Ranma's cure. It had been an insane act, risking herself in order ...
Ukyo felt her stomach flip over, throat closing up. Who had put Ranma's needs first that day? Herself? Or Akane?
"But Akane doesn't love Ranchan!" she wailed. "I do! Just because I'm not stupid enough to jump into a tornado doesn't mean I don't love him!"
Ukyo cast back through her memories. There had to have been other times. "The ... that Gambler King. I let Ranchan wager my restaurant. I could have lost it." Before she could dwell further on that, her conscience rose up to remind her that she had expected to lose it. Had counted on it, since Ranma was such a bad gambler. That way, he would have had to make good on his promise to stay with her and take care of her.
She desperately searched through recollections of other times. They came to her, each one more damning then the last. Paying off Nabiki to make Ranma go on a date with her. Had she bothered asking herself whether he wanted to? Winning the hot springs race with Ryoga, and seeing the forlorn look on Ranma's and Akane's faces as they stood before the finish line. Not that she'd known what was at stake - it was only later she learned that Akane had been trying to help Ranma win a trip to Jusenkyo to cure his curse.
The Cave of Broken Loves. Ukyo winced, recalling that her whole purpose had been to split Ranma and Akane up. Not that it had worked. She and Shampoo and Kodachi had wrecked his mother's house, trying to claim a nonexistent engagement ring. That had been a real demonstration of how much she cared what Ranma wanted, hadn't it?
"But I love Ranchan!" Ukyo told herself again, despairingly. She thought of saying that to Kasumi. She thought of the other girl looking at her in pity, asking how she had demonstrated her love. Tears started to leak from her eyes as she thought of how little evidence she could present.
"But Kasumi doesn't love him either," Ukyo complained, arm swiping at the water on her cheeks. "If anyone does, it's ..." She stopped, aghast at what she had almost said. That wasn't possible. That was simply and utterly impossible. Ukyo had reassured herself, over and over again, ever since reinstating the engagement, that if there was one person who didn't want to marry Ranma, it was ...
"Akane," she whispered, the name almost inaudible.
Ukyo shook herself. "No way," she whispered. She stood. She'd been thinking about this too hard, if she was having crazy thoughts like that. She went and poured herself another cup of tea. Taking a brief sip, she turned her thoughts with determination to walking over to the offices of a certain delivery company, and bashing the manager with her spatula.
The back door of the restaurant opened. Mousse staggered in, struggling to balance a stack of four crates in his arms.
"About time!" Cologne snapped from where she was stirring a pot. "You were supposed to be back three hours ago! Who did you get in a fight with? Or do I even need to ask?"
Mousse set the crates down with a bang. Adjusting the glasses on his nose, he gave the old woman a withering look. "I didn't fight with anyone. Our suppliers here in Nerima were out of stock. Or so they said. In the end I had to go all the way to Setagaya to find some."
This caused Cologne to raise her eyebrows. "Why didn't you try in Suginami, instead of skipping past to the next ward?"
The boy crossed his arms. "I did. Or rather, I tried one place. When they also were unable to fill my order, I thought it would waste less time to go far enough that ... whatever is going on might not have reached there."
The Amazon elder nodded thoughtfully. "No deliveries, and now no one willing to sell to us either. One can guess this is about the, hmm, situation with son-in-law. On the other hand, I have been careful not to take any action, so far, to overtly threaten the Tendo family. I wonder what set this off?"
Mousse shrugged. "I tried to ask. I received no answers. Only blank looks of incomprehension. And I did not think you would wish me to beat the truth out of them."
Cologne snorted. "Hardly. The situation is difficult enough as is. We are running low on supplies and have had so few customers the last few days that it is hardly worth opening."
Somewhat daringly, Mousse asked, "Can we keep the Nekohanten open under these conditions?"
Shampoo banged in through the door from the front. "Great-grandmother! We have customer. He want bowl of chicken ramen." She then noticed the other occupant of the room. "Oh Mousse. You back. Why you take so long?"
"He had cause," Cologne answered her heir. "As for you, boy, your question was impertinent. But you need not fear that we will be forced out of our home immediately." She handed him a bowl of ramen. "Now make yourself useful and take this out to our customer."
After he left, Cologne turned worried eyes on her great-granddaughter. "Something is up. I have enough funds on hand to pay our rent and so forth for the next couple of months, but after that ..." She shook her head. "I do not know what is going on, but unless it changes we may be forced to leave soon. I doubt that the village will send us more money to support your quest further. That makes it all the more urgent to secure your husband before this foolishness of a wedding takes place. However, we have a little time yet, and you know I have never cared for the idea of being overly hasty where son-in-law is concerned. I had hoped that Kasumi Tendo would come to her senses."
"She make herself obstacle," the young Amazon retorted. "Shampoo should ..."
"Hush," Cologne said severely. "Attacking Kasumi Tendo would be just about the worst thing you could do at this time. I forbid you to consider it." The old woman paused thoughtfully while Shampoo hid her guilty expression. After a moment Cologne went on, "I believe that tomorrow I will speak with her again. Pride has kept her on this path so far, but worries must be gnawing at her. A few carefully chosen words from me, a few more days to dwell on them, and she might well surrender peacefully. Or so I hope." She vented a weary sigh.
The door from the front opened again. Mousse stepped in, but held the door open. "Excuse me elder. This man wishes to speak with you."
A middle aged man followed behind the Chinese boy. He held out a card, which Cologne took reluctantly. Gazing upon it she read, "Hideaki Matsushita, Inspector, Nerima Board of Health."
She looked back up, staring hard. "We had an inspection just last month."
The man bowed fractionally, keeping his eyes on hers. "Regulations state that inspections may be conducted at any time. We have received a complaint." He lifted his clipboard. "I must ask you to give me full access to the premises."
"Of course," Cologne replied acidly.
Meanwhile, on the thirtieth floor of an office building in downtown Tokyo, a group of men were gathered around a table in an interior conference room. A man in his early thirties, standing beside his chair on one side of the table, had just finished delivering a report. With a wry twist of his mouth for the news he had imparted, he resumed his seat.
"I see," said the man at the head of the table. He was sixty-two years old, but despite his iron gray hair he could easily have been taken for a man ten years younger. Not that anyone ever underestimated him. One look at his face, permanently fixed in a steely expression, was sufficient to prevent any such mistake.
His unwavering gaze fixed on his subordinate, the man continued speaking. "While bad news is never welcome, I am pleased when my people are honest about it. However, I notice that something is missing from your report, Hanatori-san. You have provided no explanation for why revenues have dropped by twenty percent in northwest Tokyo."
The man who had just given the report bowed slightly from his seat, lowering his eyes fractionally. "I am afraid that I only received the numbers this morning, sir. I have already given orders for the matter to be looked into."
The older man he addressed, who was the CEO of a business with extensive operations throughout Japan, nodded seriously. It was good to have subordinates who showed appropriate initiative without waiting to be told what to do, and who did not delay in responding to matters which were potentially serious. The stern figure at the head of the table said, "I would appreciate a copy of that report, as soon as you have it please."
Hanatori bowed again. "Certainly, Kuno-san."
"Again. Faster this time."
Akane took a deep breath, pausing a moment to let her eyes run over the extensive rents in her gi. Miraculously, none of them exposed anything inappropriate. ‹So far,› she thought to herself. Focusing tightly on the boy in front of her, Akane began her charge, although she was immediately forced to twist and writhe sinuously as she ran.
On the sidelines Kasumi had finished her morning exercises and was leaning against the dojo wall, patting a towel lightly against her neck and under her chin. She watched in terrified fascination as Ranma chopped again and again with the bokken, slight distortions in the air visible where the blades of concentrated air pressure flew in the direction of her little sister. Akane dodged and twisted around them, closing the gap to her attacker rapidly. With a final shouted "kiya" she slammed a precisely controlled kick to Ranma's midsection, which he rode rather than dodging.
"Good," Ranma congratulated her. "You only took one slice that time, on your left sleeve." He shook his head. "You're picking this up a lot faster than I expected."
"Told you I was a real martial artist," Akane panted, bent over with her hands on her knees.
Kasumi watched in sad amusement as Ranma turned away quickly, face reddening. It was apparent her younger sister was unaware of the view she had just granted Ranma down her gi top. That shy aspect to his nature was one of his more endearing qualities; it was a pity Akane had always seemed unaware of it. The older girl watched as her fiancé walked over to her.
"I think we had better go in," Kasumi suggested. "You two need to hurry and wash up if you're going to get to school on time."
Ranma looked down at himself. "Don't think I need to. I wasn't doing anything strenuous. You and Akane though ..." He turned back to look at his former fiancée.
She stuck her tongue out at him. With the sweat running down her face, the strings of hair plastered to her forehead and neck, the rips in her uniform which was sticking damply to her body, Akane presented an almost indescribably alluring figure to the young martial artist. He swallowed heavily and looked away again.
"Yeah, we'd better get in," he agreed.
As they entered the door into the house they almost ran into Nabiki, who was hurrying out toward them. "Good timing," the middle sister told them. "Cologne's on the phone. Wants to talk to you." She was looking at Kasumi.
The older girl, unruffled, walked down the hall and picked up the receiver. "Hello?" she said. "This is Kasumi."
She listened for a few moments, then paused, thinking. Things were on the move, and some recent developments would need to be taken into consideration. She finally responded by saying, "I don't think that coming here would be such a good idea. Perhaps we could meet somewhere else. Are you familiar with Koizumi's Tea House?"
She listened again, then nodded. "Very well. May we meet there ... just a moment please."
She turned and looked at her fiancé, who had placed his hand on her arm and shaken his head vigorously. "You ain't going anywhere near those Amazons," he hissed under his breath.
"I can hardly be so impolite as to refuse to speak with her," Kasumi said gently.
Ranma growled, but knew a losing argument when he saw one. "Then make it for after school," he whispered. "So we can go with you."
Kasumi gave him a smile of acquiescence. Turning back to the receiver, she said, "May we meet there at three-thirty? Yes? Fine, I'll look forward to seeing you then. Good-bye, elder." She hung up the phone, all the while ignoring Ranma's dissatisfied look.
That afternoon Cologne was sitting patiently at a table in the tea house, thinking over the conversation to come. She gave no thought to the failed inspection from the previous day, her meditations of that night having sealed it away in a corner of her mind to deal with later. On the other hand, a portion of her thoughts was picking away at the puzzle of the people she had noticed earlier, loitering in the street outside her restaurant. They were too obviously doing nothing. Yet they were also making too little effort if their intention was to spy on her, even ignoring the fact that there was nothing for them to learn. With a sigh Cologne dismissed the fools as unimportant.
The ancient crone looked up on hearing the bell over the front door, then her eyes widened to see Ranma and Akane come in, their movements revealing they were ready for anything. Both of their glares locked on her for a moment, then slid away to inspect every corner of the establishment. Giving equal nods of acceptance, they stepped further inside, away from the door.
Kasumi then stepped inside. Following behind her were her father Soun Tendo, as well as Ranma's father Genma Saotome. Both men were dressed in their gis, and both had completely serious expressions on their faces. They scanned the interior just as their children had. After doing so, the entire party came over in a group.
"Ah ... I seem to be a trifle outnumbered," Cologne offered hesitantly.
Ranma and Kasumi slid into seats across the table from her. The others took seats at the next table over. Ranma answered her gruffly. "We weren't planning to take any chances after what's already happened."
Cologne squinted at him, as she mentally made plans to beat her great-granddaughter within an inch of her life, if this was what she suspected and the girl had deliberately kept it from her. "I seem to be unaware of all that is going on. May I ask what happened?"
Kasumi answered. "Shampoo has expressed her displeasure about our upcoming nuptials. Rather physically I fear. My fiancé and my father feel it would be unwise for me to go out unaccompanied." She smiled sweetly at Ranma.
Ranma gave Kasumi a long, mildly exasperated look. "Expressed her displeasure?" he repeated, softly. Turning back to the old woman across the table, he corrected this angrily. "What she means is that Shampoo almost bashed her head in! Would have, if I hadn't arrived in the nick of time."
Cologne closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She would deal with Shampoo later, there were other matters to attend to at the moment. Opening her eyes again, she said, "I see. I give you my word I knew nothing of this. Frankly, I do not want to see anyone harmed." She paused only for an instant, then continued before someone else could speak. "Even so, you must understand our point of view. Your intention to hold this wedding is in conflict with our laws."
Kasumi replied softly, "As I said before, I am sorry about the situation with your laws. But the agreement between the Tendo and Saotome families must be fulfilled."
"That will not happen," Cologne said. "I warn you, you only have a brief space of time in which to change your mind regarding this matter. I said that I do not wish to see anyone harmed. If you also wish to see no one harmed, then I urge you to reconsider your intention."
"Don't threaten my sister!" Akane said hotly.
Cologne turned in her direction, but kept her voice controlled. "Then talk some sense into her." She turned back to the couple across from her. "If you force us to act, unfortunate things we do not intend might happen in the potential chaos."
"Then you'd best not try anything," Ranma said grimly. "Or something 'unfortunate' just might happen."
The Amazon elder took a deep breath. She was not - quite - ready to escalate matters further. For that matter, if the time for such escalation did come, she would rather do so intentionally.
"We are offering you a tremendous opportunity, son-in-law. You would hold an honored position among our people. You would have the chance to learn martial arts techniques you can only dream of. You would be able to put a unique stamp on the next generation of the Joketsuzoku. Compare that to what you are offered here! A run down dojo and a wife who does not love you. Choose wisely, and we might all be content with the result."
She had expected the closed look which overtook Kasumi's face at this speech, and the angry expressions of Soun and Akane Tendo. With a sigh of disappointment, she saw that Ranma was also glaring at her angrily. Cologne again spoke before anyone could say anything. "Consider my words carefully. This may well be the last time I speak with you about this."
Rather than belligerent words from one of the others, it was Kasumi who spoke, her voice low but making a good imitation of sounding unconcerned. "Perhaps you and Shampoo should also consider carefully. Poorly made choices could lead to regrets for yourselves as well."
Cologne shook her head. "I have said what I had to say. I'll be leaving now. Son-in-law, I hope to see you soon, of your own free will." She rose to her feet, then shuffled out of the room. Everyone's eyes followed until she was gone.
"That does it," Ranma announced. "I'm dropping out of school for the rest of the term. Not that there's much left. We need to protect Kasumi."
For once in full agreement with her one-time fiancé, Akane stated, "Me too. We'll keep you safe, oneechan."
Kasumi looked from one to the other with a sad smile. "That won't be necessary. Don't you understand? Elder Cologne is not Shampoo. She has no intention of harming me if she can help it. No, if she decides to act, it's Ranma she'll go after. He's the only one she cares about."
Ranma stared at her, stupefied. "Oh," he said in a quiet voice.
A few days passed. The Nekohanten put out a sign saying that it was closed temporarily. Ucchan's struggled to survive on the handful of customers who came by, people who happened to be passing through the city. Kodachi attempted another attack while Ranma was in school, but was repulsed by the combined efforts of Soun and Genma before she could get close to Kasumi. Her brother Tatewaki was blessedly silent due to his broken jaw, but had made it clear he was all in favor of the upcoming wedding. The notes he tried to give to Akane were crumpled and thrown away unread.
At the end of the week, toward midafternoon, Cologne walked into Shampoo's bedroom above the Nekohanten. Bending down for a closer look inside the cage, she asked, "You will try hard to do as you're told in future, won't you?"
"Very well." The old woman opened the cage door, letting the cat inside step out, then poured hot water over her cursed heir from the kettle she had brought with her.
Shampoo shuddered with relief at finally being human again, as she picked up her clothes and pulled them on. "Shampoo promise. But what we do? Wedding getting close."
Cologne sighed. "Unfortunately true. It looks like son-in-law has chosen unwisely. I fear it may be time to, ah, persuade him to come with us. I know you had hoped for things to be otherwise, but it seems that is not meant to be."
Shampoo turned away, gritting her teeth. She tried to ignore the pain in her chest upon hearing the words finally and plainly stated that Ranma refused to choose her. Turning back, she asked, "When ...?"
She got no further, as Cologne held a hand up on hearing a light tread on the stair outside. A moment later a knock came on the door. "Are you in there, elder?"
"We both are," she replied. "Come in Mousse."
The young man entered, giving a nod and a happy smile in Shampoo's direction to see her human once more. The girl pretended not to notice. With a sigh, he turned and handed an envelope to Cologne. "This just arrived in the mail. It looks official."
Cologne opened the envelope and withdrew the single sheet of paper contained within. Scanning it quickly, she absently said, "That will be all, Mousse."
With a faint scowl, he turned and left, closing the door behind him. His footsteps went back down the stairs.
"What is it, great-grandmother?" Shampoo asked.
Cologne sighed. "More fallout from your idiocy, I fear. It seems that our landlord is evicting us."
"He no can do that!" Shampoo protested.
"Of course they can," Cologne told her sternly. "I've told you before that you ought to pay more attention to business matters. Our 'landlord' is not a single person, it is a large firm. I can hardly threaten every last one of their employees, and threatening their top executives would cause an international mess which would bring undesirable attention from Beijing. Taking the matter to court would also be pointless. We are Chinese. We wouldn't have a chance."
"Then what we do?" asked the worried girl.
"We have a few more days, but ..." She sighed again. "I think it is time to act. Tonight, at dinnertime. Everyone at the Tendo house will be gathered together in one place. We'll use some of that paralysis dust I stole from the Kuno girl. We'll take Ranma away, and neither he nor anyone else will be able to lift a finger to stop us." She fixed Shampoo with a steely eye. "No one is to be harmed. Do you understand me? An angry Ranma is bad enough. I don't want to deal with one in a murderous rage."
"Shampoo do as told," the girl promised sullenly.
"I'm glad to hear it. We'll transform Mousse and leave him locked inside his cage so he can't interfere. Once we have Ranma, we'll have to move quickly. I want to have him away before anyone can try to stop us. We'll have to keep him drugged, I'm afraid." She cast a critical eye over her heir. "Go get some exercise in the meantime. You're still stiff from your punishment."
Shampoo nodded and trudged down the stairs, heading out to the back courtyard to run through several katas. Cologne remained where she was, making plans, gnawing at her lip, wondering what else might yet go wrong. It was vital to succeed on the first try, while they had the element of surprise on their side. Of course, Ranma and the others knew that she and Shampoo would eventually try something, but that wasn't the same as knowing that the decision to attack had been made.
A few blocks over, Ukyo was staring in dismay at the letter in her hand, near twin to the one received by Cologne. "Evicted?!" she demanded incredulously. "Why?!"
Of course, in one sense she already knew why. She had long since realized that too many things were going wrong for it to be simply coincidence. This had to involve the upcoming wedding. Or more precisely, her opposition to that wedding. As a member of the local business community, Ukyo was aware of the high regard in which Kasumi Tendo was held, the child who had stepped into her mother's shoes after the woman's unfortunate and untimely death, who had managed to hold together one of the more prominent local families. She had simply never considered the implications until they landed in her lap.
It had done no good to protest to her suppliers and others that she had not attacked Kasumi, as Kodachi and Shampoo had done. In the minds of the locals, Ukyo was tarred with the same brush, past actions coming back to haunt her. She wondered again how the exploding okonomiyaki could have seemed a good idea at the time.
Feeling helpless before she even began, Ukyo picked up the telephone to try to contact someone with whom she could plead her case, dialing a number taken from the eviction letter. As she had feared, each person to whom she spoke was utterly polite and helpfully transferred her call to a more appropriate office. After a dozen such transfers she gave up, returning the receiver to its cradle.
The young chef slowly collapsed into a chair, looking out over the empty seats in the dining area. "What am I going to do?" she asked rhetorically. Konatsu looked up for a moment at the question, before he returned to wiping down the spotless counter.
She felt as if she were being crushed, the weight of the whole world turning against her. This wasn't only Ranma anymore, refusing to make a decision. It wasn't only his parents, insisting that he marry one of the Tendo girls. It wasn't only Shampoo or Kodachi and the trouble they caused.
No, it was everyone. Or at least everyone in Nerima. How was she supposed to fight an entire city, to win the man she loved?
‹But do you love him?› she couldn't help asking herself.
"He ... he's supposed to ... marry me," she gulped quietly. "The ... the cute fian-fiancée." She hung her head, burying her face in her hands.
Bitterly, the young woman was forced to acknowledge that she had come to the end. It was impossible to fight the forces arrayed against her. She would go to Ranma, tonight, try one last time to get him to see that she was the one for him. If she couldn't ... if she couldn't ...
‹I have to. I have to convince him,› she told herself, almost breaking down. ‹If I can't, the only thing left is to surrender. Please Ranchan ...› She fell silent, even in her thoughts, striving to discover some spark of hope within herself.
Mousse looked up at an unexpected sound. Too late, as a wave of water crashed over him. He quacked angrily, but could not avoid the hands which seized him tightly. Seconds later he was locked inside a cage, beating his wings futilely against the grill in front.
"Let's go Shampoo," the withered voice said. "I have the powder ready. There should be enough for the entire family."
The pair of them left the restaurant. As they jumped to the roof, Cologne scowled, looking back down. A couple of people were lounging carelessly, a short way down the street, a sight which had become familiar in the last several days, and which she had dismissed as unimportant. While leaping forward, something about the watchers worried at her, causing her to wonder whether she had been too quick to ignore them.
Back in the street which ran in front of the Nekohanten, a man lifted his cell phone to his mouth.
A few moments later the Amazon elder gave a soft curse, as it occurred to her that instincts developed a hundred years earlier, in a time before modern technology, might have betrayed her. She felt sudden concern that those people could have been positioned there to give advance warning to the Tendo's if she and Shampoo appeared to be taking action. Yet if so, it was likely too late to prevent such a warning, which meant Ranma probably already knew they were coming. She wanted to kick herself, but sternly recited the old saying about battle plans. They were committed now. Ranma would know they were ready to act, so there was no point in waiting for another day. She would strike now, and hope the Saotome's and Tendo's weren't prepared for what was coming.
As the two Chinese women ran and jumped along the tops of the buildings, Cologne frowned upon seeing some sort of motion on the rooftops several blocks ahead, partially obscured by the gathering dusk. The perceived movement continued to increase, and as they drew close, both Cologne and Shampoo came to a stop. On every roof in front of them, as far as they could see, crowds of people stood, leaving no clear space to land. Looking down, they saw the streets between the houses filling as well.
"What they do?" Shampoo asked in confusion. "They not martial artists. Cannot stop us."
Cologne looked around herself. All of the people she saw had grim faces. Many were holding various implements. Baseball bats, rakes, kitchen knives, even an occasional katana or other bladed weapon. But it was ridiculous. She and Shampoo could plow through such people with ease. The fools would have no choice but to give way, or risk being injured.
On the roof directly in front of them, three men pulled pieces of white cloth from their pockets. Lifting them, they tied the bands around their heads, the image of the rising sun centered in front. Proudly they stood, waiting.
"Kamikaze," Cologne whispered sharply.
Shampoo turned toward her. "What great-grandmother say?"
The elderly woman's shoulders slumped wearily. "They won't step aside if we try to pass," she said quietly. "They intend to sacrifice themselves, if we make the attempt."
Shampoo looked around in bewilderment. "They too too foolish. That not stop us. Only get many people hurt."
"Exactly," Cologne said in defeat. "Think child! What will happen if the newspapers tomorrow carry the story that two Chinese citizens massacred hundreds of Japanese? Do you think that Beijing will thank us for trying to start a war? What do you think that will do to the truce?"
The Joketsuzoku elder shook her head, the taste in her mouth bitter. "The PRC gave up on trying to crush us because it came at too high a price. So long as we remained virtually unknown, they could accept that. But if they were to change their minds ... it does not matter if we killed a hundred of theirs for every warrior of ours who fell. Our people could not sustain that rate of attrition against the numbers they could send against us."
"But what we do?" Shampoo asked, looking around again. "Cannot get through without hurting people. We try something else?"
Cologne laughed acidly. "Do you honestly think that the people responsible for this have not warned the Tendo family? They will know, by now, that we have decided to act. They will be expecting to fight now, and if we wait any longer they will be fully prepared to do so. I might be able to defeat Ranma, if he is ready and waiting for me. Perhaps. Keeping him in one piece is a different question. Do you fancy your chances against Saotome Genma, Tendo Akane, and Tendo Soun, while I fight Ranma? Against any one of them, certainly, but all at once?"
She fell silent, considering possibilities. Their quarry was warned now, thanks to her own short-sightedness over ignoring the spotters. Ranma was unlikely to go anywhere alone. Even if he did, her best chance had lain in using surprise. A full scale battle would involve horrible chances, against the boy who had defeated leaders of both the Musk and Phoenix tribes. Assuming she won, which was by no means guaranteed, how much chance was there that he would be whole and healthy when it was over?
Not to mention the whole question of how to get near him in the first place. Every move that she and Shampoo made would be marked, the elder knew it in her bones. They were confronted not just by the handful of Saotomes and Tendos, but by a city of thousands, who seemed ready to sacrifice themselves to keep her from her goal.
The ancient woman, proud warrior of a proud people, looked forward into the few days which remained to them and saw nothing but ... humiliation. Either standing around in helpless frustration, or flailing around uselessly. She foresaw attempts to approach her target which were aborted because she dared not force a way through the people who stood between them, making such efforts pointless before they began.
Cologne bowed her head. "We have lost," she whispered.
"Great-grandmother!" Shampoo exclaimed.
"No!" She shook her head. "A warrior must know when to accept defeat, however painful it is. Ranma has refused to come to us and is now forewarned. The people of this city will not even let us get close. I made a fatal mistake right at the start, thinking that I could attack at any time I chose. Now we must either stand by and do nothing, holding off further action until some future point after the boy is married, which we cannot do. Or else uselessly try this again, to face this same scene and be forced to back down, again. Well ... I for one will not sacrifice my pride to flounder helplessly, to the amusement of these ... people. It is time to go home."
Shampoo wanted to protest. Wanted to scream. Wanted to mow down the mob standing silently on the roofs and in the streets before them. But the elder had spoken. To reach their target before the day set for the wedding would require them to massacre the crowds who confronted them, and that could not be done without risking the very existence of their own people. Nor would waiting until some later point solve anything, for Shampoo's own claim would evaporate at the moment of Ranma's marriage to another. Tears running down her cheeks, overwhelmed by despair, Shampoo bowed her head in acceptance.
"There will be no battle!" Cologne called out in ringing tones. "I do not slaughter sheep! You may inform the Tendo clan head that it is over! We shall leave, and shake the dust of this city from our feet forever!"
With no further word and not even a glance backward, she turned and bounded away. Shampoo followed immediately behind, trying to fight the lump in her throat back down. On arriving at the café they released a stunned Mousse and told him to pack. There was nothing left for them in Japan, and neither of the women had any desire to see another sun rise over the city of their defeat.
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