Chapter 10

Ryoga threw a pebble into the koi pond and watched the ripples spread across the pond, expanding and fading at the same time. He contemplated the metaphor for a moment, and then threw in another pebble.

"You ready?" Ranma asked.

Ryoga looked up at the small, red-headed girl weighed down by a huge backpack. She was wearing a silk blouse and tight jeans, the most practical travelling clothes Ling and Lang had left in her closet. The blouse was cut low to show her ample cleavage and the jeans hugged her hips very nicely.

Ryoga shook his head. He had been admiring Ranma's female form a little too much of late. He had to stop it, if for no other reason than to preserve his own sanity.

He stood and reached out a hand. "Let me take that," he said.

"I can carry my own pack," she snapped.

"I didn't say you couldn't," he replied. "But I can carry it easier than you can, and I don't want you slowing us down."

She glowered at him.

"Besides," he said. "As your husband, I am expected to do the heavy lifting."

"Why I… You…" Ranma stammered. "If you think…"

Ryoga took advantage of her momentary fluster to snatch the backpack, swinging it easily onto his shoulder. Then he grabbed his own pack and slung it over the other shoulder. "Let's go," he said. "The sooner we get this done, the better."

Ranma frowned and contemplated snatching back her pack. She was faster than Ryoga, after all, and it would be easy to do. Then she reconsidered. If the big oaf wanted to carry all the weight, why not let him? A small smirk crossed her lips. "Ah, my big, strong hubby," she gushed. "Whatever would I do without you?"

Ryoga glowered at her. "Don't think I've forgotten this is all your fault," he said.

"My fault?" Ranma shot back. "You're the one who broke the Bow of Annoying Infatuation."

"Yes," Ryoga countered, "but we wouldn't have been saddled with that pair of psycho match-makers if you hadn't gotten us married."

"Yeah… well…" Ranma sputtered. "It was you who wasted our wish with the goddess. I coulda been a guy again. Permanently."

"And if it wasn't for you knocking me into that pool, I wouldn't turn into a pig," Ryoga replied.

"I never asked you to follow me," Ranma said.

"It was a matter of honor," Ryoga replied. "You ran out on our bread feud."

"For the last time, I didn't 'run out'," Ranma shouted. "I waited three days."

"Whatever," Ryoga said. "I have more important things to worry about. You can stay here arguing. I am going to start our quest." He turned and started to stomp off.

"Not so fast, pig-breath," Ranma said, grabbing his wrist. "We need to re-make the Bow of Annoying Infatuation sometime this century. With your sense of direction, you'll never find all the necessary ingredients. The Old Ghoul said it would be a long and dangerous journey and we could only complete the task by working together."

Ryoga sighed. Ranma, unfortunately, was right. If he tried to complete the quest alone, he would be wandering through Botswana within a week. "Fine," he spat. "Let's get going so we can get this over with. Where do we need to go first?"

Ranma pulled out the piece of paper Cologne had given them with the instructions for re-making the Bow of Annoying Infatuation. The sight of it sent a shiver down her spine, remembering the chaos that had driven them to seek the Old Ghoul's help in the first place. It seemed that when Ryoga destroyed the old bow, the magic spread by its arrows had become unstable. One minute Akane would be chasing Mousse trying to steal a kiss, and the very next moment she would boot him into Low Earth Orbit out of disgust at his very presence. Cologne had no idea, unfortunately, how long the effect would last. The only remedy was to re-make the Bow and thus stabilize the effects. Thus Ranma and Ryoga had a long and detailed set of instructions as to how to re-make the bow.

"Let's see," Ranma said. "First, we're going to need hair from the tail of the Fire Stallion of Shikoku." She looked down at the paper. "The Fire Stallion," she read, "is one of the most amorous creatures on earth. Once it sets its sights on a particular mare, he will pursue her across the length and breadth of Japan until he can mate with her. Then he'll never call, write, or send her flowers."

"Where do we find this Fire Stallion?" Ryoga asked.

"On the island of Shikoku, I assume," Ranma replied.

"Fine," Ryoga said. "Shikoku it is." He turned and started north.

Ranma grabbed his wrist again. "Ryoga," she chided. "Shikoku is this way." She motioned to the south.

"Oh," Ryoga replied. "I knew that."

Ranma slipped her hand down from his wrist to take his hand. "This is going to be a long trip if I have to spend the whole time making sure you don't get lost." She started down the road, pulling Ryoga along.

Ryoga tightened his grip on her hand and followed. Her small hand felt warm in his. He was doing this for Akane, he told himself. He certainly wasn't going to enjoy walking in the warm sunshine, feeling the gentle breeze on his face, holding the hand of a pretty girl as they walked together down the road.

The young girl wiped the sweat away from her forehead, careful to use the back of her wrist since her hands were dirty from planting flowers. She stretched her back left and then right to work out the kinks and glanced down the road. Seeing a man and a woman coming down the road towards her, she squinted in the afternoon sun to try and make out who they were. The man was quite a bit taller than the small woman, but she appeared to be leading him down the road by the hand.

As they got closer, she caught the flash of red from the woman's hair and yellow from a bandana tied around the man's head. She shook her head. It couldn't be.

She stood and brushed the dirt from her hands and watched the pair come closer. Her breath caught. It was them!

She ran toward the couple and cried, "It's you! It's you!"

Ranma looked over at Ryoga, brows furrowed. He simply shrugged. Ranma then turned back toward the girl. "Look, kid," she said. "I don't know who you think we are…"

"I can't believe you're here," the girl said. "My friends will be so jealous. Wait here, please? Please? I won't be a moment." She turned and ran back towards her house.

Ranma looked back at Ryoga, who merely shrugged again. "Some help you are," she muttered.

Ryoga glowered at her. "And how am I supposed to know what some crazy girl is talking about?" he asked.

"You sure you didn't run into her while you were wandering around lost?" Ranma asked.
"She seemed to recognize you."

"Me?" Ryoga replied. "I think she recognized you. Maybe she's another fiancée that your father never told you about."

Ranma frowned. Unfortunately, that was possible. "Well let's not stick around to see," Ranma said. "We've got enough to worry about."

She pulled at Ryoga's hand. He didn't budge. "Come on," she said. "Let's move."

Ryoga smiled, a glint in his eye. "It would be rude to run off and not speak to your fiancée," he said.

"She is not my fiancée," Ranma said. Then she held up her left hand and wiggled her ring finger, the diamond ring glinting in the sun. "And if she were, do you want to take on her whole family when they find out that you've stolen me away from her?"

Ryoga hadn't thought of that. Teasing Ranma was one thing. Fighting off a whole clan of one of Ranma's would-be suitors was something else entirely. "You're right," he said. "Let's go."

Unfortunately, it was then that the girl emerged from the house and started running toward them, waving some paper. Fortunately, she wasn't leading a pack of her crazed martial artist relatives.

"I can't believe I get to meet the bride and groom!" she gushed, as she skidded to a halt in front of the pair. "You just have to give me your autographs."

"The who?" Ryoga asked.

The girl shoved a magazine toward them, turned to a full page color spread of a smiling bride and groom. The first picture showed the groom, a handsome young man in a tuxedo with a yellow bandana and a matching yellow tie and cummerbund, slipping a ring on the finger of his beautiful, red-haired bride, stunning in her white gown. The second picture showed the couple in a passionate kiss. Emblazoned across the top of the page was "Come to the Newly Renovated Shrine and Motel of the Goddess of Love – the Place Where Dreams Come True!" A little lower, it said, "Our wedding chapel is the perfect place to profess your undying love for each other and our honeymoon suite is the perfect place to consummate your new union."

"Wha- wha- wha-," Ranma stammered.

The girl shoved a pen in Ranma's shaking hand. "Could you sign it 'To my friend, Hitomi. Someday you will be an even more beautiful bride than me'?" the girl asked.

Ryoga snatched the magazine away and started at it, open-mouthed.

"Oh, of course," the girl said. "Of course the wife should let her husband sign first." She snatched the pen away from Ranma, who was gaping like a fish, and shoved it in Ryoga's hand. "You can sign it, 'To Hitomi. If only you were a little older I would have taken you as my bride instead.'"

Ryoga flipped over to the cover of the magazine to find it was something called 'True Romance Stories for Girls of Good Character.' He shook his head. "No, no, no," he muttered.

"I can't wait to tell my friend Keiko," the girl said. "She insisted that you were just models, but I said that you just had to be a real bride and groom. I mean, just look at that kiss. You can't fake true love like that."

Ryoga's hand started shaking and he squeezed the pen so hard it burst, spilling red ink all over his hand.

"Oh, my," said the girl. "Wait here. I'll get another pen."

She turned and ran back to the house.

As soon as she was gone, Ranma grabbed Ryoga by the hand and pulled him down the road. Ryoga dropped the magazine and it fell to the ground, fluttering down to land open to an article that read, 'How Shared Adversity Brought Me Closer to My Spouse.'

They stopped at a park a little ways down the road and Ranma slumped onto a bench. Ryoga dropped the packs and slumped onto the bench next to her.

"Great, just great," Ranma muttered.

"This just gets worse and worse," Ryoga agreed.

"No telling how she's going to take this," Ranma moaned.

"Akane already knows we got married," Ryoga said. "And she knows you're a pervert."

"I'm not talking about Akane," Ranma said. "I'm talking about Nabiki."

"Nabiki?" Ryoga asked.

"I promised her exclusive rights to the wedding photos," Ranma said. "No telling how much this is going to cost me."

Ryoga's jaw dropped. "You're worried about money?"

"Not money," Ranma said. "Nabiki. No telling what she's going to make me do to make it up to her."

Ryoga shuddered a little at the thought. Forget crazed martial artists, enchanted creatures, or manic godlings, Nabiki Tendo was downright scary. He draped his arm around the back of the bench and turned to face Ranma. "You know," he said. "Nabiki doesn't strike me as the type to read 'True Romance Stories for Girls of Good Character.'"

"Yeah," Ranma agreed. "But it will be hard to miss that."

She pointed to a large billboard overlooking the park on which was a picture of a familiar bride and groom locked in a passionate embrace under the words, 'The Newly Renovated Shrine and Motel of the Goddess of Love – Your One-Stop Venue For All Your Wedding Needs.'

"Oh crap," Ryoga said.

They decided to avoid the main roads to hopefully minimize any more encounters with their newfound 'fans.' They walked until just after the sun went down, and then started looking for a place to set up camp for the night. Ryoga spotted a sheltered clearing near a small brook.

Ryoga set up the campsite while Ranma gathered firewood. Ranma didn't want Ryoga wandering off and getting lost. Years of training trips with her father had taught Ranma the requisite camping skills, while Ryoga had honed his through years of wandering, so they had the camp set up in no time.

While Ryoga started the fire, Ranma went over to the stream and filled a pot with water, intending to make stew with some of their provisions. Looking into the clear water, she spied a large trout swimming in one of the deeper parts of the brook. Slowly, cautiously, she crept up on the trout, moving carefully so as not to spook it. Then, with her lighting fast martial artist reflexes, she quickly scooped out the trout and flung it up on the creek's bank. "Gotcha!" she cried.

Feeling rather proud of herself, she put her hands on her hips and yelled, "Hey, Ryoga! How about fresh fish for dinner?"

Ryoga stood from stoking the fire to look over at what Ranma was yelling about. He watched her splash toward the bank in smug triumph at her foraging skills, but she wasn't watching where she was going. She stepped on a moss-covered rock and in a flash her feet slipped out from under her and she fell into the ice-cold brook with a loud splash.

Ryoga shouted and came running, splashing into the water after her. "Ranma! Are you all right?"

Ranma jumped out of the water and into Ryoga's arms. "C-c-c-c-cold!" she chattered. Ryoga carried her out of the water, her wet clothes soaking him, too. He started toward the fire, but she grabbed his arm. "F-f-f-f-fish," she said, pointing down at the large trout flopping in the grass.

"Let's get you to the fire, then I'll come back and get your fish," he said. He carried her over and set her on a large log he had pulled up next to the small fire, and then added fuel to the fire until it blazed into crackling fury. That done, he went over to his pack and pulled out a blanket which he wrapped around her shoulders.

"G-g-get my fish," she said through blue lips.

Ryoga shook his head and went back to the brook. He picked up her bucket and, scooping up the trout, dropped it in.

He hurried back to the fire, starting to feel the chill himself since carrying Ranma had soaked his clothes as well. He set the bucket down next to her and started to make a snide comment about her clumsiness in falling in, but when he saw how much she was shivering, the comment died on his lips.

He sat down next to her, wrapped his arms around her, and started vigorously rubbing her arms. Her shivering lessened and, as an added bonus, the vigorous exercise had warmed him up a little as well. He stopped rubbing and simply held her, warming her with his own body heat.

Ranma snuggled closer to him. Her mind was telling her to push him away. This was Ryoga for kami's sake. But she was so cold and he felt so warm. Just a few minutes. Until she was warmer. Then she would push him away.

Ryoga felt her shivering lessen, then finally stop all together. Yet he did not let her go. With the sun long set, there was a distinct chill in the air and he didn't want her to start shivering again. It wasn't that he particularly cared, he told himself. He just needed her to complete the quest and if she got sick she would slow him down.

Still, he couldn't resist at least a little dig. "Interesting fishing technique, Ranma," he said softly.

Ranma didn't respond. She had fallen asleep in his arms.