I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, or anything I've borrowed and modified from the Banestorm setting published by Steve Jackson Games.
The lesson on a sergeant's duties finished for the day, Akane and Ukyo made their farewells to Sergeant Osric, then to Elfrithr and Kahori as the other two girls pealed off for their own homes and dinner. They were alone again with their duties done for the day, and the silence quickly grew uncomfortable as their thoughts returned to Sir Morgan's order.
Finally, Ukyo said, "So, Sugar, just how are we going to do this?"
"I don't know," Akane replied. "We could duel, I suppose, but ..."
"But whoever wins, how do we get Ranma to accept it? It's not like any of our other fights have gotten him off his butt," Ukyo continued when Akane's voice trailed off. "I suppose we could duel over who gets to court him, but that wouldn't settle things down with the scouts — that's the real problem."
"Besides," Akane added as they stepped through the door into the Tendo/Saotome & friends' home, "do that and we're back to treating Ranma like a prize — not a good way to get him to go along."
Ukyo blinked. "Wait, what?" she said. "You were in there with the rest of us!"
Akane took a deep breath, sighing happily at the scents coming from the fireplace where her older sister was stirring a large pot — alone, Ranma's mother must still be caught up in her quartermaster duties — quartermaster training, really, still, but less so all the time. Akane found the amount of detail involved in keeping track of all the necessary supplies for hundreds of soldiers to be mind-numbing, but Nodoka seemed to be not just rising to the challenge, but thriving.
Akane shook herself free of the momentary distraction and refocused on the current issue. Suddenly, she felt almost giddy. Win or lose, the whole issue would be over— and she didn't expect to lose. And this could actually be fun, in a Nabiki-kinda way. "Kasumi, that smells great, some real meat tonight!" she enthused, then turned back to Ukyo. "Yes, I was in there with the rest of you," she said, grinning, "but you need to remember that I didn't want to get married — not right away — and you know what the fathers were like. For that matter, in the beginning I didn't want to marry Ranma at all, I had a crush on Dr. Tofu." She shrugged. "I got over it, but by then bickering had become a habit. I was there when he needed me, though, and like I said, it helped keep the fathers away. But it seems that isn't an option, anymore. Besides, by this place's standards we're old maids!"
Ukyo stared at her, slack-jawed, then shook her head. "Who are you, Nabiki in disguise? I don't believe it, not for a minute — you made that up after the fact."
Akane just continued to grin back at her competitor, fighting back a giggle. "Hey, just because Nabiki is the one that made her mind her primary weapon doesn't mean Kasumi and I are stupid — we're sisters, after all! Right, Kasumi?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you are talking about," Kasumi replied, her usual serenity almost firmly in place — Akane was happy to see that her lips were twitching. Her older sister's mask had already been getting a bit threadbare even before the Second Fall, as Father Andre had taken to calling the catastrophe on Earth, thanks to the return of Tofu to Nerima. Her long hours with him since Miyo's vision, throwing herself into learning what passed for medicine on this backward world as well as what Tofu could teach her of his Art in what free time they had, had simply hastened the wear and tear of that mask even further. Akane had already loved and respected her oldest sister, now she was finding she really liked her as well. And so did everyone else that came into contact with her, her eagerness to learn and help whoever and whenever she could had played a significant role in the Keldaran acceptance of the ignorant and incompetent (from the Keldaran point of view) Japanese refugees that had suddenly been dumped on them, even before Miyo's vision.
Kasumi continued, "So, just what are you talking about, beyond the usual?"
Akane sobered. "You heard about yesterday's brawl?" The look Kasumi sent her had her giggling for a moment before sobering again. "Of course you have, everyone has — that's part of the problem." With a sigh, she told her sister of the dressing down she and Ukyo had received from the Kildar, the marching orders he'd given them, and her and Ukyo's discussion, such as it had been.
When she came to the end of the story, Kasumi sighed. "So time has run out for Ranma. And you are right, Akane — the decision is his, not yours. At least the number of choices has been narrowed, not that Ranma was ever serious about most of them."
"Serious about what?"
The three turned to find the redheaded girl stepping through the doorway, hands and face still damp from the pre-dinner cleaning. Kasumi immediately turned back to the fire, and a moment later offered Ranma a metal pitcher with a cloth wrapped around the handle that she kept close enough to the flames to stay warm enough to reverse the curse. Seconds later the flame-haired girl was a raven-haired young man, and Kasumi refilled the pitcher before returning it to its place by the fire.
"Serious about what?" Ranma asked again as he ran his fingers through damp hair.
Ukyo and Akane exchanged glances. The former chef said, "You've been doing all the talking so far, no reason to stop now."
"Thanks a lot," Akane grumped, then took a deep breath. "Sir Morgan summoned me and Ukyo today, because of last evening's brawl..."
Ranma wandered aimlessly through the empty, gathering dark, his mind awhirl, still stunned by the sudden demand for a resolution to the fiancée war. And this time the demand wasn't one from the fathers or his grandchild-hungry mother that he could evade, or from yet another family his father had sold him off to, to yet another girl that he could barely remember if he'd ever even met her.
No, this time it was from the lord of the valley, his new military commander, and if he played games to avoid making a decision the ones that would pay were the scouts — the girls and boys that had trained and fought, and would be left behind when it was time to march off to war.
As he walked under a lone tree a gust of wind shook the leaves, and he sighed as he was spattered by water left over from a recent shower, feeling the change wash through him when the curse activated. He'd found that it was easier to avoid changing here in his new home — there simply was less water around to splash him — but once he was splashed it took longer to get changed back. Hot water was a lot less available than cold, she usually had to wait until she returned to their new home, and the pitcher waiting by the fire.
And you're lettin' yerself get distracted, tryin' ta avoid thinkin' about who you're marryin', she thought wryly. Not that that was really the issue. Still ...
She briefly considered visiting the magnificent garden old Mifune had created, where Akane had fled to after the funeral of the scout that died fighting the orc raiders, but resisted the temptation. True, she wouldn't have any trouble finding it in the dark, but it would be just that — dark. The garden was more for meditation, anyway, and Ranma needed to order her mind, not empty it. Going there would simply be another dodge, and if Mifune caught her there in her current mental state he'd probably smack her for faking.
On the other hand, the church was always open, and none of her people would think to look for her there.
Ranma stood in the side chapel of the clerestory, gazing at the statue of Saint Mary, the statue Miyo had knelt in front of day after day, demanding answers — and had gotten them, and changed everything, including indirectly forcing the decision that led to the redhead standing there staring at the statue lit by votive candles. From the patterns of smoke and melted wax the candles were new, or at least more numerous than they had been.
She had to admit that the artwork was excellent, as fine as anything he'd seen at the various temples and monasteries he and his father had visited during the long years of training. Even at the wrong angle she felt the impact of the loving, compassionate, sorrowful Mother of God, and she imagined that at the right angle — kneeling in front of the statue looking up at it — that impact would be incredible. She could understand why Miyo had chosen this statue to pray to. Still, she felt only the slightest temptation to kneel there, herself. Ranma had never been a particularly devout person, not even in the way of his people and certainly not after the manner of the Christians, but growing up he had heard the stories of Shinto and Buddhism and had taken part in the occasional rite, and had absorbed their meaning. As impressive as Miyo's transformation was, he was happy with the religions he had grown up with.
"You are troubled, my son."
Ranma turned, unsurprised by Father Andre's approach. "Your son?" she asked in the Anglic they shared, taking a deep breath to accentuate her oversized chest.
Father Andre smiled, shaking his head. "And does your sense of who you are change with a splash of cold water?" he asked. "Are we likely to have a rumor sweeping the valley that you were caught in some man's bed?"
Ranma gagged. "Not a chance!"
Father Andre shrugged. "There you are. If you were to choose to marry a man and have his children I might reconsider, but not before then. But that isn't what troubles you, your opinion on the matter is too strong."
Ranma hesitated for a moment, but she really needed to talk this out with someone, and none of her circle of family and friends would do — they all had their own agendas and loyalties. And for Christians, priests were supposed to be people they went to for advise, right? Besides, Father Andre had done his best to provide all the help he could to the refugees since their arrival, without care that they were mostly pagans. He was neither as earth-haired nor as stout as he'd been when the Neriman refugees first arrived — grey now faintly streaked his hair thanks to his added burdens, and he had accepted the rationing they all had to endure because of their numbers without complaint...
"Yeah, you're right," she said with a sigh. "I'm sure you heard about the brawl yesterday, and today the Kildar called in Akane and Ukyo..."
"So now I got to choose or the scouts don't go south with us, and I can't without dishonoring someone, how do I decide?" Ranma finished. She had to admit that she was a little surprised by the priest's reaction to the story — he hadn't so much as chuckled, or even cracked a smile. Even if he'd heard the story before from someone else, repeats usually had people having to suppress their amusement. But Father Andre had listened to the story with a sober mien that hadn't so much as threatened to crack throughout the recital.
Then he started to speak, and shocked Ranma to her core: "You're lying, you know, even if to yourself — you've already made a decision, you're simply reluctant to put it into effect."
Ranma gaped at the priest. "What!?" she demanded.
"Consider each young woman separately. Can you honestly tell me that you don't prefer one over the other?" Father Andre asked. "Thanks to your positions of leadership I've been watching you all, and while the signs are subtle they are there."
Ranma thought back over the past months since their arrival, then on back to the fight with Saffron and the wedding fiasco that followed it, the way he and Akane had tried to get closer without setting off fiancée brawls — even to the point of Ranma willingly spending time as a girl while they dated, to try and keep the others from becoming suspicious. He had made his choice. And as she thought back to earlier that evening, how angry Akane had become when Ranma refused to make the call then and there, to the point that Kasumi had to restrain her, the desperation Ukyo had tried to hide, she realized that the girls knew it, too.
"Yeah, I guess you're right," she mused. "At first I hadn't, and for awhile I actually enjoyed the girls fighting over me, though that got old pretty quick, and I still don't really want to get married that much — but yeah, I did make a choice. But how can I betray Ukyo's honor by rejecting her?"
Father Andre shrugged. "From the sound of it, thanks to your father's greed there is no way for you to avoid offending someone's honor, and how honorable is it to keep both girls in limbo by putting it off year after year, instead of letting the girl you reject get on with her life?"
"But there's got to be a way!" Ranma insisted. "What if I marry them both, like King David and his wives?"
"King David?" Father Andre asked, surprised. "Have you been reading the Bible?"
Ranma shrugged. "Yeah, a bit," she admitted. "After Miyo's vision I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about."
"And did you read the beginning?"
"Nah. I started to, but it was pretty weird ... uh, no offense?" Ranma blushed when the priest laughed, then shrugged again. "Okay, maybe no more weird than the creation story of Japan I've heard. But I jumped to where it tells of Deborah and went from there."
"I can't say I'm surprised that you found the story of King David interesting," Father Andre mused, "what with the fighting, the challenge by Goliath, the years he spent on the run from a king he refused to kill because it would be dishonorable. But by skipping the beginning you miss other stories that may be less interesting but have lessons you need. Let's sit down for a moment, and I'll tell you the story of Jacob and his wives."
Ranma followed the priest to one of the benches for the congregation during services, and listened to the story of the trickster tricked: how at his wedding, when Jacob lifted his bride's veil he found Leah, the older sister of the woman he loved. How he'd married Rachel as well, and the jealousy of Leah for her more beautiful and always more loved sister. Of the insane baby competition the two sisters had gotten into, to the point that they had offered up their handmaids to their husband as additional wives to have more babies for when they couldn't. And finally, how Jacob's favoritism of one wife over another carried over into the next generation to her son, to the point that one of his brothers had to talk the rest out of murdering him, and how instead they sold him into slavery and faked his death.
Ranma shook her head when Father Andre finished. "Wow! Okay, so maybe marrying two women that don't like each other very much isn't the smartest idea I've ever had."
"From what I've seen they like each other just fine, at least when you aren't around," Father Andre disagreed. "But how much chance is there that they would continue to like each other?"
"You're right, none at all. Guess I might as well get it over with. Maybe me and Ukyo can get back to being friends again, later." Ranma stood up with a sigh and started for the doorway.
"True, this is something better behind you than ahead of you. And Ranma?"
The redhead paused and looked back toward Father Andre. "Yeah?"
"Your idea wouldn't have worked even if you'd wanted to go ahead with it. We don't allow polygamy anymore."
"What?!" the redhead shouted. "Why didn't you tell me that instead of that whole story?"
"Because you were more likely to listen to me if I told you why it was a bad idea, not just dictate to you yet again. Laws are what they are for a reason, and from the sound of it you've gotten enough simple dictates in your life already."
Ranma barked a laugh. "Yeah, you got that right! Thanks." She gave the priest a strained but sincere smile and quickly left.
Akane's temper was doing a slow burn. Actually, it was down to a slow burn — it had burned a lot hotter when her fiancée had refused to instantly pick her. If it hadn't been for Kasumi grabbing onto her arm as Ranma turned and walked back out into the gather dusk, she would have used her summoned hammer and Ranma to put a new open skylight in their ceiling.
Since then she had waited, her mind churning as she pushed her food around on her plate and occasionally glanced at Ukyo across the table, looking away whenever their eyes met, at everyone else around the table. (It was still a good-sized table, with the fathers, Nodoka, Kasumi, Ukyo, Konatsu, Sayuri, Yuka and Ku Lon seated at it as well, but not as crowded as it had been before Ryoga, Akari, Xian Pu and Mou Tse had returned to Japan and Nabiki had left with the wizard.)
Akane knew Ranma loved her, she knew it! She'd known it ever since the fight with Saffron, the way he'd acted afterward, the way he'd watched her — the dates he'd been willing to go on as a girl to deflect suspicion. Why couldn't he have just admitted it at the wedding? If he had, her temper wouldn't have slipped its leash a bit and she wouldn't have mentioned the water from the spring of drowned man, they'd have gotten married then and they wouldn't be in this mess now!
Of course, Ukyo and Shampoo would have still charged in throwing explosives around, but we could have beaten them off together, right? Ryoga would have helped. And it wouldn't have mattered that Ranma was too young and we'd have to wait to register the marriage until his birthday, his honor would have recognized it even if the law didn't. We could have spent a few months enjoying being married before making it legal.
Then she was jarred from her thoughts at the sound of the door opening as the room fell silent, and she knew who had just come in.
She had been sitting with her back to the door (she'd have preferred to sit on the opposite side and not start at every hint of sound outside, but she refused to show concern by abandoning her usual seat). Now she twisted around to find girl-Ranma walking towards the table, and felt her heart stop, then explode with fresh anger. The redhead was looking at Ukyo, not her.
Her hands curled into fists as she felt her anger snarling and clawing, trying to escape, and she was opening her mouth to shriek her anger at her fiancé when Ranma spoke, and her fury blew out like a candle in a breeze to be replaced by pure elation.
"Ukyo, I'm sorry."
Akane turned to look at Ukyo and she found her no-longer-rival stiff-faced and shiny-eyed. Ukyo simply nodded her acceptance, ignoring the fathers, who'd bounced up with happy shouts and were busily singing badly if enthusiastically while dancing around a Nodoka doing her own victory fan dance.
"I understand, Sugar. It's not like I didn't see it coming." Rising from her stool, she walked around the table and past Ranma out into the night, quickly followed by Konatsu.
Ranma turn to follow only to pause when Kasumi spoke. "Not now, Ranma, give her time. She'll be all right, but right now you're the last person she wants to see."
Ranma sighed, but sat down.
Akane was surprised to find herself on her feet, staring at the dark doorway. She felt herself growing angry again — this should have been the happiest day of her life, and it had been for all of a second. But the raw pain in Ukyo's eyes... That could have been me.
At least she had a legitimate outlet for her rising anger, and she ignored the hesitant congratulations from Yuka and Sayuri as she stalked around the table toward the fathers with clenched fists and shouted, "Will you shut up!"
Outside in the dark, even through her heart's storm Ukyo had to smile at Akane's shout. (Well, scream, really — she suspected people had heard it on the other side of the valley.) It wasn't hard to guess what had set off her former rival. You tell them, girl, she thought, before refocusing on what had brought her out wandering in the night.
Her Ranma was gone. Oh, he'd still be around, but he wouldn't be her Ranma, not anymore. Of course, he wasn't really yours to begin with, was he? And you knew it. If he had been, you wouldn't have blown up his wedding — you'd have just sat back and enjoyed the show when he blew up at Akane and the fathers. He was just being nice to you. All true enough, but she had hoped ...
And now that he'd actually been forced to make a decision, he and Akane wouldn't be hiding their feelings for the sake of the peace. Even if Akane didn't crow about her victory, this was going to hurt.
Looking around, she realized that her wanderings hadn't been as aimless as she thought — she was standing by the fire pit where the scouts' brawl had dashed her hopes. She sat down on one of the surrounding logs with a sigh, staring sightlessly into the dark as she considered her lonely future, then started as someone else sat down on the log — her faithful self-declared servant had followed her, and she hadn't even noticed. Well, Konatsu was a highly skilled kunoichi, he wasn't supposed to be noticed, but she suspected she would have been just as oblivious if he had been stomping along like an elephant.
"First thing in the morning, we're packing up and moving out," she said abruptly. "I'm sure a family of one of the scouts will be willing to let u stay long enough to find or build a place of our own."
Konatsu nodded. "Of course, Ukyo-sama." He hesitated, then asked, "Ukyo-sama ... are you all right?"
"Of course I'm all right. I'm a tough girl, I can t-t-take care of my self-f-f-f."
But the tears suddenly rolling down her cheeks said otherwise, and Konatsu visibly screwed up his courage and gently pulled her head down to soak the shoulder of his tunic as she sobbed out the loss of her dreams.