A New Proposal
by Jeffrey Synn
"I don't care what you say! My cooking has gotten better! Why won't you try it?"
Ranma Saotome, wearing a bored expression as usual, strolled alongside a somewhat peeved Akane Tendo as she was continuing her daily rant regarding her lack of culinary skills. Actually, he was walking on a fence by the street she was walking on, a balance exercise, but that was close enough to be considered alongside.
"Hmm, today's a nice day," he remarked, ignoring her question.
Akane stared at him. "Excuse me?" she asked icily.
Ranma turned his gaze toward the lazily drifting clouds above, placing his arms behind his head while doing so. "I'd like to see more days like this," he continued.
The youngest Tendo sister, being short-tempered and extremely apt to take comments the wrong way, immediately perceived this to be a insult on the edibility of the fruits of her kitchen labors. She simply kicked the fence with the fury of a small storm to send a shocked Ranma into the waters on the other side. With, of course, her usual battle cry:
"Ranma no baka!"
A petite redhead poked her head out of the water. "What'd you do that for?" a drenched Ranma-chan demanded.
Akane glared at the girl. "Insult my cooking, will ya? Serves you right!"
Ranma-chan flicked her pigtail back with a stylish flourish and made a single, great leap over the fence and next to her enraged friend.
"All I said was that it was a nice day!" she retorted, while shaking off some of the excess moisture in her clothes.
"By saying my cooking will kill you so you can't see more of them!" Akane returned.
Ranma sighed dejectedly. Another perfectly nice day was smothered in the cradle. "Never mind," she stated simply and hopped back to her place on the fence with a dancer's grace. The two continued, for a time, in silence.
"Hey, have you heard? The Nekohanten closed up shop," the fence-bound girl said.
Akane sniffed in distaste. "And you miss your Chinese amazon, is that it?"
Ranma stared at her. "No, I didn't say that...."
Akane continued, "It's because she can cook, right? It's because–"
"Will you drop that already?" the redhead snapped.
The brunette retaliated, "I'm not the one chasing–"
"Chasing? I'm not chasing anybody!" Ranma jumped back down to look Akane in the face.
The argument was flaring up. Akane drew her arm back, preparing to send Ranma into the stratosphere for his impudence.
Her words were cut off as a cloud of white smoke engulfed the two. It dissipated within a few seconds, leaving behind a coughing Ranma-chan and an unconscious Akane. A voice addressed the survivor in slightly broken Japanese.
"Tendo girl too violent," it stated. "Shampoo need talk with you, Ranma."
Ranma looked toward the direction of the voice. The amazon girl was standing on a low roof, dressed in her normal battle clothing, violet hair billowing behind. She was holding a steaming kettle in her hands.
"Is this some sort of trick?" he demanded. The memory of various magical substances rushed through his thoughts. "What have you done to Akane?"
Shampoo shook her head. These questions were a waste of precious time. "Is only weak sedative. Sleep ten, twenty minutes. You strong, so still awake. Tendo girl weak, so drop like stone. Can talk, yes?"
"What about Akane? I can't just leave her here–" Ranma protested.
Shampoo carefully tossed the kettle to Ranma. "Mousse here. He watch. Nothing happen to her. Promise." On cue, the robed male amazon, hands hidden in his sleeves, walked from behind a corner and nodded solemnly. He seemed deeply disturbed by something.
Ranma caught the steaming offering and used it to revert to his true form. Curiosity dominated caution, at least for now. "No tricks," he stated.
"No tricks." Shampoo turned away. Her carriage was terribly serious and was very unlike the immature girl Ranma expected to see. "Come. You follow." She proceeded to jump from rooftop to rooftop into the distance. Ranma shrugged off the thought and headed off in pursuit.
She stopped somewhere on the outskirts of town. Ranma approached her and voiced a question that had been bugging him for some time.
"Hey, where's the old ghoul?"
Shampoo's voice dropped slightly. "Great-grandmother back in China. Mousse and Shampoo follow soon."
Ranma ran through some thought processes and pieced a conclusion together. "Hey! So you and Mousse are going to– congratulations!" The idea of having one less aggressive fiancée, one less opponent, and one less old ghoul in his life set off a mental fireworks display.
"Ranma," she said commandingly, holding up one hand to silence him. A sigh escaped her lips before she continued. "This is my last gamble. The time for lies is over. There is only the truth in this attempt," she said in perfectly accented Japanese.
The pig-tailed boy could not conceal his surprise. "Shampoo?"
"I've lived long enough in this country to learn the language and the culture. Dare I say, even gained a few interesting friends? Even if I fail to accomplish my purpose, I will always have that." She shrugged. "I just find that playing dumb often nets an advantage against opponents.
"But speaking to you in good Japanese is not why I called you here. The broken-speeched, shameless girl is not the one talking to you now. She's grown up silently all this time. I called you here because time is being wasted with this foolishness. Your time and mine."
Shampoo looked around and took a seat primly on a nearby rock. Ranma took a seat next to her uncertainly.
"Why do I pursue you?" she asked.
Ranma scratched his head. "Gee, Shampoo, why are you asking me–"
She interrupted his predictable response. "I know why. I want to know what you think."
"I had always assumed it was that amazon law you pointed out in that book."
The Chinese girl was visibly disappointed. "That's all? Something that, to you, is nothing more than just a silly little village tradition?" Ranma cringed at her bitter tone. "What about the others?" she asked. "How do you feel about your engagements?"
No one had ever asked what he thought before. For all his would-be brides, not one was arranged with his consent. It was always honor of some sort that demanded his marriage. He usually stayed disinterested to keep his mind off of the injustice. However, not caring only held off inevitable conflict for so long. Now Ranma could voice his opinion, was asked for it, in fact.
"Well, Ukyo's nice. She's friendly, affectionate, and can cook. But I never really thought of us as beyond friends. And I am mad at pop for setting up the arrangement and having me 'decide.' But she'll always be cute, little Ucchan to me.
"Kodachi... uh... hmm..." Ranma faltered to comment.
"No explanation necessary," Shampoo offered.
"Well, no, I guess not," he agreed. "It was pretty much self-proclaimed." He shuddered. "Scary girl. At least as whacked out as her older brother and dad. Runs in the family, I guess." He continued, "There's you, with your laws and your honor that demands marriage (or death). The old ghoul freaks me out, and I don't really like how you play around with those weird spices.
"And then there's Akane. Violent and angry. Cute when she smiles, but that isn't often. Again, pop set me up for this one and sprung it on me an hour before I met her.
"I guess I don't really have a 'preference' and with all the chaos around here, I get the feeling that it wouldn't matter anyway." Shampoo nodded.
"You know why I called you here," she stated.
Ranma nodded. "Not totally sure, but I can guess. Self-advertising?"
She smiled a bit at his blunt wording. "If you must call it that." She leaned in closer to him, lowering her tone to a solemn one. "This is my last card. After this, I have no more aces, no more strings, no more magic." She sighed. "For the sake of my honor, I want you to come with me to China." Ranma opened his mouth to reply but Shampoo continued. "But leave that out of this for a second. It means nothing to me if I have to drag you there bound and gagged. You have to come freely. This is your choice."
The most sense Ranma's heard in a long time, coming from a person he'd previously believed to have none.
Shampoo backed away and looked idly at the sky. "You know how I just asked you why I pursue you?" Ranma nodded. "I'll tell you my reasons why.
"I am the strongest in my village, elders excluded. You are already familiar with what my tribe's laws are regarding marriage, so I had no one. Mousse's attention was nice, but there was not much substance behind that. He doesn't give 100% and that's why he cannot beat me. He might if he tried. But he doesn't. Call it a lack of commitment on his part. But he is a good friend."
"If he's such a good friend, why do you torture him?" Ranma asked.
She scoffed at the question. "You should ask! Need I remind you that you are on a similar receiving end with a certain Tendo sister?" He looked as if he'd been hit with a mallet as he realized that. "Anyway, I didn't have the companionship I wanted, but I always had my strength to back me up.
"Then you came along. I was blind and overconfident then, so I didn't take outsiders seriously. You took away my crutch. I lost to an outsider woman, a great dishonor! So I did what honor demanded.
"I end up in Japan. You beat me as a male. It wasn't a formal challenge, but the relief that followed the event encouraged me to bend the rules. I had already lost my invincibility, but I had a companion now, so I didn't need it anymore." Shampoo's voice took a stronger tone. "Then you broke my world with the Jusenkyo curse and I returned home in disgrace. As punishment, I turn into a cat with a Jusenkyo curse of my own. So I came back to redeem myself.
"Since then, I've done many things I'm not proud of. Behaved without honor in an attempt to restore honor." She let out a bitter laugh. "Ironic, isn't it?" She sighed. "And I know great-grandmother means well, but her methods are too aggressive for my tastes. She has not been of much help."
"Why do you let the old ghoul push you around?" Ranma asked, suddenly feeling sympathy for the unfamiliar girl speaking to him.
"You may not like how your father handles things, but you still follow what he says in general, is that not true?" Shampoo replied simply. Ranma nodded slowly in understanding.
"Well, I'm not sure when it happened, but as I saw your behavior, how you lived and acted, I grew to admire you. No, more than that. You don't always say the right thing, but you are honest and you stand by your promises. You protect those that cannot protect themselves, even if they are your enemies. Everyone is on equal ground in your eyes. You are an honorable man. The ideal man." Ranma blushed slightly at the words.
"That's the person I fell in love with. At first, you were right, the relationship began with only the law. Maybe even out of desperation. But the attachment became more than that, at least on my side. I discovered that you were someone I wanted to find love with."
The sunlight was being hampered by the coming of a few ominous looking clouds. Not wanting to deal with their cursed forms at the current time, both immediately headed under the cover of a roof in a quiet roadside cafe. The wooden seats were comfortable compared to the rocks before.
"Still with me?" Shampoo asked.
"As Nabiki Tendo would put it, now is the sales pitch. I try to convince you to do what I want by showing you that it's what you want too."
I wonder if she's as convincing a salesperson as Nabiki is, Ranma wondered idly. After all, this 'new' Shampoo is an unknown.
"You're not one for school," she started. Ranma shook his head quickly in agreement. Academic concepts had always eluded him. They didn't get his rivals off his back; martial arts did. Shampoo acknowledged this. "That much is obvious. I'm not that type either. We in the village live simply, without such hindrances. I imagine that you living with my... competitors would require higher education. And while I'm not saying that you are stupid, it is not your style, am I right?" A nod. "We seek enlightenment through nature and the martial arts rather than books, which brings me to point two:
"You love martial arts. It is your life. In the city, violence is... frowned upon. People worry about property damage and whatnot. Restricting your fighting energies to practice halls would be a stressful task for you and your peers. Trust me when I say this: you will get plenty of training in an amazon village. If you think that you have learned much from great-grandmother, you haven't seen anything yet. We have much to teach and you would be of respected rank.
"Point three: we trust you. Much more than you might believe. Would great-grandmother teach our amazon fighting secrets to any outsider? I think not. You are important. Only the most disciplined minds can master our techniques and we trusted you not to misuse them. You have displayed mastery and did not betray our trust."
Shampoo composed herself for a moment before continuing. Rain started to fall outside as she did so. "And the final reason: me. I trust you. I love you. Only I truly understand the trauma of Jusenkyo. Ukyo thinks it's a fun gimmick; Akane constantly abuses you, using the curse as punishment without realizing how painful the transformation is." A deep breath. "And I'm willing to grant you absolute freedom to choose. It seems that the more I push, the more you retreat. And if you don't like living in my village, I'll go with you wherever you want. Your life is your own. I grant you freedom."
She said the next statement in intimate Mandarin Chinese, her natural language. "My darling... I love you. I want only for you to be happy." Ranma knew enough to figure out what she said.
Ranma was left speechless while Shampoo was taking deep breaths to calm down her heart. The cursed boy admitted that she had a good case. She was not an ignorant girl from a backwater society. Intelligence gleamed in those eyes and he could see nothing but good intentions and honesty alongside it.
"I leave Japan tonight by ship. Besides Mousse's seat and my own, another is already paid for. If you don't show up at the dock, I'll understand. And even after then, if you ever change your mind, you know where I live." She managed a slight smile. "I promise that I won't lose to another until you return." A sigh. "But if you don't want to, you'll never have to see our amazon faces again. I realized some time ago that we must accept our fate when we fail to carve our own. This is my last gamble."
A moment of silence. Shampoo gazed at a wall clock while blinking away teary eyes. The light shower outside ended. "The sedative should have worn off by now. You have been gracious in hearing me out, considering all I've done to make your life more complicated. I thank you."
Ranma nodded, the situation temporarily restricting his usage of words. He slowly rose from his chair and started back toward the street. Back to Akane. Who would kill him when she realized that he was off with Shampoo, even if it was only to talk. Shampoo was staring thoughtfully at the floor, a mixture of sadness and hope in her face.
The lone amazon stood on the docks, her back to the rising moon, casting its full silver light upon the landscape. Folds of the elegant Chinese dress she wore drifted wistfully on the subtle breeze. The handbag at her side dangled loosely from her shoulder. There was minor activity behind her as the remaining passengers were heeding the final boarding call. A tall, handsome figure in robes strolled soundlessly to her.
"It's time to go," he stated in their native tongue.
The girl shook her head in quiet denial. "A bit longer, please," she replied softly.
The robed man shook his head and sighed. He let a respectable amount of silence pass before continuing. "He's not coming."
This time, he received a nod, or the faint suggestion of one. "I know. But let me wait a while longer anyway."
"It's the final boarding call," he reasoned.
Her voice dropped to a whisper on the night breeze. "I know."
Another sigh. "It was a long shot to begin with. You know that. Besides, you cannot stay here. Not after all this time," he pressed.
"Just a little longer." She hesitated before continuing. "I'll be there shortly. I won't miss the departure. Promise."
That partially satisfied him. "All right. See you on board, okay?" A nod. He slowly turned back to the passenger boarding ramp.
Her gaze followed the glimmering specks of light that was Nerima's skyline. A violent and dangerous location by day, but surprisingly peaceful and beautiful by night.
Maybe I'll come back to Japan someday. Many years from now. It is really very nice here, she mused silently to herself.
The sounds of sailors undoing the binding knots occupied the quiet, reminding her of her destination this night and stirring her into moving. She increased her pace as she observed the boarding ramp being cleared. The unclaimed pass in her purse made its presence known painfully as she brushed it to retrieve her own. The shore crew noted the beautiful girl's tardiness and waited in patient understanding.
She stopped in her tracks, turning in the direction of the voice. An attractive Japanese boy in casual Chinese clothes carrying a light travel pack stood a few feet behind her, his face a peculiar combination of amusement and anxiety.
"I don't believe you." His mouth curled into a slight smile. "You give me half a day to clean up all my problems and then try to leave when I'm a couple minutes late." He let out a soft huff. "I mean, if you actually left, how was I supposed to follow? Swim? Unbeliev–"
An sudden embrace cut him off. He slowly returned the gesture.
"I thought you wouldn't come," she whispered. "I mean, after all this time, just waiting and- and with everything I've done..." she drifted off. "I'm sorry, Ranma. For everything."
He closed his eyes, relishing the new, and not unpleasant, moment, softly stroking her hair to soothe her. "I accept your proposal. But you probably figured that out by now, huh?" The subtle motion of a nod. "Yeah, well, you make a good case. And I have to admit, the shock of your perfect Japanese caught me off guard too."
She broke the hold gently. "You prefer Shampoo talk like this? Is better?" she teased in her familiar broken way, looking at that moment to him very much like the innocent girl that came to Japan what seemed like ages ago.
He smiled. "C'mon, let's go. We're already late." The crew seemed to be sharing in the nice moment and were beaming from witnessing the exchange. Maybe they had seen a tragic story too many... he wondered briefly.
She wordlessly handed him the extra ticket, which was not painful to the touch this time around, and they walked up the ramp slowly, side by side. "Mousse will be surprised," she remarked. "Great-grandmother too. She did not expect this approach to work. Not after all the different tricks and spells and–"
He made a face as if hit. "Oh yeah, speaking of which... one condition."
She stopped. "What's that?"
"I really do not want to see the old ghoul anytime soon," he said, emphasizing his words carefully in order to fully express his displeasure.
She grinned. "That can be arranged.
And for the first time, he did not sneer at the sound of the word. Just the opposite.