A Ranma ½ story
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
Words in ~tildes~ indicate English song lyrics.
Chapter 14: Summer Days
Ryoga paused at the top of the gorge. The clanging and crashing sounds that he'd been following for the past several minutes were still ringing forth. He sat down and waited a bit longer, until one last gigantic explosion of sound rent the air.
In the silence that followed, he got back to his feet and looked over the lip of the chasm. Ukyo was standing ankle-deep in a pile of rubble, gasping and panting for breath. Said rubble was all that remained of the huge boulder she'd been attacking with her combat spatula when he'd first arrived. Although the chef was obviously quite tired from her exertions, Ryoga noticed her eyes were already beginning to rove around, evaluating other boulders scattered along the floor of the gorge.
Rather than letting her push herself to the point of exhaustion, Ryoga opted at this point to begin climbing down the slope. Ukyo whirled at the sound of falling pebbles, her eyes widening as she saw who was approaching. She slung her combat spatula back into place at her back, then waited uneasily for him to finish his descent.
Once he'd done so, and started walking over toward her, Ryoga began to feel an all-too-familiar sensation of being out of his depth. Okay, that Ukyo might have been angry at Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung's good fortune he could understand, even if smashing boulders seemed a little extreme of a reaction. But that didn't come close to explaining the pain and desperation he thought he could see in her eyes. Ryoga nearly began to panic. What was wrong now? He'd thought all his problems on this front had been solved!
And then the obvious answer hit him. He exhaled a long, relieved breath, and picked up the pace a little, walking quickly over to her and putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry, Ukyo, it's not like that."
This did remove most of the aforementioned pain and desperation from Ukyo's expression. They were displaced by confusion. "H-huh? What do you mean, Ryoga-kun?"
"Um, you know…" Ryoga suddenly realized just what he was going to have to put into words. He gulped, wishing for Ranma's cool savoir-faire in talking about feelings and commitment and stuff. "I mean… why Li Na pushed me into the spring and all… it wasn't… you know… so her daughters could each have their own… I mean… we don't have to wait a year now, anyway!"
While Ryoga might have thought he was being perfectly clear, it still took several seconds of puzzlement before Ukyo grasped the gist of what he was saying. "Wait a minute, Sugar. You thought I thought the reason she shoved you into the Spring of Drowned Twins was so there'd be two of you for her two daughters?"
"Well, yeah, that is what I thought when I saw you looking so upset," Ryoga said bewilderedly. Then he blushed. "I mean, not like I'm trying to say that would be a good reason to get upset, just because we weren't going to be able to… which isn't what happened anyway… but if it had, I'm not some kind of great prize that anybody should get all worked up over not winning…"
"Ryoga, stop babbling," the chef said flatly. He'd taken his hand off her shoulder a while back, to nervously push his index fingers together. Ukyo countered this by placing her hand on his arm. "That isn't what I was thinking, Sugar," she said, pain beginning to creep back into her voice. "It was… I mean… I'm sorry!"
It was Ryoga's turn for puzzlement. If the measure of how good a couple two people make is how much they share, he and Ukyo were certainly off to a good start. "Sorry for what?"
"I… I tried…" She gulped. "When that witch threw you toward the spring, I tried to run forward and keep you from landing in it. I could have done it. I could have kept this from happening. But all I could think about was what was happening to you, and I forgot to watch my back, and Rouge tripped me before I could do anything. I'm sorry, Ryoga honey."
"Ukyo." She looked up from the ground at which she'd been staring for her last few sentences. Meeting Ryoga's gaze, she found only confusion. "I still don't understand why you're apologizing," he confessed, honest bewilderment clear on his face.
Ukyo hadn't expected this. But then again, it had been less than a day since Jusenkyo, she reminded herself. Maybe he was still in shock or something. "Doesn't it bother you, Sugar?" she asked, her tone indicating the question was more rhetorical than not. "I mean, if suddenly there were two of me running around, I know I'd be having a tough time, wondering whether I was real or not. But those damn Amazons didn't even worry about that for a minute. Just dunked you in the spring without even asking what you wanted. Not that they ever do."
"Oh, so that's what the problem is," Ryoga said, smiling in relief. "Don't worry about it, Ukyo. I'm not gonna have an identity crisis or anything like that."
'Yep, definitely still in shock,' Ukyo thought sadly. "Okay, Sugar, but if you ever feel like talking, promise you'll come to me, okay?"
He nodded. "Sure thing. But remember, I've already been through learning I originally had an Oni soul, and then FIGHTING that part of myself. Compared to that, this is nothing."
Ukyo frowned slightly. This did open up new avenues of thought "You really mean it? I mean, this doesn't bother you at all?"
"No, not really. What's to bother me? When you get right down to it, there's only two questions that this could bring up. 'Am I real?' and 'Who am I?'. Well, the first one's gotta be 'yes', cause 'I think, therefore I am', and the answer to the other one is the same as it was day before yesterday. I've still got the same hopes and needs and thoughts and dreams as I did before."
The chef realized her jaw was hanging wide open. With an effort, she closed it. "When did you get so philosophical, Ryoga-kun?"
He shrugged. "A little after that time I rescued your cousin from those street punks, I ran into this guy who fought with Martial Arts Philosophy. It was the lamest fighting style I've ever seen, but I still learned some stuff. This is the first time I've really had a use for it."
"You're putting me on," Ukyo accused.
"No, I'm serious," he protested. "He was this really scrawny little guy, which was why the style worked for him. He made sure to only challenge people who didn't have the heart to beat up a wimp like that, then he would drone on and on about philosophical questions and the ways different people have tried to answer them, and eventually his opponent would either give up in disgust or fall asleep. If that happened, he'd roll them out of wherever the 'fight' was happening, and win by ring out."
"Riiiiight," Ukyo chuckled, caught halfway between full-blown amusement and uncertainty as to whether Ryoga was making this up.
"I lasted longer than his usual opponents, which is how I know so much philosophy, but he got me in the end," Ryoga admitted. "But I won the rematch. Brought a pair of earplugs, picked him up by the back of his shirt, and dropped him outside the ring without hurting him."
"Earplugs… something no martial artist should be without," Ukyo joked, thinking about Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. Which of course ruined the good humor Ryoga had managed to evoke with his story.
She sighed, then continued speaking. "I guess I'm glad you're not having trouble adjusting, Sugar. But that doesn't make everything all right, does it? There's another Ryoga who's now stuck for good and all with Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. The price of your freedom was him getting tied down forever.
"That's the other thing that has me down. One more time, we see Amazons deciding what they want to happen, and doing what they want without even asking. This last trick… I mean, it's basically as good as saying, 'Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung are going to get what they want, if we have to break the actual laws of REALITY to make it happen!' Because I wasn't fast enough to stop it, you have a brother who's never gonna get free of Amazon snares. There's nothing I can do about it now. And it hurts."
Ryoga was quiet for a while, trying to decide what needed to be said in response. Eventually, he said, "Ukyo, I don't know if you're gonna want to hear this. But I need to say it anyway.
"You remember a while back, when I said there was only one thing I really wanted to change in my life? The way I never got to see my parents? Well, that was true then, and it's true now, but over the last month it wasn't. My biggest wish, up until yesterday anyway, was to get out of this trap I was in without hurting anybody I cared about."
He looked into her eyes. "Without hurting anybody I cared about," he repeated. "That means you, AND Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. I know how you feel about them. I know how they feel about you. But do any of you know how I feel? Did you expect me to be happy about this, that there's a way out without having to turn anyone down? Because I am. And so is the other Ryoga."
"Happy?!" Ukyo demanded. "Happy that he’s gonna be forced into marrying those two now?!"
"He won't be," Ryoga answered soberly. "Remember Cologne's deal? If he doesn't learn to love them, there's a way out." He hesitated, then continued, "But it isn't going to come to that. This has been tearing me up inside for too long now. I've wanted what you want, Ukyo, to… get closer to you… but being with the twins and seeing how much they cared for me, it made me care right back. If you and I had never met, I… I actually would have been in love with them by now."
Ukyo flinched, which he hadn't expected. "Ryoga…" she said after an uncomfortable period of silence, "…if this hadn't happened… would you have chosen…" another long pause, then with a gulp she forced out the last word, "…them?"
Ryoga spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "If this hadn't happened… I wouldn't have been able to choose. Couldn't bear to hurt you, couldn't bear to hurt them. I don't know what would've happened. But it wouldn't have been pretty."
"So they really did have just as much chance as me," Ukyo said bitterly, looking away. "That doesn't do my ego a whole lot of good, you know, Sugar. To find out I couldn't even beat out a couple of little kids."
"Ukyo… is it some kind of crime, that I thought it was nice to be wanted?" Ryoga asked helplessly. "They showed up right after I met you. I've been alone my whole life. They scared me at first by coming on too strong, but then they toned it down and just showed me caring and consideration. Oh sure, sometimes they teased me and made me uncomfortable, but all those times put together don't even compare to what I felt after they got their granny to try and find my parents!"
"Say what?!" This startled Ukyo out of her blue funk. "They tried to find your parents?!"
"Yeah, with Amazon magic, but so far each time the Matriarch has checked for them they've been way too far away to try and go catch up with either of them." But at least he knew they were still alive and in good health.
"I… I never knew that…" the chef admitted. Neither of them said anything for a while, as Ukyo turned the new revelation over in her mind. Reluctantly, she began to consider that there must be more to the Amazon twins than she had given them credit for. What else had Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung done, that she hadn't seen?
Ryoga took a deep breath. "Ukyo… do you remember that night… at your restaurant… you know, right after they got rid of the Gambling King…"
"Yeah, I remember," she said, blushing at the memory.
"When you… hugged me…" Ryoga was blushing too, more fiercely than Ukyo by a fair measure, "…was it easy? To just let go, and… and show what you were feeling like that?"
Ukyo mutely shook her head.
"Same for me… it's hard…" He wiped some sweat from his brow as if in testimony to this fact. "But not for Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. They don't hold back or keep a reserve. They show you how they really feel. And what they showed me… how they felt for me… it was enough for part of me to feel the same way back."
Silence again for a while, before Ukyo asked, hesitantly, "Are you gonna be able to let go of them?"
"Yes," Ryoga answered her, no hesitation or uncertainty in his voice. "I wasn't trying to say I was in love with them. I wasn't. But that other me… who doesn't have to worry about hurting anybody else… he can take them up on their offer. He can afford to give them what they want. And since they're not going to get hurt, I can walk away with no regrets."
"No regrets, Sugar? That he's got somebody and you don't?" Even as the words left her mouth, Ukyo had a sense that that wasn't really the best way to lead into what she was trying to say. As a look of sick panic started to rise in Ryoga's eyes, her suspicion was confirmed. She smacked herself on the forehead. "Sorry, Sugar, that didn't come out right. What I meant was… you know… Oh, heck!" Ukyo stamped her foot in sudden exasperation. "You were right, Ryoga honey. It's hard to just let go. Even if I have before.
"But… I'm glad I don't have to fight over you any more… I'm glad that, like you said, we… we don't have to wait 'til the Matriarch's year is up…"
"You know… it really should be my turn now," Ryoga said nervously, as Ukyo seemed to run out of courage. He gathered what there was of his, then awkwardly reached out and pulled her to him in a hug. Ukyo didn't take nearly as long to respond as he had the first time she'd reached out to him.
Whether either of them would have had the guts to take it further must remain a mystery, for at that point a loud cry, followed by a scrabbling sound, marked the descent of another person into the gorge. Ryoga and Ukyo ended the embrace, neither particularly happy at the interruption, and turned to see just who had come butting in.
Ryoga was starting to get a little frustrated. He'd been looking for Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung for the last twenty minutes. The last fifteen of these had been spent wandering around in circles, trying to track down just where that elusive music was coming from.
His search had led him back to where the melody seemed strongest: just outside the Matriarch's home. Ryoga had already passed by here six times in the last quarter-hour, and had even gone inside and checked the entire place thoroughly for the twins. Twice. No Ling-Ling or Lung-Lung, or anybody else who could tell him where they might be.
At this point he was beginning to wonder whether it was really the twins he was hearing, though. While the music was as beautiful as he'd only heard from them, it didn't sound particularly cheerful. More somber and melancholy. Not actually a dirge of mourning, but certainly no anthem of jubilation and celebration. Plus there was the fact that avoiding him was definitely NOT Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung's usual modus operandi.
Ryoga groaned in frustration, and began to gently hit his head against the side of the house, trying to dislodge some inspiration. He supposed he could always shout, "LING-LING! LUNG-LUNG! IS THAT YOU? WHERE ARE YOU, ANYWAY?!" at the top of his lungs, but somehow that option didn't seem too appealing at the moment. Perhaps a better one would be to jump to the roof and see if he could see anything from there. The height of the tallest building in the village would give him a better vantage point than just walking through the streets. He tensed, then leaped…
…nearly squashing Ling-Ling flat on his landing.
The cherry-haired girl was caught so much by surprise that she almost didn't manage to get out of the way at all. At the last moment she rolled frantically to one side, lamenting not having been quicker to react. If she'd been faster, there would have been time to 'accidentally' clip his ankle with hers as he landed and send the two of them rolling along together. The rooftop was flat and she and her sister had been in the center of it, so there was no danger that this maneuver would have sent her or Ryoga over the edge. And it would have worn away just a little bit more of his cute-but-sometimes-frustrating shyness.
"Oh, gosh! I'm sorry, Ling-Ling! Are you okay?!" At least this time he hadn't actually smacked into her, Ryoga thought.
"Am fine," she reassured him. "Is good to see you, Airen."
"Same to you," he said. "Man, I can't believe I didn't think to check the rooftops. If Ranma were here he'd laugh himself sick."
"What you mean?"
"I've been looking for you for a while now. I kept hearing you play, but I couldn't quite figure out where the music was coming from." Ryoga laughed sheepishly. "I came up here to get a better view of the streets below us."
"Well, it still work, yes? From rooftop you able to see where we is," Ling-Ling said with a faint smile.
"Hmmm… when you put it that way…"
"So how you doing?" Lung-Lung asked. "Is you get used to have twin brother now yet?"
"It's still pretty odd, to see another Ryoga walking around and everything. Probably it'll take me a while to really get used to it. But I'm sure glad it happened," Ryoga said with feeling.
Both Amazons blinked. "Really? You is glad?"
"Yeah, I'm glad," he confirmed, puzzled at their reaction. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"You no think he maybe get hurt?" Ling-Ling said quietly. "Maybe you not hear yet, Airen. But Mother, Aunt Rouge, and Great-Grandmother all tell us same thing, we have to stay with you, stay away from him. Can not even be his friend for at least next month."
"We understand why we have to do it, after what Mother do. So he able to let go of us and move on," Lung-Lung said morosely. Then her eyes seemed to flash fire. "Lung-Lung not know what she thinking! We never want to hurt you. Just want to be happy together with you forever. But now there one Ryoga Hibiki that no can be part of that no more."
"Is it really bothering you that much?" Ryoga asked gently. "I was kind of surprised when I heard the music. I thought you'd be all happy and excited about what your mother did."
"Happy and excited? What we gain from this? We already going to win sooner or later. Okay, maybe this make things little bit sooner, but price is you now have brother who going to be alone."
"Alone?!" He hadn't expected this. Just why did Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung think their mother had done what she did anyway?! "Come on, Ling-Ling. I know you and Lung-Lung aren't blind. How do you think he's going to wind up alone?"
"No, we not blind, Airen. We know spatula girl now think she have go-ahead signal to go after other Ryoga, and will leave you alone." Lung-Lung looked him dead in the eye. "We also know Ryoga not want same thing as she want. Want to be friend only."
"How'd you figure that?" Ryoga asked, not realizing that the way he'd phrased the question could be mistaken for agreement with her statement.
Lung-Lung hesitated, trying to decide how much to say. At last, thinking the Amazon equivalent of 'What the heck', she said, "Airen, you remember times we eat lunch together back in Japan? Especially time we kid you about Passion Spice?" He nodded, unsure what that had to do with anything. She continued, "Why you think we do that joke anyway?"
Ryoga shrugged. "To tease me?" he hazarded a guess. "I mean, I must've looked pretty funny, with the way you two were giggling then."
"That was just unexpected side bonus," Ling-Ling said, patting him on the arm. "Real reason was subtle. Is strategy Great-Grandmother help us with."
"What strategy?" he prompted, after a few moments of silence.
Lung-Lung reached out and took his hand, twining her fingers through his. She glanced at the sweat suddenly breaking out on Ryoga's forehead, then deliberately removed the bandana she was wearing and used it to wipe her Airen's brow. Given that this action only made him perspire more freely, one might think it was a wasted effort. One would be wrong.
She let go of his hand and tied the bandana back into its place in her hair. "Airen… you just lose cool because Lung-Lung get close and do something romantic. But few seconds back, Ling-Ling pat you on arm and you not even flinch. Why you think that is?"
"A little pat on the arm is nothing, compared to some of the stuff… you've done…" Ryoga's voice trailed off as the beginnings of understanding began to glimmer on his face.
"Mm-hm," Lung-Lung confirmed. "We sorry we make you uncomfortable sometimes, Airen. We not ever want it to be too bad. But little bit is okay, is even good, Great-Grandmother say. She think you is much shy, need help to get over. So we take slow steps to make you more comfortable with get close."
"Is hard to be patient," Ling-Ling said, looking at Ryoga with a somber expression. Then her whole face shifted, lighting up with a big smile. "But now we understand better what big sister Shampoo tell us long back. Good man is worth wait."
While he had come a good ways under the twins' subtle (or not-so-subtle) prodding, Ryoga was still a little too flustered to enjoy a conversation like this as much as he would in later days. Besides, they hadn't really answered his first question yet. "You haven't really answered my first question yet."
"What was…? Oh, yeah. How we know you only wanted to be friend with spatula girl." Lung-Lung hesitated, but decided there wasn't any good way of avoiding this admission. "Not too long ago, Airen… we see you off in distance with her… we follow you with Dance of Hidden Chameleon. Watch you go on walk and eat lunch at nice restaurant."
"This was after we tell you we had no been using to follow you," Ling-Ling broke in. "We tell truth then."
"Anyway, we see spatula girl try do same thing we do, try come-on tricks to get Ryoga to get closer to her. But you not respond at all. You not go along with it, and you not even get nervous. That how we know, Airen. If there was feeling on your side, would at least get nervous when she try like that. Like you do with us."
Ryoga blinked. "Wait a minute… You're telling me Ukyo was trying to do the same thing you do? Why didn't I notice anything?"
Stunned silence for a moment, then a delayed facefault from the twins.
"Never mind, I don't guess that was the smartest question I've ever asked," he admitted. "Remember, Ling-Ling, Lung-Lung, some of the things you girls understand are a mystery to us guys. Or at least to me. Whatever Ukyo did, it couldn't have been as obvious as the stuff you pull sometimes."
"And what if had been?" Lung-Lung demanded, getting back up. "What if she not too, too bashful Japanese that no can come out and show what want? What if she make obvious, hug you even or something like that?"
"She actually did that once," Ryoga admitted nervously. "Right after the Gambling King left. I probably would've freaked out completely if you two hadn't softened me up for that kinda stuff." He said the last in the hope that it would calm Lung-Lung down.
"Spatula girl go too far this time!" Lung-Lung snarled. "We never EVER let her steal you away from us! Will beat her into ground if have to!"
At this point Ling-Ling smacked her sister on the head, ending her tirade. "Earth to Lung-Lung," she said sarcastically. "Thanks to Mother, is no question of spatula girl try to steal Airen away, remember? She have own."
"Oh… yeah. That right." The lime-haired girl laughed sheepishly. "Lung-Lung forget in heat of moment. Sorry about that, Airen."
"Ranma, prepare to die!" Ryoga muttered under his breath, a wry grin on his face. "Talk about déjà vu." When the twins looked at him strangely, he smiled and said, "It's nothing."
The three were quiet for a minute or two, before Ling-Ling spoke up again. "So other Ryoga will not be alone after all? Not even for small time it would take good man like him to find somebody in village what interested? He will go right to her?"
"Yeah, that's right," Ryoga confirmed.
Lung-Lung hesitated, obviously wanting to ask a question but unsure how to phrase it. At last she said, "Airen… You and he is same person, more or less. Will become different as time go by, at least that what Mother said, but right now you know what he would feel like and he know same for you. Will he… be happy with her?"
Ryoga took a deep breath. "Yes, I think so," he said. "Are you okay with that?"
Both Amazons looked downcast. "Is man we care about, who we have to let go because there only one for us," Ling-Ling said. "We want him be happy. We no like Ukyo, as Airen well know. But if she make other Ryoga happy, then… then that okay with us. Even if we not think she deserve get lucky like that."
"I wouldn't be surprised if she felt the exact same way about you two," Ryoga said, wisely NOT going on to add, "You and her have a lot more in common than any of you realize."
"Humph. Spatula girl would never have good sense like that," Lung-Lung huffed. "But… at least other Ryoga not be lonely…"
"Yeah…" Ryoga said, suddenly noticing that somehow, without appearing to move, both girls had gotten quite a bit closer. He gulped, then said, "Being lonely sucks… I'm glad I'm not anymore…"
Restraining themselves until he made the next move was one of the hardest things Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung had ever done. But they were rewarded as Ryoga finally leaned forward and put his arms around both of them.
Whether the Amazons would have been able to hold themselves back from going any further and probably spooking their Airen must remain a mystery, for at that moment the trap door to the roof opened and someone climbed out. As the newcomer was behind Ryoga, he remained unaware of this (and Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were certainly not paying enough attention to notice) until an exclamation came from behind the three of them.
They hadn't intended to break off practice this soon. Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo had started their day by heading to an open area on the outskirts of the village, and engaging in some free-for-all sparring. Unfortunately, they found reason to cut it short before any of them had really gotten their fill of the fun.
Ranma had thought that the earliness of the hour would have been enough to guarantee some privacy. Although most everybody in the tribe would probably have been awake by now, there shouldn't have been any reason to bring anyone out in this direction. But apparently he'd underestimated the curiosity of the Amazons toward the newcomers.
He didn't quite become aware of the sensation of danger quickly enough. As often happened in situations like this, the fight had shifted into both girls vs. Ranma. He had just twisted to one side, grabbing Shampoo by the arm as she inadvertently presented a minuscule opening in her defenses, and spinning her into the path of Kodachi's ribbon strike which his initial shift had dodged. As the girls were temporarily stymied, Shampoo because she was completely entangled, Kodachi because her faithful ribbon was out of commission and Ranma had already disarmed her of everything else, the Anything-Goes heir was able to relax for a moment.
And that was when the hairs at the back of his neck stirred with a feeling of peril. He tensed, then spun around, halfway expecting a sneak-attack from some unknown assailant.
No attack was forthcoming. Nobody was anywhere near his back. But there were a number of Amazons standing a good distance away, watching the battle with an unmistakable gleam in their eyes.
'Oh, crud,' Ranma thought. Desperately he spun back to face the girls. Shampoo was now untangled, and Kodachi had recovered most of her weapons. Both braced themselves to resume combat.
"Well, that's about enough for today, don't you think?" the pigtailed martial artist asked loudly, making sure his voice would carry to his unanticipated audience.
Kodachi, who was focused too much on her boyfriend to have noticed the newcomers yet, blinked in surprise. "Enough for today? Only thirty minutes of sparring? Are you feeling all right, Ranma-kun? You're usually the last one of us to call it quits when we train."
"Ha, ha, ha! You're such a kidder, Dachi-chan!" Ranma said desperately. "You know this is just a hobby for me!" Under his breath he hissed, "play along, play along already!" and jerked his head toward the Amazon audience.
The White Rose's eyes widened as she finally noticed the others, and the looks they were giving Ranma. After a long moment of glaring at them and debating whether or not to walk over and administer a judicious Spirit Ribbon Storm, she eventually said, "Of course, you're right, Ranma-sama. It wouldn't do to think of this as something serious, now would it?!"
Shampoo just shook her head. '<Who do they think they're going to fool with that pathetic act anyway? And have they forgotten most of those girls don't speak Japanese?>' Oh well, better to play along. Given how the other Amazons were staring at her Airen, she was pretty sure the damage had already been done, but continuing to dangle his true prowess in front of their eyes would only make things worse. Now that the moment had actually come, she felt like an idiot for all the times she'd fantasized about showing Ranma off to the rest of the Amazons. What had she been thinking when she'd imagined them just walking away in despair at not having a chance at someone that good?!
And so it was that the three of them headed back to the village much earlier than they had thought to. They were quiet for a while, but as they reached the first few houses, Ranma spoke up. "Do ya think they bought that, Shampoo?"
"Hmmm, let Shampoo think. Would Amazon sisters believe that man what only think of the Art as hobby get good enough to move so fast warrior's eye can not follow, and trap Shampoo in attack what other top-notch fighter meant for him?" Shampoo shook her head. "Not a chance in the world, Airen. We should have go farther to find training ground. Sorry I not see that in first place."
"Like it's any less my fault?" Ranma sighed. "Man, I've never felt so much like a piece of meat with a bunch'a hungry wolves staring at it. Furinkan wasn't nearly this bad."
"Furinkan know better than to cross Shampoo's sister. Right, Kodachi?" Shampoo didn't actually wait for a response before turning back to Ranma. "But you say you never, ever feel like that, Airen?" Her lips curved into a sultry smile. "Not even when Shampoo look at you like that? Then I guess I just have to try harder."
"Hey, it's different when it's you guys," Ranma pointed out.
"Indeed. It IS different with us." By now Kodachi had had time to calm down, and to think a few things over. "We share a bond with you that none of them can ever hope for, a bond so strong it even outweighs Amazon marriage laws. So why don't we ask the Matriarch to spread the word that you're off-limits, Ranma-sama?"
"That maybe work, but maybe not," Shampoo cautioned. "Probably will reduce heat, but not get rid of everyone."
"Why ever not?" That didn't seem to make much sense to the White Rose.
"They already know Ranma is outside of marriage law. Because he have Shampoo, he not count as outsider, and defeat other Amazon not mean anything unless is actual marriage challenge he made. But that not stop them from try to make him want to choose them. Because Heart Link is secret, can no tell them why they not really have any chance at that."
Kodachi frowned thoughtfully. "Then is there nothing we could do? Ultimately these girls' intentions would have the same impact on us as on you, Ranma dear. Shouldn't Shampoo and I be able to do something?"
"Yes and no," Shampoo answered for him, looking uncomfortable. "Could put out public word that we absolutely not accept any more candidates for fellow wives to Ranma. That probably get rid of just about everyone." Left unspoken was the thought that they would be able to do what Ranma himself couldn't, and be unmoved by the sorrow of disappointed cute girls.
The White Rose sighed as she took in the expression on Shampoo's face. "And what's the downside that makes this approach unfeasible?"
"What it would say about what Ranma is to us. Would be saying to everybody, what Ranma maybe, maybe not want doesn't matter to us, we is only ones what have right to make decision. Is you willing to put that out to whole village?"
Kodachi recoiled at the implication. "Of course not!"
Shampoo smirked. "I know. Was rhetorical question."
Another approach had occurred to Ranma by now. "But maybe we could get the other Elders to step in an' tell everybody not to waste their time. Whaddaya think about that, Sham-chan? I mean, they all know about the Heart Link. They can just tell all the girls that I'm not interested in anybody else; they don't have'ta say WHY. I'd think that if there's anybody that could get something like that taken on faith, it'd be the Council of Elders."
Shampoo gave him a strange look. "Does you really think all those girls would believe? Would give up just like that for such vague statement? Ranma never have trouble not thinking with hormones?"
Ranma, remembering back to a certain moonlit episode, blushed fiercely enough to pique Kodachi's curiosity. But it obviously wasn't the right time to ask for details such as those. They were well inside the village now, and people were moving about in the streets around them.
As they approached the Matriarch's house, Ranma suddenly stopped dead, and gave a groan. "Oh, man, we gotta warn Ryoga! Soon as somebody sees him… er, them, going all out in practice, he'll… THEY'LL be up to their necks in girl troubles just when they thought they were in the clear!" Fortunately none of the Amazons within earshot spoke Japanese well enough to follow this, or it would have become a moot point.
"Aiyah! That right!" Shampoo said, dismayed that she hadn't thought of that herself. "Either of you know where Ryogas is?"
Kodachi pointed down the street. "Actually, there's one of them now, coming this way with Ukyo and someone else." Her brow crinkled in puzzlement. "Something certainly seems to have excited them. I wonder what?"
The question was answered quickly enough, as Ryoga, Ukyo, and the man with them came over to where Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo were standing. Ryoga grinned like a loon as he put his arm around the man's shoulders. "Ranma, Kodachi, Shampoo, may I introduce Ichiro Hibiki. My father."
Seen from this close, the family resemblance was so obvious that Ryoga might not have even needed to say anything. Ichiro was a man in his early thirties, with the same black hair and powerful build as his son. He stood a few inches taller than Ranma. His eyes were brown, not that far off in hue from his skin, which was sun-darkened and weathered as if he had spent many years traveling under the open sky. His dusty clothing and large backpack further added to that impression.
Though appearances can be deceiving, what you see is usually what you get with a Hibiki.
It was somewhat disconcerting for Ranma and Kodachi to see the fangs that Ryoga had lost so long ago still gleamed in his father's broad smile. "I'm always glad to meet friends of my son."
Ranma managed to recover enough composure to bow. "Y-you're his father? Where'd you come from, anyway?!"
The teenagers were struck with a bizarre sensation of déjà vu as Ichiro put one hand behind his head and laughed embarrassedly. "That's one question I've never been able to answer very well. I don't even know where I am now. Just that I was looking down a cliff, hoping there'd be a spring or stream at the bottom, and recognized my boy down there."
"Oh! Are you thirsty, Dad?" Ryoga asked. "C'mon inside and we'll get you something to drink. This is where I'm staying right now anyway."
Ryoga led the way inside, Ichiro following him and Ukyo following the elder Hibiki, with the chef making sure to keep him in her sight at all times. From the stories Ryoga honey had told her, she was pretty sure that was the only way to ensure his half-Oni directionlessness didn't suddenly kick in and shift him to Australia.
Because she was paying such close attention, Ukyo was able to stop in time to avoid running into Ichiro's back when he suddenly came to a halt. However, the same wasn't true of Shampoo, Ranma, or Kodachi, who piled up behind the chef and knocked her forward into Ryoga's father anyway. The entire mass of people stumbled forward into the large greeting room.
Ichiro absentmindedly halted his forward momentum by quickly shifting one foot in front of him and bracing himself. As the elder Hibiki in front of them went from stumbling father to immovable object, Ranma, Kodachi, Shampoo, and Ukyo all lost their balance entirely, falling to the ground in a confused tangle of arms and legs.
Neither Ichiro nor his son noticed. They were too busy staring in disbelief at the sight in front of them.
The newcomers weren't the only people in the room. Four people had been seated at a table when the door opened. Two of them, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, were still sitting, with startled, questioning looks on their faces, as if they suspected something but weren't sure of it. The other two were standing, their own expressions well beyond startled or uncertain. The other Ryoga was staring in disbelief at who his twin had brought with him. And the last person present…
"Ichiro?" A sort of hopeful gasp.
"Kozue?" The whisper of one who sees something too good to be true.
It was a good thing that Ryoga wasn't standing directly between them, for at this point his father and mother raced forward, grabbing each other and holding on for dear life.
Ukyo, who had managed to disentangle herself and get back to her feet, walked over and tapped Ryoga on the arm. When that produced no noticeable response, she poked him in the ribs with a throwing spatula. "Hey, Sugar, you don't mean to tell us… is that your mom?!"
Ling-Ling got up from her chair and walked over to her Airen. "Ryoga… Ling-Ling think she recognize from picture, but hard to believe. Is really your father?"
The Ryogas, each with his voice catching in his throat, could only nod.
"So BOTH Ryoga's parents wandered into the same place, at the same time, and it just happened to be the Amazon village? Where their son… er, sons, had just settled down for a visit?" Kodachi shook her head in disbelief. "Ranma-kun, how much more aren't you going to tell me? You never said the slightest thing about this place being just as full of chaos and outlandish coincidences as Nerima."
"It not usually this bad," Shampoo protested. "Not even close. I wonder if maybe we bring strange stuff with us."
Since the Matriarch's home had become the site of an impromptu family reunion, Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo slipped out again to give them some privacy. Without anything better to do, they began walking around the village, Shampoo pointing out spots of interest to Kodachi as they came to them. The White Rose wasn't really paying that much attention, though, her mind dwelling back at the Matriarch's home and what was happening there. Shampoo didn't notice her sister's inattention, as she was doing the same thing, allocating only a few of her thoughts to the tour, with the rest of her wondering just how Mr. and Mrs. Hibiki were adjusting to the knowledge that they now had two sons instead of one, as well as at least two eventual daughters-in-law.
Eventually neither of them could stand it any longer. "This is part of village where metalworkers have shops, Kodachi. So what you think going on back with Ryogas parents, Ucchan, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung?"
The White Rose didn't even blink at the non sequitur. "I've been wondering myself, Shampoo. I hope everything is turning out well, that they're able to handle learning everything they need to. Perhaps it depends on how many oddities they've experienced in their years of wandering. I suspect they may take the news better than a typical Japanese couple would."
"Probably so. Is certain 'typical' isn't right word for the Hibiki family," Shampoo agreed. "Wonder if Ryoga has tell them yet about Oni heritage."
"I doubt it. More likely he'll… er, they'll wait until your great-grandmother is available, so that she can be the one to break that news to them."
"Would be good idea. Wonder if Great-Grandmother knows way to cure them from get lost," the Amazon mused. "Is not the same thing as Ryoga was, after all, they not have Oni soul to cast out. I hope is possible for them to be cured for real."
"I've been thinking the same thing. And while I can't be certain, of course, I believe there is a way to do just that." Kodachi glanced to one side, at Ranma. She would prefer not to mention this in his hearing, for sensitivity's sake. He was a few steps away, seemingly lost in thought, but she lowered her voice anyway. "Back when the Matriarch explained Ryoga's heritage to us, she made a clear distinction between human and half-Oni. So it stands to reason that if Ryoga's father and mother immerse themselves in the Nannichuan and Nyannichuan, they would receive true human bodies as 'cursed' forms, in which they would not be subject to directionlessness any longer."
"Aiyah! Is very good idea," Shampoo agreed, impressed once again with Kodachi's clarity of thought. "Should tell Ryogas as soon as we see them again."
"If your great-grandmother hasn't already beaten me to it. And assuming she doesn't say it won't work, of course," Kodachi pointed out.
"That true." The girls were quiet for a few more moments, before Shampoo spoke again, in a pensive tone. "Wonder what Ryogas' parents going to think of Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung."
"Are you worried that they might have a problem with the thought of an Amazon multi-marriage? Or are you just concerned about your cousins making a good impression?"
"Both, maybe," Shampoo answered. "Is not cousins' fault they look four years younger than real age, but if Ryoga just blurt out, "This is Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, my fiancées," without preparing parents first, could maybe really hurt their feelings if father or mother react in shock."
"Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that," Kodachi replied.
"And then there is possibility that them in same room with Ucchan would cause a fight to break out. That probably will not happen, but is one more thing to worry about."
The White Rose chewed her lower lip worriedly. "I hadn't thought of that. Maybe we ought to head back. Just in case."
Shampoo nodded. "Come on." The girls turned and began walking back the way they had come.
"Hey! Where're you going?" Ranma called out, roused at last from his preoccupied thoughts.
"We're going to go back to the Matriarch's home," Kodachi answered.
A blank look on his face, Ranma asked, "What? Why? We left there so they could all have some privacy." He quickly glanced at the angle of the sun, reassuring himself that he hadn't somehow lost track of a few hours.
"Well, we were just a little concerned, that's all," his girlfriend replied. Another blank look prompted her to summarize the last few minutes' conversation between her and Shampoo.
By the time she'd finished, her boyfriend was shaking his head. "Dachi-chan, don't you think you're getting worked up over nothing?"
"Maybe, but better safe than sorry, don't you think?"
"No, I really don't. Not this time." Ranma wasn't sure how to put what he wanted to say into words, so he kept quiet for a few moments. At last he said, "Even if all that stuff does happen, it ain't our place to go back and try to keep things runnin' smoothly, right? I mean, they're all gonna be family, at least unless somewhere down the road from now Ucchan an' Ryoga decide they just want to be friends. So they all ought to learn to get along together. We shouldn't stick our noses in their business."
"Personally, I suspect Ryoga would appreciate it rather than being offended, if we headed off some trouble between Ucchan and the twins," Kodachi protested. Then she smacked herself on the head. "But that doesn't necessarily mean his parents would feel the same way about some strangers interfering. And it certainly doesn't mean they would thank us for sugarcoating over an area of trouble in their sons' lives. Well, I feel like an idiot now."
"You shouldn't," Ranma reassured her. "Some other time I might've agreed with ya. Wouldn't have thought about it nearly as much as I just did, that's for sure. But… I'm kinda sensitive about family stuff right now…"
As the tone with which he'd spoken that last sentence registered, Shampoo and Kodachi extended their perceptions along the Heart Link, sensing Ranma's feelings. They each took hold of one of his arms, and led him over to an open area not far off to one side, where they sat down side-by-side-by-side.
"Airen… I sorry. Not realize 'til now this hurt you so much," Shampoo said quietly. Kodachi had discussed this briefly with her, late one evening during the trip from Nerima toward the village, but the Amazon realized now that she hadn't really understood the extent of Ranma's feelings on the matter. Not knowing what else to say, she leaned her head against his shoulder and tried to project feelings of comfort, love, and acceptance.
"I didn't think either, Ranma-sama," Kodachi admitted. "How seeing Ryoga suddenly reunited with his parents would affect you, after Genma's reprehensible behavior."
"I'm happy for them, and all," he said, "but yeah, it was one more reminder of how little my old man seems ta think of me."
"Makes no sense to Shampoo," the Amazon confessed. "Long time before I love you, Airen, I could still see what good man you is. How could Genma not?"
"This is only a theory, mind you," Kodachi said slowly, "but I think what may have happened was Genma projecting his own faults onto Ranma. After all, we all know very well that if HE were suddenly dropped into the lap of luxury," she squelched a random but intense urge to pull Ranma into her own lap by way of illustration, "that he would simply lie back and do absolutely nothing. Perhaps he knows in his heart how much better than him you are, Ranma dear, but his pride simply won't allow him to admit it to himself."
After a few moments of silence, Ranma sighed. "Huh. Maybe. I dunno. What more do I have to do to get through to the old idiot?!"
"Airen…" Shampoo said slowly. She'd been considering Kodachi's statement too. "If Kodachi is right, then is not matter of you at all. Is matter of him. Maybe you do everything you can and still not change things."
"Oh, really?" Ranma said, a gleam rising in his eye. Although Shampoo hadn't intended her words as such, putting it in the form of a challenge made the situation seem a lot less insurmountable. "Wanna bet, Sham-chan?"
"Bet? Against Airen? Do Shampoo look stupid?" she asked teasingly, responding to his improving mood with a return of her usual cheerfulness. "And anyway, I is on your side. That means bet on Ranma, not against. Always."
"And I as well," Kodachi said adamantly.
Ranma didn't say anything, just pulled them tightly against him for a few minutes. At last he said, somewhat gruffly, "Thanks. Thanks a lot." After swallowing a few times, he went on, "So whaddaya think I should do, to pound some sense into Pop's skull? How about telling him about the barrel of Nannichuan we'll have brought back for him, but not letting him have it unless he can defeat me in combat? That'd get it through to him just how much I've been 'slacking off' and 'forgetting the Art'!"
Shampoo clapped her hands excitedly. "Is too, too good idea!" Watching that would make for some great entertainment!
While Kodachi felt the same way, she was reluctantly obliged to point out, "I don't think taunting him with a cure that he'll never be able to achieve is the best way to get him to open up, Ranma-kun."
That was true. The fat old panda never would be able to win that challenge, Ranma thought. "Everything's gotta have a downside," he grumbled. Oh well, back to the drawing board.
"What would make my old man finally respect me?" he mused out loud. "Or force him to show it if he really does? Hmmm…"
Shampoo and Kodachi turned the question over in their minds as well, calling up Ranma's memories. What had Genma always demanded of his son? What had he stressed as Ranma was growing up? Martial arts, of course. There really hadn't been anything else at all. Genma had taught his son from the earliest age to live, eat, sleep, breathe, and revere the Art. In fact, Kodachi thought with a sinking sensation, if Genma should discover that Ranma had learned to value other things as well, it might well disappoint the old idiot no matter how skilled a martial artist his son had become.
Was it really that bad, though? Surely not even Genma could focus absolutely EVERYTHING on the Art. Had he never presented anything else as having any worth at all?
After a bit of thought, the White Rose realized there was something she was overlooking. It hadn't been emphasized nearly as much, over the course of the years, and even when it was Genma had usually tied it to martial arts in some way or another. But she remembered now there had been numerous times when Genma had stressed the need for his son to grow up to be a real man… a paragon of manliness (not that the elder Saotome had put it that eloquently)… in short, a man among men. Which Kodachi knew he was, of course, but what would be the best way to prove that to Genma?
Ranma brightened as he suddenly thought of something. What he'd already been planning to do on this trip… if that didn't get his father's respect, nothing would. And there was no need to waste any more time. He rose to his feet, pulling a surprised Kodachi and Shampoo up with him. "C'mon, you two. I got an idea."
"Idea? What idea? Where we going?" Shampoo asked confusedly as Ranma led them purposefully onward.
"There's something I've been wanting to do for a while now, Sham-chan. My old man didn't have anything to do with why. But if it don't make him proud of me, I don't know what would."
"So… we going to do that now? Ranma? Where we going anyway?"
"This morning showed privacy ain't exactly in huge supply around here, so we're gonna find some place far enough out that nobody's gonna come stumbling in and interrupting," Ranma said.
He still had his arms around both girls, but they managed to lean back slightly and exchange glances behind his back. 'Surely he doesn't… no, he couldn't… interrupting us? I don't…' With the 'man among men' memory still fresh in her mind, Kodachi was having some difficulty forming coherent thoughts. 'I will not jump to conclusions… I will not jump to conclusions… I will not allow my heart to jump up my throat and out my mouth…'
Nobody said anything for the next forty-five minutes. Ranma was too busy making sure they weren't being followed; Shampoo and Kodachi were too busy fighting a mounting sense of anticipation and trepidation.
At last they reached an area that seemed sufficiently far from the village. Ranma looked with satisfaction on the broad stony field framed on three sides by hills and the fourth by a thicket of trees. "Looks like the perfect spot. Nice and private."
Shampoo swallowed, trying to work some moisture into her throat. "That certainly true. Nobody interrupt here." She gulped again. "Ranma want Shampoo go off to trees and wait there for while?"
"Huh?" Ranma asked, apparently not having anticipated this. "What for?"
"Shampoo think is best that way," the Amazon said firmly, walking over toward the trees without further hesitation. "Can send Kodachi to come get Shampoo when Ranma ready for me."
Ranma scratched his head as he watched Shampoo disappear off into the thicket. "I will never understand women," he muttered. "Anyway, Dachi, I'm gonna need your help for this. Shampoo too, I still don't get why she walked away just now."
"I think… she just wanted it to be… just you and her… when… I quite agree with her, you know," Kodachi said, mentally thanking Shampoo for taking a firm stance.
"Oh well," Ranma shrugged. "I guess it'll take a little longer, but we're not in any hurry, right?"
"R-right," Kodachi managed, the butterflies in her stomach now feeling as if they might lift her off the ground. 'I can't believe… am I ready… I wanted to wait… didn't I?… But if Ranma-sama… he seems so determined…'
"So, anyway, like I was gonna say… I've been working on an idea for a brand new technique. This looks like the perfect place to develop it. It's enough out of the way that nobody's gonna come by and see it too soon. I want it to be a secret until I get it perfect. If that don't earn some respect from Pop, I don't think anything will." Ranma's face shone with determination.
Kodachi's face shone with something other than determination. "Th-that's what you brought us out here for?! To find a place where you could design a new special technique?!"
"Yeah, that's right. I need you and Sham-chan to know where I'll be so you can help run interference and keep people away." Ranma was more than a little puzzled by the expression on his girlfriend's face. "Hey, Dachi, you feelin' okay?"
"Of course, Ranma-sama, why wouldn't I be?" Kodachi asked, holding back a laugh for fear it would turn into hysteria. 'So much for not jumping to conclusions.'
"Well, if you say so…" he wasn't convinced, but somehow sensed that it might not be a good idea to push it. Not when she was radiating that level of embarrassment. "I'm not sure how long it'll take me to work the move out. I'm planning on something pretty high-level. Like I said, I've been wanting to do this for my own sake, but it should also make an impression on Pop. Anyway, it may take a long time to get right, so I'm gonna take a couple hours out of each day to come here and work on it. Depending on how much progress I make, I may bump that up or cut it down. Just have to see how it goes."
By now Kodachi's heart rate was more or less under control. By focusing all her thoughts on what Ranma was saying, she had managed to banish most of her flush as well. "So what is this move you intend to create, Ranma-kun?"
"Um, well, it's a secret," Ranma said. "I want it to come as a surprise to everyone. I promise, you an' Sham-chan'll be the first to see it, once I've got it down. But you gotta wait until then, okay? And like I said, help me keep people away while I'm practicing."
"Oh, well, all right." Had Kodachi not still been fighting a severe case of embarrassment, she might have pushed just a little, if only to tease him. But as it was, she was glad of the opportunity to turn away and walk briskly toward the thicket. "I'll go send Shampoo so you can tell her."
Ranma watched her go, still wondering just what had had Dachi-chan so off-balance. Whatever it was, he was thankful for it. Otherwise, he suspected she would have caught on to the fact that there was a bit more to the plan than he was telling her. And that wouldn't do at all. Not yet.
Their privacy held for the next few hours, allowing the three to get in enough sparring to make up for the morning's interruption. This particular practice session was even more strenuous than usual, as Kodachi and Shampoo had a lot of frustrated energy to burn off and there was no way in the world Ranma would deliberately let them show him up. They didn't call it quits until well after their normal lunchtime.
At which point Ranma remembered there was a forty-five minute hike between them and lunch. Fifteen minutes later, as they approached the Matriarch's house, Shampoo was once again feeling envious of Kodachi's ability to recover her strength as fast as she spent it. Even for the Champion of the Amazons, a forced march like this on an empty stomach after hours of all-out combat was no fun at all.
They found the house unoccupied when they arrived, with the leftovers from lunch neatly packed and awaiting them. It was just as well that everyone else had already come, eaten, and gone, because there wasn't the slightest bit of food remaining after the three had eaten their fill. In fact, Shampoo had had to whip up an extra batch of lo mein, with dim sum on the side.
"So, what do ya want to do now?" Ranma asked, after the feeding frenzy was finally finished.
"Well, our tour of the village was cut somewhat short this morning," Kodachi replied. "Why don't we get back to that?"
"Is okay with me." Shampoo grinned sheepishly. "Um, what was last place I show you this morning, Kodachi?"
Kodachi arched one eyebrow, hoping to bluff her way out of admitting she hadn't been paying enough attention to remember. "Don't you recall?"
"No," the Amazon was forced to admit. "Shampoo was too busy thinking of Hibiki family reunion, and not keeping my mind on what I was doing. What was?"
"Um, well, I don't remember either. I was doing the same thing as you, actually."
Ranma chuckled. Kodachi turned and gave him a challenging look. "Is something funny, Ranma-kun?"
"Just that you weren't paying enough attention to realize Shampoo wasn't paying enough attention to see you weren't paying attention. Sounds like some kinda Zen thing."
"Humph. If Ranma think is so funny, where is last place we go to on tour?" Shampoo asked.
"That's easy. We'd just gotten to the tournament challenge log," Ranma replied confidently.
"Ha! You weren't paying any more attention than we were!" the White Rose said triumphantly, suddenly remembering. "It was actually the Council hall!"
Shampoo stuck her tongue out at her Airen. "Silly Ranma." Then she blinked. "Wait, Kodachi, that not right either. I remember now, it was statue of Hippolyta."
There was a long moment of silence, before they all burst out laughing. "Whaddaya say we just start at the beginning again?" Ranma asked.
This morning, they had all been too preoccupied to notice. It hadn't been as obvious then anyway. But since word had now had time to spread, plus more Amazons had free time during this part of the day than during the morning, it soon became apparent to Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo that their progress through the village was being tracked. They did their best to ignore it.
Amazons, at least teenage ones who don't have an Elder riding herd on them, seldom have the patience to hold to a subtle approach. By the time the three had reached the tournament challenge log for the second time that day, they found a number of girls there waiting for them.
The word 'number' rather than 'group' is used deliberately, because most of the girls in question were shooting each other cool looks that made it pretty obvious each would have preferred to have a great deal less company present. These looks faded as Ranma and company came into view, though, each girl putting on a friendly smile.
The trio stopped on seeing their welcoming committee, Ranma in particular wondering whether there was a graceful way to get the heck out of there without looking like that was what he was doing.
'<She who hesitates is lost,>' Xiang Lu thought. By chance she was the closest Amazon to Ranma's current position, not counting Shampoo of course. She made good use of that now, striding forward briskly. As she had known would happen, the other girls immediately moved to follow. With a smirk, she tapped the end of her staff into the ground beside her, whispering "Bakusai Tenketsu!" and walking faster.
The explosion of gravel and dust behind her allowed her to get over to the newcomers before any of the other girls could recover from the surprise. It also startled Ranma enough that he forgot about beating a strategic retreat. And then Xiang Lu was right up next to them, raising a hand in greeting and giving a cheerful "Nihao!"
"Uh, nihao," Ranma said, remembering at the last second not to add, "Xiang Lu." Keeping the Heart Link secret might be even more trouble than he'd expected, the Saotome heir thought anxiously. He proceeded to overcompensate for the close call. "Have we met before? I met a lot of people at the welcome feast the other day, but I can't remember everybody. I'm Ranma Saotome, if we weren't introduced."
Kodachi gave her boyfriend an odd look, wondering just why this girl had reduced him to such a level of awkward babble. A quick glance along the Heart Link reassured her that whatever was causing Ranma to feel off-balance, it wasn't any sort of attraction to the girl.
Xiang Lu gave an apologetic smile. "Not speak Japan goodly." She turned to Shampoo. "<What did he say?>"
Shampoo returned a cool stare to Xiang Lu's forced smile. '<Oh, now that she's trying to get a piece of my husband, suddenly she turns friendly.>' Aloud, she said, "<That he wasn't in the mood to have two-faced dyed-haired girls throwing themselves at him.>"
The other Amazon had been admiring Ranma out of the corner of her eye. She noticed him flinch before Shampoo's words could really register. "<Do you speak our language?>" she asked him, turning away from Shampoo.
"No?" Ranma ventured. Shampoo just put her head in her hands and sighed.
"<Glad to hear it,>" Xiang Lu said, turning up the power output on her smile. The other girls had all caught up now, but she was the one who'd gotten here first and she wasn't about to relinquish this place before she was ready. "<Anyway, I'm Xiang Lu. It's nice to meet you, Ranma Saotome.>"
"<Uhh… just Ranma will do,>" he said with a mental groan, yielding to the inevitable.
"Ranma-kun, why did you just admit to speaking Mandarin?" Kodachi asked exasperatedly.
"Cause she asked, in Mandarin, if I could understand her, and like an idiot I said no," Ranma sighed. The White Rose rolled her eyes.
Xiang Lu turned and gave her a smile too, returning for the moment to heavily-accented and broken Japanese as a sign of courtesy. "Nihao. Am Xiang Lu. You… Kodachi, yes?"
"That's right," Kodachi said, regarding the girl with a mixture of surprise and skepticism. When Xiang Lu had been facing Shampoo, it had been pretty obvious that the other Amazon was having some difficulty appearing friendly. But that didn't seem to be the case now. The girl was wearing a warm smile that didn't look at all forced.
Xiang Lu stretched her knowledge of Japanese, trying to think how to phrase what she wanted to say next in the other girl's language. She wanted to get off on the right foot, after all. However, her knowledge of Japanese was just not up to the task, and at last she turned to Ranma and, speaking in Mandarin, asked him to relay her request to Kodachi. Still, Xiang Lu thought to herself, it was highly unlikely the other girl would mind. Anybody who could put up with Shampoo had to be some kind of saint.
"She asked you if you wanted to have a friendly match on the challenge log," Ranma translated.
"Hmm. There won't be any Kisses of Death administered, will there?" Kodachi asked. Not that that would actually be a real problem, given that she knew the secret of the Kiss already, but she would still rather avoid one than get one and just stand still, pretending to fight off fear with determination, to achieve formal Amazon status. That would feel too much like cheating.
"Nah," Ranma reassured her, "you're already basically considered an ally of the tribe, so it don't apply."
Xiang Lu might not have caught any of the exchange, but some of the other girls present spoke Japanese well enough to follow it. Kodachi found herself receiving a number of skeptical looks, as the other Amazons were more than a little curious now. If this outsider girl had spent enough time with Shampoo to learn that much about Amazon law, shouldn't she also have seen the Champion in battle? She had to know just how skilled the Amazons were. So why was she concerning herself about what could happen if Xiang Lu lost?
They weren't actually trying to say this by the looks on their faces (after all, none of them wanted to get on the bad side of the girl who the man they were interested in had already chosen out of love), but their dubious expressions were still clear enough for Kodachi to get the feeling that none of them thought she had needed to ask the question. It was a more than a little insulting, she thought with a feeling of annoyance.
That the only woman to make their Champion taste defeat had actually been an outsider had been explained away by just about everyone, with some thinking it had happened because Shampoo had been too tired after a long day of fighting. Others thought it had probably been a fluke such as might strike anyone once in a millennium. Still others had considered it some kind of karmic payback on the high-and-mighty Shampoo, though the recent news that her defeat by the redheaded foreign girl had eventually led to her finding a strong husband for herself had cast some doubt on that theory. Still, whatever the reason for Shampoo's loss, Amazon pride said that an outsider just wasn't going to defeat Xiang Lu, who was ranked fourth among the unmarried warriors.
Kuno pride said Amazon pride needed a good swift kick in the pantsuit.
Kodachi smiled back at Xiang Lu, noting that the other girl wasn't one of those giving her skeptical looks. "I accept," she said. Then, tensing her legs and focusing her chi, she leaped the fifty feet to the challenge log, landing on the far end and looking back toward the girl who'd offered the challenge.
Shampoo patted Xiang Lu on the arm, giving her a real, if not particularly nice, smile. "<Prepare to get your butt kicked.>"
Not all that much later, the three of them were walking along through the streets of the village again. "None of the Amazons seemed too happy about my victory," the White Rose commented.
"Well, whaddaya expect?" Ranma asked with a grin. "Those are girls that've trained their whole lives to be warriors. They aren't gonna be too happy to see someone their age pull off stunts that you normally gotta be an Amazon elder to match."
"It was just a little windstorm," Kodachi protested. "The Amazons have the Hiryuu Shoten Ha, don't they?"
"Yes, but not normally taught to anyone under age of thirty," replied Shampoo. "And it not something can use on the challenge log, after all."
"Yeah, the look on Xiang Lu's face was pretty funny," Ranma said. "Why didn't you keep it up long enough to blow her off the log, Dachi?"
"Well, I suppose I could have. Since she knew the Bakusai Tenketsu, there wouldn't have been much danger of hurting her. Still, I didn't want to play too rough," Kodachi explained. "She wasn't one of the Amazons who looked like they thought I was crazy for asking about the Kiss of Death beforehand."
"Plus doing it this way gave you chance to show off another technique too, right?" Shampoo asked cheerfully.
"Something like that. She was so surprised by then that her mental barriers were almost wide open. Easy prey for the dreaded Hula Hoopnosis technique."
"Should have made her cluck like a chicken or something first, not just get down off log." Shampoo made a mock-disappointed face at her sister. "Is missed opportunity."
"That would have been a little unnecessarily hard on her pride, don't you think?"
The lavender-haired girl sniffed disdainfully. "Many of those girls was ones what have treat Shampoo with most jealousy and coldness because they never able to beat me. Xiang Lu not worst of lot, but is certainly one of them. Would do her good to lose pride."
"Still, I don't think it's my place to teach that sort of lesson," the White Rose said uncomfortably.
"If not you, then who? They need to know that just because they is Amazons not automatically make them better than everybody else."
Both Ranma and Kodachi were staring now. "Uh, Sham-chan? You wanna maybe clarify that statement a little? I mean, you know I got almost all your memories, and I think I woulda noticed if somewhere in the last few months you started not caring about your Amazon heritage."
"Ranma not get what Shampoo saying," the Amazon said, slightly frustrated. "This about those girls, not about Amazon way in general."
"Are you sure this isn't just your hurt talking?" Kodachi asked as gently as she could. "I know you've experienced a lot of pain because of their jealousy. But that shouldn't mean you don't give credit where credit is due. If not for my empowerment, I might not have been able to beat her. And that is nothing I achieved on my own; it was a gift. She might well have deserved to win if one just considers our relative levels of skill and the time we've spent training."
"No, is not just Shampoo's hurt talking." Shampoo gave Kodachi a challenging stare. "Kodachi, what are the Two Pillars of Excellence?"
The White Rose blinked. "I have no idea."
Shampoo deflated. "Oh, I must never have tell you that. Ranma, please take over."
"It's the first lesson taught to a young girl just beginning Amazon training. The Two Pillars of Excellence are fighting skill, which may be taught, and fighting spirit, which comes from within."
"And which is most important?" Shampoo prompted.
"Fighting spirit," said Ranma, who suddenly knew where this was going. It was one of the later memories he'd picked up in the Heart Link, of a conversation between the Matriarch and her great-granddaughter not long before the appearance of Ryoga-Oni.
"Thank you, Airen." Shampoo noted the gleam of understanding in his eyes, and turned to face Kodachi. "That is Amazon heritage, Amazon way. Do you think it is right?"
Hoping this wasn't a trick question, Kodachi answered carefully, "It certainly doesn't sound like anything I can argue with."
"And what part of that says to be born here somehow make you better than someone what is not?"
Kodachi thought for a bit, before saying hesitantly, "The fighting skill part? I mean, the Amazons do have quite a number of powerful secret techniques."
"Is true. And after three thousand years of breeding for strength, is true that bigger… um… percentage of girls born here have natural talent for fighting than anywhere else. But like Ranma say, the fighting spirit is what is most important. There nothing to say someone from somewhere else not have just as much of that as one of us, or more."
"I remember now," Ranma said. "Back when… things had just been settled with Tatewaki, and Cologne was talking to you about this stuff."
Shampoo nodded solemnly. "Great-Grandmother tell me things I never think about before, lessons of wisdom what usually is saved for older womans, not hot-head young warriors. Things about honor, and choices, and how all Amazon glory and heritage would not mean anything if Amazons not choose to honor it. Lessons about get stronger by losing, learn what not to do next time so you not hurt again, and maybe someday can help someone else not make mistake in the first place. Lessons about respect others if they show they worthy, and not forget before they shove it in your face that there is people like that out there."
"And most of the girls your age here haven't learned those lessons yet?" Kodachi asked.
Ranma snorted. "Not unless there's been a whole lotta changes since she left."
"Is one in particular I wish they learn," Shampoo said. "Wish they would see that right goal is not to be best warrior in village. Right goal is to be best warrior you can be. If they learn that, then they would not resent me for be better than them. Would see as opportunity to grow stronger themselves, learn by challenging me. Would not find it necessary to hate it that they cannot actually win."
Kodachi, unable to resist the role of devil's advocate, had to ask, "Do you mean you wouldn't mind if somehow one of them manages to beat you during this visit?"
The Amazon shrugged. "Would probably take it as cue to up my own training for next while. But Shampoo could live with it." Ranma was nodding his head, but Kodachi still looked a little skeptical. Shampoo deliberately arched one eyebrow at her and said, "Is so hard to believe? When has I ever resented you for being too far ahead for me ever to catch up?"
For the longest time, Kodachi couldn't think of anything to say. At last, she just admitted, "I never really thought about it."
"I probably never will be able to beat you in straight-out fight," Shampoo said. "And is okay. I am happy to have challenge, to spur me on to keep get stronger."
She turned to Ranma, and her smile got wider and a great deal naughtier. "Same goes double for Airen, of course. Have the benefit of challenge, same as with sister, and also have brave, strong, good man for husband." She reached out and began tracing a finger up and down his neck. "Will give Shampoo very strong, very fine children."
Ranma gulped and began sweating like crazy. Shampoo laughed merrily, and to her credit there was only the barest hint of frustration in her tone as she said, "Someday."
They wandered around the village for another couple of hours, with no further incidents of note. As the shades of evening began to darken the sky, they returned to the Matriarch's home for dinner.
Rouge met them at the door. "Hello, children."
"Hey, Auntie," Ranma said back. "How's your day been?"
"Oh, not too bad," the Matriarch-in-training responded in a too-sweet tone. "Though I did have to spend a number of boring hours meeting with the Council of Elders this afternoon. That wasn't much fun." Her gaze sharpened. "It was even less fun when I returned home an hour ago, and found quite a mess in the kitchen."
Shampoo's eyes widened in dismay. "Aiyah! Shampoo knew she forgot something!"
"That's right, niece," Rouge said, her tone shifting from syrupy to businesslike. "And since I could hardly start cooking with all those pans and things still dirty and cluttering up the kitchen, dinner is going to have to wait until after you head in there and clean up your mess."
The lavender-haired girl gulped. "You mean… dinner not even get started yet? And everybody know this Shampoo's fault?" At Rouge's nod, she asked nervously, "Who all here right now? Shampoo not suppose Ryogas take parents to Jusenkyo for cure?"
Rouge blinked in surprise. "That's… quite an impressive deduction, Shampoo. You're right, too— it will solve their wandering problem. But they're going to do that tomorrow, not today." She put on another hard smile. "They're still here, waiting inside with everyone else for the kitchen to become functional once more. And may I point out that the longer they're kept waiting, the worse a reception you'll get when you finally go through that door?"
Shampoo squared her shoulders. "Oh well… Amazon have to do what Amazon have to do…" She proceeded to walk around the building and squeeze through the window that opened into the kitchen, neatly avoiding a potentially awkward moment.
"Should've remembered to lock that," Rouge sighed.
"You know, I bet Shampoo could use some help in there," Ranma said, eyeing the front door nervously. "C'mon, Dachi-chan."
"Oh, no you don't," Rouge said exasperatedly. "You'd tear the window-frame out of the wall if you tried to force your way through it, nephew-in-law."
A week or two later and he probably would've just splashed himself and slid through the window with ease, but right now the pain and disappointment of not being able to cure his curse via Jusenkyo was still too strong for that option to be considered. With a sigh, Ranma pushed open the front door and walked in. Kodachi sent a wistful glance toward the kitchen window, but then followed him in. There was just no way she would let Ranma go into harm's way alone.
"Oh, hey, Ranma," one of the Ryogas said casually, looking up from the card game he was playing with Ukyo as the pigtailed martial artist entered the room.
"Hey," he returned, looking around a little nervously. Nobody seemed upset as far as he could tell. "Listen, I'm sorry about making us wait for dinner and everything."
Ukyo looked over and flashed him a cheerful 'V for victory' sign. "Don't worry about it, Sugar. Gave me a chance to show Mr. and Mrs. Hibiki just who makes the best okonomiyaki in the Bayankhala mountain range. We aren't even gonna be ready for supper for at least an hour."
"There's no justice," Rouge muttered under her breath. Louder, she said, "Did you save any of that for me?" Her stomach grumbled in counterpoint to the question.
The chef blinked. "Sorry, I didn't know you'd want any. If you're hungry, why'd you spend the last hour just waiting for Ranchan and company to get back?"
Rouge didn't bother to reply, opting instead to vanish with a bang and a cloud of smoke, which somehow managed to convey the impression of being thoroughly out-of-sorts. It was some very anthropomorphic smoke.
"She shouldn't have left so quickly," Kozue remarked mildly. She and Ichiro were seated at a table on the other side of the room, with the other Ryoga, Ling-Ling, and Lung-Lung. The Hibiki matron reached down and dug through the backpack seated on the floor beside her. Finding what she sought, she straightened up and tossed a handful of foil-wrapped objects to Ranma and Kodachi. "Here. If you're hungry, this should help tide you over until dinner."
Ranma grinned back at her. "Thanks, Mrs. Hibiki. I love Granola bars." He wolfed his down with enough enthusiasm that Kozue passed him several more.
He wasn't the only one hungry enough to want more than just a couple of the treats. However, Kodachi wasn't quite ready to emulate her boyfriend's method of scoring more; instead, she plucked two of the extras out of Ranma's hand, giving him a saucy smirk when he made a wordless noise of protest.
"So how are you enjoying your stay at the Amazon village so far, Mrs. Hibiki?" Kodachi asked after finishing off her last bar.
"Ask me again later, when I've had enough time to adjust to everything," the woman replied. There was more than a hint of sadness in her voice.
"Huh? Did you have a hard day?" Ranma asked.
Ichiro took his wife's hand, squeezing it gently. "There's just… been a lot to take in. Learning we have two sons now… meeting with the Elders so we can be forgiven for trespassing into Amazon lands… learning there's a cure finally in our reach, that can end our days of wandering…" he sighed, "…and finding out why it is that the Nannichuan and Nyannichuan would do that."
"So, I guess you heard about the Oni stuff, huh," Ranma said uncomfortably.
"Yeah, the Matriarch told them. Could we please drop the subject?" the Ryoga at the table asked, craning his head around to look at Ranma. He was sandwiched between Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, facing partially away from Ranma and Kodachi.
"Yeah, I shouldn't've brought it up. Sorry, Ryoga."
Ranma blinked. "Huh? What'd you say?"
The other boy shrugged. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung weren't actually sitting close enough to be bumped by his shoulders, but it was a near thing. "That was one of the things we all discussed today. We need a way to tell me and my twin brother apart. We can't just both keep going by 'Ryoga Hibiki', after all."
"So Airen have take new name we suggest, Ryu." This was Ling-Ling. "Is good one for such strong warrior, yes?"
"Ryu… hmmm," said Ranma contemplatively, a grin appearing on his face. "Maybe. Can you show me how to do a Ha Do Ken sometime, man?"
"Ha, ha, ha," Ryu said. "How about I Hurricane Kick your butt?"
"At least get Lung-Lung to bleach the bandana white and give it back to you. We gotta have some way to tell you and Ryoga apart at a glance, after all," Ranma pointed out.
Ryu pulled his chair back and turned in it, holding up his forearms so Ranma and Kodachi could see them. Elaborate dragon tattoos covered his arms from wrist to elbow. "This good enough for you?"
"Whose idea was that?" Kodachi asked, shifting her gaze from the tattoos to the Amazon twins. So they already had him wrapped this far around their little fingers. She did hope Ryoga… er, Ryu would learn to stand up for himself to them before it was too late.
"Was Airen's. Why Kodachi look at us like that?" Ling-Ling asked curiously.
"Um, no reason." The White Rose sought a quick change of subject. "Oh! Ryu, there was something we realized this morning that you need to hear. You too, Ryoga," she said, half-turning and speaking louder to draw Ryoga's attention away from his card game.
"What is it?" the other Hibiki boy asked.
"This morning, Ranma-kun, Shampoo, and I went some little distance away from the village and began sparring. Less than thirty minutes later, there were Amazons who had somehow got wind of this and had showed up to watch."
"Is that a problem?" Ryu asked quizzically.
"For us?" Ranma sighed. "Probably will be. But it ain't too late for you, man."
"What're you talking about, Ranchan?" Ukyo asked, beginning to get worried and a little annoyed at the ominous tone her friends were taking.
"Simple. If you guys don't wanna have to deal with more girls chasing you, ya better not let on to anybody how good a fighter you are. Either of you."
Ukyo flinched as the implications hit her. She was only just getting to the point where she could admit to herself that she was relieved not to have to fight Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung anymore. And now it looked like there was every chance she and Ryoga honey had just gone from the mixing bowl onto the grill. "Holy crap!"
The Hibiki brothers might well have echoed that statement if their parents hadn't been sitting right there. As it was, they limited their responses to turning pale and gulping. Said parents just kept quiet, resolving to ask their sons for an explanation later.
"No worry, Airen," Lung-Lung said, moving quickly to reassure her man. "If they try hit on you, just say we is all you want."
"Yeah, we not let any lovesick girls force you into anything," Ling-Ling said.
Ukyo choked, coughing and hacking for the next several seconds. At last, getting herself under control, the chef said sourly, "So you'd just shove them all off onto Ryoga-kun, is that it?"
"Is not," Ling-Ling bristled. "We just tell Airen that so he know he not have to worry if accident happen and other girls find out how good he is."
"But is still important you do best not to let happen," Lung-Lung said seriously, turning back to face Ryu. "No want set brother up for trouble." She resolutely ignored the fact that she was agreeing with Ukyo.
"Anyway, I think I made enough of an impression that you shouldn't have to worry too much," Ranma said. "Just keep a low profile and I bet they'll all go after me." He and Kodachi wore near-identical expressions of displeasure at the thought.
Inside the kitchen, as she scrubbed at one of the larger pots, Shampoo wondered why she had the sudden urge to scowl.
At first the knocking didn't make any impression at all. Jin To slept on, untroubled by the sound. But as it persisted, his expression of slack-jawed peace began to crinkle with discontentment. He twisted in his sleep, first turning away from the window, then pulling the covers over his head, finally doing the same with the pillow. Still the sound persisted, not loud, but not allowing for any other result than eventual response.
At last, the veil of slumber shredded beneath the vainly grasping desire of his subconscious not to be dragged back awake. Jin To sat up in bed, blinking and trying to adjust. As his mind cleared enough to realize what was going on, he muttered a curse, no less foul for being spoken so softly. It was the middle of the night! What moron would be tapping at his window at this hour?!
The man blearily got to his feet and struck a light, walking over to the window and opening it. "<What the hell is your problem?>!" he did his best to snarl. Since he was speaking in a whisper at the same time, in order not to disturb any of his neighbors, it was a fairly weak attempt.
"<Sorry about this.>" The other didn't seem all that sorry to Jin To. "<But I've got a job for you.>"
"<I don't believe this,>" the man muttered, rubbing a hand over his face. "<Look me up in the morning.>" He turned away and began to shut the window.
Before it had shifted more than an inch, a bulging pouch sailed through the opening, landing on the floor with a particularly musical *clink*. It was a sound Jin To knew quite well, and one with which he was always ready to become even more familiar. Reaching down, he picked up the pouch and opened it, spilling several heavy coins onto the palm of his hand. They were unmistakably gold.
He turned back to regard the unexpected visitor, his grumpiness banished far more quickly and efficiently than his sleep had been. The other smiled. "<This isn't something I can talk about in the daylight. Can I come in?>"
Ranma moved through the village with all the stealth at his command. It hadn't taken long for word to circulate among the Amazons that he actually spoke their language fluently. He tried not to think wistfully about what might have been. Not having Shampoo by his side to translate should have meant that at least the girls who didn't speak Japanese would leave him alone.
A pointless regret now, though. Over the last few days, Ranma had lost count of the number of times he'd been asked to help someone work on their Japanese. He'd given everyone the same answer, namely that he couldn't because he didn't yet have his license to teach. The puzzled looks on the girls' faces had been funny enough to take some of the stress out of the situation.
Still, he preferred to avoid such encounters if possible, and so the Anything Goes heir slunk undetected through the village. At least, he thought he was undetected. Several Elders noted his passage, and it was just Ranma's good fortune that none of them had great-granddaughters handy at the moment to be sent on an intercept course.
As he neared his destination, Ranma allowed himself to relax a little. He'd just caught a glimpse of Kodachi and Shampoo ahead in the distance, walking toward the Matriarch's house along a lane that ran perpendicular to the one he was on, and if someone were to pop up now he could at least call out to the girls and get a little backup. Ranma glanced around, checking one last time, and finding that there still weren't any Amazons preparing to pounce.
He began walking forward again, but almost immediately stopped, a smile spreading across his face. Cranking the stealth back up to maximum, Ranma stepped away from the lane, slipping between the houses in an attempt to sneak up on Kodachi and Shampoo before they reached their destination and went inside.
Since the girls weren't actually intending to go into the house, he needn't have moved quite as quickly as he did. But Ranma didn't sacrifice any stealth in his haste; he moved without a sound, masking his presence as best he could. No indication of his proximity betrayed him as he moved up behind Kodachi and Shampoo, reaching out to tap them on the shoulders.
"Nihao, Airen," Shampoo said with a smirk, one instant before his hand came into contact with her. Since the reason she and Kodachi were pacing along the street out here was that they were waiting for him, the Amazon had been using the Heart Link to keep track of where Ranma was. He would have to work harder than that to fool them, she thought smugly.
Shampoo was only half right. Kodachi, who had NOT thought to use the Heart Link to monitor Ranma's approach, was caught completely by surprise. She whirled around, catching the hand that had fallen on her shoulder and pulling her assailant off-balance, whipping out her ribbon and wrapping it around her boyfriend before he could recover.
"A little jumpy today, Dachi?" Ranma asked sarcastically.
The White Rose blushed. "Oops. Sorry, Ranma-kun. I've been fighting all afternoon, and I guess I've still got that mindset lurking in the back of my thoughts."
Ranma blinked. "Fighting all afternoon? Whaddaya mean?"
"I suppose it was inevitable, really, after the showing I put forth against Xiang Lu. I'm not sure why they all waited until now, but eight girls challenged me to matches today while you were off training in secret." It had been a little awkward, as Shampoo had been elsewhere, unavailable for translation duty. But some of the other Amazons had spoken Japanese well enough to get their meaning across.
"So how bad did you beat them?"
"Not so badly as all that. I decided not to show off as much as I did in that first fight. Though I did disintegrate the bonbori of one of the girls."
Shampoo's eyes widened. "Aiyah! Who was? What girl was that, where you do that, Kodachi? Was Si Ca?"
"I don't remember," the White Rose admitted. "Why?"
"Si Ca like Shampoo, she prefer bonbori for weapons. Her father was not warrior, he was weapon maker. Bonbori what Si Ca use is special set he make for her and give when she take Amazon vows. And he die in tragic accident not long after that." Shampoo gulped. "If you deliberately destroy any of those… you have made very, very bad enemy."
"I… I didn't know…" Kodachi said anxiously. "But surely weapons get damaged in fights all the time around here. Don't they?"
"Yes, but damaged is not same thing as turn to dust. Crack handle… handle can be replaced. Spirit of weapon is still intact. But not if you destroy completely."
"Oh dear." An understatement, but Kodachi was too shell-shocked to make a more appropriate statement. She swallowed nervously, then managed, "What do you think I should do?"
Shampoo shook her head. "I not know."
Ranma chose this moment to speak up. "Hey, Dachi? What color hair and eyes did this girl have?"
"Light green hair with faint gold highlights, and dark blue eyes. Why?"
Her boyfriend rolled his eyes. "Cause that wasn't Si Ca. Sham-chan, are you forgetting just how many girls around here do use bonbori?"
The Amazon blinked, then grinned sheepishly. "Um… sorry, Kodachi. Sound like you fought Lin Fara. She not have any special attachment to her weapons that Shampoo know of."
Kodachi exhaled a sigh of mingled relief and aggravation. "Shampoo, a few minutes ago you told me you'd gotten some surprising news from your aunt this afternoon. Obviously it was more distracting than I thought."
"Is so," Shampoo agreed. "What I hear from Aunt Rouge is probably reason I not think clearly just now. What your excuse?"
"Touché," the White Rose admitted.
Before Shampoo could ask what that meant, Ranma spoke up. "Anyway, Dachi, a few minutes back you asked Shampoo a question, right? What you oughta do."
"Well, yes, when I thought I'd mortally offended someone. Are you saying I need to take some action anyway, even though that's not the case?"
"Got it in one," Ranma confirmed. "What do you think I'm talking about, Dachi-chan?"
"I'm sorry, Ranma, but I have no idea."
"Oh, very well," she said, moving to comply
Shampoo pouted. "But Shampoo think Ranma look too, too cute like that." She smirked, reaching out to pat him on the cheek. "Besides, if you can not get loose on own, ought to ask nicer anyway."
Ranma rolled his eyes. "I just don't wanna break Dachi's ribbon or nothing. It ain't like we're at home, with an endless supply of replacements sitting around."
"Is good point," the Amazon admitted. "But Ranma still look cuter all wrapped up like birthday present."
"I bet other Amazons would think so too, if some of them happened to walk by," Ranma mused.
Kodachi, who had been working on a particularly stubborn tangle in the ribbon and not really paying attention to the conversation, suddenly found herself nudged aside rather forcefully. Shampoo grabbed the still-trussed-up boy, said "Come on Kodachi, what you wait for?!" and dashed inside the Matriarch's house.
A few minutes later, Ranma was free to move again, Kodachi's ribbon was still intact, and the three of them were sitting down with a plate of snacks. "So how Airen's day go?" Shampoo asked.
Ranma sighed. "Okay, I guess. But I ain't making the kind of progress I'd hoped for."
"Even after you upped the amount of time you're spending each day from two hours to five?" Kodachi asked.
"Yeah. Things just aren't coming along as fast as I thought."
"Airen… I know you want this to be secret, surprise us when you perfect new move. But for me at least, I would rather spend the time with you and help you than not see you so much of time, just to have a surprise in the end."
"I must confess I feel the same way," Kodachi added. "Couldn't we help you work this new technique out?"
The Saotome heir gulped, wishing now that he'd chosen a different conversational gambit. "I… Yeah, you probably could help me get done faster. But I really need to do this on my own, without any help from anybody else. And I promise you, when I'm finished, you'll be impressed enough to be glad I waited 'til then to show you." Casting about desperately for a change of subject, he remembered a remark Kodachi had made a few minutes past. "Sham-chan, didn't I hear something about you getting some startling news today? What was that all about?"
"Oh, yes, I meant to ask you as well," Kodachi said. "Was it a good sort of surprise?"
"Not really good or bad," Shampoo answered. "I was talking to Aunt Rouge, tell about some of adventures we have. When I get to part about fight shadow-boy Ken, tell her about I can see him when he invisible to everybody else, she get idea of test Shampoo to see why I was able to do that."
"Was she able to figure it out?" Ranma asked. Memories of some of the stories Kodachi had read, specifically about the often-high price of a magical gift, had made him worry occasionally about Shampoo's unexplained talent.
"Take most of afternoon, but yes, Aunt Rouge did find in the end." Shampoo's face shifted into an expression half-proud, half-chagrined. "Happened back when Shampoo misuse Eye of Bastet to find Akane, when Ryoga's Oni-half take her. Because I use jewel the wrong way, power flow through me too hard, too little control. It changed me and left me with little bit of gift for true sight."
"That doesn't sound so bad at all," the White Rose remarked. "In fact, it's nice to hear it isn't anything dangerous." Then she blinked. "That's the case, isn't it?"
"Yes," Shampoo confirmed. "Just small thing to keep in mind. Each time I see through an illusion use little bit of my energy, and it not something I can choose not to do. Like if Ranma had to make every attack at full strength. Make Shampoo tire out quicker if I have to fight against someone what use lot of those kind of tricks."
"But they wouldn't expect you to be able to see the truth through their shadows, which would allow you to take them down quickly," Kodachi pointed out. "So it shouldn't be a problem."
"Is so," the Amazon agreed. "Besides, how many people use illusion too, too much like that anyway?"
Many hundred of miles away, Prince Toma sneezed.
"Yeah," Ranma agreed, "and now you know it ain't gonna go away right when you need it. Why'd you say it wasn't just good news? It sure sounds like it to me."
"Shampoo wish you had no ask that," she said somewhat crossly. "I was try not to think about other part."
Ranma paled, replacing Shampoo's annoyance with guilt. She hadn't meant that to sound as ominous as it had. "Other part? Whaddaya mean, Sham-chan?"
"Nothing bad, Airen," she hastened to reassure him. "Is just… what Shampoo get is actual magical gift with own proper name, not random set of special effects."
"Huh? Run that by me again," Ranma said, puzzled now rather than worried. "You're annoyed that there's an actual name for what you got? Why?"
"Airen sure he want to know?" Shampoo asked in a tone that hinted 'You'll be sorry you asked.' Kodachi, suddenly suspecting where this was going, made a wry face but didn't otherwise object.
At his nod, she sighed and said, "Gift what Shampoo get from stupid jewel is 'Eyes of the Cat'."
Another few days passed, reasonably quietly.
Amazons continued to make not-so-subtle overtures to Ranma, though these were becoming slightly less frequent. Kodachi fought many more Amazons, some of them women twice her own age. Shampoo faced a number of challenges of her own, winning each quickly and decisively.
The Hibiki family continued to enjoy the longest period of togetherness they'd had in years. The pain of learning about their Oni heritage was muted considerably for Ichiro and Kozue by having each other and their children close at hand. The elder Hibikis avoided hot water like the plague and spent as much time as possible getting to know Ryu, Ryoga, and the girls in their lives.
Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung didn't have quite as much time to spare as they would have liked, unfortunately. Li Na wasn't the only one in the village to have received letters from them. Several Amazons had an idea of how good a fighter their Airen was, which inevitably led to speculation that his twin who'd arrived at the village later might well be the same. It wasn't hard for Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to persuade those Amazons who were their friends not to chase either Hibiki boy (they just called in a few favors to get the girls to go after Ranma instead), but the others who had heard were a different story. Securing their promises not to chase their Airen's brother or tell anyone else about the Hibiki prowess cost the twins many, many hours' worth of effort. Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung tried not to think about the favor they were doing the stupid spatula girl as they toiled along at various unpleasant chores the other girls wanted to avoid.
Ukyo, on the other hand, had almost more free time than she knew what to do with. With the demands of both school and her restaurant temporarily non-present, the chef was at somewhat of a loss as to how to fill the days. She and Ryoga spent time together, of course; they even sparred regularly, with the twenty-minute trek they had to take to get out of range of accidental Amazon audiences not being as much of a nuisance as it otherwise would have been. But even given that, she still sometimes found herself looking for ways to pass the time.
Because of this, and after thinking it over long and hard, Ukyo eventually took Rouge up on her offer of magic lessons. Even with her need to occupy herself, this still required a significant effort of will. When the mage had first spoken on the matter, Ukyo had pretty much thought it was just a ruse to get her out of the way while Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung spent time with Ryoga unopposed. What Rouge and Li Na had done at Jusenkyo proved this suspicion groundless, but it was still a little difficult for the chef to let go of her reservations and extend trust to an Amazon.
And the incident on the tenth day of their visit certainly didn't help.
Because Rouge was the heir to the Matriarchy, she often had duties that couldn't be easily shirked. Shampoo had impressed this on Ukyo after the chef had been late for a magic lesson. It hadn't actually been Ukyo's fault, but it had still been a waste of time that Rouge could ill afford on that day. Shampoo stressed just how big a favor Rouge was doing, taking time to instruct Ukyo in the use of her talent, not to mention making Amazon lore available in the first place to one who wasn't really connected to the tribe at all.
After Shampoo had finished, a guilt-ridden Ukyo promised she'd view the lessons as the gift they were, and would be certain not to miss one or be late. Not twenty-four hours later, her promise was put to a harsh test when she heard Ichiro and Kozue were planning a family picnic at a time that clashed completely with her next scheduled lesson. It was hard, but Ukyo forced herself to decline the invitation, cheering up only slightly later on when she heard Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were unable to go either.
The lesson took place in the morning. Rouge wrapped it up just in time for an early lunch, after which Ukyo decided to stroll around the village. Hopefully she'd be able to catch up with Kodachi and/or Shampoo. If not, she could at least intercept Ryoga and company when they returned from their picnic.
As Kodachi was demonstrating her watercolor-on-silk techniques to several of the village's artisans, and Shampoo was meeting with Cologne for more shiatsu training, Ukyo's wandering didn't bring her anywhere near them. After a while, the chef stopped looking, slowing down and paying attention to the sights around her instead, enjoying the picturesque appearance of the village (though she did a double-take almost as bad as Ryoga's when she first saw the power armor statue outside the home of Talcum and Hong Wa).
Eventually her rambling brought her to a large open square dominated by a different statue. Ukyo stood there for a while, regarding it. It was carved from stone, and depicted a woman standing on top of a short pedestal. The statue itself wasn't large at all; in fact, Ukyo judged that if the figure stepped down from the pedestal and stood next to her, she would be taller by about an inch.
But the lack of height did nothing to detract from the overall sense of presence that the woman in the stone seemed to carry. Her expression was fierce, eyes blazing even though they were lifeless rock. Her posture was equally striking, carrying a mixture of challenge, confident readiness, and pride.
Ukyo studied the statue, becoming a little uneasy as she noted more and more details. The woman was dressed in what looked like plain leather armor. That much was apparent at first glance; a closer look showed actual scratches and worn patches in the jacket. She was armed with a sword and shield, which showed similar wear. There were scars visible on the exposed flesh of her arms and hands, one long one that was plainly visible, and also numerous small ones that took a close scrutiny to detect. In fact, the chef realized, you could actually see calluses on the hand that gripped the sword.
It was far and away the most lifelike statue Ukyo had ever seen. In fact, the best okonomiyaki chef in China was currently fighting a worry that this might actually be a person, turned to stone through magic.
"I always wonder if really she looked that fierce."
The voice from directly behind her startled Ukyo. Turning quickly, she saw she had been joined by a girl who looked to be about her own age. The newcomer stood several inches taller than Ukyo. She had long blonde hair and very fair skin, and was even more… developed… than Shampoo and Kodachi, the chef noted with some disgruntlement. The girl's eyes were blue, and had less of a slant than Ukyo had yet seen on anyone else from the Amazon village.
The mystery girl continued speaking during Ukyo's scrutiny. "The story says the one who did that statue used some magic to go back and see her, so she could get it right. But if I was going to make a statue of a hero, I know it would be hard not to make her look heroic. Even if maybe she didn't really have a stare like a sword-strike."
"So who is it, anyway?" Ukyo asked, finding her voice. "Some Amazon ancestress?" The statue didn't look Chinese at all, but then again, given the combinations of hair and eye color that Ukyo had seen so far, it seemed pretty obvious that the Joketsuzoku tribe had to have received some pretty funky genes from somewhere back in their past.
"No. That is Hippolyta. She had no connection to us, but we like to think she would have approved of our tribe. That's why there is a statue of her. After all, we appreciate strong woman heroes no matter where they come from." The blonde girl smiled. "I am Edelweiss, by the way, Ukyo Kuonji. Nice to meet you." She held out her hand.
Ukyo hesitated noticeably before taking it. She'd heard of the custom of shaking hands, but it wasn't common in Japan and she certainly hadn't expected to run into it in the Amazon village. "Just Ukyo will do, Sugar."
"Not 'Sugar', Edelweiss," the other girl corrected.
There was one of those awkward pauses that come when two people are confronted with minor mutual misunderstanding. Ukyo shrugged her way past it. "So I guess you knew me from the welcome feast a while back, huh?"
"Sort of," Edelweiss replied with a rueful smile. "I had too much mead that night to remember anybody's name afterward. I had to ask my mother yesterday to find out what yours was again."
Ukyo blinked. "Why exactly did you do that?" she asked, a faint note of unease creeping into her voice.
Edelweiss spoke Japanese quite well, but she still missed that hint of wariness. "I wanted to talk to you because yesterday morning, I was coming back from practice and saw you with your Airen."
Ukyo paled, suddenly suspecting she knew where this was going, but hoping she might be wrong. After all, the girl hadn't actually said Ukyo and Ryoga had been training when she saw them.
"It was impressive. I know Amazons who are older than you, have trained their whole lives, and might well lose to you. But you need to be more careful. You don't want a whole lot of other girls finding out just how skilled he is. Unless you want twenty or thirty more girls chasing him too."
"No, I wouldn't want that to happen," Ukyo said slowly, her tone becoming deadly serious. "Not thirty other girls than me, not twenty, not two, not one. In fact, if I thought someone was going to do something like that, I might have to ask my friend Shampoo to use the Xi Fang Gao on her to make sure she changed her mind." She spun on her heel and walked away quickly, leaving Edelweiss blinking in confusion and chagrin and wondering where the encounter had gone wrong.
The sun had nearly sunk behind the mountains by the time Ranma got back to the Matriarch's home. This time Shampoo and Kodachi weren't pacing along the street, but rather waiting for him inside the house. He was struck almost immediately by the sheer annoyance and indignation radiating from the White Rose.
"You okay, Dachi?" he asked after greetings had been exchanged.
"It's that obvious, is it?" Kodachi asked rhetorically, heaving an exasperated sigh.
"Yeah, it is. Hard day?" Ranma asked as gently as he could.
"Just a severe blow to my pride, that's all," she grumbled.
"Kodachi lose first challenge today," Shampoo explained.
Ranma's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "Really?! What'd ya do, go up against one of the Elders or something?"
"Ranma-sama…" Kodachi began sweetly enough, but her tone changed to a growl as she uttered the next phrase, "You're NOT HELPING!"
"<Ranma, please think before you respond to what I'm about to say,>" Shampoo said. She paused, then continued, "<It was Lily.>"
"Lily?" Ranma sweatdropped, looking back and forth from Shampoo to Kodachi several times, his gaze finally settling on the Amazon. "<Shampoo, is there another Lily in the village besides the one I'm thinking of? The girl who might have turned fifteen by now?>"
"Yes, it was THAT Lily!" the White Rose snapped. She knew very little Mandarin, but had been able to guess the gist of Ranma's question anyway.
"So… how'd it happen?" Ranma asked gingerly, hoping it wasn't the wrong question to ask.
"When she challenged me, she specifically stated unarmed combat." Kodachi grimaced. "And she knocked me off the challenge log in less than a minute."
Ranma gaped. "You mean… you were that much off-balance, just cause you didn't have any of your weapons to work with?!"
For a moment it looked like Kodachi might well and truly lose her temper… but then she seemed to deflate. "Yes," she said quietly. "I didn't think it would be any particular challenge. After all, I have your memories of Anything Goes to draw on, so why wouldn't I be able to win? But I felt so awkward and ungraceful. I started out on the offensive, she blasted right through my attack with ease, I tried to recover my defenses, she brushed those aside too, and then I was airborne." She forced a smile. "And NOT the way I prefer to be."
Ranma was feeling a little more confident, now that his girlfriend seemed to be leaving her ire behind. Just to make sure, he stretched out his perceptions along the Heart Link… What the heck? "Ah, Dachi-chan? Why exactly are you feeling guilty?"
Kodachi gave him a pained stare. "Isn't it obvious, Ranma?" The pain was now obvious in her voice as well. "I failed you. The skills and techniques that you endured such grief to attain as you grew up, the only good things Genma ever gave you, I know how important to you they are. I suffered with you, in the Heart Link, to gain them. I should have valued them as much as you do. But somewhere, it seems I did not, not enough to hold onto those skills. If I had, I should have been able to defeat that girl easily."
"Kodachi, that's just plain ridiculous!" So much so, Ranma had to pause before he could figure out how to continue. Eventually, after much thought, he said, "Okay, I think I see a little better now what happened. You tried to fight just like I would, right?"
"Yes, that's right."
"And are ya forgetting just how much better I've gotten, since I first met you and you helped me train?"
"No, but I don't see what difference it makes," Kodachi said, puzzled.
"Aiyah! I do. Think so, at least," Shampoo said, a light bulb going off in her head. "Kodachi, think back to time what Shampoo first get to Nerima. By then you had already given Ranma biggest help he has get from you in martial arts over all this time. You remember what it was?"
"It was when I gave him the advanced chi-manipulation scrolls Elminster left me," the White Rose responded. "But I don't see your point."
"The point is, there's a difference between how much chi somebody's got and how they can use it. All your life, you've trained on focusing it into weapons and stuff, and learning how to go from there to pull off special tricks. You can do some really neat stuff, some incredible stuff," Ranma grinned at her, "some just plain ridiculous stuff that way."
"That is the control you has choose for your chi, sister," Shampoo said. "For Ranma, he put all his focus in learn to power his own body, not other tools. That is how he can move so fast and not lose control at really high speed. Is way he have get used to fighting over last months before Heart Link happen, way what you have most recent Ranma-memories of. If you try use those memories to fight like Ranma, of course you going to have trouble. Your chi just is not con… con… configured to move body like that."
Kodachi mulled that over for a bit. It did seem plausible, but then again, there wasn't really any proof either way. "Are you sure that's the explanation?"
"Absolutely," Shampoo nodded, an embarrassed expression flitting into place. "One time not too long ago, when meet with Great-Grandmother for training, I try to use Ranma's memories to show her Anything Goes kata." She gave a sheepish chuckle. "I do even worse than you say you did. Because Shampoo has had some little bit of training to use chi to boost speed, use Ranma's memories really did do that to me, make me go much, much faster than could handle. I smack whole body into wall at top speed. Is only time in Shampoo's memory when Great-Grandmother actually fall off of staff top."
Ranma laughed. "Oh man, I wish I coulda seen that." As Shampoo whipped her head around and pierced him with a glare, his mirth died instantly. "Not you smack into a wall! I meant your granny falling off her staff like that! Sorry!"
"Humph." Shampoo made a mental note to get a more… thorough… apology once they had some privacy. She turned back to Kodachi. "Anyway, that explanation what Great-Grandmother give to me, after we spend good bit of afternoon working out what go wrong."
"Well, perhaps you're right then," the White Rose allowed, obviously feeling better now.
"I'm sure she is," Ranma affirmed. "And it sounds to me like we need to make sure this kinda stuff doesn't happen again."
Kodachi smiled then, seeing an opportunity. "I agree wholeheartedly, Ranma-kun. You offered this once before, and I foolishly turned you down then. But now I think I had better reverse that stance. Will you please train me in Anything Goes?"
"And not even think about leave Shampoo out of this," the Amazon in question added.
"Sure, Dachi," Ranma said. "That's what I was gonna suggest myself. And you know I wouldn't leave you out, Shampoo."
"Thank you," Kodachi said, her smile widening in hope as she prepared to draw the noose tight. "Of course, this will take time. Both Shampoo and I will have to unlearn your particular patterns even as we learn the basics for ourselves. That probably won't come easily."
Ranma shrugged. "So what good is something if it comes easily, anyway?"
"I quite agree. Necessary sacrifices are… well… necessary." Kodachi grimaced slightly at the awkwardness of the statement. "And I don't think either Shampoo or I will be able to do well in our training unless we can spend more time with you than we've been able to these last several days."
"Is hard, not seeing Airen for five hour block of each day while you work by own self," Shampoo said quietly. "To train us for real in Anything Goes, will need to cut back some of that time."
Their boyfriend gulped. "Uh, ah, actually, I kinda forgot, but I had some bad news for you guys about that whole solo training thing…"
Shampoo paled, Kodachi couldn't. Each was thinking the same thing— that this was where Ranma would say his progress was still not satisfactory, and he'd be upping his time alone again.
"I made a big breakthrough today, so it looks like I'm gonna be able to cut back to just one hour of that training a day." Ranma sighed theatrically. "Guess this means you're gonna have to put up with me a lot of the time again. Sorry." At this point he was no longer able to hold back his grin.
Kodachi and Shampoo exchanged level glances. Shampoo sighed, then replied, "Is bad news, all right. Ranma should know better than to drop disappointment like that on us with no warning. Is very inconsiderate. Shampoo think you need to be punished."
By now Ranma was beginning to feel a little nervous. "Ah, what do you mean, Sham-chan?"
Shampoo shifted slightly, aligning herself properly… and sprang. Her tackle carried them through the front door and into the street, while her kiss kept Ranma from realizing this for some little while. Eventually Shampoo broke the lip-lock and smirked down at the dazed pigtailed martial artist underneath her, ignoring the whistles and catcalls from onlookers. "Shampoo fine you however many minutes that was of privacy."
Ukyo moved slowly through the streets of the village, not paying much attention at all to her surroundings. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
Several days had passed since the abortive encounter with Edelweiss. Ukyo had spent those days metaphorically holding her breath, hoping against hope that the other girl would just back off. And so far, her luck seemed to be holding. No Amazons had approached Ryoga, neither to flirt nor to challenge him to a fight. Ukyo had particularly kept her eyes peeled for Edelweiss, but the blonde girl had been nowhere to be seen.
One might think this ought to reassure Ukyo. The chef even tried to tell herself this, but it didn't seem to help. She couldn't shake the knowledge that their visit was only halfway over, with plenty of time left for things to blow up in her and Ryoga honey's faces.
Another factor increasing the stress was Ukyo's uncertainty as to whether she'd done the right thing in choosing not to tell Ryoga about the encounter with Edelweiss. On the one hand, she didn't want to worry the poor boy. On the other, it was quickly becoming apparent that the strain of this situation was too much to bear on her own.
When she'd finally admitted this to herself, on the morning of her fourteenth day among the Amazons, Ukyo hadn't had to think very hard before determining her next move. She would tell Shampoo what had happened and ask for advice. That would relieve her stress, wouldn't put any on Ryoga, and would hopefully get her an estimate of how stubborn this Edelweiss girl was. And whether extreme preventative measures needed to be taken.
Just deciding to confide in her friend had brought Ukyo a significant measure of relief. Her stress rose sharply again, however, when she found Shampoo and Kodachi had already left to spend the day with Ranma, training in Anything Goes. After remembering she had a lesson scheduled with Rouge that morning, and after a significant amount of mental squirming, Ukyo finally decided to speak to the mage about the matter instead. Though she didn't think she was quite prepared to mention the Xi Fang Gao.
The session with Rouge had come and gone. It was afternoon now, as Ukyo wandered through the streets of the Amazon village, thinking about what she'd been told. Occasionally she would pull herself up from the maze of her thoughts and take a quick look around, just to make sure she hadn't wandered off somewhere she wasn't supposed to be.
Fragments and glimpses of scenes were all that registered. A group of children, their faces with the cutest 'serious' looks, trying to copy the movements of a woman in her middle fifties. Men and women alike at the riverside, washing laundry. A man at a blacksmith's forge, carefully folding a sheet of glowing iron, beating it out, then folding it again. This slice of life caught Ukyo's attention more than any of the others, because of the nature of the completed pieces in the smithy. The chef thought that there was probably some sort of lesson about the Amazon tribe in general to be learned here, if only she could figure it out. Where else would an advanced weapon forging technique like that be used to create silverware?
Eventually when Ukyo looked up, she found herself in a familiar place. The statue of Hippolyta stood there before her. To Ukyo, the woman's gaze seemed more fierce than ever; she found that today she couldn't meet the stone stare. The chef turned to go, and somehow it wasn't a surprise at all to find that, once again, she wasn't alone.
There was a long moment of silence as Ukyo and Edelweiss regarded each other. It made Ukyo feel marginally better to see that she couldn't see any accusation in the other's gaze. It was just a steady, questioning regard. Ukyo eventually answered by sighing, and saying, "I'm sorry."
"Then you have heard, I already have a fiancé. Yes?"
Ukyo nodded. "Rouge told me this morning, when I… when I told her about what you'd said, and asked her if she thought you'd back off or make trouble."
"I was trying to keep you out of trouble, Ukyo. Trying to warn you that you needed to be more careful. But I suppose that is what the honored Matriarch-in-training told you too?"
"Yeah." And some other things that Ukyo didn't think she quite wanted to repeat to a stranger. "It sure didn't feel good to find that out. You were trying to warn me, to help me, and I bit your head off and threatened you. I'm really sorry, Sugar."
"Not 'Sugar', Edelweiss," the other girl corrected. "I understand anyway. I was trying my hardest to come up with the right way to say in your language what I meant, so that you wouldn't think I was starting to make a play for your Airen, but I must have made a mistake."
Ukyo hesitated for a long time, but eventually fairness forced her to say, "No, that really isn't right. I mean, yeah, you could have started out by saying 'I've already got a guy of my own, so you don't have to worry about me,' but what you said shouldn't have made me assume what I did. It was my mistake. Not yours."
Edelweiss shrugged, and smiled. "Everybody makes mistakes. At least you did what I had really meant for you to do, and found a more careful place to practice with your Airen."
This was true— while she hadn't informed Ryoga about the encounter with Edelweiss, Ukyo had told him that she had been worrying they weren't getting far enough away from the Amazons for their training sessions, and the two of them had found a much more remote location. But Ukyo was a little curious now as to how Edelweiss knew this. After all, the fact that she and Ryoga hadn't been back to the old spot could have just meant they'd stopped practicing.
A question to that effect caused Edelweiss to grin a little sheepishly. "I saw you in your new place too. But don't worry. I am the only Amazon who goes that far away from the village almost ever in that direction."
Ukyo wiped a large bead of sweat off her forehead. "What the heck were you doing that far out there anyway? Me and Ryoga honey were basically at the foot of the mountains!"
Edelweiss shrugged. "It's a bit of a long story. But I would like to tell you. Shall we go for a walk?"
The chef hesitated, then, as memories of the morning's conversation with Rouge rose up again, nodded her assent.
Edelweiss didn't say anything for a few minutes. Ukyo was content to let the silence continue until the other was ready. Eventually the blonde girl said, "Do you remember what I said those last days ago, when I told you I had seen you with your Airen?"
Ukyo frowned in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
"I mean how it was I saw you."
"Umm… you said you'd seen us when you were on your way back from training?" Ukyo replied after searching her memory.
"Training is how I saw you two again, three days ago. This time not when I was coming back, but during when I actually was training. Part of that time I had a good view of both of you."
Ukyo stared at her in mild shock. "How the heck did that happen?! I mean, if you were that close, one of us should've seen you! What were you practicing, invisibility techniques or something?"
Edelweiss smiled. "No, but you are kind of on the right track. You probably could have seen me too, but you didn't think to look."
"Didn't think to look…?" Ukyo repeated, puzzled, wondering why Edelweiss was suddenly staring up into the sky. Then it hit her. "Were you on the mountain we were practicing by?"
"That is right." Edelweiss gave an exaggerated bow. "You see before you the heir to Martial Arts Mountaineering."
"I thought you were an Amazon," Ukyo said, proving guys weren't the only ones to make stupid comments.
Edelweiss frowned. "I am an Amazon!" she said crossly. "Just because I use a different style doesn't make me any less of a warrior than my sisters."
"Sorry, sorry," Ukyo apologized. "That was a stupid thing to say."
The blonde girl sighed. "Don't blame yourself. I get a lot of grief from other Amazons because my style isn't good for the kind of matches we usually fight."
"That sucks, I bet," Ukyo said awkwardly. "So how'd you end up using a different style like that anyway?"
"My father was an outsider; it's his family school that I practice. He came to the Bayankhala Mountains to train, and defeated my mother one day. Mother says it didn't take him long to decide to stay."
Ukyo gave her companion an odd look. "Was that frustration I heard now, or just your accent?"
"The first one." Edelweiss frowned slightly. "Father has told me stories of training in some of the world's greatest mountains. The Matterhorn, the Alps, the Appalachians. He developed his very own special technique on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro. And what do I get? Stuck here for all my life so far. I'm so familiar with these mountains I could climb them in my sleep."
"Well… that's not so bad, is it? I mean, you wouldn't have wanted your mom and dad to split up or nothing, right?"
Edelweiss returned the odd look Ukyo had previously given her. "Of course not. What does that have to do with anything?"
Ukyo opened her mouth, became uncomfortably aware that her answer was based on an assumption, closed it, thought for a few moments, then answered sheepishly, "Um, I guess I kind of thought it was strongly encouraged that when a guy marries into the Amazon tribe he settles down here instead of trying to take his new bride away."
The blonde girl shook her head. "Not really. They can stay or go. In fact, we have some foreign contacts from when things like this have happened; families who supply information and can lend shelter to any of the tribe who have business in their lands. That's why nobody minds if an outsider man takes an Amazon bride away.
"The only thing that matters is that the Amazon not forsake the tribe, and brings up her children to know their heritage. It IS very strongly encouraged that children be brought back to visit as they grow up, so they know where they come from and can learn about our ways. When they get old enough to be on their own, many do choose to live here. Especially the women. But it's their choice, just like it was the choice of their parents."
She made an annoyed face. "Just like it was the choice of my father to stay here instead of leading his family around the world, facing new challenges and new mountains. When I get good enough I'm going to drop an avalanche on his lazy hindquarters."
"So what's keeping you here?" Ukyo asked curiously. "Why don't you get out and explore the rest of the world?"
Edelweiss shrugged. "I'm the heir to my school, which is a responsibility I will not forget. So I can't leave until Father has taught me all the techniques. It should not be more than another year or so. And when that day comes…" she said, looking off into the distance with a brooding look on her face, "…my husband and I are very definitely going to see what's out there."
"I thought Rouge said he was just your fiancé," Ukyo said, again without thinking the comment through first.
"We'll be married before we leave," Edelweiss said firmly. "Do you think I'm going to risk the love of my life? I have heard stories about how forward outsider girls can be. Um, no offense is intended to present company."
"Um, heh, n-none… heh heh… t-take… BWA HA HA HA!!"
Edelweiss watched in uncertainty as Ukyo spent the next few minutes laughing her guts out. '<I must have made some very funny joke only a Japanese would understand.>'
"Oh, my aching sides," Ukyo wheezed, getting herself under control at last. The chef wiped a few tears from her eyes and got back to her feet. She and Edelweiss began strolling along again. Eventually Ukyo said, "So I'm guessing the reason you speak such good Japanese is because you're planning to go there once you leave? Train on Mt Fuji, maybe?"
"Probably," Edelweiss agreed. "I've also learned Cantonese, Russian, German, English, Spanish, French, and Swahili, so Aloe and I will be able to pick and choose where we want to go."
"That sounds cool," the chef said. "Where will you go first, your father's homeland maybe? Where's he from, anyway?"
"From Switzerland," Edelweiss replied.
Ukyo gave the tall, buxom, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl an appraising look. "Let's hear it for stereotypes," she muttered under her breath.
The comment slipped past Edelweiss, as she was thinking about the chef's other question. "I really don't know where we will go first," she said at last. "Every time I think about it, a different place sounds better. And Aloe isn't any help, he just says that since I'm the one who will be training, I need to be the one to choose the mountains."
"Men and their indecisiveness," Ukyo said with an exasperated snort. She and Edelweiss shared a quick moment of silence, contemplating the frailties of the male gender.
"That was another reason I wanted to talk to you in the first place, Ukyo," the other girl said. "I wanted to hear about the outside world from someone who has lived there all her life. What can you tell me about Japan?"
"Hmmm. I don't really know where to start, Sugar. I mean, I never really thought about it." Ukyo's brow crinkled as she considered. Then she brightened. "Okay. The most important thing to remember for when you travel to Japan…"
"Yes?" Edelweiss asked eagerly, not bothering to correct the girl's persistent mistake over her name.
"Stay away from Nerima."
Time passed, as it tends to do. Ukyo and Edelweiss walked and talked for quite a while longer. When they eventually bid each other good-bye and went their separate ways, the chef was surprised to find several hours had passed. It was nearly evening now, and she certainly hadn't meant to be gone for this long. Time and past to be heading for home.
"Hey, Ucchan." Ranma greeted her as she entered the Matriarch's home.
"Hey yourself," she responded, giving him a long, appraising look. Her former fiancée looked like something that had been put through a wringer. His clothes were wrinkled and torn, with dirt ground in so deeply that it was hard to imagine them ever getting clean again. His hair was just as dirty, and also disheveled and soaked with sweat. He still hadn't undone his pigtail, though. Ukyo, who had never heard of a Dragon's Whisker, found herself wondering just what it would take to get Ranchan to do that.
What she actually asked, though, was, "Jeez, what happened to you?" It couldn't be as bad as it looked, she realized, since Ranma actually seemed quite cheerful.
He shrugged. "Just got back from trainin' with Dachi and Shampoo, that's all."
"Training? It looks more like you were rolling around on the ground with…" Ukyo slammed her mouth shut, coloring a bright crimson.
If Ranma noticed, he didn't make any connections. "More like smacking inta it a bunch of times." He grimaced, flexing and stretching a few sore muscles at the reminder. "That's the problem with training somebody who's got all my memories of how to fight."
"Huh?" Then Ukyo remembered the Heart Link. "I thought I'd heard you were teaching them Anything Goes. But that's right, they already do know everything you do. What have you guys really been doing?"
Ranma shook his head. "You ain't got it quite right, Ucchan. Yeah, they got my memories, but if they try to use them it just messes them up. Cause neither one of them can move as fast as me, but when they start trying to fight using what they picked outta my head, that's how their reflexes get set to expect to work. And it just don't happen."
Ukyo considered that for a few moments, before deciding it made sense. "So that's why you would still need to train them— so they could learn to fight like themselves instead of like you. I guess you're starting out with the basics?"
"Not quite that far back. They're both solid enough that I can go right to intermediate stuff with them." Ranma rubbed the last twinges of ache out of his left wrist.
"So how did you get so wasted if they're just using the intermediate stuff?"
"Blame it on Shampoo," Ranma said with a wry grin. "She and Dachi have always taken different approaches to their training. Dachi-chan's really good at gymnastics and stuff like that, but where she's put just about all her real effort into has been stuff with weapons. But Shampoo's a lot more of a generalist. She's had training for speed, and power, and endurance, and weapons, and shiatsu, and some other stuff too. Ain't nearly as good at any one thing as Dachi is with weapons, but she's more balanced overall."
"Yeah, Ranchan, but I still wouldn't've thought it would let her pound you into the ground."
"Would ya lay off with that already, Ucchan? It's cause I have to cut back to be on a good level for training her. But since she's working with Anything Goes, which is really familiar to her through my memories, sometimes she'll kinda slip into using them without even meaning to. That means she speeds way up and knocks me sprawling, usually tripping herself and falling down at the same time."
"How many of those times has she actually landed on top of you?" Ukyo asked. It was Ranma's turn to blush and look away. She rolled her eyes, remembering again Edelweiss's comment on hearing stories of the forwardness of outsider women. 'Guess now I know why Ranchan doesn't seem to mind getting knocked down like that.'
"ANYway, we're working on the whole control thing, so she won't slip up like that anymore."
"Bet that'll take a while," Ukyo said cheerfully.
"Oh, no reason." The chef decided not to sabotage what was obviously an inspired trick of Shampoo's. Still, maybe she ought to give Ranchan a hint. "I wonder why that doesn't happen with Kodachi. I mean, practicing Anything Goes should have the same kind of familiar feel for her, with your memories."
"It does happen with Dachi," Ranma said. "Except it's different for her. That's what I was telling ya about, with the differences in their styles. When she starts using my memories, Shampoo's normal technique is enough like mine to let her knock me down before she loses control. Same thing happens to Dachi, she's making really awkward attacks that aren't gonna connect even if I am holding way back."
"Huh." Now Ukyo was unsure as to whether Shampoo's actions were deliberate or not. Deciding that it wasn't really any of her business either way, the chef commented, "That's got to be annoying."
"No, not really," Ranma said, shaking his head.
"I meant for her, you jackass. Not for you," Ukyo replied half-exasperatedly.
"It's the same either way," he protested. "She doesn't mind." Ranma had sensed nothing but enjoyment and contentment from both girls during all the time he'd spent teaching them Anything Goes. He suspected each was viewing this training as a personal, intimate gift from him, and so the longer it took to iron out those problems, the more time he'd be dedicating to giving it to her. Ranma pretty much felt the same way. But that wasn't something he felt comfortable just saying out loud, even to a good buddy like Ucchan.
Ukyo wondered for a minute whether Ranchan knew what he was talking about, before deciding to take it on faith. After all, she had heard that that Heart Link thing let him feel what the girls were feeling, and vice versa. "So where are Kodachi and Shampoo, anyway?" Fragments of conversation drifting down the stairs had made it clear where Ichiro, Kozue, and at least one of their sons were.
"Dachi's taking a bath. It'll be my turn after her. Shampoo got to go first, and then she went to see if she can get some spare training outfits from her great-granny for me. Since it looks like I'll be eating a lot of dirt until she gets to where she can keep from slipping into my memories." Not to mention that as Kodachi got better at the unarmed style, the same thing would probably start happening with her as well.
His companion frowned at this. "You be careful, okay, Ranchan? I know you're a big bad tough guy, but you could still get hurt. Even a great martial artist can break a bone or tear a ligament if he lands wrong from a fall."
"Don't worry about it, Ucchan. I musta hit the ground fifteen times today, and I still ended up hurting a lot less than I used to do after a training session with Pop." Ranma's face clouded over briefly before he dragged his thoughts back to the here-and-now. "I'm not even sore at all anymore."
"Yeah, well, be careful anyway, Sugar." The sound of water gurgling down a drain announced that Kodachi was finishing her bath. Ukyo thought it as good a moment as any to ask her next question. "Do you know where Rouge is?"
"Yeah, she's in the kitchen fixing supper," Ranma said. Ukyo thanked him, and headed that way.
As foreshadowed, Rouge was indeed in the kitchen. The mage was stirring a large pot of boiling ramen as Ukyo entered. "Hello, Ukyo," she said without looking around. Ukyo might have been impressed, were it not for the fact that her reflection was plainly visible in the side of the pot. "How was your afternoon?"
"Not too bad," the chef replied awkwardly, trying to decide how to lead into what she wanted to say. "You need any help with dinner?"
"Thanks, but there really isn't anything for someone else to do at this point. You could have made some okonomiyaki for a side dish if you'd gotten here thirty minutes ago, though. Something interesting must have happened, to keep you out and about, away from everybody else for so long."
"Yeah, I went for a walk. Checking out the village, seeing the sights. And… I…" Ukyo sighed. "I ran into Edelweiss."
"Indeed," said Rouge, her tone and expression making it all too obvious that this was no news to her.
"Yeah. You knew already, didn't you." Ukyo forced a smile. "So when do we get to the magic lesson that would show me how to do that trick?"
"It's not really something you can teach," Rouge admitted. "After all, I knew because I saw you walking with her when I was on my way back from some Council business."
"So much for the mysterious arcane powers of the Matriarch in training." Ukyo shook her head and snorted as if in disgust, but the smile on her face was now real.
"Cut me some slack here," Rouge protested, gesturing to the fire over which the ramen was boiling. Ukyo blinked as she noticed it had no apparent source of fuel. "Keeping this going at just the right temperature is enough of a strain."
"Yeah, okay, I'll do that. Cut you some slack, I mean." From Ukyo's tone, it was obvious that the light banter was suddenly covering deeper meanings. "After all, I wouldn't want to jump to conclusions or judge anybody unfairly, right?"
"I hope not," Rouge replied gently. "But it is something you have to decide for yourself."
Ukyo just nodded, standing there in silence for a while. Eventually she said, "You were right, you know. What you said this morning. That is exactly what I was doing, thinking all your people were going to be just like Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung. I did think Shampoo was probably the only one worth anything. I didn't come here prepared to give anybody a fair chance. I let my whole entire idea of the Amazons get built on the actions of two kids who were fighting against me for something we all really wanted." Ukyo grimaced. "And their great-grandmother too, I guess, but what was she supposed to do? Support me over them? Not likely."
"Not likely at all," Rouge agreed. "And if it makes you feel better about her, she was the one who bullied the Council into not making a fuss about the use of Jusenkyo to solve your problem."
Ukyo gave the mage a puzzled look. "Well, what could they have done about it? I mean, it's not like they would have killed one of the Ryogas or nothing."
"Of course not. But remember, the nature of Jusenkyo is a secret not available to the tribe as a whole. One boy goes to the cursed place, and two return. I'm sure you can see the potential for awkward questions there. Many of the Elders wanted to send the Ryoga who would not be marrying into the tribe back to Japan before anyone figured out there were now two of them."
"So what'd they decide instead?" Ukyo asked, frowning at the thought, and also mildly chagrined that she hadn't considered that issue before now.
"The arrival of their parents was fortunate. The story we've put out among the villagers is that the rest of Ryoga's family were delayed on their travels. They missed the welcome feast that was held for the visitors from Japan. And since we had had that one so recently, holding another one so soon just for three latecomers was out of the question."
"Guess that all makes sense. And it's better than kicking Ryoga honey out."
"Do you really think so?"
"Yes, I do," Ukyo answered, wondering why the mage had felt it necessary to ask.
"I'm glad." Rouge gave the girl a smile. "Because it seemed to me that a day or two ago, you would have been far happier leaving here with Ryoga than the both of you staying. I'm glad our village doesn't seem so terrible to you anymore."
"Yeah, well, I already admitted I made a mistake. And I'm sorry," Ukyo said uncomfortably. "Guess I should have been more open-minded. Talking to Edelweiss all afternoon long made it pretty obvious there's people here who'd make good friends too, just like back home. I won't forget it."
She fell silent for a few moments, then made a wry face. "But I'm still going to do my best to make sure none of them find out what a good fighter Ryoga-kun is."
"Well, I certainly wouldn't advise you otherwise," Rouge said equitably. "By the way, there's something you need to know if you aren't going to be avoiding everybody. You may hear some remarks about silly Japanese naming customs. That's because we said both boys were originally named Ryoga, because they were twins, and that it wasn't until Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung put their feet down about the annoying confusion this was causing that their Airen took the name of Ryu."
Ukyo turned that over in her mind a few times, fighting a feeling of dizziness. "You people sure are good at getting people to think things that aren't true, without actually lying," she said with reluctant admiration.
"Thank you, thank you," Rouge said graciously. "Now, for my next trick, why don't I see if I can get you and my nieces to really get along instead of just putting up a good front for Mr. and Mrs. Hibiki?"
The chef snorted. "Yeah, right. No way you're gonna pull that one off. Remember, you already admitted you don't do miracles."
Cologne pricked up her ears. The water had just begun to drain out of the bathtub. She listened, tracking Ranma's progress as he went to his room, changed into a fresh set of clothes, then headed up the stairs toward her. It was time for what had become an evening ritual over the last several days.
"Hey, Granny," Ranma said as he breezed into the room. To his credit his tone was somewhat apologetic. "I'm still trying to cut back on the wear and tear and all, but it didn't work out like that today."
The Matriarch eyed the dirt-stained and torn shirt and pants he'd set down before her. "Son-in-law, if this keeps up much longer I might have to ask you to start helping me with the mending."
"I really don't think you want to do that. I mean, you told me Amazons don't like to waste anything. That's the reason you aren't just throwing my clothes away and replacing them with other people's old stuff, right?"
"Right you are, Ranma, but I fail to see your point."
He shrugged. "If you try to get me doing the mending, you're gonna be wasting a lot of cloth, that's all." Glancing around the room, Ranma noted that the garments he'd left with the Matriarch the previous night were sitting off to one side, perfectly clean and with no sign that they'd ever been torn in combat. He picked them up and examined them closely, shaking his head in wonder. "I just don't know how you do it. I mean, as bad as these were last night, the Kuno servants wouldn't even use them for dust cloths."
Cologne smiled enigmatically. "Well, over three hundred years you learn a thing or two. The secret techniques of Martial Arts Needlework sometimes come in very handy."
"Martial Arts Needlework?! Gimme a break!" Ranma laughed.
Instead of a break, the Matriarch gave him a level stare, her hands easing inside opposing sleeves… then flashing forth with speed well beyond the standard Amaguriken. Ranma blinked as he found himself pinned in a giant web of threads. He was barely able to turn his head enough to see it was anchored to the wall by a hundred sewing needles.
"You know, there's no way those dinky little bits of metal should be able to hold up like this," Ranma said conversationally, after pushing with all his strength failed to loosen the net.
"They're not called secret techniques for nothing, sonny boy," Cologne said dryly.
"Well, I woulda been disappointed otherwise," Ranma retorted. "But could ya do me a favor? Next time I provoke you into hitting me with something I've never seen before, could you do it a little slower? I mean, the whole point was so I could maybe pick something new up. I couldn't follow that at all."
The Matriarch cackled appreciatively. "Oh, that was rich, Ranma. You could just ASK me for training, you know."
"Where's the fun in that?" he said with a grin. "Besides, I don't really have the time right now. If you had shown me something useful, I was just gonna keep it at the back of my mind to try out later."
"It's always good to be eager to learn new things," Cologne said sagely. "Still, I suspect you'd prefer just about any of my other techniques, rather than something as girly as needlework."
Ranma gave her a very odd look. "You feelin' okay, Granny? I never would have expected something like that out of an Amazon."
"It was just a test, to see if you'd agree without thinking about it," the Amazon in question replied. "You passed, by the way." She almost sounded disappointed at that.
He rolled his eyes. "So what do I get as my prize, huh?"
Cologne pulled on one strand of the net, causing the entire web to detach from the wall, sort itself back into two neatly coiled arrangements of thread and needles, and disappear into her sleeves. "I let you out myself, rather than leaving you pinned there, calling in my Shampoo, and telling her you need some sensitivity training."
She cackled again as Ranma broke out in a cold sweat and got out while the getting was good. The door swung shut behind him in the backdraft of his passage. Cologne reached out and tripped the latch with her staff, then walked over to the torn and dirty clothing Ranma had left behind. Picking up the shirt and pants, she gave a disgusted shake of the head, and folded them into one of the pockets in her robe.
From a second and third pocket she withdrew a different pair of objects. Fixing her mind firmly on the wholesale clothing store in Nerima that gave such a good deal on Ranma's red silk shirts and black pants, she inhaled deeply of the onion, letting a single tear fall to splash on the mirror in her other hand.
Once again, Ukyo walked alone through the streets of the Amazon village. Once again, it was obvious she wasn't in a great mood. This time, though, she had no one to blame but herself for what had happened. This fact certainly didn't improve her disposition any.
Without really admitting to herself what she was doing, she made her way to the square with the statue of Hippolyta. After reaching her destination, she stood around for a while, feeling increasingly more foolish, before finally shaking her head and turning to go.
"Hello, Ukyo. Were you looking for me?" Edelweiss asked, causing her to jump in surprise.
"Um, well," the chef gave an embarrassed laugh, "yes, I guess I was, kind of. I wanted a little company, but everyone else was busy doing other stuff."
"Well, I am not busy right now. I would enjoy hearing some more stories of the outside world too." Edelweiss gestured to the nearest house. "Would you like to come in?"
Ukyo was silent for a moment, regarding the building, before asking, "You mean… you live there?"
Edelweiss nodded. "Why does that surprise you?"
The chef just shook her head ruefully. "You know what I was thinking, a minute ago when I started to walk away? I was thinking I had been stupid to come here and expect to find you. I mean, it's not like you hang out around this statue all the time."
"Why did you think I had been here both times we previously met, then?" Edelweiss asked curiously.
Ukyo shrugged. "Figured it was just chance the first time, and the second time you would've deliberately caught up with me here. You know, for dramatic emphasis and all that."
"I cannot honestly say I usually let dramatic emphasis guide me like that," the blonde girl replied. Especially since she wasn't quite sure what 'dramatic emphasis' meant. "I just saw you through the window both times. And today also. Anyway, did you want to come in?"
"Oh, yeah, sure. Thanks." Ukyo followed the other girl through the door.
Inside, the house was an odd mixture of Spartan simplicity and coziness. There was almost no furniture, at least that Ukyo could see. Just a table and two chairs in what appeared to double as the dining room and living room. The only other furnishings apparent were the rug on the floor and several panels of woven cloth stretched along the walls. But somehow, they were enough to brighten the place considerably.
"I'm sorry if it is smaller than you're used to," Edelweiss said, after they had seated themselves at the table. "Young single people start out in small houses when they leave their parents. When they marry they move to a place that has room for a family."
Ukyo shrugged. "Actually, it's not that much smaller than my place back in Nerima, if you only count the living area and not the restaurant below it." She looked around. "Did you only just move in?"
"About four months ago. Why do you ask?"
"Because there's not much personal stuff. That I can see, anyway."
"Oh. That's just because I do not want to have to go to a lot of trouble when the time comes to leave. So I have just put up the gifts from Aloe."
"Those were from him?" Ukyo asked, gesturing around at the aforementioned panels of cloth. "Is he a weaver or something?"
"Yes. A weaver, not something." Edelweiss grinned, but it quickly faltered at the odd expression on Ukyo's face. '<Okay, I guess I still need more work before I can pull off jokes in Japanese.>'
"That's cool," Ukyo said. "They look pretty high-quality, too."
Edelweiss, who didn't know a warp from a weft, and couldn't tell a cross-stitch from a cardigan, just shrugged. Well, shrugged and smiled. "I like them. Of course, I could be biased."
"No! You think?" her guest asked playfully.
The warm fuzzy memory of receiving those gifts from the man she loved sparked another thought in Edelweiss's mind. "It's probably too late for this now," she said regretfully, "but you should have had your Airen take some kind of craft lessons while he was here. That would have been good camouflage, to make unattached Amazons think he was just a worker, not a warrior. And he would be able to make nice things as gifts for you too."
"That does sound good," the chef replied wistfully, "but you're right, it's too late now. We're gonna be leaving in just a little more than a week. Oh well."
"So how are things going with him, anyway?" Edelweiss queried.
"Pretty good for the most part," Ukyo said, then making a wry face and admitting, "but today could've been better."
"What happened?" the Amazon asked sympathetically.
"I just made a stupid mistake, that's all. You may have seen his brother with those dragon tattoos on his arms, right?"
"I haven't seen him, but I heard about it. It was a friend of mine who actually did the tattoos."
"Oh, well, Ryoga honey has been talking about maybe getting something of his own. Seems he and his brother both always kinda liked the idea. So he's been thinking it over and asking me for my opinion for what he could get."
"Go on," Edelweiss prompted as Ukyo fell silent.
"Ah, well… remember how I told you Rouge was giving me magic lessons?" Ukyo asked, beginning to color slightly with embarrassment. "Well, as a joke… I kinda… gave him a magical tattoo of an okonomiyaki on his belly. Jumbo size, full color. And when he breathes in or out, the topping changes between shrimp and squid."
With some effort, Edelweiss managed not to giggle at the mental picture. "I don't suppose he was very happy about that."
Ukyo grimaced. "If it'd worked like it was supposed to, it would've been just a good laugh. The magic was SUPPOSED to wash off with water. But it didn't."
"Yeah, you said it, Sugar. Anyway, right now Rouge is working on the spell, trying to figure out how to cancel it. She said somehow the threads of the magic had gotten tied up tighter instead of coming loose like they were supposed to. She also thought my aura was reinforcing it, which is why I'm staying away from her place for the rest of today."
"Ouch. Love is never easy," Edelweiss said sympathetically.
"Tell me about it," Ukyo said with feeling. "Anyway, I'll do something nice for him to make up for it." Feeling like she had done more than her fair share of the talking so far, the chef asked, "So how about you and… what's his name… Aloe? I haven't really heard much about him yet."
Forty-five minutes later, a dazed and increasingly desperate Ukyo was wondering just how she could manage to turn the conversation in a new direction. At last, inspiration struck.
"So how many other girls did you have to fight, to get a guy like him all to yourself?" she asked.
"Not any, actually. Most women in our tribe, Amazons or otherwise, prefer warrior men. The ones who don't have such a wide field to choose from that none of them really got around to noticing my Airen before it was too late."
"Too late?" Ukyo asked. "Just because he's got you already? What about the whole 'it's okay for multiple girls to share the same guy' thing?"
Edelweiss shrugged. "That's not the issue. They all know we are planning to leave here and see the world's mountains. Most girls here wouldn't want that kind of life of travel. Of the few that might not care about that, and that don't want a strong fighter for their husband, I can't think of any that would be willing to take second place to the lowest-ranked Amazon in the tribe."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I told you before that my family's style isn't good for the kind of matches we fight. I have never won a match on the challenge log, not even against girls a year younger than me. That is the price I pay for concentrating everything into Martial Arts Mountaineering instead of the traditional Amazon Wu Shu. Some of the strongest girls even resent me, thinking I'm no true Amazon. I have been told to my face that I should have been forced to choose another caste."
That made Ukyo more than a little mad. "Is that right?! Sugar, you know what you ought to do? You ought to go to the strongest of those traditional Amazons and challenge her to a fight in the mountains, and kick her butt all the way back to the village!"
Edelweiss blinked in surprise. "I thought Shampoo was a good friend of yours."
"H-huh?" THAT took the wind right out of Ukyo's sails. "You mean… Shampoo's one of those girls who's made fun of you?!"
The blonde girl shook her head. "No, she never has, as far as I know. She and I have not had much contact with each other."
Ukyo frowned. "Then why'd you think I was saying to challenge Shampoo?"
"What else could you have meant? You said to challenge the strongest of the Amazons who fight in the traditional way." A thought occurred to Edelweiss. "You did mean the women my age, yes?"
"I meant the women your age who'd made fun of you."
"Oh. Now I understand." The idea was tempting, but Edelweiss had long ago entertained and discarded it. "I do not think it would help. Any of those girls would just salve their wounded pride by challenging me to a rematch in the typical style, and then defeating me easily."
Ukyo sighed as she recognized the probable justice in that assessment. "Sounds like you've got some real jackasses in this village, Sugar."
"Not 'Sugar', Edelweiss," the girl said with some exasperation. "And if by 'jackasses' you mean people who have not learned sympathy or consideration for others, people who think to make themselves bigger by pushing others around them down, then I must ask you… is Japan any different?"
"Wish I could say otherwise… but no." Ukyo grimaced, remembering the teasing she'd gotten after Ranchan had unwittingly left her behind. She'd been so lonely for so long… a lot like all of the people who were now her close friends, actually. "I bet you've been pretty lonely," she said to the Amazon. "Just like Shampoo."
Edelweiss shook her head. "No, not really. It is just that my close friends have not been Amazons."
"I thought that wasn't allowed," Ukyo said doubtfully, remembering some of the talks she'd had with Shampoo.
The blonde girl snorted. "You have been talking to Shampoo, haven't you? There is a vast difference between the student and descendent of the Matriarch who is the first ranked fighter among all the young unmarried Amazons, and the girl who has never won a challenge match. I do not have any problems spending time with the other castes." She sighed then. "I cannot say I have never envied Shampoo. When I was small and understood less, there were times I was quite jealous of her. But now I do not think there is anything that could convince me to trade my life for hers."
"She sure could have used a friend or two growing up," Ukyo agreed, her tone not quite accusing.
"There were those who offered. Even some Amazons. But you need to understand, Ukyo, how things were back then. Shampoo went to live with her great-grandmother after her father's death. She basically all but disappeared for quite a long time. Then, all at once, she bursts into the light again, challenging and defeating the other girls one after another, never losing once. Perhaps you have heard stories from her about being treated coldly by all the other Amazons, but that is not really what happened. Many of them were just too shy and didn't know what to do or how to approach her. Remember that we were only children.
"The ones who did know how they wanted to react… they were the ones she has probably spoken of. The ones who had been the strongest, until one girl defeated them all. One girl who never, ever lost, not even in the rematches. They were the ones who hated her for being more than they could be. And they resented her so much, and let her know it so well, that I do not think Shampoo was able to even think that the few, tentative gestures of friendship she later received might be real. She rebuffed those girls quite coldly."
"Were you one of them? The girls that offered?" Ukyo asked.
"I am afraid I was too intimidated by her to even think of it." Something that had made Edelweiss feel a little guilty in later years, as she gained a better understanding of the strongest, loneliest, and most unapproachable girl her age.
They sat in melancholy, contemplative silence for a few moments. At last Edelweiss spoke up again. "It is ironic that outsiders should know our Champion better than any of the girls she grew up with. Other than her family, perhaps. Is Shampoo happy now?"
That did raise Ukyo's spirits, as she was able to answer, "Yes. She's got real friends now, and a great guy for an Airen too."
"I'm glad. Having no-one to support you but your family cannot be pleasant."
"Yeah, and even there Shampoo didn't have much luck, did she?"
Edelweiss nodded hesitantly. "It is true, that Shampoo never had any romantic feelings for Mousse, yes?"
"That's right," Ukyo said, a little surprised at the apparent change of topic.
"Then I would have to say I agree. Xiao Yu should not have acted as she did to her cousin. She certainly did deserve the beating she got."
"What… Oh, yeah. Her." Ukyo snorted. "I was talking about Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, actually."
Edelweiss barely held back from facefaulting. "What do you mean? They have been Shampoo's strongest supporters! Did things change in Japan?"
Ukyo grimaced. "Oh, blast it. Looks like I stuck my foot in my mouth. No, I guess maybe they could've been good for Shampoo. It's just… those kids and I've got a pretty painful history, that's all."
"You don't like them," the blonde girl said, half-questioningly.
"You got that right, Sug… Oh, all right, Edelweiss. No, I don't like them. And the feeling's mutual."
"That is very strange," Edelweiss said slowly.
"Well…" After considering where to start, the Amazon decided she needed a little more information. "What exactly happened between you and them, in that painful history?"
'Crud,' Ukyo thought, realizing the difficulty inherent in giving the whole story. She thought desperately, then said, "In the beginning, we were both interested in the same guy. We fought pretty hard over him. That's what I'm talking about. If they hadn't eventually met his brother and decided to go for him instead, things could've gotten really, really bad."
"So they may have given their hearts to another, but they still have some caring for your Airen." Edelweiss nodded thoughtfully. "I suppose that explains it."
Edelweiss hesitated, then said, "I only found out about this yesterday. Please do not be alarmed, Ukyo, but there are some few Amazons who do know that Ryu, at least, is a superb fighter. These are friends of Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung, who received letters describing their Airen's virtues, and a few friends of those friends who learned from them. And that would naturally lead them to believe Ryoga might be as well."
By now Ukyo's color had faded to the paleness of chalk. She gulped, trying to find words.
Before she could, Edelweiss was speaking again. "If you have not seen much of Shampoo's twin cousins during this trip, it is because they have been working very hard, doing chores and tasks that these other girls wished to avoid, in exchange for their promises not to pursue their Airen's brother. That is why I was so surprised when you said what you did. If they truly despised you, if they felt as much dislike to you as I thought I heard in your voice to them, I would think they would encourage their friends to go after a man they cared about. For his sake."
The remainder of that day passed with a sort of skewed reflection effect for Ukyo and Ranma. The chef spent several hours doing some of the hardest thinking of her life. And as for our intrepid pigtailed hero…
"Good heavens, son-in-law. I don't think I've ever seen you worn this ragged. What happened?"
Ranma sighed, massaging his temples. "Even I get can get tired if I spend the whole day fighting, y'know. I really wish you'd tell those girls to let up on me."
Cologne blinked. If Ranma was actually complaining about spending time in training with Shampoo and Kodachi, there must be something seriously wrong. "Don't you think you should tell them yourself, Ranma?"
He laughed incredulously. "Are you kidding me? You think they'd listen?!"
"I'm certain they… wait." While Cologne was still fully capable of making mistakes, she was far more crafty and experienced than the typical acquaintance of Ranma's. Had it been someone else in her place for this conversation, the confusion probably would have persisted across several more exchanges. However, he was talking to the Matriarch, who knew good and darn well that neither her great-granddaughter nor said girl's sworn sister would ignore their Airen's feelings like that. "What girls are you talking about?"
"All the Amazons who keep chasing me. Who'd ya think?" he asked wearily. "I guess it hit a bunch of them today that time's running out, that I'm gonna be leaving in another week. Cause I had twenty-eight girls challenge me to a fight today, where I'd have to go out on a date with anyone I lost to."
"Oh dear," Cologne said with a sigh.
Disappointment was so evident on her face and in her tone that Ranma felt his own cares lessen just a little. Getting this much more sympathy than he'd expected was comforting. "Anyway, that's why I'm so tired now. It'd be even worse without some of the shiatsu points I got from Sham-chan's memories. Those let me win a few of the matches quicker than I should've." He noted with some confusion that Cologne's disappointment had only deepened. "Is there some reason this would be really, really bad news to you, Granny?" he asked.
"Just that I'm sorry I couldn't have seen that series of battles. It must have been quite the spectacle."
"So much for sympathy," Ranma grumbled. "Anyway, how's about reminding the other old ghouls on the Council that all their great-granddaughters are wasting their time? Even if it only got a few of the girls off my back, that'd be something."
Cologne shook her head. "I'm sorry, son-in-law. I already tried that at the beginning of this visit. But my arguments didn't convince anyone."
"Whaddaya mean, didn't convince anyone? I'm in a Heart Link, for cryin' out loud! I ain't gonna want anybody other than Dachi and Shampoo!"
"They don't think that's necessarily the case." Cologne gave Ranma her best 'wise old elder' look. "Remember, the Link has only been used a handful of times throughout the centuries, and this is the first time ever that so few people have been involved in one. Considering the times in the past with men having ten or eleven wives, the Elders think it's reasonable to hope that you might still become interested in one or two other girls."
Seeing Ranma's crestfallen look, and regretting that she couldn't do what he'd asked of her, Cologne offered what comfort she could. "After all, son-in-law, you can't blame them. Any Amazon worthy of the title would give her eyeteeth to have your strength in her family."
"Yeah, whatever," Ranma grumbled. Cologne nearly fell off her staff as she realized the appeal to his ego hadn't registered. "I'm thinking the bacon boys had the right idea, keeping their real skill quiet like they did."
'Perhaps a different tactic will work better to cheer him up,' the Matriarch thought dazedly. "Well, look at it this way. At least it will all be over before too much longer."
"Guess that's true. It'd be nice if we can make it the rest of the way without too much more crazy stuff happening."
Perhaps subconsciously he had been expecting it. Perhaps it was just that his supper hadn't agreed with him. In any case, this time Jin To woke almost immediately after the knocking at his window began.
That didn't make him any less irritable at the midnight interruption. He walked over to the window and eased it halfway open. "<Listen, I'm not finished yet. Just a couple more days, all right?>"
The visitor sighed in frustration. "<Okay, okay, but you'd better not take too much longer. I'm running out of time here.>"
"~Swing low, sweet chariot,~" sang Ling-Ling as the noonday sun beat down upon her.
"~Comin' for to carry me home,~" trilled Lung-Lung.
"~Swing low, sweet chariot,~"
"~Comin' for to carry me home.~" Lung-Lung paused for a breather, straightening up and stretching laboriously. "<Those songs Jemi Ma taught us do make the work go easier,>" she admitted, looking back over the field. She estimated she and her sister had weeded about two-thirds of it by now.
"<We'll have to thank her for teaching us her family's techniques,>" Ling-Ling agreed. Nothing could have made doing this fun, but every little bit of alleviated misery helped.
"<Yeah… Oh, great,>" Lung-Lung said, her tone souring. "<Don't look now, but we've got company.>"
Naturally, on being told not to look, Ling-Ling turned and did just that. She frowned as she saw the figure walking toward them, sun gleaming off an unmistakable oversized kitchen implement strapped to her back. The redhead turned back and began vigorously pulling up more weeds. "<Maybe if we act busy enough, she'll go away.>"
"<Maybe,>" Lung-Lung said dubiously. "<But you probably shouldn't pull up the little cabbages along with the weeds like that.>"
Ling-Ling paused, looked at the plant she'd just uprooted, groaned, and smacked herself on the forehead with her free hand.
As her sister began working to replant the cabbages she'd accidentally displaced, Lung-Lung sighed and turned to face the visitor. "What you want? We busy."
Ukyo didn't feel it particularly judicious to answer that question. She wasn't here because of what she wanted to do anyway. "So what're you doing this for? This field doesn't belong to your family."
"We not have time for stupid pointless questions right now!" Lung-Lung said exasperatedly. "Have job to do!" To emphasize this, she bent down and returned to work.
The chef watched in silence for a few moments. Once she was confident she knew which plants should stay and which should go (it wasn't hard to figure out, since she had seen Ling-Ling replanting one out of the corner of her eye), she moved to the next row over and began pulling out weeds as well.
THAT got the twins' attention very quickly. "What you think you doing?!" Ling-Ling demanded indignantly. The cherry-haired girl did calm a little as she realized that the older girl was pulling up weeds, not the crop.
"What does it look like? I'm helping," Ukyo said shortly, managing not to actually snap at Ling-Ling's tone.
The twins exchanged a long, confused look. Without quite knowing what to do, they just stood still and watched, waiting for the spatula girl to do or say something that made some kind of sense.
An hour later, Ukyo pulled her last weed, jerking the hapless plant viciously out of the soil. She straightened up, took a deep breath, and gave the twins a level stare. "That was pretty funny, how you just watched me do all the rest of it by myself." Some of the hostility faded out of her eyes as she noted the sheer confusion present on the Amazons' faces. She'd been expecting sneers.
"Is not good to move without have good plan," Lung-Lung replied. "We not have clue what you really here for, so we try to figure out. If spatula girl no like, should have said something."
"That what we waiting for anyway," Ling-Ling said. "For you say why you here, or what you want. If it was just you had strange want to pull up weed, you would have been happy we leave all the rest for you."
"Ha, ha," Ukyo said. "Like anybody in their right mind would WANT to pull these stupid things all afternoon."
"So why you do it?" Ling-Ling asked, ignoring the opportunity to question whether the chef was in her right mind in the first place.
"I asked you first. Remember? Just before you started your hour-long break?" Ukyo countered.
Lung-Lung frowned at her, then stuck out her tongue. "We do because we say we would. Now is your turn answer."
"Aye yi yi," Ukyo muttered, clutching her brow with one hand. Fighting off an impulse to say, "Because I thought I should," she replied, "Look, let's cut to the chase, okay? I already know why you were doing this. Some girl or girls who actually were supposed to do it get an afternoon off, and they don't chase after your Airen or his brother."
The twins were silent, again not knowing how to respond. Ukyo continued, "I know that there's some Amazons who know how good a fighter Ryu is, because you sent letters home and people talk. I already heard you've been stuck doing all these chores to keep them away from the Hibiki boys, and to make them keep quiet too."
"So you decide help, because is for the sake of Ryoga?" Ling-Ling queried, feeling better now that there seemed at least some sense in the Japanese girl's actions.
"Yeah, I guess that's part of it," Ukyo replied after a long moment of silence, which had been spent on internal debate. A large part of the chef just wanted to let it go at that and walk away. But that wasn't going to cut it, not anymore. "But partly I just felt I owed it to you."
Synchronized blinks of disbelief. "You do for us?"
"Yeah, I did," Ukyo said soberly. "I heard yesterday how you've been working your butts off, to keep other girls away from Ryoga honey. Edelweiss was real clear on that, said you were specifically protecting him, not just your Airen. And she reminded me that if you'd wanted, this trip would've been the perfect chance to get revenge on me, by doing just the opposite of what you did. You could've easily gotten other girls going after Ryoga. But you didn't."
"We not do it for you," Ling-Ling stated flatly. "We talk to Airen, learn from him how his brother feel. Is for his sake we do what we do. Only his."
Ukyo sighed. "Fine," she said defeatedly, and turned to walk away. However, she took only a step or two before stiffening and spinning back around. "No, it is NOT fine! I'm sick of all this! Look, I didn't say I wanted to be friends with you two. I don't. But I also don't want any more of this damn rivalry either. I don't want to look at you and wish I could squash you flat with my spatula, and know you're thinking the same thing about roasting me again with that stupid Dragon Dance thing!
"Can't we call a truce? A real one, not just keeping things under wraps cause Mr. and Mrs. Hibiki are around? I'm tired, and I really want some peace. Don't you?"
"Sound like what you really asking is, we forget fighting and insults and forgive you, and take same from you. Yes?"
"I guess you could put it that way," Ukyo allowed, feeling more than ever as if she were fighting a losing battle. The expression on Lung-Lung's face and the tone with which she'd spoken held out little hope that they were prepared to meet her halfway.
The lime-haired girl's next words confirmed it. "You have already hear our answer to that, spatula girl. We tell you before, in park, some insult too big to forgive. You not care how bad you hurt us then, so we not accept stupid offer now."
This was where Ukyo's temper finally escaped restraint. "Where the HELL do you get off talking like that?! In case you've forgotten, it was you two little witches who started that whole thing! Blaming me for Tsubasa's deluded fantasies! Okay, maybe I did come back with something worse, but let's not forget who started flinging the accusations here!"
"That not point!" Ling-Ling bristled. "In heat of moment bad things get said. It happen. Especially when people not understand each other good anyway.
"But you saw just how bad you insult us. Way we react make it very, very clear just how much offense you make. That was where excuse begin and end. You knew right then, saw just how bad you attack, but you not apologize. You not care about how angry you make us, how bad of insult you talk about us. THAT what we never forgive you for, way you calmly choose not to take words back. And we never forget, either. Will not attack or try hurt you, for Ryoga sake. But that is all you get from us, spatula girl!"
Ukyo just stared, her temper dying down. At last she said faintly, "Let me see if I've got this straight. Lung-Lung had her damn trident against my throat, demanding I apologize, and you think the reason I didn't was because I wanted to make you even madder?!"
"You try say it was not?" Lung-Lung asked, her anger beginning to be tinged with confusion as the sheer disbelief on the Japanese girl's face registered.
"Well, gee, I don't really know myself, Lung-Lung. It's kind of hard to remember back to those few minutes. For some reason, the details are really fuzzy in my memory. Maybe because I was SCARED OUT OF MY MIND!!" Those last words were shouted so loudly that the twins actually flinched and backed away a few steps. Ukyo took a deep breath. "If you'd taken the fork away and given me a few minutes to get myself under control, maybe I would've apologized. Or even better, if you'd kept back a little, enough to show me how mad you were without making me stare the freakin' Grim Reaper in the face, maybe then I'd have been able to think straight enough to take it back."
Silence fell as the Amazon twins processed this, Ling-Ling in particular feeling confusion turn to chagrin as she let herself remember the way Ukyo had been pale, dazed, and trembling after Lung-Lung stormed away. Perhaps the chef would have tried to render an apology once she recovered her composure. But Ling-Ling herself had closed that avenue before it could be explored.
Lung-Lung arrived at a conclusion more quickly than her sister. Hearing this admission… that their one-time rival had held silent because the Amazon had been too threatening, rather than in an attempt to show contempt… it felt like salve on a wound. A wound left unhealed for so long that the lime-haired girl had ceased to recognize the pain from it until it lessened.
She took a deep breath, then spoke. "Okay. That is good reason not to say anything then, at least seem like it to Lung-Lung. So here and now is you second chance, Ukyo."
The okonomiyaki chef in question bit back her instinctive response at the tone of the demand. She had known this confrontation was going to be a pain. And she had gone into it knowing that someone had to take the first step of swallowing their pride. She considered what she wanted to say, Lung-Lung's use of her proper name only then registering with her. After wondering for a moment or two whether that really meant anything other than the Amazon getting tired of always saying 'spatula girl', Ukyo spoke. "You were right. I shouldn't have said that. Especially I shouldn't have just assumed it without anyone telling me anything to make me think it.
"Even if you did start the insults, I shouldn't have said what I did. I'm sorry. For that time, and for everything in general. I'm sorry for all the crap that's gone down between us, and I wish it hadn't happened. If I could, I'd go back and take back my stuff.
"But I can't. Can't change the past; nobody can. All I can do is what I came here for, to say I was sorry and tired of all this. Like I said before, I'm offering a real truce. I'm tired of fighting, heck, I'm even tired of wanting to fight you. And that's all I've got to say."
After another few moments of silence, it was Ling-Ling's turn to speak up. "Amazons always ready for a good fight…" she waited just long enough to see Ukyo's expression begin to shift before continuing, "…but this not good one." The next part was a bit of a struggle to get out, but let it not be said that Ukyo was the only one who could make a difficult admission. "You is not only one with some regrets, Ukyo. Is something Airen say to us, during fight with stupid card king. He tell us we is eager to believe worst of you whenever get the chance, just like you is of us.
"Didn't think that happen that day in park, but look like we make mistake. We think worse of you than what we should because we not understand what really happen. That not good. So Ling-Ling accept you apology, and offer same to you. For not giving you chance to make right and thinking worst of you, that you would no even want to. Sorry."
"I sorry too," Lung-Lung said. Her lips actually quirked into the tiniest of smiles. "Also sorry Lung-Lung was too, too scary, to keep spatula girl from being able to give apology we ask for."
" 'Ask'?" Ukyo muttered incredulously. Louder, she said, "So… does that truce sound good to you two?"
Slowly, the Amazons nodded their heads. Ukyo let out a long, pent-up breath of tension. "Great. I don't know how many more chores you're signed up to do, for protecting Ryoga honey, but I guess I'd be willing to help out with them. If I don't have a magic lesson scheduled with Rouge at the time, anyway."
"Thank you," Ling-Ling said, almost without any difficulty at all in getting the words out. "Is too bad you not hear whatever Edelweiss tell you two weeks ago, instead of yesterday."
"On that note, is one other thing you could do to help right now, spatula girl." Lung-Lung gestured back across the field, to the baskets into which she and Ling-Ling had dropped their weeds after pulling them. Ukyo, having not had such an aid, had just left hers lying in the furrows between the rows of cabbages. "Need to put weeds on compost heap. We will help you, but need to pick up ones you just leave behind on dirt."
"Huh. You can tell I don't have much experience with farming, I guess. Okay, th-thanks." Ukyo bent down to begin picking up her discards, then straightened up again. "There was one other thing," she said. "Could you please knock it off with the 'spatula girl' insults?"
The twins blinked. "Oh, that. That not really how we mean it, spat—" Ling-Ling clamped her mouth shut as she realized what she was saying. "Mean, Ukyo. Sorry, is habit. And was not really insult to start with. Remember we call Airen 'bandana boy' before we know his real name. If we meant as insult, would call you stupid-lying-outsider-girl or something."
"Thanks for clearing that up," Ukyo said sourly. "Okay, you don't mean it as an insult. Fine. But could you try and use my real name from now on anyway? Just as a sign of our truce. I mean, it's still a lot more polite to use someone's actual name."
There was a long moment of silence as Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung looked at each other. Then Lung-Lung turned back to Ukyo and smiled. And if there was an element of mockery in the expression, it was still a friendlier smile than she had ever turned on the chef before. "Sure thing, Sugar."
Over the next four days Ukyo found herself thinking back to Nerima and the stress of juggling school and her restaurant with increasing fondness. Although the chores with which she'd volunteered to help didn't take that much time, they were boring and arduous to make hours seem to pass like days.
But the time did pass, and eventually came a day that Ranma had been waiting for with ever-increasing eagerness. It was time, at last, to show the results of his solitary training.
"You ready, Sugar?" Ukyo asked, sticking her head in the door of the room Ryoga shared with Ryu and Ranma. Her boyfriend was the only one there now, looking over a scroll Cologne had lent him.
"Ready?" he asked. "Ready for what?"
"To go see this new move Ranchan's worked out, silly. Did you forget today was the day?"
"No, but I thought you were talking about something else. Kodachi and Shampoo went out there already, so he could show them the move first, and they aren't back yet. So how are we gonna find him anyway? They're the only ones who know where he's actually been going to train."
Ukyo blinked. "Ummm… good point. But Rouge said we were supposed to leave now, so I should come get you. Maybe he told her where we're supposed to meet them."
"Actually, son-in-law quite forgot that aspect of things. But I used the Eye of Bastet to locate them," Cologne said.
"YEAGHH!" Ryoga squawked, whirling around to find the Matriarch standing on the windowsill. "Don't sneak up on me like that, Granny!"
Cologne bopped him lightly with her staff. "You'll need a much better control of yourself than that, sonny boy, to have any hope of mastering the Kikotsu Bakuha."
"Yeah, yeah, let's go already if we're gonna go. I don't suppose Ranma'd appreciate us just sitting around talking when we're supposed to be on our way to meet him."
"Oh, no, of course not. I'm sure son-in-law is anxiously awaiting our arrival, since right now he's stuck out in the countryside with only Shampoo and Kodachi for company," Cologne replied, sarcasm practically dripping from her words. They proceeded downstairs, gathered everyone else, and set off, Ryoga still trying to think of a snappy comeback.
"Took you guys long enough to get here," Ranma grumbled as the group spread out along the edge of the field. Beside him, Shampoo and Kodachi both wondered just why he was radiating so much nervous anticipation. Sure, the move they'd seen earlier this afternoon was impressive, but why should Ranma care so much about showing it to the newcomers? If Genma had been in the group it would have made sense, but neither girl had ever received any intimation that their mutual boyfriend cared so deeply about the opinion of any of the people now standing in expectation.
Cologne gave him a piercing stare, then let her senses rove around the field some more. There was a strange feeling in the air. She could sense the residue of a chi-based attack, one that must have been fairly strong. There was some sense of familiarity as well, but the Matriarch couldn't quite put her finger on the source.
"Hey, we got here right at the time you asked us to, Ranchan. So what's this cool new move you've been working on?" Ukyo asked.
"Okay." Ranma took a deep breath, pushing away all thoughts of what would come next. He focused his will, turned, and took a few steps away. Over his shoulder he called back, "I started with the most useless move I know, and worked it inta something that could actually be worth something. Hope you don't mind that I didn't want to keep the name, Granny."
"Quit grandstanding and show us the technique, son-in-law," Cologne replied. "At my age I don't have much of an appreciation for long dramatic buildups."
He laughed at that. "Okay, here goes." Turning to face directly forward again, Ranma held motionless for a moment, gathering his chi and his concentration. Then, he dropped to one knee, leaning forward and slamming the palm of his hand forward into the ground with a cry of "EARTH SLASH!"
As his hand touched the soil, there came a grinding roar. The ground exploded, and for a split second Rouge thought it was just the Bakusai Tenketsu with a larger blast radius. But before the misconception could pass completely through her mind, the eruption shot forward, the ground ripping and tearing itself in one violent chain of explosions, shooting away from Ranma in a tightly focused straight line. The effect continued for nearly eighty feet before dying away.
Ranma turned back to face everyone with a cocky grin on his face. None of the shards of rock or clots of dirt had touched him. The direction of the blast had carried all the earthen shrapnel away, which nicely did away with the problem he would have had in using the regular Bakusai Tenketsu. Not having been able to learn the toughening aspects didn't matter with this version.
"Aiyah," Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung breathed, looking at the gaping trench that now scarred the ground. Suddenly, Lung-Lung whipped her gaze back to Ranma. She frowned as fiercely as she could. "Ranma promise right now he never ever use that in spar with Airen!"
"Don't worry, Lung-Lung, I got no desire to wipe out any of my friends." Ranma grinned. "Besides, with the way it tears up the ground like that it's more versatile than just having to hit somebody directly with the blast. I could use it to rip a ditch under someone while they're coming down from a jump, then take them out while they're off-balance from the messed-up landing. Or if they're on top of a tree or something, I could knock it down with this. Lots of cool possibilities other than just blowing somebody up."
"That's a pretty impressive move," Ryu allowed, with a bit of awe still present on his face and in his voice. "How the heck did you pull it off anyway?! Kodachi I could see, but I can't believe you've got nearly enough chi to do something like that!"
"C'mon, man, I remember explaining the Heaven and Earth Cut to you. Same kind of principal here. The effect mainly comes from the natural chi of the ground, not the little bit of my own. I just use my own energy for the startup. I shape it into a charge that makes the earth's chi get unbalanced in a straight line away from me. That's what triggers all those breaking points."
"Well, it looks impressive, Ranchan, I'll give you that. But I see a weakness," Ukyo said a little smugly. "If you don't hit with your first shot, whoever you're fighting just needs to get on the other side of the trench it left behind, and then you couldn't do jack with it anymore. The ditch would stop the technique as long as you were on the opposite side from your target."
"Wanna bet, Ucchan?" Ranma gave yet another cocky grin, then walked a little distance away, faced perpendicular to the long rent in the ground, and let off another Earth Slash. Ukyo was forced to eat her words as the ripping blast crossed the gap of the pre-existing trench with ease.
"How the heck did that work?" the chef protested. She thought she'd seen a glow as the second Earth Slash crossed the path of the first, but there had been a great deal of dust obscuring the sight and it had happened too quickly to be sure.
"The disruption gets carried across the gap by the fragments of rock and dirt that're exploding out from the wall." Ranma resisted the urge to strike a triumphant pose. "I guess it wouldn't work if the gap was too big, but just crossing a previous path's no problem."
"Ranma is too good warrior, yes?" Shampoo said gleefully. Wanting to make her Airen's happiness even greater, and still a little annoyed at the way Cologne hadn't managed to get any of the other Amazons off his back, she asked, "How old were you when you first develop own technique, Great-Grandmother?"
The Matriarch shook herself out of the reverie she'd been in since first watching Ranma's demonstration. "I'm not sure, Shampoo. The details blur after three centuries. I can't be quite certain whether it was when I was twenty-one or twelve."
"Whatever, Granny," Ranma said. "Hey, I wouldn't mind teaching you how to do this, if you're still up for learning new tricks."
Cologne gave him a level stare of ominous foreboding, then lightly tapped the ground in front of her with the knobby portion of her staff. The dirt rippled like water at the point of contact, and then the ripples washed forward, causing the two ditches to flow back together into nearly-unmarked ground. The only signs of the Earth Slashes that remained were the smoothness where the trenches had been and the occasional rock chip lying around.
There was a long moment of silence, as Cologne continued to stare Ranma down. Then the Matriarch's face split into a wide grin. "I did it as slowly as I could, son-in-law. Did you have better luck picking up on this technique than you did with the Threadneedle Snare?"
"She's on to me," Ranma complained to the universe in general. "No, can't say I did."
"I see. Well, don't feel bad. I was in my second century before I had the skill to master the Earth Dragon's Rage." Cologne gave him a piercing look that Ranma found impossible to read. "I'm all but certain I could not have pulled off what you just did at the tender age of sixteen."
"Some of us are just lucky," Kodachi said. She stepped close to Ranma's side, laying her head on his shoulder and snaking one arm across his chest. "Very lucky."
"Ah, yeah, right." Ranma gulped, then looked back to face everyone else. "Okay, show's over. I got nothing else for you guys to see. You can head on back to the village now." Kodachi's posture made it easy for her to tell his heart rate had just begun racing again. And feelings of anxiety and anticipation were rising within her boyfriend once more? What was going on?
"Ranma, if I didn't know better I'd think you were trying to get rid of us so you could celebrate in private with Shampoo and Kodachi. Oh, wait." Rouge laughed. "I don't know better." Chuckling all the more at the way his face turned bright crimson, the mage began shooing everyone back toward the village. Ranma gave her an annoyed glance, then led the two girls named off in another direction.
As has been described previously, the area in which Ranma had developed and demonstrated his new technique was a large stony field, bordered on three sides by hills and on the fourth by a thicket of trees. Ranma asked Shampoo to wait in the thicket, and he and Kodachi passed through the small stretch of woodland, coming a few minutes later to a much more attractive spot than the one they'd left behind. A small stream, which spent most of its course underground, came briefly to the surface here. The watercourse was lined with trees that stood taller and straighter than the somewhat scraggly ones in which Shampoo was waiting, with green grass carpeting the ground nearby as well. It was a beautiful scene of peace and tranquility.
It was a little difficult for Kodachi to appreciate the peace and tranquility, as Ranma was now radiating such a level of anticipation / excitement / anxiety / hope / turmoil / affection (affection? yes, that was definitely what she'd sensed) that it was pretty much overriding the natural sense of peace. She gave him her best smile as he led her over to a large stone by the water and sat down beside her.
Ranma swallowed hard, several times, in an attempt to clear the dryness out of his throat (the thought of taking a drink from the handy stream didn't cross his mind). At last, when he was fairly confident that he'd be able to get words out, he spoke. "Dachi-chan, I got… I got something to say. Probably won't come out right, probably won't be as good as it should be. As good as you deserve. This ain't the kinda stuff I'm any good at anyway."
"That's all right, Ranma-sama," she said as he paused. "You know I love you for who you are."
"Yeah." The nervousness was starting to recede now, just a little. "There's a lotta stuff we know, that we… that we don't always say. Stuff we kinda talk around, or just let it go unsaid. I guess that's not so bad usually, but sometimes you just gotta come out and say something, even if you know the other person already knows it. So here goes.
"I love you. You came into my life at one of the worst times I've ever had. You trusted me and believed in me and made me feel like a real man, like my curse didn't matter. You were the friend I needed, but you're so much more than a friend that I almost feel like an idiot for even saying the word. And I want… I want…" he took a deep breath, "…You knew it already, but I'm saying it now. I want us to spend the rest of our lives together."
By now her smile was so radiant that Ranma wasn't even able to see the tears in her eyes. He slipped off the rock, half-turning and placing one hand on a smaller boulder beside him. With a shove, he overturned it, extracting a small bundle of cloth from a hollow revealed beneath the stone. He turned back to face her then, unwrapping the protective layers of linen. As the last concealing fold was pulled back, Kodachi felt her heart skip a beat, then begin to thunder like a jackhammer.
The sunlight gleamed brightly off the ring as he held it out to her. "Kodachi… will you marry me?"
Some time later, dreamy smile firmly in place and her hands in the pockets of her pantsuit (so as not to ruin Shampoo's upcoming surprise), Kodachi drifted into the thicket and told Shampoo that it was now her turn.
Ranma was waiting for her at a spot a little ways down the stream from where he and Kodachi had been. She noticed that there was a large, squarish package wrapped in oiled cloth resting beside him.
She sat down beside him, giving him a warm, reassuring smile. Her Airen wasn't feeling nearly so nervous now as he had been when they were first heading this way. Whatever he and her sister had done had calmed him considerably. But she could feel nervousness beginning to rise in him again. Hoping to head that off, she spoke. "Kodachi seem very, very happy, Airen."
"Yeah. And I think you will be too. Hope so, anyway. I got something for you, Sham-chan, and I hope you like it." He picked up the package and extended it to her with hands that only trembled a little.
The Amazon took it and carefully unfolded the wrapping, to find… a plain board of mahogany? She looked at it quizzically, then turned to face him. "Airen? I not get it."
Ranma groaned and grinned at the same time. "Try turning it over."
The Amazon did so, extricating the panel the rest of the way from the cloth, and reversing it. As the sight before her registered, she gasped in delight.
The wood of the other side of the panel had been carefully carved away, leaving a raised image behind. An image she knew very well— her own. The Shampoo in the wood was standing in a pose of triumph, with an expression of fierce joy on her face. Whoever had carved it had even managed to capture the effect of her hair blowing slightly in the wind.
For a long moment Shampoo couldn't find her voice. At last she said, "Is beautiful, Airen. Who make? Tonic?" That was the most skilled woodcarver in the village, whose services did NOT come cheaply.
"Nope," Ranma said with a warm smile. The nervousness was falling away again. "That'd kinda defeat the whole purpose of what it's supposed to be."
"What you mean?" Shampoo asked quizzically.
He looked away and spoke softly. "Remember all that time I spent training, to get the Earth Slash to work right?" At Shampoo's confused nod, he said, "Wrong. I got one off after just three days of practicing. Even I hadn't expected it to be that easy."
"W-what?! Then why Airen increase time after that, why spend so much time… on your own…" Shampoo's voice trailed off as she looked down at the panel with a wild surmise.
Ranma gestured off into the distance. "Out of sight in that direction, Sham-chan, are the remains of all the wood I used up, trying to get this thing carved just right." He gently reached out and ran one finger along the engraved Amazon's flowing hair, then lifted that hand to cup the flesh-and-blood Shampoo's chin. "It's the best I could do, even if it's nowhere near as beautiful as the original."
"Ranma… Ranma make this by own self… for Shampoo?" she asked, tears of happiness obviously not far off.
"Yeah. I mean, I had to make it myself, right? That's how the whole custom goes."
Ranma smiled at her, an expression so full of warmth and affection and acceptance that Shampoo almost felt like her heart would break. She almost didn't even hear him say, "Betrothal gift."
That nearly broke the dam, but with a valiant effort Shampoo maintained her control. There was something she had to say first. "Th-thank you, Ranma. Sh-Shampoo accept. She, she so lucky have you, have your love. S-so much more lucky than deserve."
"That is not true," Ranma said firmly. "I'm at least as lucky as you are, an' probably more. If it weren't for the Heart Link, I don't think I woulda been able to see just who you really are. If it weren't for that, I woulda missed out on half of everything that's good in my life, everything that makes it worth living. And I want you to know… if we hadn't, I mean, if the Link had just been that one moment of seeing each other as we really are, and not a lasting connection, I would still say this. That Tatewaki was the biggest idiot in the world for not accepting what you offered him. I may be an idiot in some ways, but I ain't never gonna make a mistake that big. I love you, Airen. And I always will."
Shampoo pulled back, just a little, needing to look in his eyes again, to see the love and warmth reaching out from his soul to hers. Then she leaned tightly against him again and let the tears come.
Kodachi wasn't sure how much time passed until Shampoo and Ranma came and collected her out of the thicket. It felt like only five minutes had gone by, if that, but some rational corner of her mind doubted it could have been quite that short a span of time. Not that such mundane questions interested her in the slightest just then.
Shampoo was grinning so broadly that Kodachi almost felt as if her own cheeks were aching in sympathy. In fact they were aching because she was smiling just as widely, and had been since the first gleam of sunlight had danced off the ring on her finger, but the White Rose wasn't in any shape for analytical deductions just then. Though she did wonder just a little why Shampoo should be carrying a smooth panel of mahogany.
As the three passed out of the trees and into the open field, Shampoo grinned even more widely (but only for a second, as doing so pushed some muscles past their natural limits and made a sharp pain shoot through her cheeks) and turned the panel around with a flourish. Kodachi made a soft sound of awe and appreciation as the sunlight fell on the sight revealed. "You like?" Shampoo asked.
"I certainly do. It's beautiful," Kodachi replied.
"I couldn't've done it without your art skills, Dachi-chan," Ranma said modestly. "Let me tell ya, it was a pain trying to translate watercolor painting techniques to woodcarving, too."
"You made this, Ranma-sama?" she asked in a tone of stunned wonderment.
"That's right. It's the Amazon version of an engagement ring," he answered.
"Engagement ring? AIYAH!!" Shampoo cried as she belatedly noticed the ring on her sister's finger. "Let Shampoo see!"
Kodachi had her hand outstretched even before the fourth syllable had left the Amazon's mouth. Shampoo studied the ring with undisguised admiration. A band of white gold, with a most unusual gemstone— an exquisitely carved rose of white jade, enchanted to the hardness of diamond.
Shampoo blinked. '<How the heck did I know it was enchanted… oh, must be that stupid 'Eyes of the Cat' thing.>' "Is truly beautiful, Kodachi," she said aloud. "Is good match for you, too."
"Yeah," Ranma said. "Jin To oughta give up in despair now, because he'll never make another piece of jewelry as good as this ever again."
"Jin To? Of course," Shampoo said with a smile, "only the best jeweler good enough for this ring." That thought triggered another. "By the way, Airen, how you get money to pay for this, and for all the mahogany you use up in making my betrothal gift?"
Ranma grinned. "Remember back when we were busting the Sakuras loose, and I had to go off on my own to find a vending machine so that one chick could get enough sugar to heal her sister? Well, when I was looking I found a room that had a lot of gold piled up in it. Stacks of bullion, and a few sacks of coins too. So I took one of the sacks. I mean, it would've felt a little strange to borrow money from Mr. and Mrs. Kuno so I could afford the kind of ring their daughter deserved." Ranma, Kodachi, Shampoo, and Cologne all chuckled at that.
"Cologne?! When the heck did you get here?!" the Saotome heir demanded, breaking off mid-laugh in mild shock.
The Matriarch shrugged. "I've been waiting out here ever since the three of you disappeared into those trees. Don't worry, son-in-law, I didn't snoop on any of your private affairs."
"So why are ya still here?" Ranma asked, more than a little annoyed at the intrusion.
"I might have a congratulatory present of my own," Cologne said mysteriously. "But first I need you to demonstrate the Earth Slash again."
He rolled his eyes. "Look, Granny, I ain't really in that kind of mood right now."
"Son-in-law, it's important. For all three of you."
The flat tone in which the Matriarch spoke cut right through Ranma's irritation. Choking down a few twinges of trepidation, he said, "Okay, fine, let's get this over with." He walked a few steps forward and performed the technique. "Happy now?"
"Take a few steps to one side and do it again, laying the new trench parallel to the first one." Cologne's tone brooked no argument. Ranma complied. "Again.
"Give me a minute to catch my breath, for cryin' out loud!" he protested. "Even if it mostly just uses the earth's own chi, it still takes some of mine. I can't just whip these things off forever without taking a break."
"You don't even realize, do you," Cologne said slowly. "I don't suppose I can blame you, though. It's remarkable enough that you've managed to attain this much control this quickly."
"What are you talking about?" Kodachi asked, in perhaps the sharpest tone of her remembered life. This was NOT the time for ominous statements and vague, dire pronouncements!
"Your description of how the technique works is incorrect, Ranma," the Matriarch stated flatly. "You aren't unbalancing the earth's chi at all, at least not in the way you described. If you did, the eruption would occur all at once along the line, not shooting forward."
"Then what happen, Great-Grandmother?"
"Your Airen is doing it all with his own strength, Shampoo," the ancient one answered.
"C'mon, Granny, I don't have near enough chi for that," he protested. "Five feet, maybe, but not something like this!"
"Do you think so?" Cologne smiled. "Come over here, boy, I have something to show you."
Ranma did so, walking warily over to her. "What is— OW!" He jumped back in shock as the Matriarch whipped the lower end of her staff in an arc. Pressing his hand against his forearm, covering the cut that the Matriarch had inflicted, Ranma shouted, "What'd you do… that…"
The strangest expression came over his face then, as he slowly removed his trembling, bloodstained hand, revealing his forearm again.
The blood was still there. But there was no sign whatsoever of any cut, nor a scar.
"I believe it must have happened fairly recently," Cologne said into the shocked silence. "It appears that Jusenkyo curses aren't the only things that can propagate along a Heart Link." She turned to the White Rose and grinned. "It seems you now have something in common with your husband-to-be that you never expected, dear. Congratulations— you won't have to worry about treating him carefully on your wedding night."
To be continued.
Author's notes: And so another chapter winds its way to a close. Did anyone see it coming, that Kodachi's empowerment would eventually spread to Ranma as well? Yes, this does mean that after another sufficiently long interval, the same will happen to Shampoo through her link to Ranma.
Speaking of things gained through the Heart Link, you may remember that in a previous chapter we see Shampoo about to use an aerial attack she learned from Ranma. This is something she learned for herself through sparring with him, NOT something she would have been directly accessing his memories to use. That is why she could have employed it without awkwardness. On the flipside of that coin, now you can see why Ranma took so long during his fight with Genma to execute the strike of the constrictor. He wasn't using the altered mindset of wrapping Shampoo's memories around his own (that would seriously impair the midair skill he needed just then), but rather just scanning them for the knowledge of the pressure points.
A few more random things: you may have noticed that at the beginning of the fic Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung had been instructed to stay away from Ryoga, and then that seemed to disappear. This is because the reappearance of the Hibiki parents created a new situation where the order became impractical and unnecessary.
The statue of Hippolyta was indirectly inspired by the fic "Thicker than Water" by Eric Hallstrom, though he had her as an actual ancestress of the Amazon tribe (at least, the stirrup-cup of Hippolyta was one of their sacred treasures).
I'll explain another Amazon secret here as well, since I doubt I'll find a way to work it into the actual story. Those familiar with the anime should remember the final confrontation between Ranma-chan and Cologne over the Phoenix Pill. In that continuity, Cologne causes large chunks of ice to levitate and fly through the air, including one huge piece shaped like a bear that serves as her chariot. That one has to weigh at least half a ton. I envision the Earth Dragon's Rage as a similarly powerful elemental technique, only focused on the earth. With it, an Elder can cause the ground to flow like water… or trigger a localized earthquake combined with breaking point explosions all over the place. Obviously not a technique to be employed in casual combat, this has more often been used in the Amazons' history to decimate forces that try to overwhelm them with the advantage of numbers.
The Earth Slash might seem puny compared to something like that, but for a sixteen-year-old it's pretty impressive nonetheless. If the name and description seem familiar, that's because they are also a Monk skill in Final Fantasy Tactics. This is not an accident. It was a deliberate choice on Ranma's part, to show that Tatewaki and Kodachi weren't the only ones who could take an imaginary technique and make it real. Credit for this goes to Gregg Sharp, for pointing out that Ranma's natural competitiveness would most likely lead him to prove himself like that.
Thanks to my prereaders, Jim Bader and James Merritt. Next time: back to Nerima.
Comments? Criticism? Email me at email@example.com
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