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A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
by Beer-monster

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ characters property of Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.


Book I: The Mantis Saga

Chapter Seven: Lighting Fire


Ryoga:

The street was like any other in Tokyo, filled with a heaving, pulsating throng of people. They flowed like a river, wave after wave of bodies streaming in a turbulent current; and like the river, the flows parted for the rock jutting in the water's path. However, unlike the river, this rock moved. It came in the form of a young man with dark, tousled hair barely visible behind the map that he held close to his face. He waded through the sea of humanity ignorantly, not noticing that when he bumped into another person, that unfortunate body was hurtled forcefully from his path. No, the youth just carried on walking, sending more people flying into the walls of nearby buildings.

"How did I get stuck in the middle of this forest?" Ryoga mumbled as he twisted the map left and right in his grip.

WHACK! Another bystander knocked into the air.

"And why are these trees so close together?" I can barely go a step without hitting one.

BANG!

"Hey, watch where you're going, jerk!"

"And why are the trees insulting me?" Wait a minute. Talking trees?

Ryoga lowered the map, his green eyes widening as he saw the endless sea of bodies massed over the street. His jaw dropped revealing his fangs. Then he growled.

"AW, CRAP!" he screamed. "NOW WHERE THE HELL AM I?"

"You’re in Tokyo, you nut," replied one of the passers-by as he walked past the shouting lunatic.

"Tokyo," he repeated, eyes watering with joy. Akane, you're so close. Birds sang and bells rang as he imagined his triumphant return to the smiling face of the one he loved. Eager to be reunited with his beloved, he reached out and grabbed a body from the passing stream of people.

"Which way to the Tendo dojo?" he yelled into the young woman's face, already planning his romantic confession of love and his defeat of Ranma.

"Well, Ryoga," responded a familiar, dry voice. "If you put me down and give me two thousand yen, I might tell you."

He focussed his eyes on the face of the woman in front of him, the details accreting in his mind. Pretty. Short brown hair. Hazel eyes. Crooked smile. Sarcastically arched eyebrow. And the really big giveaway: demanding money.

"Nabiki," he said in recognition. Then he noticed that he was still lifting her up by her shoulders and put her down. Hand straying behind his head to scratch timidly at his scalp. "Sorry about that, heh-heh-heh," he said with a blush and a wide, fanged smile.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," she said with a dismissive gesture. "Now, do you want me to show you the way home or not?" She extended out her hand, palm flat and pointing skyward.

Heaving a heavy sigh, the lost boy dug around in the pockets of his black pants, and then in his yellow jerkin, finally extracting two one-thousand-yen bills, which he deposited in Nabiki's hand.

"Thank you," she said shortly, before crooking a finger to indicate that he should follow. "This way."

The two weaved their way through the mass of people. Moving through the streets, some less crowded, some more, neither talked. Ryoga concentrated on keeping his eyes on the girl in front of him, so as not to take an unscheduled detour via Ulan Bator. Nabiki just thought that speaking to Ryoga would be a waste of time and oxygen. After some time, the density of people lessened until they were walking amongst a sparse handful of pedestrians, and eventually they reached the sloping roof, shoddily patched fence, and kanji sign that heralded their destination.

"Here we go, Ryoga, one dojo," Nabiki said with mockingly false grandeur.

"Thanks," he said absently as he swung his mammoth pack from his shoulders, pulling his heavy red umbrella from its bindings and slashing through the air, ready for when he encountered Ranma. Priorities come first, though.

"Where is Akane?" he asked the middle Tendo daughter.

"Now, Ryoga. You know information costs extra," she replied.

With an exasperated sigh he began digging through his pockets again.

"Ryoga, what are you doing here? How have you been?"

The lost boy pulled his hands from his pockets at the melodious sound of that voice. Sparing a mocking glance at Nabiki, he turned to Akane with a wide, fanged smile and fumbled greeting.

"H-hello, Akane. Lovely day isn't it? I was just passing through, heh-heh."

"Well, it's good to see you come in," she said cheerily, taking her friend's hand and leading him into the house. Nabiki scowled, muttering in annoyance at the lost sale. Ryoga did not notice, as he was flying high on cloud nine. I'm holding Akane's soft, delicate hand… As a human, not a pig. As Ryoga, not P-Chan, he thought deliriously, not noticing that said "gentle hand" was rough and callused from punching bricks and hard pigtailed heads. What a joyous world it is to live in.

"So where have you been?" Akane asked politely.

"Well, I went to train in Hokkaido."

"You’re so dedicated… always training. I wish I could train in far-off places," she said. Then muttered lowly. "Then that jerk would take me seriously."

Ranma has upset her again, the bastard. "Well, it's not all that fun. I nearly got eaten by a tribe of cannibals," he said while plotting his vindication on the braided scum.

"Cannibals? In Hokkaido?"

"I-I think I may of gone the wrong way again. Heheh." Ryoga began scratching the back of his head again while grinning stupidly.

"Who is your friend, Akane?" a new voice broke in.

Ryoga turned to the newcomer, finding himself facing a handsome woman of middle years. Her hair was a dark auburn, the curls held in a loose bob. She wore a simple blue kimono, and had a braided leather baldric hanging across her shoulders from which hung a plain but amazingly well-crafted katana. She looked back at Ryoga with cerulean eyes, regarding him from head to toe appraisingly. Ryoga fidgeted nervously, feeling as if the woman could see through his clothes to every stitch of his boxers. There was something familiar about this woman he could not place.

"Good afternoon, Auntie," Akane greeted the newcomer. "This is Ryoga Hibiki; he's a friend of Ranma's."

Ryoga scowled at being referred to as a friend of that git, but repressed any verbal protest as the woman approached him, her stare even more intense, more judging, taking the measure of him.

"You have the bearing of a martial artist; that is plain to see," the woman said, once again sweeping her gaze from his hair to his shoes and back to his eyes. "You must be a powerful fighter to be a 'friend' of my son."

Her son? "You’re Ranma's mother?"

"Nodoka Saotome. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hibiki."

The familiarity of her face came striking back to him. She looked like Ranma, especially in his girl form, when the fiery red of his hair echoed the auburn of the lady's before him. This was Ranma's mother, and she saw right through Akane's ruse. She knew that the bandana-wearing boy in front of her was not Ranma's friend, but his rival.

"So where did you learn martial arts, Mr. Hibiki?" she asked.

"Well, my father taught me a little, and I just kind of picked up the rest," he replied, staring nervously at his feet as he shuffled nervously.

"So, mostly a self-taught warrior, and with such obviously high skill. You must be very dedicated," she said appraisingly. "So how did you come to meet Ranma?"

"Er… We met in junior high when he and his father passed through."

"Junior high… Interesting. So you've been 'friends' with him that long?"

"Well… Uh…" Ryoga fumbled, lost for words.

"Well, I'd better let you and Akane catch up," Nodoka said, smiling benignly at Akane. "But I hope to speak with you again before you leave, Mr Hibiki."

That prospect left Ryoga with an unsettling sensation sinking in his stomach as he watched the retreating form of Ranma's mother. Some part of his instincts told him that another conversation with Mrs Saotome would be unpleasant.

"So now you've met Auntie Saotome," Akane said.

"She was very polite," Ryoga said absently, his discomfort at his uneasy introduction to Nodoka, and at Akane's proximity, prevented him from thinking up anything more intelligent to say.

"Yes," Akane agreed. "It’s hard to believe she married that fat oaf."

She started laughing, a sound that sounded like beautiful music to Ryoga, and he laughed with her, chortling heartily.

"Or that she gave birth to that jerk," he said between chuckles, hoping to expend on the joke. He laughed harder at his jest before noticing that Akane had fallen silent, staring at her own ringing hands with a vacant expression.

"What is it, Akane?" he asked softly.

She jumped at the sound of his voice, as if she had forgotten that he was there.

"Oh, it's nothing," she replied.

"You can't fool me, Akane," he said in a firm but gentle tone. "C'mon, you can trust me." He smiled warmly, a gesture offset by the feral image of his fangs.

"It's Ranma," she said after awhile.

Upon hearing that name, Ryoga's gentle, concerned exterior crumbled.

"That bastard!" he growled, swinging his umbrella around angrily. "I should have known. If he's done anything to hurt you, I'll thrash the life out of him," he raged.

"Oh no, Ryoga, it's not that he's done anything wrong," she declared, waving her arms in a calming gesture. The words had the desired effect as his fury deflated as if someone had poked a pin in.

"Huh," he said, bemused.

"He hasn't done anything wrong… Well, he has, he's being an arsehole. But it isn't his… but he… and…" She sighed loudly, her shoulders slumping. "I just don't know, Ryoga. I just don't."

"Akane?" he asked, forcing himself to remain calm. "What happened?"

"He lost a fight," she muttered.

A whirlwind of emotions tore through Ryoga's brain. First satisfaction: Ha! The bastard finally got what he deserves. But also rage: It should have been me. Only I am allowed to defeat Ranma, to see him brought low. There was also disappointment in himself: I should have trained harder, should have beaten him long ago; now it's been stolen from me. And disappointment in Ranma: How could he have let himself lose? The sensations and thoughts spun and whirled around the lost boy's mind.

Akane noticed her companion's silence. Ryoga seemed to have withdrawn into himself, his eyes dull and spacey. His whole body seemed frozen, except for the trembling of his hand where he held the handle of his umbrella in a white-knuckled fist.

"I’d better start from the beginning. I'll ask if Kasumi can make us some tea," she said, taking Ryoga's hand to lead him into the kitchen.

She told him the events of the last few days: Happosai's return, bruised and broken. Ranma's challenge to Loaf, the master of the Mantis Fist, and his subsequent defeat. And of Ranma's dark and adversarial behaviour.

"He’s acting so strange. Furious one minute, and despairing the next. And it's been three days since he came back. His loss has made him different. I mean, he was always an impolite jerk, but now he's being a real bastard, snapping at everyone, even Kasumi; and that's only if he speaks at all," Akane said, her voice strained and desperate.

"What a wanker," Ryoga spat. "That is not how a man should act."

"That's another thing. He spends most of his time as a girl now, only becoming male when he bathes, and not staying like that for long. It's like he doesn't care if he's a man or not, or about himself or the people around him. It's like none of it matters to him anymore."

I'll kill him for making you worry like this, Akane, Ryoga silently vowed.

"Ryoga," Akane said quietly, almost shyly. The lost martial artist felt his heart melt beneath his coarse jerkin.

"Y-yes, A-Akane?"

"Do you think you could talk to Ranma? Y'know, maybe cheer him up, drag him out of his rut?"

Ryoga's melting heart froze to the core, the cold sending stabbing pains through his chest. With a crack, his heart shattered; he could hear the pieces drop to the floor. He wanted to refuse. He wanted to shout, to punch a hole in the wall, to tell her that she should love him. But he could only sit there, silent.

"You’re a martial artist too; you can sympathise with what he's going through, and maybe you can help him," she said, her voice even more strained.

Ryoga did not move, he did not even breathe.

"I know the two of you fight a lot. But surely that's just some macho pride thing. I think deep down, he respects you and considers you a friend."

If I'm his friend, why does he enjoy making my life hell? he thought sullenly. But still he did not speak.

"Please, Ryoga. He needs your help." Leaning across she squeezed his left hand in both of hers. "Please, Ryoga. For me."

I would do anything for you Akane, he pledged silently. "Okay, Akane. I'll try."

She smiled, lighting her face. "Thank you, Ryoga," she said. At any other time such a smile would have made him giddy, but his heart was still in pieces.

"Don’t mention it," he muttered, gulping down the last of his tea.

Ryoga found Ranma's room quite easily (meaning he only walked into the closet four times, and on Soun in the bath once, and did not end up in the Scottish highlands). The room was dark when he entered, the curtain closing off the light of day but for a foggy gloom, which reflected the mood of its occupant. Ryoga could make out Ranma lying on the bed, scowling at the ceiling. True to Akane's word, his rival was currently female, her red hair mussed, with her braid drooping across the pillow. She had not bothered to dress, still garbed in the thin vest that she usually slept in and, Ryoga guessed, nothing but boxers beneath the bedsheet that covered her to her chest. In the murkiness of the room, he could barely make out the bandages looped around her slender arm loosely, obviously fitted to her male form.

"Should I be surprised to see you?" she said suddenly, making Ryoga start. She had not turned to him as she spoke, just continued gazing blankly upwards.

"I knew that you would come to gloat eventually. But then I was sure that you would be too lost to get here," she chuckled, a dry sound with no humour in it. "So tell me, P-Chan, should I be surprised?"

Ryoga snorted angrily. "I see that Akane was right. You are acting even more of a prick than usual."

"So we kick off your gloating with insults about my character. Not very original, but I suppose everyone has to start somewhere. And you never were the smartest pig in the sty, were you?" Ranma muttered dryly.

"Ranma!" he growled.

"Ye-e-es…?" she replied, dragging the word out mockingly.

"I did not come here to gloat," Ryoga barked, forcing himself to calm down. "Although I can't say I'm sad to hear that you lost."

Ranma winced, barely but Ryoga saw it.

"Oh yeah, I bet this is getting you off, isn't it, P-Chan?"

"Actually, Akane asked me to see if I could help you, pull you out of this rut. But why she cares is beyond me," Ryoga explained.

"Oh, is the tomboy worried?" Ranma wailed sarcastically. "She probably just misses her favourite punching bag. Tell her someone got there already." He held up his bandaged hand for emphasis.

"And you deal with your defeat by bullying women. She told me how you insulted her and her skills."

"Well, the macho chick picks on me whenever she's depressed. What can I say? Payback's a bitch."

"She’s a girl," Ryoga sneered. "You are supposed to be a man."

"The breasts make that one a bit difficult," she said, pointing towards her chest.

"The curse is no excuse, Ranma,"

"It seems to be all the excuse you need to sleep with her, pig," Ranma hissed.

Ryoga fell silent, grinding his teeth together. Ranma had him there, and both of them knew it.

"Besides," Ranma sighed breaking the silence. "She needed to hear it."

"She needed you to insult her?" the bandana-clad boy growled dryly.

"She thinks she's a martial artist, when she has no idea what one is."

"What are you babbling about, Ranma? Her father trained her in the Anything-Goes school, just as yours did."

"It takes more than knowing how to throw a few kicks and punches to make a martial artist," Ranma replied in a bored tone.

"Get to the point, Ranma," Ryoga snorted.

"Akane, she's just like the thousands of other practitioners of the combat arts out there. A part-timer, a sportsman. She doesn't want to admit it, but to her it's a hobby. Something to do to occupy the time, to keep fit. She was telling me how she would like to act when she graduated, or be a doctor (she would probably kill more patients than she saved the klutz), or travel to France. To a true Martial Artist, these things mean nothing. All that exists is training, fighting, and becoming strong." Ranma voice had dropped, taking on a dull, lost tone.

"That’s bullshit, Ranma," Ryoga declared, dismissing the redhead's argument with a sweeping gesture.

"Don’t lie to yourself, Ryoga," Ranma snarled. "Tell me, what do you desire truly? Besides trying to get Akane to give you the time of day, or beating my head to a pulp, when have you ever wanted more than to train, to perfect the Art? Why did you learn the Shi Shi Hokodan or the Bakusai Tenketsu?"

"I learnt those techniques to wipe that arrogant smirk of your face," Ryoga spat.

"Ah, yes," Ranma agreed, now facing Ryoga with a crooked smirk. "But why do you fight me in the first place? Why did you start this feud? Because of bread? I doubt it. Even you're not that much of a moron. You fight me for the challenge, to test yourself and your training. And maybe so you can get into the tomboy's panties."

"Ranma, you bastard," Ryoga snarled, his hands squeezed into fists.

"You know it's true, P-Chan," she mocked, still smirking.

"So Ranma knows all, does he," the fanged-boy snapped. "Funny, it seems that your great philosophy on martial arts didn't do you much good to end up in that bed, did it?"

"No, it didn't," Ranma agreed in a soft voice, her eyes downcast and her grin gone. "That is why I'm saying what I'm saying. I now know what martial arts truly is, and the Anything-goes school with its tricks and schemes doesn't fit the bill." Her voice dropped to whisper at the end, her eyes now closed, unwilling to look at the world. She seemed lost desolate, a shadow of the larger-than-life storm that had been Ranma Saotome.

So now we get to the truth, Ryoga thought as he watched the girl slump limply on the bed, lacking the will to hold strength in her muscles. She rolled over, curling up in a foetal ball, wincing at the pain that shot up her leg and arm. She looked like a lost child, weak, vulnerable. A person who knew that all was left was to die and rot away. It was unsettling for Ryoga to his rival like this… so feeble. To see the person who he had trained for, so long, so hard, now broken before him. It seemed like another rich joke fate had decided to play upon him, to take his sense of direction, his humanity, and now his focus, his reason to fight, away from him. It was all so wretched, that Ryoga could not help but laugh, to chuckle lightly in bitter humour.

"I guess this is goodbye then, Ranma," he said after a while, hoisting his umbrella upon his shoulder.

"Huh?" she muttered raising her head to regard him with wide, blue eyes.

"I won't be challenging you anymore, Ranma. It's over. You lost," Ryoga sighed.

"What!" Ranma screeched, bolting upright, her wounds forgotten in her rage." You have won nothing. We did not fight, and you have never beaten me," she raged.

"True," Ryoga conceded. "But now I don't need to fight you, Ranma. I already know which of us is the better man. Why fight a battle I have already won?"

Turning around, Ryoga opened the door, shafts of light burst in illuminating the room and making Ranma shy back from the bright.

"After all these years, I thought my victory would be sweeter, but seeing you like this makes me feel nothing but pity." He sighed and shook his head."So long, Ranma."

Ryoga stepped through into the hall and shut the door behind him, closing off the angry and shocked girl behind him. For you Akane, he said silently. He will open the door when he's ready.

Ryoga Hibiki walked through the Tendo halls absently, hoping, for the first time in his life, to get lost.


Ranma:

Ranma stared towards door Ryoga had just left through. She did not actually see the door; all her attentions were focussed upon the war between the voices in her head. The door was just a convenient point for her vacant eyes to fix upon while the past echoed in her mind. Words, feelings and memories were given form and shape on the battlefield of her psyche.

"Hahaha! You've gotten weak, Ranma!" said a figure that resembled Ryoga, dressed in the same bandana and torn, black shirt. But this person was different, his fangs huge, yellowed and sharp, threads of saliva hanging when he spoke. His dark hair was wild and feral, like the hackles of an angry wolf. The green eyes seemed to glow with a fierce, inhuman light.

"Your kick felt like the touch of baby's foot," it snarled.

Laughter came from the one who faced him. This figure was a giant. Not in physical size, but in spirit. A Titan. He seemed to glow a radiant blue as he faced the animalistic doppelganger, with a cocky smirk. Pride swelled from him, enveloping him, crackling around him like lightning. Howling gusts of wind whipped around him, his dark braid coiling and writhing from his head. Ranma thought she knew this man; something about him seemed so familiar, but also so lost to him.

"Just 'cause you've gotten a little tougher, Ryoga, doesn't make you invulnerable," the man declared, chest swelling.

Such strength. I remember that feeling.

The scene changed then, the background morphing and fading like ripples across a pond, to a new place, another fight, another day.

"You will never defeat me again, Ranma," yelled the feral Ryoga-thing as it shot a green bolt of energy at the pig-tailed one. He fought back with a blast of shining blue; the two flashes stuck each other and vanished.

"You should know by now you can never beat me, Ryoga," the glowing man mocked.

The rush of adrenalin in my veins. The thrill of the fight. Riding the razorblade of life at full speed with the wind in my hair.

Once again the world seemed to ripple, blurring and pulsating. When it cleared, the bandana-wearing animal loomed over his foe, who crouched on his knees, pushing himself up. He looked no less amazing, even upon his knees there was still fire in his eyes.

"I will never concede defeat," he cried. "Never, in any fight."

Never concede defeat. I was like that. NO. I AM like that. I am a warrior. Ranma mind screamed, and she felt strength flood through her limbs as she gripped her sheets. I do not bow, I will never bend and I will never break. I will fight.

Ranma roared like a dragon as she surged with life, flinging the bedclothes off. She swung, out of bed. Pain lanced through her wounds, but she did not care. She was awash with determination.

"I’ll show the bastard," she swore. I will never concede defeat, in any fight.

"Especially to Ryoga Hibiki," she growled, reaching for her crutches.


Ukyo:

The winter sun hung low in the sky. Bright shards of sunlight cut in through the glass of the windows, dust swilling in their path. The chairs, booths and tables of the restaurant cast long, harsh shadows across the floor. Sounds and scents filled the air, the noise of chewing and sizzling combined with the smoke billowing from the grill and the smell of frying batter.

Ukyo Kuonji sighed, wiping the sweat and condensed steam from her brow. This week had been the week from hell. Customers had flocked to her store in droves. Mental note: Never do any "buy one get another one for half price" offers ever again, she thought with a grimace. It had seemed such a good idea when she had read of it in her "How to run a successful restaurant business" book that she had purchased from Nabiki. But that, combined with her delicious (even if she said so herself) okonomiyaki, started a seemingly endless flood of hungry customers. The feeding frenzy was made worse by the mysterious three-day closing of the Nekohanten.

Ukyo grimaced. That worried her and sent alarms and claxons ringing in her ears. She just knew that Chinese bitch Shampoo was planning something, and she just knew that it involved her Ranchan.

"Excuse me, Miss," said one of the customers who sat at her counter, halfway through an Ucchan special. "It’s a duck."

Ukyo smiled apologetically at the man, not even watching her hands as they flipped over another batter base. "I’m sorry, sugar," she soothed. "I’m afraid we don't serve duck okonomiyaki. Perhaps you would prefer something with seafood?"

The customer blinked, and then cleared his throat. "Uh… no, Miss, you misunderstand. Not a duck okonomiyaki, an actual duck." He pointed at the floor beside his stool.

"Huh?" she muttered, walking around her grill to see where the man was indicating. Sure enough there was a duck, waddling about and bumping between the legs of the man's stool. It emitted a series of angry quacks and flapped its wings in a huff. The strangest thing was that the bird seemed to be wearing a miniature pair of bifocal spectacles.

"Mousse?" she asked.

At the sound of his name, the transformed Amazon turned towards her (well, vaguely in her direction) and squawked, once again shaking his wings furiously.

"QUACK! QUACK! QUACK!"

Ukyo blew out her breath in irritation. "Yeah, yeah quit your quacking. I'll go get the kettle."

The customer shook his head and returned to his food, trying to ignore the fact that the chef was carrying on a conversation with a mallard. Living in Nerima, people got extremely skilled at ignoring strange things.

The young cook returned behind the counter, pausing to spread a handful of noodles upon one of the Japanese pizzas, and crouched down to rummage amongst the ingredient cupboards beneath the hob. She extracted a large brass kettle, shook it to confirm that it was still full, and placed it on the stove to heat. That done, she took hold of Mousse by his tail feathers, to stop him from repeatedly walking into a table leg, and carried him into the back. To have a naked Chinese boy suddenly appear in front of her patrons would probably be bad for business, (well, for male patrons, anyway). Humming nonchalantly, she went back to the duties of a chef, spreading sauces and frying meat, until a shrill scream whistled through the air. Grabbing the kettle by the handle she carried it off behind her and doused the duck with the contents.

"DAMN, THAT'S HOT!" the boy cried as his form rippled, solidifying into that of a lean, muscular youth with long, dark locks, a pair of glasses hanging from one ear. Steam still billowed from his damp, reddened skin as he stretched the kinks from his joints. Then in a blur of motion he latched onto Ukyo, throwing his arms about her.

"Oh, Shampoo, you've forgiven me," he wept as he squeezed her tighter.

Ukyo began trembling with range, as she balled her hands into fists and ground her teeth together. Her face reddened in rage and her mouth frothed. Being glomped by naked and blind perverts was bad enough… But to be mistaken for that tart was unforgivable.

"I ain't Shampoo, you jackass," she screamed, bashing him over the head with the kettle still clutched in her hand.

Mousse gathered himself from the floor, and rubbed at the rapidly swelling lump on his skull. His mind processed the information, not Shampoo, female, bad grammar. Only one person it could be.

"Saotome, you wretch," he roared. "How dare you use your cursed form to impersonate my beloved Jade Princess? And I thought you were injured. Now you will…"

CLANG

Ukyo chastised him with the kettle once again, gifting him with another lump.

"Put your glasses on, you blind jerk," she snapped.

He did as she asked, fumbling the spectacles of his ear on onto his face, pushing them up the bridge of his nose with one finger. Once placed, he squinted through the huge, distended lenses.

"Kuonji, what are you doing in the Nekohanten?" he asked.

"You’re in my restaurant, fool," she sighed, rolling her eyes. In doing so she noticed another 'small' problem. "And put some clothes on, you jerk. This is a family place."

With a muffled squeak, Mousse made a rushed, clumsy attempt to cover himself. The skin of his entire body flushed bright red, but this time not from the heat. Turning his back on Ukyo, he used his Ki to open a small pouch-like rift, from which pulled a spare set of clothes, which he promptly threw himself into. Now dressed in his usual attire of black pants, slippers and the characteristic patterned white robes, he spun back around to apologise to Ukyo.

"I’m sorry about that, and thanks for the water," he said with a small bow.

"You're welcome, I guess," Ukyo replied, slowly calming down.

A slow pause hung out, the sound of chopsticks clanking against plates seemed louder in the silence between them.

"Yeah… well…" Mousse said, "I should really get back to the restaurant before the rush starts." With a flourish of his robes, he turned and walked out through the front.

Ukyo started the return to her grill, when she froze dead. Some of the fumbled blind words Mousse had said began to sink in. Lunging into the restaurant, she grabbed the tail of the myopic martial artist's robes, and yanked hard. Mousse spun like a top, whirling around as Ukyo pulled a spatula from her shirt and pressed the razor sharp edge to the boy's throat.

"Did you say that Ranma was wounded?" she asked him though gritted teeth.

Any shock Mousse felt at her sudden wrath and threat was hidden behind his glasses and icy-cool demeanour. The customers did not even look up from their food.

"Yes," he replied.

"What did you and your purple-haired whore do to him?"

Mousse eyes sparked through his lenses and he growled the insult to his beloved. He raised a billowing sleeve, and in a flash withdrew a set of knives, fanning them out in his hands like a set of playing cards.

"Do not call her a whore," he hissed.

Ukyo smirked. "Nice trick with the knives, but it's my blade at your neck. As skilled as you are, I doubt you can do anything before I cut you." She applied a little more pressure to her spatula.

"Besides," she continued. "You should want to help me. Neither of us want the two of them together, so we should work together to foil any plan she and the old ghoul cooked up."

Mousse seemed to consider this, then nodded, as much as he could with a razor-bladed cooking implement at his carotid artery. With a metallic scraping sound, the daggers in his hand vanished.

"But he's not hurt because of Shampoo or the old bat," he said. "In fact, they helped him after his injury. Shampoo was quite upset." The last part was said in a tone loaded with bitterness.

"Then what the hell are we fighting for?" she yelled, pushing Mousse away and tucking the spatula back into her shirt. "Now tell me what happened to Ranchan."

Mousse told her. Her jaw dropped and her hands trembled.

"A broken leg," she gasped. Ranma had fought many battles, but had never received such damage. And the wounds he did take he usually bounced right back from.

"Who would do such a thing, even in a duel? That honourless bastard."

To that Mousse snorted emphatically, and grimaced as if there was a foul taste in hi mouth. "It was only a sense of honour that kept Ranma from ending up worse. A man of Loaf's skill could easily have torn Ranma apart; he only struck with such force because Saotome was too stubborn to know when he was beaten."

"You mean Ranma could have been killed?" Ukyo said in a small, weak voice.

"If Loaf were a more unscrupulous person, then easily," Mousse said frankly.

Ukyo shivered, her whole body seemed cold. Icy seemed to have sunk into her heart, and her chest throbbed with pain. The very though of Ranma's death was agony to her. It was the theme of nightmares, to have her light taken from her. Grabbing hold of the nearest spatula she began clanging it against her grill.

"EXCUSE ME. DUE TO A PERSONAL EMERGENCY, THE UCCHAN IS CLOSING. YOU WILL NOT BE CHARGED FOR YOUR MEAL. PLEASE EXCEPT MY APOLOGIES, AND LEAVE IMMEDIATELY."

The patrons looked at each other bemusedly, wondering why the place was closing. The lack of movement was far from satisfactory to the brown-haired girl, who withdrew her large combat spatula and slammed it onto her counter like a thunder crack.

"THAT MEANS NOW, PEOPLE!" she bellowed.

The customers bolted from theirs seats and out of the door, not willing to face the wrath of the spatula-wielding chef.

"What’s with her?" one asked his companion.

"Dunno. Must be PMS," the other replied.

Ukyo decided she did not have time to kill him just then; there were more important things to deal with. Ranma. She knew he was alive, she knew he was going to heal. But that did not matter to her heart. She just had to see him, had to touch him.

"You too, duck boy," she said to Mousse, who nodded and left. She followed him to the door, locking it behind her, and together they bounded onto the roof before vaulting away in different directions. Ukyo taking the direct route to the Tendo dojo, jumping from building to building with trained grace.

When she arrived, she burst through the door, not bothering to knock, not bothering to wait and be invited in. The yearning to see Ranma was too great for that. The simply grabbed the handle and tore open the door, almost barging into Kasumi in her haste.

"Oh, Ukyo. I haven't seen you in a while," the eldest Tendo girl greeted with a welcoming smile. Which then faded to be replaced with a stern frown. "You really should've knocked. It wasn't very polite to barge in."

A frown from the motherly Kasumi seemed to reduce Ukyo to a small child, shuffling nervously with guilty, downcast eyes.

"I’m sorry, Kasumi," she muttered. "I just had to…" her reason for being there flooded back to her and she began looking around with darting eyes. "Where is he?"

"Who?" Kasumi asked, surprised by Ukyo's suddenly wild expression.

"Ranma!" she cried.

Kasumi recoiled at the desperation in Ukyo's voice. Ukyo saw this, and winced herself. Taking hold of her passions, she forced herself to calm down.

"Please, Kasumi, where is he?" she asked softly.

"Why do you care?" asked another more hostile voice.

Ukyo stared at Akane as she descended the staircase. The shorthaired girl glared back vehemently through narrowed eyes. She moved to face down Ukyo, stepping in front of Kasumi to bar the chef's path through the house.

"I’m his fiancée," Ukyo responded stubbornly. How dare Akane ask that of her? The tomboy before her beat Ranma more than Ryoga did; if Loaf hadn't have injured him, Akane would have.

"Then where have you been? The fight was a week and a half ago." The other girl jibed.

Ukyo snarled. The other girl was right. She should have been there sooner. It should have been her at his bedside, not the Chinese harlot.

"Well, no one was particularly forthcoming with the information." It was no excuse, but it all she could think of.

"And it took you until now to realise he was gone? What tipped you off, the fact he hasn't stuffed his face at your place recently?" Akane sneered.

"Look, uncute one," Ukyo growled, pulling her combat spatula from her bandolier. "Are you going to let me see Ranma, or do I have to force my way through?"

"I don't think that will be necessary," Nodoka cut in, placing a hand on Akane's shoulder to placate her. The Tendo girl scowled at Ukyo, but backed off.

"Auntie Saotome, how is he?" Ukyo asked, noticing how Nodoka winced at the familial reference. If Akane gets to call her Auntie, then so do I. The fat blob engaged me to him too.

"He’s being a pigheaded moron," Nodoka said bluntly. "But physically he's fine. For now."

"What do you mean 'For now'?" Icy fear wormed into Ukyo's breast again. Had he been hurt more than Mousse had said? Was it serious? Would he be okay?

Nodoka sniffed in contempt. "The fool has been training non-stop for the last four days. His leg still hasn't healed; he may end up damaging it beyond repair. His arm is still at risk, too, even if it does seem to be better."

"Why would he do that?"

"Because he's a pride-blinded fool!" Nodoka snapped, the older woman's hands balled into fists, yanking at the fabric of her kimono. "Ever since that blasted Hibiki boy visited, he's been consumed with training. Probably some macho rivalry thing. Men!" she huffed.

It seemed to be hypocrisy beyond belief that the woman who made her son promise under the threat of death to become a man, would complain about the famous male characteristic, stubbornness. Of course, Ukyo did not mention this; she thought it unwise to anger her future mother-in-law.

"While his arm was still injured, he spent the day doing one handed push-ups and thrusting his good arm into fires to pull out chestnuts. God alone knows why." Nodoka no longer seemed to be talking to the girls before her; rather she just seemed to be complaining to the air in the typical manner of an angry mother. "Now that his arm has healed, he refuses to use his crutches, spending all day hopping about on the one leg. Says it will improve his balance."

"Well, at least he's active, Auntie," Kasumi interjected, hoping to calm the Saotome matriarch.

"Yes, at least he's active," Nodoka agreed. "And this constant training is better than his moping and anger."

Ukyo resisted the urge to gawp or gasp. "Ranma moping?" she said incredulously. The Ranma she knew did not mope. He was strong, a person who rolled with life's punches before hitting back, giving as good as he got.

"You sound surprised," Nodoka said dryly. "Yes, Ranma moped and sulked like a child. A very disappointing display of his manliness."

Ukyo heard the doubt in Ranma's mother’s voice and leaped to defend her man.

"My Ranchan is a true man," she said proudly.

The baleful glare that Mother Saotome then rounded on her made Ukyo want to shrink up and hide in her clothes. She forced herself to stand tall, despite the chills running down her spine.

"Who said he was yours?" Nodoka asked in a soft, steely tone.

"I’m his fiancée," Ukyo said with a defiant fire in her brown eyes. "The fat oaf you call a husband saw to that."

The anger in Nook's eyes only intensified at the mention of Genma. Her hands were white-knuckled, as she looked ready to tear her kimono to shreds.

"The promise to unite with the Tendo family came first, and takes precedence. Ranma will wed Akane," Mrs. Saotome spat.

In the back of her mind, part of her noticed that she had heard no words of denial from the short-haired Tendo girl, and that part was scared. The rest of her rose up proudly to face the older woman before her, and would not be cowed.

"That oath didn't take much of a precedence when Genma ran off with my dowry." Ukyo strengthened her own glare and fought on, matching Nodoka's resolve.

"You will be paid back. I will make sure of it. But Ranma must marry Akane," the older woman promised, and that promise only made Ukyo even more furious. She would not just be paid off, as if her emotions could be bought.

"I do not want paying," she hissed. "I just want Ranma. That's all I'll ever want."

Both Akane and Kasumi gasped at her words, but she barely heard it. She kept her eyes fixed on Nodoka as the other woman's lips curled into a mocking smirk, one that reminded of the smile Ranma wore when he fought, just more sinister.

"I’m afraid what you want doesn't matter, my dear," Nodoka said in a voice that dripped with acid.

Ukyo growled, her grip tightening on her spatula. "Does what Ranma want matter?" she bit out. "In the end, it's his choice."

Nodoka trembled with rage as she drew herself up. "My son will do what honour demands!" she roared. But there was a vacancy to her tone that made Ukyo think that the woman was trying to convince herself more than Ukyo. Still seething, Nodoka spun on her heel and left.

"Way to get in with the family," Akane said acerbically.

Ukyo turned to the other girl with a smirk, and a shrug. "Just had to let her know that I wouldn't give up. In the end it's Ranma's choice."

Akane responded with her own smirk. "We’ll see," was all she said, before she too left.

Kasumi responded with a typical, " Oh my," then turned to Ukyo, regarding the chef with a curiously cocked head.

"That," she said in awed tone, "took a lot of courage, Ukyo."

Ukyo blushed from the praise, once again feeling like a small child, who had just received a pat on the head by her mother.

"Thanks," she said sheepishly.

Kasumi quickly replaced her warm, indifferent smile. "Ranma’s out in the garden," she informed Ukyo. "I’m sure he'd love to see you."

Ukyo nodded her thanks before following the young woman through the house and to the garden. And there he was, just as Kasumi had said.

He was poised on one leg, the raised limb wrapped in bandages and splints. Yet his posture was still proud as a peacock, as he boxed with shadows. A thin sheen of sweat covered his bare chest, drops of moisture spitting from his arms with every punch he threw into the air. Despite the seasons' chill, Ranma wore nothing but a pair of loose blue shorts decorated with a script-like pattern. His raven bangs fluttered in the gusts which occasionally battered his body, but he was indifferent, his eyes and mind focussed on the imaginary opponent he had conjured up before him.

Ukyo paused, content to watch him work. Her eyes tracked every curve and line of his form hungrily, her breath catching as his muscles bunched with his crosses and uppercuts. Even injured, his grace and strength was a thing of beauty. To Ukyo, nothing was as close to perfection as okonomiyaki and Ranma. Hmm, Okonomiyaki sauce and Ranma…! She shook her head to clear her mind of that line of thought, one part of her brain cunningly storing the idea for later. As much as she liked to play the voyeur, that was not what she came for.

"Heya, Ranchan," she greeted with her standard "cute fiancée smile".

Ranma glanced over his shoulder for a moment, to identify her as she approached. His hand form switched as he continued his assault, now striking with bunched fingers at his shadow-enemy's temples, snarling with every strike.

"Hi, Ucchan," he said absently.

"So," she said, seeking a thread of conversation. "Back to training, I see."

"Yeah," he said. "Well, couldn't just stand around idle, could I? Not that I can stand around easily," he added, his voice tinged with a bitter tang.

"Strange," she remarked dryly. "That's not what I had heard."

The speed of his fists slowed momentarily as he sighed, and grimaced in a mix of annoyance and sheepish abashment. "I see you've spoken to Akane already," he muttered.

"I have, but it was your mother who imparted the information," she admitted, trying to keep the hostility from her voice.

She knew she had failed when he started, his attack pattern and stance wavering. "She's been a little moody recently," he said. "Mostly because of my big trap. But please try and get on with her, Ucchan."

"She doesn't make that very easy, Ranchan," she replied indignantly.

"But please try, for me. It's important that you two get along," he pleaded, in a soft but warm voice.

"It’s that important to you?" she asked shyly. Her heart throbbed in her chest so that she could hear the roar of her pulse in her ears. She looked downwards hastily, pretending to adjust her white sash and hoping her face was not as red as the warmth of her skin suggested. Her mind spun and her stomach was queasy as she imagined the reason why he would want his mother and his fiancée to be friends. Her face grew hotter and she coughed to cover her rising blush.

"Of course it's important. I want my mother and my best friend to get along," he said, naïve as always.

Ukyo's embarrassed blushes crumpled to a wide-eyed blanch, as if the colour had been drawn from her face. His best friend! She had walked blindly into that one, setting herself up for the fall. The chef berated herself mentally for jumping after dreams like a giddy little girl. She clenched her teeth as she bit back her annoyance at her blind betrothed. She glared back up at him, ready to administer some scathing comment. But once she saw the warm and sincere smile lighting his face, her anger deflated from her body like the air from a balloon. Damn the man, but he could melt her heart with a smile.

"I’ll try," she promised sweetly before she knew she had spoken. Bastard, she mentally swore again.

"Thanks, Ucchan," he said with a smile, and he resumed his training this time striking with pointed fingers in the snake fist form, his hands a swift moving blur.

"Ranma?" she said, after a silence covered them as the pig-tailed boy disappeared back into his martial arts. The angry snarl returning to his face, the undisguised fury in his eyes sending chills down Ukyo's spine.

He answered with an absent-minded grunt, still absorbed by his shadow boxing. Ukyo growled in frustration, clenching her fists at her sides.

"Damn it, Ranma, can you stop flinging punches into the air so that we can have a sodding conversation?" she cried.

Ranma paused mid-swing, craning his neck to look over his shoulder with surprised eyes. He saw the frown of womanly impatience on her face (one that she had practiced just to make sure that she had all the tricks of the female trade), and his head cocked to one side, as he seemed to consider something.

"Well, I guess I can take a short break," he conceded. "But only for a short while. I gotta train."

Ranma bent on his good leg, lowering himself to the grass. He trembled slightly with effort as more and more of his weight was gradually focussed on the limb. Ukyo offered a hand to help him down, but he slapped it away with a sneer. She frowned in anger at his stupidity, but mostly from hurt. Leaning back to brace himself on his arms as brought his bottom to sit on the ground, growling in pain as the healed but still tender bones of his forearm strained beneath the pressure. Once down, he shuffled into a comfortable sitting position, his injured leg laid out straight in front of him. Ukyo joined him; folding her legs beneath her and feeling the dew-moist earth give beneath her knees.

"C’mon, out with it, Ranma," she said. "Why the obsessive training? You should be resting your injury."

"Yeah, I'm sure they'd all like that," he growled.

Ukyo was shocked by the naked anger in his voice. Cold, hard, and deadly, like a steel blade. This was not his usual cocky determination. This was rage bordering on hate. He was not looking at her, his eyes were staring of into the distance, but they shone like blue flames, roaring with a fire that built inside him, ready to erupt.

"Who are they?" she finally asked.

"Everyone who wants to see me fall. Kuno, Mousse, Herb, Ryoga."

His voice was filled with poison as he spat the lost boy's name. Ukyo flinched at the bitterness of the word. Despite their furious rivalry, she knew that Ranma had never felt any animosity towards the overemotional youth. In fact, Ranma had even admitted that he respected Ryoga as a martial artist and a friend. Now she was genuinely scared for her directionless friend.

"Calm down, Ranma," she said softly. "You’re starting to sound paranoid." Leaning over she placed a comforting hand upon the pigtailed boys shoulder. He glared at the touching limb, but after a moment she felt the tenseness flood from him.

"This has to do with that duel you had, doesn't it." It was not a question, just a statement. She already knew the answer. "What did he do to you?" she murmured, barely restraining the urge to take him in her arms and hold him tight, to brush his hair from his eyes and sooth him like a child… like a lover.

"He did nothing," Ranma replied. "Nothing but show me what true martial arts is. And treat me like an ignorant novice."

"What are you babbling about? You are a true martial artist, and no novice, Ranma."

"Compared to Loaf, I am. When we fought, he did so at my level. At first he used no ki techniques, no battle aura. He fought me purely hand to hand, and although I was better in such a fight, he still could have beaten me in an instant in his first attack. But no! He fought me on my terms. He gave me a chance. Do you know how that feels, Ukyo? It felt like charity, as if he was taking pity on me." Ranma's voice had faded into a whisper. Ukyo was speechless; she could not think of what to say. There was nothing to be said.

"Eventually he had to use his power," Ranma continued. "But I'm sure it was not even half of what he could do." He paused to sigh. "Loaf even saved me. My leg was broken, my arm was twisted, but I still tried to fight. He knocked me out to stop be doing myself even greater injury in some stubborn attempt to win. I heard him apologise to me, right before I blacked out. He said he was sorry."

In a sudden burst of self-hating rage, Ranma pounded his fist into the dirt. His strength made the ground tremble beneath her.

"So what if he beat you, Ranma? You're young. You'll get better," Ukyo soothed, giving his shoulder a friendly squeeze while yearning to do more.

"It’s not like that, Ucchan," he whispered, just loud enough for her to hear. "He didn't have three hundred years experience on me. His skill was simply better than mine. His art was superior to the Anything-Goes style… The style I dedicated my life to is nothing more than a bunch of underhanded tricks. For a true martial artist like Loaf, it is less than nothing."

"That’s bull, Ranma," Ukyo replied. "You’ve fought Saffron and Herb, princes with great powers, and won. You've beaten Ryoga, Mousse and Kuno countless times, and each is a powerful martial artist in his own right. How could you do that and not be a true martial artist?"

"Now you see why I must train," he cried, again punching his fist into the dirt. "Every day I lie idle, the others are circling overhead like vultures, hoping for me to get weak so they can strike, so they can say they have beaten me." He raised his clenched fist before him staring at it intently; balling in the fingers so tight the hand trembled. "They won't beat me, I won't let them. I'll get better and then I'll take them out."

"What do you mean, Ranchan?" Ukyo asked in a small voice, scared by the deadly intensity of Ranma's voice.

Ranma looked at her, the blue fire in his eyes roaring in the irises. "If there is anything I've learnt from this experience, it's that I'm a long way from being the best. In order to become the best, I must take no prisoners. I must fight hard, and fight to win. And I will." His voice hardened like forged iron. "I will be the best, and I will let nothing stop me from that."

"Ranchan," she said softly, trying to calm the raging youth. "Don’t you think that is a cocky presumption? No one can be the best. Perfection is impossible; anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant as well as arrogant."

"It’s a matter of pride," he proclaimed fiercely. "A matter of honour. And honour must be defended, no matter the cost."

Ukyo watched the flames consume his eyes at those words, and felt an icy fear slide down her spine at the vow hidden within them. Hastily she jumped to her feet, not even bothering to brush the grass and dirt from her clothes.

"Well R… Ranchan, I've got a… a restaurant to run, so I'll leave you to your training." Business would be slow for the rest of the day after the way she threw out her customers earlier, but she needed an excuse. She needed to leave. There was not another second that she could bare to be around that angry shell of Ranma Saotome.

"But Ucchan, I thought you wanted to talk?" he said, confusion thick in his tone.

"Maybe later. I've got to get back," she replied shortly. Turning her back on those blue eyes, now dulled with bemusement, but that a moment ago had held a deadly, almost sinister light. She left Ranma sitting there, turning her back on him.

That was not the man I fell in love with, Ukyo declared silently, as her heart broke and sank to her stomach.

If only she knew that Akane and Shampoo had thought the exact same sentiment.

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: Well, I've read your reviews, and can only say thanks for the praise, comments and requests for the story to continue. Also, I have noticed a lot of comments about Akane tearing at Ranma's cast. <Author falls to his knees and begins kow-towing to the readers> I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. You are all completely justified in your views about that part of the scene; who knows what I was thinking when I wrote that. Bad beer-monster. Bad, bad beer-monster. I really must have been drunk not to notice such crappy writing.

But what's done is done; all I can hope is to write rest of the story well enough and make it interesting enough that you forget my little oversight. After all, it's only one paragraph in who knows how many… although it did almost ruin a scene I was otherwise proud of, unlike this chapter, which really did not come out as I would have liked -- especially towards the end. Now that I'm at university, I have little time to read anything but textbooks and equations, and that makes my own writing suffer. But tell me your opinions, particularly on my depiction of Ryoga. I've never written from his viewpoint or previously included him except in passing, so I'm anxious to know if I've captured his character. Also, my writing of Ukyo… Although I do not wish to include too much romance or waff in the story (yet), I feel that the girls' feelings towards Ranma are important factors in how they act, and I was wondering if this is a good description of Ukyo's emotions. I've tried to write her feelings as being as strong as Shampoo's, but different. Less lust and desire, but more yearning for his presence and happiness which manifests itself as the "friend and confidant" role (A kind of Dawson and Joey -- for any DC fans -- relationship. Or an early Kenshin and Kaoru.) I hope this is an accurate depiction of Ukyo and her feelings. But as I said, I don't want to stress match-ups too much in this fic. If you want to read more on my Ranma/Ukyo ideals, read "On My Own".

Yes, I know that was a shameless plug. Sue me.

Thanks,
Beer-monster
2002-12-10

Chapter 8
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