A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ characters property of Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
Book I: The Mantis Saga
Chapter Ten: Hard Partings
The water spat and burbled in the pot, steam billowing in pale, hazy clouds that rose and condensed on the ceiling. The bubbling of the hot liquid was just one of the many sources of the noise and heat that filled the kitchen. The ovens hummed and the flames on the stove and grills fluttered. Knives thumped rhythmically against the chopping boards, and occasionally the shrill whine of the blender pierced the air as tomatoes and other ingredients were liquefied to be turned into sauce. An old, beat-up radio sat on a shelf amongst plastic bowls and colanders, warbling out a bouncy and chirpy pop tune amid crackles of static.
Shampoo tossed a dishful of noodles into the boiling water to soften, then raked a hand through her glossy lavender locks. She waved away the steam and moved swiftly away from the pot, sure that too much steam would ruin her complexion.
"Shampoo, the wontons are ready for table six," her Grandmother called across the room, indicating the golden pastry parcels on the tray held in Mousse's hands. The Chinese boy wobbled as he set the tray down, almost dropping it as he squinted through glasses fogged by steam.
"Yes, Grandmother," she replied, and put the wontons on to the plate that had been readied with a dish of dipping sauce and a small garnishing salad. Taking up the plate and a bowl heaped with spiced ramen, she quickly fixed on her polite, vacant "waitress smile" and backed through the door into the restaurant.
She placed the two dishes before the pair of power-lunching businessmen, ignoring the lingering gazes of both men as they passed over her firm bosom and rear, framed perfectly by the silk of her red blouse. It was something that she had gotten used to. Japanese men, for all their reservations, did not seem to know about subtlety. Nor did the women, who responded to their partners' appreciative gazes with angry stares towards the source of the distraction. That bothered Shampoo a little more. She knew the women of Japan thought her a slut, and that she wore her clothes in a deliberate attempt to tease men. That was not true; she simply liked the feel of silk upon her skin. It was the material's fault that it did so much to accentuate her figure. It did bring in the tips however, and the life of a teenage girl was not cheap. Besides, why should she not feel flattered by the men's interest? It made her feel feminine and sexy, and what was wrong with that?
They could look, but not touch. Several alcohol- and hormone-fuelled lechers had found that out the hard way. Broken fingers healed badly! Only one man was allowed to touch her.
As if summoned by the yearning in her heart that awoke whenever she thought of him, the man she knew to be her soulmate entered the restaurant. He flowed through the door with the poise of trained grace, and her heart melted within her chest. He was beautiful. The lights of the restaurant glimmered across the satin of his shirt and disappeared in to the black of his hair. His blue-grey eyes shone beneath the dark bangs that dusted his brows. He quickly located her and he greeted her with a small, friendly smile. When his gaze settled upon her, there was a spark in the depths of his irises while his pupils widened. His eyes seemed to be drinking in the sight of her.
Shampoo could feel a giddy, girlish joy suffuse her entire being. Her soul seemed to be resonating inside of her, shimmering and glowing. She moved across to him, telling herself firmly that Amazon warriors did not skip, no matter how glad they were, or how perfect their husband.
"Ranma come to see Shampoo?" She beamed. Smiling broadly, she enveloped him in her arms. She prepared herself for the rejection, the flurried babbling and hasty attempts to pry her off of him. Each time was a small blow to her confidence, but it was worth it just to hold him for a moment. Yet it did not come. Instead, Ranma's hands went to her sides and held them, and for a brief moment she swore she felt him hug back. But then he pushed her away gently and looked her in the eyes.
"Shampoo, can we talk for a moment?"
Shampoo was torn in two. One half of her was exultant with joy; Ranma had come to see her. Not to con a free meal or to beg teaching from her grandmother, but to speak to her. The other part of her was curious and scared, as Ranma's voice had seemed unnervingly empty.
"Of course, Ranma. We go to Shampoo's room."
She leaned over and took his hand in hers, leading him through the restaurant. She heard the male customers grumble at her obvious affection for the youth, one of them muttering curses about "pigtailed pretty-boys". Shampoo barely noticed, absorbed with the wonderful fact that Ranma's hand seemed to fit hers perfectly.
"Grandmother, I take break. I talk with Ranma," she told the old women who hopped around the kitchen on her gnarled staff.
Cologne turned, and regarded the two of them. Her thin eyebrow quirked at the sight of their clasped hands; but changed as she looked at Ranma. The matriarch stared at the dark-haired martial artist with a long, measuring glare. And Ranma met her ancient eyes fully. Then he finally nodded, a reply to some hidden, unspoken question.
"We're not too busy, so take as much time as you need, dear," Cologne said with a smile at her great-granddaughter. "Besides, I can get Mr Part-time here to earn his keep," she added with a nod at Mousse.
The blind boy jerked upright from where his hands were buried to the elbows in filthy dishwater and growled at a shelf of cooking utensils.
"You expect me to stand aside and let that bastard Ranma go into Shampoo's room alone, where he could molest her at any time?" he cried.
"No, fool. I expect you do stop wasting time and do some work," Cologne snapped. "That's what I am paying you for, after all."
"You don't pay me a yen."
"That's because you do nothing to earn it. Now hurry up with those pots. While Shampoo and son-in-law chat, you will have to cover for her, and try not to get the male customers mixed up with the females like before, you blind fool."
Mousse muttered darkly beneath his breath, the few words that Shampoo caught demonstrated a wide knowledge of the coarser expletives in the Mandarin language. But the sadistic side of her nature rose and would not let her leave the room without adding a swift kick to Mousse's fragile ego.
"You forget, Mousse, Ranma is real man and can do whatever he wants to Shampoo. I know he do it well." It had the desired effect on Mousse, as the boys face flushed red and his speech was reduced to angry spluttering. But it was not just for Mousse. She snuck a sidelong glance at Ranma, whose cheeks were also reddened in an embarrassed blush. She winked at him, and his face glowed like a sunset and he stared suddenly at the ceiling. Well, she had to try, and she never had been one for the subtle approach. And her own desire would not allow it. Even now, seeing the conflicting cuteness of his blush and the masculine bunching of his muscles beneath his shirt seemed very erotic. There were times she wanted him so much it hurt.
She wanted his body. His heart. His everything.
In a land far from the home she loved, where the populace thought her little more than another unwanted gaijin, it was the only thing that gave her the strength to stand at all.
"Erm Shampoo?" Ranma tapped her gently on the shoulder, shaking her from her reverie.
"Oh. Right. I sorry. I miles away." And it was very nice. "We go talk in room now."
Taking his hand again, she continued on the way, ascending the narrow wooden stairs that led above the restaurant to the humble living quarters. Once again, even such minute contact sent ripples of electricity through her. As they walked, she wondered what it was that he wanted to say. She had hopes that it would be those three little words she yearned for. But she could not guess. Ranma was often full of surprises. And besides, she was no Seer; she did not know what the future would bring. All she knew was that Ranma was with her now, and that was enough to know that she would make it through whatever fate cast at her.
When they reached the room, she tried to lead him to the bed, the conniving part of her brain orchestrating a plan of sit, snuggle, then sex. But Ranma blushed a scarlet sunset as he thought of the two of them on the bed together, and wrenched his hand away as if it burned. It was all Shampoo could do not to let her disappointment and hurt show, but still she could feel her lips pursing.
"What Ranma want?" she asked, perhaps a bit harshly.
"Um well " he fumbled; his eyes scanned the room, glancing over every object and refusing to meet her own. "You see I we "
"Ranma, you is babbling," said Shampoo.
"I am not ba " His angry protest trailed off weakly as he realised that he was indeed babbling. Then he collapsed into a sigh, shoulders drooping. He muttered something beneath his breath that she could not make out, and clenched his fists. Raising his head to meet her gaze he dropped his bomb.
"Shampoo, I'm leaving Nerima."
Her heart lurched, but she fought it down and instead let her curiosity pique. She appraised him thoughtfully, dimly aware of her eyebrow rising. He watched her keenly, through narrowed eyes, gauging her reaction and bracing himself against it.
"Why?" she asked.
"I have to go and test my skills in the world," he answered, still watching her response wearily. He seemed mildly surprised when she just nodded, which in turn seemed odd to Shampoo. He had obviously thought she would protest, but why would she? She was a warrior; she knew well the need for continual tests and challenges in the life of a martial artist, and found his desire to seek new horizons admirable, and quite sexy.
"Okay, Ranma," she said happily, smiling broadly.
Moving swiftly, she opened her wardrobe; grabbed an empty but expansive travel pack and threw it onto her bed. It was soon joined by a rolled-up sleeping bag, several sets of loose but comfortable clothes — nothing too fine; after all, she would be fighting a lot — several bras, and her favourite sword; the metal of the broad, curved blade sparkled in the light from the window.
Ranma had not moved during this maelstrom of clothes and fabric. He still stood, ramrod straight, gawping as she fumbled through clothes and weaponry, mumbling to herself about food supplies and sanitary pads. Finally he swallowed and spoke. "Shampoo, you're not coming with me."
She stiffened, jerking upright before turning slowly to face the pigtailed boy.
"What?" she asked blandly.
"You can't come with me."
"Shampoo must come with you. Shampoo is wife," she declared firmly. She knew it would not work — he had been denying their marriage as a backwater, nonsense custom for years. Why would he stop now? But she had to try try to make him see that to her, it was something far greater than blind obedience to law. Just make him agree. Oh dear spirits; make him agree. Don't let him leave me.
The spirits of her ancestors either were not listening, or were choosing to spite her. Ranma simply frowned, his face hardening to a granite carving of firm resolve.
"No, Shampoo," he said. "I'm going alone."
Her heart did not lurch this time. It tore apart, as if someone had thrust a sword through her breast and twisted it savagely. She did not notice her knees buckle as if reduced to water, or the bounce of springs as she fell numbed onto the bed. Her whole mind was focussed on stopping the tears that welled in her eyes. But she failed, and she felt them run hot down her cheeks.
"Shampoo, you can't come with me," he said again.
"I hear you first time!" she near-screamed at him, berating herself a weakling to let a man do this to her. To remember her training as a warrior, not to let her emotions run wild. But this was not just any man. Nor were they just any emotions, or just any tears. She knew he had repeated himself because he thought she was crying in attempt to get make him let her join him. Not this time; this time these were real tears and she could not make them stop.
She watched her dreams of the future shatter and fall, like the shards of a broken mirror. All her hopes broke, tumbling away the pieces slipping through her fingers and cutting her hopes of sharing the rest of her life with him. The vision of the home that they would build together, the children they would have. The wish that when she drew her last breath, she would die with him, together, held in each others arms.
Suddenly he was there, squatting on his haunches and looking in her eyes. His visage wavered through as her eyes welled. He was still heartachingly handsome. She hated that. Why could he not for once look ugly? Why did he have to be so beautiful when he left her?
"C'mon, Shampoo," he said softly, gently nudging her shoulder. "Surely you can get around that law somehow."
Anger sparked through her. Law! He still through that this was all because of a stupid law? The audacity of the man knows no bounds, she thought. At that moment, she wondered if the jerk had a heart, if he could casually dismiss her ardour as the product of tradition. Her hand rose, before she could stop it, and swung with all her strength at his face. Not that she tried to stop it; he deserved it. Ranma saw the blow coming and braced himself, but he did not move, obviously agreeing with her.
The fist stopped the width of a hair from his cheek, halting of its own volition. Her fingers uncurled, and pressed gently against his skin. She ran her touch down the contours of his face, delighting in the feel of him. She reached his chin and gently tilted his face up so that she could lock her gaze with his. She stared into the depths of his eyes, watching them as they changed from watery blue to a hazy grey as they light took them. The colour of the mountain mist as it meets the sea. Her hand started stroking his face again, brushing the bangs from his face.
"Ranma," she said softly. "Shampoo say she love you many time. What I do to make you believe Shampoo?" The question was directed inwardly as much as at the boy in front of her.
"Shampoo " he started, his voice quavering audibly. She pressed her fingers to his lips.
"No. Ranma listen," she told him. "You is one for Shampoo. You is only one for Shampoo. Not care about law. Only care about Ranma. Love Ranma, not old law. Would love Ranma without law, whether wrong or right. Shampoo hope to love Ranma all Shampoo life.
"If it only law, Shampoo would not have stay in Nerima. Would not be crying on bed. Would not dream of day you make Shampoo wife. Ranma name would not resound in Shampoo head and heart. You is one."
"Shampoo. You can't say that. I can't say that," he replied, breathless and shaken. "I'm a fool. I care about you — and the others — deeply, but I don't even know what love is."
She looked into his eyes again, and forced a small smile. "You go then. You travel and seek honour. And when you know what love is being, you come back for Shampoo."
"But what if "
"No!" she cried, her voice breaking as emotion consumed her. Grabbing hold of his shirt she pulled him to her. She seized his eyes with her own, which were filled with watery tears yet blazed with fiery passion. "You no say that you no pick Shampoo. You no say that you pick another. It not happen." She was aware of the shrill, desperate sound of her own ragged voice. But she did not care. She had to make him see. "You is one for Shampoo. You is made for Shampoo, and I is made for you. If not, then why does heart tell Shampoo that is? You come back for Shampoo."
Unable to take it the strain of her passions roaring through her soul, she collapsed into against Ranma's chest. His arms came around her slowly, tentatively, as if he were unsure what he was supposed to do with them. But even so Shampoo exhilarated in the sensation of being wrapped in his arms, and listened to his heart beat in his chest.
"Can Ranma not stay? Is any way that Shampoo can stay with Ranma, in Ranma arms?"
He inhaled deeply; she could feel his chest expand against her, then sighed. "No, Shampoo," he said sadly.
Shampoo nodded. She had known the answer even as she asked the question. She pressed herself tighter against his chest to smother a sob. He gave her a gentle squeeze, and then unwound his arms from her.
She held on, though, hugging him close. "Two month, Ranma. Shampoo give you two month, and if I no see you, I come find you. I promise." Then she let go of him too.
Rising smoothly to his feet, he brushed himself off and backed away, turning to seize the door handle. Looking back over his shoulder he smiled at her, a warm and sincere grin.
"I'll be stopping by from time to time, so I'll see you later, Shampoo."
Shampoo smiled back, her tears halting. She once again looked like her usual confident and outgoing self. Beaming at him, she raked a hand through her lavender hair and waved.
"Yes, you be back to choose Shampoo. Or Shampoo come to you," she promised solemnly.
Ranma just kept on smiling and slipped out of the door.
Shampoo fell back and curled up on her bed. The tears returned and she could not gather the strength to stop them. She felt numb and breathless. He had only just gone through the door. But he was gone. She did not know when she would see him again. She may have promised to search for him, but that was no guarantee that she would find him. It was that unsure doubt that hurt her deeply, much more than the simple fact that he was gone. Her body and soul ached without the comfort that she could see him every day, just by riding over to the Tendo's with a bowl of ramen. And one question still remained.
How was she to find the strength to stand each day?
Ranma closed the door behind him and sagged against it. He felt tired and he ached all over, as if he had been used as Ryoga's personal punching bag. That had gone much worse than he had ever feared. The whole ordeal had been torture, as if his soul had been set onto the rack and pulled until it popped apart at the seams. Shampoo. He had thought she would be the easy one, just a couple of threats of violence, some beating with a large melon-hammer before a swift run from some love potion. He had not expected the girl to just collapse like that, as if he had sucked the air form her lungs and the blood from her veins.
"What's wrong, son-in-law?" asked an age-thinned voice. Cologne hopped from the shadows, her withered face blank and firm. "You seem surprised."
Shit! Now I'm in for it. "You know? You heard?" was all he said.
"That you're leaving? Yes, I know. But I only caught the last part of your little drama." She looked behind him at the door, staring as if she could see past the chipped paint to the room's heartbroken occupant. "Quite a passionate one, isn't she?" she asked.
Ranma gave a mute grunt in response, glancing back at the wood panels of the portal he leant against. There was nothing he could think to say; his brain seemed functionless.
"Hmm. You didn't know?" she asked, a gnarled lip curling up into a smile. She seemed amused, and her tone was layered with acerbic smugness.
Ranma glared back. How could the old bat find this funny? "Didn't know what?" he growled back.
"I see that you are as naive and as blind as everyone takes you for," The matriarch muttered, with a sorrowful shaking of her head. Ranma felt his eyes narrow and his frown deepen. Was he being made sport of?
"The girl is in love with you; and quite blindly too. I've heard of head over heels, but this is much worse, more a case of arse over elbow in love." She chuckled to herself, a sound like crumbling leaves. "My poor granddaughter never saw it coming, and it hit her right between the eyes. I doubt there is a beat in her heart that isn't for you."
Ranma slumped against the door once again, sliding onto his bottom, sitting with his legs crooked before him as he stared and the floor panels. His head hung, the dark bangs hiding his eyes and his braid, dangling limp over his shoulder.
"I I " His mouth gawped and his throat bunched as he strove for the words. "I didn't know. I thought it was just because of " He trailed off, the air full of an eerie vacancy.
"The law," she finished for him, and he nodded dumbly.
"Months ago, you would have been right. She thought she was doing what any good Amazon would: hunting her new husband and strengthening the tribe. She kept on bragging about how handsome and strong you were, and how the others of the tribe would be so envious of her. But as time wore on, she mentioned less and less about her Amazon sisters and less and about bragging, but she never stopped talking about you; always Ranma this and Ranma that. Shampoo had fallen in love with you from the start, and she never realised it until one day it hit her like a freight train."
"Why ?" Ranma murmured. "I thought I would just be a trophy husband."
"Don't be absurd," Cologne spat. "If you were just to be eye-candy for the sisters, would I have taught you as much as I have? To any other Amazon you would be, but I am not so stupid as to waste your talent and skills as a trophy. Nor do I train my heirs to think as such."
"Then why are you not trying to stop me going?" Ranma cried, springing to his feet, suddenly suspicious of the old woman. "Or is this the part when you douse me with one of your potions?"
Cologne vaulted upwards, used her staff to bash the youth's pigtailed cranium, and landed smoothly back astride the gnarled stick.
"Don't try my patience with your insolence, boy," she snapped.
Ranma rubbed at the rapidly growing welt and glared daggers at the old woman, mumbling various choice curses beneath his breath.
"I know the reason why you are leaving. In fact, I have expected this for some time, even moreso after the fiasco at Phoenix Mountain. I also wholeheartedly welcome your decision. All those who dedicate their lives to the martial arts must seek others like themselves, to test their skills and develop new ones. How do you think I met that irresponsible pervert Happy in his youth? No, Ranma, I feel this trip will make you much greater martial artist than any number of training techniques. A thousand travel guides are never worth a real journey, and even were I to take you as my apprentice and teach you all the arts I know, you still would not have the experience befitting a true master."
"Besides " She smiled warmly, the corners of her mouth creasing loosely. " I have faith in my granddaughter's heart. If she says that you will return to choose her, then I believe her."
Ranma chuckled. It never would end, would it? Then again, he would probably be bored if it did. Pulling himself to his feet, he bowed before the wise old matriarch and walked past her to the stairs. Cologne allowed him past, and then hopped over to Shampoo's door, reaching for the handle.
"Hey, old ghoul, I just wanted to say well y'know."
"You're welcome, son-in-law." The smile never faded.
In the kitchen, Ranma was greeted by Mousse. The Chinese boy squinted through his huge lenses before recognising the pigtailed youth and trying to muster some dignity. He pushed his glasses up his forehead so that he could give Ranma a look of pure venom with his naked eyes. Standing tall, he stood composed as he glared, hands hidden with the folds of the opposite sleeve.
"You hurt her, haven't you." It was not really a question, and Ranma could not help but wonder how the blind boy knew. He answered anyway, truthfully.
"You bastard," Mousse snarled, hands withdrawing a large scimitar from the folds of his robe. He swung the weapon overhead and brought it down in a deadly arc of glittering steel.
Which passed exactly through the air which Ranma's head had formerly occupied. Side-stepping swiftly, Ranma swerved around the descending blade then struck his hand out, flashing like a serpent to grab the blind boy's throat and haul him forwards where he could fix him with venomous eyes.
"I'm leaving, you blind idiot, and for some reason she seems devastated," Ranma told Mousse, who responded with a derisive snort at the perceived arrogance. "She is already hurt, and now what she needs is a friend. Not your usual 'Shampoo I love you' bullshit. That would just hurt her more, and if I hear that you have, I'll hunt you down and roast you alive."
Ranma shoved the Amazon male to the tiled floor and walked past, allowing his gaze to soften.
"Take care of her, Mousse," he said simply, and walked away, barely hearing Mousse's reply.
"I will. Good luck, Saotome."
The disc of batter spun and tumbled through the air, the blend of torsion and centripetal forces distorting its malleable shape as it flew. It continued spinning throughout its descent, landing finally with a wet splat against the hot plate. The sound of frenzied sizzling soon followed, as it was smoothed back into perfect, circular form by the soft scraping of a steel spatula.
Ukyo rubbed the sweat and condensed steam from her brow with the back of her forearm and sighed. Business was slow today; only a handful of people sat in the chairs and booths of the Ucchan, chatting and devouring their okonomiyaki. Konatsu stood by the counter, adding a swift retouch to his lipstick and preening his hair in its cute bun. He occasionally stole worshipping glances at Ukyo when he thought she wasn't looking. He also watched her make the okonomiyaki, admiring and learning her techniques. But still, mostly he watched her.
Ukyo wished he wouldn't do that. But she knew she could not stop him — nor could she stop herself giving those same adoring looks to Ranma. Nor could she stop Shampoo or Akane doing so. It was not his fault that he had captured all three of their hearts and walked with them in his pocket, but she still wished she could blame him just a little, to make herself feel better.
"Why's it dead in here?" a voice asked suddenly.
Ukyo looked at the question's source and found herself staring straight into a pair of bewitching, morning-sky eyes that looked back affectionately through thick, black bangs.
"Hey, Ucchan." Ranma smiled, and Ukyo willed her knees not to turn to jelly. The fight was not so difficult, as she noticed that his smile seemed kind of crooked, wavering as if strained.
"What's up, Ranchan?" she asked in concern.
Ranma started, flinching as if slapped. "Nothing's wrong, Ucchan, w-what made you ask that?" He glanced nervously around the restaurant, eyes flickering from place to place a panicked wolf. "So why is this place so quiet?" he asked again, replacing the wavering grin.
"Just a slow day," she sighed. Then she fixed him with a stern glare from the corners of her eyes. "Don't try to change the subject, Ranchan. What's wrong?"
The smile slipped weakly from the youth's lips and he sighed, the sound seeming to let all of the air from him as he withered into a stool, pulling himself up to the counter with a listless lack of effort.
"I never could get much past you, Ucchan," he said sadly.
"No, not really," she agreed. "But it never once stopped you trying."
A real smile curved his mouth; a small gesture, barely a curve of his lips. But it was there. And just as quick it was gone.
"It was fun at first," he said, voice fading into the baritone of nostalgia. "I'd sneak up behind you and jump out yelling 'boo', or somesuch. You used to be a big scaredy uh thing."
"Hey, I was six at the time," she protested, enjoying the trip down memory lane, but wondering where it was leading.
"You used to jump out of your skin. It was so funny! I always ended up rolling about, laughing my guts up. Then you would hit me with your spatula."
"You deserved it," she harrumphed indignantly.
"Probably, but it was still funny," Ranma said, his voice low and sorrowful. His eyes were rooted to the counter, as if trying to find a hideaway in the cracks between the small, square tiles.
"Ranchan, just tell me what's on your mind," she implored.
"I was just remembering the old days," he said.
And then she knew.
"You're leaving," she said in a broken voice, "aren't you?"
Don't say you want to go. Please! she begged mentally, knowing it was futile.
He nodded and something inside Ukyo shattered.
"How'd you guess?" he asked.
Stuffing the hurt down into a muted ball, she allowed herself to slip back into memories of childhood days.
"Y'know those good old days, you spoke of " Ranma made no reaction, but she knew he was listening, intently. "You would stand at the top of the hill as your dad lumbered up, shouting your challenge. I would stand ready, my small spatula before me, and then you would charge down, defeat me easily, and get another free okonomiyaki. And then we would talk while we ate. Not that I got to say much, you always did have to be the centre of attention." Ranma glanced upwards indignantly, but did not protest. "But I did listen. And you always talked about you and your dad, and all the places you had been. Where you had trained, what you had seen, and you were always full of such wonder. It was the dream of a foolish, young girl to think that I could ever get you to settle down. You were a wanderer, I came to realise that over the ten years I had to plot my revenge. I had hoped you would change while you stayed in Nerima, but once again that was the hope of a girl who let her heart rule her head."
"Ucchan I " he started, before pausing wordlessly. What was there to say?
"Don't bother making excuses, Ranma," she snapped. "You're leaving. What else is there to say? You're going to go gallivanting off, for some great martial arts purpose."
"So you won't try to stop me?" he asked softly.
"What? Do you expect me to get down on my knees and beg you to stay? Arrogant jerk!" she spat. Then with a sigh, she let the anger drain from her. "No, Ranchan. If you really want to leave, I won't try to stop you."
The thought did not console Ranma, who just stared at her intently with those damned blue-grey eyes of his. Eyes that she could feel herself drowning in, hurriedly she pulled away.
"So where will you go?" she asked, desperate to fill the silence.
"I don't know yet. Maybe China. But I will be back from time to time." She could hear the warmth in his voice in those last words. He was trying to console her, trying to make her seem it was better than it was. Being gentle, like he was when he called her cute and made her fall in love with him for the second time. Bastard!
"But you don't know when." It was not a question; she already knew the answer. But he shook his head in reply anyway. "That's the problem, Ranma."
His whole demeanour seemed to crumble; he knew he had lost this battle. Shoulders slumping, he stared at the counter, hair falling across his brow and hiding his eyes.
"I I " He swallowed deeply, before forcing the words out in a hurried sigh. "I don't know what to say." An admission of defeat.
"Maybe it's better you don't say anything," Ukyo said quietly, barely more than a whisper. "You'd better just go, Ranma." She prayed that her voice did not sound as broken as her heart.
"Ucchan?" His voice sounded scared, and more than a little hurt.
"Just go, Ranma," she said again, refusing to look at him for fear she would lose herself in his eyes. She stared down at her grill, clenching her fists by her side.
There was silence; the customers had stopped eating. Ranma had stopped moving. Her heart had stopped beating. The unearthly quiet was deafening, crashing in her mind like the roar of thunder.
Then she heard his chair scrape along the floor tiles. Forcing herself to look up she watched his retreating form, only seeing the glistening silk of the shirt on his back as his braid bobbed and swayed between his shoulder blades.
It was then that she allowed her herself to breakdown. Don't turn around! Don't turn around.
The words pierced her like a spear. The bell chimed as the door opened and closed, but it tone was not high and merry. Never before had the simple ringing sounded so much like a dread final tolling. And it tolled for her. Her knees buckled, as the strength fled her body. She thudded to the hard floor, but the pain did not register. Ranma had gone.
Then Konatsu was there, and people surrounded her. The effeminate ninja took her into his arms, fingers stroking through her chestnut locks. The customers surrounded her, all speaking all asking questions: Did she want anything? Would she be all right? Offering reassurances: there's plenty more fish in the sea, you'll find someone else, he was a bastard anyway, he didn't deserve you.
All Ukyo could do was cry.
Moonlight sliced through the curtains, piercing the gloom like a silver spear. The light rendered everything in harsh contrast of white highlights and black shadows. In such light, the room's humdrum contents shone with ethereal illusion.
Akane lay on her bed, her eyes open wide as she stared unblinking at the ceiling. Sleep would not come, and she hoped it never did. If she slept, morning would come all the sooner and Ranma's departure with it. So she lay there, tossing and turning uncomfortably as she refused the sleeps advances. Each incremental tick of her Hello Kitty clock resounded deafeningly in her mind, counting off the seconds.
Part of her told her she was being stupid. Why should she care what the perverted jerk was doing, or where he was going? But Akane was alone now, in the dark, and she did not have to listen to that voice. That was the voice of a little girl scared of her own feelings and the changes that came with them. A frightened child who clung to the safety of routine and programmed actions: deny, yell, mallet.
But now it was too late for such foolish antics. The two of them had come so far Changed from two stubborn children rebelling against a forced engagement, angry at one another. What they had become, she did not know, but it was something. Something she wanted to hold on to, that had become so imbedded part of her life she did not want to let it go. But Ranma seemed determined to throw it all away.
Idiot! The voice spat, and not for the first time that night.
How could he leave her? After everything they have gone through together She had always believed that adversity only made the bond between two souls stronger. That was how it worked, wasn't it? The anime and stories she had watched and read held such sweet promises, and she had believed them. But why had she and Ranma not been bound to each other? They had been through so much; crazed suitors, kidnapping princes, conniving Amazons, Jusendo
The memories of that terrible place blasted through her mind. Being enveloped in a wall of flames and then fighting her way through what seemed to be an endless veil of darkness. Feeling strong arms wrapping themselves around her, stroking her hair and her face. Then came a voice, awkwardly fighting for words but sounding beautiful to her blurred hearing. "I love you, Akane." She could have sworn that she had heard him say it; Ranma had said those wonderful words. But still, he was leaving. He had told her he loved her, and then it was over, dashing her hopes that both he and his love would stay forever.
She had had it. With a determined growl, she bolted upright and swung her legs out of bed. She was going to talk to the moron and convince him to stay. And stay he would, if he knew what was good for him.
Moving swiftly on the tips of her toes — not wanting any eavesdroppers — she went into Ranma's room. Taking deep breaths and forcing down the frantic fluttering of her heart, she inched the door open and slid into the room.
As in her own room, the pale moonlight rendered all in beautiful shades of silver and shade. Her eyes immediately went to the centre of the room, to the pair of bulky, blanket-covered shapes. The forms moved as they breathed in time to the sawing snores that were emitted in tandem from both sleepers. One set in particular was a series of guttural inhuman growls.
Damn it, she swore. Forgot about Mr Saotome. She shot a dagger-like glare at the slumbering panda, as she hoped that he would prove as hard to arouse as usual and sleep throughout her plan.
She knelt next to the smaller of the forms, watching the serene expression on her fiancé's face as he dreamed. Did he dream of her, she wondered?
Her hand moved without conscious though, smoothing the bangs from his brow and tracing a tender touch across his cheek.
His eyes snapped open; in the shadows cast by the moon his irises' were a deep prussian blue. He blinked rapidly and then squinted through the gloom, adjusting his vision to the darkness.
"Akane?" he asked through a muffled yawn.
"What are you doing here?"
What was she doing there? Her goal had seemed so clear, until she had looked into his eyes. Now her voice failed her. She wanted him to stay, but could not think of the words to say to convince him. She did not understand why she could not speak, or why she wanted him to stay so badly. She did not understand why he was leaving; she did not understand any of it.
"Um " was the best that she could do.
"C'mon, Akane, I'm leaving early tomorrow. Let me sleep."
"Huh!" She could see the boy before her blink rapidly in confusion. She could not fight down her own surprise. The word had leapt from her mouth before she had even thought of it, rising up from her stomach and into the tense air.
"Ranma, stay." She glanced down, watching her hands wring his blanket, unable to meet his stare. "You don't have to leave."
"Akane, you know I do."
"Why? Is it really so bad here. Am I that uncute?"
"Don't be stupid, Akane. This has nothing to do with you," Ranma protested.
"Then why are you leaving? Whatever soul-searching you need to do, can't it be done here? Surely you don't hate it here that much? We've had some good times, haven't we?"
They had been blessed with some brilliant moments amidst the fights and the chaos. The memories of those times returned to haunt her, echoing through her mind like restless ghosts. Remembering sitting in the dark attic, too frightened to face him, heart pounding in her ears as he unwrapped the scarf she had struggled to knit for him. Then watching him wear that beautiful smile as he wrapped the holey length of ragged wool about his neck. Watching the awestruck expression on his face as he saw her in her wedding dress, hearing the word "beautiful" slip through his lips before he knew he had said it, and the warm thrill it sent through her. Time like that arose like phantoms; spectres of a different time, where one word, one look could have changed everything.
But she had never given that look. No she had hit, punted and malleted him Ruining everything, because all that she did around him seemed to go wrong. Her cooking was a catastrophe, her attempts to train with him made her angry and insult him — everything.
"Don't be stupid, Akane," Ranma chided. "This has nothing to do with you."
"Of course it does. You wouldn't want to leave if you were happy here," she said, unwilling to look at him she concentrated on keeping her voice from breaking. "If I could cook or didn't hit you or " Anyone of a thousand other things she had done to keep Ranma away, afraid of her own feelings.
"Enough!" Ranma snapped. "Just because our parents engaged us doesn't mean that everything in my life is somehow connected to you. I told you, I'm doing this because it has to be done."
"Why does it?" she spat back. "You are already a superb martial artist. Why do you have to go and loaf around the world to prove it?"
"Damn it, Akane! Why can't you understand? This is not about my ego. This is not about our engagement, or any of the multiple suitors we both have. This is not about you being kidnapped by enamoured princes. It's not about stupid promises made by my old man, or stupider laws of some crazed Chinese tribe. This isn't even about my curse. It's about honour. It's about my life. I'm doing this because it needs to be done. I'm leaving because it's time to leave. For once, I'm doing the right thing on my own, not because of rivals, or fiancées, or any other of the wacky circumstances that force me to act. I have to find my own path — what the Way of the Warrior truly means. I have to prove myself worthy to be the heir of the Anything-Goes School, and the Anything-Goes School has to prove itself to me." Ranma's shoulders slumped as his speech came to an end, as if the world had been lifted from his shoulders and he could now stretch out the cramps.
"I see." Akane's also drooped, but hers was a posture of defeat, the world given to her to bear. Stiffly, slowly, her limbs shocked numb and her joints encased in frost, she stood up. Turning on her heel she left the room, not looking back. Whether or not she did not want the see Ranma, or did not want Ranma to see her, she was not sure. But the few feet to her room seemed like miles. And her body ached as she lay on the bed. Not that she could feel it, her whole mind still frozen, and her heart shattered.
The panda dared a squint. Peeking through the crack in his heavy, black eyelids he watched his son. The boy sat barely moving or breathing, staring dumbly at the door his fiancée had exited from. He was hurting, the panda saw. Many people would and had accused him of being selfish, not caring about other people's feelings or their suffering. But he hated to see his young charge in such pain. He had trained the boy well — even if he did say so himself, and he often did — and knew that Ranma could handle almost physical injury or malady. But Genma knew that the boy was too vulnerable to emotional wounds, and he considered it his own failing that he never knew how to protect Ranma from such barbs. He had tried to teach his son the folly of trust, how to keep your feelings guarded lest they be betrayed by those close to you. But Ranma had never learned; he still wore his heart on his sleeve, and such a heart is easily torn apart.
He heaved a heavy panda sigh; changing its sound at the last moment to make it sound like an embellished snore. It would not do for his son to know that he was awake, or he might suspect that he had overheard. That would not do. There were things to take care of — a son to take care of.
The sky was grey that morning, as if in grief. The sun refused to show its head, allowing dark clouds to conquer the overcast skies, withholding the light from the people of Nerima. The only life in the streets was the prowling cats and the swooping ravens; who did not sing, yet filled the air with their caws.
Ranma turned from the window to regard the bulging backpack that leant against the wall. Then he ran his gaze over what had been his room. Nothing. Only his father's things remained now, there was no trace of him to be seen. He looked back at his pack, finding it saddening that his life could be folded and packed away into one sack.
Well If I'm going, he thought, trying to summon his resolve, I'd better go now.
Taking up his bag, he slung it over one shoulder and left the room, closing the door behind him firmly.
He passed Akane's room and stared at her nameplate. She wouldn't be downstairs with the others, he knew. They all waited to see him off, except her, who did not wish to see him. She would not talk to him, he knew that also. But he had a promise to keep.
Ranma did not knock; he doubted she would have replied anyway. He just slid open the door, and took a single, hesitant step into his fiancées room. The girl sat at her desk, her eyes hidden by the blue-black hair that feathered her cheeks as she stared at the math textbook open before her. Akane did not turn to look at him, but he had seen a subtle tensing of her muscles, so she knew he was there.
Guilt racked him. Perhaps he had been too harsh with her last night. Perhaps he there was a better way he could have let her down. Perhaps he should have considered her request. He hurriedly tried to stifle that line of thought. He was doing the right thing; there was no need and no time for doubts But he could not help but doubt. The right thing would not be causing so much pain, especially not to the three most dear to him. The guilt rose and roiled, like the seas at high tide. He wished he could take back every hasty word or insult her had ever spoke to her. But word faded to air as soon as they were uttered, and one could never grasp them to take them back.
"Akane," he said, licking dry lips and wishing for something better to say. "I'm leaving now." He berated himself for an idiot as he heard his own words.
She gave no reply, and he had not expected one. But now there was the silence. The tension in the air vibrated like a violin string, and the note played was anxious and melancholy. Life was becoming increasingly ridden with such uncomfortable quiet. He had begun to think that in these silences, something was being said that words were too feeble to relate, something spoken that he had no control of. However this time, he knew that it could not be something good.
Ranma found himself unable to withstand it, no martial arts or trained will could weather such a silent storm. The violin string snapped, and the tension leaked out through his heavy sigh.
"Goodbye, Akane," he murmured. The sight of the carpet that was filling his downcast eyes finally registered with Ranma, and he forced himself to look at her. She had not moved, still facing the same page of the textbook. Even with her eyes hidden from him, her profile was still glowing with beauty.
"Y'know. You really are quite cute," he said, as he stepped backwards from the room.
When the sound of his words reached her, she gasped, her body jerking arrow straight. She spun to face him, and Ranma felt himself torn apart. Her beautiful, blue eyes were big and full of her soul. Watery and wide, they shimmered liquid cerulean. Her lips were slightly parted, words dying on the tip of her tongue. He saw her jaw trembling.
Ranma closed the door, unwilling to look anymore.
He descended the stairs like a broken puppet, listless and wooden. And so he remained, as his family — some by blood and some by affection — said their farewells. He stared blankly ahead as Soun Tendo wept and blubbered words about him being "a fine lad" and "bring honour to the Anything-Goes School". He felt Nabiki's affectionate arm around his shoulders and heard but did not register the sarcastic jibe that passed as her goodbye. Happosai's ramblings about "envy of the young" and nostalgic memories of his own training journey washed over him. He read but ignored the twin signs held in the panda's stubby paws: one reading [Good luck, son. Make me proud], and the other [Bring me some souvenirs]. Nodoka fixed him with a pointed stare; her blue-grey eyes both stern and apprehensive. He returned the glare equally.
"Remember your promise," she reminded him sharply. His response was a slow nod, inclining his head both in agreement and in respectful bow.
He then passed through into the hall, none but Kasumi following. She smiled warmly, here eyes shimmering with unshed tears, as she handed him his cap. Ranma smiled in return, but laid it on the kitchen table.
"I'll grab it when I come back," he said.
Kasumi smiled wider, her face lighting up with an angelic glow. "It will still be here when you do," she said. "Take care of yourself, Ranma."
"You too, Kasumi. And take care of the others as well. Especially " he trailed off, the words unable to form and collapsing into a sigh. " Y'know."
The message was received and understood as Kasumi nodded. And with a wave and a last glance around the familiar setting, Ranma Saotome turned and walked out of the Tendo home, fading up the path, and disappearing around the corner.
His pace was slow. His feet dragged across the path, and his body was bent as if weighed down by a burden. It was not the pack on his back, but the heart that sank heavy in his chest that slowed him down. He could feel his spirit trying to surge forth, revelling in his freedom, in anticipation of the adventure and of the challenge that awaited him. But it struggled, bound by the strings that had been tied to his heart. The bonds that linked him to Nerima were not broken yet; the friends, the rivals, the family, and the fiancées. All tied him to this place. And despite the joy he found in starting his journey, there was pain as well as those bonds stretched with every step he took.
He ducked swiftly, allowing the attacker's flying kick to sail overhead. The large body landed heavily and spun angrily to face the boy, who pulled himself up from his crouch and stared back with narrowed eyes.
"Damn it!" Genma cursed. "I was sure I had you then, boy."
"Well, what can I say, Pop? My 'Ranma sense' must have been tingling."
Genma growled in reply to his son's sarcasm. "I can't let you leave, boy," he declared firmly.
"Let me guess. You worried about losing your free meal ticket at the Tendo's because I've gone A.W.O.L." Ranma snorted, already taking his pack from his shoulders and setting it down against the wire fence.
"Believe it or not, boy. I'm doing this for your own good."
"I think I'll choose the second option. Not that I think you're a liar or anything," Ranma replied glibly.
"And so leaving Akane didn't hurt, did it?" Genma drove the words in like nails. "What of Shampoo or Ukyo? Was it easy to say goodbye to them? And did you enjoy the look of disappointment on your mother's face?"
Ranma snarled wordlessly in reply, his fists clenching and unclenching in tandem with the angry pulse that thundered in his ears.
"Your absence would only cause yourself and others pain. That's why I can't let you go." The bald man stood firm, and tried to look noble, posing with his hands on his hips.
It was all the opening Ranma needed.
"Then I'll go through you!" he yelled, and lunged at his father, fist thrusting out before him. Surprise flickered briefly across Genma's face as he dived aside. Ranma's anger left him off-balance and with too much momentum, causing him to fall. But rolling into a breakfall, he spun to intercept the fat man's counterpunch, batting it aside and lashing out with a kick that Genma had to jump back to avoid. Irritation and embarrassment at his own rookie mistake curbed Ranma's anger, and he watched his father warily.
"Damn you, Ranma. Why can't you listen to me?" his father asked, his voice sounding concerned and desperate. But then, his father could be a good actor when it suited him. The pigtailed youth jabbed at the fool's mouth hoping to pause to silence him. Genma dodged to the side while blocking the fist, yet he completely missed the knee, which drove high into his gut. The man gasped as the air was expelled from his lungs, and swung a clumsy backfist in an attempt to ward off his son. Ranma grabbed the arm effortlessly, and then yanked it hard, his front arm wound over and then under the captured limb, completing the circuit by gasping his own wrist. The lock was on with a lifting of the arm and sinking of the hands, his forearm applying painful pressure to Genma's elbow as he forced the joint. His father winced, but glared venomously.
"So what are you going to do boy? Break my arm?" The elder Saotome asked, in a voice that was surprisingly calm for a man in his predicament.
Ranma looked at the joint that he had captured. It would be so easy to break it. A sudden jerk, and then snap! It would show the old man who was boss, prove both to him and everyone else that Ranma Saotome controlled his own life, and no engagements or seppuku pacts were going to chain him down.
But he couldn't. He may have broken Kuno's limb, but this was his father. And despite the hatred that burned for what the man had done to him; he could bear the old fool no rancour, nor malice. All he carried was the deep pity for man who had succumbed to and the memory of the arms that held him close as an infant, as a snowstorm raged around them.
"No," he said, relaxing his arms and removing the lock.
"Fool!" his father roared.
Genma pushed his knuckles into his son's ribs, stealing the breath in the young Saotome's lungs. Then bending down, he grasped the boy's shirt and thrust a hand between his legs, scooping the pigtailed youth up by his inner thigh and spinning him across his own broad shoulders. Ranma whirled over his father like the tyre of a wheel, flipping to land heavily on his back. The impact drove the remaining air from him, and pain lanced through his spine.
Genma sat on his haunches nearby, but far enough that Ranma's angry yet ill-aimed fist swung by harmlessly. Rolling onto his front so that he could push himself up to his knees, grimacing as his newly bruised back protested against his motion. His eyes flared as if to try and reduce his father to ashes with his stare.
"That was low," he spat.
"Yes, it was," the other man admitted plainly. "And that is why you cannot leave."
Ranma gritted his teeth and raised a white-knuckled fist that trembled with anger.
"If you think you've beaten me, old man, I'll tear you a new arse," he growled.
"I don't doubt you would," his father grunted. "I raised you to be the best." The fat man's chest puffed up with pride.
Ranma's anger was derailed by Genma's uncharacteristic frankness. Hand dropping limply, he sighed. "But I'm not the best, Pop. That's what this trip is about."
"True, Ranma, and there are fighters out there that are far beyond me in skill and strength, yet would not hesitate you use a trick such as the one I just used, or worse."
"Don't try to coddle me, Pop. You're not any good at it," Ranma said dryly as he rose to his full height. "I will have to deal with what's out there, no matter the risk. I won't grow otherwise, neither as a person or a warrior."
"It's what you will grow into that I worry about," his father cried. "Do you think I don't know what sort of man I am? I say that I always did things for the best, but do you truly think I am ignorant of the consequences, of the people hurt and lives ruined? I know all too well, but I did what had to be done to make you the man you are today. It was all too easy to me, so long as you became a man amongst men, the tribute to the art that I wanted you to be. But it will all be for naught if you leave." Genma paused fixing his son with a firm, steely gaze. Ranma said nothing, for once his father was being truly honest and he did not want to ruin the moment for fear it would pass too quickly.
"I love your mother dearly, Ranma. Yet do you think she would have married a man as selfish as I am? No because I was not always this way. I was once young, proud and full of ideals like you are now, but the world changed that. Through the years; training under Master Happosai, the journeys through Asia alone, and raising you, I saw so much corruption in the world that my ideals were crushed and I had to become corrupt myself to survive.
"But you can be spared that. I can't let you leave, Ranma, because if I do, the honourable man that your mother yearned for — the man those three girls all love — will die, and you will become just like me."
"No!" Ranma yelled, loud and determined. "No, father, because I'm not like you. I'm a lot thinner, for a start." The pigtailed boy was smiling broadly, his face alight with mirth and renewed vigour. He smiled down at Genma's puzzled expression and the laughed harder as his man grew red with anger.
"Damn you, boy, take me seriously!" Genma yelled.
"I am, Pops, and that's why I want to go even more. All this corruption you babbled about, it sounds like quite the challenge." Ranma's grin had twisted into his trademark cocky smirk.
"Challenge?" Genma muttered.
"Yeah," Ranma replied gleefully. "Travel the world improving my martial arts, and yet still hold onto my honour, maybe learn more about it. Sounds like a challenge to me. And you know I can never resist a challenge."
"It's a challenge you'll lose, boy!" the older man grunted.
"Now that officially makes it a challenge. Time to prove you wrong again, old man. See you around." Still smiling Ranma collected his pack, spun on his heel and strode away from his father with long strides.
Hmm, that was unexpected. He thought as he considered his father's behaviour, actions that he would have never expected from the fat panda, feelings of concern and guilt he things he had thought were unknown to Genma Saotome. Perhaps the old fool does care about more than himself, after all.
"I'm sorry, boy, but I can't let you ruin my chances with Nodoka or my future with the Tendo's."
The words were the only warning Ranma got. Upon hearing them he turned to face any oncoming attack, only to see the large steel fence post that had been hurtled towards him like a spear. With no time to dodge, he flung his hands up and squeezed his eyes shut, muscles tensing as he braced for the impact.
The blow never came. His ear picked up a metallic chime almost over ridden by a heavy thunk: Then a surprised and pained yelp. Ranma's eyes flew open to assess whatever had transpired. He could barely make out the figure of his father sailing over the horizon, looking down towards the ground he spotted the diminutive crone, holding her skirt up around a withered leg still retracting after a violent punt.
"What an infuriating man," Cologne sneered.
"Ghoul!" he cried in shock.
The matriarch sniffed pointedly. "Really, son-in-law," she chided. "I just saved you from some severe pain and you still show no respect for your elders." She tutted at the boy and shook her head disparagingly. "Too bad I dropped my staff, or I'd whack you good."
Her staff? A quick glance to the pavement located the gnarled weapon. The sight and the memory of a bizarre sound heard moments before was all he needed to realise that she had deflected his father's projectile by throwing her own.
"I could have dealt with it myself, you know," he grunted stubbornly, not willing to concede that she had saved him.
"I'm sure you could have." Her voice was so mild and indulging, that he knew she did not believe a word of his denial. "However, that might have taken too long, and I wanted to talk to you now."
Ranma was immediately on guard, eying the old woman out the corner of his eye as he tensed, watching for any sudden moves. "Are you here to try and stop me too?"
Cologne picked a pebble up from the roadside and threw it at him, bouncing the stone off of his head. "What did I say about respect, boy!" she snapped.
Ranma frowned sullenly and rubbed his head, but said nothing.
"I had thought you might be able to use these," she muttered, withdrawing a bulky, square package from nowhere, wrapped in brown paper and secured with white string she held it out towards him.
Taking the package he hurriedly unwrapped it, childlike curiosity overcoming his initial trepidation. The contents were revealed to be books, three of them, paperbacks of similar size. Ranma blinked in confusion and glanced at Cologne in silent question.
"Just a couple of things to keep you occupied and hopefully sharpen that dull mind of yours," she explained. She gestured at the title of the topmost book with her recovered staff. The Bushido Shoshinsuke, by Joe Bloggs.
"I thought it was the type of book that mother of yours would want you to read," she said, watching him carefully to gauge his reaction. "And it couldn't hurt for you to learn a few manners." She chuckled at her comment, a dry, rasping sound.
Ranma nodded absently and looked at the next book, Amazonian Combat Principles and Martial theory, by Ko Lun III. He could not stop the grin spreading across his face; this was more his sort of read.
"Thought you might like that one," she said, sharing his smile.
"Ko Lun?" he read slowly. "Did you write this?"
"Why, how good of you to notice," the Amazon leader replied with no trace of modesty. "I wrote this translated version in hopes that it would improve Shampoo's grasp of Japanese, and had it bound by a friend of mine."
"I just can't believe you wrote a book. I thought all you old master types kept everything on ancient, dust-covered scrolls."
"Too old-fashioned." She shrugged her bony, shoulders. "It still happens, but every matriarch is obliged to write at least one manual related to the warrior arts, and I preferred this more efficient method of presentation. The book contains no description of techniques, being more about the origins, principles and strategies of their use."
Ranma nodded in understanding. A little disappointment at the lack of techniques did not remove his joy at holding a piece of Cologne's own mind. The smile dropped of his face when he read the title of the next book.
"Physics," he cried incredulously, and quickly rescanned the printed words again to make sure he saw them right. Nope, they didn't change, still reading An Introduction to Modern Physics, by P. Tipler. Why had the old bat given him this?
"What does this have to do with the martial arts?" he asked as soon as the question sprung up in his mind.
"A better question would be: what doesn't it have to do with martial arts?" she responded simply.
"Huh?" he grunted. "Don't talk in riddles, Granny."
She bonked him across the head with her staff again. "As I said, boy, the books are to help develop your mind. That can't happen if I have to tell you everything." She then sighed. "Although I did write some comments to point you in the right direction."
Ranma flipped through the pages of the book seeing and array of dense text, diagrams and photographs; but he could only find evidence of writing on the inside of the cover. Cologne's continued speech prevented his investigation, however.
"Speaking of directions," she said with a knowing smile. "You'll find the one you seek to the northwest, still in town. But you'd best hurry to catch up."
"H-How'd you " he stuttered amid open-mouthed gawping, completely flummoxed by her near telepathic insight.
"Hush, boy. Let an old woman have her few tricks," she laughed.
Few tricks, my arse! he thought dryly. Knowing that was all he was going to get from her, he packed his new possessions in one of his pack's many pockets, and prepared to set off again. He glanced back at the old woman, still perched on her staff.
"Look, old ghoul er thanks thanks again."
"Why, son-in-law! Expressing gratitude twice in one week? You must be ill," she chortled. "Don't strain yourself. Just try to keep yourself in one piece to return someday." Her gaze then turned from motherly affection to a deadly, steel gaze. Ranma's mouth dried and his throat tightened. "It would not do for you to hurt my great-granddaughter more than she is already."
Ranma swallowed audibly.
Seeing that the boy had got the message, Cologne smiled again and then vaulted upwards, pogoing off over the rooftops and the Nerima skyline.
Ranma sighed, heart cut deeply by the reminder of the pain inflicted upon Shampoo, upon all of his fiancées. Hefting his pack on his shoulder, the burden felt momentarily heavier. He summoned forth all his excitement about his journey and the new challenges, and clung to it like a life-preserver to keep from drowning any further in his guilt. Inhaling deeply, and setting himself once again, he trudged onwards down the empty street.
The fire crackled and popped, casting orange light around the gloom of the vacant lot. Flames flickered in the breeze, making the harsh, twisted shadows of broken tyres and old signs dance with macabre life. The sounds of passing cars and distant sirens hung in the air, blending strangely with the more natural sound of rustling branches and chirping crickets.
Ryoga moved through his kata with strong, harsh movements and powerful blows. The firelight glinted off the sweat that covered his bare arms; droplets flew from his hand as it swung in long, arching punches. His feet slid along the floor as he slid through his stances, his body kept low; the weight straining his legs and forging them like iron. Fists became claws, became paws, and became horns; growls and kiai spouting between his gritted fangs as he immersed himself in the animal forms he had summoned.
"Tiger with orb" flowed into "snake basks in mist" and then to "hungry tiger emerges". From "Golden leopard speeds through jungle" down to "Tiger crouching on ground rising upwards" into "Dragon soars into the clouds". It was one of his favourite forms, as it had been to the great Lam Sai Wing before him.
Ryoga paused, both hand halting midway into the swing that would form "Ox charges with its horns". His senses were vibrating like guitar strings. The ki that flowed through the kata was reacting to something nearby.
"I don't like being spied on!" he growled loudly, rising out of his stance and sweeping his gaze along the surroundings, spying nothing but scattered junk and vacant tarmac. He could feel his hackles rise and his anger start to boil.
"Stop hiding like some coward! I know you're there!" he bellowed, hands balling in to fists. "Come out and face me."
A shadow flickered along the rickety, gap-ridden, wooden fence that stood beside him. He threw clawed hands out at the barrier. "SHISHI HOKODAN!" he yelled, the green wall of power blasted through its target, showering splinters of wood everywhere.
But not a sign of any life when the dust cleared.
"COME OUT!" he raged.
His eyes bogged as a heavy object slammed onto his head. He staggered momentarily as the blow landed, but his body was toughened beyond such impacts and he simply stood arched at the pressure on his head. He seethed with fury and incensed outrage, as only one person would ever stand on his head like a perch.
"Yeah?" the pigtailed youth's voice replied from above him.
"What are do you think you're doing on my head?"
"I'm wondering what the poor fence has done to piss you off." came the dry response.
Ryoga roared wordlessly and swung claws at his unwanted passenger. He seized nothing but air as the Saotome heir flipped from his roost, turning somersaults to land gracefully on his toes, facing the lost boy from several paces away. The fanged martial artist wasted no time in charging across the intervening distance to assault his rival with a frenzy of attacks.
"Calm down Ryoga " Ranma protested as he back-pedalled rapidly across the lot, swerving and deflecting the incoming strikes. "I just want to talk!" Ryoga's punch sailed wide as his opponent slipped to the left. He struck out with a low kick, but could only manage a glancing blow to the other boy's shin. He was still satisfied with the momentary wince that flashed over Ranma's features; He always was soft, he gloated silently.
"If you wanted to talk " Ryoga moved in close for a cutting elbow that Ranma blocked on crossed forearms. " You could have done it without " With his rival's guard over his face, Ryoga snaked his hands low and grasped two fistfuls of the braided boy's shirt. " STANDING ON MY HEAD!" Lifting him up and over in a fast arc, the bandana-clad fighter used his monstrous strength to fling his foe through the air.
His anger increased as he watched Ranma take control of his flight and gracefully twist in midair so that he landed in a cat-like crouch.
"Fine, I'm sorry," the other youth relented. "Didn't think you'd take it so badly. Must of forgotten who I was talking to."
Ryoga withdrew out of his fighting posture, still irritable at the reminder that Ranma Saotome was totally useless at apologies. And you would think that he would have had enough practise, he thought bitterly.
"What do you want, Ranma?" he said harshly. "Aside, that is, from using my skull as some sort of pitstop."
"What makes you think I want anything?" Ranma asked with a naïve innocence that made Ryoga even more suspicious. "Can't a guy just stop by to talk to a friend?"
"We're not friends!" Ryoga spat without thinking. He thought he saw a twinge of hurt flicker across the Saotome lad's face, but it was gone so fast he decided that he had imagined it.
"Fine," Ranma replied, very flatly sliding an old packing crate closer to the fire and sitting down. He stared into the flames wordlessly, obviously waiting for the lost boy to join him.
With a heavy sigh, Ryoga crossed to where he had left his pack, bending to collect the small, fold-out stool that he carried with him. As he slid it from the canvas compartment, amidst a clutter of blankets, clothes and food, he noticed the other sack that had been placed next to his own. It was similarly bulging, with the same sort of items: compass, rations, first aid kit visible through mesh pouches
"I've left the dojo," Ranma muttered still looking into the flames.
Divine rage immediately surged within Ryoga again. He spun on the pigtailed boy, brandishing his battle umbrella threateningly.
"What have you done this time, Ranma? If you hurt Akane, I'll "
"She's fine, you moron. I'm going on a training trip," Ranma yelled.
"You mean you weren't thrown out?" Ryoga asked, puzzled. It seemed a little unlikely.
"NO!" came the indignant reply.
"How could you leave Akane behind like that, you irresponsible jerk?" Ryoga cried.
"She'll get over it," Ranma responded sullenly.
"How can you be so uncaring, you bastard?"
"Shouldn't you be happy I left?"
"Not if she's unhappy."
"Would you rather I go back and make her happy?"
"Make up your damn mind, P-chan!"
"RANMA!" Ryoga screamed, launching himself forwards and bringing the umbrella slicing towards Ranma's head. The pigtailed warrior jumped away as the weapon pulverised the crate he had sat on.
"Hey, I was sitting on that!" he whined.
Ryoga growled and prepared for another strike, but Ranma shot forwards and swung out a fast roundhouse, catching the fanged boy's hand and launching the umbrella paces away. "Stop that!" he cried. "I told you, I just want to talk."
"Then don't insult me or call me 'P-chan'," Ryoga snarled.
"You started it."
"You deserve it."
"Well, you " Ranma began and then halted. "No, wait; I'm stopping this right now before it gets even more juvenile."
"Who are you calling juvenile?" the lost boy grunted.
"Stop it! Let's just talk for once, without having to beat each other bloody. That's what I came for," Ranma suggested calmly.
Ryoga backed off and returned to fetching and folding out his chair, sitting down on it sulkily. His crate smashed, Ranma had to settle for resting in the hole of a dirty tyre. The disgusted sneer on his face said he was not happy about it, and that pleased Ryoga greatly.
"I suppose I owe you an apology," Ranma grunted. "I acted like a complete arse the last time we met."
"So what's new?" Ryoga sneered, before he could help it. Ranma glowered at him.
"You weren't exactly acting like Mr Charm yourself," the other boy retorted. "But anyway, I still want to apologise. I've had a lot of things to think about since then, a lot of home truths have been revealed."
Ranma quickly spun his tale. He started with how Ryoga's comments had enraged him from his bed of bitterness into frenzied training. Ryoga felt an inward swell of pride that his plan to rouse Saotome had succeeded, but from Ranma's description it did work exactly to his scheme, and he doubted that Akane would have been glad of it. Did the arrogant bastard have any compassion? How could the loss of a duel send him so crazy?
The bandana-clad youth was quite ignorant of the hypocrisy of that last thought.
Then he described the vicious duel with Kuno. Ranma seemed a little sheepish as he spoke of the event. It seemed like the pigtailed boy was ashamed. Ryoga continuously blinked and squinted just to make sure that he was not delusional. However, the guilt did not seem directed towards his actions or the beating he gave Kuno, but more at his loss of control. Ryoga could understand that; control was one of the most vital virtues of a martial artist — this time part of him did notice the hypocrisy, but he quashed it. Also, the lost one was never too fond of Kuno, despite occasionally joining with him to visit some divine beatings upon the Anything-Goes heir. But the bokken-wielding fanatic was yet another rival for Akane's affections, and Ryoga had always thought him two brain cells short of a pair. Not as bad as his rabbit-boiler of a sister, though. He fought to repress a shudder.
Ranma's reached a part of his story which involved a rather passionate conversation with his mother. He breezed over the incident quickly, eyes flickering over the tarmac at his feet, hands wringing themselves nervously. There were wounds left by that conversation; Ryoga could see it in those blue-grey eyes, and he seemed unwilling to divulge too much. The fanged boy could not blame him. His memories of Mrs. Saotome were of a woman who carried a lot of intimidation in her small, prim frame. Ranma merely mentioned that Nodoka had brought his sense of honour, and his whole way of life, into question. He did not say much else, and Ryoga did not probe. Despite his animosity towards the braided youth, his emotional cuts were his own; but the lost boy suspected they were caused by the katana his mother carried.
"So you see, Ryoga, I had to leave. All my life people have spoken about honour, and the Way of the Warrior. But what does that mean? My father and Happosai were less than stellar examples, so how am I supposed to know what honour is?"
"Doing everything that you never do?" Ryoga snorted.
Ranma glowered in reply. "For someone who likes to stand in for a girl's stuffed toy, you're awfully preachy."
His fangs ground against lips as he snarled. Ranma's verbal riposte had sliced through his moral protests and hostility. Chagrined, Ryoga grumbled and glared across the fire at his rival.
"So, Mr-I-know-everything-Saotome, what is honour?"
"I don't know. That's what I'm going to find out," the pigtailed lad replied, staring into the flames.
The sharp-toothed by remained staunchly sceptical. "You probably just want to go and look for more trouble."
His answer was a wide sidelong smirk that conquered Ranma's whole face. His "yes" sparkled with a merry and mischievous glint. "I hope so." he declared smugly. Ryoga shook his head; the boy would never change. But the pigtailed one continued speaking. " And that's why I want you to come with me."
Ryoga's jaw dropped and his eyebrows tried to crawl behind his bandana. "W-What?!" he spluttered when he regained control of his mouth.
"I said I want you to come with me," Ranma repeated.
"I don't know." He shrugged with great exaggerated drama, his grin widening. "Maybe I want to keep you around because having a dope like you with me would just make me look better than I already do."
"Ranma!" Ryoga yelled, "do you always insult the people you ask for a favour, you arrogant git?"
"Hey, I'm extending a gracious invitation," Ranma protested.
"I'm surprised you can even pronounce 'gracious', never mind actually knowing the meaning of the word!" Ryoga snorted. "Besides, why would I want to go with you? I want to beat you to a pulp, not go rambling through the hills of East Asia like a Boy Scout troop."
"Why not? You're going to go wandering through those hills anyway. Why not take some company?" Ranma argued
"Because it's you, and you're a jerk," Ryoga retorted flatly. "Besides, I don't want to get caught up in the menagerie of crazy people who inevitably want to kill you."
"That's part of the fun."
"And it's that sort of fun you should be avoiding," the fanged boy lectured. "And it's not the type of thing honour would demand."
Ranma's smile dropped from his face and his eyes returned to the flames. "No. It is what duty demands." He sighed. "Duty. That is what my mother said that honour was all about: my duty to the Art, as the heir of the Anything-Goes School. She told me my duty was to marry Akane, but how can it be honourable to sacrifice my integrity and marry someone I don't love?"
"You don't love Akane?" Ryoga gasped, his head a confused whirl of anger, happiness and shock.
"I didn't say that," Ranma replied quickly.
"You do love her?" Ryoga snapped. Ah, there was the pure anger; comforting, like an old friend.
"I'm saying I don't know what love is," Ranma yelled. "I'm saying that my duty to the Art must involve more than mindlessly marrying and running a dojo. I'm saying that my life and my nature demands more, as does the Art itself!"
"And what would that be?" the fanged boy asked dubiously.
"The Martial Arts are alive, and like all living things, they wish to grow, to progress and to evolve. And that's what I want for myself. The way of the Anything-Goes School is to adapt and advance through adversity. My own skills have grown in the same way, but I can't wait for challenges and fighters to happen through randomly. The battle with Loaf showed me that there is a world of fighters out there, and I'm going to go find it." Ranma's wide grin had returned.
"Well, that's all rather fancy and noble," Ryoga snorted, waving his hand dismissively. "But what's that got to do with me?"
"What hasn't it got to do with you, pig boy? You want the same thing."
Ryoga growled at the insult, and then laughed bitterly at the pigtailed boy's comments. "Don't be stupid, Ranma."
"Don't deny it, Ryoga." Ranma leaned forward fixing his blue-grey gaze with the emerald eyes of the other martial artist. "I may have apologised for what I said when we last spoke, but I don't think I was wrong."
"What are you babbling on about?"
"You like to fight as much if not more than I. That's why you're always charging about and waving your umbrella around like you had just sat on the pointy end."
"No, Ranma. I just want to defeat you."
"And what happens after that? Not that you'll ever beat me. But if we lived in bizarre world and you did, what would you do? Sit up on your laurels and never train again? Marry Akane and try and get through the wedding night without loss of blood? Get a job in a factory even though you can't get to work without a tour of Antarctica?
"Face it, Ryoga. You keep coming back to fight me because you haven't beaten me. I'm a test, your own strength and skill is matched against mine. If I come out on top, you train harder. You want to defeat me because I'm better."
"How can you stand to be so arrogant?" Ryoga growled. "Better this and better that. I fight you because you're a jerk, because you stole my bread, because you gave me my curse, and because you don't deserve Akane."
"If it was about Akane, why not ambush Kuno or Gosunkugi? Hell, go after Shinnosuke or Kirin. She actually liked those two. No, you come after me instead, because deep down you think me a worthy opponent, a challenge. And it's not just me: when we searched for the Open-Water kettle, you hunted down Lime. Why? Because he had had beaten you and because he was strong. And if I'm not mistaken, there have been others in your travels."
Ryoga blinked, and then hurriedly cast his eyes to the floor, but Ranma saw it and it was the only confirmation he needed.
"I knew it. That's because like me, you yearn for the challenge; you love the thrill of matching your skill with another. When you have a powerful opponent in front of you, you don't worry about the girls or the curses or the grudge; all that remains is whether you are stronger or weaker than him."
Ranma's words weighed heavy on the lost boy's heart and revolved like a whirlwind in his head. Was it true? He was beginning to question himself. He had always told himself that he had fought for righteous reasons, revenge for his curse, freeing Akane from an unwanted engagement. But Ranma was right, he had gone after Herb for the ladle, but he challenged Lime for himself. And he had fought with others. Sure, there had always been other reasons for it, but maybe deep down he had done just for the sake of doing it, just for the thrill of the fight.
"Can I really be so shallow?" he asked himself. It was a whisper, but Ranma caught it.
"Shallow?" the pigtailed one repeated. "That's what my mother said it was: that fighting others because they were stronger than you was arrogance, not honour. And maybe it is, if being the strongest is all that matters to you. But what if it's the challenge — not the title — that you want?" He shrugged, the firelight glinting as his satin clad shoulders moved. "I heard a quote in History class once."
"You were awake?" Ryoga exclaimed with mock shock.
"Akane had just thrown a ruler at me, but that's beside the point. The quote was by some Western guy, who wanted to climb Mount Everest. When asked why, he replied, 'Because it's there!' Is that so different from what we're doing? In think not. And no one thought him shallow. In fact, he was praised for his desire for a challenge."
"I guess," Ryoga grumbled, not quite sure what to think of that ideal.
"Besides, you should want to come with me, even without my great company." Ryoga glanced up and stared daggers at the Saotome heir for that cocky statement. But Ranma continued unfazed. "You see, as I travel I'm bound to pick up some new techniques, maybe some pretty powerful ones. How do you think you're going to beat me if that happens? Unless you're there to learn how to counter it, or learn some new moves yourself. "
Ryoga paused to consider that. He had to admit, his rival had a point. If Ranma learnt a strong new move, how would he ever defeat him? The bitter memories of his fight with the pigtailed boy after he had learnt the Chestnut Fist returned. The lost one had not even been able to touch him; it took Cologne and the Bakusai Tenketsu to let him match speed with endurance. What if Ranma learnt something even more powerful than his Ultimate Shishi Hokodan? But if he was there to learn the techniques, or even something better
"Wait a minute What do you get out of this?" Ryoga asked sceptically.
"I get a sparring partner, and someone to keep me on my toes And on the straight and narrow."
"Huh?" Ryoga was confused. Straight and narrow what?
"My dad said that being on the road alone would corrupt me, like it did him. Probably he was blowing sand up my arse in order to get me to stay, but my Mom said the same thing, that becoming stronger would make me more likely to abuse that strength. I need someone who understands why I'm doing this, someone who does the same to keep me on the honourable road. Someone I can trust when things get tough, and I know I can do that with you. The way I see it, if we're both travelling on the same path in our hearts, the Path of the Warrior, we may as well travel on the same path in the world." He smiled at the lost boy, a warm, friendly smile.
Ryoga was speechless. He had never imagined the arrogant, boorish Saotome could be so eloquent. He was moved by Ranma's words. Maybe Ranma did consider him a friend as Akane had said, someone to trust when push came to shove. There had been times when it had seemed so: how Ranma had helped him with Akari, or the age-reversing mushrooms, and how the weakened fighter had been so happy to see him when he showed up during his Hiryu Shoten Ha training, or risking himself to find the kettle to restore the pigtailed boy's manhood when it was in his benefit if he stayed a girl. He even remembered shaking Ranma's hand and insisting that he come to the wedding when the Sakura cakes had proclaimed him Akane's true love. In the past Ranma had always been quick to take advantage of such moment for his own needs, but he was desperate at times, and maybe his new honour-focussed outlook would let them become true friends.
"Ranma," he breathed. "I don't know what to say."
"Say 'yes'. It's not like you have a choice, and it will save on my travel expenses since you seem to be able to cross oceans on the way to the corner shop."
Then again, maybe not.
"Bastard! What do you mean I have no choice?" Ryoga roared.
"Well, I'm just going to come with you wherever anyway, so you might as well let me."
Surging to his feet so fast his chair toppled over, Ryoga let his lips peel back in a fanged smirk and pointed down at the pigtailed boy mockingly.
"I'd like to see you try. You'll just get lost in my dust." He folded up his chair and hurriedly grabbed his pack, turning his back on the fire and setting off across the lot.
"You'd get lost in your own dust, you directionless fool." Ranma called to him. He glanced back to see Saotome hastily grabbing his own bag and jogging after. Seeing his nemesis making up the distance, Ryoga broke into run, hoping to put enough space between them so he could duck into an alley without being seen. "You can't keep up with me, Ranma," he yelled back.
Ranma, however, was already right behind him. "Just call me your shadow, bacon-breath."
With the other boy so close, Ryoga abandoned his plan and just kept running down the road as fast as his legs would go. "Stop chasing me, you pervert! Has your curse turned you gay?"
"You wanker. Just for that, I'm going to sing pig songs all the way."
Ranma Saotome and Ryoga Hibiki were two completely different people on the same path. The future laid before them like a dark, open road. But they faced the challenges ahead with eager hearts and fists. They faced them as warriors.
End, Book 1.
Author's notes: It's done! Yaaay! Ten chapters, when it was only supposed to be three, but the first part of honour and pride is finished. Also this is the first pre-read chapter. Say hi to my pre-reader, Wandering Oni.
The actual notes for this Chapter will hopefully be short, because I've decided to publish some end-of-saga notes. Basically just some thank you's, some overdue credits, and a bit about what I want to do with this story Plus, what I'm thinking about with my portrayal of characters and themes — because strangely enough, I do actually think some things out.
Anyway, what I wanted to do with the chapter was have Ranma leave Nerima and join up with Ryoga, but I wanted to do it different then most. The usual way for Ranma to leave is to just head off in the dead of night and have Akane pine for him. That wouldn't be very nice for a guy trying to live life more honourably. The other way is too have him say "bye" to Akane, and fight his way out. Didn't want that either, but I didn't want him to get off scott free. So the idea was to make the hurdles and obstacles more emotional than physical — a weight on the soul rather than the body. Also, one of the main things I wanted throughout the fic was to show that the fiancées all cared for him deeply and he cared for them in some way too. So I showed how his leaving affected them, and how that affected him. I also wanted there reactions to be original, for them to act within their character but unexpectedly, so I had Shampoo get sentimental, Ukyo get a bit angry, and Akane a bit depressed. Its all possible in their personalities, just not how most people think of them.
As for the Genma bit, I had to include some action — the fic is about martial arts. However I also wanted to stress that no matter how much we wished he did, Ranma does not hate Genma and Genma does care about Ranma. Despite one reviewer's comments, I do read the manga, and the hell's cradle issue shows the above clearly. But more on that in the end-of-saga notes.
Hopefully, now that the real story is beginning, the fic will be a little more light-hearted, but will still have some drama and eventually some romance. I want a well-rounded story with plenty of butt-kicking. What do you think I should focus on?
And a question for you all, who do you think I plan to set Ranma up with?
P.S. —Lone Wolf, sorry for all the sentimental stuff in this chapter.
|Book 1 Notes|
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