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A Ranma ½ fanfic
by Aondehafka

Disclaimer: the Ranmaverse characters owned by Rumiko Takahashi, and all that obligatory stuff.  This story based on the anime, not the manga.  There’s a passing reference to the anime series Key the Metal Idol as well.

Chapter 6:  Letting Go

Dear Diary (wrote Kodachi),

It’s been two weeks now since we rescued Akane Tendo from the Oni, and things are finally beginning to settle down.  Mother and Father both seem happy to have so many guests in our home.  Of course, my brother remains less than thrilled at Shampoo’s presence, but I think that’s because he worries Nabiki might think Shampoo is still trying for him.  Tachi himself knows otherwise.  One thing my brother definitely is NOT is stupid, and he can see quite clearly whom Shampoo regards with hopeless affection these days.

It’s the oddest sensation, to know I SHOULD be feeling jealous, that I SHOULD resent her spending so much time with Ranma-sama, when all I can feel is sympathy and pity.  As well ask the sun not to shine as ask a normal girl who’d spent much time around Ranma-sama not to feel something for him.  So how can I blame my friend for falling in love with him, when he was the first man to treat her with both kindness and respect?

(Kodachi read back through that paragraph, frowned a little, and decided she needed to cut back a bit on the -sama’s.  It looked like the work of a lovesick schoolgirl.  Which of course she was, and proud of it, but that was no reason to let the literary quality of her writing suffer.)

However, I suspect things would be radically different without the Heart Link.  I still think back to the Kaori Daikokuji incident with shame.  All my life I have tried to fight the discrimination of others, those who look down upon me because of the accident of my birth, and I had thought I was the victor.  But I believed almost immediately that Ranma would leave me for someone more desirable… more normal.  I hurt him too, with that belief, which shames me even more than realizing I had let others tell me I wasn’t good enough.

But suppose Shampoo had been unhurt in the fight with the Oni.  Suppose there had been no need for the Heart Link.  Or suppose her great-grandmother had simply Linked me directly to her.  I’m still curious to find out why that wasn’t an option, but I suppose that will have to wait until the Matriarch returns from China.  Anyway, had I not lived Ranma’s life, thought his thoughts, remembered his memories, I probably would be fearing now that he might turn away from me and choose Shampoo instead.  But I know that won’t happen.  It wouldn’t have happened even before the Heart Link, but without that experience I wouldn’t have known it.  Hoped, yes, hoped with all my heart, but now I KNOW.  And so I cannot begrudge Shampoo the closeness to Ranma that the Heart Link requires.

It amazes me how well she is adjusting to school.  Of course, it helps that the academy in question is Furinkan, shrine of the abnormal.  A Chinese Amazon is nowhere near odd enough to call for comment, apparently.  The students have even accepted me without too much trouble.  I received a few odd glances, but the only real hostility I’ve encountered so far is from girls who resent me for taking Ranma-sama off the market.  And to think that I had always thought Ranma and Tachi were exaggerating when they told those stories about the craziness at their school!  It’s still hard to grasp the concept, but Ranma-sama’s life is consistently stranger than even my own, a thing I would not have thought possible before meeting him.  He seems to draw the bizarre as a lodestone does iron filings.  What does that say about me, I wonder, since he fell in love with me?

(Kodachi glanced at the ink level in her pen, and decided there probably wasn’t enough for her to write another essay on how that made her feel.)

I had expected Shampoo to have a miserable time at Furinkan, since after all Nabiki had painted a picture of her as a vicious killer back when she would regularly drop by the school to visit Tatewaki.  The students seem to have forgotten that, though… the boys are too busy hitting on her and the girls are too busy being jealous of that attention.  I think Shampoo is a little flattered by it, though she denies this.  And to be honest, I haven’t exactly seen an abundance of men there with enough spirit and skill to make good partners for her.  Ranma and Tachi, of course, are unavailable.  But there is one for whom I have hopes…

Ryoga is a curious mixture of stoicism and melancholia these days.  I think that somewhere, in the back of his mind, there had lurked the hope that one day Akane would forgive him for his deceptive role as her pet pig.  He has my sympathies, for it has become clear that the one truly responsible for those reprehensible actions was the Oni we battled, and not the honorable boy who is staying in my home now.  I still find myself at a loss to understand his attraction to Akane Tendo, though Nabiki has informed me that both Ranma-sama and myself are judging her unfairly.  According to her, Akane is normally sweet and kind, but easily provoked.  To which I responded with a raised eyebrow, and a query as to what I did to provoke my flight through her window.  It made my blood boil to hear that those liars from her team said *I* ambushed *them*, rather than the other way around.

But I digress.  Ryoga risked his life to rescue Akane from his demonic doppelganger.  Had it been any other threat from which he’d saved her, perhaps there would have been hope.  Perhaps she would have forgiven him.  But Akane apparently cannot now look upon Ryoga without seeing the face of the monster that abducted her.  That would have destroyed her and remade her into something terrible.  Ryoga takes great care to avoid her at school.  This hurts him, I know, but seeing Akane flinch upon encountering him must hurt much worse.  I am saddened to see him in such pain, and I hope that after it has had time to fade, and after the Heart Link finally wears off, he and Shampoo might be able to find comfort in one another.

Ranma feels for him as well, and is doing a commendable job of helping Ryoga cope with his grief.  Although, to be honest, the method he chose would never have occurred to me.  He is helping Ryoga to train, and his regimen is, to put it bluntly, brutal.  He drives Ryoga to push well beyond what his pupil conceives of as his limits.  He does so with virtually no hint of softness or mercy.  It bothers me to watch… not because Ranma-sama is too hard on his student, for Ryoga seems to find some grim satisfaction in the process, but because it reminds me of what I saw in my love’s mind.  The training method is the same as he experienced at the hands of his father, except toned down.

Yes, toned down.  I watch Ranma goad Ryoga on, telling him that he had better do better because he hasn’t hit his limits yet, and I remember Genma, showing disgust to an eight-year-old boy, telling him he was acting like a weak little girl, threatening to put him in a dress.  I remember the Cat Fist.  One day, there will be a reckoning for that.  It will come as soon as I am satisfied that neither Shampoo nor I will lose control of ourselves and inflict permanent damage upon the fool.  That may yet be quite some time in the future.

I still find myself at a loss to understand how a miserable failure such as Genma could have raised such a son.  Somehow, Ranma-sama has sifted through the mud and dross that is his father’s example, and for the most part he has retained only the few things of actual worth.  His training of Ryoga is one instance of this.  Ranma uses the same methods as Genma, designed to bring out all his pupil’s will to succeed, but he stops well short of actual abuse.  And Ryoga is increasing rapidly in skill.

In fact, we’re all breaking new personal ground.  After that debacle with the Oni, both Ranma and my brother have insisted that we learn to fight together as a group.  Long ago, Shampoo had heard of the Hiryu Shoten Ha, and after the battle she eventually brought the details of the attack back to mind.  Had we been able to stop the Oni before he hit the center of the spiral, her life wouldn’t have nearly been snuffed out.  But we got in each other’s way too much for that to happen.  We now spend several evenings a week practicing paired and group combat.  It requires a very different mindset from what any of us are accustomed to.

But it’s a nice change, to have someone at my back I can trust, to work together with a friend to defeat enemies I couldn’t alone.  Especially when the friend at my back is Ranma-sama…

(At this point, Kodachi decided the heck with it.  She went on to write until her pen ran dry.)

After winning the third game in a row, Genma decided to try something a little different.

He didn’t cheat at all on the next one.

And he still won easily.  Enough was enough, he decided.  “Tendo, what’s wrong with you?”

Soun looked up from the shogi board, and forced a smile.  “Sorry, old friend.  My heart’s just not in it right now.”

“And why not?”  Genma made a sweeping gesture, indicating the outdoors (and, through force of habit, using the distraction to palm several game pieces).  “It’s a glorious, peaceful day.  The sun is warm, the breeze is gentle… times like these come too rarely, Tendo.  You need to learn to treasure them.”

“So that when the next disaster occurs I’ll be able to take it in stride?” Soun asked sarcastically.

“Yes, exactly!”  His friend’s tone had gone right over Genma’s head.  “I don’t see why you’re so gloomy, old friend.”

“Saotome… do you remember, about three weeks ago you showed Akane the Whirling Dervish kata?  Has she mastered it yet?”

Both Soun and Genma had been involved in Akane’s training since Ranma left with Kodachi.  Genma still wasn’t sure whether it had been a desire on Akane’s part to show up his son, or win him back, or maybe something completely different.  Regardless, she had begun training much more diligently after that time, with both Soun and himself helping her.  Genma’s role was more specialized than her father’s… where Soun worked with Akane on the basics, the Saotome patriarch would show her special techniques.  He didn’t have to do much in the time that elapsed between showing her a new move and her mastering it and moving on to the next one, so Genma was glad she didn’t learn nearly as quickly as Ranma did.

“Well, not that I know of.  The last time I saw her attempt it was about two weeks ago, and she was still having trouble with the first inverted midair reverse spin kick.”  Genma frowned as something occurred to him.  “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen her practice the Art at all these past two weeks.”

“Exactly.”  Soun’s eyes teared up.  “She hasn’t even set foot in the dojo!  My little girl has lost all her fighting spirit!  Now the schools will never be joined!”  Then he blinked.  “Um… not that they were going to be anyway.”  Genma wasn’t the only one to do things through unconscious force of habit.  Regaining his momentum, he continued.  “Ever since that Oni kidnapped her, she hasn’t been the same.  I don’t think I’ve even once heard her laugh or seen her smile!”  He was working himself ever deeper into depression.  “Is it any wonder I’m upset?!  I don’t think there’s anything that could bring a smile to my face right now!”

“The Master is no longer part of our lives,” Genma said, playing his trump card.  Soun’s tears disappeared as if by magic, and a beatific grin split his face.

“Ahh, thanks, Saotome, I needed that.”  A gleam that had been absent so far that day reappeared in his eye.  “Care for a real game now?”

And yet, Genma reflected later that afternoon, it had only been a temporary respite.  His friend’s good humor had lasted for less than an hour before fading back into the melancholy of the morning.  He sighed.  Clearly he was going to have to go to greater lengths to bring Tendo’s spirits back up.  And anyway, it was well past time for Akane to stop this moping around and get back to the Art.  After all, with Ranma gone for good the only real justification Genma had for staying with the Tendos was his role in her training.  He wasn’t about to jeopardize that.

Akane was watching TV in the living room.  She blinked in surprise as the remote controller went sailing past her to strike the power button.  “Um… I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to use it, Mr Saotome.”

“A true martial artist scorns the easy path, and seeks training in all circumstances.  And speaking of which, I’d like to see how much you’ve progressed on the Whirling Dervish.”

Akane looked down at her hands, fingers twisted together in her lap.  “…”

“Well, come on girl, I’m not getting any younger.”

“Or less bald,” remarked Nabiki as she walked past in the hallway.  Genma studiously ignored the comment.

Akane swallowed.  “I’m… I’m sorry.  I’m not ready to…” her voice trailed off helplessly.

Genma took a good look, and mentally snorted in disgust.  He knew girls were weak, unfit for true martial arts mastery, but this was going too far.  Two weeks was ten days too long to still be letting something as minor as abduction by a demon weigh you down.  Why, Ranma had bounced right back into his training after the Cat Fist, which had to have been a worse experience.  It just went to show the superiority of men over women in the Art.  Still, he wasn’t about to let this slide.  How to motivate her to renewed efforts?

“Not ready?  Not ready to do the kata perfectly is one thing, but not ready even to try?  Bah!”  Let’s see, what had always worked on Ranma?  Ah, yes, that should do the trick.  He’d just have to tailor his gibes a bit for his different audience… “You sound like a weak little boy.  I guess I might as well go out and buy a tuxedo for you!”  Akane just stared at him as if what he’d said made no sense whatsoever.  Genma thought back over his last statement and concluded that was probably an accurate summation.  Time to switch to sage platitudes.

“Come, girl, the Art waits for no man, er, woman.  A true martial artist must be ready to give her all, whenever, wherever.”  Genma paused.  Platitudes didn’t seem to be having the desired effect either, but he tried one more anyway.  “You must be prepared to sacrifice even your life for the sake of the Art!”

At this, Akane’s mouth twitched into a crooked grin… it was a bitter smile, but it was the first she’d had in over two weeks.  “ ‘My life, yes.  My humanity is another story.’ ”

“Girl…” Genma growled, sounding so ursine Akane had to wonder whether it had somehow been fate that he should fall in the spring of drowned panda bear.  “That incident with the Oni is in the past.  A true martial artist learns from the past and moves on.”

Akane looked him in the eye, then sighed and walked off toward her room.  Over her shoulder she said, “I’m still learning, Mr Saotome.  And I don’t know where I’m going yet.”

“Do you want to talk about it, little sister?”

Akane looked up from the textbook.  She’d been staring at the same page for several minutes, not really seeing the words on it.  She hadn’t even heard the door open, but here standing next to her were Nabiki and Kasumi.  Her oldest sister was wearing an expression of concerned sympathy.  Nabiki looked uncomfortable, which didn’t surprise Akane.  The middle Tendo wasn’t at her best in heart-to-heart talks, and Akane could see quite clearly that that was what Kasumi was pushing for.

‘But I’m not ready…’  Aloud, she said, “Talk about what, Kasumi?”

Kasumi politely deflected the inquiry, turning toward Nabiki with an expectant look on her face.  Nabiki groaned mentally.  All right, maybe she HAD been the one to overhear first Soun’s discussion with Genma, then Akane’s dispirited reaction to the old panda’s challenge.  Maybe she HAD been the one to convince Kasumi that they needed to do this.  But she’d expected her older sister to be the one handling the actual conversation; Nabiki felt she’d done her part by bringing things to this point.  Why shouldn’t Kasumi take over?  She was the one who was good at this stuff, not Nabiki!  Then a flash of inspiration struck the middle Tendo.

In a tone as crisp and businesslike as she could manage, Nabiki said, “The way you keep moping around the house is pretty pathetic, Akane.  And I never thought you’d let a little thing like an Oni make you give up on martial arts.  I wonder what Ranma would say if he saw you now.”

All the blood drained from Akane’s face.  Her mouth opened and closed repeatedly, looking for all the world like a fish gasping for air.  Only Nabiki could manage to cram so many different insults into that short a speech, she thought dimly with one corner of her mind.  The rest of her mind was struggling to decide which of those slanders to address first.

“Nabiki!”  Kasumi was horrified.  Turning to her youngest sister, the Tendo matriarch said gently, “Akane, we really miss your smiling face, and your energy.  It’s been like living with a stranger these past two weeks.  You’ve just drifted along.  Father said he hasn’t even seen you smile, and I don’t think I have either.  It’s not good to keep hurt bottled up in you like this.”

“And for crying out loud, it’s not like anything permanent happened to you.  So you got kidnapped by an Oni.  Big, fat, hairy deal.”  By now, Kasumi was seriously beginning to regret including Nabiki in this conversation.  The oldest Tendo had never heard of the ‘good cop, bad cop’ approach.  “Ranma rescued you before the spell could have any effect, right?  I think it might be kinda fun, actually, if some monster grabbed me and took me off somewhere, but didn’t do anything else, and then Tachi came along and saved me.”  Nabiki felt a moment’s qualm about bringing Ranma into this so heavily, but she decided this was as good an opportunity as Akane was going to get to let go of that particular part of the past.

“Fun?!”  This was where the old, familiar anger should have risen up… but all she felt was cold and miserable inside.  “You think it would be fun, Nabiki?”  She stared into her sister’s eyes as intently as she could.  “Fun, for a demon to show up and say he loved you?  Loved you because you were just like him?  What if an Oni dragged you off and told you how much he got turned on by the way you put money above people?  What if he said he was going to make you even more mercenary than you are now?”

“That is NOT true!” said Nabiki, with the forceful denial of one for whom it had almost been true.  “I don’t- ”  Akane cut her off.

“What if he told you that as an Oni, you’d have powers that could make you the richest woman in Nerima?”  Akane began to tremble, and tears started leaking out of her eyes.  “W- what if when he said that, you wanted it?  Just a little, but what if y- you wanted to t- take him up on his offer?”

Kasumi enfolded her little sister in a hug, and Akane broke down completely.  She cried for quite some time.  Nabiki wished she had the guts to slip out while the opportunity presented itself.  But after Akane finally finished crying and regained her composure, the middle Tendo was glad she’d stayed.

“I don’t mean that, Nabiki.  I know that’s not how you are anymore.”  Akane couldn’t meet her sisters’ gazes.  “But that’s just what happened to me.  He said I was special, because… because I got so angry all the time.  And when he said… if I was an Oni, I could beat Kodachi…” she couldn’t finish, instead just looking down at the floor.

“Is beating her so important to you, Akane?” Kasumi asked gently.

“It was then.”  Akane shuddered a little.  “She never loses, oh, no, what Miss Kuno wants Miss Kuno gets handed to her on a silver platter.  At least that’s what it feels like.  Do you know how much trouble grandfather Happosai caused at the school, big sister?  Do you know how hard I tried to stop it?  And all I got was humiliated.  But as soon as Kodachi gets back, she takes him out without even trying.”

“Akane, let’s at least be honest.  The reason you don’t like her has nothing to do with Happosai.”  And that, Nabiki decided, was that.  If this weren’t enough to get Akane to face the core issue, she wouldn’t push anymore.

“It IS part of it, Nabiki.  It’s just the same thing, all over again- her getting whatever she wants.”  Then Akane heaved a deep sigh.  “But fine, if you want me to say it outright, I will.  It hurt, when she took Ranma away like that.

“Do you know what it felt like, back then?  I could see he liked her.  He was already sneaking around behind my back to be with her.  You remember, how she said I had no chance to beat her in the gymnastics match?  She treated me like my skills as a martial artist were a joke, like she didn’t have any respect for me at all.  Just like Ranma.  And then he goes and throws the fight to her, which is just like saying I’m not good enough for him to stick with the engagement, except he doesn’t come right out and say it, he just takes a coward’s way out.”

“Akane, that is NOT what happened!”  Nabiki would have continued, but her sister gestured for her to wait.

Akane sighed again.  “I know.  But that’s what it looked like then.  Remember what Kodachi said, during the fight? ‘If you were fighting at your full strength, you could have beaten me by now.’ What was I supposed to think when I heard that?”

“Akane, did you even want to keep Ranma as your fiancé?  You fought so often, after all.  And it certainly wasn’t nice of him not to tell you about Ryoga.”

“Kasumi, I just don’t know!  I was glad when he was gone, and hurt that he’d throw me away like that, and determined to show both of them that I was a martial artist too, and I don’t know what else I felt!  And it sure didn’t get any better after that, with every girl at school being so nice and sympathetic to me, for ‘losing such a dreamy hunk as Ranma’, when half of them were saying behind my back that I was too much of a tomboy to ever get a real man like that!”

Akane paused, then continued in a leaden tone.  “And it’s not like they were wrong.  Nabiki, when was the last time you hit Kuno?  Or called him some ugly name?”

“Umm… well, there was one time I slapped him… back when I thought he’d taken advantage of my amnesia to spend the day with Shampoo…”  Nabiki was more than a little uncomfortable remembering just how stupid that assumption had been.  She consoled herself with the thought that the Xi Fang Gao had probably suppressed her good sense as far as Tachi was concerned as well as her memories.

“Oh, gee, one time, in about six months.  You’re going to have to try harder, Nabiki, if you want to match my record.  I put my fiancé through the wringer on a daily basis,” the youngest Tendo said bitterly.  “I didn’t even give him a chance, just decided right away he was like all the boys that were challenging me at school.

“And speaking of that…” Akane pinned Nabiki with a gimlet stare.  “When you started dating Kuno, you told me he hadn’t been trying to beat me to date me.  You said he just wanted a decent challenge, and I was the only one who could give it to him.  Well, I can admit now that that’s a load of bull.  I’ve seen him spar with Ranma, and I’m sick of denying the truth.  Would you please tell me what the real reason was?”

Nabiki frantically called up every scrap of her cunning.  “He did want a challenge… the challenge was to build up your speed without you realizing it was training.”  That was the best spin she could put on it, but she realized even as she spoke that her version wasn’t much less demeaning than the unvarnished truth.

“Pretty big ego your boyfriend’s got,” Akane remarked sarcastically.  “Of course, he’s good enough to back it up.  Just like Ranma.”  Kasumi decided this was a good time to move the conversation along.

“And what about your training?  Father was so glad to be spending more time with you.  And you used to be so excited whenever Mr Saotome would show you a new move.  We miss that excitement, Akane.  Don’t you?”

“Kasumi… don’t you guys get it?!  I don’t want to be that person anymore!”  Akane looked desperately from one sister to the other.  “I don’t want the anger, or the ugliness.  I don’t want to be a person an Oni would love!  I don’t want to think I’m better than everyone else!  And that’s just what I always did think, back when I would break a stack of bricks, or smash my way through all those boys in the morning at school!  I can’t deal with that anymore.  I won’t.”

“So what you want is self-control and peace.  Is that right?”


Kasumi smiled, both apologetically and triumphantly (a nice trick, if you can manage it).  “Then you need to put on a gi and head straight back to the dojo, little sister.”

Looking at Akane’s helpless expression, she continued, “It’s been many years since I practiced martial arts, Akane, but I still remember the very first lesson Father taught me.  He said that the Art wasn’t about force, or defeating an opponent no matter the cost.  It’s about control- learning to control yourself, to better yourself, to learn to do new things that you couldn’t do otherwise.  He told me that peace and harmony were very important to a martial artist, much more important than strength and speed.  That was how he encouraged me to start learning.  And even if I stopped, when… when there wasn’t enough time to spare anymore, I’m still glad I learned that focus and peace.”  She gave an encouraging smile.  “Do you remember now, Akane?  Do you remember the first lesson Father taught?”

Akane got a very sheepish look on her face.  “Um, actually, the way he got me started was by setting up a stack of bricks and smashing them, then telling me I could learn to do the same thing.”

“Oh, my.”

“But you’re right, Kasumi.”  A look of determination lit up Akane’s eyes.  “Dad might not ever have come out and said it like that to me, but he did teach me that martial arts is about honor and self-control.  I think it IS time I remembered that.”

A few mornings later, at the Kuno mansion…

Shampoo tapped her foot impatiently.  “Hurry, bandana boy.  We no want to be late again!” 

“Lunchbox… check.  Textbooks… check.  Homework… check.  Raincoat… check.  Thermos of hot water… check.  Two changes of clothing… check.  First-aid kit… check.  Crash helmet… check.  Gas mask… check.  Taser gun… check.  Bulletproof vest… check.  Organ donor card… check.”  Ryoga somehow managed to fit all the aforementioned items into a backpack.  “Okay, I’m ready.”

Kodachi shook her head in mild amazement as the four of them set off for school.  “Do you really think all that is necessary, Ryoga?”

Ryoga shuddered.  “Yes, I do,” he said vehemently.  “Why couldn’t they have put me in class with you guys?  Instead I got stuck with a bunch of lunatics.”

“I’m sorry.  I tried, but it was all I could do to get both myself and Shampoo assigned to Ranma’s classroom.  Apparently it’s already over the normal limit of students.”

Ranma spoke up.  “Maybe we could get Nabiki to transfer you to some other room.  Just what kinda stuff goes on in that class of yours, anyway?”

Ryoga sighed.  “It didn’t get bad until the last couple of days, but it started a week ago.  Koga is the leader of the chemistry club, Shinji is the captain of the croquet team, they’re both in my class, and they’re both trying to date the same girl.  I don’t know exactly what happened, but apparently they each pulled a dirty trick to make the other look bad to Akemi, and now their clubs are at war.”

“Who Akemi?  Is girl they both want to date?” Shampoo asked.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

A smile crossed Shampoo’s face.  Noting the others’ quizzical expressions, she said, “Is good to know at least two boys not going to pester me for dates.”

“Well, anyway, since there’s four other members of the chem club in my class, and three croquet players, things never stay quiet for long.  At least they try to keep it covert, during regular classes… the most you generally have to watch out for then is knockout gas, or a stray ball shooting along the floor and clipping your ankles…”  Ryoga’s expression changed to dismay.  “Oh, no.  I forgot my shin pads and ankle guards!”  He sighed.  Too late to do anything about it now- they hadn’t exactly left early.  “If I’m limping this afternoon, you’ll know why.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad, Ryoga.  At least, it doesn’t explain the bulletproof vest. And what of the taser?”

Ryoga grimaced.  “Two words, Kodachi… gym class.”

The group passed through the school gates, and Ryoga reluctantly separated from the others.  “Once more into the breach,” he muttered grimly as he made his way to his homeroom.

Shampoo was thinking much the same thing.  Ignoring the sour looks being directed her way wasn’t that hard.  She was used to worse than that in her village, and anyway it was mostly the unattached girls who resented her.  The ones with faithful boyfriends were cautious, but she felt like there was potential at least for more friendships eventually.  No, the situation with the girls was nothing she had any trouble handling.

“Shampoo, what’d you think of that math assignment?  Pretty rough, huh?  It took me a whole hour to finish it.  Say, if you like, I could look over your work, check out your answers.”

“Butt out, Yoshi.  A girl like her wouldn’t be interested in a geek like you.  Hey, Shampoo, I just happened to get tickets to Key’s latest concert.  A bunch of us are going and you’d be more than welcome to come along.”

“Who’d want to listen to that scrawny little girl?  Besides, if she went to a concert like that, she’d put Key out of business.  Nobody’d bother to listen when they could pay attention to a real woman like Shampoo instead.”

“You really are a sleaze, you know that, Hiro?  Shampoo, I miss going to the Nekohanten.  That was my favorite place to eat.  When are you gonna open it up again?”

Kodachi and Ranma watched, in no good humor, as the tide of teenage boys swirled around their friend.  “This was amusing at first, Ranma-kun, and I confess I actually welcomed it then.  I thought it would do Shampoo good to know she is appreciated.  But now I believe they are doing more harm than good.”

“No joke.  I don’t want Shampoo thinkin’ this is what Japanese guys are like.”

Kodachi gave Ranma an incredulous stare, then reminded herself of how he’d spent the last thirteen years.  “Um, Ranma, I hate to break it to you, but that IS what most guys our age are like.”  She smiled and took his arm.  “Why do you think I fell so hard so fast for you?”

“I just thought you had excellent taste,” he said with a grin.  Then both their gazes were drawn back to Shampoo, who was beginning to show signs of real distress.  Ranma sighed and prepared to step in when it became unnecessary.

Shampoo dropped her bookbag, whipped out her bonbori, and screamed, “BACK OFF OR SHAMPOO START BUSTING HEADS!”  As if by magic, the area around her was suddenly cleared of overendowed (hormonally, that is) teenage boys.  “Maybe Mousse part Japanese?” she muttered, then picked up her bag.  “Would explain how he know language so good.”

“Heh.  That’d be funny,” Ranma smirked.  Shampoo and Kodachi looked at him questioningly.  “Just a thought… what if we could get him here, and set him up against all those jerks?  I’d love to see him try to fight that many guys all at once and get plowed under.”

Shampoo sniffed.  “I like to see too, but on videotape, not in person.  Better than bring Mousse here, would be to send all stupid boys to China.”  Still, the reminder of how bad things weren’t was enough to dramatically brighten her mood.  She was so GLAD that when Great-Grandmother had first learned of her conflict of honor with multiple Airens, the Matriarch had flatly forbidden Mousse to come to Japan!  Shampoo knew that he would have only made things worse otherwise.  Probably much worse.

Kodachi shook her head.  “It still seems a little odd when you do that, Ranma-kun, talk about Mousse as if  you had met him.  After all, you only know him from Shampoo’s memories.”

A wide grin split Shampoo’s face as she suddenly looked over Kodachi’s shoulder and waved.  “Hey, Ucchan, over here!”

Kodachi spun around, a welcoming smile appearing on her face.  “Ucchan?  Where?  I don’t see… him…”  She turned back to her friend, who wasn’t even trying to stifle her giggles.  Ranma had a pretty silly grin on his face too.  Kodachi tried to look stern, but found it only slightly less difficult than picking up Mt Fuji would have been.  “Very funny.  Come on, you comedienne, we need to get to class.”

The lunch bell rang, unfortunately just as Shampoo was sneezing.  As a result, she missed the single most diverting sight of the day- the classroom emptied itself of everyone but herself, Ranma, and the White Rose before she could open her eyes again.  With a mental sigh, the Amazon excused herself, threaded her way through the overturned desks, and left Ranma and Kodachi to the one bit of private time they’d be able to get during the school day.  No sense in eating alone, though… that was just asking for the boys to come swarming over her.  She retrieved her lunch box and went to find Ryoga, trying not to dwell on the scene she was leaving behind her.

Ranma and Kodachi stepped out of a side door of the school, out of the way of everyone’s attention.  Each watched the other out of the corner of his or her eye.  Tension mounted.  Muscles tensed…

And then the tableau broke as Ranma jumped backward, using a nearby willow tree as a springboard to launch himself toward the rooftop.  Nearly simultaneously, Kodachi snared an outcropping gargoyle on the third floor with her ribbon and used it to swing herself into the air.  The two scrambled madly, each determined to reach their goal first.  With a series of leaps, Ranma secured the lead.  He was almost at rooftop level when he felt a sudden downdraft grab him and begin pulling him back toward the earth.  Looking down, he realized Kodachi had abandoned the Indiana Jones method and was lifting herself with her Rotary Ribbon technique.  He was caught in the slipstream, being pulled back toward her.  “Showoff,” Ranma muttered with a wry grin, even as she caught up with him and slipped an arm around his waist.

Kodachi grinned herself as the two of them rose to the point where their chests were level with the rooftop… then let go of Ranma, pushing him laterally forward so that he ended up clinging with one hand to the crenellations of the border running just below the level of the roof.  “I win,” she said sweetly as she sailed past him.

“That’s what you think, Dachi-chan!”  Ranma’s free hand shot out.  For a split second his palm was flat against the sole of her foot… and then, with a massive push that made her heart beat like a jackhammer, he sent her flying skyward.  By the time she halted her heavenward rush and managed to head back toward terra more-or-less firma, Ranma had already spread out the tablecloth they kept up there and seated himself at it.  Kodachi descended gracefully to meet him, thinking it would serve him right if she had been wearing a skirt rather than a pantsuit.

Back on the ground, Sakura shaded her eyes and squinted into the sky.  “Isn’t that Kodachi floating in the air?” she asked wonderingly.

Sakura gave her friend a strange glance, then looked herself, but by that time the White Rose had landed.  “Come on, that’s crazy, even for a place like Furinkan,” she said.

“Yeah,” Sakura said to the other two, “it was probably some new design from the Kite Club.  You’re just seeing Kodachi because you’re so jealous of her for getting Ranma for herself.”

“Hmmph.  If I was going to see things because of that, don’t you think I’d rather hallucinate Ranma instead?”

“I am impressed, Ranma-kun.”  Kodachi gave him a seductive smile.  “You certainly know how to take me to new heights.”

“Hey, Pop would turn over in his grave if I lost an aerial competition,” Ranma returned.  He was a little proud of himself for not freezing at the innuendo as he would have not so long before.

“In his grave?”  A look of puzzlement crossed his girlfriend’s features.  “What do you mean by that?”

On his way to the market, Genma experienced a sudden feeling of danger.  He glanced around, saw nothing out of place, and dismissed it.  It was probably just a natural reaction to the fact that Kasumi seemed to finally have gotten over her reluctance to send him off on errands.  Why couldn’t he have had a second son, Genma wondered idly.  Then he would still have a boy to inherit the Dojo, who would be the one the Tendo matriarch sent off to pick up things from the market, without losing the benefit of a fantastically wealthy future daughter-in-law who… his eyes teared up and he reverently removed the handkerchief from his head, holding it over his heart… who was more than a match for the Master.

He stood there for almost five minutes before reluctantly shaking himself back to reality.  He replaced the handkerchief over his head and set off again… only to stop short as a menacing figure stepped out of an alley.

“Genma Saotome.  Well, what do you know.  I didn’t expect to meet up with you quite so soon.”

The survival instinct that was so necessary for life in Nerima kicked in, and the street was empty of all save Genma and his adversary before the latter had finished the statement.

“Who are you?” Genma blustered, while preparing for what looked like an inevitable confrontation.  The way the other was cradling that large polearm certainly made it seem unlikely that Kasumi would be getting her green onions anytime soon.

“I’m the child you left behind.  Ukyo!”

“Oh, Pop’s fine,” Ranma answered.  “But I overheard you talking with Shampoo about what you plan to do to pay him back for the C- Ca… the way he trained me.”  He sighed.  “He ain’t much, but he’s the only father I got for now.  Don’t be too hard on the old idiot, okay?”

Kodachi heaved an exaggerated sigh of disappointment.  “You’re too good for your own good, Ranma-kun.”  She didn’t expect him to recognize this as a dodge rather than an agreement, and wasn’t surprised when he didn’t.  Then she thought back over two seemingly innocuous words of her boyfriend’s.  Raising an eyebrow, she asked, “What did you mean, ‘for now’?”

Ranma felt his heart nearly seize up.  “D- did I say that?”

“You did,” his girlfriend said… or perhaps purred would be a better description.  She leaned forward.  “Are you planning to add another member to your family soon… Ranma-sama?”

“Ahhh…”  For just a moment, Ranma was vaguely conscious of a tremendous struggle going on just below the surface of his conscious mind.  Thirteen long years on the road with Genma had done nothing to lessen the absolute unfamiliarity of the territory he was in.  This unfamiliarity had been warring with some very powerful instinctive desires for a while now, and actually holding them at bay.  However, since the Heart Link, the tide had slowly but inexorably turned.  And so it was that now Ranma found his anxiety suddenly seemed to dwindle.  It was still there, but somehow it didn’t matter that much anymore.  He slowly began to lean forward as well…

…when a burst of pain and loneliness knifed through his heart, making him gasp and breaking the mood utterly.

“Ranma!  Are you all right?”  Kodachi made the switch from coquettish to concerned in the blink of an eye.

“Yeah.  I’m fine,” he said, but he didn’t sound fine to her.  He was looking quite depressed.  She waited expectantly for him to continue.

Ranma sighed, took her hand, and led her to the edge of the roof, pointing to a tree far off to one side of the school grounds.  Kodachi could barely make out the figures of Ryoga and Shampoo there.

“You know how the Heart Link lets you know where I am and how I’m feeling, Dachi?  You know how, when we’re apart, sometimes you’ll get a random glimpse of what’s in my heart, even without tryin’?”  She nodded, already seeing where this was going.  “Just now I had one of those, from Shampoo.”

She waited for him to go on.  It was minute or two before he did.  “I hate what I’ve done to her, Dachi-chan- she deserves a lot better than this.  I didn’t mean to make her fall in love with me!  I never wanted to ruin her life!”

Kodachi resisted the urge to roll her eyes.  “Ranma-kun, that’s ridiculous.  You haven’t ruined her life.”

“Oh, yeah?  Remember who knows exactly what she’s feeling?  She’d be better off never to have met me than to be hurtin’ like this!”  The pain Ranma was feeling now was all his own, not borrowed through the Heart Link.

“Not true,” Kodachi said firmly.  “She’s told me what her life was like before she left her village chasing after you.  You have her memories, Ranma.  Tell me truly, do you think she would want to have never had that situation change?”

Ranma gave this due consideration, and was forced to say, “No.  You’re right, when I beat her and she came after me, I did her a favor.  But that just makes the rest of it worse!  She was happy, for a while there.  She had real friends.  She was happy when she didn’t want nothin’ more from me.  And then I had to go and mess that up!”  Ranma’s voice cracked.  “I don’t want to hurt her, Dachi!  Just like you, I guess, now.  I can’t stand the thought of hurting somebody that badly.  Especially not a friend.”

Kodachi hugged him tightly.  “Ranma-kun… there are many different kinds of pain.  And sometimes you have to let people you care about get hurt.  Remember when I was twelve, and I asked Father why he sometimes bruised Tachi when they practiced Kendo?  He told me that for most people, learning to fight through pain is necessary to be a true warrior.  And it’s an incentive to learn more quickly.”

“Yeah, I do remember that.”  She’d been horrified to see her brother in pain, he recalled, even though the bruises were light enough to fade in less than a day.  But Tatewaki had told her that he didn’t mind, that he knew Father would never really hurt him.  And he hadn’t, and her brother had become the best Kendoist any of them knew.

“It is the same thing now.  I’m sorry for Shampoo, and I too wish she didn’t hurt now.  But it is not your fault, Ranma.  She needed a friend, and you were there for her as a friend.  Tell me truly, did you ever lead her on or encourage her to think you might want more from her?”  She was confident of the answer.

“Well… not unless you count the instant love pill.”  At this, Kodachi did roll her eyes.  “No, you’re right, that doesn’t count.  She was already in love with me then.”  Ranma still didn’t look like he was feeling much better.  “But even if you’re absolutely right, and none of it’s my fault, she’s still hurtin’ now, and that still makes me feel terrible.”

“Ranma-kun, there is something you’ve lost by the wayside, that you need to recover.”  The White Rose paused for dramatic emphasis, then took a deep breath.  Unfortunately, in doing so she inhaled some dust or something, and went into a coughing fit.  Recovering after a minute, she muttered sourly, “So much for drama.”  In a louder voice she continued, “Hope, Ranma.  You need to find hope again.  Shampoo will not hurt forever.  And we will be there, as her friends, to help her through this.  Some of life’s lessons hurt, but you’re still a better person once you’ve learned them.  So I don’t want to hear any more nonsense about you having ruined Shampoo’s life.  Someday, she’ll find the right man for her.”

“Guess you’re right,” said Ranma.  Everything she’d said made sense, after all.  Sooner or later, the Heart Link would wear off, and Shampoo would be free to build a life for herself.

So why didn’t that thought comfort him any?

Ukyo regarded the twisted, battered, and partially hydrogenated martial artist flattened on the pavement before her.  He looked like the world’s biggest and ugliest okonomiyaki.  “Well, I feel better,” she remarked out loud.  “We’ll have to do this again sometime, Genma.”  A whimper was her only answer.

Whistling a cheerful tune, the cross-dressing chef took her leave.  She hadn’t intended to challenge him quite so soon, but when she’d seen him in the street she’d found herself unable to wait any longer. Ukyo had decided a long time ago that Genma would be her first target, since she’d want the element of surprise when she went against the more experienced fighter.  Depending on how well she did, she’d know whether to challenge Ranma right away or train some more first.

And the way she’d demolished the elder Saotome decided things.  Her mind made up, Ukyo made her way to Furinkan High School.  It was too late to start attending classes today, but at least she could register… and do her best to get them to put her in the same classroom as a certain Wild Horse.

Back at the scene of the crime, the flattened figure of Genma was attracting some curious stares and commentary.  He tried to ignore this, concentrating instead on recovering.

Off to one side, a latecomer regarded the bruised figure with sympathy.  “What happened?” Kyunnosuke asked a nearby merchant.  “Was he mugged?”

Unfortunately, the shopkeeper had only seen what transpired at a distance, and had gotten the wrong impression.  “Nah, it was just a piece of performance art.  This kid treated the guy like he was a pancake or something, whipping him around and flattening him on the pavement with a giant spatula.”

An odd gleam appeared in Kyunnosuke’s eyes.  “Performance art.  Did you say performance art?!”  The nervous merchant nodded, and Kyunnosuke strode over to Genma, who had recovered enough to sit upright now.

As the shadow fell over him, the elder Saotome looked up, fearing the return of Ukyo.  His relief at seeing someone else was short-lived as Kyunnosuke spoke.  “My pet pig, Tomeang, was killed in a piece of performance art that got out of hand.  Ever since then, I’ve made it my mission to punish you demons.”  His level tone changed to one of strident rage.  “SO YOU WANT TO BE FLAT?!  WELL, I CAN MAKE YOUR WISH COME TRUE!!”  With that, Kyunnosuke lifted a mailbox and made good his promise.  Eventually the red haze left his vision and he staggered off.

Two-dimensional once again, Genma could only look up into the sky and mentally ask, ‘Do the Kami really hate me so much?’  The only answer the heavens gave was a thirty-second rain shower.

Zipping around the corner on her rollerblades, Azusa Shiratori came to a sudden stop.  “What a cute panda-skin rug!”

The intercom buzzed, and Principal Fujima looked at it with a familiar sense of dread.  Possibly it would be something as pleasant as another donation from the Kuno family, but good news like that came all too seldom.  As the head of Furinkan high school, he knew better than to expect the best.

With a sigh, he answered the call, then listened to the news with a sense of guarded relief.  It wasn’t another infestation of water-spirits in the plumbing, nor had another teacher been revealed as a criminal mastermind trying to recruit kids for a power base.  It was just the arrival of a new student, needing to register before starting class on the morrow.  Fujima told himself it was too early to feel relieved- after all, this could easily turn out to be yet another ‘exceptional’ student.  But surely not.  It had been only two weeks since Furinkan had added to its ranks a gymnast with superhuman enhancements, a Chinese Amazon, and a former half-Oni martial artist who transformed into a little black pig when splashed with cold water.  By the law of averages, it should be at least two more months before the school gained anyone else that potentially disruptive.

Fujima consoled himself with these thoughts.  A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door of his office.  “Come in,” he said.  At the sight of the oversized cooking implement the boy wore strapped across his back, not to mention the bandoleer of throwing spatulas across his chest, the principal mentally sighed.  Even as the two exchanged greetings, Fujima was reflecting that the law of averages owed him big-time for this.

“Tell me something about yourself, Kuonji.”  Time to find out just how bad this was.  The principal locked his features into a neutral expression and engaged his Esper abilities, reading first the surface thoughts and then the deeper mental currents of the young…

…woman?!  Fujima repressed a wince.  ‘I’m too old to be dealing with kids these days,’ he thought.

Unaware of the futility of the effort, Ukyo spoke in her best impression of a male voice.   “What would you like to know?”

“Why are you transferring in the middle of the semester?”

Ukyo gestured at the traditional okonomiyaki seller’s outfit she was wearing.  “Okonomiyaki is my family’s trade.  And we’re the best there is.  I decided it was time to open my own restaurant, and I came to Nerima from Kyoto so I wouldn’t have to compete with any of my family.”

Fujima scanned her memories.  That was leaving out a BIG piece of her motivation, but he saw she’d told the truth.  She was devoted to the art of the okonomiyaki.  His mood brightened considerably as he realized he had the perfect way to persuade her to go cause trouble at some other school.  “I’m sorry, Kuonji, but we have strict rules that students at Furinkan not be employed during the school year.  It’s for your own benefit.  I’m afraid I cannot compromise on this point.”

Ukyo frowned.  That sounded like a challenge to her.  “Don’t you think that’s a little selfish, Sir?  I mean, when you say I can’t run my restaurant, you’re not just affecting me.  You’re keeping my art from my customers as well.  How can you doom so many people to dark, hopeless lives of emptiness?  Don’t you care about your karma at all?”

Another mental probe, and the incredulous principal realized she actually believed what she was saying.  This girl scared him, he decided.  But mixed in with the fear was more than a hint of curiosity.  Just how good was her cooking, anyway?

As if sensing a weakness, Ukyo struck.  She produced a grill from nowhere and whipped up a deluxe okonomiyaki in seconds.  “Here, on the house, just to help you realize what you’re missing.”

Cautiously, Fujima took a bite… and then the delicacy disappeared with a speed that would have done credit to a Saotome.  Ukyo grinned and prepared two more, which the principal consumed at a more modest pace.  ‘I’m going to regret this,’ Fujima thought to himself, but his stomach told him in no uncertain terms that he’d regret it more if he did manage to drive her off.  Aloud, he said, “You make a persuasive argument, Kuonji.  I suppose it wouldn’t hurt that much to make one exception to the rule.  As long as you keep your grades up, or at least provide a discount to faculty members, you can run your restaurant outside of school hours.”

“Thanks, Sir.”  Seeing how mellow he had become, Ukyo’s hopes for her special request rose.  “By the way, when I was deciding which school to come to, I picked Furinkan because I knew someone here already.  Ranma Saotome.  He and I are old friends, and I was wondering, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, if you could put me in the same class as him?”

Fujima felt his throat go dry at the thought.  Putting this girl, with her intense desire for vengeance against Ranma, in the same classroom as Kodachi and Shampoo… he wouldn’t have a school, he’d have a smoking crater.  For appearances’ sake he consulted his records.  “I’m afraid that’s not possible, Kuonji,” he eventually said, managing to sound regretful.  “Saotome’s classroom is already over the normal limit of students.”

Ukyo sighed.  But it didn’t really matter, she told herself.  It wasn’t like she’d been planning to start a fight during class, after all.  “I understand.”

Meanwhile, Fujima was trying to decide where best to put her.  An idea occurred to him, and he probed her thoughts once again.  He smiled a little as he found no interest in chemistry or croquet.  It was settled, he decided, she’d go in room 4-C.  If he read her personality rightly, it wouldn’t be long before she got fed up with the warfare between the clubs and fought back.  And that should be enough to spark Hibiki to action as well.  With any luck, his problems with that classroom would soon be over…

An ominous rumble of thunder resounded throughout Nerima.  But since the principal’s office was soundproofed, he remained unaware of this.  

Even the loneliest river winds its way at last to the sea.  By the same token, even the longest school day eventually ends.  Not that this particular day had seemed longer than usual- only about two subjective weeks had passed since the lunch bell.  As Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo made their way out through the halls of Furinkan, more than ready for the freedom of the afternoon, the White Rose was wondering idly whether temporality could really be all that absolute.  After all, time she spent with Ranma flashed past blindingly fast, yet at Furinkan the reverse effect held true.  Perhaps someday someone would learn how to bend time to their own will.  She was woken from these metaphysical musings when she noticed Shampoo was shaking her head a little.  “Is something wrong, Shampoo?” she asked.

“Not wrong… Shampoo just wondering about how Japanese students have such strange ways of thinking.”

“Whaddaya mean?” Ranma asked.

By now they had left the school building, and paused to wait for Ryoga.  Shampoo gestured to the students walking away.  Some were in little groups, others were alone.  Quite a few of the boys were giving the Amazon longing looks, but since Ranma and Kodachi had taken up flanking positions around her, she wasn’t approached.  “Look around.  They all walking away from school now.  But at lunch they run like madmans.  It not make any sense to Shampoo that they more eager for lunch than they is for freedom.”

Kodachi frowned a frown of puzzlement.  “I never actually thought about it, but you’re right.  Why IS there such a rush at lunch?”

Ranma snorted.  “On the day you girls forget your lunches, and haveta fight your way to the lunch lady before all the good stuff gets bought by other people, you’ll understand.”

“And we not have to fight like that, because we bring own lunches.”  Shampoo obviously wasn’t enlightened yet.  “So why they not do same thing?”

Ranma opened his mouth, then found he had no idea.  “Ummm… it’s a mystery, all right.”

The Amazon sniffed.  “Is not only way students is stupid.  I getting real tired of weak boys who not take no for an answer.”

Ranma shrugged.  “Hey, it could be worse.  Remember, back when I first started coming here, the boys were as fixated on Akane Tendo as they are on you now.  And there was this whacked-out morning ritual when thirty or forty of them would gang up on Akane and try to beat her up.  They thought whoever beat her would get to date her.  So look on the bright side, Shampoo- at least these idiots don’t know about the Amazon custom of challenging someone to a fight for their love.”

Kodachi glanced around nervously, then breathed a sigh of relief.  There was nobody else within earshot.  She could just picture what would happen if someone had overheard that.

Behind a bush that should have been much too small to conceal anyone, Gosunkugi pricked up his ears.  He’d been waiting for Akane to come out, ready to snap a few clandestine photos of her, and hadn’t expected to hear anything this interesting.  So Shampoo was another one of those girls who only liked strong men?  It figured.  Maybe once he’d passed this tidbit of information along, the other boys would give him a little respect.

The next morning found Akane doing something she hadn’t done in quite a while.  As she walked along the canal on her way to Furinkan, the youngest Tendo occasionally glanced at the fence running beside her.  She’d avoided this way to school for a long time now.  She had gotten used to taking a longer route, which required her to leave much earlier than she otherwise would have wanted to.  Akane had told herself she was doing it for the exercise, but in reality she hadn’t wanted to face the memories this route evoked.  She’d been all set to take the longer path again this morning.  But then, as if of their own volition, her feet had steered her back down the old road.

Akane slowed down and then stopped, wondering just why today was so different.  It didn’t take her long to come to a conclusion- she was still feeling a sense of personal triumph from last night, when she’d performed the Whirling Dervish kata perfectly.  She stood in the road, with her eyes closed, savoring again the feeling of success, and remembered whose encouragement had been so crucial for her.  “Thank you, Kasumi,” she said.

And then she opened her eyes and looked at the fence, deliberately imagining a brash, larger-than-life pigtailed martial artist striding easily along the top of it.  “And thank you… Ranma,” Akane whispered.

It still hurt, a little.  But she had taken a lot of time lately to look at herself, not just where she’d been but where she was heading, and she found she liked the latter a lot better than the former.  And try as she might, Akane couldn’t imagine being where she was now without Ranma’s influence on her life.  Even as short as his stay had been, he had left her changed.

Akane thought about that a little more, and then about how Ranma just seemed to breeze his way through any challenge that arose.  She’d only seen a bit of that while he was a guest in her home, but had heard lots more through the rumor mill at Furinkan.  She could only think of one person who’d ever beaten Ranma… and he sure hadn’t lost out by the defeat.  ‘Maybe you do deserve him, Kodachi,’ she thought.  ‘You can keep up with him a whole lot better than anyone else, after all.’

With that, Akane felt something release in her.  The freedom to admit she wasn’t the best felt good.  She didn’t have to prove herself to anyone but herself, and she didn’t have to measure up to any standard other than the one she set herself.

Akane’s face broke into a smile of confidence then, and she jumped to the top of the fence and walked carefully along it.

Reaching the end, she jumped down and continued to school with a spring in her step.  For the first time in a long time, the youngest Tendo was wholeheartedly looking forward to a new day.

Which made it all the worse of a shock when she entered the school grounds and found a scene she’d never expected to see again.

There were at least forty boys waiting in the courtyard, many of them armed and/or wearing protective gear.  The tension of incipient combat was high.  The smell of testosterone was almost overwhelming.  Akane stopped, stunned, and waited with dismay for them to rush her.

Except they didn’t seem too eager to do so, for some reason.  One or two of the boys waved at her, but that was all.  Akane took a deep breath, and walked forward.  At least this time she’d try to reason with them first.

And yet it didn’t prove necessary.  Akane made her way through the crowd with nothing more than casual attention being directed her way.  She entered the school, grateful that apparently her personal morning misery hadn’t been resurrected after all, but more than a little weirded out by the experience.

Five minutes later, Ryoga, Ranma, Kodachi, and Shampoo approached the school.  As they neared the gates, Ranma shook his head.  “I think I caught something from you, Ryoga,” he said half-jokingly.  “I’m getting the feeling that today’s gonna be bad.  The way you’ve been dreading each school day must be contagious or something.”

“Really?” the former lost boy asked.  “I was actually feeling a little optimistic.”  The previous day had gone a lot more smoothly for him than he’d expected, as several members of the chemistry club had been out sick.  Class had actually been peaceful for a change.

“Is certain then.  You give whatever you had to us.  Shampoo was just thinking day would be bad too.”

Kodachi, who had also been feeling a sense of foreboding, was about to speak up when they turned the corner and passed through the school gates.  On seeing the huge crowd of boys waiting there, three of the four were struck with a bizarre sense of recognition.  Ranma frowned.  He’d thought they had learned their lessons about not ganging up on Akane.  Why they’d want that violent macho chick in the first place was a mystery.  Oh well, it wasn’t any of his business if these idiots wanted to challenge…

“Shampoo!  This is for you!”  With that, the boys charged forward.

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?!”  Ranma reacted before anyone else, stepping forward and snarling while letting his battle aura flare to its maximum.  While not nearly as impressive as Cologne’s would have been, it was still frightening enough to stop the students in their tracks.

In the front of the pack, Kojiro swallowed nervously and stepped forward, wondering why it always fell to him to be the spokesman for the mob.  “Umm… we heard about the Amazon custom of challenging someone to a fight for their love, so we thought we’d… challenge Shampoo.   You know, to get her to go out with us.”

Ranma mentally counted to ten, telling himself it was too early in the day for bloodshed.  “Look, guys, I don’t think you quite got the whole story.  Yeah, there is an Amazon custom like that… if a guy from outside her tribe defeats Shampoo, she has to marry him.  Not put up with him, not date him, MARRY him.  So next time why don’t you wait and get all the facts before…” his voice trailed off as the looks of unbridled lust on the faces of the boys registered.

“You mean… then her and me…”  Kojiro absently wiped the drool off his chin.  As typical sixteen-year-old boys, marriage meant one thing to him and the rest of the challengers.   Not commitment.  Not for better or for worse.  The honeymoon night.  The hentai horde gave a collective half-sigh-half-moan, then prepared to charge again.

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” snapped Kodachi, and stepped in front of Ranma, her ribbon beginning to spin.  “Spirit Ribbon Storm revised:  HORIZONTAL SHEAR!”  The roar of wind nearly drowned out the last syllable as the White Rose focused her chi into the weapon.  The boys learned the dangers of Amazon-style courtship the hard way as they were blown against the wall of the school with an extremely painful *crunch*.  Kodachi sniffed and deliberately turned her back on the carnage.  “Come, we don’t want to be late for class.”  She led Ryoga and Shampoo into the building, but Ranma hung back for a moment.

Kojiro groaned.  He was just glad he’d been in the front of the mob… the guys behind him had cushioned his impact.  At least he was still conscious… then he looked up and suddenly reconsidered whether that was such a good thing.

Ranma looked down at Kojiro, his expression flat.  “You remember what Tatewaki said, back when he told you guys to stop bothering Akane?”  He waited for the other to gulp and nod, then got down on one knee and leaned close.  “If you jerks try any more of this junk with Shampoo, after I get through with you you’ll WISH it had been Kuno you ticked off.  Got it?”  He looked closely, but couldn’t tell whether Kojiro was nodding or just trembling really, really badly.  Either way worked, he decided, and went into the school.

Ryoga’s hopes for another peaceful day fell as he saw that Koga and his chem club cronies were back today.  And for some reason they seemed to be more hostile than ever.

‘That was really low, Shinji,’ Koga thought bitterly, casting a sidelong glance at the other.  ‘Dropping a tear gas bomb on us as we were walking to school.  Are you a man, or are you a member of the St Hebereke Gymnastics Team?’  The leader of the chemistry club resolved that his arch-nemesis was going to pay, and soon.

Ryoga was becoming more and more nervous.  The tension level was rising, and the sensei hadn’t shown up yet.  If Mr Takamura didn’t get there soon, the open warfare wasn’t going to wait for gym class.  As if summoned by the former lost boy’s thought, the teacher came in, followed by a guy in what was definitely not standard Furinkan attire.  ‘First Ranma, then Kodachi and Shampoo, and now this guy.  How do they get away with it?  I hate this uniform,’ Ryoga grumbled to himself, though he was too relieved to be really annoyed.  Then, with a start, he noticed something.  ‘This guy’s gotta be related to Kentaro.  What’d he say his family name was?  Oh, yeah, Kuonji.’

“Class, I’d like to introduce a new student.  Ukyo Kuonji.”

‘Am I good or am I good?’ Ryoga thought jokingly.  It hadn’t been too hard to make the connection.  Even with all his earlier wanderings, this was only the second person he’d seen who carried a spatula that big.

Ukyo flashed the students a confident smile, and spoke in the most masculine tone she could muster.  She’d learned that if she made the right first impression, later on she wouldn’t have to work nearly as hard at maintaining the disguised voice.  People would just hear what they expected to hear.  “Ukyo’s the name, okonomiyaki’s the game.  Charmed I’m sure.”  She opened up the grill she’d brought with her and proceeded to demonstrate her art at an incredible pace, producing pizza after pizza and flinging them to land on the students’ desks with nary a miss.  The students, always ready for free food, dug in enthusiastically.

“Wow, it’s great!”

“It’s crispy on the edges, yet cooked to perfection in the center!”

“And this sauce!  It’s too good to come out of a jar, it’s gotta be custom-blended!”

One of the students jumped to his feet.  “This is the best okonomiyaki I’ve had in my whole life!”

“And why wouldn’t it be?” Ukyo asked rhetorically.  “What you’re eating is the best okonomiyaki in Japan.  Perhaps… perhaps even the world!!”

Ryoga, who had covered much of the world in his travels, reflected that as okonomiyaki was a Japanese delicacy, the best in Japan was probably the best in the world by default.  Not that he was arguing with Ukyo’s assessment of the quality.

Koga watched absently as the teacher directed the new guy to a seat next to Ryoga.  He was feeling a lot mellower after that okonomiyaki.  Glancing over at Shinji, he realized his foe looked to be in much the same condition.  Koga frowned as the sight of the other killed his good mood before it could really take hold.  He wasn’t about to let the latest outrage slide.  It only made it worse that he and his friends had been attacked with a chemistry-based weapon, adding insult to injury.  Koga rapidly passed the point of angry and progressed through furious to I-don’t-care-about-the-consequences.  With a quick signal, he alerted his cronies, then readied a flask of ether…

Mr Takamura made the critical error of turning his back on the class as he began to write on the chalkboard.  Koga’s toss shattered the vial right beside his head.  The tinkle of breaking glass was the last thing he heard before falling unconscious.  Much later, the teacher would be very thankful that his collapse had left him behind the shelter of his desk.

Ukyo’s mouth dropped open.  What the heck?!  She glanced around, half expecting to see the Candid Camera crew pop out from under a desk.

Meanwhile, the more experienced students had vacated their seats and gone for the relative safety of the back of the classroom.  The chemistry club members and the croquet players immediately gathered behind their respective leaders, who stared at each other with undisguised animosity.  A long moment of silence was broken by Koga.

“Dropping a tear gas bomb on us from ambush…” he sneered.  “Not exactly cricket, old boy.”

Shinji’s face flushed.  His team had lost two players to the cricket club the previous semester, and it still rankled.  “So you can dish it out but you can’t take it?” he snarled back.

As the two traded insults, the tension rising ever higher, Ukyo’s jaw continued to hang agape, and, like an idiot, she remained in her seat.  She hadn’t been in Nerima long enough to hone her survival instincts to the necessary levels.  ‘What kind of nuthouse is this place?’ she wondered incredulously.  Surely they weren’t going to start a fight right in the middle of class?

No sooner had she finished the thought than one of Koga’s lieutenants threw down a smoke bomb.  Visibility in the room dropped to near zero, except at the back of the room where a stiff breeze from the open windows kept the worst of the fog away.  The front half of the room became a bona fide war zone, with test tubes and croquet balls flying with abandon.

Right about then, Ukyo realized that she should have been long gone from her desk.  She got up, but stumbled on a ball.  As she landed, a flask of ether shattered near her and she accidentally inhaled some of the fumes.  She tried to shrug off the dizziness and struggle back to her feet, but had only made it to her knees when she felt someone grab her, sling her over his shoulder, and haul her back to the clear air at the back of the room.

Ryoga set Ukyo down, keeping one eye on him as he coughed her way back to coherence.  The rest of his attention was focused on scanning the smoke cloud for any stray missiles.  “Sorry about that,” he said when the chef had recovered enough to pay attention.  “Welcome to life at Furinkan high school.”  This in as bitter a tone as he ever used.

“Is it usually like this?” Ukyo asked faintly, then realized she’d let the masculine voice drop.  With all the background clamor, though, Ryoga didn’t notice.

“No, usually they wait for gym class before going all out like this.”  Ryoga gave a lopsided grin.  “Looks like I get to help out another Kuonji.  Must be something in my karma these days.”

“What do you…”  Ukyo realized why his name had sounded familiar.  “You’re the guy who helped my cousin Kentaro fight off that street gang!”

“That’s me.”  Ryoga hefted a nearby chair just in time, intercepting a croquet ball whizzing toward his head at about Mach 2.

“Thanks a lot.  For saving him, and for helping me now.”  Ukyo grinned as she threw a mini-spatula to intercept a flying vial of hallucinogens.  “Kentaro told us the story, but I get the feeling he may have exaggerated things just a little.  Were there really eight guys?”

“Five, actually,” Ryoga admitted.  “They weren’t really a gang, just a bunch of bullies.  And I wouldn’t say I saved him as much as helped him fight them.”  He absently grabbed a flying mallet out of the air.

‘Hmm, a kick-butt martial artist who’s cute and modest too.’  Ukyo decided that this classroom had its pros as well as cons.  “I’m gonna be opening an okonomiyaki restaurant in town real soon, Hibiki.  Stop by whenever you want, and I’ll give you a discount.”

“Thanks,” Ryoga said, although he felt a twinge of anxiety as, just for a second, there seemed to be a touch more admiration in the other’s gaze than he felt comfortable receiving from another guy.

First period was nearly over, and Ranma had processed less than a third of the lecture.  He was still steamed over the incident in the schoolyard, and also his nameless premonition of doom had been growing steadily stronger.  Eventually, he focused on that.  Why was he still feeling like that king Dachi had read about… what was the name… oh, yeah, Damocles… the guy whose throne had a sword hanging over it by one hair.  Ranma snorted, suddenly glad his father had never read Greek legends.  He could just imagine the kind of training exercises Genma could come up with given that kind of inspiration.

Bringing his mind back to the issue at hand, Ranma asked himself again why he was feeling this foreboding.  Hadn’t the day’s problem already been solved?  He should’ve been satisfied- those guys wouldn’t mess with Shampoo again.  He bet she’d be grateful not to have to deal with that mess anymore…

Ranma gulped loudly, drawing a frown from the teacher, as he considered that thought from a new angle.  He had interfered in what should have been Shampoo’s fight, without even giving her a chance to stand up for herself.  And he expected gratitude?!  Ranma held his head in his hands, and considered just how big an insult that could have been to an Amazon.  The outward quietness she’d been projecting since the conclusion of the incident suddenly took on a new and sinister aspect.  With a feeling of dread, he concentrated on the Heart Link.  Might as well find out now just how upset Shampoo was.  His awareness of his surroundings fell away as he reached out and sensed her emotions.

He blinked, and concentrated again, thinking he must have gotten Kodachi by mistake.  No, it was definitely Shampoo.  And she was feeling something odd.  Not insult, not outrage, not resentment.  In fact, he wasn’t quite sure what he was getting through the Heart Link.  Much of it was a little too abstract to qualify as true emotion.  But Ranma thought he could sense deep contemplation, as well as echoes of puzzlement and confusion.

At this point the Amazon wasn’t the only one confused.  ‘Why isn’t she angry?’ wondered Ranma.  He knew how she felt about the idea of a man not giving her the credit she was due.  Why didn’t interfering in her fight qualify?  Ranma let go of the connection and gave himself up to pondering, thinking back to what he’d learned about Amazon honor.  Eventually a lightbulb went off in his head.  There had been over forty guys challenging Shampoo at the same time.  Even if they were a bunch of pathetic no-talent excuses for fighters, that still wasn’t an honorable challenge by any stretch of the imagination.  So when he’d helped her it wasn’t any slur on her honor.  Ranma breathed a sigh of relief, then another of irritation as the feeling of impending doom, which had been pushed to the back of his mind during his recent cogitations, came surging back.

Shampoo continued her pondering.  Ranma’s impression of her mental state had been pretty much accurate.  She was puzzled and thoughtful, rather than resentful and insulted.  His theory to explain this, however, had been wrong.  The Amazon wasn’t angry.  She herself did not know why.  Hence the confusion as Shampoo tried to work out just what she was feeling. 

Ranma had also missed one other component of her mental state entirely, not surprising considering that it was so small the Amazon herself wasn’t aware of it.  But in the deepest recesses of her heart was a tiny flicker that hadn’t been there in a long time.


With an air of triumph, and a dramatic flourish, Tatewaki set two boxes on the table in front of Nabiki.  “Behold, fair lady, thy humble servant has succeeded in completing his quest.  Before thee rests the prize.”

Normally her boyfriend was able to make her laugh with this tactic, speaking as if he fancied himself some samurai noble in an epic saga, but this time she didn’t really notice.  She was too busy staring at him.  He looked more disheveled than she’d ever seen him.  His school uniform was wrinkled and his hair was in disarray.  “Tachi?  What happened?” she asked faintly.

Kuno grimaced.  “Well, I was not really exaggerating when I called it a quest.  I had to fight my way through nearly the entire freshman class to get these in a timely manner.”  He shifted back into melodrama mode, determined to see her smile.  “Yea, verily it was a task most arduous.  A sea of humanity surged against me.  Not even the noble blood which flows in my veins allowed me to withstand the tide, which swirled and ebbed with force enough to grind even the hardest stone to sand.  No, only the fire of my affection for thee, fair lady, allowed me to endure the nameless horrors.  And endure I did, pressing forward against all odds, until at last I broke through and stood within reach of my goal.”  Seeing that Nabiki was smiling now, Tatewaki dropped back to normal.  “One deluxe okonomiyaki for you, and one with extra squid for me.”

Nabiki laughed, then inhaled deeply.  “It smells great, Tachi.”  The rumors of the new guy’s skill at cooking had spread through the school very quickly.  Time to find out just how justified they were.  There was relative silence for a few minutes as Tatewaki and Nabiki ate, then absolute silence for a few more minutes as they contemplated what they’d just experienced.  The middle Tendo quickly came to an inescapable conclusion.

‘I have got to get this Kuonji guy as part of my network,’ Nabiki thought to herself.  What would be a good angle to get him working with her?

“’Biki-chan, I think you would do well to include Kuonji in your network,” Kuno said.  “Perhaps you could aid him in getting around the rules against students being employed during the school year.  Helping him with that could serve as a basis for a continuing partnership.”

“I thought you’re supposed to wait until we’ve been married for years before you start reading my mind,” Nabiki said teasingly.  “It’s a good idea, but Kuonji already has permission to operate a restaurant outside school hours.”  Nabiki had restructured many of her moneymaking schemes since she and Kuno became an item (the blackmail had been the first to go), but she maintained her grip on the rumor mill.  Information was the ultimate commodity, after all.  Which was why it was somewhat annoying to have to admit, “I’m not sure how he did it.”

Tatewaki smiled wryly.  “Probably offered a sample okonomiyaki to the principal, then agreed to give a faculty discount at the restaurant.  With Principal Fujima being a bachelor, it’s unlikely he gets cooking this good very often.  For that matter, there were several teachers in the crowd of customers as well.”

Nabiki nodded.  “Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me too much.  I bet Mr Arasaki was one of them.”

Her boyfriend nodded.  “How did you guess, ’Biki-chan?”

“His wife is a gaijin-  she’s never managed to get the hang of Japanese cooking.  And on a teacher’s salary they can’t afford the ingredients for the kind of food she does know how to make.  My sources say that about half of Arasaki’s meals are instant ramen, and the rest make instant ramen seem like a gourmet dish.  Something this good… well, I bet he’ll be one of Kuonji’s regulars.”


With a sinking feeling, Ranma focused his attention on the classroom again.  ‘Shoulda been paying attention,’ he thought ruefully.  There was no way he was going to be able to answer whatever question the sensei was about to ask.  That was what he got for letting himself get distracted by a feeling of impending doom.  ‘Great, I’m gonna get humiliated in front of everyone.  Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies.’  But why was his teacher looking like so regretful?

Mr Arasaki called Ranma up to his desk, maintaining his resolve through sheer force of will.  He’d heard a rumor the previous day that there was a new student who was quite a good cook.  At lunch he’d encountered proof of this.  If this Kuonji person continued to sell okonomiyaki at lunch, he was really going to put a dent in the cafeteria sales.  And Mr Arasaki frankly couldn’t care less.  That pizza had been a little round slice of heaven.

One doesn’t normally associate heaven with temptation, but in this case the connection was there.  Somehow Kuonji had known he was Saotome’s sensei, and had given him an okonomiyaki to give to the other.  The teacher had taken it, fully intending to deliver it to Ranma as soon as class began, but before that could happen the treacherous idea of eating it himself had taken root.  Only after a long and arduous internal struggle had the sensei’s virtue gained a tentative victory over his base inner self.  And even now he could feel the temptation surging back.

Ranma walked up to the front of the room, wondering why the sensei was turning pale and beginning to sweat.

Meanwhile, with her boyfriend out of the way, Kodachi took the chance to sneak a long glance at Shampoo.  Since Ranma sat between them, she hadn’t been able to observe her friend closely since class began.  And the White Rose was frankly beginning to be a little concerned.  The Amazon had been pensive all day, ever since that ridiculous incident before school.  Kodachi had thought to bring back her vitality by inviting her to share lunch with Ranma and herself (not to mention that the united front should also show she was serious about the boys keeping their unwanted attentions away from her friend).  Shampoo had seemed grateful at the invitation, but she had been subdued even during their meal.  Still, the Amazon didn’t look depressed.  Only thoughtful.

A burst of happiness shot through the Heart Link then, causing Kodachi and Shampoo to give identical starts.  Ranma walked back to his seat carrying a fragrant package, with a big grin on his face.

“What is it, Ranma?” Kodachi whispered as he sat back down.  Shampoo turned her attention his way as well.

“Just got some good news from the teacher,” he whispered back, then opened the package to reveal an okonomiyaki.  “Seems Ucchan just started going to school here.  This is from him.”

Shampoo looked at the kanji written on the pizza, ‘Meet me behind the gym after school.  ~Ukyo’ and reflected that the last sentence had been pretty unnecessary.  She smiled.  “Will be good to see him again.  Right, Kodachi?”

The White Rose realized that the ‘again’ was another subtle joke at her expense, but she smiled anyway.  “Yes,” she returned, then reached out and broke a piece off the okonomiyaki.  Chewing and swallowing with relish, she commented, “Just as good as the last one his dad fixed.”

Shampoo copied her friend’s action.  “Shampoo think so too.”

The okonomiyaki disappeared quickly, Ranma managing to secure only about half of it for himself.

During their free period, Ryoga watched as Ukyo set up the ring.  To a casual glance, the former lost boy wouldn’t have seemed to be feeling anything in particular.  Only a very careful scrutiny would have revealed the fact that he was fighting a case of the heebie-jeebies.

Ryoga thought back over his day.  In his other classes, Ukyo had asked his help in getting up to speed with the rest of the students.  At lunch, when Ukyo had whipped out a portable grill and sold okonomiyaki to the students, the chef hadn’t charged Ryoga for his.  And then this afternoon he’d told Ryoga that he was going to settle a debt of honor after school, and invited him to come watch justice be served.  All in all, it was starting to seem just a little too friendly for the former lost boy’s liking.

Instead of the usual two weeks, the remainder of the school day seemed to Ranma and company to take years.  By the time the final bell rang, Kodachi was all but certain that something had altered the flow of time.  It was all she could do to refrain from checking her hands for age spots.  But eventually the bell did ring, and the three of them set out, more than ready to see a friend again.  Even if it was technically only a reunion for one of them.

As they cleared the school building, Shampoo was surprised to note that instead of going home, the students were apparently more interested in something behind the gym.  Pretty much everyone was heading that direction.  The Amazon frowned.  Stupid extracurricular activities committee.  Some event must have been scheduled for that afternoon.  Shampoo didn’t want a bunch of people hanging around when they got to meet up with Ucchan again.  Oh, well, she supposed it wouldn’t be too much trouble to get him and go somewhere quieter for the reunion.

The first hint that Shampoo was dead wrong about that was supplied by Nabiki, who appeared out of the crowd as if by magic.  “Hey, Saotome.  You ready for this?”

Ranma blinked a couple of times.  “Ummm… ready for what?”

“The fight, of course.”  Nabiki gave a Cheshire-cat grin.  “Listen, Ranma, so far everyone’s been betting on you to take him down hard and fast.  I was just thinking, if you felt particularly generous, you might stretch things out a little.  A long, drawn-out fight would give everybody a better show anyway, don’t you think?”

What the Saotome heir thought was that he’d gotten lost somewhere back there.  “Nabiki, I don’t know anything about this.  Who am I supposed to be fightin’?”

Nabiki gave him a strange look.  “Ukyo Kuonji, of course.”

“No, you got it all backwards.  Ucchan’s an old friend.”  Neither Ranma nor Shampoo ever bothered to listen to gossip.  Kodachi sometimes did, still a little paranoid someone might start another rumor that she was secretly a vampire, but on this particular day she’d been too busy worrying about Shampoo and fighting a feeling of nameless trepidation.  As a result, the three were the only students who hadn’t heard the news that the new guy would be challenging Saotome after school.  Ukyo was still wondering why everyone was giving her pitying glances.  Ryoga was still feeling guilty over the fact that he’d decided not to warn Ukyo about just how good Ranma was.  By now he was highly uncomfortable with the idea of giving the chef an excuse to feel even more grateful to him.

Nabiki gave Ranma a long look, then thought about how often rumor got things wrong.  She brightened considerably as she realized NO bets had been placed on ‘there won’t be a fight at all’.  And even if Ranma turned out to be mistaken, it sounded like he wasn’t going to be too eager for a battle.  Which meant if one did occur, Ranma would most likely dodge and try to talk his way out of it for long enough that she’d still clean up from the betting pool.  For a moment the pupils of Nabiki’s eyes were replaced with yen signs, and she chuckled.  It sounded remarkably like a large wad of bills being ruffled.  Coming back to reality (or what passed for it in Nerima), Nabiki slipped back into the crowd to take more bets.

“It’s a good thing Tatewaki doesn’t insist on traditional Japanese behavior in a woman,” Ranma commented as the three of them walked on.  Kodachi nodded absently in agreement, but most of her attention was elsewhere.  Why had Nabiki thought that there was going to be a fight between Ranma and Ukyo?  An unpleasant thought crossed her mind… namely, that if Ucchan did turn out to be hostile it would neatly explain the feeling of doom she, Shampoo, and Ranma had been experiencing all day.  But why would Ukyo be angry with Ranma?  They’d been very good friends.  Ukyo had even run after Ranma, crying, when he left…

Kodachi frowned and examined that memory more closely than she had before.  A moment later, her eyes widened in shock as she remembered one tiny additional detail.  Ucchan had been running after them, crying… Ranma had been waving goodbye, not yet really feeling the impact of leaving his friend for good, and he had been sitting on top of the Kuonji yattai!  Genma had been pulling the cart at his best speed as he outran little Ukyo!

The White Rose felt as if she’d been kicked in the gut by someone wearing steel-toed boots.  Except this pain didn’t vanish right away.  Genma had stolen Ucchan’s family business!  Now that she thought about it, she remembered he’d fed his six-year-old son a preposterous story to explain how they’d gotten the yattai.  Ranma hadn’t questioned it at the time, and because his attitude had been unthinking acceptance, Kodachi’s synchronization with his memories had prevented her from wondering either during the Heart Link.  But she could see it now.  A white-hot rage began to burn in her mind.  Was there no end to Genma’s betrayals?!  Kodachi decided that it was time and past his debts fell due.

In his cage in Azusa Shiratori’s room, Genma sneezed.  Azusa looked over at him and shook a reproving finger.  “Chantelle, you’re not coming out until you learn to behave like a proper rug.”

Her thoughts on how best to make the elder Saotome pay broke off as Shampoo tapped her on the arm.  “Earth to Kodachi.  Is you there now?”  Kodachi blinked away a fantasy of purchasing a giant alligator and teaching it to enjoy the taste of panda, and looked around.  She and the Amazon were now standing at the side of the strangest ring she had ever seen.  It was square, and seemed to be made of black metal, with most of the center covered with a square white mat.  Posts connected by ropes stood in each corner.  A number of large vats lurked in one corner of the ring.  The floor didn’t look particularly soft or forgiving of falls.  And the black metal rim seemed to be radiating quite a bit of heat, presumably from having sat in the sun too long.

Ranma was crouched on a corner post, with a big smile on his face.  And standing on the opposite corner of the mat, facing him with no trace of welcome, was Ukyo.

Shampoo looked at the friend she’d never seen before, and felt dismay.  It shouldn’t be like this.  Ucchan and Ranma should be arm in arm, laughing about the old days.  The chef shouldn’t be standing there with a scowl on his face, brandishing a giant spatula as if it were a swatter and Ranma a fly.  Shampoo didn’t know what was wrong, but she was sure that somehow, some way, it was Genma’s fault.

“How’s it goin’, Ucchan?  Long time no see!”  Ranma put on the most cheerful, welcoming pose he could manage.  He wasn’t blind, and could see the other was radiating hostility.  Ranma had no idea why, but he hoped if he was friendly enough it might defuse the situation.

No such luck.  Ukyo’s expression became even grimmer.  “You’ve got a lotta nerve, taking that tone with me, Saotome, after what you did to me.  Now get down here and prepare to get what’s coming to you.”

Ranma’s mouth opened and closed feebly.  “What I did?!  Ucchan, I-”

“Don’t call me that!” snapped the chef.  “You lost any right to call me that when you betrayed me!”  She turned and slipped the business end of her giant spatula into one of the vats.  When she removed it, it was coated with batter.  Ukyo then dipped it into another vat and lifted out a mass of noodles.  “Fine, if you’re too big a coward to come off that post, I guess I’ll just have to reel you in!”  She whipped the spatula in an arc.  The superglue in the batter effectively anchored the noodles to her weapon, while the free ends snaked out toward Ranma.

The target, who had plenty of practice dodging ribbons and the like, flipped sideways, cartwheeling along the rope connecting his corner post to another one.  He landed on the new post and took up a loose stance designed for evasion.  “Ucchan, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  He jumped straight up as the noodles snaked out at him again.  “And I ain’t no coward, just because I don’t wanna fight a friend.”

This did make Ukyo pause in her attacks.  Unfortunately this was because she was momentarily too angry to focus.  “Friend?!  FRIEND?!  How dare you say that?!”  Abandoning the lash attack, she grabbed a giant oiled brush and sent it skidding across the rink into Ranma’s post.  Ranma leaped into the air just before the impact could shake him loose.  Ukyo saw he was heading back to his original post, and whipped the noodles out again.  This time there was no room for dodging- he was snared just as he landed.  The chef yanked hard and Ranma flew forward onto the mat.

As her opponent landed, Ukyo spun her spatula vigorously.  This caused the noodles and batter-glue to detach from it, as well as sending Ranma spinning in place like a top.  She expected to see him get completely tangled up and fall to the ground out of vertigo.  The chef gaped as, instead, Ranma spun even faster, causing the noodles to shred and fly away.  He slowed to a stop and regarded her calmly, not dizzy at all.

Ukyo realized her jaw was hanging open.  She forced it shut.  How had he managed to do that?!

‘Never thought I’d be grateful to those Golden Pair idiots,’ thought Ranma.  During their match, when he and Shampoo had been introduced to the wonders of angular velocity, it hadn’t escaped Ranma’s notice that Shampoo recovered before he did.  His pride hadn’t found that too easy to swallow, and Ranma had experimented for quite a while before finding a way to counter dizziness caused by spinning.  The trick was to lean into the revolution and deliberately increase it, so that you remained in control.  Like most secret techniques (other than the Crouch of the Wild Tiger), this was easier said than done.

“Ucchan, is this any way for friends to act?  Whatever happened to the good old days?”

Ukyo’s glare returned in full force.  “Good old days?!  For who?!”  She ran forward, swinging her spatula.  Ranma weaved around her attacks.

“Why don’t you- ” Ranma ducked as the spatula whipped over his head, “just tell me- ” he swayed to one side as Ukyo tried a downward smashing blow, “why you’re so mad?”  His hands became a blur as he caught the barrage of throwing spatulas she threw at him.  “This really- ” he jumped as Ukyo swung at his legs, “ain’t the way- ” he blocked a feather-light blow with the spatula, twisting out of reach of the kick that was the real attack, “I wanted this reunion to go!”  He swayed left, then right, then left again as Ukyo made a near-berserk series of swings that left her gasping for breath.

Ukyo staggered back, bracing herself on her spatula.  “No, I bet it *wheeze* isn’t!” she growled hoarsely.  “I bet *pant* you never thought *gasp* you’d see me again!”  She glared at him, and gulped for air for another minute before snarling, “Just tell me why, Ranma!  Tell me why you abandoned me!  Tell me why you and your worthless father left me by the side of the road!!”

Ranma stared, a look of blank non-understanding on his face.  “Ucchan?  I really don’t-”

Ukyo’s face contorted in rage, and she dropped the exhausted act.  “DIE!” she snarled, whipping her spatula forward.  Her sudden ‘recovery’ caught Ranma flatfooted, and her attack connected solidly, smashing him with the flat of her weapon and sending him flying back into a corner post.

Ranma slammed into the post, but managed to keep his feet under him as he landed on the grill.  Unfortunately, the post in question was the one with a trail of oil spreading out from it.  Ranma didn’t even have time to register the heat through his shoes before his feet flew out from under him.  He landed on his rear, bracing himself with his hands.  The sizzle hissed throughout the crowd.  Ranma yelled and made a truly impressive leap, crossing the entire length of the ring and landing on the opposite corner post.  He alternated blowing on either hand, grateful that his pants had shielded a certain other area from the worst of the heat.

Ukyo paused a minute to gloat over finally getting in an effective attack, then sent the oiled brush shooting toward Ranma’s new perch.  Absently, Ranma lashed out with a kick, catching the handle and sending it back her way before it could hit his post.  Ukyo whipped her spatula in an arc, smashing the brush right back at Ranma.  In the crowd, Shinji took note of the new guy’s power and control, and resolved to offer him a place on the croquet team.  The brush shot back toward Ranma, who kicked it back at her a good bit harder this time.  Ukyo lashed out again, intending to try ricocheting the brush off the ropes and into Ranma’s perch…

…but a ribbon snaked out of nowhere and snagged the brush, stopping it before it reached the crossdressing chef.  Overbalanced from her swing, she very nearly fell over.  Ukyo glared at the crowd, but couldn’t tell where the interference had come from.  She turned back and sneered at Ranma.  “So now you gotta get help from outside the ring to win your fights, huh, Saotome?”

Ranma jumped into the center of the ring, a hangdog expression on his face.  It hadn’t escaped his notice that Kodachi had stopped the brush while it was coming in an attack from HIM toward Ucchan, rather than the other way around.  Ranma took a deep breath and reined in his temper, which had nearly gotten away from him after the scorching.  “Listen, Ucchan, I don’t wanna be here.  I don’t wanna fight my oldest friend.  And I swear to you I don’t know why you’re so mad at me!”

Ukyo stared at him long and hard, then considered how Genma had immediately remembered who she was and what grievance she had.  And just before the fight began, Ranma had seemed eager to see her again.  Maybe… just maybe, he really meant what he was saying.  “Oh, really, Ranma?” she asked sarcastically, yet secretly wanting to be convinced.  “You really don’t have a clue why I’m upset with you?”

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  And certainly Kodachi’s intentions at this point were good.  She saw that Ukyo was beginning to calm down, and hoped she could help Ranma resolve this peacefully.  And so she jumped into the ring, landing near Ranma.  “I don’t think he does,” she said gently.  “Ranma has told me a lot about you, Ukyo.  About his best childhood friend.  He told me his fondest memories of his early years are of the times he spent playing with you and eating your father’s okonomiyaki.  And when he got your message in class after lunch, he was quite glad.  Ranma was excited and happy about seeing you again.”  She took a deep breath.  “I don’t know why you’re so angry with Ranma,” a little white lie that the White Rose didn’t realize was actually true, “and I truly believe he doesn’t know either.”

Ukyo glared at the other.  On the one hand, she was glad to get a little more evidence that maybe she could believe in Ranma after all.  On the other, she wasn’t too keen on outside interference in a matter of honor.  Plus, the way this girl was defending Ranma made Ukyo suspect she knew who was responsible for the ribbon.  “And why would you know anything about it?” she challenged.  “Just who are you, sugar?”

“Ucchan, meet Kodachi Kuno.  My girlfriend.”  Ranma still felt a little uneasy about announcing something like that out in public, but since the Heart Link he knew just how much it meant to Kodachi.  He opened his mouth to ask what she’d meant before, about abandoning her.  The words died in his throat as he registered the battle aura that was burning around Ukyo.

“Girlfriend?”  Ukyo stared at Kodachi through a red haze of rage.  Her knuckles whitened around the handle of her spatula.  “Well, let me just congratulate you.  And now… GET THE HELL OUT OF MY RING!!”  Ukyo grabbed a set of ingredients that hadn’t been used yet, and tossed them at the White Rose.  The tempura flakes settled in a cloud around her… and then the gunpowder exploded in a series of snapping bursts.  Kodachi leaped backwards out of the cloud.  Her pantsuit was singed, though the gunpowder hadn’t been nearly concentrated enough to do real damage, and there was a look of dismay on her face.

There was a long moment, in which silence seemed to hang in the air with crystalline clarity.  It was broken by Ryoga’s muttered, “Oh, no.”

“That was a mistake, Ukyo,” Ranma promised.

One second he was standing at the edge of the center mat.  The next he was inside Ukyo’s guard.  Two quick jabs to her shoulders sent her reeling back in pain, her spatula dropping from nerveless hands.  Ranma grabbed it out of the air, and used the flat of it to knock her into the bowl of noodles.  With a snarl, he bent her spatula, then tossed it to the side.  He strode forward, grabbed a double fistful of noodles, whipped them around the stunned Ukyo, hauled her into the air, spun her around and around like a stone in a sling, and sent her flying.

Ukyo screamed as she flew through the air.  She landed a good twenty feet from the ring, bouncing twice before skidding to a stop.  Ranma picked up the spatula and threw it to land next to her.  She shrugged her way out of the noodles, and looked up at him.  Had Ranma known she was really a girl, the pain on her face and the tears in her eyes would have reduced him to helplessness.  As it was, he just stared back at her coldly, and said, “We were friends once, Ukyo.  I wish I coulda kept the memories of those good times.  But I don’t think I want them now.”  His expression became, if possible, even harder.  “Get out of here.”

Ukyo’s expression crumpled.  Desperately fighting off the tears she was too proud to let others see, she turned and ran for cover.

Ryoga paused at the door of the shed.  ‘This is my last chance not to go in there and maybe regret it,’ he thought to himself.  His conscience snarled back at him, reminding him of what Kodachi had said to Shampoo and himself while they watched the fight.  So Kuonji did have a genuine grievance.  It was just Genma’s fault rather than Ranma’s.  Maybe if he’d warned the chef about Ranma’s skill level, the other would have been cautious enough that a fight could have been avoided.  Ryoga sighed, and remembered how Ukyo wasn’t the first guy from Ranma’s past to blame him for something unfairly.  ‘For better or for worse, I owe it to him to help him out now.’  Ryoga steeled himself and opened the door he’d seen Ukyo run through.

His ears immediately picked up the sound of choked sobs.  He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dimness.  Then he made out the figure of Ukyo, huddled against some shelves, crying his eyes out.  Ryoga just stood there for what seemed an hour but was really only a couple of minutes, feeling hopelessly out of his depth, and even uneasier.  What kinda guy let himself break down and cry like a baby?

Ukyo forced her sobs under control.  “H- hey, Ryoga,” she said bitterly.  “Some triumph, huh.  S-some great job I d- did, salvaging my family honor.”  As she looked at him, the chef felt a fresh wave of pain churn through her gut.  The sight of Ranma after so long had driven all thoughts of Ryoga from her mind.  It didn’t make Ukyo feel any better to realize how quickly she’d forgotten the guy who’d now saved two members of her family.

Ryoga paused.  There was something odd about what the other had just said… not so much the words as the tone of voice…  Ryoga looked closely at Ukyo’s tear-stained face, then closed his eyes, deliberately discarded all his preconceptions, opened his eyes and looked again.  A wild surmise sheeted through his mind like lightning in a summer storm.  He took a deep breath.  “Is it because of the Saotomes that… that you started disguising yourself as a guy?”

Ukyo’s eyes widened and she paled.  “H- how could you tell?”  Even as she spoke she realized she’d dropped the male voice impression sometime during the fight and hadn’t ever resumed it.

Ryoga lifted his eyes to the heavens.  ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’ Dropping his gaze back to her, Ryoga spoke gently.  “I listened and I looked more closely.”  He sat down so she wouldn’t have to keep looking up at him.  “What happened?”

For a long moment it seemed as if Ukyo wasn’t going to say anything… then she shuddered and the whole story spilled out.  Her version of it, anyway.  A version in which she’d been betrayed by her fiancé and best friend, left by the side of the road like unwanted rubbish.  She told Ryoga about her vow to renounce her femininity, to become the best okonomiyaki chef in Japan, and to some day seek out the Saotomes and avenge herself on them.

‘I don’t believe it… it’s Kaori Daikokuji all over again.  Except worse.’  Ryoga wondered for a moment how many other fiancées Ranma would turn out to have had.  The thought of just how bad Ranma was going to feel when he learned the truth skated through his mind as well.  Then he dragged his focus back to the present and tried to figure out what to say.  Ukyo wasn’t looking like she’d gotten any particular relief from telling her story.  If anything she looked like she was on the verge of tears again.  “Ukyo… do you really think Ranma is to blame?  I mean, it was his father who accepted the engagement, right?  You don’t think it was a six-year-old kid who made the decision, do you?”

Ukyo drew her knees up to her chin, wrapped her arms around them, and huddled down in misery.  “M- maybe not,” she choked out.  “But that doesn’t make me feel any better.  They ruined me for marriage.  Because of them I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life alone.”

“What?!  That’s crazy!” Ryoga said.  “A cute girl like you… you’ll make somebody a great wife!”

Ukyo looked up at him, her eyes wide and still filled with tears.  “C- cut it out.  I’m not cute.”

“Yes, you are!” Ryoga declared.  It helped that her posture was hiding her masculinely disguised torso.  All he had to do was look at her face.  “Real cute.  And you’re a great cook too!  I bet you could get any guy you want!”  Innate honesty made him continue, “Once you drop the disguise, at least.”

The chef sniffled.  “You… you really think so?”

“Yeah,” he answered.  Then he said firmly, “And you DEFINITELY shouldn’t hide who you really are.  Take it from me, it’s not a good thing.”

Now, when Ryoga said this he was thinking of how things had gone between him and Akane.  But what Ukyo heard was a guy expressing emphatic interest in seeing the real her… the person she’d only dared to dream might someday come back after she’d defeated Ranma.  Well, that last goal was looking pretty unlikely now. 

But maybe the first one could still become a reality.


To be continued.

Author’s notes: If anyone’s curious, I envision the Whirling Dervish kata to be something along the lines of the ‘Twin Raging Dragon Waterspouts’ (or whatever the name is of that move Ranma and Akane used to defeat the Dojo Destroyer in the original series), only designed for one person.

I haven’t really gone into much detail about customary character clothing, have I?  Kodachi usually wears pantsuits whenever she’s in a situation that might call for combat.  She’s too fond of her aerial techniques for a skirt to be practical (and I hope none of you thought she ran around in a leotard all the time), though she does wear nice dresses otherwise.  Shampoo’s style of clothing was unchanged until she moved in with the Kunos, at which point she found herself with dresses that were a good bit more modest.  She still has the most risqué wardrobe in the story, though, as she draws the line at dresses that might impair her mobility in combat.  Ranma’s mode of dress is unchanged, as is Ryoga’s (except the latter wears a school uniform, if with no good grace).  As for Tatewaki, don’t expect to see him in kendo robes outside of practice.  He wears the school uniform and dresses in high-quality but otherwise normal clothing when not at Furinkan. 

The idea of Kodachi, as an albino, being mistaken for a vampire came from the fanfic Source of Pride, by Gregg “Metroanime” Sharpe.  Next time:  the return of the Matriarch.

Comments?  Criticism?  E-mail me at aondehafka@hotmail.com

Chapter 7
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