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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 also a snippet from Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, and a reference to the anime series Slayers.

Words in [brackets] indicate spoken English.
Words in ~tildes~ indicate song lyrics.

Chapter 7: The Battle of Okonomiyaki and Ramen

Put one foot in front of the other.  Shift body weight to that leg.  Repeat.

Much less painful than thinking about how the afternoon has gone.

Unfortunately for Ranma, the first task wasn’t distracting him at all from the second.  The anger was pretty much gone now.  He never had been one to let it simmer for a long time anyway.  The only real experience he had with holding a serious grudge had come from the time Ryoga broke Kodachi’s arm… and it wasn’t like this afternoon’s events had included a genuine attack on her.

A thought which only made him feel worse.  He glanced over at Kodachi, walking along beside him.  Her pantsuit was almost completely undamaged.  It was clear that Ukyo’s gunpowder attack hadn’t been an actual attempt to hurt her.  Ranma sighed, and made a vow to loosen up a little.  It was time and past to stop overreacting to threats against his girlfriend.  After all, the Matriarch had said he basically would have KILLED Ryoga that one time, if the lost boy hadn’t been part Oni (of course, if the lost boy hadn’t been part Oni the incident wouldn’t have happened in the first place.  Ranma ignored the rationalization).  Let’s see, he’d also run off and left a bunch of helpless girls to fight Happosai in his place rather than let Kodachi face the ancient lecher… and boy, had he ever been needlessly worried there!  And this morning, he’d jumped right in front of Shampoo to scare off those boys, rather than fighting beside her.  He was just lucky she hadn’t taken it badly.  Oh, then for an encore he’d beaten up his oldest friend just for being a little hostile to Kodachi.  ‘Man, I really gotta stop this.  I don’t wanna be like Pop, with all that ‘girls are weak’ garbage.  If I respect her, I outta show it by backing her up, not acting like she’s made outta glass or something,’ Ranma thought glumly.  If nothing else, the Heart Link was wonderful sensitivity training.

Kodachi’s thoughts were no less gloomy.  ‘Why?  Why didn’t I say anything?  Why didn’t I call out to Ranma as soon as I remembered?  So what if he was already in the ring.  He still would have left for me, and then this wouldn’t have happened.’  The White Rose felt severely tempted to distract herself from the guilt by focusing again on her anger toward Genma, but scorned that as the action of a coward.  And she was NOT a coward.  And in another minute she’d prove it, by going ahead and telling Ranma what she’d remembered and reasoned out concerning Ukyo’s hostility.  Just another minute or two, after she’d come up with a good way to break it to him.  Kodachi had been telling herself this for about ten minutes now.

Shampoo was feeling a sort of bitter vindication.  ‘<I knew this was all Genma’s fault.>’  When Kodachi had hurriedly spoken to Ryoga and herself during the fight, the Amazon had been shocked but not surprised.  One more debt to lay at Genma’s feet.  By now the Amazon had almost decided the weight of those had cancelled out the good he’d done in bringing Ranma into the world.  She glanced to her side at Ranma, then past him to Kodachi.  Both of them looked like they hurt even worse than she did.

Ranma was halfway looking for an opportunity to test his new resolve.  Kodachi was wishing for something to put off the moment when she would have to tell Ranma just why Ucchan had been so angry.  Shampoo was wanting something, ANYthing, to happen to bring their spirits up.  Interestingly enough, they each got their desire.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ranma saw a pair of bounding blurs on the rooftops, one to his right, the other to his left.  Shampoo and Kodachi noted his reaction and caught sight of the incoming arrivals as well.  With a mental snap, Ranma shut off his pain and concentrated.  They were on an attack course toward Shampoo?!  Almost, he jumped to the offensive.  Almost… but then Ranma focused on the attackers.  They were short, with identical facial features currently wearing big grins; cherry-red hair on one, lime-green on the other; clad in twin matching jumpsuits with big hearts on the chest; one with a staff and the other with a trident… Ranma’s hand shot out to prevent Kodachi from snaring Ling-Ling with a ribbon.  The twins landed on either side of Shampoo, striking forward with their weapons.  Shampoo grabbed them and guided them forward in front of her, tangling the rod in the tines of the trident in one smooth motion.

Shampoo gave a small, slightly reproving smile.  “This Japan, not China, so no can say hello this way.”

The twins grabbed the older Amazon in a group hug, their weapons vanishing to wherever it is Amazons hide such things.  “Big sister Shampoo, Ling-Ling miss you!”  “Lung-Lung so happy to see you!”

Shampoo held them for a moment, then gave one last squeeze and let go.  “I happy to see you too.”  She started to ask what they were doing in Japan.

Lung-Lung beat her to the verbal punch.  “You introduce us, big sister Shampoo?”

Shampoo smiled.  “These Shampoo’s very best friends.  Kodachi,” she gestured at the White Rose, “and Ranma.  Ranma, Kodachi, these Shampoo’s Amazon sisters, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell me you had two younger sisters?” Kodachi asked.

“They ain’t really.”  Ranma answered before Shampoo could.  “They’re actually her cousins.  But all Amazons are considered tribal sisters.”

Ling-Ling gave a big smile.  “We think of Shampoo as real blood sister anyway.  She brave, and strong, and bring much honor to family.”

Meanwhile, Lung-Lung was giving Ranma a speculative glance.  “You know that by magic, Ranma?  Or big sister Shampoo just tell you and forget tell Kodachi?”

Ranma gaped.  “Magic?  What’re ya talking about?”

The twins gave him a conspiratorial wink.  Ling-Ling lowered her voice.  “Great-grandmother tell us about you, Ranma, that you is sorcerer.  She say you even know magic that let you change shape into girl.  You show Ling-Ling?”

“Yeah, Lung-Lung want see too.  Great-grandmother also say you great warrior, can move faster than anybody in village except elders.”  The two crowded up to Ranma, who was looking a little ill-at-ease.

Meanwhile, Kodachi was regarding Shampoo with a deceptively mild expression.  “I seem to recall, Shampoo, a certain conversation we had some months ago.  If I remember correctly, your half of that dialogue went along the lines of ‘woe-is-me-nobody-cares-for-me-here-or-in-my-village’.”

Shampoo had the grace to look sheepish.  “Okay, Shampoo admit she exaggerate just a little bit.  But I hurt really bad just then.  Was not too hard to imagine Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung turn against me too when they get old enough to challenge and lose.”  She looked away and said more softly, “Is what happen with cousin Xiao Yu.”  Seeking to change the subject, she lowered her voice and continued.  “Since Great-Grandmother no tell them real story about Jusenkyo, I ask you not give details either.”

“All right,” Kodachi replied, “but I wonder what Ranma is going to think about being called a sorcerer.”

“At least they not calling him foul sorcerer,” Shampoo said.  Kodachi gave her a strange look, wondering where that had come from.  Probably some obscure facet of Amazon culture.

Meanwhile, Ranma had, with some difficulty, persuaded the twins to settle for a rain check on demonstrations of his mystic prowess.  “What’re you guys doing here anyway?”

“Come with Great-Grandmother to work in Nekohanten,” Ling-Ling answered.  “She say Shampoo too, too busy, go to school and spend time with friends, learn new things.  No have time to work in restaurant.  So we come to take place.”

“We very happy get chance to come,” Lung-Lung added.  “Japan much strange, not like home village at all.  Is interesting to see.”

Shampoo regarded her cousins thoughtfully.  “You two speak better Japanese than I would have expect.  Is no way you learn that much in few weeks since Great-Grandmother go back home.”

Ling-Ling gave a mischievous smile.  “We start practicing way before that, big sister.  When we hear there two mans in same village able to beat you, we decide come to Japan when we can, find some stronger mans than have at home.”

Lung-Lung grinned at Ranma, distracting him from his amusement at hearing Tokyo referred to as a village.  “You know any strong warriors, Ranma?  You maybe show us good strong fighter?”

“Excuse me.”  Kodachi’s tone could have flash-frozen boiling water.  “Just so you don’t get any unfortunate ideas, Ranma-kun is NOT available.”

Lung-Lung pretended to pout while her sister answered.  “We know already.  Great-Grandmother tell many stories about you and Ranma.  She say Kodachi save big sister’s life, so Kodachi’s Airen off-limits.  And Tatewaki,” she stumbled a little over the unfamiliar name, “too.  Is no fair.  Warrior strong enough to beat Matriarch should be in tribe, make bloodlines stronger.”

Shampoo blinked.  Had the Matriarch not given the whole story about how her former Airen had won the fight?  Great-Grandmother didn’t like to give more information than she had to, but Shampoo thought she was taking the usual practice much too far.  If SHE had been defeated by someone with a magic sword, she’d make VERY sure anyone who knew of the loss also knew it hadn’t been a fair fight.

“Oh, is the Matriarch back at the Nekohanten now?”  Kodachi thought it was as good a time as any to go and ask Cologne for more details about the Heart Link.  Not that she was grabbing for an excuse to put off telling Ranma about Ukyo until even later.  Certainly not.

“Lung-Lung not think so.  Great-Grandmother probably still at airport.  Was some trouble with something she bring into Japan.”

Soichiro took a deep breath, then shouted for quiet.  This didn’t help any more than it had the last time he’d tried.

Cologne sat and massaged her temples.  During the weeks she’d spent back home, recovering from expending so much energy, she’d let herself forget how chaotic Nerima usually was.  Where else would a customs inspector leap to the conclusion that a large jug of water might be a transport medium for some biological warfare organism?  Where else would this cause the parties from three separate flights to get tangled up in Customs at the same time?  Where else would a giant pig come rampaging through an airport for no apparent reason, smashing into the suspect jug, sending Nannichuan flying everywhere?  At least the twins had left before that happened.  “<I hope Ranma and Ryoga appreciate this,>” she muttered to herself.  Not that her efforts to end their curses were likely to prove better than cold comfort.  Their cure was as far away as ever- all the Jusenkyo water had been spilled.  Some of it had even landed without splashing anyone.

“[How could you do this to my precious little Rupert?!]”  Mrs. Martha Ainsborough was not a happy camper.  The flight had been turbulent, the food had been tasteless, and her nine-year-old son was now standing 6’2” tall.  No question about it, this vacation had earned the title Trip from Hell.

“[Told you those stories about crazy stuff happening in Tokyo couldn’t all be rumors,]” her daughter Millicent said sullenly.  When you’re a twelve-year-old girl with a nine-year-old brother, keeping him in line is pretty important to you.  Millicent could see how her brother’s sudden transformation into a fully-grown man was probably going to hinder her ability to do this.

Rupert was just grinning and flexing his newly acquired muscles.  “[Let’s see that jerk Bobby Jenkins make fun of my name now!]”

Akari Unryu had finally managed to get Katsunishiki calmed down and wearing a pair of pants.  When she managed that last part, there had been a few sighs of regret from various women in the room (those who hadn’t seen what Katsunishiki had been before his bath).  She was now just sitting still and letting the delayed shock reaction wash over her.  The fact that Katsunishiki was leaning against her for reassurance had yet to register.  Since he made as large a man as he did a pig, it was a pretty safe bet that if he shifted any more of his weight onto her, she’d become aware very quickly, a split second before she became one with the floor.

Mademoiselle Franceska studied the tarot hand she’d… HE’d dealt himself.  He regarded it very carefully indeed.  A relieved smile broke out on his face.  So it wasn’t a permanent or even an uncontrollable transformation.  The cards didn’t always speak so clearly, but they must be feeling generous today, revealing without doubt that hot water would return him to her true form, and cold water would reverse the process.  The fortuneteller smiled, able to see lots of value in working a bit of obvious true magic into her act.  If nothing else, she’d be able to silence that skeptic Ambalang.  She was looking forward to finally debunking his beloved scientific method.  Not to mention now having an excuse to wear tight clothing in her act, so as to make the change obvious.  The loose flowing robes she normally wore might be traditional fortuneteller garb, as ringmaster Armand insisted, but they were nothing a twenty-six year old girl proud of her figure liked being stuck with.

The Matriarch took another look around the room, and decided she’d had enough of the chaos for one day.  Anyway, it might not be a good idea to let Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung run around unsupervised for too long.  As Mrs. Ainsborough drew breath to continue her harangue, Cologne reached out with her staff and tapped the woman’s throat, hitting her Cat Got Your Tongue shiatsu point and silencing her for the next several hours.  The Matriarch then pogoed over to Soichiro, who was now just holding his head in his hands and groaning faintly.  “Those that have been transformed will return to their true selves when splashed with hot water.  Being doused with cold water will shift them back into adult male human form.  I’ll send you a letter with more details tomorrow.  And now I must be on my way,” Cologne said briskly.

At this, Soichiro suddenly found the ability to temporarily ignore the chaos.  “I’m afraid I can’t let you go just yet.  Nobody who was involved in this fiasco is going anywhere until we get everything straightened out.”

‘<Can’t LET me go?  That’s amusing.>’  Amusing enough that Cologne didn’t want to spoil the joke by forcing her way out.  Not when she had a better option.

The Matriarch whipped out her diplomatic visa, claimed immunity, and took her leave.

“It look like Great-Grandmother going to arguing with stupid airline person for long time, so we use secret Amazon technique Dance of Hidden Chameleon to sneak out of airport,” Lung-Lung continued.

“Even I not know that one,” Shampoo commented, impressed.

Ling-Ling grinned.  “Is not only one we know- also learn Dance of Great Fire Dragon.  We train really hard, big sister.  Need to be ready when come to Japan.  Since Great-Grandmother not here, you show us around?”

“I happy to do that.  Is many strange places in Nerima you be interested to see.”  Shampoo turned to Ranma and Kodachi.  “You want come too?”

It was tempting, so tempting.  Kodachi saw the perfect excuse to hold off even longer on telling Ranma about Ukyo.  She opened her mouth to say she’d love to come… and her conscience blindsided her, temporarily taking over her vocal chords and forcing her to say, “No, Shampoo, we need to get back home and wait for Ryoga to return, so he can tell us why Ucchan was so angry.”

Shampoo inclined her head, understanding the real meaning.  “Then Shampoo be sure to make it back in three hours,” she replied.  Any longer separation than that wasn’t an option while they were awake, thanks to the Heart Link.  Finding these things out by trial and error had been a real pain- Shampoo wished that her Great-Grandmother hadn’t left without telling them more about the condition.

Ranma wasn’t quite sure when he became aware of it, but he gradually realized that the quality of Kodachi’s silence was different from his own.  They’d walked the rest of the way back home without saying much- Ranma had been trying to distance himself from the stressful day he’d had and find his center of calmness again.  Talking would have been a distraction, and he’d expected his girlfriend was probably trying to do the same thing he was anyway.  But now, sitting near Kodachi on a couch in one of the living rooms at home, Ranma had finally managed to gain a measure of peace.  And it had dawned on him that Kodachi wasn’t feeling anything like that.  She seemed to be wanting to talk, or get up and do something, but was unable to bring herself to the point of action.

“Dachi?  You okay?”  Ranma wasn’t willing to bet on it, considering how she jumped an inch in the air from a seated position when he spoke.

Kodachi swallowed.  “No, not really,” she managed at last.  She took a deep breath, and continued.  “Ranma-kun… I realized why Ucchan was so angry at you.”

Ranma gaped.  “How?” he asked blankly.  “How could you?  I don’t remember nothin’ that woulda made him so angry.”

“Yes, you do.  You just don’t remember that you remember.  Think back to the last time you saw him before today.  What do you recall?”

“It was when Pop and me left.  Ucchan didn’t want to see us go- he ran behind us, crying.  But that doesn’t explain nothin’!”

“Ranma-kun… try and remember a little harder.  Were you looking back over your shoulder, to see him running after you crying?”

“Ummm… no… I was… looking down?!  I was…”  Ranma’s voice trailed off as the memory finally returned.  He gulped a few times, then continued in a tiny voice, “I was sittin’ on top of the Kuonji yattai as Pop ran along pulling it.”

The White Rose inclined her head.  The shimmer of tears was in her eyes.  “Exactly, Ranma.  I think we can both guess how he got it.”

Ranma was quiet for a while.  When he spoke, his voice was steel grating on stone.  “Pop is a dead man.”  He started to say more, but noticed that Kodachi’s tears had begun to fall.  The panic this induced cut through his rage.  He hugged her, trying to ignore the feelings of helplessness as she quietly sobbed against his chest.  A flash of insight from the Heart Link informed him that she wasn’t just hurting because of what had happened to Ucchan- for some reason, his girlfriend was feeling guilty. “Dachi-chan, don’t cry.  I’m the one that shoulda remembered.  It ain’t your fault.”

“It is!” she choked out.  After a minute or two she got her tears under control, and said tremulously, “I remembered when you were in the ring with him, Ranma-sama.  I should have stopped it then.  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

Ranma sighed, and held her a little closer.  “Dachi, you gotta stop this.  It makes me feel like a heel when you apologize for something that’s not your fault.  This WASN’T!  What happened when you did try to stop the fight, huh?”

She considered.  “W- well, you have a point.”  Kodachi took a deep breath, then relaxed, letting Ranma support her.  “And I did tell Shampoo, and Ryoga.  That was why he went to try and cheer Ukyo up.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes, Kodachi still drawing comfort from the embrace.  Ranma eventually spoke up.  “I still don’t understand why Ucchan was so angry at you.  I mean, I don’t like it when somebody gets in the middle of one of my fights, but I’d never blow my top at a girl like that.  I just wish I knew why he was so hostile to ya.”

“No, you don’t.”

Ranma and Kodachi were out of each other’s arms and at separate ends of the couch before they realized that the voice hadn’t belonged to her father.  “Haven’t you ever heard of knockin’ before you come into a room, Ryoga?” Ranma growled.

Ryoga thought about making a sarcastic rejoinder, but let it go.  “Listen, Ranma, I found out why Ukyo was so angry at you.”  The former lost boy swallowed hard.  “You aren’t gonna like it.”

“It’s all right, Ryoga.  I already told him,” Kodachi said, then wondered why her response seemed to make him feel worse.

“No, you got it wrong, Kodachi.  At least, you didn’t know one pretty important detail.”  Ryoga met Ranma’s gaze squarely.  “Genma actually had a legitimate reason to leave with the yattai, Ranma.  But when he did, he was supposed to take Ukyo along too.”

Ranma and Kodachi wore identical looks of blank noncomprehension at this.  “What?  Why would he want to come with us?  Why would his DAD want that?”

Breaking things gently was something with which Ryoga had neither experience nor skill.  He looked away again, not wanting to see Ranma’s reaction to the next bit.  “Ranma… Ukyo isn’t a he.  He’s a she.  A girl.  Your dad and her dad agreed to engage you two- the yattai was her dowry.  And then Genma broke his promise, took off, and left her by the roadside.”

“No.  Oh, no,” Kodachi breathed.

“Th- that can’t be right!!  Ucchan’s a guy!  I mean, we all saw him this afternoon, in the fight…” Ranma’s voice trailed off.  After a minute, he spoke again, the tone of desperation replaced with one of bleak understanding.  “Let me guess.  He… she wanted revenge, and she followed after me and wound up at Jusenkyo.”

“Um, no.  Where’d you get a crazy idea like that from?” asked Ryoga, missing the incredulous stare Kodachi shot his way.  It wasn’t really his fault; he’d used up a full month’s supply of perception earlier that afternoon.  “After you left, she made a vow to renounce her femininity and train to defeat you.  She was just in disguise when you fought her.”

“Are you sure?” Ranma asked, desperately hoping Ryoga wasn’t.

“Yeah, I’m positive.  Think about what her voice sounded like when she was shouting at you in the middle of the fight.  Anyway, I got a good look at her in the shed when I went to try and comfort her after the fight.”  Ryoga sighed, unaware of how Kodachi and Ranma had tensed up after that last sentence.  “No Adam’s Apple at all.”  He missed it when they relaxed again, too.

Ranma just sat there for the next minute, feeling stunned.  Ucchan… a girl?  ANOTHER fiancée?!  But it all made a horrible sort of sense.  And it explained the question he’d had earlier… why Ukyo had reacted as he… SHE did to Kodachi’s status as his girlfriend.  So now he knew just what had gone down this afternoon.

Now he knew just who he’d beaten up and hurt so thoroughly.

“Ranma-kun?”  He didn’t answer, just sat there looking straight ahead.  Kodachi concentrated on the Heart Link, and felt as if she’d jumped naked into a pool of liquid ice.  Ranma had been hit too hard with too much too fast- he seemed frozen, incapable of feeling anything.  She reached out and gripped his hand tightly in hers.

As if triggered by the contact, the ice sheathing his soul began to crack.  Ranma took a deep breath as the frozen cold began to seep away.  “Kodachi, a little while back you were feelin’ bad about something you’d done and I held you until you felt better.”  The last of the numbness was fading, all too quickly.  “I think… I need ya to do the same thing… for me…”

“This is place Shampoo think of as Bridge of Noonday Sun.”  Shampoo led her cousins onto the structure, smiling to herself at the looks of astonishment on their faces.  Their shadows had vanished even as they set foot on the bridge.

“How it work, big sister?” Ling-Ling asked.  “Is magic?”

Shampoo shrugged.  “I not know.  Great-Grandmother spend whole day here once, trying to figure out, but she gave up in disgust.  All she say for sure is it’s not dangerous.”

No sooner had she finished saying that than a look of absolute devastation spread across Shampoo’s face.  She slumped to the ground.

“Big sister Shampoo!!”  Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung each grabbed one of their cousin’s arms and hustled her off the bridge in a cloud of dust.  Once off the suspect structure, Lung-Lung whipped out her trident and scanned the area for threats, while Ling-Ling asked anxiously, “Is you okay?”

Through the tears, Shampoo answered, “Am fine, but Ranma no is.  He really hurting right now.  Must get back to him.  Shampoo see you at Nekohanten tomorrow, okay?”  Without waiting for an answer, the Amazon dashed away in a blaze of lavender.

The twins wore identical looks of surprise.  Even their blinks were synchronized.  Finally Ling-Ling broke the silence.  “Ling-Ling think is maybe other reason Great-Grandmother tell us not try get Ranma as husband.”

Time heals all wounds, or so they say.  A few hours weren’t nearly enough to do that for Ranma, but the pain had faded somewhat.  And now he was walking through the darkened streets on his way to where Ryoga had told him Ukyo was staying.  He’d tried for the entirety of the walk to prepare a speech of apology and a plea for forgiveness, but the right words just wouldn’t seem to form in his mind.  Ranma sighed as he neared his destination and resolved to just wing it.

He paused outside the restaurant, studying what would, on the morrow, be the finest okonomiyaki joint in Nerima.  Ranma felt a strange pang of sadness and loss when he looked at the sign:  Ukyo’s Okonomiyaki.  Shaking off the mysterious feeling of remorse, he looked through the window.  There was Ucchan, still setting things up for the grand opening the next day.  Ranma took a deep breath and knocked on the front door.

Inside the shop, Ukyo looked up from polishing the grill.  Who would that be at this hour?  She was conscious of a feeling of nervous vulnerability, and it angered her.  Just because she’d taken off the stupid chest bindings and vowed not to put them back on was no reason to imagine some hentai was going to show up and cause trouble.  Nonetheless, the chef was cradling her combat spatula in one arm as she went to answer the door.

The door opened, and Ranma and Ukyo just stood there for several long minutes, each staring at the other in shock.  Ukyo certainly hadn’t expected to see him here.  And Ranma… well, it was one thing to hear Ryoga say his friend was really a girl.  It was another thing entirely to see her with her hair hanging unbound, and notice the new curves that had mysteriously appeared on the front of her okonomiyaki outfit.

Ukyo recovered first.  “Whaddaya want, Saotome?”  She unconsciously reverted to the familiar masculine voice to growl at him.

Ranma blinked, and shook himself out of his daze.  “Ucchan.”  Words failed him for a moment, so instead he bowed down, and employed the Crouch of the Wild Tiger.  “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

Ukyo blinked, then realized that the drama was taking place in full view of the public.  Not that there was much public to notice, it being after nine o’clock and all, but still she didn’t need the neighbors to get any funny ideas.  And she couldn’t just slam the door on him, as Ranma’s torso was in the way.  She settled for growling wordlessly, grabbing him by the pigtail, whisking him inside, and shutting the door behind her.

There was silence for another few minutes as Ukyo glared at Ranma.  Rather a wasted effort, as he was still crouched down and couldn’t see her expression.  As Ranma seemed to be waiting for her to make the next move (which he was, being unable to think of anything more to say), Ukyo eventually spoke up.  “You’re sorry, huh, Ranma.  You’re sorry you dumped me on the road like a burned okonomiyaki.  You’re sorry you took off with my dowry.  You’re SORRY you made my life a living hell!”  She took a deep breath to calm herself.  It didn’t help.  “Do you think SORRY makes anything better?!”

Ranma looked up at her, and the misery in his eyes struck her even through her hurt.  “What would?” he asked quietly.  “What would make you feel better?”

“For you not to have left me.  Or for you to have felt just as much pain as me.  Do you know how humiliated I was?!  How much the other girls teased me about being dumped by my fiancé?”

Ranma sighed and looked down again.  “I didn’t know, Uc- Ukyo.  The old man never told me nothing about the agreement.  He said the yattai was a going-away present from you and your dad.  I was only a six-year-old kid then.  I didn’t know any better than to believe him.”

“That doesn’t change what happened,” Ukyo pointed out.  “What are you going to do about it?  And for cryin’ out loud, get up off the floor.”

He complied, pulled out one of the chairs and sat in it.  Ukyo remained standing.  All right, it was a cheap trick to give her a psychological edge.  The chef didn’t see a problem with that. 

“You said you’d feel better if you knew I’d been hurt just as much as you, Ukyo.  So I’m gonna tell you about what things were like, growing up on the road with Pop.  Just so you know what you missed out on when he ran off without you.”

An hour later, Ukyo wasn’t feeling any better.  But her discomfort was coming from a different source now- horror at what she’d heard.  Ranma had started out comparatively mild- describing what it was like never having a place to stay for longer than a couple of weeks.  Always having to move along and leave behind everybody you were just starting to get to know.  He went on to describe Genma’s instructing him in petty larceny disguised as training.  He talked about the cold, hungry nights when the money and supplies were running low.  Ranma then moved on to outline some of Genma’s ideas for training methods.  To Ukyo, who’d fought with her spatula against the waves of the sea, the first few didn’t sound too bad.  Then they began to get worse.  By the time Ranma told her of the Cat Fist, Ukyo was fighting a feeling of nausea.  She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to believe Ranma or not.  But she did.  Nobody could fake the kind of feeling Ranma showed as he struggled to get the last part out.

Ranma sat in silence for a few minutes after that, catching his breath and slowly getting his color back.  Eventually, he felt recovered enough to go on.  “I don’t think Pop woulda done that to you, Ucchan.  Not the C- Ca-…  not that training.  But if you had come along, you woulda regretted it.  You’d’ve been with us when we went to Jusenkyo.”

“Jusenkyo?  What’s that?”  And why had he said the word like it was a curse against everything he held dear?

“It’s a training ground deep in China.  The place don’t look like much- there’s all these springs of water around, with bamboo poles sticking up out of the ground.  You train on the poles, trying not to fall down.  If you do fall, you’ll probably land in a spring, which’ll cushion you at least.”  Ranma gave a bitter laugh.  “Of course, over the last few thousand years, lots of different animals and people have drowned in the pools.  And now, whoever falls in a spring is cursed to change inta whatever last drowned there.

“Pop dragged me there, even though he didn’t speak a word of Chinese.  Didn’t pay any attention to the guide who tried to warn us off, either.  Just led me out onto the poles for a sparring session.”  Ranma was looking down, and missed the look Ukyo was giving him.  This was just as well, as it would have hurt his feelings needlessly to realize his oldest friend was panicking at the thought of being trapped in a room with an obviously insane martial artist.  “I knocked him into the Spring of Drowned Panda, and he came roaring out and hit me into the Spring of Drowned Girl.”

Still without looking at Ukyo, he got up, walked over to the sink, and filled a glass with cold water.  “The change ain’t permanent, but you do shift whenever you get splashed with water.  Cold water to put you in your cursed form, and hot to bring you back to normal.”  Ranma dumped the water over his head.  Ukyo gaped as he changed hair color and transferred several inches from height to chest size.  Ranma-chan looked around, and realized there was no ready source of hot water available.  “Um, Ucchan?  Could you put a kettle or something on for me?”

Ukyo just stared.  There was such a mixture of emotions swirling through her at that point that she wasn’t really able to react.  Ranma-chan repeated her request, and the chef snapped out of her daze.  At least enough to inform Ranma-chan that hot water could be had in the bathroom upstairs.  The redhead thanked her and left; a few minutes later, the male Ranma rejoined her at the table.

“So it coulda been worse, you see.  If you had come with us, who knows what would have happened to you.  You might’ve fallen in the Spring of Drowned Fox or something.”

“Yeah, that would suck,” Ukyo agreed faintly.  “Your old man sounds like he’s got about as much intelligence as he does honor and hair.”

“No joke.”  Ranma then told her about the Saotome-Tendo alliance, and also about Kaori Daikokuji’s claim.  By the time he’d finished, the chef was glowing with a noticeable battle aura.

“So it was all just a big lie,” she ground out.  “Your worthless father never had any intention of honoring his promise.  Ranma… I… I’m sorry.  I guess I really shouldn’t have blamed you.”  She sighed and looked away.  “So what’s the story on that girlfriend of yours, huh?  Did Genma sell you to her family too?”

“Nah.  The only one of those deals Pop meant to keep was the one to marry me off to a Tendo.  I didn’t meet Dachi until after we got here and the old man told me about that engagement.  None of Mr Tendo’s daughters wanted me, and somehow I got stuck with the worst of them.  I met Dachi a little after that.  When she found out about the honor promise, she fixed things to get me out of it.”

“How’d she do that?” Ukyo asked curiously.

“She’s the best there is at Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics.  Akane, that’s the girl I was engaged to, was scheduled to compete against Kodachi.  Kodachi offered Pop and Mr Tendo a deal.  If she won the fight, I got released from every promise my old man made for me, and could do what I wanted.  But if she lost, she’d pay the Tendos a million yen.  Dachi won, thank goodness.”

Ukyo hitched her jaw back up.  It had fallen as far as its hinges would allow at the mention of the sum.  “A m- million yen?!  That’s some girlfriend you got, sugar!”

“Yeah,” Ranma said softly.  “Dachi was the first person not to think my curse made me some kinda freak.  She was the first good thing to happen to me in a really, really long time.  Who knows?  Maybe the reason I had so much crap in my earlier life was to make up for eventually meeting her.”

The chef sighed.  “Sounds like maybe you did have it worse than me, Ranma.  I can’t say I’m happy about what happened, but I guess I’m willing to let bygones be bygones.”

Ranma took a deep breath, then released it.  “And what about this afternoon?” he asked hesitantly.

Ukyo gave him a blank look.  “What about it?”

Ranma facefaulted, then picked himself up and nearly shouted, “Whaddaya mean, what about it?!  I beat you up, and yelled at you, and made you run off in tears!”

Ukyo dismissed the alleged offenses with a wave of her hand.  “Don’t worry about it, Ranchan.  That was nothing compared to what I was planning to do to you.  If I can forget what happened ten years ago, then I can forget this afternoon too.”  Of course, that was leaving out the fact that she didn’t want to forget some of it.  Specifically, Ryoga comforting her afterward.  That was worth a lot more pain than Ranma had caused her in the fight.

Her one-time fiancé held back a groan.  ‘You’d think that with the memories from two girls’ lives, I’d be able to understand women.  But NOOOOO.’ 

He noticed Ukyo suppress a yawn, and realized just how late it was getting.  “Thanks, Ucchan.  I guess I better get going.”

Ukyo glanced at the clock as well, and gave a start.  “Yeah, get outta here,” she growled playfully.  “I’ve still got to finish getting ready for the grand opening tomorrow.”  Today was Friday, so she didn’t have to worry about class the next day.  One other good reason to have chosen Furinkan- most Japanese schools were in session six days a week.

“Aw, geez, I didn’t mean to keep you from that.”  An idea struck Ranma.  “What time are you gonna open?”

“I was planning on eleven o’clock.”

“Well, how about me and some friends come by a little earlier?  We could get here at nine, and help you set up stuff.  You wouldn’t have to lose any sleep that way.  And I know Dachi and Shampoo would like to meet you.”

Ukyo gave him a blank stare.  “I must be more tired than I thought.  I could’ve sworn I just heard you say you know somebody called Shampoo.”

“Hey, she’s from a tribe of Chinese Amazons.  They’ve got a lotta different ways of doing things there.”  Ranma held back a yawn of his own, and took that as his cue to get up and head toward the door.  When he got there, he turned back to face her and said seriously,  “Thank you for forgivin’ me, Ucchan.  I never wanted to hurt you.”  He bowed deeply, then grinned unpleasantly and said, “You wanna be there when I let Pop know just what I think of how he treated you?”

The chef gave him a quizzical look.  “Didn’t you figure out I was the one who beat him up yesterday?”

Ranma blinked.  “I didn’t know anyone did.  I’m staying with the Kunos, and Pop ain’t welcome there.  He’s still at the Tendo place.  So you gave him a little payback already, huh?  Well, I guess we’ll hafta wait for him to heal up, but Shampoo and Kodachi and I are gonna give him a session that’ll make what you did seem like a gentle massage.  You’re more than welcome to help out.”

Ukyo grinned a bloodthirsty grin of her own.  “Well, I DID swear to get vengeance on both you and your old man.  I guess if I let you off the hook, that means I have to beat him up twice, to compensate.”

The next morning found Ranma, Ryoga, Shampoo, and Kodachi strolling through the streets on their way to Ukyo’s.  As Ranma had anticipated, both the White Rose and the Amazon had been happy to help.  Ryoga had offered to come as well, mentioning that he’d promised he’d be Ukyo’s first customer.

As they neared the restaurant, Shampoo took a deep breath, then heaved a contented sight.  “Is very nice weather we have today.  Good omen for first day of Ucchan’s new restaurant.”

“Yes indeed,” agreed Kodachi.  “I hope he… SHE will have plenty of custom today.”

“Me, too.  I’m glad it ain’t gonna rain on Ucchan’s parade”  Ranma looked up, smiled at the sky, then turned his gaze to Ryoga.  “Especially since we got two people with Jusenkyo curses walking out in the open at the same time.  Normally that’s like a signal to heaven to bring on the water.”

Without pausing for conscious thought, Kodachi whipped out her ribbon and spun it dizzying fast above the group, creating a shield and deflecting the water which suddenly poured out from an open window above.

As the deluge ended, Ryoga groaned.  “Ranma, press your own luck if you want to, but leave me out of it!”

Ranma grinned sheepishly.  “Sorry, guys.  I think I’ll shut up now.”

They made it the rest of the way to Ukyo’s without any further close calls.  Well, actually, a couple of miles away, an out-of-control truck just missed demolishing one of the supports of a local water tower.  Had it hit, the streets would have been flooded.  But the four martial artists were blissfully unaware of this.  As Ukyo opened the door to let them in, Ranma was amused to note that Kodachi and Shampoo both reacted to her new look just like he had the night before.

“Thanks for coming, Ranchan.  I really appreciate you guys helping me out like this.”  It seemed to Ranma that Ukyo was feeling some anxiety.  The pig-tailed martial artist had no idea why that would be the case, though.

“No problem, Ucchan.”  It occurred to Ranma that there was one introduction that still needed to be made.  “This is Shampoo,” he said, indicating the Amazon, who raised her hand in greeting and gave a cheerful “Nihao!”.  “You already know Ryoga,” Ranma missed completely the way her smile brightened by several degrees as she turned it on the former lost boy, “and Kodachi.”

As Ukyo turned her gaze on the White Rose, her smiled dimmed considerably and she gulped.  “Yeah, I remember her,” the chef said.  “Listen, sugar, about yesterday… and the fight… I wasn’t really in the best mood then… upset and all that about finally getting a chance at revenge, and Ranma just kept dodging… and then just when I start to cool down in you come, and there I am trying to punish him for abandoning his fiancée when his girlfriend jumps into the ring and starts talking about how much he’s told you about what good friends he and I were…”  With an effort, Ukyo stopped babbling, and swallowed to clear the dryness out of her throat.  “Oh, hell,” she continued.  “I’m really sorry about how I reacted, that’s all.”

Kodachi smiled gently, relieved that her first impression, that Ukyo didn’t want her in the restaurant, had been false.  “Don’t worry about it, Ukyo.  I know who is REALLY to blame for the events of yesterday.  I assure you, Genma is going to receive much worse from me than a minor scorching.”

Ukyo let out a relieved sigh, then grinned at the White Rose.  “Music to my ears, sugar.”  She turned back to Ryoga.  “So, you still planning to be my first customer, Ryoga-kun?”

“Absolutely.  I can’t wait for another one of those shrimp deluxes.”  Ryoga chuckled.  “I should’ve figured out you were a girl with the first bite of the first okonomiyaki you fixed for me.  No way could a guy cook something that good.”

Ukyo snickered.  “Don’t let my dad hear you say that.  He runs his own restaurant, and his spatula is even bigger than mine.  He’d take you to town for suggesting he needed to get lessons from his little girl.”

“Sooner we get everything set up, sooner Ryoga can keep his promise,” Shampoo pointed out.  “What you want us to do?”

With five people working together, the rest of the setting-up didn’t take much time.  Tables were bussed, menus were distributed, chairs were arranged, ingredients were prepared, and all was in readiness.  Ukyo took a long look around the restaurant, and then at the foursome who’d helped her set it up.  The chef smiled.  Coming to Nerima had been the best decision she’d made in a long time.  With the secret she’d kept for so long, she hadn’t been able to afford the luxury of close friends.  But now it looked like that might be changing, along with so much else.

With still well over an hour to go before the ‘official’ opening, Ukyo fired up the grill for its maiden voyage.  As promised, the first okonomiyaki was a shrimp deluxe for Ryoga.

“Here you go, sugar,” she said once it was done, and placed the fragrant offering on a plate in front of Ryoga.  “That’ll be ten yen.”  Ryoga gave her an inquiring look before offering her the smallest coin he had on him.  Ukyo handed him his change, then said, “Hey, you wouldn’t be my customer if I didn’t charge you SOMEthing.  That’s my restaurant’s-first-customer-ever everything’s-just-ten-yen permanent discount”  The chef smiled at the others.  “The rest of you guys get my helped-me-set-up half-price permanent discount.  So what’ll you have?”

While Ranma and Kodachi made their requests, Shampoo regarded Ryoga’s okonomiyaki contemplatively.  She then ordered a shrimp deluxe for herself.  As Ukyo whipped out their orders, the Amazon’s expectations were fulfilled.  The pizza that Ukyo had made for Ryoga was noticeably larger than hers, as well as containing a higher proportion of shrimp.  Shampoo smiled, and her suspicion crystallized to near-certainty.  It looked like Ucchan was interested in Ryoga.  It was still quite odd to be thinking of Ranma’s childhood friend as a girl, but since that was the case Shampoo thought Ucchan could do a lot worse than pursue the former lost boy.  Silently she wished the chef all the best, along with a hope that this could help Ryoga finish getting over Akane.

Kodachi mentally sighed as she put two and two together as well, arriving at the same conclusion as the lavender-haired one.  On the one hand, she was glad to think that Ukyo might get a decent man for herself, even if the White Rose was still adjusting to the fact that the chef wasn’t herself a man.  On the other, there went her hopes for Shampoo to find solace with Ryoga.  Of course, those hopes had always been premature at best, since the Heart Link had yet to show any sign of fading.  Kodachi made another mental note to stop by the Nekohanten later and ask the Matriarch for more details.

Neither Ranma nor Ryoga noticed anything besides how good their food was.

Once everybody had finished eating, and this didn’t take long, they began talking.  By popular demand, Ukyo was the first to tell her story.  Everyone was interested to hear the Kuonji family history, even though Ukyo only gave an abridged version, leaving out the more unbelievable parts.

Kodachi followed the chef.  After hearing a full account of the infamous Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics match, Ukyo smiled to learn that it had actually been Ranma whom Kodachi had defeated in order to secure his own freedom.  On being assured that her former fiancé hadn’t thrown the fight, and remembering how she’d fared in her battle against him, the chef’s respect for Kodachi shot up by several more notches.  Shampoo told her story as well, then kept Ukyo fascinated with tales of life in the village of the Chinese Amazons.

Shampoo finished her last anecdote, and Ukyo turned to Ryoga.  “Your turn, Ryoga-kun.  I’m guessing you’ve got just as interesting a past as the rest of us.”

Before Ryoga could do more than begin to look sad and uncomfortable, Kodachi cleared her throat.  “It might be best to save that for later.  Look out the window, everyone.”

Everybody did so.  Ukyo in particular gaped, then, unaware she was making use of another’s copyright material, uttered a faint, “Oh my.”

The lane outside Ukyo’s Okonomiyaki was packed to overflowing with people waiting impatiently for the restaurant to open.  In the very front of the crowd, squashed against the door, were three identical girls.  Sakura was feeling more than a little annoyed at a certain upperclassman just then.  Okay, it was a good plan of Nabiki’s, to get Ukyo favorably inclined toward her by stirring up extra business for opening day.  And providing three cute waitresses to help with the crowd for free was icing on the cake.  But the middle Tendo had gone just a bit overboard as far as Sakura was concerned.  When she had to brace herself against the door and push back in order to get enough room to draw a decent breath, it was too crowded.

Meanwhile, Sakura was regretting that they had decided not to get there early and offer to help set up.  A little extra work would have been a heck of a lot better than playing sardines with half the populace of Nerima.

Sakura was just as cramped and breathless as the other two, but she was managing to ignore it better.  Unfortunately, this was because she was daydreaming about getting to know the cute guy she’d seen fighting Ranma the other day.  Sakura had the dubious distinction of being the only person in the crowd who was going to wind up disappointed in another minute, when Ukyo finally opened the door.

The hours passed, quickly for some, more slowly for others.  After a night of unsettled dreams, Ryoga awoke the next morning with an odd mixture of anxiety and foreboding.  Not that he was in any way surprised by this.  After breakfast, the former lost boy decided to take a walk and hopefully clear his head.

The fact that it was both cloudy and windy outside didn’t register on Ryoga- he was too busy thinking of other things.  It didn’t even cross his mind to turn back and get a raincoat.  That omission, combined with the fact that it hadn’t rained in Nerima for the previous four days, should have been sufficient to bring on a downpour as soon as Ryoga was far enough from cover.

Unless the fates had something worse in store, which depended on him remaining in his true form.

Ryoga was in no particular hurry to get anywhere.  He rambled through the streets of Nerima for half an hour before winding up at a local park, not particularly noticing as the clouds broke up and were replaced with a bright sunny sky.  Seating himself on a bench, he thought back to the conversation he’d had the previous night.

It had been a long and tiring day.  When Ryoga had volunteered to help Ukyo open her restaurant, he hadn’t expected it to consume most of his Saturday.  The sheer number of people that had come to sample Ukyo’s wares was quite a testament to the skills of Nabiki Tendo.  On one hand, Ryoga was glad the day had been such a huge success for Ukyo.  On the other, he wished he’d had some warning that he’d be spending hours carrying orders and money from the crowd outside in to the kitchen, then bringing the prepared okonomiyaki back outside to the customers.  Ryoga estimated he’d walked several miles that way.  Certainly he’d gotten a great deal of exercise.

Which was why he was just sitting on a couch in one of the Kuno living rooms, rather than performing his evening kata.  This particular room was one in which Tatewaki often watched imported movies to polish his language skills.  The biggest television Ryoga had ever seen stood in one corner.  The former lost boy considered putting on a movie, but then decided he was just too tired to try to make sense of some ridiculously difficult foreign language.

The door opened, and he looked up to see Shampoo enter the room.  “Am glad to find you alone, bandana boy.  Shampoo need talk with you”  The Amazon closed the door behind her.

Ryoga blinked.  “Um, what about?”

Shampoo seated herself at the opposite end of his couch with an audible sigh of relief.  She had gotten just as much exercise at Ukyo’s that day as he had.  “About Ucchan.”  That should be enough to clue him in on what she was driving at.

“What about her?” Ryoga asked.

Shampoo frowned.  “I too tired for this, Ryoga.  No pretend you don’t know Ucchan interested in you.”

Ryoga put his hand behind his head and laughed nervously.  “Heh heh, well, I guess you’d know better than me, being a girl and all, but… are you sure?”

The Amazon gave him an incredulous stare.  “Yes, Shampoo sure.  Unless she act different to you when nobody else around?”

Ryoga’s embarrassment deepened.  “Um, no, I guess I see what you’re saying… I did kinda suspect it earlier… but I didn’t want to jump to the wrong conclusion…”  Not to mention that when he’d first suspected it he’d had reason to hope very hard that it wasn’t true.

Shampoo rolled her eyes.  Apparently males were clueless about women no matter where they came from.  “Take it from Shampoo, this not wrong conclusion.”  She fixed him with a challenging stare.  “So what you do about it?”

“Er, well, I don’t really know…”  By now Ryoga looked like he was on the verge of Death By Embarrassment.  In an attempt to recover his poise, he asked defensively, “What’s it to you, anyway?!”

“Remember Heart Link, bandana boy?  Was maybe not Shampoo or Kodachi who was childhood friend to Ucchan, but we still remember.  Still care for her just like Ranma.”  Shampoo’s gaze intensified.  “Ukyo have hard life up till now, thanks to stupid panda man.  Shampoo want to see things change for better for her.  I think you two make good couple.  Good for both of you.”

“So you’re just gonna order me to ask her out?” Ryoga protested.

Shampoo reflected again that she was too tired for this.  “No, Shampoo not try tell you what to do.  Now you answer question.  You think there anything wrong with Ucchan?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Then you not have problem asking her out.”

Ryoga groaned.  That had sounded like an order to him.  “It really is that simple to you, isn’t it?” he asked half-rhetorically.  “And what happens when we get caught in the rain on our hypothetical first date, huh?  I get humiliated and dropped like a rock.”

Shampoo glared at him.  “Ukyo seem like good person to me.  And Ranma say he tell her about his curse and she no bothered too much.  Bandana boy need to learn to trust other people, or be alone for rest of life.”

“Maybe,” Ryoga allowed.  “But I’d still rather see her reaction to the curse BEFORE I go asking her out, or anything like that.”

“That probably good idea.  Can tell her tomorrow or sometime soon.  Remember she ask this morning to hear about life, but have to open shop before you get to tell her.”

An extremely rare event occurred then.  Ryoga lost his temper.  “Will you stop pushing me, already?!” he growled.  “It’s none of your business anyway!”

Instead of being insulted, Shampoo just regarded him thoughtfully for a few moments.  “What is real reason you so reluctant?” she asked at last.

Ryoga had regretted the angry words as soon as they left his mouth.  He had developed an almost pathological aversion to getting angry with other people ever since learning why such feelings had once come so naturally.  Perhaps if he hadn’t been ashamed of snapping at her he might have continued to dodge the issue.  But as it was he sighed, looked down at the floor, and muttered, “Akane.”

Shampoo just sat quietly, and after a minute he continued, “Even the thought of asking someone else out feels like I’m betraying her, Shampoo.  I’m not ready for anybody else right now.”

“Ryoga… need to let go of her.  There nothing there to hold on to.”  Shampoo said this in a more subdued and sympathetic voice than Ryoga could remember ever hearing from the Amazon.  “You think Akane feel betrayed if she find out you date with Ukyo?”

“Rub it in, why don’t you?” Ryoga muttered bitterly.  “I know damn well she doesn’t see anything but an Oni when she looks at me and flinches back.  That doesn’t change the fact that I care for her.”

“Ever think about why you care in first place?”

“Um, I don’t understand the question.”

Shampoo smiled sadly at him.  “You lot like Shampoo in one way, bandana boy.  We both fall hard for first person who give us chance to.  For me, Tatewaki.  He come along, defeat me, show he brave, strong, noble warrior like Shampoo always dream of having.  For you, Akane.  She first girl to show any caring to you, yes?   Shampoo remember from Ranma’s memories.  She so kind to you in cursed form you let self forget she not know who she dealing with.”  Shampoo placed a sympathetic hand on Ryoga’s shoulder.  “But Tatewaki not for Shampoo, and Akane not for you.  I know is hard to let go.  But you need to do it.  Ukyo is good opportunity for you to make new start.”

“Just like you did after Tatewaki?” Ryoga said.  He was surprised when the Amazon paled and began to sweat like crazy.

“Wh… what you mean by that?” Shampoo croaked.

Ryoga was truly confused now.  “I just meant it seems like you did a good job of putting him behind you.  I wish I could forget Akane that easily.”

“That not true or you would try forget her,” Shampoo countered.

Ryoga’s reserves of perception were still incredibly low, but he did manage to discern that Shampoo was trying to change the subject.  This aroused his curiosity.  “What did you think I meant?”

Shampoo hesitated for a moment, trying to decide how much of the truth she could trust him with.  She felt like an idiot for reacting as she had.  Ryoga had gone so long without realizing how she felt about Ranma that she should have known he wasn’t going to figure things out on his own.  But his question had caught her off guard.  Eventually she sighed and said, “Reason Shampoo think Ukyo help you forget Akane is because that how it work for me… with Ranma.”

Ryoga’s eyes widened.  That had been the last little clue he needed to put the pieces together.  But the picture forming wasn’t something he was prepared for.  “Wait a minute… are you saying you…?”

She nodded.  “Is so hard to believe Shampoo love man who treat her with kindness?  Strong fighter like Ranma?”

Ryoga swallowed, then in a voice half-choked with dread, he asked, “Does Kodachi know?  Does RANMA know?!”

Shampoo gave him the most exasperated stare he’d ever received.  “You only one in house what not realize, Ryoga.  Sometimes Shampoo think you wear that bandana over eyes instead of forehead.”  She sighed, and continued in a melancholy voice.  “When Shampoo dying, after save Ranma from fall, confess truth to him.  Not even have to tell Kodachi, since she learn from his memories in Heart Link.”

That opened up new avenues of disbelief for Ryoga.  “And she doesn’t mind?!”

This was where the conversation was going to get tricky.  Shampoo chose her words with care.  “Why should she?  She see Ranma’s heart, know he love her and only think of Shampoo as friend.  There no chance in world Ranma abandon her for me.  She know it.  I know it.  And I no would change that for the world.  Even before Ranma, Kodachi was first one in Japan to show kindness to Shampoo.  I never betray her.  Rather die first.  Would no even have said anything to Ranma if not dying.”  She finished and let out a relieved breath.

“It must hurt, to have to stay so near them, with the Heart Link and all,” Ryoga said sympathetically.

“Is not so bad,” she said, then quickly added, “At least have friendship.  No could bear to lose that.”  They sat quietly for a few minutes, then Shampoo spoke up again.  “We get off subject, Ryoga.  You need forget Akane.  Trust Shampoo on this.  And since Ukyo want you, is good chance to do so.”

Ryoga sighed.  “Thanks for the advice, Shampoo.”  He looked at the clock, and got to his feet with a weary groan.  “I’m going to get some sleep.  Maybe things will seem clearer in the morning.”  He hesitated, then said awkwardly, “I hope things work out all right for you.”

Shampoo laughed.  Ryoga thought she sounded a little nervous, but he was too tired for it to really register.  “Shampoo hope so too.  And same for you.”  ‘And Ucchan.’  The last just spoken mentally, rather than aloud, as she didn’t want to put any more pressure on him tonight.

Ryoga walked out of the room, leaving the Amazon sitting on the couch alone.  She remained there for quite a while, lost in thought.  Eventually, she shook her head and whispered to herself, “Not yet.  I not say nothing until know for sure.”

Had Ranma focused on the Heart Link just then, he would have wondered just why Shampoo was trying not to feel guilty.

‘Well, it’s morning now, and things don’t seem all that much clearer,’ Ryoga thought moodily.  ‘What should I do?  Shampoo says falling for somebody else would get my mind off Akane, and I guess she’s right.  On the other hand, do I even want to take advice from her?  She went straight from her first target to loving another guy she can’t have.  I don’t think I’d be able to handle that as well as she is, if it works out that way for me.’

Ryoga smacked his fist into his palm.  ‘But I can’t just do nothing, out of cowardice.  Well, I could, but I’m darn well not going to.’  But that decision didn’t really make things any clearer.  It was all well and good to declare he would ask Ukyo out if he wanted to (and if he was reasonably sure she wanted him to), but that didn’t really make any headway on answering the important question.  Did he want to at all?

“Maybe I should try to talk to somebody else about this,” he said to himself.  “But who?  I don’t really think Shampoo would be able to help me any further.  Maybe Ranma?”  He snorted.  “Yeah, right.  Sure he’s in a great relationship right now, but he basically just dropped into it by luck.  The way I hear it, it was Kodachi who did all the work there.”  Ryoga was unaware that he’d just won the Understatement of the Year Award.  “He was hurting, needing somebody who would care for him, and along she comes and lays her heart at his feet.  It’s not like he had to go out and fight some kinda major battle to get her interested in him…”  Ryoga’s voice trailed off as a little voice in his head, souding remarkably like Shampoo, shouted, ‘And just HOW is that different from you and Ucchan, bandana boy?’

Ryoga sat, stunned, as the realization sank through his mind.  After a few minutes, he shook his head as if to clear it.  “Maybe,” he sighed.  ‘But am I ready to risk getting hurt again?’  He seemed then to hear an echo of the Amazon’s words from the night before, “Need to learn to trust other people, or be alone for rest of life.”

‘Well, I don’t want that.  But I’m only sixteen, for cryin’ out loud!  It’s not like the whole rest of my life is riding on this decision!’

Curiously enough, that was the thought that seemed to suddenly put everything into perspective for Ryoga.  He was agonizing over whether or not to ask a girl out on one lousy little date.  What if he did ask Ukyo out, and she turned him down?  Sure it would be a bit painful, but it wasn’t like he was in love with her or anything.  There’d be other opportunities.  And if he didn’t at least try, he’d be throwing one away.  Increasing determination began to show on Ryoga’s face.  The best way to deal with this situation was to treat it like a battle.  The best defense was a good offense.  So he was worried about whether any girl could accept his curse?  Then he should find out, by telling Ukyo about it ASAP.  So he wasn’t sure how he felt about the idea of dating Ukyo?  Then he needed to ask her out at least once, so he could find out.  At least, assuming she didn’t tell him to take a hike after she learned about his curse.  The former lost boy’s jaw squared.  He leaped to his feet.  “All right!  I’ll do it!!” he shouted.

‘Okay, get with other boys and get ready.”

Ryoga blinked, and remembered that he was in public.  “What the…?”

The scene in front of him was… well, not bizarre by Nerima standards, but certainly unusual.  In the open area just in front of his bench, a group of nine boys in kendo robes were facing off against two young girls in matching jumpsuits.  The boys were carrying bokken, and the girls were armed with a trident and a staff.  What seemed to be the leader of the kendoists was looking at him with annoyance.  Before Ryoga could recover his balance enough to say anything else, he snapped, “Stay out of this!  This is an honor challenge to our kendo club!  We don’t need your help!”

“My help?  What’re you talking about?” Ryoga asked blankly.

Ling-Ling sniffed.  “Just now Ling-Ling ask boys if they have everybody they need for fight.  Ask if anybody else want to help them out.  You jump to feet and volunteer, yes?”

Ryoga felt like the biggest idiot in the world just then.  “Um, sorry, I was thinking of something else.  I’ll get out of here and let you have your… fight?!  Hey, wait a minute!”  The former lost boy found something else to focus on instead of his embarrassment.  “Are all you guys gonna fight them?”

“Yeah, that’s right.  They challenged our honor as a kendo club!”

“Your honor?” Ryoga growled.  “That’s funny.  Seems to me that if nine guys are willing to gang up on a couple of girls, they haven’t got much honor to be concerned with in the first place!”

The leader seemed to swell in outrage.  “How dare you!  Get out of here while you can still walk without a crutch!”

Ryoga sneered a sneer calculated to drive the other even farther into irrational anger.  “Big words from a little boy with a little stick.  You think you’re something special, hot stuff?  Then I challenge you to face me first, one on one!  If you take me down, then you can all gang up on these two!”

By now his opponent had completely forgotten about the previous challenge.  Stiffly he saluted Ryoga, then gave an ear-splitting war-cry and charged forward, striking with his bokken.

It was just his bad luck that his target had plenty of experience sparring with someone who was a better kendoist than he could ever hope to be.  In one smooth motion, Ryoga sidestepped, whipped the bandana off his head (and for the first time ever recorded, there wasn’t one underneath it.  Ryoga had lost the ability to duplicate them when the Oni soul left him.  But he could still put a chi charge into the one he had), and swiped with it at the wooden blade.  Ryoga was generous- he gave the kendoist a moment to stand there looking stupid with a bladeless hilt in his hands.  Then the former lost boy unleashed a devastating combo of punches which sent his opponent flying backward, unconscious, to crash into his teammates.

Ryoga replaced the bandana, then glared at the boys in question as they picked themselves up.  “Which one of you honorless vermin is next?” he asked in a deadly calm voice.

For a moment it looked like they might rush him… then, one by one, their expressions of hostility faded into looks of shame.  Without a word, they hoisted their captain onto their shoulders and departed.

Behind Ryoga’s back, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung exchanged excited grins.  Then, as Ryoga turned to face them, they replaced those with hostile glares.

“You don’t have to thank me.  I was happy to help…” Ryoga’s voice trailed off as his eyes met theirs.

“Thank you?!” Ling-Ling growled.  “Thank you for spit on our honor?!”

Ryoga gaped.  “Huh?!”

“We challenge them to fight!  You butt in when not wanted!”

“Um… sorry…”  Now Ryoga was definitely off-balance.  Why on earth was he apologizing for saving them?!  But they really did seem offended.

“What you think, we is weakling?!  What give you right say we no can fight them?!”  Lung-Lung glared daggers at Ryoga, doing her best to maintain eye contact rather than letting her gaze rove over his tightly-muscled physique.  “We show you we not weak!  You fight us now!”

“W- wait a minute, I don’t want to- ” Ryoga’s stammered protest was overridden by a dual cry of “No more talk!  We fight!”  The twins charged forward, coming simultaneously toward each of his flanks in a pincer attack.

‘How the heck did I get myself into this?!’  Ryoga didn’t let the thought distract him from the necessary evasive action- he dived forward, tucking and rolling as the twins’ weapons clanged against each other in the empty air where he’d stood the previous second.  An unspoken communication seemed to pass between the girls, then Ling-Ling came straight at him, whirling her staff in a series of thrusts and swipes intending to push Ryoga’s defenses to their limits.  Meanwhile, Lung-Lung held back, but maintained a position behind and to one side of him, forcing Ryoga to divide his attention in order to be ready for any sudden attacks from her.

After a minute of this, Ling-Ling was beginning to feel a little disappointed.  Her opponent had done an okay job of dodging and blocking, but she’d managed to land several blows through his guard.  He was already starting to slow down.  As she saw another opening, the Amazon girl frowned at Ryoga, then took it, striking him solidly in the stomach.

Her eyes widened in shock as Ryoga whipped his left hand down, grasping the end of the staff.  “Sorry about this,” he said apologetically.  As Ling-Ling realized she had been tricked like a novice, he brought his other hand around in a power strike that shattered her weapon at its midpoint.

“<My turn!>”  Lung-Lung jumped into the fray, eager again to fight now that she realized his lackluster performance against her sister had just been a ruse.  Ling-Ling jumped back, moving to take up much the same position as her sister had before.  Ryoga saw her whip another staff out of nowhere, and groaned mightily.  ‘Why me?’ he complained mentally, dodging a strike from his opponent’s trident.  ‘I wanted to help them, not make them angry at me.  And if I just run off now they’ll probably think it’s an even worse insult.  But I can’t let them beat me, not when they’re out for blood like this.  Gotta defeat ’em without hurting them.’  He just hoped they weren’t carrying too many spare weapons.

During Ryoga’s silent soliloquy, he’d dodged twelve strikes from his opponent and deflected seven.  Letting a few connect wasn’t an option when the weapon in question was something that could spear him like a pig at a luau.  Lung-Lung was smiling at him now, which only confused the former lost boy further.  The green-haired girl took a pace back and called out something in Chinese.  Ryoga tensed, expecting to be double-teamed, but Ling-Ling just held her ground.  Lung-Lung began to spin her trident like a drill, her smile fading to a look of intense concentration as the tines spun faster and faster.  As it reached the maximum speed she could maintain without losing control, she stabbed it down into the ground, kicking up a huge cloud of dust.

That was her sister’s cue to rush forward, staff at the ready.  Lung-Lung reversed her hold on the trident and swung with the blunt end toward where Ryoga should be coughing and choking, trying to clear the dirt from his eyes and lungs.  Ling-Ling came in at an angle, striking high where her sister was aiming low.

Ryoga, however, had instinctively rolled to one side as the dust cloud exploded.  Ling-Ling’s attack missed entirely, and he managed by pure instinct to block Lung-Lung’s.  Even in the heat of the moment, he realized they’d struck with much less force than would be needed to really affect him.  He didn’t have time at the moment to wonder why, though.  With a huge leap, Ryoga shot back out of the dust cloud, which settled a minute later to reveal the twins regarding him with excited grins, of all things!

The former lost boy stared at them in confusion.  Ling-Ling turned to her sister.  “<Time to see if he’s good enough to handle both of us!>”

Her sister snickered and nodded assent.  As one they cried out, “Two bodies double team attack!!”  Ling-Ling vaulted onto her twin’s shoulders, and the two began to spin like a whirlwind.  They shot toward him, and Ryoga just managed to dive to one side, avoiding the trident and staff by a hair.

At this point the former lost boy was experiencing quite a bit of anxiety.  Those weapons hadn’t been moving with quite enough force to break bones, but he knew he would have felt the impact in the morning if he’d been just a little slower.  At least the girl with the trident was swinging it rather than stabbing with it.  It didn’t LOOK like they were seriously trying to kill him.  But he was getting awfully tired of this.  As the whirling duo corrected course and came back toward him, Ryoga dashed to one side, stopping next to the bench he’d been sitting on previously.  With a silent prayer of thanks for Kodachi’s advanced chi-manipulation scrolls, Ryoga focused his energies and temporarily boosted his strength.  For the next several minutes he’d be almost as strong as when he’d still been part Oni.

Not that he needed that much time.  With one hand, Ryoga grabbed the bench and hefted it effortlessly, angling it so that the trident and staff were caught in the ornamental ironwork curlicues on his makeshift shield.  There was a sudden, brief conflict between the twins’ angular velocity and the immobility of their weapons.  Ryoga’s grip on the bench won out; Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung felt their weapons wrench out of their grasp, even as their balance was disrupted.  The girls shot backwards, landing about twenty feet away.  Lung-Lung felt a moment’s gratitude to her twin for cushioning her landing.

Ryoga set down the bench and picked up the polearms.  He waited for the girls to get back to their feet.  “Sorry about this,” he repeated.  “Look, I don’t want to insult you girls, and I don’t want to hurt you either.”  He flexed his arms and snapped the hafts of their weapons.  “I don’t think you’re weaklings.  Can’t we let it go at that?”

Ling-Ling scowled.  Her head was still spinning, and for a moment she forgot all details other than the fact that she was in the middle of a fight.  “We not out of attacks yet!  Get ready for Dance of Great Fire Drag- ouch!”  She turned a betrayed look on her sister, who’d just smacked her on the head.  “What that for?!”

Lung-Lung rolled her eyes.  “<I THOUGHT the idea was that we were going to lose to him if he proved he was good enough.  Where exactly does the Dance of the Great Fire Dragon fit into that picture?  If we use that, he’ll lose unless he’s incredibly stubborn and partly tone-deaf.  Are you saying you don’t want him as a husband unless he’s got no talent for instrumental music?!>”

“<Okay, okay, sorry.  I forgot for a minute just what we were fighting for.>”  Ling-Ling grinned sheepishly, then turned back to Ryoga.  “You get lucky today, we not use Dance after all.”  Instead she produced yet another staff.  Lung-Lung whipped out a replacement trident.  The twins tensed up, preparing to rush forward to glorious defeat.

Ryoga groaned.  ‘Man, how do they keep pulling those things out of nowhere?  It’s just like Shampoo and her bonbori…”

His eyes widened and his face paled.  Just like Shampoo… who also had a crazy hair color… and spoke with a strong Chinese accent… and was quite intense in combat… and whose people had some very unusual laws…  Ryoga gulped, then asked, “Before we start trying to beat each other up again, could you at least tell me the real reason we’re fighting?  You seem to like it that I’m winning.”

“Big ego, bandana boy.  We fight to test you strength.”

That had all but clinched it for Ryoga, yet a faint, stubborn flicker of hope bade him ask, “And does the name Joketsuzoku mean anything to you?”

“Mm-hm.  We proud Amazon warriors of Joketsuzoku.”  Ling-Ling grinned at him, a hungry grin that Ryoga was NOT comfortable receiving from a girl who looked no older than twelve.  “No more talk.  We fight!”

“Ah… heh heh… Gottagobye!”  And with that, Ryoga dashed off in a cloud of dust even larger than the one Lung-Lung had generated earlier.

Kuno smirked as he watched the antics on the television screen.  Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail was one of his favorite movies.  And the cowardly Sir Robin reminded him quite a bit of an opponent he’d once faced.  Faced down, not fought.  Although not even that knave Aranoko had been bad enough to hire minstrels to sing his own praises.  Of course, if he had been he would also have been too cowardly to stop the troubadours from making fun of him, such as was happening now for the yellow-bellied knight.

~When danger reared its ugly head,~
~he bravely turned his tail and fled.~
~Brave, brave, brave, brave Ryoga~

Kuno blinked, then hit the pause button and rewound the tape.  He played that part back again, but this time he just heard the normal song lyrics.  “Bizarre,” he muttered.  “I wonder why I imagined I heard Ryoga’s name in place of Sir Robin’s?”

As Ryoga raced through Nerima at his top speed, he found himself regretting for the first time ever the loss of his ability to get lost.  He was uncomfortably aware that he couldn’t keep this pace up for much longer- the battle had drained a good bit of his stamina.  Since the fight had been two against one and most of their strikes had been at less than full power, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung hadn’t used up as much of their reserves as he had.  They’d almost caught him twice now.  Only the fact that Ryoga knew the streets of Nerima better than they did had enabled him to stay out of their grasp this long.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ryoga saw Ling-Ling’s staff come whirling toward him at a furious pace.  On instinct he whipped off his bandana, charged it with chi, and threw it.  Even as the cloth left his fingers he mentally kicked himself- he really couldn’t afford to drain his energies much further.  It would have been much better just to dodge the attack.

Ling-Ling pouted as she watched the bandana cut yet another of her staves in half.  That throw had been perfect- if Ryoga had dodged, the rebounding rod would have knocked both her and her sister out.  A clear victory for their soon-to-be-Airen.

Ryoga groaned as he saw Lung-Lung catch the bandana, which was safe to do after it had expended its charge against the staff, and tie it around her own forehead.  Then he took off running again.

Another ten minutes passed without any more close calls, as the twins made the mistake of attempting to head Ryoga off at the pass only to have him switch direction while he was out of their sight.  This maneuver bought him some time, but Ryoga was forced to face the fact that he was nearly out of endurance.  ‘I’ve gotta find a place to lie low,’ he thought desperately.  Trouble was, the Kuno mansion was way too far away to reach in time.  ‘Oh man, what am I gonna do?’

“Geez, Ryoga.  You look like you just got through running a marathon.  Is something wrong?”

Ryoga blinked, then realized where he was.  Namely, standing right in front of Ukyo’s restaurant.  It was forty-five minutes before opening time, so the door was still closed and the sign hadn’t been hung out yet.  Ukyo was looking at him from the window, an expression of concern on her face.

In one last burst of desperate speed, Ryoga shot through the door of the restaurant.  Ukyo frowned at him.  “Hey, you jackass, you could have waited for me to unlock it first, you know.”  There went some of her first day’s profits.

Ryoga didn’t have breath to spend on an apology just then.  He staggered over to the sink, filled a glass with water, turned to face Ukyo, gasped out “Hide my clothes and don’t let them get me!”, and dumped said water over his head.

For the second time in three days, Ukyo stared in shock at the magic of Jusenkyo.  Not until Ryoga-piglet began to squeal agitatedly did she remember what he’d said about hiding his clothes.  Mechanically she gathered them up, folded them, and placed them in a drawer.  Thoughts of sympathy filled her mind.  ‘That’s one horrible curse,’ Ukyo thought dazedly.  ‘I can only imagine how much stress he’s been under.  Poor Ryoga-kun, starting to hallucinate that his clothes are out to get him.’

“Where bandana boy?”

The question drew Ukyo’s attention away from her comrade’s curse.  On seeing two new intruders, each of whom was carrying a weapon, the chef frowned and picked up her combat spatula.  “Hey, what do you girls think you’re doing here?  The restaurant’s not open for business yet!”  Meanwhile, Ryoga-piglet did his best to act nonchalant.

Lung-Lung glanced strangely at the piglet rooting around the base of a table as if looking for truffles, then returned her attention to the taller girl.  “Door is open,” she pointed out.  And it was going to stay open until a repairman could restore the hinges that had been torn out of the doorframe and rehang it.  The sight of the damage, obviously caused by someone very strong in a great hurry, had made the twins all but certain they knew which way their quarry had run.  “And not here for food anyway.  Tell now where is bandana boy!”

‘Oh, I guess he wasn’t talking about his clothes after all.’  Ukyo surreptitiously pinched herself.  Ouch!  No, it wasn’t a dream.  “Look, there’s no boys here.  What the heck are you talking about?!”

“Spatula girl say look, so we look.”  With that, the twins turned away and searched all throughout the building, looking into every cranny that might be large enough to hide a person.  Ukyo was glad the drawer she’d chosen as a receptacle for Ryoga’s clothes was too small for them to bother with.  Some time later the search concluded, and a dejected pair of Amazons walked out of the restaurant.

Ryoga-piglet and Ukyo heaved simultaneous sighs of relief.  The chef sank down to a sitting position, regarding Ryoga with a still-stunned expression.  “You poor thing.  You’ve really had it rough.”  Ryoga nodded.  “How long have you been stuck with this curse?”

Ryoga squealed and grunted, giving the porcine equivalent of ‘way too long’.

“And why were those girls after you, anyway?”

More barnyard sound effects.  Ukyo nodded attentively, then remarked, “You know, sugar, it might help if I got you some hot water first.”  She got up, still fighting the feeling that she was stuck in some bizarre dream, and headed for the bathroom.

Meanwhile, Ryoga-piglet finally felt safe enough to relax his guard.  He flopped down on his belly and let the tension drain out of him.  He was still lying there, less than half-aware of his surroundings, when a cascade of hot water poured over him.

“YEOWWW!!”  Ryoga jumped and whirled around.  That had been a little TOO hot!

“ACK!”  Ukyo stared just long enough to turn beet red, then whipped around and faced away from him.

“AHHH!  SORRY!”  Ryoga wrenched open the drawer with his clothes and dressed with lightning speed.  There was an incredibly awkward silence for a few moments as each continued to face away from the other.  Eventually Ukyo broke it.  “S- sorry about that, sugar.  I kinda forgot about the clothes angle.  I mean, Ranma already demonstrated his curse for me, and that wasn’t a problem for him, and so I didn’t even think about how it was different for you…”  The chef let her voice trail off as her blush came back.  With an effort, she forced the images to the back of her mind.  Still without looking around, she asked again, “So how long have you had your curse?”

Ryoga sighed.  “Got it at the same time Ranma got his,” he replied.

“That can’t possibly have been a coincidence.”  Ukyo frowned.  Ranma hadn’t mentioned anything about Ryoga the other night, when he’d told her about his curse.

“No.  Ranma had just gotten cursed, and she was chasing after Genma to show him what she thought of his choice of training grounds.  I was on a cliff overlooking Jusenkyo, and they ran into me and knocked me down.  I landed in the Spring of Drowned Piglet, but I guess you already figured that part out.”

“That… that JACKASS!” growled Ukyo.  “How could he do that to you?!”

“Easily enough,” Ryoga snorted.  “Have you ever seen how big Genma is in his cursed form?  Ranma didn’t even see me.”  He looked down at the floor.  “And it sure wasn’t Ranma’s fault I was there in the first place,” he muttered.

By now Ukyo had recovered enough poise to turn back around and face Ryoga.  “What were those girls after you for, anyway?”

Ryoga turned around as well.  “They’re Amazons.  Remember what Shampoo told you yesterday, about the laws for women of her tribe who get defeated in combat?”

Ukyo’s eyes widened.  “Those kids looked like they were about eleven years old!  Don’t TELL me you beat them and now they think you’re their husband!”

“Well, I kinda realized they were Amazons and broke off the fight before anything decisive happened.”  Unfortunately for the former lost boy, Ryoga’s definition of decisive wasn’t exactly the same as the Amazon twins’.  The battle had been more than conclusive enough for Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung to make a certain decision.  “But according to Shampoo, most Amazons REALLY like to have strong fighters for husbands.  Maybe these two are trying to get a head start on the rest of the girls in their generation.”  

“Just what were you doing fighting two little kids like that anyway?” Ukyo asked.

“Hey, they started it!” he answered defensively.  “They were about to take on a group of nine guys when I stepped in and told the jerks off for bullying two little kids like that.  The girls got all mad and attacked me instead.  I made sure not to hurt them, too, just dodged and blocked and broke a few of their weapons.”

“So you didn’t actually defeat them, or get the Kiss of Marriage.  Thank goodness,” Ukyo said, heaving a sigh of relief.  A split second later, her blush came back with a vengeance as she realized exactly how obvious she’d just been.

“Yeah, no joke.  I don’t want to have to marry a couple of pre-teen girls.”  Ryoga gave Ukyo a confused stare as she facefaulted.

‘That wasn’t what I meant!’  This time Ukyo managed not to blurt out the indiscretion.  Seeking a safer subject, the chef asked,  “So did this fight happen when you were in China?  Why did you go to Jusenkyo anyway?”

“Actually, I fought them this morning.”  Ryoga paused for a bit, then said, “As for Jusenkyo, I was following Ranma.”

Now Ukyo was really curious.  Ryoga had sounded more depressed about that than when he talked about his curse earlier.  “What for?” she prompted him.

Ryoga sat in silence for a while, trying to decide where to begin.  At last he said, “My family has a real problem with directions, Ukyo.  I used to be able to get lost in an empty room with one door.  I’d leave from home to go to school, and end up in a different city.  I also had a really bad temper back in those days.”  He went on to describe his earlier history with Ranma, admitting with shame that he’d been enraged at Ranma’s ‘running away’ after waiting ‘only’ three days for him to show up.

“Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  You followed him to China to get revenge, and caught up with him at Jusenkyo?  The absolute worst possible place and time?!”  Ukyo gave a low whistle.  “Wow, sugar, have you got some kind of Oni curse on your luck?”  Then she wondered why he’d flinched so badly just then.

Ryoga took a deep breath.  “Turning into a pig sucks, all right, but it’s a small price to pay for another change in my life.”

Ukyo sat through the rest of his tale, too stunned even to take note of the growing crowd of impatient would-be customers forming in the lane outside her restaurant.  By the time Ryoga finished his account, he felt like he’d carried a mountain for several miles.  It was the first time he’d personally told anyone else his darkest secrets.  The former lost boy sat and tried to push away the feelings of shame that had resurfaced as he told the story.

As Ukyo looked at him, and took in the depth of the pain he was feeling, her expression softened even further.  “Ryoga-kun…” she murmured, then came to a decision.  She placed a hand on his shoulder.

Ryoga swallowed, and looked up.  “W- what?”

“Come on, let’s get outta here.  I think we could both use some fresh air.”

He gave her a searching look, then risked a weak smile.  “But what about your adoring public?”  He gestured to the people in the lane outside.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as the previous day, as many of the people who’d been squashed then had resolved to wait until business was less pressing before coming back.  Still, there were quite a few people waiting for Ukyo to unfurl the banner signaling her restaurant was open for business.

“Ah… well…” The businesswoman in Ukyo demanded she stay here and open up shop.  The romantic insisted she go off with Ryoga and help him feel wanted.  What to do?

“And anyway, I’d rather not risk running into those two Amazons again,” Ryoga continued.  “How about I stay here and help you with the restaurant?”

Ukyo gave him a relieved smile.  “Thanks, Ryoga.  I really appreciate this.”  ‘Maybe someday soon I’ll show you just how much.’

Ryoga gave Ukyo an odd glance as she continued to stare off into space with a goofy smile.  He shrugged and quickly set up the rest of the tables and chairs.

Two hours later, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung were forced to conclude that they’d lost their quarry.  They’d looked high and low, poking into out-of-the-way corners and leaving no stone unturned.  Someone more familiar with large cities might have been a little wary of doing this, preferring not to risk a mugging or an encounter with a panhandler.  However, the Amazon twins came from a village that was nothing like a typical city.  They hadn’t had a clue what kind of unsavory encounters they were letting themselves in for when they started poking into the dark corners of Nerima.

Lung-Lung grimaced and shook her trident, managing to get most of the demon’s ichor off it.  She looked down at the tentacled, fanged monstrosity that had been lurking in the dumpster, and remarked disgustedly, “Is too, too ugly even to take as trophy.”

Ling-Ling frowned as she regarded the deep grooves on her staff.  “Never lose four in one day before,” she said.  Then she brightened.  “Is for sure Japan make for good training, yes?”

“You right about that.”  Lung-Lung sighed.  “But we still no find Airen.  And I getting hungry too.”

Her twin shrugged philosophically.  “Is good enough for one day we meet him in first place.  If we no catch today, then tomorrow or next day.  If worse come to worse, maybe we give bandana to Great-Grandmother and tell her we bet she no can find who it come from.”  Her stomach growled, and she continued, “Ling-Ling think it time for lunch too.”  An idea occurred to her, and she suggested, “You want eat at restaurant where we not find bandana boy?  Maybe we look around again, see if we miss something first time.”

Lung-Lung agreed, and the two set out.  Another thirty minutes of walking took them out of the twisting maze of Nerima back alleys.  Since it was daylight, and they weren’t deliberately intruding into the shadowed hiding-holes, they didn’t have to fight any more battles.  This was just as well, as Ling-Ling was down to her last two staves.

When they arrived at Ukyo’s Okonomiyaki, two things immediately became apparent.  One, it was too crowded for them to want to go in and eat there.  Two, their soon-to-be-Airen was waiting tables.  The twins drew back, and concealed themselves across the street.  Lung-Lung scowled at Ukyo, whom she could just make out behind the grill.  “Spatula girl learn it not nice to lie to womans of Amazon tribe.”

“That right,” affirmed Ling-Ling.  “We wait here until restaurant close, then go in, get Airen, and show outsider girl what we think of her.”

The two settled in for a long wait.  However, five minutes later Ling-Ling’s stomach growled again.  “We no need both here at same time to watch, Lung-Lung.  I go get some food, be back soon.  What kind you want?”

Lung-Lung considered.  “Would really like some of Great-Grandmother’s special ramen right now.”  Then her expression changed from wistful hunger to sick horror.  “But you no need go fetch that.  We have right here.”  She produced the ramen delivery order that Cologne had given them more than three hours previously.  Ling-Ling’s face shifted to match her sister’s look of trepidation.

Before either twin could suggest a course of action, the sound of a throat clearing drew their gazes, slowly and reluctantly, to rest on the Matriarch.  She was standing five feet away, regarding them from on top of her staff, and did NOT look happy.

It was quite late when Ukyo’s finally closed.  As he made his way back to the Kuno mansion, Ryoga considered the irony of looking forward to school the next day as actually being less likely to exhaust him.  Of course, only a small part of his mental energy was taken up in this task.  The vast majority of his attention was focused in sneaking back without being spotted by amorous Amazons.

On reaching the mansion without incident, he sighed with relief.  One of the servants met him at the door and informed him that everyone else had gone out to dinner.  This didn’t bother Ryoga unduly, since he’d consumed several okonomiyaki for his supper.  He considered waiting for everyone to get back, so he could ask Shampoo for details about the latest complication to enter his life, but quickly decided he was just too tired.

The next morning, as Ranma, Shampoo, and Kodachi entered the dining room, Ranma was surprised to find Ryoga already there, just finishing his breakfast.  “What’s the hurry, Ryoga?”

Ryoga gulped the last of his miso soup, and said, “I told Ukyo I’d walk with her to school today.  She felt a little nervous since it was gonna be the first day she went without being disguised as a guy, and told me she’d feel better if I was with her.  Since I already knew the truth and all.”  He deliberately didn’t look at the smug expression of triumph on Shampoo’s face.

Ranma looked on thoughtfully as Ryoga hurried out.  “I wonder… it almost seems like Ucchan might be interested in Ryoga or something.  What do you guys think?”  They stared at him incredulously, and he continued defensively, “Well, it’s not THAT crazy, is it?!  I mean, she stops dressin’ as a guy after he finds out she’s a girl, and she gives him that huge discount at her restaurant, and now she’s wantin’ to walk to school with him… I just thought it could be…”  Ranma noted that the sheer disbelief in the girls’ stares had only increased.  “Okay, okay, it was a dumb idea.  You don’t have to rub it in my face,” he grumbled.

Kodachi gave him one last incredulous look, then turned to Shampoo.  “I would not have believed it if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears,” she said.

The Amazon shrugged.  “Even if Ranma turn into girl, and have memories from two girl lifetimes, he still man at heart.”

Ukyo sat at her desk and pondered.  She’d followed Ryoga’s advice; on entering the classroom she hadn’t made any explanations or acted in any way as if her appearance that morning was somehow different from her debut the previous week.  Ukyo didn’t MIND that the students seemed to accept this without any difficulty, but it did strike her as being slightly bizarre.  And in fact she was a bit concerned that it didn’t seem stranger to her.  For better or for worse, she was adapting to life in Nerima.

‘Heh, I was right.’  Ryoga congratulated himself.  He’d taken into account the sheer amount of weirdness that attendees at Furinkan were accustomed to, and decided that the students in his and Ukyo’s class would probably just decide they hadn’t been paying close enough attention to the new guy… er, girl.  The former lost boy glanced around the classroom, checking to see whether anyone was shooting questioning glances at Ukyo, and came to an unpleasant realization.  Shinji, captain of the croquet team, was glaring at his chemistry club nemesis, Koga, as if ready to get medieval on the other with a croquet mallet.  Koga was returning the scowl with an insufferably insolent smirk.

Ryoga bit his lip, more than a little annoyed that Mr Takamura was late again.  You’d almost think the guy was unwilling to get to class on time or something.

“You think you’re really funny, don’t you, Koga.  It would’ve been bad enough if you’d just sabotaged our equipment to keep us from competing in the match with Kolkhoz on Sunday.  But you had to get creative, didn’t you?!  You had to rig our stuff to make it look like we were trying to cheat!” Shinji snarled at the other.  “Thanks to you and your stupid frictionless coating on our balls, we got thrown out and barred from future competitions!”

Suddenly the smirk vanished from Koga’s face.  He inclined his head contritely.  “You’re right.  It was wrong of us to do that.  I see it now.”  Shinji’s rage dissolved into blank confusion.  Then Koga looked up and added, “I was just trying to do you a favor, though.  I mean, now you won’t have to keep losing all those matches.”  The smirk reappeared, as did Shinji’s redoubled fury.

“I don’t believe this,” muttered Ryoga.  He leaned down to open his backpack, intending to put on the gas mask while he still had the chance.  Then out of the corner of his eye he saw Mr Takamura on the other side of the door, about to open it and start class.  With a sigh of relief, Ryoga straightened back up in his chair.

Shinji looked up as he heard the sound of the doorknob turning.  Without pausing to consider the consequences, not that anyone ever did a lot of that at Furinkan, he threw a mallet toward the door.  It spun end over end before landing in such a position as to wedge the door shut.  He turned back to Koga and snarled, “Since you don’t seem to think much of our skill, maybe we better refresh your memory!”

As a general melee broke out once again, Ukyo declined to repeat her previous mistake.  She took cover in the back of the classroom along with the other students.  Then she stood and watched the fight with a peculiar smoldering expression.  Ryoga, who was standing next to her, couldn’t help but notice.  “What’s the matter, Ukyo?”

“I still owe these jackasses for Friday,” she responded.  “If you hadn’t rescued me I coulda gotten seriously hurt.”  The chef suddenly seemed to come to a conclusion.  She ripped two large swatches of cloth from the sleeves of her trademark outfit, made a few curious passes over them with her free hand, then folded them into masks.  “Here, Ryoga-kun, it should repel the chemicals and junk.”  Ryoga put it on, reflecting that it was much more comfortable than the gas mask he hadn’t had time to don, and started to ask what she was going to do.  The question was answered before he could even ask it as the chef unholstered her combat spatula and dived into the fray.  With a fatalistic shrug, Ryoga plunged in after her.

In the hallway outside the classroom, Mr Takamura was relaxing with a cigarette.  He listened with half an ear to the tumult inside the room, amusing himself by trying to catalogue the different attacks by sound alone.  A crunch- probably someone using a desk as a shield to stop an attack from a croquet mallet.  That clang HAD to be the new student expressing his displeasure by means of a giant spatula.  And the resounding, horrendous wrenching crash coupled with splintering glass sounded like someone had just taken out most of the back wall.

As his cigarette burned down to an ember, the sensei lit another.  Get involved in that?  He might work at Furinkan, but he still had some sanity left.

The crash had indeed come from the back wall.  For a few seconds, all fighting stopped as every eye turned to look at the newcomers.  Eventually, one of the girls at the back broke the stunned silence.

“Um, this is Furinkan HIGH School.  Junior high is two streets to the north.”

Ling-Ling gave her an odd glance, then returned her gaze to Ryoga.  “Is you ready to pick up where leave off yesterday, bandana boy?”

Ryoga groaned.  “Look, I know you’ve probably never been to a public school before, but it’s not the kind of place for a fight…”  He realized just how ridiculous he sounded, but forged on anyway.  “Why don’t you look me up later.”  ‘Like in about ten years.’

Lung-Lung sniffed.  “Maybe we no want wait.  Maybe we want finish things now!”

Koga picked himself up from the floor, where he’d been knocked by a spin kick from Ryoga.  “Why don’t you go with them, Hibiki?” he growled.  “And take Kuonji with you.  We didn’t ask you two to get involved in our-”

“An opening!”  Shinji seized the opportunity afforded by Koga’s distraction and sent a double fistful of wickets spinning toward his foe.  The metal hoops pinned Koga to the wall against which he was bracing himself.  With an incoherent roar of anger, the remainder of the chemistry team leapt back into the fray.  Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung blinked as the hostilities resumed, then exchanged grins and joined the melee as well.

Ryoga and Ukyo wisely withdrew.  Ryoga watched intently, hoping against hope for someone else to defeat the twins.  No such luck; the boys were too intent on their own rivalry to pay enough attention to the Amazons.  They swept through the students like a forest fire- in only five minutes the fight was over.

Ling-Ling looked over the sprawled bodies of the former combatants, and sniffed disdainfully.  “Mans of Japan even weaker than ones in China.”  Then she turned to grin at Ryoga.  “Most is, anyway.  You still owe us finish to fight, bandana boy.”

“That right!”  Ryoga jumped as he realized Lung-Lung had somehow appeared right beside him.  “Is no nice to keep womans waiting.”  Ling-Ling slipped over to Ryoga’s other side as her sister continued, “We go someplace more private and finish what we start yesterday, yes?”

Ryoga looked over their heads to meet Ukyo’s gaze.  “HELP!” his trapped, panicked gaze begged.  Ukyo gestured for him to take a step back.  The former lost boy was only too happy to comply.

The twins started to step forward to keep pace with him… but a certain okonomiyaki chef had other ideas.  She whipped her spatula in a sweeping arc, catching the Amazons off guard and sending them soaring back out through the hole they’d made in the wall, to disappear in the sky with a faint gleam of light.

Ukyo grumbled a little as she made her way back to her restaurant after school.  “Figures,” she muttered.  “I spend the last half of the school day getting up my courage to ask Ryoga to walk back with me and hang out at my place, and it turns out he needs to go ask Shampoo for help with those two man-hungry little menaces.  Oh well, I guess it won’t hurt me any to open for business early.”

However, this was not to be.  Ukyo’s danger sense suddenly kicked in and she whipped her spatula off her back.  A second later, Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung dropped from a nearby rooftop to land in front of her.

“Nihao,” said Lung-Lung, regarding the chef with a stony gaze.

“You two again!  What do you want?!” Ukyo snapped.

“Want to give spatula girl piece of advice.  No get too close to bandana boy if you know what good for you.”

“And better not attack from behind again either,” Ling-Ling growled.  “Is not good idea to mess with womans of Amazon tribe.”

“Womans?!” the chef sneered.  “I don’t see any womans here.  Just a couple of little girls causing trouble.  Don’t TELL me that they let ten-year-olds get married in your tribe!”

Lung-Lung’s grip on her trident tightened convulsively.  The handle snapped, and she discarded it and pulled out a new one.  “We fourteen years old, stupid spatula girl!  Not our fault we no look it!!”

Ukyo gave a disbelieving laugh.  “You expect me to believe that?  I could almost accept twelve, but that’s the limit of my credulous nature, sugar.”

“So they’re really fourteen years old?” Ryoga marveled as he walked home with Ranma, Shampoo, and Kodachi.

“Mm-hm,” Shampoo answered.  “They take after mother.  She short and… what is word… petite too.  Was very touchy subject with her when she teenager, or so Shampoo hear.”

“There isn’t much of a family resemblance between you and them, that’s for sure,” remarked Kodachi.

“Is probably because their mother was outsider, who win acceptance into tribe.  She very good with sword.”

“Hey, I remember her now.  Good ol’ Li Na.  Has an appetite as big as Pop, but never seems to gain any weight.  Especially not where she’d like to.”  Ranma gazed contemplatively off into the distance.  “Sure would be wild if those stories she told everybody about her past are all true.”

“Stories?” Kodachi asked.

“Li Na found unconscious near village about twenty year ago.  She claim to be great sorceress, but she no can cast even smallest spell.  She say she come from other world, where magic work different, and that why she no can do any here.  It still sore point with her, and Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung inherit  mother’s temper as well as build.”

“Spatula girl have big mouth.  Maybe we teach you some respect!”

“That right!  We challenge you!  Spatula girl learn better than to mess with womans of Amazon tribe!”

“Listen,” Ukyo ground out, “I am getting fed up to HERE with the term SPATULA GIRL!  Now I SUGGEST you go run home to mommy… little kids could get hurt playing with pointy sticks and things like that.”

It was a good thing the twins were standing several feet apart at that point, for had they been in their usual side-by-side pose their combined battle auras might have ignited their clothing.  “We meet in park in fifteen minute, SPATULA GIRL, unless you is too big coward!!”

The Amazons stalked off, but the drama of their exit was ruined as Ukyo called out after them, “What park?  There’s three of them within walking distance, you know.”

Fifteen minutes soon passed, and Ukyo faced Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung again.  Ironically enough, they were in the very same clearing where, in a time lost to mortal memory, Shampoo had been the one to battle the younger Amazons.  After a long moment of silence, Ukyo spoke up.  “Well, here I am.  I’ll try not to humiliate you too badly.”

The twins just gave her identical stares of cold disdain.  They’d used the quarter-hour interlude to calm down and prepare themselves for the combat, and had no intention of letting their opponent knock them off balance with insults.  “Ling-Ling not think spatula girl has to worry about that.”  The Amazons gave twin salutes to their foe, then split up and began to circle her.

Now, Ukyo was no fool, and she had also cooled down during the interval before the fight.  The chef didn’t particularly want to deal with a possible Kiss of Death, and had realized that the situation was a bit too complicated for her to just sail in and give the little nuisances the spanking they deserved.  And so she decided to do as Ryoga had done, and beat them without actually defeating them.

As the Amazons circled her like a pair of cute vultures, Ukyo pretended to focus more and more of her attention on Ling-Ling.  Then, as she sensed Lung-Lung preparing to launch an attack, the chef whirled.  With a screaming cry to startle her opponents and knock them just that little bit off-balance that makes all the difference, Ukyo launched a throwing spatula.  Her throw cleaved the head off Lung-Lung’s trident.

Lung-Lung growled and tossed the haft at Ukyo.  Ling-Ling took the opportunity to charge in for an attack of her own.  Ukyo grabbed the rod out of the air, sidestepping and swinging it low to knock Ling-Ling’s feet out from under her.  Even as she fell, the cherry-haired Amazon swung her staff and managed to connect with a glancing blow to Ukyo’s side.  However, her position made it impossible to put any real force behind the blow.  Ukyo laughed scornfully.  “I thought we were fighting, not playing patty-cake, you know!”

Ling-Ling rolled to her feet, a murderous scowl on her face.  She signaled to her sister, who leaped onto her shoulders, replacement trident at the ready.  “Two bodies double-team attack!!”

Ukyo quickly realized the time for insults and taunts had passed.  The blurring duo attacked with blazing speed.  It was all their opponent could do to block the furious assault of trident and staff.  The chef nearly began to panic as she realized she couldn’t even spare the time to retreat- the strikes were just coming too fast; she’d be sure to be hit if she let up her guard at all.  Then Ukyo realized something and relaxed, continuing to parry for another minute.

Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung continued their whirlwind attack, furious that the spatula girl was managing to block their best efforts.  Ling-Ling gritted her teeth, drew on more of her reserves, and increased the speed of the spin even further.  Maybe they could knock the weapon out of their opponent’s hands…

This proved to be a tactical mistake.  The twins were used to practicing their moves in the rocky terrain of the Bayankala mountains.  The park soil where they were standing was a good deal softer.  Ukyo had already noticed a slight depression forming at Ling-Ling’s feet.  With the increase in speed, the ground reached its breaking point.  The twins let out a startled “AIIYYEEEE!” as Ling-Ling suddenly drilled her way a full meter into the earth.

Ukyo stepped back and gave a mock salute.  “Looks to me like you two kids defeated yourselves.  I don’t want to hear any nonsense about the Kiss of Death, okay?”

Lung-Lung helped her twin out of the hole.  Ling-Ling hissed in pain as her sprained ankle made its presence known.  The lime-haired girl gave her a sympathetic look, then turned to glare at Ukyo.  “You get lucky today, spatula girl.”  Whatever else she was going to say was lost as Ling-Ling cut her off with a few emphatic sentences in Mandarin.  Lung-Lung gave her twin a look that plainly asked, ‘Are you sure?’  Ling-Ling’s own gaze returned an emphatic ‘Yes!’  The uninjured Amazon turned back to face the chef, as her sister took up a position near her.

As one they cried out, “Behold terrifying technique develop over three thousand years of Chinese Amazon history!  Dance of Great Fire Dragon!!”

Ukyo felt both awe and dismay as she saw a red glow spring up around the twins and then rear high in the form of a dragon.  Then she blinked, and laughed, as the glow faded to reveal the ‘dragon’ was made of papier-mâché.  “What kind of stupid attack is that supposed to be?”

“Spatula girl no dance very good.  Need learn better- the hard way!!”

At that point, Ukyo belatedly realized that she was, in fact, dancing along to the incredibly catchy music emanating from the dragon.  She growled and tried to bring her body back under control, but to no avail.  “GRRR.  When I get my hands on you two I’m gonna-  AAHHHH!”  This last as a sudden stream of fire shot out from the flamethrower in the dragon’s mouth, lightly toasting her.

“Spatula girl think she such hot stuff, we help her make it true!  Fire Dragon Fire Ball!!”  Lung-Lung manipulated a different lever, and a huge ball of fire blasted forth, nearly hitting Ukyo.  Sheer luck saved her as the attack coincided with a music-induced spin to the side.  The fireball landed right next to Ukyo, and the concussive blast knocked her several meters backward, into a tree.

Ukyo stumbled back to her feet, desperately fighting the ringing in her ears.  She was too dazed to note that she wasn’t dancing any longer.  Her eyes focused on her opponents and on instinct she launched herself forward, spatula at the ready to do some dragon slaying.

On seeing their foe get to her feet, apparently no longer affected by the music, Ling-Ling panicked and turned the volume way up on their boom-box.

In another part of the park entirely, Kaede was holding her breath as she watched the culmination of all her dreams of the past two years.  Her boyfriend had finally worked up the courage to propose to her!  As Shinjuki sank to his knees, it seemed to Kaede that the heavens themselves had put on a background musical score to accompany the most wonderful moment of her life.

Hmm… catchy music, too… 

Kaede realized Shinjuki was no longer kneeling and she was no longer seated on the park bench.  She blinked.  She’d pictured this moment well over a thousand times, and none of those rehearsals had included interruption by a dance scene.

Ukyo charged, dashing forward to finish the fight.

She wasn’t quite fast enough.

The rush of adrenaline cleared her head enough for the music to register again.  Ukyo’s attack faltered only three steps away from her opponents as she began to dance even more furiously than before.  Slowly, due to Ling-Ling’s bad ankle, the twins backed away, getting the necessary distance between themselves and Ukyo.  Then they grinned identical grins of triumph and launched a fireball from the highest non-lethal setting.

Several minutes later, a charred, blackened figure pulled itself to its feet, using a giant spatula as a brace.  Ukyo groaned, and began to make her way back toward her restaurant with a gait that was half stalk, half stagger.  She hadn’t gone very far when she found herself with company.

‘Oh, man, Shampoo was right.  They really did a number on her.’  Ryoga had hoped the Amazon was exaggerating the peril that Ukyo would likely face for crossing her cousins, but it seemed that she’d spoken only the truth.  He wished he’d gotten here sooner.  “You okay, Ukyo?”

“Y- yeah.  I think so,” the mistress of okonomiyaki managed to get out.  “But I could sure use a hand here, Ryoga-kun.”

Ryoga gave her a quick but searching glance.  Satisfied that she wasn’t seriously injured, and probably wouldn’t hurt herself further by staying on her feet, he swallowed, then stepped to her side and draped an arm across her shoulders.  Ukyo slipped her free arm into a similar position over his.

As the two made their slow way back toward Ukyo’s, a smug smile crossed the chef’s face under the ash and soot.  ‘Take that, you little Amazon troublemakers.’


To be continued.

Author’s notes: Aiyah.  This chapter was thirty-two pages long as a WordPerfect document.  Hey, at least I’ve got a good reason for it taking slightly over a month to write.

Ranma’s comment about what might have happened had Ukyo gone with them to Jusenkyo is a reference to the fic Emptiness and Renewal, by Mark Doherty.  It features an alternaverse where Ukyo goes along with Ranma and Genma, and… you guessed it… falls into the Spring of Drowned Fox.  And I must admit the idea of Lina Inverse as an Amazon came from a joke in D.B. Sommer’s Shampoo ½

To anyone who had trouble with the thought of Ling-Ling and Lung-Lung defeating Ukyo… remember, the first time they showed up in the anime they were good enough fighters to give Shampoo a run for her money with standard attacks, and actually beat her with the Dance of the Great Fire Dragon.  My theory is that by the second time they showed up, they’d been spending too much time learning not-so-great “secret techniques” *coughcough*danceofpheonix*cough* and had let their basic fighting skills deteriorate.  That ain’t gonna happen here (author dodges a volley of throwing spatulas, ignoring Ukyo’s cries of “You jackass!!”)

Thanks to my new prereader, Jim Robert Bader, for C&C.  Next time:  I stop beating around a certain bush.

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

Chapter 8
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