Categories > Anime/Manga > Ranma 1/2 > Mamono Hunter Ukyou

Haradachi, part 1

by Edward 0 Reviews

Ukyou discovers a family legacy, and she and her friends face off against the monsters known as Mamonos.

Category: Ranma 1/2 - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Crossover, Drama, Horror - Characters: Ranma, Ukyo - Warnings: [!!] [?] [V] - Published: 2005/10/30 - Updated: 2005/10/30 - 10946 words

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Mamono Hunter Ukyou Chapter 2

Haradachi: Cauldron of Anger

By Edward A. Simons

Based on characters and situations created by Takahashi Rumiko. Ranma 1/2 and characters copyright Shogakukan, Kitty Animation Circle, and Takahashi Rumiko. Devil Hunter Yohko and characters copyright NCS, Toho Company, LTD., and Mad House. This story revised 2004 by Edward Simons.

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"Come not within the measure of my wrath."

Two Gentlemen of Verona

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Doctor Tofu Ono paused and rechecked the name plaque outside the hospital room. Something about this patient made him easy to ignore, easy to forget.

Tofu rapped on the door, then entered.

"Gosunkugi? Hikaru Gosunkugi?"

The patient didn't respond, staring sullenly at nothing in particular. Tofu hadn't met the skinny boy until a few days ago when Akane burst through the door of his clinic carrying her sister and Gosunkugi.

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After an ambulance had rushed her sister Nabiki off to the hospital, Akane stared after it, unwilling to follow, yet uncertain what to do.

"How did this happen, Akane?" Tofu asked in a calm, soothing tone.

"I...he...there was this monster...."

"And where was the monster, Akane?"

"The school." Her expression hardened. "We have to help them." Her explanation was as rushed as the trip back to Furinkan High.

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Tofu surveyed the shattered opening in the wall of the gymnasium. "I thought you said the monster was almost as tall as the ceiling, but this hole is only a few meters across."

Akane ignored him and stepped up to the impromptu entrance before pausing there. The wooden floor was shattered and splintered worse than she recalled and there was a gaping hole in the side of the stage. The Mamono seemed to have disappeared and there was no sign of her friends.

"Ranma! Ryouga! Ukyou!" Akane's voice echoed strangely and only silence answered. She placed one hand against the side of the hole and bowed her head. "I knew I shouldn't have left them."

"I'm sure they're still here, Akane, we just have to find them," Tofu reassured, stepping forward through the hole. He gestured for her to circle one way while he went the other, picking his way around shattered bits of flooring, until he saw a hand protruding from behind a larger chunk of debris. A few swift steps revealed a dark-haired and rather muscular teen sprawled flat on his back. The boy wore a black and yellow headband, a deep yellow tunic, and loose green slacks so dark they were almost black.

Tofu knelt and checked the boy. Unconscious, steady pulse, no visible injuries. The doctor looked up, but was unable to see his companion. "Akane," he called.

"What?" she replied, emerging from behind a large chunk of debris.

"Is this Ukyou?" Tofu asked.

"What?" The Tendo girl paused from her search and looked towards the doctor.

"I didn't quite catch all the names you mentioned, Akane. It seems you know a lot of people I've never met."

She hurried over. "No, this is Ryouga, Ryouga Hibiki," the girl replied. "Is...is he alright?"

"He seems to be asleep." Tofu paused, reexamining Ryouga. "I don't see any injuries, but we should take him in for a full examination."

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Ranma groaned and sat up. Dimly, he realized that his fingers were interlaced with someone else's.

He never saw the blow coming.

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Tofu sighed. He wasn't really surprised at Akane's actions; somehow, Ranma had a talent for bringing out both the best and the worst in her.

"It didn't hurt," Ranma declared, rubbing the bright red handprint on his cheek. The boy sat on the floor of the gymnasium, staring at the shattered hole in the wall, the hole through which Akane had just stormed, carrying Ryouga towards a waiting ambulance.

"Ranma?"

The boy looked up at Tofu.

"Ranma, can you stand?"

"Sure, you trying to say I can't, Doc?"

Tofu ignored the retort. "I need to know what happened here. Specifically, I need to know who this is and what happened to her."

"This? This is Ucchan."

"Ucchan?"

"Ukyou Kuonji, that's her name. Nothing to worry about, Doc, Ucchan's just asleep. No, wait, she also...her ankle." Ranma glanced at the girl, then stared at the wall, his expression unusually serious. "A martial artist's duty...." he murmured.

"What was that, Ranma?"

"Duty." Ranma gave a short, not very pleasant laugh and gestured with his free hand. "More damage than most of my fights."

"This wasn't like most of your fights, was it?"

The teen shook his head. "This was for keeps, Doc."

"Could you make sure Miss Kuonji gets to an ambulance, Ranma? I'll see if anyone else is hurt."

"There is, Doc, but not here."

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Tatewaki Kuno lay sprawled among shattered desks in a ruined room. Tofu recognized the boy from Ranma's description, quickly checking him before attendants carried him off in a stretcher.

A second form lay crumpled behind the teacher's desk. "This is a teacher?" Tofu mused. The girl appeared to be in middle school at the oldest, though she wasn't dressed like a student. Tofu noted the modest dark blue knee-length dress and the slightly old-fashioned white sweater she wore.

"I've never known Ranma to lie." Regardless, Tofu checked the unconscious girl. Her pulse was weak, yet rapid, and her face contorted in pain.

Tofu frowned. He'd never had this many patients before.

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"Mr. Gosunkugi?"

The teen had been like this ever since he'd been admitted to the hospital two days before.

"Mr. Gosunkugi," Tofu repeated, "your parents called again." The boy blinked, then turned and stared blankly at the doctor, but said nothing. Still, there was something in his eyes, something unpleasant.

When Tofu had first examined the teen, he found Gosunkugi had suffered only minor bruises and abrasions. The patient was surprisingly durable considering his slender frame and lack of musculature, but he wasn't as resilient as the martial artists were.

Tofu excused himself and left the boy's room. Something was wrong, but others had suffered far worse and Tofu put Gosunkugi's problems to the back of his mind.

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"I insist, nay I demand, nay I require that you shall release me forthwith from this ill-favored place. None save mine own personal physician may examine the Blue Thunder of Furinkan High."

Tofu shook his head in wonder. "He's still going on like this after two days?"

The nurse nodded in reply.

"Everything checks out? No serious injuries?"

She nodded again.

"Then please send the longwinded fool home."

This time the nurse grinned as she nodded.

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Something vaguely resembling a smile crossed Gosunkugi's face when they finally took Tatewaki Kuno home. The True Blunder of Furinkan High had a habit of soliloquizing loud enough to be heard on the entire floor of the hospital. Kuno's boasts had always ended in a challenge and the challenge always ended in merciful silence, though the silence never seemed to last long enough.

His sometimes ally blathering on and on and on and on made it virtually impossible to think. Perhaps that explained a lot of Kuno's own behavior. It was particularly annoying to hear the upperclassman call Ranma a 'foul sorcerer', as if either of those fools knew the slightest thing about casting a spell.

Gosunkugi sighed. Now what? I'm even weaker magically than I am physically.

Gosunkugi's deepest dreams had no possibility of becoming reality. He had felt empty at first, but that was changing. Life refused to give him any sort of break and now a rage burned inside, a rage that threatened to explode out against the whole world.

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Tofu didn't check Ryouga's room; the boy didn't have one anymore. Ryouga had still been unconscious when he reached the hospital. The staff had bundled him off leaving Akane standing in the hall, where Tofu had found her.

"I...I'm sorry, Dr. Tofu. Please, is Ryouga going to be all right?" There was moisture in Akane's eyes, but not quite tears. "It...It's my fault he got hurt," the Tendo girl continued.

Tofu murmured reassurances. "They tell me he's just asleep. Here, I'll take you in and show you."

But the room was empty; the boy had disappeared without a trace. Since then, Tofu had tried to put images out of his mind of Ryouga lying helpless somewhere because of hidden injuries he hadn't given anyone an opportunity to discover or treat.

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"Ranma, what are you doing in the hallway?"

"It was getting kinda boring in my room, Doc. I mean, up until you let Kuno out this morning, I at least had someone to give me a workout."

Tofu pulled out his clipboard. "Ranma Saotome," he intoned, "severe bruising across the chest, three cracked ribs, and a hairline fracture of the left wrist."

"Yeah, but that was days ago, Doc. I'm fine now."

"Ranma, I know that you heal at a rate most people would find impossible, but even you need to rest."

"But...."

"Really, I must insist. Just relax and take it easy. Don't do anything strenuous."

"Gotcha, Doc." Ranma sprang into the air, spinning to land with his palms flat on the floor. From the headstand, he cocked his head up at Tofu and smiled, pushing himself up until he was supporting his weight on his fingertips. "Something light." And Ranma began a series of pushups from a position most people couldn't even manage.

"Ranma, remember your wrist."

"Sorry, Doc." The pigtailed boy lifted his left hand from the ground and continued his pushups onehanded.

Tofu signed and shook his head. "What idiot decided to call them patients?" he muttered, "They're the most impatient beings in the world."

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Miss Ninomiya showed no more signs of physical damage than Ryouga, but she remained unconscious and unlike him, she couldn't be roused. That was bad; the fact Tofu couldn't find an explanation for it was worse.

Specialists were called in and tests performed, but they didn't have an answer, either. It wasn't like a coma, not quite. Brain wave patterns seemed to indicate Hinako was trapped in a state similar to Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep. The time when dreams came.

The teacher seemed locked in an endless dream and the expression on her face implied it was not a pleasant one.

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Tofu checked the nameplate on the door and knocked before going in.

"Your name is Ukyou Kuonji," he said hesitantly.

"Yes, but...."

"Sorry, I haven't really had a chance to talk before now, things have been busy. You seem to be somewhat of a mystery," Tofu smiled. "A girl with a boy's name. A Japanese girl wearing Chinese clothing."

Ukyou ignored the questions. "Is Ranchan gonna be alright?"

"Ranchan? Oh, you mean Ranma Saotome."

"Yes."

"Didn't the nurses tell you? He'll be fine. In fact, I've seen worse damage when he got hit by a baseball once."

"When are they gonna let Ranchan out? For that matter, when are they gonna let me out?"

Tofu deflected her questions with one of his own. "The way you call him Ranchan seems rather familiar, Miss Kuonji. I take it you know him well."

"As well as anyone, I suppose." Ukyou fell silent for a moment. "I'm his fiancée, but...."

"Another one? My, Ranma certainly seems to be a popular young man."

"Can I see him?"

"You need to stay off that ankle. I don't know how you managed to walk on it, but it wasn't a very clever thing to do, you probably aggravated the injury."

Actually, she'd performed acrobatic combat on it, but Ukyou hadn't mentioned that to the doctor. "I don't have time for that. I want to see Ranchan and then I need to get back to my restaurant."

"You work in a restaurant?"

"I own it. I manage it. I'm the cook. It's my restaurant."

"At your age? I'm impressed. Self-employment has its rewards, but it requires a lot of time and effort." Tofu considered for a moment. "Even if you're closed during school hours, that's got to be at least thirty hours a week, most of it on your feet." He glanced significantly at her bandaged ankle. "You need to stay off of that as much as possible, Miss Kuonji."

"Call me Ukyou, everybody does."

"Do you have any employees who can run things for you?"

"That's the problem, Doctor. Konatsu's probably gonna bankrupt me before the end of the week."

"That's the young lady who visited yesterday?"

"Actually, Konatsu's...never mind, you wouldn't believe me. Konatsu's a decent cook, and great at cleaning, but an idiot about money. Please let me out of here. I've gotta get back and I want to see Ranchan before I go."

The nurses had warned Tofu about the girl's two themes. "What you need is rest. Besides that ankle, you have bruises all over your chest and arms. Considering the apparent strength behind those blows, I'm amazed you didn't end up bleeding internally."

"I'm fine."

"You will rest. You need it badly."

She was still complaining when Tofu left the room.

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Kasumi greeted the nurse politely, then headed for her sister's room. After a week, it should have been routine, but it wasn't. The same vague politeness from the staff, the same empty reassurances, the same half-hidden looks of pity.

Kasumi had come to see her sister every day, but she came alone. Her father had taken the news about Nabiki remarkably well. He merely fainted dead away.

Someone needed to watch Daddy. I hope his blubbering doesn't affect Akane too much.

Genma hadn't come at all and Ranma had only visited once since his return from the hospital.

Nabiki remained on life support, a faint cloud in the breath mask the most noticeable sign of life. Her chest was covered with angry burns and only by looking closely could you see it rise and fall. Even Hinako stirred restlessly in her unconscious state, but these faint movements were the only sign Nabiki still lived. It seemed as if she didn't want to wake up.

"Nabiki, I don't know if you can hear me." Kasumi's voice sounded soft and halting. "Nabiki, you have to be strong. Please."

No one answered.

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A series of wooden practice dummies had been planted in the side yard, nearer the Tendo dojo than the house. Now only splintered remains were left, scattered across the yard among the first of the fallen leaves. A lone figure sat near the dojo, arms resting on his knees, staring glumly at the wreckage.

Maybe that's all I'm good for. What was Akane's life like before I came along? Or Ucchan's? Or Shampoo's? And how come they keep putting up with everything?

Ranma leaned back against the dojo wall, and exhaled slowly, his arms dropping limply at his sides. He looked up and to the right, seeing the clothes-drying balcony at the end of the Tendo house.

It looks so much like the old one, the one Akane broke. I caught Nabiki then, but this time.... Why didn't anybody tell me how bad she was? And it ain't like I could have done anything besides what I did.

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The koi pond on the Tendo grounds was normally a tranquil place, except for the occasional involuntary immersions of Jusenkyou curse victims. The wind whispered gently, tugging autumn leaves from the trees in the gathering twilight. But the surface of the pond was writhing as if it was about to begin boiling over.

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Akane lay on her bed, her pet cradled in her arms. "Oh P-chan, Ranma is such a jerk."

"Bwee," the little pig agreed with Akane. He always did.

"It's bad enough the way he treats me, but did you see what he did to Nabiki. It was...the burns...she...she's been there a week now and she's not doing so well, but he's hardly even scratched. I thought he was supposed to protect people."

"Bwee!" P-chan replied in anger.

"There she was...she was...." Akane recalled the way her sister's head and limbs had lolled limply as she rushed her to Tofu's and the sickly sweet stench of the burns she couldn't bear to look at. The sights, the smells would haunt her dreams. Akane didn't want to ever see anything like that again, couldn't bear to even go to the hospital yet.

"...and...and while Nabiki was like that, he was...he was flirting with Ukyou. Flirting!" Akane almost spat the word. "I knew he was a pervert, but I thought she was some kind of friend. Hah. You should have seen her. She was dressed worse than that bimbo, Shampoo, half hanging out of that skimpy outfit, obviously enjoying every minute of it and so was that jerk Ranma!"

"Bwee," the piglet agreed emphatically.

"Sometimes P-chan, I'd swear you actually understood me."

Her pet became extremely quiet and began sweating.

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The door to the family room was closed against the evening chill. Two men, one slender and longhaired, the other neither, sat at opposite sides of the table.

"Your move, Tendo."

Soun stared at the straight even grid of the go board, a dark stone piece his hand. "Why are we doing this, Saotome? It all seems so useless." He tossed the stone down, not knowing or caring where it went.

"Things will work out, Tendo. They always do. Nabiki will be up in no time, teasing Akane and selling pictures of my son."

Soun slapped his hand down on the board, cracking the wood and sending the go stones sailing. "No, they don't, Saotome. Things do not always work out. I lost my wife eleven years ago. Now my little girl is in the hospital, and she went there on the anniversary of my wife's death. It's an omen, a sign."

"You always did need to relax," Genma replied. "It will work out. No matter how many problems there are, things always end up the way we want. Like when Nodoka figured out Ranma's curse, but I was able to convince her Ranma should stay at his fiancée's house. Can you imagine the problems if Shampoo or Ukyou had equal access to Ranma?"

"Or if your wife found out they were also Ranma's fiancées...."

"Um, yes. But that just shows that fate is on our side. Remember our clever plan this summer where we put the magic tags with Ranma and Akane's names together at the Tanabata festival? No other fiancées there to get in the way and Akane didn't even protest when we put the tags back while Ranma was unconscious. We know magic works, now they're fated to be married someday soon."

"Yes, but have you got any magic that will heal my daughter?" Soun snapped.

Genma just stared at the board.

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Ranchan didn't say goodbye when he left the hospital.

He hadn't called since Ukyou had been released, either. Odder still, he hadn't stopped by for food.

I guess you scared him away, you idiot, Ukyou cursed. So much for any good coming out of that mess.

Her finances were a disaster. Konatsu had cheerily and diligently driven her into a hole by combining unrelenting hard work with appalling ineptness at all things financial.

Still, Konatsu meant well, there's no point in being angry. I can't get mad at Ranchan, either. Why would he want an uncute tomboy like me? I renounced my femininity. Is it any wonder he doesn't recognize it when I've forgotten how to be a girl?

Ukyou stared down at the balance sheets, but she couldn't make them do what she wanted any more than she could make Ranma. I'd have been better off closing like the time I helped Ranchan on his training trip.

She smiled, remembering her dream of staying with Ranma even if he couldn't get his strength back. She sighed, threw her pencil down, and ran her fingers through her hair.

Maybe a hot shower would help me relax.

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Dr. Tofu's clinic was quiet, but his thoughts clamored.

Gosunkugi would be returning home in the morning. The boy's physical injuries were healed, but something was eating away at his soul. The only things that moved anymore were his eyes. Eyes that burned with rage at everyone and everything.

Most of the other patients were already home, except for the missing Ryouga and the two that remained at the hospital, Nabiki and Hinako. Neither had regained consciousness and their conditions were deteriorating. It seemed like they didn't want to recover, and that frustrated Tofu. He was losing a battle with death and the patients weren't even fighting.

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It began in darkness, in a blackness as deep as the pits where the Mamono should have had eyes. Then he saw the gleam of eyes, angry accusing eyes, blaming him for Nabiki's injuries. Her stare was quickly joined by Soun's and Akane's, then his parents', then by dozens of duplicates that surrounded him. Ranma felt their gaze burning through him, like he had every night since he returned from the hospital.

Then the sound began, bombarding his ears. First the voices of his parents. "You should have protected her.... How could you fail me like this.... You're not a real man...." More voices battered against him. "It's your fault, Ranma." Ryouga said it first, then Mousse, then Nabiki, then Soun, and finally Akane. Words hammered against him like their weapons never had. They echoed and re-echoed till they became a senseless wave of sound washing over and through him.

Ranma wanted to retaliate, wanted to strike back with the same anger that was directed at him, but something restrained him even as the sound overwhelmed him.

Ranma's eyes snapped open. The same nightmare he'd experienced every night since his return to the Tendo dojo. He waited in the darkness for his pulse to slow to normal and his sweat to cool.

I gotta get outta here before these dreams drive me nuts.

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The shower hadn't calmed Ukyou.

At least the stupid jerk could have called. If he's finally gonna dump me, he could at least have the guts to do that.

Ukyou slammed herself down in her chair. She couldn't bear to look at her financial records any more, but she was too upset to sleep. She snatched her school satchel and unclasped it. The school had returned it that morning.

Maybe it was time to read her grandmother's letter.

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"Ranma, do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Umm, sorry, Doc. I, ah, couldn't sleep." He chuckled nervously. "Can I come in?"

Tofu stepped back from the door of his clinic, which was also his home, and motioned for Ranma to enter. "You understand I do not favor the routine dispensing of medications for insomnia."

Ranma blinked in confusion. "I ain't sick or nothing. I just hoped I could talk a bit."

Tofu smiled wearily. "Would you like some tea, then?"

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Some people thought Ukyou didn't have a temper. Actually, she had a rather strong one; though it wasn't quite as hair-triggered as some of Ranma's other fiancées. Ukyou read her grandmother's letter a second time, periodically muttering threats.

"The Mano family have been Mamono Hunters for one hundred generations and it is our duty to protect people by banishing or destroying these monsters. Your mother and her sister Sayoko should have been that 108th generation of Mamono Hunters."

"But these powers come with a price. Only women of our line may use the Yoma ring and summon soul weapons and only if they remain pure in mind and body. Above all, they must not indulge in sexual relations before their sixteenth year. Your mother eloped with your father when she was only fifteen and I then discovered your aunt Sayoko had already been active in that way. The line of Mamono Hunters was in danger of fading away."

"I could watch over and protect your cousin Yohko, but you were away travelling with your father and I needed to protect you from what could be a fate worse than death for all of humanity. Please forgive me, I could think of no other way to be sure. Your father disapproved, but I eventually convinced him. I know he wasn't sure how to raise a little girl alone. He only had three years with your mother before he lost her."

"I'm sorry, Ukyou, but my actions were necessary. I performed a magic ritual, some might even call it a curse, but I did it for the greater good. That sounds inadequate, but it is true. The ritual twisted fate. It insured that events would separate you from any man you loved or that loved you."

Ukyou growled. How could Grandma possibly justify this? And Father always seemed so gruff and distant, but to agree to put a curse on me, his only child? My life is a mess, and it's as much their fault as Genma Saotome's.

"The ritual was designed to fade after you safely turned sixteen. Sadly, the spell seems to have an unintended side effect; it was not the perfect shield I thought it was. The only ones who could get past the spell would be women, or men that were less than fully masculine."

If only Grandma knew. There were reasons Ukyou had transferred to a boys middle school. Konatsu's a good friend, but I want a husband, not a servant. Tsubasa was annoying and obsessive, kind of like Kuno in drag. No, even Kuno's got more style.

"Indeed, I suspect this side effect may in some way be responsible for your fiancé Ranma's unfortunate accident at Jusenkyou."

So that's Grandma's fault, too.

Anger was replaced by sympathy and by an unhappy realization.

I'm more like Grandma than I want to admit. I'm trying to juggle things so I get Ranchan and everybody else gets someone they want. Now it looks like I can't ever have him thanks to this stupid curse.

Tears welled in Ukyou's eyes and she almost didn't see the lines she missed the first time she read the letter.

"Fortunately, the spell and its effects began fading after your last birthday. Soon you should be entirely free of its restrictions and can make up for lost time."

I still have a chance. As long as there's any chance.... Ukyou blushed. What did Grandma Mano just say? Make up for lost time. Does she mean.... Ukyou had fantasized about marrying Ranma. But to actually...me and Ranchan...to do that...I don't think we're really ready....

You're afraid, whispered another voice inside her.

"I am not afraid!" Ukyou didn't realize she had spoken aloud. The abrupt ending of the letter brought her back to the present. All the pages related to using the Yoma ring or summoning her soulblade were missing and she was certain that was no accident.

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Ranma's pack lay in the corner. He sat across the table from Tofu staring at the steam coming off the cup of dark liquid. He took a brief sip of the tea and began.

"Guess I'm pretty dumb, huh? Takes a monster trying to take over my mind to make me see what a mess I'm making of everything. I mean, sometimes I feel like some twisted oni is running my life, keeping me so busy reacting to new problems I never solve any old ones.

"Only way I'm ever gonna solve anything is if I start doing stuff on my own. Everybody tries to run my life for me, and no wonder. I sure ain't doing nothing about running it."

Ranma paused to take another sip.

"So I got thinking, Doc. When we first got here my dad got a job with you and later so did Shampoo. I guess she stayed here before Cologne showed up. I don't know if you still got any stuff to do around here, but I was hoping you could give me a job and a place to stay."

"Ranma, did Mr. Tendo kick you out of the dojo?"

"Naw, nothing like that, at least not this time, but after what happened...." Ranma winced, and stared at nothing for a moment. "I figure it's best to get away till they cool off. I mean, Mr. Tendo spends all his time bawling like a baby or doing that creepy angry demon head thing of his. And Akane, I think she hates me. I think maybe she always did."

"Ranma, I doubt Akane hates you."

"Maybe you're right, Doc," he replied wearily, "but she sure has a funny way of showing it sometimes." Ranma frowned. "Sorry, I'm tired, that made less sense than usual. What I'm trying to say is if Akane doesn't hate me, she sure is good at faking it."

"What about staying at your mother's place?"

"I dunno. I love her, she's my Mom, but she's got her ideas of what I should do and she's even more stubborn than Pops. I want to make sure my decisions are what's best, what's right, not what Mom and Pops force me into."

"I assume you mean your fiancée problems."

"How...?" Ranma shook his head slowly. "Guess everybody knows, but that's only part of it, Doc. My name means 'wild horse' and there seem to be a lot of people trying to break me. I mean, you can force an animal to do what you want; all you hafta do is break its spirit. I can't live like that. I gotta find another way."

"What about one of your friends or other fiancées? I'm sure they'd be happy to let you stay with them, Ranma."

A deep sigh was all Tofu heard for a moment.

"Doc, I...I don't think I have any real friends."

Ucchan, the one you take for granted, his subconscious reminded. The one who went with you when the old lech made you weak. The one who took you in when Mr. Tendo kicked you out. The one you're afraid of.

"I mean, Ryouga is sorta," Ranma continued, "if we could ever quit fighting, but that idiot can't even find his own house. The rest of the guys that hang around me at school only do it to try picking up stray fiancées of mine." Ranma sighed. "Do you know how many fiancées I've got, Doc?"

"Three. Akane, Shampoo, and Ukyou. I met Miss Kuonji the other day. That certainly was a rather daring outfit she was wearing. And, of course, I already knew Shampoo and her great-grandmother."

"That's just the start. If Akane drops out, her dad and my folks will just push Kasumi or Nabiki into the job."

Seeing Dr. Tofu's eyes glaze at the mention of Kasumi's name, Ranma moved on quickly. "They even switched things for a while and had Nabiki be the fiancée instead of Akane. I didn't like that." Ranma stared blankly at his tea. "I hope she's gonna be alright," the boy whispered.

Tofu didn't reply, though the expression on his normally cheerful face was anything but encouraging.

"Anyway, that's five," Ranma continued. "Then there's Lin-Lin and Ran-Ran."

"Who?"

"Lin-Lin and Ran-Ran. Amazon sisters of Shampoo. I don't think they're blood sisters, but I ain't exactly sure. I beat them in combat, so according to their laws they hafta marry me, too. Well, only if Shampoo doesn't marry me. That's seven."

"So even if you find a way out of your first obligations to the Tendos or the Amazons, you still haven't solved either of those situations."

Ranma shook his head. "And there's more. Kaori makes eight. I don't think you met her. Expert at Fast Food Takeout Martial Arts. She's supposed to have given up on the idea, but I keep waiting for her to come back. After all, I thought we'd seen the last of Shampoo when she went back to China."

"Then there's Picolette Chardin." Ranma mangled the French words.

"That's a man's name, isn't it?"

"Yeah, but he thought I was a girl. It was another stupid promise." Lack of sleep didn't hide the anger in Ranma's voice. "Anyway, that's nine. I got outta that one, though."

I hope.

"Not sure if I should count Sentarou, the tea ceremony idiot on the horse. He gave up when he found out I wasn't a girl and his fiancée wasn't a monkey. That's all I know of, but Pops could be cutting a deal right now with Principal Kuno."

Ranma shuddered involuntarily and made warding motions with his hands, realizing there were two different ways his father could engage him to a Kuno.

Tofu poured some more tea. "I had no idea your life was so complex. I am willing to let you live and work here, but wouldn't you rather stay with Ukyou or Shampoo? You seem to get along with them well enough."

"You really think I wanna sleep at the Neko Hanten? I'd probably wake up somewhere in China, if Mousse didn't kill me in my sleep. Now Ucchan's, I did consider that. But some of the girls after me are a little...violent. If they thought I was staying with Ucchan, who knows what they might try to do to her?"

Liar. You're just afraid, a voice echoed inside. You saw her eyes, you heard her words, you know how she feels, and you ran. Tofu's was a safe place, neutral ground. Living at Ukyou's would be making a decision he'd been avoiding ever since he came to Nerima.

"So, Doc, I can stay here?"

"Only if you promise to call me Tofu. Oh yes, and you will pay for any damage caused by fights here."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A small pig with a mood as black as his hide wandered aimlessly through the Tendo yard.

Ryouga angered easily, but he didn't usually stay angry. This time, it felt like he had molten fire flowing through his veins. Ranma's treatment of Akane was inexcusable. If he was thinking more clearly, Ryouga would have understood the more problems there were between Ranma and Akane, the more chance he had of Akane noticing him. Even that wouldn't have been enough to eliminate his anger; he couldn't stand to see Akane hurt in any way.

But he wasn't thinking clearly. Images filled his mind; images of Ranma's broken, bleeding body; of every ounce of Akane's emotional pain repaid and redoubled in physical pain for Ranma.

The small pig smiled grimly, as the surface of the koi pond seethed like a boiling cauldron behind him. A watery tentacle arced forward, there was a confused "Bwee", and then the night was still again.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The autumn night was clear and peaceful. Ukyou stared out her bedroom window into the lonely darkness. She couldn't sleep; there was too much to think about. It wasn't enough that she needed to run her own business, attend school, and try to sandwich in a few minutes a week to see Ranma. Now she had new responsibilities as a Mamono Hunter.

Ukyou pressed her forehead against the cool glass. That thing at the school probably could have killed them if it hadn't been overconfident and sadistic. And Aijou was only one of the five passions.

"Haradachi, anger. Kietsu, joy. Ikari, hatred. Yokkyuu, desire. Aijou, sorrow."

The dark-haired girl sighed and wrapped her arms around herself, feeling that last emotion without the monster's prompting. Part of her wanted to go part her grandmother's hair with a battle spatula.

"I don't know how to be a Mamono Hunter. I don't know how to be a cute fiancée. I don't even know how to be a girl anymore. I wish Ranchan were here. It's hard to deal with this alone. I don't know what I can do. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I'm so tired...."

Ukyou exhaled slowly. Her friends, her classmates, her customers might be in danger merely from being near her. If she avoided them, they might be in more danger. Ukyou shivered. She wouldn't be getting much sleep this night.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Breakfast at the Tendo's was subdued, but Kasumi sensed an undercurrent of tension. Ironically, the two people who weren't there were the cause. Nabiki's health had continued to deteriorate. And Ranma had disappeared during the night.

"Mr. Saotome, do you know where Ranma is?"

"Growph?" The panda continued shoveling down breakfast.

Even Kasumi's patience had its limits and she upended the teakettle over the furry freeloader.

"Aaagh! Kasumi, that was hot!"

She smiled innocently. "Oh, I guess it was. Now could you please tell me where Ranma is? It's not like him to miss a meal. Is he ill?"

"Would serve him right," Akane muttered.

"Akane, it's impolite to interrupt. Besides, that wasn't a very nice thing to say about your fiancé."

"Who says I ever wanted an idiot like that as a fiancé? Who says I wanted a fiancé at all?" The girl slammed her chopsticks down on the table. "Ranma's a rude, insensitive jerk!"

"Akane."

"It's true, Kasumi, and you know it. I'm leaving for school and I don't care if I ever see that idiot again." The front door slammed shut and silence returned to the Tendo home.

Disappointment was clear on Kasumi's face as she turned once more to Mr. Saotome.

"Really, Kasumi, I have no idea where the boy went. He shouldn't do things like this to make Akane mad. I don't understand what's gotten into him."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"So, Ranma, she must have been good," hinted Hiroshi.

"Huh?" Ranma replied blearily. Between the nightmare and his talk with Dr. Tofu, Ranma hadn't gotten much sleep until he got to class. Now he just wanted to eat his lunch and get back to sleep, not talk.

"Oh, come on, you can tell us," chimed in Daisuke.

"Wha...?" Ranma replied. "Who?"

"Ukyou, you dummy. What was she like?"

Ranma blinked a few times.

Didn't I already tell them about the fight with the Mamono?

"Umm, Ucchan was really good. At first I was worried about her keeping up with me, but we both went the distance," he grinned wearily.

The other two smiled knowingly.

"Good endurance, eh?"

"Yeah, she wouldn't quit and really acrobatic, too. Ucchan tried some moves I didn't think she was capable of. Took my breath away."

"So tell us about your techniques."

"Sorry to disappoint you guys, but some things gotta remain secret." Discussing martial arts techniques with them would be a waste of time. "Frankly, neither of you is in good enough shape to try most of them anyway. I will say Ucchan improvised a whole new technique and I tried another I'd almost forgotten."

Ranma was now awake enough to tell Hiroshi and Daisuke were acting strangely, but not awake enough to care why.

"Guys, can I eat lunch now? I'm still tired."

Hiroshi elbowed Daisuke and they chuckled.

"Sure, if you answer one last question."

Ranma sighed.

"Doesn't it bug you that she always wears guy's clothing?"

"Ucchan doesn't always wear guy's clothing." Ranma smiled nervously and blushed as he remembered how revealing the scarlet Mamono Hunter dress was. "She sure proved that to me."

Ranma returned to his lunch, unaware he had poured several gallons of gasoline onto the bonfire of the school rumor mill.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Unlike Ranma, Ukyou managed to stay awake through her morning classes. Now that it was lunchtime, her head was down on her desk and she was sleeping peacefully. Of course, that peace wouldn't last long.

The better martial artists in Nerima could sense each other's chi, especially if they were in battle. A wave of hot chi washed over Ukyou and she snapped awake. Akane stood in front of Ranma's desk, her battle aura so powerful you could almost see it. Akane's face had almost turned purple, veins bulged on her neck and forehead, her mouth twisted back in a grimace and her clenched fists were held straight down at her side. Akane's whole body trembled with barely restrained emotion.

Ukyou idly thought that whoever coined the phrase 'you're beautiful when you're angry' was a raving lunatic, then snapped to full alertness as her sleep-starved senses screamed for her attention.

"You...you...you...pervert!" Akane shrieked at the unconscious Ranma.

He slept on, making no more move to defend himself against Akane than he normally did. Ukyou quickly slipped between the two, trying to defuse the situation.

"C'mon, Akane, just leave Ranchan alone. You know he's not a pervert and he needs his sleep."

"You. This is your fault. Of course, you'd try to defend him." There was venom in Akane's tone and other words followed; hard, cruel, insulting words; but Ukyou didn't really hear them anymore.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A chorus of voices yelling "Catfight!" woke Ranma. His first impulse was to flee through the nearest window even if they were on the third floor, until he saw what was really going on. It was more of a brawl than a fight as Akane and Ukyou grappled with each other intent on serious mayhem. Both were too enraged to use their martial arts techniques, which actually reduced the potential for property damage and bodily injury dramatically.

Ranma moved forward, intending to pry his two fiancées apart. "What's going...." was all he said before Akane flattened him with a school desk.

Ukyou drew her battle spatula and the two girls glared at each other. Battle auras flared and the other students dived for cover.

From the floor, Ranma groaned, "What was that for?"

"Ranchan, are you okay?" Ukyou knelt beside him, her quarrel forgotten.

Akane growled. "Fine, have it your way! You perverts belong together anyway! I never want to see either of you again!"

As the shorthaired girl stormed off, Ranma rubbed his head and asked, "What was that about, Ucchan?"

"I wish I knew, Ranchan. I've never seen Akane that angry before. It doesn't seem normal."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ranma stared out the classroom window. The pool was empty now, save for a scattering of leaves in the bottom. More had fallen with the chill of the last few days, leaving the occasional bare branch reaching through the colorful foliage like small blackened claws.

"So you're staying at Dr. Tofu's now, Ranchan?"

He turned and faced her. "Yeah, it seemed like a good idea. I'm trying to sort some things out. Besides, I don't think the Tendo place is exactly healthy for me now."

"You could always stay at...."

"Yeah, I know."

For a moment neither had anything to say, and that silence continued to stretch awkwardly.

"Why are they all looking at us?" Ukyou whispered. None of their classmates were sitting nearby, yet most were watching them, some rather openly.

"I dunno, it's creepy, all those staring eyes. Maybe it's another Mamono doing it?"

Ukyou closed her eyes and concentrated. "I don't sense anything, not that I exactly know what I'm doing here." She smiled wryly. "Otherwise, I sure would've picked a different costume."

Ranma's sleep-starved brain let his mouth run on ahead of it. "Yeah, I sure got a good look. I mean, I didn't mean to look. I didn't see nothing. I didn't mean to see nothing." Eventually he noticed Ukyou blushing. "Umm, Ucchan, I...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you or nothing. I...umm...well...aaah...." Subconsciously, he flinched away from an expected malleting.

Ukyou interrupted, trying to end Ranma's tripping over his tongue. "Tha...that's okay, Ranma. If anyone was gonna see me in that outfit, I'd want it to be you." She laughed nervously and blushed a deep crimson.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Nabiki's business associates went into action, in her absence. A tall brunette named Jinko was acting leader till Nabiki's return from the hospital.

"Okay everyone, listen up. Sorry there wasn't time to meet until after school. At any rate, this tasty new information about Ranma and Ukyou has the potential for being very profitable. We need to re-evaluate the odds we offer on most bets. Obvious odds to modify are marriage related: who, when, chance of it being completed, chance of surviving the ceremony. We can expect an increase in the number and violence of fights so we need to keep up on odds laying and ticket selling. Any other ideas?"

"We should sell this information to Kodachi Kuno and the Chinese girl before they find out themselves."

"Good idea, Makoto, I'll assign you to get that." Nabiki could have more than tripled the list of potential purchasers.

"What about blackmail?" another girl asked.

"Please, blackmail is such an unpleasant word," Jinko replied. "I prefer referring to it as Financial Remuneration In Order To Insure The Confidentiality Of Information."

The other girls blinked in confusion.

"Considering Ranma blabbed all about it to his buddies over lunch, there's no chance of profit there. They aren't even trying to hide anything. Besides, I don't want to deal with angry martial artists. Did you see what they did to the gym?"

"That reminds me, I have physical education class with Ukyou," a girl named Meyoko piped.

"And?"

"If I pay close attention I should be able to figure better odds on pregnancy related bets."

"Excellent, that information could also affect combat odds dramatically."

If Nabiki had been conscious instead of on life support, she would have cursed over all the missed chances for turning a profit. She could have found at least half a dozen profit making ideas the others missed, but the girls did remarkably well in spite of their leader's absence.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Aiyah! This is too too bad great-grandmother. Shampoo no understand what Airen doing. Shampoo have much better figure than Spatula Girl and Shampoo show this to Ranma many many times, but he no do anything."

Cologne wished her great-granddaughter didn't believe quite so many tales about the outside world. Not all males became weak, helpless, and easily manipulated when exposed to a naked Amazon woman. Not that Shampoo had ever been good at subtlety.

"At least this proves he doesn't prefer boys," Cologne replied.

"Shampoo not so sure. Spatula Girl usually dress like boy."

"He might have noticed some slight differences once she removed her clothes," the elder Amazon replied sarcastically.

"Good, Pervert Girl no ruin Airen as husband." The girl was positively beaming.

Sometimes Cologne failed to follow her great-granddaughter's line of thinking, but it usually wasn't worth arguing over.

Shampoo spun towards the door.

"Where are you going, great-granddaughter?" Cologne interrupted.

"Law says obstacles is for killing. Shampoo go kill Spatula Girl and take Ranma home to China," she smiled.

Cologne groaned in frustration. Shampoo was not stupid, but she was extremely overconfident. None of her generation came come close to matching her physical abilities and the girl had become mentally lazy because of it. That attitude made her tend to act before thinking things through.

"What would Ranma do if he knew you killed his lover?"

"That be very bad great-grandmother."

Good, the child is capable of thinking things through.

"Should Shampoo make it look like Violent Girl or Psycho Gymnast kill Spatula Girl?"

Cologne smiled. "Very good, you have the beginnings of a plan. Now we need to work out the details. And Shampoo, please work on your Japanese. I find it embarrassing when a fool like Mousse can speak their language better than my own great-granddaughter."

"But great-grandmother, as long as I speak their language poorly, they will continue to underestimate my intelligence, which gives me a definite advantage in combat. It costs both of us some pride, but I believe it is well worth the advantage it brings," the girl rattled off in excellent Japanese.

Cologne raised one eyebrow. Perhaps Shampoo was devious enough to succeed her on the council one day, after all. The ancient Amazon smiled broadly, a sight which anyone but Shampoo would have found utterly terrifying.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Aaah, how could my beloved Ranma Darling allow himself to be bewitched by this common peasant girl! Fear not, my dear one, I, Kodachi the Black Rose, shall free you from that harridan's clutches. Then, though I suffer cruelly from the fact that I have not had the privilege of being your first lover, I shall ensure that I shall be your last."

Kodachi's laughter filled her room as the family ninja Sasuke hurried to report to Master Kuno. Clearly Mistress Kodachi had something very unpleasant planned for Akane Tendo.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After the third ring of the telephone, Kasumi wiped her hands on her apron, and turned down the burners on the stove. Akane had gone straight to the dojo after school, and the sounds of splintering wood, shattering concrete, and shouted imprecations still occasionally drifted over to the house. Her father and his sometimes furry friend were probably in the family room playing shogi again. No one had seen Happosai for a while and no one seemed interested in searching for him.

Even if Kasumi wasn't the closest to the phone, she'd probably have ended up answering it. She moved forward and then hesitated, her hand inches from the phone. It rang again and Kasumi snatched it up.

"Hello? Is this the hospital?"

"No, it's Ranma."

"Where have you been? What happened? Are you okay?"

"Sorry, I didn't wanna wake anyone. Guess maybe I shoulda left a note or something last night."

"We were worried about you."

"Thanks, Kasumi, I know you were. The others are too busy worrying about...."

"It's not your fault."

"It sure feels like it. They sure make me feel like it."

"Ranma, are you alright? When are you coming back?"

"Alright? Yeah, I guess. I gotta get away from there for a while. I ain't mad at nobody, I just had to do it." There was silence on the line for a moment and then he whispered, "Tell Akane, ask her not to be mad at me. Aah, but she'll be mad at me anyway. I'm tired, tired of making her mad all the time. And I'm tired of making 'em all sad, tired of hurting everybody." Kasumi heard a deep sigh. "Sorry, I just gotta get things sorted out. Don't worry, I'll be alright."

"Are you sure, Ranma? Do you have somewhere to stay?"

"I'm fine. I got a job. It ain't much, but I'll be sending you some money to help with the hospital bills."

"You know you don't have to do that."

"A martial artist is supposed to help people. Maybe this way I can...."

"Ranma?"

"Sorry, I'm kinda tired. Please don't tell anyone where I am."

"You haven't told me."

Silence answered her.

"I won't tell anyone if you don't want me to," Kasumi added.

"Thanks, Kasumi. I'm at Tofu's. Bye."

And the phone went dead.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Fear not, Akane Tendo, for I, Tatewaki Kuno, shall save you!" The tall swordsman bounded over the retaining wall, landing in the Tendo yard, then charged into the dojo. Shattered fragments of cinderblocks showed the girl had spent most of the evening acting out her frustrations on the hapless building materials.

Kuno struck a dramatic pose against the setting sun and began his monologue.

"My darling Akane, I grieve that the foul sorcerer Ranma Saotome has sullied your honor. It lessens my love for you not one whit, for I apprehend you must needs have been compelled by his vile sorceries, for never would you give yourself willingly to such a base knave. In truth, it is also my sad duty to warn you that my twisted younger sibling seeks now to bring you harm, though fear not, for I shall surely defend you. As well, you have my solemn pledge that I shall smite Ranma Saotome with a full and righteous vengeance for so daring to besmirch your honor."

By this point, Akane figured out Kuno was saying.

"You think I'd let that jerk Ranma do something like that! You're as disgusting as he is!"

A single kick smashed Kuno through the dojo roof. As broken tiles rained down, the older boy arced over the Tendo house and plunged into the koi pond. The water's surface writhed, but the only sign left of Kuno was his wooden sword lying near the small pool.

"Akane, is there someone in the dojo with you?"

"Just upperclassman Kuno, Kasumi."

"Would he like to stay for dinner?"

Akane gleefully looked up to the Kuno-shaped hole in the roof. "No, Kasumi, I already showed him the way out."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Elsewhere in Nerima, a pair of women surveyed Ukyou's restaurant from the rooftops. It wasn't long before they noticed each other.

"What you do here, Psycho Girl?"

"I could well ask the same of you, you Chinese peasant."

Shampoo muttered a curse in Mandarin. Kodachi had used the word Chinese like it was something dirty.

"Ah, but I can speak your language as well and your rude manner of speech reveals your base origins." Kodachi smiled as she effortlessly switched languages.

Reluctantly deciding that Kodachi was for the moment more useful alive, Shampoo continued the conversation in Mandarin. "I assume we are both here to deal with Ukyou and free Ranma from her. Since our goals are the same, I suggest we cooperate."

"Much as when we cooperated with Ukyou to free Ranma from that witch Hinako. I agree, though I have not yet seen my darling."

"My husband is probably sleeping upstairs in her bedroom. We Amazons know that men have far less stamina than women and Ukyou gave him a rather thorough workout last night if half of what I've heard is true."

Neither girl looked remotely pleased at that idea.

"We must watch for a time when they are separated," Shampoo continued. "There are too many customers as witnesses and later they will be...together."

"Plus there is the waitress she employs," added Kodachi.

"Waitress? When did Ukyou get a waitress? What does it matter anyway?"

Kodachi rolled her eyes and pointed. "I didn't catch the name, but look at her, watch the way she moves."

Shampoo paused for a moment, evaluating the stranger. "There's something wrong, but she's good, and she's more than just a waitress."

"Again you demonstrate your ignorance," Kodachi laughed. "Surely even in the tiny village in the rural province where you were raised you have heard of the ninjas; masters of stealth, spying, and assassination."

Shampoo smiled a not very nice smile. "Of course I've heard of the ninja. They're cheap imitations of the lin kuei, the Chinese originals. Still, imitation or not, this waitress is more than she seems. She could complicate matters. We should probably return in the morning and look for a chance to separate Ranma from Ukyou."

"I am content to stay and wait." By which Kodachi meant she didn't trust Shampoo alone anywhere near Ranma.

"I think I will stay, too," replied Shampoo. She didn't trust the Kuno girl either.

"Then we are agreed." The pair sat down to watch both the restaurant and each other. Unaware of the unwanted observers, Ukyou did a brisk evening's business and then retired to her bedroom for a long and well-deserved sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ukyou's smile was as bright as the morning sun. She stretched her arms slowly and sighed. It was a beautiful morning and she was looking forward to the day. Lunch with Ranma had been nice and maybe, just maybe, the fates would let her enjoy that again.

On the rooftops, Shampoo's and Kodachi's moods were cold and bitter. The temperature had plummeted during the night and while it hadn't snowed, they were not dressed for it. The useless waiting for an opportunity to attack and their mutual distrust only heightened their attitudes. Currently they were feeling more than slightly homicidal.

A door opened and angry eyes followed the unsuspecting dark-haired girl down the street. Shampoo and Kodachi rose, glared at each other, and followed, neither noticing that a dark-clad form was stalking them. The ninja-turned-waitress was one of the less violent people in Nerima, but Konatsu had no intention of allowing anyone to harm Lady Ukyou.

Yet there was a hint of sadness in Konatsu's eyes, a slight downturn to Konatsu's mouth. Ukyou knew about the scroll her waitress had written, full of words of love for the young okonomiyaki chef, but that hadn't changed her feelings for Ranma. Regardless, Konatsu owed them both and as long as they were happy...

Perhaps if I tell myself that enough, I'll believe it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ranma hadn't expected a job at Dr. Tofu's would be so hard. No wonder his father had only lasted a couple weeks at it. Ranma had expected the physical labor of tidying up the place, but not the sorting and cataloging of medicinal herbs, their preparation, or studying pressure point charts. The other unexpected thing was Tofu explaining that all this could help him become a better martial artist, though he hadn't told Ranma how yet. That was still enough motivation for Ranma to try his hardest.

"Ranma, it's time for school."

"Thanks, Doc, I mean Doctor Tofu."

Ranma rushed out the door, taking a route that looped wide of the path Akane would travel to Furinkan High. He'd never seen his uncute fiancée stay angry this long, but it seemed best to continue avoiding her for a while.

He hadn't planned on his route to school intersecting someone else's.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Ranchan," she beamed.

"Oh, um, hi Ucchan."

She paused, noticing his downcast eyes and shuffling walk. "Tough day, Ranchan?"

"Yeah."

"Wanna talk about it?"

"Nope."

Ukyou stopped for a moment, resisting the urge to smack her fiancée. He stopped as well, turned and looked back at her.

"Ucchan?"

Her hand was already swinging forward, catching him lightly on the shoulder.

"Tag! You're it Ranchan."

"Wha...?"

"Betcha can't catch me before I get to school," she called over her shoulder as she sprinted forward.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Konatsu sighed, wiping away a trace of perspiration with an elegant, if slightly threadbare handkerchief, and regretting that all this skulking about was not particularly ladylike. At least Ukyou appeared to be out of danger for the moment.

The ninja had spotted Shampoo and Kodachi the night before. Ukyou had never introduced Konatsu to either rival and had barely even mentioned them, but Ukyou's employee was the best the Kenzan clan had produced. Thanks to those skills, Konatsu knew a great deal more about events in Nerima than anyone expected.

Still, the ninja needed to learn more about Ukyou's enemies. They'd watched the restaurant all night and followed Ukyou all the way to school. Ranma and Ukyou had seemed oblivious to the girls following them, but once the pair reached the school grounds, their unwanted followers gave up and wearily turned towards their homes.

Deciding who to follow was easy.

Shampoo was returning to see her great-grandmother Cologne, probably the most skilled and dangerous martial artist in Nerima. The Kuno mansion only had semi-paranoid inhabitants, state of the art electronic security, vicious guard beasts including gigantic alligators and a greenhouse full of exotic and potentially lethal plant life. Besides, the Kuno siblings had the annoying but useful habit of discussing their plans out loud.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The substitute teacher for English class didn't know Ranma well enough to be surprised by his actions. Ranma paid attention because many of the books and papers Dr. Tofu had him working with were in English. By thinking of it as Martial Arts Language Mastery, the boy was actually making decent progress. The rest of his classes received Ranma's normal lack of attention.

Akane's schoolwork suffered dramatically. Nabiki's deteriorating condition left her worried and distracted, plus there was the blind rage she felt towards Ranma and Ukyou. Soun and Genma had arranged for Ranma and Akane to share classes, probably in another attempt to force their children together. Ukyou had signed up for the same classes that Ranma was taking. Akane was forced to see both of them all day every day.

Large quantities of yen were eagerly bet over when the explosion would hoccur and what its consequences might be. None of the students guessed the type, timing, or perpetrator of the real explosion correctly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Unlike American schools, Japanese students usually eat lunch in the same room they have their classes in. Everyone clustered together with their friends, leaving Ranma and Ukyou alone in the middle of the room again. Ranma glanced at Akane, who frowned and made a point of turning her back to him.

"Ranchan?"

"Wha...?"

"I said I feel like the pair of fish Miss Hinako keeps in her fishbowl. It's just the two of us inside while everyone watches."

He scanned the room, seeing the glances and the outright stares. It was far too much like the dreams that had haunted him until he left the Tendo home. He didn't like Ukyou's comparison, but he couldn't disagree with her, either.

"That's not the only way we're being watched, Ucchan."

"You mean Shampoo spying on me on the way to school?"

"And Kodachi."

"I didn't spot her, but she is better at being sneaky. Were they together?"

"I'm not sure, Ucchan. They don't usually get along."

Ukyou stared down at the desk. She had cooperated with both Ryouga and Shampoo in attempts to separate Ranma and Akane, even though she hadn't particularly liked either of her allies. It seemed that the harder anyone tried to split Ranma and Akane up the closer they grew and the harder their parents tried to force them together the more it drove them apart.

"Is that why she's so angry all the time?" Ukyou whispered. "And how must Ranchan feel? Pushed, prodded, and coerced in so many different directions."

"Hey, Ucchan, what did you say? I couldn't hear you."

"I'm sorry, Ranchan. Sorry for a lot of things," she replied.

"That's okay." He wondered what Ukyou was talking about. He hoped she wasn't going to cry. He never knew what to do when a girl cried.

"Promise me something, Ranchan. Promise me that whoever you end up with, you'll be happy. Please, promise me."

"Uhh, sure Ucchan." He frowned in puzzlement. Ukyou kept changing the subject of conversation in a bewildering manner. Once again, Ranma wished his father hadn't kept him away from feminine influences. Then he was sure he'd understand how women thought. He tried to return to the original problem in his own blunt way.

"Ucchan, we may not know why they're spying on you, but I don't think it's a friendly kind of thing. Would it be okay if I stuck with you going back and forth from school? I mean, it's not like you can take both of them in a fight."

"Hey, I could take either one of them!"

Ranma winced reflexively. He was used to getting pounded for saying anything even slightly critical. Moments passed and Ranma relaxed as he realized Ukyou wasn't going to smack him.

"Ain't that what I just said, Ucchan? You could take either one, but not both and that's where I cone in."

"Oh. Thanks, Ranchan. I...I...thanks."

She was smiling again. Ranma hesitated and then grinned back at her.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Alright, Tendo, that's enough moping about the house."

"What?" Soun stared at Genma.

"I know just the thing that will snap Nabiki out of this."

"You do?"

"Yes. Girls can't resist weddings. So all we have to do is find my son, drag him back, and marry him to Akane. There's no way Nabiki would miss that."

"Really?"

"Of course, Tendo. Have I ever been wrong before?"

"Well, there was the noodle incident."

"Never mind that, we need to be going."

Kasumi leaned her head into the family room. "And I packed lunches for both of you. Yours is in the kitchen, Father."

Soun stood, straightened his brown gi, and walked towards the kitchen. Kasumi held up a hand for Genma to stop.

"Thank you, Mr. Saotome. Anything's better than Father sitting around brooding, even something as silly as this search for Ranma. Just remember it might not be good to find Ranma too fast."

Genma nodded and followed Soun.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Things fell into a new routine for the next several weeks.

Every morning Ranma accompanied Ukyou to school, while Shampoo and Kodachi followed them, and Konatsu followed everyone. Every lunch period, if the weather was cold, Ranma and Ukyou sat alone together in the middle of the room, surrounded by whispers and stares. If it was warm, the two went to the roof to be alone for lunch, and the room filled with vicious gossip and ribald speculation behind them. Either way, Akane endured it all in seething silence. Every evening the parade returned to Ucchan's.

Every day Nabiki and Hinako grew a bit worse, while Doctor Tofu called Kasumi to keep her informed. Though he was ashamed it took something this serious to make him stay in control just talking to the oldest Tendo girl on the phone, he found to his surprise that they were speaking about a lot more than Kasumi's sister, and talking much longer than he ever planned.

Every morning, after a delicious breakfast courtesy of Kasumi, Genma and Soun set out to find Ranma, returning in time for dinner and finishing the evening with a few hours of shogi or go. Unless, of course, Akane was cooking, in which case they arrived well after dinner, donned hazmat gear, and disposed of the leftovers. Their detective methods had more in common with sheer luck than Sherlock, though they often found some good quality sake that needed to be subdued.

And they failed to notice that their efforts to find Ranma only made Akane angrier. More observant men might also have noticed that Akane wasn't just getting angry a lot, but she was staying that way. She seethed against Ranma, their engagement, Ukyou, and life in general. She was short tempered with her father and Mr. Saotome. She even blew up at Kasumi once.

The new pattern was about to change for all of them.
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