Previous Section Index Next Section

The Unbroken Circle: Chapter two

Kaigan

Part B

Disclaimer: Takahashi provided the paints, I'm just working on my own easel.

What has gone before:

After Chame recovered from Ryouga's attack, Ranma is left learning to deal with his newfound magical abilities. Under the effects of his slightly rushed magical awakening, Ranma is worried that he might not be able to do anything aside from martial arts with any decent skill. Before anyone can warn him otherwise, Ranma lets himself feel the emotions of others, and is stunned by Akane's apparent anger, after being overwhelmed by Ukyou's warmth. Confused, he returns to the restaurant, and learns to make okonomiyaki in an attempt to distract himself, and to prove to himself that martial arts is not the only thing he's proficient at.

Previous chapters are archived at: http://ranma.stassen.com/uc/

Brief key, trying to stay simple.

<> frame thoughts.

"" frame speech

"{}" frame speech in Mandarin

 

"Musical pitches do not exceed five,

Yet all their variations cannot be heard.

Colors do not exceed five,

Yet all their variations cannot be seen.

Tastes do not exceed five,

Yet all their variations cannot be tasted.

The /shih/ of battle do not exceed the extraordinary and the orthodox,

Yet all their variations cannot be exhausted.

The extraordinary and the orthodox circle and give birth to each other,

As a circle has no beginning.

Who is able to exhaust it?"

Sun Tzu - from chapter 5 of 'The Art of War'

 

Ukyou paused, admiring Ranma's technique as he whipped up another okonomiyaki for someone in the lunch crowd. He made mistakes, but he was a fast learner. She decided to let him make the food while she waited behind him, overseeing his tasks without interfering. He seemed to relish the challenge, and he flung the okonomiyaki with unerring accuracy to land on the plates of the waiting customers. She smiled; it was good to see him smiling, and events of yesterday had left him brooding too often.

His cooking may not have been as good as hers, but his method of serving was spectacular. She watched as he flipped a pair of small pitchers. He caught them, and the batter from the two pitchers collided in midair, and made a neat, almost perfectly circular splat on the grill.

After flipping the okonomiyaki, he grinned, and juggled the knife edged spatulas with enviable easy, not needing breaking his juggling act to serve the customers. Quickly enough that it was a mere blur in the corner of Ukyou's eye, he was able maintain the airborne dance of cooking implements, and still toss the okonomiyaki to the customers.

They cheered him on, and he continued, juggling, cooking, and trying to make the entire affair seem easy. After the last of the lunch rush was finally waving goodbye, Ukyou turned to him. "Well, Ranchan? Did you enjoy yourself?" she asked.

He grinned widely. "Yeah. I don't think I'm as good as you, but that was fun."

Ukyou giggled, shaking her head. "You certainly showed off pretty well. But don't worry, I've spent all my life making these."

He nodded, his smile fading slightly. "I'm just glad I can learn things aside from martial arts."

Ukyou sobered at that. "Is that what this is about?"

He nodded, a slightly pensive expression on his face. "Yeah, I was worried that martial arts are the one and only thing I could do well."

She frowned, considering. "Huh. I never really thought about it. You could probably do anything you wanted too pretty well, though. You're a fast learner. Maybe you could take up music."

Ranma gave her an odd look. "You think so?"

Ukyou shrugged, not noticing. "Maybe."

Chame wandered down the stairs at that point. Her voice broke the short moment of contemplation between the pair. "Morning. Sorry I slept in so late. Anything happen?"

Ukyou shook her head, bemused. "Not really, do you want anything to eat?"

Chame nodded eagerly, eyeing the grill appreciatively. "Please. A pair of those deluxes would be perfect."

Ukyou set to work, calling out, "Just a minute, then." Chame went to the small sink behind the grill, and poured herself a glass of water. Frowning distastefully at the cup, she took a seat at the counter.

Ranma watched Ukyou's work intently, mumbling to himself, and mimicking some of her hand movements. Ukyou and Chame glanced at Ranma, and then again at each other. Chame shook her head, asking, "So, Ranma. What are your plans for the day?"

Ranma looked up sharply, snapped out of his reverie. "Huh? I was thinking about something from earlier."

Chame waited for Ukyou to finish cooking, but glanced at Ranma for a moment. "What?"

Ranma frowned, considering. "I don't know. Do you think I would have any musical ability?"

The elder Machin blinked at this, taken aback, and turned to face Ranma. "Actually, I have no idea. You might. I've learned a lot in my life, but music was something I didn't ever study. Perhaps I should have." She frowned, musing over the idea until Ukyou served her the okonomiyaki.

Ranma glanced at Ukyou. "I think it might be something worth looking into." He pondered, then nodded, mumbling to himself, "I need some money."

Chame glanced at him, hiding a slight smirk at his musings before turning back to her okonomiyaki. "Why?"

He stiffened, realizing she had heard him. "Um, nothing. I have to go."

Chame looked at him, setting down her chopsticks, and giving Ranma a level gaze. "Are you sure you should go alone?"

He frowned for a moment, then hid the expression. "Sorry, I really think I should."

Ukyou frowned, and waved a finger at Ranma in an admonishing fashion. "Ranchan, I'd rather you didn't. You need to be careful."

He bit his lip, seeming to fight back an instinctive response, then relented. "Okay. Chame, will you come with me?"

She nodded, picking up her chopsticks and finishing her okonomiyaki. "Certainly. Where are you planning on going?"

He stared at her for a moment, concentrating. "Oh, you know. Just need some air."

Chame blinked at him, a thoughtful expression on here face. "Right, I guess we should go, then."

The two left Ucchan's, and waved at Ukyou as they left. She frowned, watching them go and wondering what he was up to.

***

The area Ranma and Chame walked through had a smattering of people wandering around, darting from shop to shop. This street was narrow, and seldom saw vehicular traffic. Ranma glanced into store windows occasionally, but neither he nor Chame moved to enter any of them.

Ranma walked in silence for a while, then finally spoke, "Chame, what's going on?"

She sighed, glancing towards the ends of the street briefly. "About what? There are a lot of things going on right now."

He shrugged, speaking softly, nearly to himself, "I don't know. After you showed me how to see auras, I got this nagging voice in the back of my head."

She glanced at him sharply, stating, "That's not good."

Ranma laughed in spite of himself. "No, it's not saying I should kill people or anything like that. But it got me to thinking; what else can I do besides martial arts? What other skills do I have?"

Chame nodded slowly, relaxing somewhat. "Well. Magic ever called the creative mind."

He gave her a sidelong glance. "That doesn't tell me much."

She sighed, closing her eyes and collecting herself for a moment. "Right. Well, I'm not sure exactly how to say this, but people who use magic find themselves with different urges. Different desires. It changes how you think. Once you cross that threshold, you can't go back."

Ranma frowned at that. "I don't know. I like being a martial artist. I've devoted my entire life to it, I don't want to just throw that away."

"You don't have to," she offered.

He looked up at her, asking, "Well, what should I do?"

Chame shrugged, explaining, "There are a lot of things you can do. First off, spend some time finding something you enjoy. Something aside from martial arts. Creative energy is an important tap for your magical powers. The two blur together sometimes."

He nodded, thinking about that. "I always thought that magic would have to do with potions and scrolls, and learning old languages and stuff."

She shook her head, at that. "Some kinds of magic can, but the more important things only require a flexible mind and a bit of aptitude."

"That doesn't tell me anything... What should I do about it?"

Chame paused momentarily, then resumed walking before she spoke again. "In the end, that's something only you can decide. But I'll give you some advice. Why don't you take a little time for yourself? Think about this, spend some time with Ukyou, and enjoy the arts. Find out what you like."

Ranma looked thoughtful for a moment. "What do you do?"

Chame looked at Ranma blankly. "Well, a lot of things. I've experimented a little. I like to cook, I think that's something anyone can learn to enjoy." Ranma nodded, smiling, as Chame continued, "I used to make pottery, but you can't always carry the things you need to make that work around with you. Normally I just ignore it, but when the urge gets too strong to bear now, I paint."

Ranma cocked his head to one side. "Really?"

Chame nodded, turning her attention back to the road in front of her. "I won't fool you, I'm not very good at it. But it's still something to enjoy."

Ranma looked at his feet, still thinking. "Huh. Painting."

Chame shook her head, looking skyward for a moment. "Anyway. What was that about money?"

Ranma started, shaken out of his reverie, and looked back at the redhead. "Oh, uh, I was thinking about going somewhere later tonight."

Chame gave him a sidelong glance, considering. <It's not exactly safe, but then, if he doesn't, he runs the risk of going insane...> Sighing, she replied, "I suppose... You do need to explore yourself a bit more. But... go somewhere no one who knows you would go. Here, follow me."

Ranma followed as Chame led him through a series of unfamiliar streets, coming to a pawnshop. She glanced at the sign for a moment, then nodded to herself. "Good enough."

He touched her shoulder before she entered, curious. "Wait, what makes you say that?"

She glanced back at him, and pointed to the wooden sign. "See those three scratches underneath the lower right-hand corner?" He nodded, studying them. "The middle line is longer than the other three, and the top and bottom are the same length. That means that the owner is fair. You see that one up there?" She pointed, and Ranma nodded again. "That one means that he's also likely to purchase stolen goods. It would help if I knew someone to use as a reference, but I'm sure we can reach some agreement."

Ranma stared at the sign for a moment, wondering what else he had seen bore hidden messages like this, and then followed Chame into the shop.

***

The interior of the shop was dank, and the air seemed stale. A thin layer of dust covered a number of the display cases, and the proprietor eyed them warily. He was a tall man, dark and brooding. He wore black clothing, and seemed to blend into the surroundings. Ranma noted, a bit worriedly, that the store was deserted except for the three of them.

Chame approached the counter, and studied him for a moment. He spoke after studying her in return, "Yes? Can I help you?"

Ranma started, expecting the man's speech to be more callous. Chame nodded, and placed a silver coin on the counter.

He stared at it for a moment, then held it up to a small light. He shook his head, and placed a jeweler's lens over one eye. After a moment of hemming and hawing, he looked up at Chame, "What can you tell me about this piece?"

She shrugged, affecting a casual pose. "Authentic Roman. Solid silver. Good condition."

He nodded, eyeing the coin with thinly veiled speculation. "I'd like to test it. It _looks_ authentic, but there's almost no tarnishing. It's either been stored very well, or isn't real silver."

Chame nodded back, and the man retreated for a moment into the back room. Ranma put a hand on Chame's shoulder, worriedly saying, "You don't have to give that up for this; that thing must be pretty important to you, right?"

She brushed the hand off and rolled her eyes. "Ranma, I've been collecting things like this all my life. I've got a great big chest of them at home, and a few more scattered in safe deposit boxes all over. This just happened to be one of the few I was carrying with me. I spent most of my local currency a few days ago."

He backed off, and the man emerged from the back room with what looked like a small chemistry set. He scraped a small amount of metal from the coin in what he judged to be an inconspicuous spot, and dropped it into a beaker. He heated it, wrote some notes down, and mumbled to himself.

After a few moments, nodded at one of the beakers and said, "Well, it's over 98% pure. Just barely, but it is. What are you asking?"

He and Chame haggled for a while. Ranma watched from the sidelines, not wanting to interfere. <Damn. She's good at this. I wonder if she could out-bargain Nabiki. Nah. She's good, but she's not _that_ good.> Chame and the broker spent about ten minutes arguing. He said that it was probably stolen. Chame said that it probably wasn't, and if the police came, he would be losing out on a profit. He pointed out that it could be sold somewhere else for a lot more than he had. Chame observed that he could meet her price, and still make a profit. Finally, they came to an agreement, a price Ranma found obscene, and he paid her in cash.

Chame stuffed the majority of the bills into a pouch, handed a thick stack to Ranma, and smiled cheerfully to the broker. He smiled back, locking the coin in a drawer.

Ranma followed Chame as she left the shop, looking at the stack of cash in his hands dumbfounded for a moment. "Uh, Chame?" He didn't know whether or not to be more amazed that the man had the money to give her on hand, or that he met the price at all.

She glanced back at him, leading him back to Ucchan's. "Yeah? Oh, Ranma, you might want to put that away for now."

He nodded, putting the wad of bills away in a pocket. "Right. That's a hell of a lot of money."

She nodded in return, smiling. "I know."

He shook his head, staring at his hands in thought. "I mean, if you've got more coins like that, couldn't you just..."

"Just what?"

He gestured, trying to convey what he couldn't put into words. "I don't know, I mean, you could do a lot with that."

She shrugged indifferently. "One or twice, I have. You can only spend so long in opulence before it gets boring."

He frowned. "I suppose. You said you had more at home? You mean Ucchan's, right?"

She shook her head, smiling. "No, I have a home. It's where I keep most of my things."

Ranma considered this. "Oh. I'd like to see that at some point." There was a certain undeniable curiosity about the entire situation.

Her smile widened. "I would like you to go there as well. Right now, it's the safest place I can think of that we could go to."

He shrugged, glancing at the passers-by. "I don't feel like I'm in danger."

Chame was quiet for a moment, then mumbled, "But you are. We both are."

He didn't reply, and the two walked back the rest of the way in silence.

***

Ryouga tried to open his eyes, but was unable to. <Where am I?>

He drifted, in silence and darkness for a moment, until reality returned to him. His eyes still wouldn't open, but his ears worked, and he could feel his body. He could hear speaking, many people, far but near at the same time. All of them were speaking softly, in undertones he couldn't make out.

He tried to feel his surroundings. He felt something cold and smooth underneath him. Like he was lying on glass, or polished wood.

Ryouga struggled for a moment. <What's going on?> Finally, after an eternity, he twitched a hand. <No, not a hand, it's...> realization swept over him, and he tried to pay attention to his body again. <I'm P-chan.> Familiar with his body once more, he opened his eyes. The rage was gone, for now.

He froze for a moment, trying to hold in a scream as his eyes opened. They opened, but roughly, like he tore something to do it. His scream emerged, as everything he said in this form, in a squeal. Not a healthy pig squeal, but a broken, rattling sound. His eyes showed him nothing. Everything he could see was blurred, though he could dimly make out one of the blurred shapes moving towards him.

The voices in the background became more clear. "Damn it Hanagata, I don't love you! I'm not carrying your child! This child belongs to-"

Ryouga blinked, he was too weak to move, though he wasn't sure why. His vision cleared a little more with every blink, and he heard another voice. "I don't care, Cherry! I love you anyway!" He cast around, trying to resolve anything beyond a blur, and then something moved towards him. A human hand.

The voice in the background cut off with a sudden click, and he felt a gentle touch. Someone spoke, soothingly, shushing him from sounds he didn't even know he was making, "There... come now, take it easy little one. You're lucky to have survived this far, rest, and you'll be okay."

Another hand came down, and the two scooped him up gently, bringing him close to a face, <Akane? No, it's not. Who are you?> A somewhat plain-faced, but still attractive girl. She held him against her bosom, and rocked him gently. He fell into a fitful sleep surrounded by an antiseptic smell, and the soft feeling of cloth. As he began to drift away, soft singing filled his ears.

***

Ukyou was preparing for the dinner rush when Ranma returned. Chame said nothing about the time they were gone, and got ready to help Ukyou.

Ranma considered for a moment and then nodded his head, reassuring himself. He sat at the counter, asking, "Ucchan?"

She smiled, nervously. "Yes, Ranchan?" Every day now, she was afraid something would happen. Something that would take him away, or make him tell her that he didn't love her. That nagging fear in her always told her that Ranma might not like her in that way. She shoved it aside, and smiled at Ranma.

He paused, watching Ukyou before he said anything. <Akane was cute when she smiled, but so is Ukyou. And Ukyou smiles so much more easily.> He swallowed, and looked at the floor. <Think about that later.> "Um, Ucchan, since we're going to be leaving soon anyway, I was wondering if..." He mumbled something under his breath.

Ukyou blinked, concerned. "What? I couldn't hear that, Ranchan."

Chame made herself scarce, shuffling clean dishes around in the kitchen noisily. Ranma cleared his throat and stared at the counter intently. "Ucchan, would you like to go out with me tonight?"

Ukyou froze, and dropped her spatula again. Ranma stepped around the counter, and retrieved it for her. "Ucchan?" She nodded happily, and seized him in a hug before he could say anything. He managed to toss the spatula on the grill before she crushed him to her even more tightly, and he made a choking noise, "Ucchan! Can't - breathe!"

She released him, and smiled up at him. "Ranchan! I'd love to go out with you." She flipped the sign to 'closed', and took down the banner in the front of her store.

Ranma smiled in spite of himself. <It's not so bad, then.> "Great, I have an idea of where we should go, will you be ready in an hour?"

She nodded eagerly, and he went up the stairs, to the room that he was staying in. <No. I was right earlier. For now, 'my room.'>

He heard a giggle from Ukyou, and then chattering from her at Chame. Chame made a few non-committal noises before Ranma closed the door, and couldn't hear any more.

He lay back on the futon, reflecting. <It's not so bad at all.>

***

Chame nodded, and said something vaguely reassuring to Ukyou as the young girl babbled at her about her upcoming date. She didn't say anything to deter them; Ranma was obviously in turmoil, and needed this to calm down. But she didn't approve, either. The two going out alone made her nervous. She'd rather have them stay here, where she could watch them. Ranma because he was important to her, and Ukyou because she was important to Ranma.

She hesitated a moment before admitting to herself that Ukyou was important to her as well. She nodded at something Ukyou asked, and excused herself up the stairs. The door to Ranma's room was closed, and she hesitated again before knocking.

Ranma answered, almost as if he had been expecting her, "Come in." She entered, and looked at him. He was staring at the ceiling, seemingly unfocused. "Hey Chame. What's up?"

She shrugged, staring down at him. "Just worried, is all."

He frowned, still focusing on the ceiling. "You want to come instead of Ukyou?"

She shook her head, kneeling near him. "No, I don't want to get in the way of that. I'm just worried about you."

He smirked, glancing towards her briefly. "I can take care of myself, you know."

Chame sighed, looking at the spot on the ceiling his own gaze had recently vacated. "Yes. That's true, isn't it. Have you been practicing?"

Ranma stared at her blankly for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. I can see auras pretty easily, now."

She smiled, returning her gaze to him. "Good. I'll teach you something else tomorrow. I think we should be able to leave, soon."

He let his head fall back to the futon. "I wonder what Ucchan's planning on doing with this place once we leave."

Chame didn't say anything for a while, then admitted. "I was thinking she would come with us."

Ranma nodded, smiling softly. "I gathered as much. You sure you want her with us?"

She rolled her eyes. "Do you really think you don't? Ranma, we have no idea how long it's going to be before we can come back. Don't you want a friend with you?"

He stared at the ceiling, unmoving for a while. When he spoke, his voice was thick, "Yeah, I'd like that. And she wouldn't be safe here alone, would she?" He sighed, and changed the subject, "What happened to the old ghoul? I heard that she and Shampoo ran back to China, claiming that they already got me."

Chame smirked, looking haughty for a moment. "That's my fault. I figured anyone chasing you would think twice in the face of having to brave the Joketsuzoku."

Ranma nodded, returning his gaze to the ceiling. "I thought as much. When are you planning on leaving?"

Chame fidgeted, then suggested, "I think the day after tomorrow."

Ranma sighed, seeming disappointed. "Okay. I was thinking of seeing my mother before then. Would that be okay?"

Chame shrugged, unconcerned. "I don't see why not. Do you mind if Ukyou and I accompany you?"

Ranma hesitated before answering, "No, I suppose not. My mother doesn't know who I am. She's only seen my cursed form, so she thinks that I'm a cousin of the Tendos."

Chame nodded slowly, rocking back onto her heels. "I didn't know that."

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "I thought that you read my mind?"

Chame shook her head, explaining, "No, I respect things that you keep locked away in the corner of your mind. I didn't know that Ryouga turned into a pig until I guessed from the things you remembered saying to him."

Ranma sighed, offering, "There's more to this, though."

Chame quirked an eyebrow of her own, but said nothing.

"My father signed a contract with me, and gave it to my mother. It basically says that if she's not pleased with me, and if my father fails to make me a 'man among men,' that he and I shall commit seppuku. If my mother is disappointed in me..." Ranma swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.

Chame looked into his eyes for a long minute, and then sighed. "I don't think that's going to be a problem, Ranma. You told me you'd been training since you were a child. I don't think that any mother would consign her son to death like that. Especially in the face of the fact that this is the first time she's seen you in _how_ long? I doubt that she would have your father do so either, but he might deserve it more." She shuddered. "The things in that man's mind, even through a haze of drunkenness-" She cut herself off, "Never mind about that for now. Tomorrow, I'll teach you how to extend your aura to calm people around you, and we'll go talk to your mother. For now, I'll just use the technique on you. Try and have a nice time tonight, and please try and stay out of trouble."

Ranma nodded, and Chame extended her hand towards him, palm out. She mouthed something at him, and he felt waves of calmness sweep over him, leaving him so relaxed that he couldn't move.

She left the room then, but he didn't notice. He just stared at the ceiling, enjoying the sensation of calmness, and thinking about his mother.

After a length of time he assumed to be an hour, there was another gentle knock at the door. He sat up, and stretched, enjoying the last of the all-too-brief calmness as it faded. "Come in."

Ukyou opened the door, and peeked in on Ranma. "Ranchan? Are you ready?"

He stood, nodding, "Yeah, let me grab another shirt." He turned his back to Ukyou, and put on a fresh shirt. He turned to face Ukyou, who had stayed to admire him while he changed. "Let's g-- oh wow."

Ukyou blushed, and looked at her feet. She had let her hair down, and it cascaded down her shoulders in soft waves. The dress she was wearing was a soft yellow, almost a creamy white color. The sleeves ended just above her elbows, and the hem ended just under her knees. Matching gloves accompanied the dress, covering her wrists and flowing almost to her elbows. The effect was that there was a small invisible bracelet on each arm, around her elbows. In addition, for the first time since Ranma had known her, Ukyou wore earrings.

Ranma stared at her for a few minutes before he realized what he was doing. He looked at his feet, mumbling, "Uh, maybe I should get something nicer than this..."

Ukyou grabbed his wrist. "No, I think you'll do just fine. And as much of a cold water magnet as you are..."

Ranma's face cracked into a wide grin. "Okay, Ucchan, let's go."

Chame sat in a corner of the restaurant, flipping though a small stack of books and mumbling to herself. She looked up when the two came down the stairs, and raised an eyebrow. Ukyou was still blushing, and Ranma looked slightly dazed. She shook her head and turned her attention back to the books, calling out, "You two have fun. Be careful."

Ranma and Ukyou spoke in unison, "Of course we will!"

***

After the two left Ucchan's, and Chame poring over her texts, Ranma hailed a taxi. They rode in silence for a while, Ranma trying not to stare at his friend, and Ukyou trying not to blush.

Finally, she spoke, "So, ah, where should we go?"

Ranma smiled, regaining a little of his lost composure. "Uh, I've planned a few things out. It's some thing I wanted to do after Chame suggested learning about myself, and the arts."

Ukyou nodded, curious. "What do you have planned?"

Ranma furrowed his brown in thought for a moment, then explained, "Well, first off, I thought it would be nice to go to a... a... 'symphony', or something. I remember Nabiki was saying I should take Akane to one."

Ukyou frowned at the mention of Akane, and turned away, looking out the window as they moved along. Ranma mumbled something, realizing he'd made a blunder.

After a moment, he cleared his throat. "Anyway, after that, I thought we could go see a play, or something, they have a lot of stuff like that in this district. Then maybe dinner." He glanced at Ukyou, and flushed slightly. "At a nice restaurant in the area." <Not fast food, like I was planning.>

Ukyou nodded, not turning her head. Ranma hesitated for a moment, but the window turned into a mirror for a brief instant as the cab drove out from under one streetlight, and into another. He saw the tears forming in the corners of her eyes. <Damn it. Why did I have to go bring that up? I know she wants... but wait, what about what _I_ want?>

He sighed, staring forward and brooding. <She says she loves me, and I am honor-bound to marry her.> He grimaced. <And Akane, and whoever else my father bargained me off to. But what about _my_ feelings?>

Ranma stared at the back of the seat in front of him for a moment, as if he expected it to give him an answer. After a moment, he decided, <Who am I kidding? I like Ucchan. I like her a lot. And I _know_ she likes me. If I had to choose between her and Akane right now-> He paused, stricken by the thought, <I do have to decide, don't I? I want to have made a choice before I face my mother.>

Ukyou stared out the window, trying to hold back the tears, <I shouldn't have read that much into it. Ranma likes me as a friend. Chame said that was what he needed more than anything. A friend. I'm pressuring him too much. If he loves me, he'll love me on his own, not because I want him to.> She sighed, feeling almost physical relief at the admission.

They turned to each other, and spoke at the same time, "Ranchan- Ucchan-"

Ranma flushed, and looked away. "Ah, you first."

Ukyou hardened her resolve, knowing she had to say it. "Ranma, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have tried to make this a date; I should have more respect for your feelings. But... I didn't know you meant this to just be a thing between friends." <And that's what I'm going to be,> she reflected, relieved to know that she wasn't very bitter. <A friend.>

Ranma frowned, and stared at his hands for a long time. The cab driver pulled to a stop, having reached the destination. Ranma paid him absently, and walked with Ukyou along the side of the street. He sighed, letting all of his pent-up frustration out with the breath. <And to think, just a little while ago, I was perfectly calm,> he noted, ruefully.

They were quiet for a while, lost in their thoughts, and Ranma finally stopped, turning to Ukyou. "Ucchan, why don't we go somewhere and get something to drink? I'd like to talk a little before we go anywhere."

She nodded dutifully. "Sure, Ranchan."

The two found a small coffee shop on the corner of the block, and sat in a booth, staring at the table in front of them. Occasionally, their eyes would flicker up towards each other, and then away in embarrassment when they met.

Ranma cleared his throat nervously, and gathered his resolve, looking into Ukyou's eyes. "Ucchan, I've had a lot of time to think about this. I mean, a lot of time."

Ukyou nodded, not quite knowing what he was talking about.

Ranma leaned against the seat, and slung one arm along the top of the seat back. "I have to admit, I was pretty irresponsible. But Pop is the one who made two engagements." He concentrated on making himself meet Ukyou's gaze. "I should have resolved this a long time ago. Pop wants me to join the two schools, Tendo and Saotome." He sighed again. "And he already accepted your dowry. I've got two obligations here. Both of them my father made."

Ukyou managed a weak smile. <Just a friend. It's better than not being with him at all. I'd rather see him happy with someone else than no one at all.> She tried to force herself to believe it; she knew that she would accept it as a fact, eventually.

Ranma ran a hand through his hair. "I've got one obligation of my own. My own irresponsibility. So I've got three fiancees." He stared at his hand, and raised three fingers. "Well, Shampoo was my fault. According to her laws, she has to-" He let out a small laugh. "Actually, according to her laws, we're already married. That's my responsibility. But I don't want it, and I don't like the idea of living in her village much. Maybe as a friend... she's a good fighter, and will stand up for what she believes in, but..." He shook his head. "That doesn't really matter. I spoke with Chame about that, and she said that Machin blood supercedes Amazon law. I don't know how, but in the long run, even though they still want me to marry Shampoo, I'm free of that obligation."

Ukyou smiled, a real one this time. "That's good! One less problem to worry about."

He frowned, mouthing the word 'problem.' Shaking his head again, as if to clear a thought from it, he raised his eyes to meet Ukyou's once more. "That still leaves me with two obligations." He said the word with venom, bitterness seeping into it. He growled, "It's Pop's fault, though." He sighed, relaxing somewhat. "Not that he matters really. I looked at Akane's aura, and I looked at yours. You two were really the only contenders."

Ukyou continued to smile, despite the growing, gnawing pain in her chest. <Please Ranchan, I know what you're going to say, stop dragging this out, and let us start being friends instead of fiances.> "Ranchan, it's okay. You can tell me."

He frowned, staring at his hands intently. "When I looked at Akane while she was thinking about me, and I read her aura-" he paused to wave away a waitress. "I could feel that she loved me."

Ukyou's smile faltered, and she screamed internally, <Ranchan! Get to your point, don't make this hurt any more than you have to!>

He stared at the table in front of him, lost in his thoughts. "But behind that, I could see anger. So much anger." He drew in a deep breath, and expelled it slowly, eyes closed. "She didn't trust me much, either. I think that it was my own fault, though. I didn't help things, and we got along badly anyway. Our parents always forced us together, we never even tried to go out on a date..." he trailed off, looking miserable. "But sometimes, even though it was rare, she would smile. She was so cute when she smiled, but her smiles were for _me_ less and less. I used to steal glances at her, hoping to see her smile, but it almost never happened. Especially lately."

Ukyou patted Ranma's hand reassuringly, feeling the gnawing intensify. When she spoke, her voice was thick with emotion. "It's okay Ranma. I understand. I'll always be your friend."

Ranma smiled, looking into her eyes again. "Ukyou, I think that's what the problem was with Akane. She wouldn't be my friend. If we had tried... but one thing would lead to another, and it just wouldn't work out."

Ukyou tried a laugh, but it sounded weak, even to her. <Ukyou again. Not Ucchan.> "You were always pretty stubborn."

He nodded, looking uncomfortable. "I guess so. I should send her a letter, telling her that it's not going to work, and saying I'm sorry."

Ukyou blinked, confused. "What?"

Ranma shrugged, seeming distant. "Of course, Mr. Tendo's going to try and get me to marry one of his other daughters, but Kasumi seems to like Dr. Tofu. I'm not going to interfere with that. And there's no way I'm going to marry Nabiki." He laughed. "That would never work. No, I'm afraid that the union between the schools isn't going to happen."

Ukyou nodded, relaxing slightly. "I understand. If you can't fulfill two obligations, then you shouldn't fill just one of them, right?"

Ranma smiled again. "Yeah, pretty much that's it. I'd like to help you out, of course... My father did lose your dowry, and I think I owe you that. But I'm going to end the formal engagements."

She nodded dully, surprised at how relieved she was that her rival didn't get Ranma either. Inwardly, she cursed herself for thinking of Ranma as a prize. "Ranma, that yattai... It was very valuable, but your friendship means more to me than that. I forgive that debt, if you'll just be my friend."

Ranma cocked his head at her, and for a moment, his eyes seemed to glaze over. Then he snapped back, shaking his head. "Ukyou, we're not engaged any more, but I'd like us to be more than friends. I'd like to try, at least."

Ukyou blinked again, and managed an intelligent, "Huh?"

He smiled, placing one hand atop Ukyou's. "Ukyou, I think I l-like you." He blushed, and stared at the table. "I'm going to be spending more time with you now anyway, but the few days I've spent with you I think I've started to like being with you more than with Akane." He shook his head, explaining, "The time I spent with you over the gambling king fiasco wasn't time spent with you. It was time spent training. I..." he paused. "I like spending time with you." He said it slowly, as if tasting the words for the first time. He smiled, seeming to have enjoyed them. "And even though it wasn't my plan at first, I would, uh..." He smirked, and flourished a menu while leaping up onto his seat. In a loud voice, he proclaimed, "Kuonji Ukyou! I would date with thee!"

Ukyou's face turned deep red, and she laughed in spite of herself. "Yes, Ranchan! I would like that. I would like that very much."

He hopped off his seat, and stood near Ukyou. She took the arm he offered, and the two turned to leave the cafe, only to bump into a semi-circle of waitresses and customers, surrounding them. They both blushed deeply, as the small crowd broke into applause. Ukyou bowed to the crowd, and Ranma followed suit. Then, they fled, laughing, giggling, and blushing like mad.

***

After running from the coffee shop, they made their way to the symphony. It had already started, but they were allowed in during an intermission. Ukyou smiled dazedly, as she clung to his arm, and they were directed towards seats near the back of the theater.

They sat, watching and listening to the orchestra. Ukyou paused, and realized that this was the first time that she had been to such a thing. She glanced at Ranma, who was staring raptly at the musicians. She smiled, and put her hand on his. It was probably his, as well.

Ranma's hand jerked after she touched it, and she pulled her hand away to look at him. He was mumbling softly, and his hands were jerking as though he was mimicking something. Ukyou grinned, and said nothing. She let herself relax as she watched and listened.

<The music is beautiful>, Ranma mused, <I don't think I've ever even listened to something like this before.> He frowned, thinking of Chame's words, not even realizing that he spoke them, "'Magic ever called the creative mind.'"

Ukyou started, and glanced at Ranma. He just smiled, and placed a hand on Ukyou's. She felt her heart's pace quickening. <He touched me on his own!> She just smiled, letting her world dissolve into a happy blur.

***

She regained her senses in a restaurant, Ranma was talking animatedly, gesturing, and speaking about the performance, "...and the coordination that they moved to make that music, all together, it was amazing!" He sighed contentedly, his food mostly untouched, and looked at Ukyou.

She smiled at him, a real smile that touched her eyes and made her face light up. "I'm glad you enjoyed that, Ranma. Do you think you might want to do it again some time?"

He nodded eagerly. "Oh yeah, especially since..." He trailed off, frowning, and glanced around him nervously.

Ukyou glanced around as well, a nervous tension becoming an irritating itch between her shoulder blades. Ranma hissed, and dove underneath the table. Ukyou blinked, and tried to look casual as she slipped her water glass underneath the tablecloth.

A hand took the glass, gave Ukyou's hand a reassuring squeeze, and then there was a muffled splashing noise. The glass was pressed into her hand, and she placed it on the table, slipping her napkin underneath. A moment later, it too was taken, and Ranma popped back up into her seat, trying to look casual. She was a little damp, but the napkin had taken care of the majority of the moisture.

She smiled at Ukyou, and handed her own napkin back to the brown-haired girl. A waiter came along at that moment, and glanced at her questioningly, asking, "Ah, Madame? Where is Sir?"

Ranma looked up at him, then explained, "My brother had to go, so I'm filling in for him."

The waiter frowned. "I see..."

She shrugged, trying to act casual. "Yeah. We need to get back to him, right?"

Ukyou nodded, hiding a smile at Ranma. "You're right. Can we have the bill?"

The waiter nodded, and left to retrieve it. Ukyou looked at Ranma, and whispered intently, "What's going on?"

Ranma shrugged again, and whispered back, "I'm not sure, but I have a bad feeling about it. The sooner we can get out of here, the better."

After an awkward moment of silence, the waiter returned with a check. Ranma put down enough bills to cover the meal and a generous tip, and moved to leave. The waiter placed a restraining hand on her, stating, "Perhaps you would like to have your dishes packed to take home, yes?"

Ranma shook her head. "Ah, no thanks, we're in a rush."

The waiter clamped down on her shoulder hard. "Are you sure Madame isn't inclined to stay longer?" Ranma paused for a moment. On someone else the man might have a firm grip -- to her, it negligible.

In that instant that she had paused, she traded a knowing glance with Ukyou. Ukyou leapt up, and back-flipped out of her seat. Ranma grabbed the waiter by the wrist and flipped him over, bringing him down onto the table with enough force to break one of its legs, and send everything on the table crashing into a pile. The waiter moaned weakly, but didn't move.

Ukyou grabbed some forks from a nearby table, and brandished them menacingly, while Ranma darted behind her. She glanced around calculatingly, taking the restaurant's height into account. They were on the third floor. She glanced at Ranma, who gave her a nod, and kicked a chair at the window. The chair passed through the window, and the glass hung in place for only a moment, before shattering and raining shards on the floor.

The pair had already leapt through the window before the chair struck the ground. As they leapt, Ranma was aware of a pair of burly men in dark suits dashing in the restaurant.

Ranma cursed, and bounded off the street to her normal rooftop course, Ukyou a few steps behind.

After about a mile, they came to a halt, and glanced around. Ranma heaved a sigh of relief. "Okay. That didn't work out too well. Do you know those guys?"

Ukyou shook her head, thinking. "No, not- Oh."

Ranma glanced at her sharply. "You think you know what it is?"

Ukyou nodded slowly, not wanting to speak of it. "A possibility, but I think we should go back home, first."

Ranma nodded in agreement. "Okay. What are you going to do with the forks?"

Ukyou glanced at the forks she held in surprise. "I forgot about those." She sighed, "Well, why don't we keep them? It's an interesting souvenir."

Ranma laughed, "Okay, Ucchan. Some day you're going to have to tell me how you did all that in a dress. Let's go."

They were halfway back, before Ukyou noticed. <He called me Ucchan again.> She felt a warm glow suffuse her. <And I don't think he meant it the way he used to.>

***

Chame was still shuffling through the stack of books when the pair returned to Ucchan's. She mumbled something without looking up when the couple greeted her.

Ranma glanced around her, making sure the curtains were closed. "Chame?"

Her eyes remained buried in her book. "Yeah?"

"We were attacked while we were out."

The shorter redhead looked up intently. "What happened?"

Ranma related the story while Ukyou prepared some hot water for her. Chame nodded thoughtfully. "I think I have a suspicion as to whose fault that is."

Ukyou poured the hot water over Ranma. He waited for the change to finish before he spoke again. "Okay, then, who is it?"

Ukyou sighed, looking uneasy. "Well, I think it was some foreign... businessmen. They had a kind of a deal, and someone had promised that you were going to do, uh, something for them."

Ranma shook his head slowly, considering. "Okay, I guess so. But who would set up something like-" He blinked, his eyes filling with anger. "Nabiki. Damn it. I never thought that she would go this far." Ranma swore, and began pacing furiously.

Chame interrupted his brooding. "Nabiki did arrange a deal like that. But she tried to call it off, to cancel it."

He looked up, speculatively, startled. "Really?"

She nodded, resting a hand atop the latest of the tomes she had been flipping through. "They aren't the kind to back off easily, either. If I were you, I would be more worried about the Tendos. They would go after Nabiki, you know."

Ranma blanched, hoarsely whispering, "Akane..." He frowned, and halted his pacing to consider. "Should we go to the Tendo home and check up on them?"

Ukyou sighed, her face falling. <Akane again.> She said nothing, trying to savor the lingering pleasant feelings from before.

Ranma shook himself out of his reverie, "No, that would be a bad idea, wouldn't it?" Chame nodded at him. He frowned, then nodded decisively, announcing, "Okay, why doesn't Ucchan call them, then? She can say she's worried about me since I've been missing for a while."

Chame shrugged. "Sounds good to me."

Ukyou sighed, and picked up the phone. "Sure, Ranma."

He blinked at her. <Ranma? Doesn't she mean-> His eyes widened, as he realized that his slip had hurt her. He sighed again, and turned away. <Why did I do that? How can I make this up to her?>

Ukyou dialed the number from memory. "Hello? Yes, this is Ukyou. I was calling to ask about Ranma." Her voice cracked, and Ranma winced. "I see. Nothing? Okay. Anything out of the ordinary happening lately? Uh-huh. Right. If I see him, I'll tell him. Thanks." She sighed, and set the phone back onto the receiver, "They seem to be just fine. Apparently Dr. Tofu scared off some ruffians yesterday. Looked like foreigners in fancy suits."

Ranma nodded, relaxing slightly. "Good. I'm glad that's something I don't have to worry about yet."

Ukyou stared at Ranma for a moment, frowning. "So, do you want to know how Akane's doing?"

He considered for a moment, then sighed, shaking his head. "No. As long as she's okay. Right now, I'd rather not think about her more than I have to. I'm not engaged to her anymore, not that I've told her yet..."

Chame tugged at one of her braids, intrigued. "How did that happen?"

Ranma yawned, feeling the day catch up to him. "Well, I can't honor two claims at the same time, so I've decided to void them both."

She blinked, then shrugged. "Okay..."

Ukyou began to walk up the stairs, not wanting to hear any more for the night. Ranma paused, then caught up with her in front of her room. "Ucchan?"

She turned around, feeling weary. "Yes Ranma?"

He frowned, his fingers chasing each other in lazy circles in front of him while he looked away indecisive. "Ucchan, I need you to understand, I don't think I can marry her, but I think we could be friends, and I did live with them for almost year. I didn't mean to hurt you. If you were there, I would be just as worried for you, if not more."

Ukyou smiled, not meeting Ranma's eyes. "I know how hard it is for you to talk about these things, Ranma, and... Thank you."

Ranma smiled, steeling his resolve, "Okay. Um, there's one other thing, though."

She paused, bedroom door halfway opened, and turned to face him. "Yes?"

He swallowed nervously, then blurted out, "Ucchan, did you enjoy yourself tonight?"

Ukyou considered it, staring at her hands. "Yes, Ranchan, I did." She smiled up at him. "I really did enjoy our date."

Ranma gulped again. "Ah, there's still the other thing..."

Ukyou sighed internally. <What now, Ranma? We had a nice evening, I just want to remember the good parts, I don't want you to tell me that you don't think things will work out, or that we should just be friends.> "Yes, Ranchan?"

He stared at his feet, face coloring. Ukyou placed one hand against the doorframe to steady herself, thinking, <He's going to decide he doesn't want me after all. After tonight, just friends.> She closed her eyes, trying to hold back the tears, and waited for what would come next.

Ranma looked up at Ukyou nervously, about to say something, and then, abruptly made his decision.

Ukyou waited for the words that would come from Ranma's lips, the words of rejection that she had feared for so long. Even after everything that had happened tonight, the fear was back, and she believed that it was right, this time. Her chest hurt, from the pain that she knew so well. It had never been this strong before.

She sighed softly, almost a whimper, and then felt it. Warm breath against her face, and then soft pressure touching her lips, gentle and light as a feather's touch. She opened her eyes wide. Ranma was kissing her. Alarms and confusion rang through her head, <He's _kissing_ me! He's _kissing_ me! What do I do? What do I do!?>

Almost by reflex, she put her arms around him, and he did the same to her. The kiss deepened, and Ukyou tightened her grip on Ranma. She let her eyes drift closed again, enjoying the sensation of him holding her to him. <He's holding _me_, this time.> The touch of his lips against hers, the feel of his hands against her back, and hers against his, the closeness of his arms around her.

The kiss seemed like it wouldn't end, until he finally broke free of it, staring at her with wide-eyed amazement. She grinned at him. <Wow. Okay, stupid Ucchan, don't doubt Ranma.> "Thank you Ranchan." She went into her room, and turned to face him. "Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow." He nodded, and turned to walk down the hall.

Ukyou let the door shut, and sank to her bed, staring at the ceiling with a dazed expression. Her breath was still coming quickly, and she could only wonder what it would be like once they were better at it. She sighed softly to herself, and couldn't help but jump when there was a tap at the door. "Uh, yes?"

Chame's voice said something in a low tone that couldn't be made out. Ukyou shook her head. "Come in."

The redhead entered, shutting the door behind her, and trudging to her pallet on the floor with heavy-lidded eyes. Ukyou turned towards her. "Chame?"

She yawned, pressing the back of one hand into her mouth. "Yes, Ukyou?"

"I just had my first real kiss with Ranma."

Chame blinked some of the tiredness out of her eyes. "Really? What's it like?"

Ukyou sighed wistfully. "It was... it was something else. It was amazing. It was like being swept off my feet. It was - wow. It was more than I ever imagined." She sighed dreamily, and Chame yawned again.

"You want to take off the dress before you go to sleep? It might get wrinkled." Chame stretched, and lay down on her bedding. "I would like to hear more about this, though."

Ukyou giggled, and Chame rolled to face the wall while she changed. "It was, I don't know, I guess I just can't describe it."

Chame laughed softly. "Were there fireworks?"

Ukyou took a deep breath, slipping into her pajamas. "Yes, oh yes, there were fireworks. I wonder what it was like for him?"

The two were silent for a moment, contemplating, and then they heard loud cursing from the hall. They exchanged a glance, and Ukyou turned out the lights. After the lights were out, she cracked the door open a bit.

Ranma was muttering something on his way to the bathroom, fumbling about in the dark. After a few minutes, there was a splashing noise, and a decidedly feminine voice complained, "That didn't help at _all_!!"

Ukyou covered her mouth with one hand while she closed the door. Even Chame giggled after hearing that, commenting wryly to the other girl, "I'd guess he enjoyed it too." The two broke out in laughter after that, and then let themselves drift off to sleep.

***

Ranma lay staring at the ceiling, lost in thought, <I did it. I can't believe it.> She smiled, thinking of the kiss, and sighed softly, "Ucchan..."

She rolled to one side, contemplating, <I think that felt right. I've never kissed Akane, not really, but I haven't felt like that near Akane in a long time.> She paused, considering, <What would things be like if Akane hadn't been so violent? What if I hadn't been so rude to her?>

Ranma sighed, and slumped to her back against the mat she lay on, <Why am I doing this? Akane hurt me, and I hurt her. It wouldn't have been a healthy relationship. If anything, we should be friends, not fiances. And I'm leaving soon.> She sighed, curling into a small ball underneath her covers. She wouldn't admit it, but secretly, she enjoyed being able to change, sometimes.

She didn't have her feelings towards love and relationships change when her body did, but a lot of the hormones involved with a standard teenage romance disappeared when it did happen. She smiled to herself, thinking, <Maybe a cold shower does help with some things.>

<No,> she reflected, <I still care about both of them. But Ucchan's the one for me. And she accepts my curse better anyway.> She stared at the ceiling again for a while, <Is this what love is?> Then sleep overcame her.

That night, she dreamt of her mother. For the first time in a long time, she dreamt of home.

***

Ukyou stretched, yawning, and sat up in her bed. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, and turned to Chame, who was mumbling something softly.

It took Ukyou a moment to realize that Chame was still asleep. She frowned; the smaller girl was making whimpering noises, and her eyes were wet. She paused, and knelt next to her to shake her gently.

Chame's eyes snapped open, and she stared at Ukyou for a moment, trying to hide her emotions. She spoke slowly, trying to cover for any thickness in her voice. "Good morning."

Ukyou frowned, "Chame? Are you okay?"

Chame sat up, and sighed, resting her face in her hands. "I'm sorry Ukyou. I had a bad dream about my father. That's all." She heaved a sigh, and rubbed at her face. "What did you dream about?"

Ukyou was going to ask Chame about her father, but her question took Ukyou back to the kiss, and she sighed, a dreamy lending a faraway gleam to her eyes. "I dreamt that Ranma and I kissed."

Chame smiled knowingly. "Well, I have good news for you, then."

Ukyou glanced at Chame, curiously. "Yes?"

"It wasn't a dream." She left the room as Ukyou's eyes widened, and her hand flew to her cheek. She stared at nothing, in disbelief for a moment, then fell back onto her bed, grinning.

***

Chame entered the shower, and carefully latched the door. She filled the bathtub halfway with warm water, then sat down, switching the shower on. She reflected briefly on the western design of the facilities, then sighed, letting the warmth wash over her. <Father, why do I have to do this?> she asked, not knowing if he would hear her thoughts.

His thoughts touched her mind, gently, as though he was afraid of hurting her, <I know this is a terrible thing, Daughter, and I am sorry. But we must abide, or the circle will remain unbroken.>

Chame stiffened; she had not even known her father was near her. She kept her thoughts quiet for a moment. <Will we hurt them, Father? I don't wish to cause them pain.>

Her father's thoughts touched against her, and she felt his sorrow. <We will hurt them, Daughter. We will hurt them very much, but it is the only way I know of. And when it is over, they will be stronger.>

Chame wept, glad for the sound the shower made to hide it from anyone else nearby, <I don't think I can do this, Father. I don't want to hurt them. What _is_ the circle, anyway?>

She wept alone for a time, and wondered if her father had abandoned her. When she felt his mind again, his thoughts felt weary, as the burdens of countless centuries bore down on him. <You will see what the circle is... when you see it. Daughter, if you do not wish to do this, you will not have to.>

She nodded, knowing he couldn't see it. <It has to be done, Father. It has to be done.>

Chame felt the grief of her father's thoughts. <We can let them be happy, if you wish. We will get another chance.>

The water pounded on her for a shorter time, before she responded, <There is another way.>

His response was almost instant, and she felt hope, and relief from his mind, <Have you truly found another way, Daughter?>

She faltered for a moment, nervous. <I think so, Father. It will cause them pain, but not as much. It will allow them to be happy in the end, and it will let us win your fight.>

Her father's thoughts radiated approval. <Our fight, Daughter. Very well, then, what is your plan?>

***

Ranma stared at the counter intently. Ukyou was wearing a robe and making okonomiyaki for breakfast. The redhead stared without seeing, until the okonomiyaki were flipped onto her plate.

Ukyou shook her head. "Yen for your thoughts, Ranchan?"

She sighed, brushing a stray strand of red hair away. "Uh, I was kind of hoping to be able to take a shower before you got up, so I could..."

"Could what?" Ukyou teased, hefting a steaming kettle of water.

Ranma glanced at the kettle. "Ah, nothing."

Ukyou shrugged, and set the kettle out of his reach. "Okay, why don't we try again. Hot water for your thoughts?"

Ranma grinned, abashed. "Okay, I was going to apologize for kissing you."

Ukyou giggled, and swept around the counter to Ranma, kettle in hand. "Is that all? I'd rather you didn't apologize. I enjoyed it."

Ranma grinned at Ukyou. "You know, I always wondered what it would be like to kiss a girl." He frowned. "I think that was my first real kiss. I mean, there have been other instances, but I don't think any of them count. That was the first time no potions or herbs... or anything else like that were involved."

Ukyou nodded, a strange look in her eyes. "That was my first kiss, too, Ranchan."

The redhead stared at her feet. "I'm sorry, Ukyou. I should have asked."

Ukyou tilted Ranma's chin up with a hand. "You'll make it up to me." Ranma opened her mouth to ask how, but was nearly knocked off her seat in surprise as Ukyou kissed her firmly. She stiffened, and then melted into the other girl's grip.

Ukyou kissed her intently, taking full advantage of Ranma's open mouth, and explored Ranma's teeth with her tongue. Ranma took only a second to respond in kind, and the two lost themselves in the kiss.

For once, Ranma didn't think about the curse, just the pleasure of being with someone. Someone who accepted him... er... her, no matter what.

Ukyou didn't think about kissing another girl -- that might have bothered her. She was kissing _Ranma_, and that was what mattered. It didn't matter to her what shape his body was.

After a gentle cough from the stairs, the two broke the kiss, and looked at Chame guiltily. She just stared for a moment before laughing. Ranma stood up and blushed furiously, retrieving the dropped water kettle. Ukyou just looked stunned. Chame fell to the floor, laughing and gasping for breath. Ranma's flush deepened, and Ukyou began to calm as well.

Finally, Chame calmed down, still giggling occasionally. "I'm sorry, the expressions on your faces were perfect! It was like you thought a parent had caught you!"

Ukyou smiled slowly. "Oh yeah. I'm just used to crazy things interrupting-" There was a loud knock at the door. Ukyou blanched, and Ranma dashed up the stairs, past Chame. Ukyou grimaced, and pulled aside the curtain to peek out.

She was puzzled, and turned to Chame. "It's Kuno."

Chame looked surprised, but shrugged. "We can handle him, let him in. Aside from which, the wards ought to keep him from remembering anything he sees here."

Ukyou unlocked the door, and Kuno brushed her aside as he charged in, roaring, "Saotome! Where are you? Face me with honor, or are you a man?" He cast about furiously, bristling with rage.

Chame rolled her eyes. "Kuno, why do you think he'd be here?"

Kuno instantly regained his composure. "Ah, 'tis the younger of my pigtailed goddesses! Perhaps if you and your sister would-"

The small redhead looked irate. "Stow it, Kuno. These are braids, not pigtails. And what makes you think I'm younger? I'm just not as tall. Now, why do you think Ranma is here?"

Kuno looked evasive for a moment, "A... friend... of mine saw him enter this building yesterday. He left, but the pigtailed goddess returned later. I know that Saotome, the foul sorcerer, does not stray far from her, so I came to challenge him, and free the both of you." He posed, nobly, not noticing the red battle aura that began to surround her.

She spoke in a level, yet icy tone, "Kuno. Let us go outside."

Kuno's face lit up, and he offered an arm to Chame. She shoved him out the door, where he landed in the street. He turned to look at her, her aura intensifying. "Perhaps now is not a good time, fair maiden, shall I instead-"

Chame growled at him, a low angry noise, and he froze. Her voice was choked with anger. "Kuno. Never say that again. Never. Ever. Say that about my friend again."

Kuno looked confused, "Say what?"

Chame growled again, growing more furious, "You _know_ what I'm talking about."

He grimaced, not understanding, and spat, "What spell has the foul sorcerer-"

Chame shuddered, and for a moment, seemed to fall limp, held in the air by her aura. It began glowing more brightly, and she straightened up, eyes blazing. She held out her hand, and the staff she had discarded when Ranma carried her to Dr. Tofu came from... somewhere... and into her grasp.

Kuno had only enough time to be stunned, before she set into him.

He raised his bokken to defend himself, but she batted it aside as if it were of no consequence. And to her, it wasn't. The pressure from the swing knocked him back, sending the bokken skittering across the street as she swung again, reversing the previous swing and coming in low. There was a crunching noise as the ark of her swing cracked the bone in one of his legs, and then the weapon was reversing again, cracking ribs, dislocating a shoulder, and knocking him to the ground.

Chame's eyes didn't change, and she swung the weapon down in a lethal arc towards Kuno's throat. Kuno closed his eyes, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Nothing happened.

He opened his eyes slowly.

Ranma was on one knee between the two of them, back to Kuno, and holding Kuno's bokken in both hands to deflect the blow that never reached Kuno. Chame just stared, first in anger, then in shock, which slowly melted into horror. She dropped her weapon, and her energy seemed to disappear, the battle aura fading. Her hands covered her face, and she slumped to the ground.

Ranma stood slowly, turning away from Chame and eyeing Kuno. "You okay?"

The taller boy blinked, and spoke, his voice unsteady from pain. "I think, Saotome, that I underestimated her."

Ranma nodded, and handed him the bokken. Kuno used it for leverage to help him stand up. "When I get home, I suppose it's going to be time to cast away this charade." He grimaced, using his weapon as a crutch. "But rest assured, Saotome, I will defeat you. I will free the fiery-haired sisters you claim. Just," he winced, "not today."

Ranma sighed deeply. "Moron. Don't try and walk home on a broken leg, Dr. Tofu's clinic is closer." He turned his back to Kuno, and faced Chame. She was curled into a ball, weeping profusely. He picked her up gently, and Ukyou gathered her staff. The few people on the street stared at them, noting this was odd even for Nerima. "Hey, Ucchan. What took so long?"

She frowned, as they entered her restaurant. "Had to dress."

Ranma nodded, and sat Chame on a stool. "Okay. Chame, are you alright?"

The sobbing ebbed, and she sniffled. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have lost control like that."

Ranma shrugged, still not sure how to deal with women and tears. "What did he do to make you so mad? Did he try and kiss you or something?"

She shook her head, collecting herself again. "No, he said something offensive about my friend."

Ukyou blinked. <Does Chame think she's another of Ranma's fiancees? No, she already told me that she wouldn't try and get him. She must just care about him a lot.> She put an arm around the smaller girl, and consoled, "Don't worry Chame. I doubt we'll see him again for a long while."

She nodded, tucking her braids over her shoulders. "I'm sorry. Ranma, I said I was going to teach you a new trick today, right?" She breathed in unevenly. "Looks like you have a good target to try and calm, now."

***

The two retreated to what was now Ranma's room, and Chame taught him the exercise. Now, you remember how to feel someone else's aura?"

Ranma nodded, recalling. "Yeah, I do."

She smiled, resuming her meditative position. "Okay, good. Have you been practicing seeing auras? Good. What I want you to do, is look at my aura. Now, instead of feeling, and taking a strand into yourself, try and fill my aura with calmness."

He nodded, and concentrated for a moment. "Not that hard," she cautioned. "You need to be more careful than that. You would calm someone, but more than you expected, and it would wear off too soon."

After a while, she nodded at him. "Very good. I'm pleased at how quickly you learned."

He smiled for a moment before it faded. "We're leaving soon. Can we still see my mother today?" Chame nodded. "Okay. I have one other question, though."

Chame raised an eyebrow, already looking much calmer after the morning's ordeal. "What is it?"

Ranma smirked, asking, "Are you going to teach Ukyou magic?"

She paused, frowning thoughtfully. "I don't know. I could, I suppose. Is she interested?"

Ranma frowned. "Good question. But if she's going to be traveling with us, shouldn't she be learning things too?"

After a long time with no answer, Chame acquiesced, "Very well. I will ask her if she's interested, then. Now let's get ready to visit your mother."

Ranma nodded, grinning excitedly. <Today I'll get to see my mother. As a son, not a friend's distant relative.>

------

Author's Notes:

This chapter was the first time I was struck with the true difficulty of dealing with everyone's favorite aquatransexual. I suppose it's more Freudian than anything else, but I have an irritating tendency to refer to Onna-Ranma as a 'he'... which can work, outside of lemons... Regardless, the assignation of gender in this work is important. When Ranma is in girl-form, she is a she. When male, he is a he. This doesn't get touched on more deeply until later in the work, but it is important, and I want every thing to be following the same constant throughout the story.

At any rate, thanks, as always, to Chris Stassen and Druid, for their C&C.


Previous Section Index Next Section