Hi! Akane Tendo here, and, ummm, a lot of stuff happened last chapter, didn’t it? Well, first off, this person named Ukyou Kuonji came to Nerima. I didn’t think much of this at the time – actually, I didn’t even know about it, but these two guys have shown up with and told me it was important to tell you all about it. Whoever ‘you’ are. They also told me I wouldn’t remember any of this, but, oh well, right?
So, at first I thought Ukyou was some creepy pervert stalker, but then she flashed her chest at me and I knew a girl couldn’t be a creepy pervert. Now we’re friends, even if I don’t know about this weird voice that seems to be in Ukyou’s head. Ukyou even helped me out by convincing all the boys at school to stop attacking me in the hopes of getting a date by telling them all that I was her girlfriend!
Uh… at least I think she isn’t a creepy pervert…
Ukyou has this thing with her old friend Ranma. She didn’t tell me much about it, but I knew he did something bad to her. So when he showed up at my house pretending to be a girl I saw right through that and… uh… actually, the less said about that the better. Thankfully, I was able to use my ‘relationship’ with Ukyou to get me out of having to be Ranma’s fiancée because of the stupid promise our fathers made. Now Nabiki is stuck with him.
So now I just have to find out what this big deal is between Ukyou and Ranma. That’s why I went to tell her about it, but Ukyou kinda freaked out when I told her about Genma being there. Also, somebody apparently killed a police officer. Wow, this is beginning to look a little dark…
C&A Productions Presents
A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
Chapter 2: Numb
Ukyou stood in front of the archaic gate that led into the Tendo compound. Akane was already stepping through the arch, moving without hesitation. Of course, she had every reason to: this was her home. She knew exactly what to expect beyond those doors. Ukyou… had only ever seen the place once. Still, she knew the layout of the building almost as well as if she’d been there repeatedly, thanks to her uninvited “guest’s” memories of the so-called Ranma 1/2 manga series.
“Ukyou.” Akane’s voice snapped her out of her reverie. “Are you coming or not?” Akane motioned towards the entrance. Ukyou felt herself smirking self-consciously at that. Aaron was apparently amused by the concept of being invited into the household. Still, his amusement faded slightly and the familiar numbing fog began to fill Ukyou’s heart again. Her breath evened out and her heart stopped pounding as her unwilling companion’s influence spread through her nerves like frost on a windowpane.
“Indeed,” Aaron offered as he made Ukyou step through the gate into the front yard. “I was just… caught off-guard by the reality of this. I’ve been looking for Ranma for… ten years.”
Akane perked up at this. Aaron had purposefully let the information slip. He and Ukyou had agreed to be secretive about the real reason they were in Nerima. At least, they would be until Ukyou figured out whatever actual reason she was here for. But the little slip had appeased Akane’s curiosity and allowed Aaron to move them towards their goal with a minimum of interference.
“Do you know where Ranma is, now?”
“Well, no,” Akane admitted with a shrug. “He and his father are staying in the guest room. I could show you to there…”
“No,” Ukyou spoke up. “I think… if you don’t mind Akane, I’d rather do this on my own.”
“But Ukyou, I’m your friend, I can-“
Ukyou held up a finger, forestalling Akane’s argument before it could get started. “I just need to do this alone, Akane.”
(As alone as we’ll ever be until this is over.)
Akane nodded and sighed.
Ranma leaned against the cherry tree, looking up at the star-speckled sky. It was so much more… empty here in the city. On the road, the stars had been everywhere. Too many to count, but they were always the same. They were always there, guiding, illuminating… but here in the city, the stars were lost.
Ranma had never been a deep person. He didn’t like to think of life in the grand cosmic sense of things. Ranma was a man of action and instinct. When the world seemed to get confused and out of whack, he knew he could always rely on his instincts to put him on the right path and his abilities to allow him to take whatever actions were necessary. Now, his instincts were telling him that this place wasn’t for him. It wasn’t that he felt more at home in the country than the city; he had spent almost half his life in one town or another. Nah, it was more that this place was… well, for lack of a better word, weird. Every other time that he and the old man had settled down for a bit, Ranma had seen the signs of Genma being ready to leave at a moment’s notice. He had always seen his father working on his latest money-making scheme, or been involved in some stupid adventure to acquire the secret teachings of some local martial arts master.
Somehow, this time felt different. It was the first time Ranma could ever remember his father being WELCOME somewhere, for one thing. Also, despite the fact that this place was a dojo, Genma hadn’t tried to convince the master here to show Ranma all his tricks. The old man was certainly making himself comfortable, too. Ranma couldn’t avoid the image of his father somehow taking root here. The idea of taking root anywhere didn’t appeal to Ranma, for a number of reasons.
The biggest of those was the trio of lunatic lesbians that lived here and that he was supposed to marry one of. The short-haired girl was the most calculating. Ranma could smell a sneak from miles away. He had his dad to thank for THAT skill. And that one was a sneak, all right. One who looked out only for herself. The eldest was the most subtle about it. Trying to confuse you with her sweet and innocent act, only to pounce on you when you least expected it. Worst of all, she made decent food. Why did such a good cook have to be such a bad person? But personally, the one Ranma disliked the most was the youngest, the little psychopath. That one just gave him the willies. The sooner he was out of her sight, the better.
The problem was that he was stuck here. His father just didn’t see those three nutcases the same way Ranma did. He had tried talking sense into him earlier, but the old man stayed stubborn no matter how much Ranma hit him. He was beginning to get the sickening feeling that this whole situation was for real, and not just another of his father’s elaborate con games.
Even putting aside getting his old man to agree to let him leave, there was the question of where to go. There was only one real place Ranma wanted to go to, and unfortunately it was the one place he didn’t feel safe journeying toward. At least, not alone. He knew he could beat that other psycho girl handily. But even he had to sleep sometime, and Shampoo had shown herself more than willing to attack him whenever he let his guard slip for a moment.
There had to be some way out of this. He found himself wishing that someone would claim responsibility for it all, someone he could beat black and blue to solve the whole problem. Ranma grunted and shielded his eyes with one hand. He didn’t like thinking. There had to be something he could DO about this situation. Action, not thought, that was the key to keeping himself one step ahead of the problems here. But what direction to go in?
The voice snapped Ranma out of his brooding. He sprang up to his feet, cursing himself for allowing someone to come so close without him noticing. That’s what thinking did to you, throwing you off your game.
The boy who stood in the backyard with Ranma was shorter than him, with long black hair and a boyishly handsome face. He was wearing a black school uniform, with a harness around his right shoulder. Hanging on the back of that harness was a ridiculously oversized metal spatula with what looked like a very sharp edge to it. The boy was standing there, staring at Ranma with wide eyes. Yet the eyes were clouded, distant. It was like the boy was looking through Ranma, not at him. Something about him was disturbingly familiar, but the identity didn’t leap to mind, so Ranma shrugged off the feeling.
“Who are you?” he asked cautiously.
“Who are you?”
Ukyou couldn’t work up the willpower to answer him. Her knees felt weak and her throat was dry. Nervously, she ran her fingers through her bangs – and stopped herself halfway through the gesture. That wasn’t her. That was Aaron. Creeping into her mind, filling her posture and expression and movements with his little tics and foibles.
What was Ranma seeing on her face? Was he seeing the conflict in her mind? Could he see her shock? Her mind refused to grasp what she was seeing. This was Ranma. This was her Ranma. He was taller and older and more mature, but he was the same Ranma. She could see the child in his soft black eyes. She could hear the echoes of his pre-pubescent voice in his words. She could SMELL him. That same scent of woods and dust and old-sweat and mixed in was something new, some subtle musk about him. If she reached out and touched him she would feel HIM, not some two-dimensional image of him. His body was round and full and there. His presence was unmistakable. This was Ranma Saotome. This was the heir to Anything Goes Martial Arts. This was the boy whom she had fallen in love with at the tender age of six and hated for the last ten years of her life.
Before her was the star of a popular manga and anime series.
She was a cartoon character.
(My god! Who AM I?)
Aaron felt Ukyou’s reactions. His stomach lurched and twisted as she went through the rollercoaster of emotions. He tried to pull back, to rein in her feeling. But he might as well have been trying to avert an avalanche with a twig. Ever since he was twelve, Aaron had been learning to suppress his desires and feelings, for the good of others
(or so you told yourself)
and for his own well-being. But controlling Ukyou’s emotions was different. Her feelings were more alive, more intense than any Aaron had felt except one… Ukyou felt ALIVE in a way that Aaron had never experienced. She boiled over with desire and sadness and guilt and anger, a complex web of personality that left Aaron baffled. How could she doubt herself now, feeling the way she did? She was more alive than Aaron had ever been.
Somehow, Ukyou felt herself growing more at ease with Aaron’s vindication of her… fundamental reality. He was right. She felt and lived and breathed. If you pricked her, did she not bleed? She was Ukyou Kuonji, no matter what passengers she had picked up along the way. And she was here. Here, at last, with Ranma. The object of ten years of preparation and sacrifice was now within her reach.
What the hell was she supposed to do about it?
Ranma was growing uneasy in front of her. His body kept shifting slightly. He looked like he wanted to raise his fists, but never got around to actually doing it. “Hey, you deaf? I asked you a question.” Ranma grunted and turned his eyes away from Ukyou, apparently unable to stand her stare for much longer. She WAS staring. With a jerk she forced her eyes away from him. The Tendo’s backyard was quiet and serene in the starlight. Nobody was around. They were alone.
“I said, ‘Who are you?'” Ranma was growing annoyed now.
“You don’t… you don’t remember at all, do you?” Ukyou spoke out loud. Ranma stared at her quizzically for a moment, but then shook his head ever so slightly. He had forgotten her. Ukyou’s hands clenched into fists, her knuckles cracking as they strained a harsh white. The old rage filled her again. Abandoned. Alone. Mocked. Outcast.
Aaron came to her rescue. THIS emotion he understood. With consummate ease he eased their breathing and closed their eyes. For a few seconds she listened to the sound of her own heartbeat. The technique was really quite simple, once you knew how to do it. The fire wasn’t sealed away; it was snuffed. When she opened her eyes again, Ukyou felt composed and relaxed. Distant.
“You don’t remember your old buddy, Ucchan?”
Ukyou’s voice was calm and detached, two feelings she wasn’t sure she wanted to be projecting at the moment.
“Ucchan…” Ranma stared at her. Then his eyes widened and she saw recognition flare in his features. And in that exact moment she felt Aaron’s iron control crumble again and her heart started beating a mile a minute. He was smiling, genuinely smiling and happy. He was even beginning to laugh. It was the exact same laugh. The laugh of a child with no worries and no limits.
“Ucchan!” Ranma cried out and grabbed her by the shoulders. “It… it really is you! Wow!” Ukyou blushed as his hands gripped her tightly. She could feel Aaron’s displeasure, his physical unease at the closeness.
Aaron shrugged them out of Ranma’s grip and took a step back. It was best to retain some distance between them, especially since Ranma didn’t know
(how much Ukyou wanted him to touch her)
that Ukyou was a girl. The boy was a bit touchy about such distinctions at the moment. With his own curse and all. It was best not to risk anything, and he did mean ANYTHING, that could expose their secret.
“Hi, Ranchan.” The words sounded so right in Ukyou’s mouth and so wrong in Aaron’s. “It’s been… a long time.” Ukyou allowed them to smile, a bit nervously.
“Wow, it has!” Ranma clapped and took another step closer to her. “You don’t know how glad I am to see you, Ucchan. All the people here are crazy! I was beginning to think that there wasn’t a single good thing in Tokyo. Now… this is great!”
Aaron could only stare at Ranma in shock and dismay. After a moment, his heart started pounding again. The boy was so exuberant, so alive. It was just the way Ukyou had remembered him, and just the way Aaron had imagined him. It sent flashes of heat and cold up and down his spine, the way he was looking at her. The way he was talking about her. Even if he didn’t know, he was saying all the right words.
Then Ukyou remembered what Akane had said. She and Ranma had been at each other’s throats, and Ukyou was looking for a way to prevent the inevitable engagement. Akane thought the best way to do that was for Ukyou to keep pretending to be her boyfriend. But Ukyou knew a better way to help
Akane out. She could assert her own claim. Ukyou knew she could play Genma like a flute. Aaron knew all his buttons, and so therefore Ukyou did as well. If she wanted to claim Ranma as the sole fiancée, then nothing could stop her. It would help out
(Who do you think you’re trying to kid, here?)
…it would help out Ukyou.
“So, where have you been, what have you been up to?”
“I…” Ukyou paused at Ranma’s question. She could tell him the whole truth, right here. She could tell him about her being a girl, and about hiding her femininity so that she could
avoid the humiliation he had left her in. And after she got through convincing him that this transformation was not the result of Jyusenkyo, he would say the words. She KNEW he would say the words. Telling her she was cute. She was, despite her ten year campaign to denounce and destroy her feminine self, still attractive and desirable. And she knew she could have him, if she wanted to. Aaron knew how to do it. Aaron knew that patience and kindness and taking it slow… not forcing him to do anything, always making it seem like he was in control… yes. It could work. The fairytale ending…
Aaron suddenly pushed them away from Ranma. Ranma staggered as Ukyou’s hand thumped into his chest and
he fell against the cherry tree. Aaron felt his self-control slipping. His eyes squeezed shut as the flood of sensation from Ukyou’s subconscious threatened to overwhelm him. He was losing it, losing his sense of self piece by piece to her… her stupid senseless physical NEEDS! Needs that were base and disgusting at that. How could she risk this? How could he fight it? Then he felt it. Not her, but him. His anger. His rage. He had suppressed and controlled it for so long, but now she was wearing that away in her silly, selfish little desire. Well, fine. She wanted to give into emotions, then it was only fair she give into his as well!
Ukyou swayed under Aaron’s mental onslaught, her hand flying to her head. She felt dizzy. Her head was splitting. It was like the mother of all migraines, except there was no relief from this. No retreat from it. The clash of two different emotions, two different desires in her head was tearing her apart. Fuck this! This was her life! She would live it the way she pleased, and fuck Aaron and the horse he rode in on!
Ukyou felt Ranma grab her around the shoulders, and she snapped her eyes open again. He was worried about her. Ranma was being sweet and… and what right did he have to think he could solve her problems anyway? No. Wait. She shook her head. She didn’t mind Ranma touching her, perhaps even… even… even if he was a deceitful little prick! What kind of a friend was Ranma, that he would just abandon her and never even think about her for ten years? He didn’t care about anyone but himself. Even if he did touch her THAT way it was only because he… no… he… he wasn’t like that. He could be a decent person. He just usually wasn’t.
Ukyou felt her knees weaken as Ranma suddenly found himself supporting her weight. But she was seeing red. She could stand up for herself. She didn’t NEED him. How could he touch her without her permission? He was no better than that freak Tsubasa, demanding, possessive… She felt dizzy. He was leaning in closer, trying to say something she couldn’t hear through the mental cacophony.
But words weren’t what reached her. It was a flash of thought, a neon daydream image of Ranma leaning even closer, pressing his lips against hers. That single image cut through the fog of anger like a gale. She clung to it, focused on it. Pursued the daydream to its logical and inevitable conclusion. Imagined the rough texture of Ranma’s fingers, as he helped her remove this boyish facade once and for all-
Aaron gagged. His anger was faltering, and in its place he felt only a sick sort of warmth. The images suddenly flooding their connected mind were primal, disgusting, made him sick just to feel them. Submitting to those alien feelings struck at the core of his being. Aaron felt his gorge rising… and before Ukyou could stop him, he submitted to the vicious thought and didn’t even try to repress the reaction.
Ranma wasn’t sure how to react when Ukyou opened his mouth and promptly vomited into his face.
On the one hand, he was now covered in vomit. On the other, Ukyou was obviously sick. Pride or concern? Ranma debated the concepts briefly, but decided it was best to go with his instincts. And his instincts were saying:
“GAH! I’M COVERED IN VOMIT!”
With a cry Ranma dropped Ukyou and leapt into the nearby koi pond. He felt the water splash around him, and began to wring it into his hands. Moving with inhuman speed, he rapidly scrubbed his face clear of the offending substance.
Once he was finished, Ranma turned his gaze back towards his old friend. Ukyou hadn’t fallen completely to the ground. He was kneeling in the grass where Ranma had left him, staring at Ranma in that same detached manner. His right hand was clutching the top of his head and the left was covering his mouth. He was blushing beet-red in embarrassment.
“Geez, what’s the matter, Ucchan? You sick?”
“Something… something like that,” Ukyou spoke up softly. His voice seemed to change cadence in mid-phrase, going from cold to shy in the space of a single syllable. “Did you just turn into a girl?” he asked, in an oddly unsurprised voice. Ranma stared down at himself and confirmed that yes, that was indeed his current gender. With a sigh, he pulled himself out of the pond and sat on a nearby stone. He might as well get the explanations over with.
“So, this is your mysterious boyfriend?”
Ranma relaxed against the wall as the Tendo clan gathered around the dinner table. His father was sitting opposite him, giving long nervous glances at Ukyou. For his part, Ukyou seemed content to ignore Genma completely. In fact, he seemed to be ignoring virtually everybody at the moment. His old buddy had recovered from his earlier sickness, but now he was just sitting near the door, almost oblivious to everyone else. His eyes had that same distant, veiled quality that he remembered from when he had first shown up in the yard.
It was weird. Ukyou had barely even reacted when Ranma had explained and demonstrated his curse. The only response out of his mouth had been “Indeed.” Now he was just sitting back, responding only to direct questions.
“Yes,” Akane was saying with a fierce nod. “So, as you can see, I have no intention of marrying Ranma at all.”
“Wait a minute…” Ranma held up his hand. “You two know each other?” Ranma gestured between Akane and Ukyou.
“We know each other very well,” Akane said, with a sneer in Ranma’s direction. “We’re dating.” Ranma could only stare in open mouthed shock at this proclamation. Ukyou… and Akane? He was having a hard time picturing it. Ukyou was such a, well, Ukyou was a nice guy. He didn’t deserve a psycho like Akane.
“That’s what you say,” Nabiki pointed out with a flip of her hand. “But we’ve yet to hear anything from your knight in shining cookware over there.”
“Nabiki has a point,” Soun said with a stern nod. “I know very little about this person who is supposed to be dating my youngest daughter.”
Ranma looked over at Ukyou, expecting some response. But Ukyou was only twirling a small spatula between his fingers absently and staring off into space.
“Well, Ukyou, is there anything you’d like to say?” Kasumi took the initiative with the reticent guest.
“Huh?” Ukyou looked at Kasumi, cocking his head to the side in puzzlement. Everyone was looking at him expectantly. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question. What exactly do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with the truth about whether you are dating my daughter.”
“Dad! Don’t you trust your own flesh and blood?”
“Ah, he’s just being protective,” Ukyou said with a shrug. He ran his hands through his bangs, pushing them out of his eyes. “To answer your question…” He paused. “I like Akane, and I want to hang out with her more. If she wants to call that dating, that’s her prerogative.”
“How non-committal of you,” Nabiki drawled.
“We’ve only known each other for two weeks, Nabiki,” Ukyou pointed out. “This isn’t exactly Romeo and Juliet. I prefer to let my relationships develop slowly, and go wherever they happen to go. If Akane wants this to grow into something more serious, then that’s up to her.” For some reason, Akane snickered at this statement. Ranma frowned briefly in her direction. The girl must think her whole relationship with Ukyou was some kind of joke. Ukyou was obviously stuck on her, from the way he kept placing all the emphasis on Akane’s importance in the relationship. Now Ranma really knew that Akane didn’t deserve him. There had to be some way he could get Ukyou out of this… without getting himself more involved with the black-haired tomboy than he had to.
“You’re lying!” Genma suddenly burst into the conversation. He was now standing and pointing his meaty finger into Ukyou’s face. The boy had turned his attention to the older man, and was holding his throwing spatula in a much more steady grip. “You can’t possibly be dating Akane! This is just some scheme to sabotage the union of the two schools!”
“Indeed?” Ranma could have sworn he saw frost form in the wake of Ukyou’s response, so cold his tone had been. “And why is that, Mr. Saotome? Do you know something about me that you want to share with the rest of the people here? Something special about you and me, and the relationship we share, that you think the Tendos ought to know? Hmmm?” Genma seemed to freeze solid at Ukyou’s question. Ranma frowned and looked back and forth between the two. Ukyou’s face never changed expression, retaining that placid but dangerous flatness. Genma’s, on the other hand, seemed to be going through every kind of expression in the book as rapidly as he could possibly form them. Not to mention the beads of sweat slowly trickling down from his kerchief to drip off the end of his nose. Pops was definitely hiding something.
“Well, do you want to say why Akane and I can never be together? Why you think Ranma and her are SO much better for each other? All about the real truth about us?”
“No… No!” Genma sat down and stared at Ukyou hard. He began to pull at the collar of his dirty white gi. A sudden gasp caught Ranma’s attention, and he flipped his gaze to Akane. She was staring at Genma, and her face had drained of all blood. Then she began to shake. Shake, and grit her teeth, and clench her hands into white-knuckled fists. Her eyes narrowed at Genma. Ranma suddenly found himself desiring the wall he leaned against to be further away from her.
“You… YOU BASTARD!” Akane yelled suddenly. “So that’s what you did to Ukyou!”
“No!” Genma waved his hands in the air between them. “You have it all wrong. It wasn’t my fault! I just couldn’t stand to turn down such a golden opportunity!”
“What you did… is UNFORGIVEABLE!” Akane screamed and grabbed the table with both hands. Ranma watched her lift it easily over her head and bring it down on his old man with enough force to crack the floorboards. Everyone else, including Ukyou, had thought to retrieve their rice bowls from the table first. But Akane wasn’t finished there. She drew back the table again and brought it down once more. Genma gave a weak moan of pain as the floorboards further protested their ill-treatment. Then Akane hit him again. This time the table snapped in two down the centre. As Akane lifted up her arms for a fourth strike, Ranma watched Ukyou step in between the two of them.
“That’s enough, Akane,” Ukyou said in a low, toneless voice.
“But… but he…” Akane was seething so much she seemed to have lost the ability to speak.
“What he did was between us,” Ukyou said slowly. “He’s not worth it, Akane.” This seemed to calm Akane down a bit. Ranma found himself staring at the two of them. Geez, what could his old man have done to Ucchan that was so bad?
“Besides, if you kill him, I won’t get my chance to pay him back personally.” Ukyou quipped with an easy smile. Ranma found himself sighing in relief. Ukyou’s entire posture had changed, and his face had suddenly become animated and vibrant. This was more like the Ucchan he remembered. Akane looked at Ukyou’s face for a few seconds, and then she started giggling and nodded.
Ukyou turned around to retrieve a piece of broken table, and held it up towards Kasumi with a raised eyebrow. Kasumi surveyed the living room, then sighed and gestured outside. Ukyou smiled and held out his hand for Akane’s half of the former table. Sheepishly, she handed the large wooden club over. Then Ukyou noticed Genma was beginning to stir and moan. With a shrug he clubbed him with Akane’s half of the table once, soundly, on the head. Pops didn’t continue reviving after that.
“Who gave you permission to regain consciousness?” he asked flippantly as he tossed the table halves outside. This caused Akane to giggle a bit again, and even Ranma found himself chuckling softly at the sight. It’s not like he hadn’t seen Genma take worse punishment. Heck, Ranma had done worse to the old man himself a few times.
“Now, young man, I’m not sure I approve much of you beating up my old friend,” Soun pointed out as sternly as he could once Ukyou was no longer armed with the table halves. Ukyou just shrugged and went back to sitting down near the door.
“I’m just glad Akane found a young man who suits her so well,” Kasumi added vibrantly. This caused Akane to chuckle again. Nabiki seemed less pleased with the idea. She was glaring at Ranma and muttering softly to herself. Ranma frowned right back. Like he had any intention of getting himself hitched to any of the screwballs in this house. And if he had anything to say about it, neither would Ucchan.
Ukyou noticed Ranma following her as she leapt across the rooftops of Nerima ward. She cursed inwardly. She had hoped to avoid having to tell him about what was wrong with her until she and Aaron had a chance to work out a plausible story. She still wasn’t even sure she wanted to go through with any kind of story. No matter what she told him, it would be a lie. And the truth was unacceptable. Aaron didn’t much care if Ranma knew, but she knew that telling him the whole truth was likely to frighten him off at best, or make him think she was insane at worst.
Then again, was she really not insane already?
There was no point in debating the question internally. Aaron was quiescent at the moment. Not silent. It was impossible to escape the constant mental static of his thoughts. Just passive. He seemed uninclined to think about what had happened in the yard back there, despite Ukyou’s attempts to pry information out of him.
Personally, Ukyou thought he was afraid. Afraid of himself. Ukyou couldn’t blame him. But then, she couldn’t forgive him either.
Finally Ukyou stopped and allowed Ranma to catch up with her. If Aaron wasn’t willing to talk with her – as much as “talking” covered what they did – then she would just take the chance to talk with Ranma.
“Hey, Ucchan, wait up!” Ranma called needlessly. Ukyou only smiled and waved at him as he settled down on the roof Ukyou had stopped on. “With everything that happened at the dojo, I never got a chance to talk with you.”
“Indeed,” Ukyou said, and then frowned momentarily before forcing herself to smile cheerfully. Ranma was standing under the soft moonlight. His dark hair glimmered in the silver radiance, and his eyes seemed to shine with their own inner fire. Even as she found herself admiring the view of him, she felt her stomach stirring and writhing. She sighed and slumped a little. Aaron may have been acting quiet, but he was still willing to employ his weapon if she got too… mushy.
“I’d almost think you were avoiding me,” Ranma laughed and rubbed the back of his head.
“Well…” Ukyou suddenly felt a flash of inspiration hit her. She almost didn’t use it, because she knew where it came from. But it was too good to waste… too perfect to discard, no matter which of them had thought it up. “I was avoiding you, Ranma.”
Ranma blinked and opened his mouth slowly, then closed it again. Wait for it, Ukyou felt herself thinking. She wanted to fly through the entire explanation, but the number one thing about telling a good lie was pacing. Allow the mark to reel himself in.
“What do you mean? Do you… not like me?” Ranma said slowly.
“Actually, it’s exactly the opposite, Ranma.” Ukyou turned away. Mostly so that he couldn’t see her face. It wasn’t that she couldn’t feign the proper emotions. Heck, in many cases she would actually be feeling them. The problem was that she was beginning to feel like a worm. Stringing Ranma along like this. She could have told herself it was for his own good, but there was an annoying voice in the back of her head which wasn’t letting her cling to such a tempting illusion. “You aren’t the only one of us who is cursed.”
Ukyou reached up and unbuttoned the top of her shirt, moving slowly. She could hear Ranma’s feet shift on the tiles as he backed away from her. Still, she had committed to her course of action, and Aaron was in agreement for once. Soon she was pulling down her shirt, revealing the taut bandages along her back to Ranma. “This is just part of my curse, Ranma.”
“No, Ranma, this form you see is a disguise. In reality…” she spun abruptly to face him, allowing him to see her tightly bound breasts for the first time. Ranma’s eyes snapped open as he did his best impression of a fish. Ukyou felt herself flushing in mingled embarrassment and excitement. Still, that queasy feeling remained in the pit of her stomach, so she quickly pulled the shirt back together to conceal herself from him. “In reality, I’m a girl.”
Ukyou double-stepped back to avoid the sudden stream of hot water as Ranma tried to up-end a kettle over her. She sighed and lashed out with her fist, smacking him on the side of the skull. “You idiot! This has nothing to do with Jyusenkyou!”
“But… my good old buddy, Ucchan…”
“Was a girl all along, dumbass.”
Ranma seemed to need a moment to digest this. Ukyou waited patiently. Finally, Ranma rubbed his eyes and looked at her real hard.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes…” she sighed again. “I’m sure, Ranma. I’m really a girl. I was born a girl. I was a girl when we first met and a girl when you aban… when you left.” She concentrated for a moment. What was some memory only she and Ranma would share? Something even that asshole in the back of her skull didn’t know about? Oh… perfect… “I was a girl that day we went to the hotsprings outside the village. That’s why I kept beating you up every time you tried to get in the bath with me.”
“It was?” Ranma blinked. “I just thought you really wanted to spar that day.”
“Obviously,” Ukyou sighed into her hands. “Didn’t you ever wonder why I kept using the girl’s restrooms when we were kids?”
“Uh…” Ranma scratched his brow. “I never noticed. Back then, I used to just mostly do my business in the bushes…”
Ukyou hit him again, lightly.
Ranma rubbed his head absently, but was now slowly nodding. “So… you’re a girl…” Then Ranma shrugged and grinned. “Well, I guess that’s okay. You certainly aren’t like any girl I’ve ever met, though.”
“That’s part of the problem,” Ukyou pointed out as she stepped back. Her voice was choked up with emotion, but her head was perfectly clear. Aaron’s numbing influence had filled her mind again. He didn’t want them messing this up, and was more than happy to help out in the acting department. Apparently a dozen years pretending to be more… normal… had made him quite the actor. Ukyou was almost glad for his help. Almost. “I’m cursed like you are Ranma, but in a slightly different way.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m really a girl… but I have to pretend to be a guy.”
“Have to pretend? But why?”
“I’d rather not get into the specifics,” Ukyou waved her hand through the air. “The gist of it is that… some bastard cursed me. Now, whenever I try to act or be like a girl… I get sick. Really sick.”
“Sick?” Ranma frowned. “Like earlier this evening?”
“Except it can be worse. I could really hurt myself.” She turned and looked out across the sea of houses. “Even my thoughts aren’t safe. My feelings…” Ukyou allowed some of her real anger at the situation to creep into her voice. But the anger was cold, like back in the house with Genma. “I can’t even risk feeling like a woman until I’m cured.”
“But wait. You were acting like a guy back at the house,” Ranma pointed out as he scratched the back of his neck again.
“Ah Ranma.” Ukyou turned and punched him softly in the arm. “You’re such a clueless idiot. Don’t ever change.”
“Clueless?” Ranma blinked. He obviously had no idea what Ukyou was talking about. Ukyou found herself gazing into his eyes… and then was forced to look away again as her stomach roiled violently. Damn, it would be so easy to catch his heart if that bastard Aaron wasn’t there refusing to go along with it.
“It’s not important, Ranma,” Ukyou pointed out as she slipped her hand over her mouth. Ranma stepped closer to her and she held her hand up between them and mimed feeling a bit sicker, even if she wasn’t feeling ill at all.
“What is important, is that I’m just as cursed as you are. Maybe even worse. You can at least act like a boy when you’re in that girl’s body. Me, I have to spend the rest of my life living a life I never wanted to live…”
“Ukyou.” Ranma’s voice was soft and clear. “I… are you serious?”
“Of course I’m serious!” she spat. Her voice was full of frost and malice. She took a deep breath, listened to her heart beat for a moment. Anger wouldn’t serve her well right now. Even if Ranma did appear to like them with a bit of a temper… Ukyou forced her mind away from that line of thought. It wouldn’t do her any good at the moment.
“I’ll… I’ll get that jerk for you, Ucchan!” Ranma suddenly cried out. Ukyou felt herself spun in place to face him as the taller boy latched onto her shoulders in a grip that was both firm and gentle. “I swear it! Whoever did this to you… I’ll give them hell!”
“Ranma… that’s sweet. And don’t think I’m not tempted to let you…” Ukyou sighed. A vicious little part of her imagined Ranma beating Aaron into a bloody pulp. Aaron didn’t even flinch, mainly because he knew Ukyou would never go through with it. She may hate him for what he was making her do, but she couldn’t seriously blame him. Besides… after the car crash, she doubted anything much scared Aaron as far as physical pain went. She shuddered in remembered agony of that day… that last day. No, best not to dwell on that, either.
“The fact is, the man who is responsible for this is beyond your ability to touch.” She looked down at her feet. “He’s already dead.”
“Ukyou! Did you…”
“No. He died… a long time ago. I had nothing to do with it.”
“Geez, that sucks,” Ranma muttered slowly. “I was all set to beat up SOMEBODY.”
“Of course! It’s the same school Akane and Nabiki go to,” Kasumi added cheerfully as she handed him a boxed lunch. He reached out and snatched it from her hands like he would snatch an apple from a snake’s mouth. He may not trust the girl as far as he could spit, but Ranma never turned down free food. Which reminded him, he would have to see if Ukyou still made those delicious okonomiyaki.
“Right, see you there!” Nabiki called out from the front gate.
“Nabiki, wait a moment.” She slid to a halt with a sigh as her father stepped out of the house. A rolled-up newspaper was tucked under his arm and he had a serious-looking frown on his face. Ranma cocked his head to the side at the man’s gait. Last night, he could have sworn old man Tendo was spineless. But he was moving like a serious warrior at the moment. “I think you should walk with Ranma to school.”
“Daddy…” Nabiki moaned. “Why do I have to walk with him to school?”
“Don’t argue with me on this,” Soun gripped the newspaper under his arm. “This isn’t just for the sake of the schools.”
Soun flipped out the paper and displayed it to her. Ranma read the headline quickly. “Foreigner Found Murdered In Police Box,” the huge title read. The paper was too far away and Soun held it up too briefly for Ranma to catch any of the story. Apparently Nabiki felt the same way, since she stalked over and snatched the paper from her father’s hands. She gazed over the article for a moment. Ranma slipped over and snuck a glance over her shoulder. Before Ranma could get very far, she rolled up the paper in her hands and used it to smack her father over the head.
“Oh Daddy, you silly little worrywart,” she said in an exasperated tone. “This happened all the way out by Narita. That’s nowhere near here!”
“Well, still.” Soun wrung his hands, his fierce warrior expression melting under his daughter’s assault.
“I think I’m safe enough walking through broad daylight with crowds of other students along an open road in a nice neighbourhood halfway across the city from the first murder in six MONTHS in Tokyo.”
“I’ll walk Ranma to school,” Akane piped up suddenly. Everyone turned their attention to her, especially Ranma. She was holding her school bag in one hand and was giving him a long, careful stare. Ranma frowned back at her. What was she up to now?
“Thanks, Akane! I owe you one,” Nabiki called as she fled through the gate.
“You’re welcome,” Akane called back. Then she turned her attention back to Ranma. “Well, are you coming? We don’t have all day.”
“I’m not ready yet!” Ranma pointed out. Only to have his father shove his packed school bag into his face. Ranma sighed and grabbed the pack from him. There was no use grumbling about it. The old man had this thing about schooling. He’d even delayed a few of their trips for a few months, just long enough for Ranma to earn his credits and move on. With a sigh, he followed Akane out of the building.
Ranma strode along the top of the fence as he followed Akane to the school. His bookbag was slung behind his back, and he kept an eye on the slowly accumulating clouds overhead. Ever since his curse, Ranma had gained a new appreciation for watching the skies. Plus, it kept him from interacting with Akane in any significant way, which was a plus.
“So, Ranma…” Akane started. Ranma sighed. So much for that. “I think we need to talk, before we get to school.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to talk about,” Ranma grumbled. “I don’t like you, you’re a psycho tomboy with a breast fetish.”
“I am NOT a psycho tomboy!” Akane shouted and swung her bookbag at his feet. Ranma nimbly danced over the few strikes until Akane got tired with trying to trip him into the nearby canal.
“But you didn’t deny the breast fetish!” Ranma laughed while pulling down one eyelid and sticking his tongue out at her.
“I don’t… I’m not like that!” Akane protested loudly.
“Oh right,” Ranma grumbled. “That why you’re takin’ advantage of Ukyou’s problem so blatantly?”
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re really up to with my best buddy!” Ranma snapped. “Ucchan ain’t got no choice than to do what she’s doin’. You do, so don’t expect me to forgive you.”
“Forgive me? It was Ukyou’s idea! All of it.” Akane growled. “Not that I expect you to understand. You just don’t know the whole truth at all, do you.”
“About you and Ukyou, and your father, and the connection between all three of you.”
“What does pop have to do with Ukyou?”
“Yeah right,” Ranma shrugged. “You’re blowing smoke.”
“Oh really?” Akane sneered. “Tell me, Ranma, how much do you remember about your mother?”
“My mother?” Ranma glared at her. “What does she have to do with this, you tomboy?”
Akane swung at him a few times, which Ranma nimbly evaded. Then she smiled and smacked her fist into the fence under his feet. Ranma blinked as the chain-link buckled under her blow. He suddenly found himself lacking support under his dancing legs. With a cry he plummeted down, breaking the surface of the drainage canal with a resounding splash.
Ranma climbed out of the water with a sigh. A single leap propelled him over the damaged fence and into the street next to Akane.
“Now look what you did,” Ranma grumbled as he pulled off his shirt to wring it out.
“Ack!” Akane covered her eyes. Paused. Then rushed over and started trying to grab Ranma. “Have you no feminine modesty?”
“Uh, no?” Ranma deadpanned as he dodged around the girl’s attempts to grab him. Damn, his center of gravity kept shifting in this shape. He had almost been grabbed that one time. “And can’t you stop trying to molest me for a minute?”
“Just put your shirt on and I’ll stop trying to conceal you from view!”
Ranma muttered to himself but did as she asked. It was better than dodging her freaky violent advances all day. Akane sighed, obviously in disappointment. She turned her nose up on Ranma and started walking again. Ranma shrugged at the girl’s behaviour and followed.
“So, tell me about your mother,” Akane started up again after a few steps.
“Didn’t we just go through this?”
“Do you want me to dump you into the canal again?”
“Fine, fine…” Ranma groused. He wasn’t really worried about Akane besting him in battle. He was just worried about having to fight her as a girl. Who knew what perverted thoughts ran around in that dim little girl brain? “My mother…” Ranma trailed off.
He realized that this was the first time he had even thought about his mother in years. His father never brought her up, and never seemed to pine for her in any special way. Then again, Ranma had never seen him out chasing skirts. Though if all girls acted like Akane and her sisters, he could understand why the old man would avoid the problem.
“I… don’t really remember my mother,” Ranma began slowly. His voice was soft and steady. He noticed Akane looking at him over her shoulder. “I just always assumed she was dead. Pops never talked about her.”
“You never met her?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ranma snapped, a bit irritably.
“Just that it’s interesting,” Akane snapped right back. Ranma grumbled and crossed his arms – or tried to, those damn things on his chest kept getting in the way. “Look, Ranma…” Akane’s voice had changed tone completely. There was no hostility in her words, just a sort of… calm acceptance. “I think we got off to a bad start.”
“And whose fault is that?”
Somehow Akane managed to smack him in the head with her bookbag before Ranma could react. He glared at her and rubbed the sore spot on his forehead while she turned around with an audible “hmph”.
“I’m trying to be the bigger person here!” Akane snapped over her shoulder.
“Whatever…” Ranma slipped his arms behind his head again. For some reason, seeing him walking in that pose caused Akane to glare balefully but she turned away from him again to see where she was going.
“I was just going to say that I don’t really blame you for what happened to Ukyou,” Akane began again. She was talking softly. “It was just your father, taking advantage of both of you at the same time.” Ranma stopped in mid-step. What was Akane talking about? Did she know something about what had happened to Ukyou that Ranma didn’t? And if that was even possible, why would Ukyou reveal it to AKANE, of all people?
“Let’s just say I consider you a neutral party in all this mess,” Akane pointed out as she flipped her long hair from one shoulder to the other. “I don’t really know how I can prove any of this, and Ukyou asked me to stay out of it anyway. But just know that I know exactly what’s going on, even if you don’t.”
Ranma blinked in confusion. Just then, he noticed the clock tower of the school coming into view around the next corner. It was just like the clock tower at any other school, anywhere else in Japan. He secretly suspected somebody went around with a giant cookie-cutter and just stamped these things into existence. Oh well, at least in a few moments he wouldn’t have to worry about hanging around with the mercurial Tendo sister anymore.
It was about then that he realized he was about to walk into the school grounds and he was currently female. Just great. Now everyone he met was going to consider him some freak, and he had she-of-the-violent-temper to thank for it.
Ranma’s ears perked up as he heard a loud retort of wood off metal. Akane seemed to notice as well, but she just sighed as she walked into the yard. He could see a smallish crowd of students just beyond the front gate, obviously watching something.
“Hold still, you vile miscreant!” an unfamiliar voice cried angrily from within the group. Another clatter of wood striking metal followed.
“I think that would probably be pretty stupid, actually,” a more familiar voice said back in an uninflected tone. Ukyou was involved in some sort of fight. Without a glance at Akane or a word in her direction Ranma took two steps and launched himself through the air, easily clearing the five-meter span across the street so he could land atop the school wall.
From his new vantage point, Ranma could see the entire courtyard. It was pretty standard. A few trees along the sides and placed sporadically across the manicured lawn. A concrete path leading up to the three-story building. Ranma quickly memorized the layout of the area, just in case. The big attraction was near the centre of the grounds. Ukyou and some guy in samurai robes were duelling back and forth across the concrete path. The other guy had the advantage of height, and obviously knew how to use the wooden sword rather well, but calling it a duel was giving him a lot of credit.
Ukyou was spinning around his assaults, deflecting each of his strikes with her twirling spatula. She was even using the unwieldy weapon to parry attacks that wouldn’t have even threatened her. She was playing with him.
“You cannot win! My victory is inevitable, why not just lay down your arms and admit it to yourself?” the taller boy crowed pompously. Apparently, he didn’t realize what was going on.
“Indeed?” Ukyou casually deflected another four or five strikes. “You’ll have to prove your hypothesis, then.”
Ranma snapped his head to the side and watched as Akane pushed through the screen of on-lookers. She had a smile on her face, but was still shaking her head back and forth.
“I’m kind of busy, Akane. Can this wait?” Ukyou frowned and stepped to the side, dodging one of her enemy’s strikes at the last instant. The boy tipped forward, unbalanced by the sudden lack of blocking force. Ukyou spun around him and twirled her spatula like a staff. The ring opposite her blade impacted with the back of his cranium. The boy’s eyes crossed and his slight tip turned into a full topple. “Okay, I’m finished.”
It was true, the boy wasn’t rising from his induced slumber.
“You know I can handle him on my own, right?”
“Hey, it wasn’t my fault!” Ukyou protested, in a much more animated manner than she had held during the fight. “I was just waiting here at school for you guys to show up when he attacked me.”
“Right…” Akane sighed. “And the thought he would attack you just didn’t occur to you?”
“Well, maybe…” Ukyou giggled a bit.
Ranma frowned and leapt from the top of the wall. He landed in front of the crowd of students and began to walk up to Ukyou with an easy slouch to his steps. He heard the sudden increase in noise behind him, but dismissed it as irrelevant.
“Heya, Ucchan!” Ranma greeted easily.
“Indeed,” Ukyou smiled back. Ranma leaned back once he was within talking distance of his old friend, lacing his arms behind his neck once more. Ukyou’s smile was really quite cute. It was a wonder anybody mistook her for a guy.
“What’s this?” Ranma poked the unconscious teenager on the ground with his toe idly. The boy shifted a little in response, then fell still again. “Nice work, by the way.”
“Problem not,” Ukyou replied with a shrug. “But I have to give him most of the credit. I’ve been fighting him off and on for over a week. He never changes patterns, never adapts to other’s styles. Once you know how he fights, it’s rather easy to beat him.”
“I guess,” Akane said as she nodded and rubbed her chin. “That would explain it.”
“Whatever,” Ranma shrugged. “It was still a good takedown. Not often you get a one-shot KO in our business.” He looked at Ukyou and smiled slyly. “Maybe I should test just how good you’ve gotten in the last ten years, Ucchan?”
“Aw man, first Akane now the new babe! This guy has all the luck,” someone cried from behind Ranma. The boy-in-girlflesh flicked a glance over his shoulder and saw a few of the boys near the front row crying streams of tears. One oily-haired kid was patting another blond-haired boy on the back and making ‘there, there’ noises. Ranma turned his attention back to Ukyou, not really sure what they were so upset over.
“I see you couldn’t avoid water this morning,” Ukyou commented sardonically.
“Yeah, blame this psycho tomboy,” Ranma said as he jerked his thumb at the girl in question.
“You had it coming, you jerk!” Akane cried as she tried to thump him with her bookbag again. What did she put in that thing, a brick? Ranma decided not to test the theory and nimbly slid back away from the assault. He stuck his tongue out at her again. Akane just growled and clutched her bookbag in her white-knuckled hands.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ranma replied flippantly as he moved closer to Ukyou. For some reason, the girl-in-boyclothes found the entire situation funny, at least funny enough that she couldn’t stop chuckling lowly into the ball of her thumb.
“Don’t you three make a lovely little group,” a new voice intruded. Ranma gave a hooded glance as Nabiki stepped towards them, coming much closer than most of the other students. A few were entering the building, but a lot of them were milling around just within earshot, doing their best to appear anything but interested. Some guy was in the bushes nearby, taking pictures with a professional-looking camera. Ranma turned and flashed him a toothy grin complete with V-sign just as he took his next picture. The boy seemed to decide to leave just after that. Nabiki was looking at him strangely when Ranma turned back to the trio of girls, but nobody commented on his odd behaviour.
“Anyway, I just wanted to point out that if you three stand out here reminiscing all day, you’re going to be late for class.”
“It’s actually five minutes until first bell,” Ukyou pointed out placidly with a glance at her watch.
“And you would know? You don’t even go here,” Nabiki pointed out. “By the way, the administration is beginning to get annoyed at you showing up and constantly beating one of their students into the ground.”
“Off and on, huh?” Ranma chuckled. Ukyou had the decency to shrug. Akane rolled her eyes.
“Tell them that if they want to complain, I’m sure your sister would be more than happy to press charges for assault,” Ukyou replied easily. “But I doubt it will come to that. These things have a way of getting swept under the carpet. Especially when it involves the rich, or the powerful.” From the way Ukyou emphasized the word, Ranma didn’t think she was referring to politics. “Plus I don’t think Kunou is ever going to lodge a formal complaint. That would mean admitting he was beaten, which is probably beyond the limits of his delusions.”
“Okay.” Nabiki shrugged and stepped past the group as she made towards the entrance.
“So… you wanted to talk to us?” Akane prompted once Nabiki was out of earshot.
“Well…” Ukyou looked around at the loitering student body. “Maybe this place is a bit too public. I tell you what, we’ll meet after school. I have a feeling the three of us are going to need to have a talk.” Ranma and Akane nodded in unison, then glared at each other for doing so.
“Oh, and Ranma?” Ukyou snapped her fingers and caught Ranma’s attention. “I thought you might need it, so…” she trailed off and pointed. Partially hidden behind a nearby tree was a portable grill, on top of which was a small brass kettle.
“Oh man,” Ranma said, leaning in and clapping Ukyou on the shoulder. “You’re a champ, Ucchan!” Ukyou was blushing slightly, but seemed unable to say anything.
Ukyou sat on the lip of the wall, kicking her feet idly against the stone. Above and to her right was Ranma, lounging in a tree branch. Below and to her left was Akane, sitting on a more prosaic bench. Around them the park was reasonably well-inhabited, clusters of anonymous humanity treading their way past them. In and out of sight like extras on a movie set. Did these people look at her and see her as just a strange boy sitting upon a wall? Or did they immediately assume that she was a special person by her demeanour and appearance? Or did they even notice her? It was entirely possible some extant law of creation kept her and her friends from even entering the minds of these people for more than the few seconds they would use to note the existence of a field mouse or a dandelion. A boy sitting atop a wall with a giant spatula on his back? Somebody else’s problem.
The other two looked at her strangely when she burst out into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. She waved off their concern and got herself under control quickly. Aaron helped; he was very good at that sort of thing. Then she opened her mouth and tried to decide what to say. The storyteller part of
her was both excited and repulsed by the idea of saying, “I guess you’re all wondering why I brought you here today?” Of course, anything else was just a variation on the same. But, as Aaron knew, it was sometimes best to avoid leading the conversation. Best to let the curious walk their own path. That gave you control. That gave you power over them.
“I bet you two want me to clear up a few things, right?”
“Yeah,” Ranma said from his perch. Like Ukyou had asked, he was keeping an eye out for uninvited eavesdroppers, so his face was currently turned away. Akane echoed the sentiment, but her attention was all on Ukyou. So far, in all the time she’d seen them together there had been only open antagonism between the two. No long, quiet stares when they thought nobody else was paying attention. No unexplained embarrassment or sudden spurts of shyness between them. Ukyou sighed. What she was about to say might disarm some of their hostility towards each other, but it was unlikely to lead to a sudden blossoming of adolescent love. It appeared Destiny
(with a capital D and everything)
held no sway over these two’s hearts. That made Ukyou feel better, on a great variety of levels.
“First off, I want to say that there are some things I haven’t told either of you, and I have good reason. They’re private things. Things I plan on dealing with myself.” She could see that neither of them quite liked that statement. But Ranma was nodding in understanding. Akane was shifting her feet a bit and looking at Ukyou with huge doe-like eyes. Was that pity? Ukyou suspected it was.
“You don’t have to tell us everything, Ukyou,” Akane pointed out. “It’s not like some of it isn’t obvious in retrospect anyway.”
Ukyou gave a mental “Huh?” at that but didn’t let it show on her face. It was okay to let Akane leap to a few conclusions. If Akane had a few “facts” in her head, she would ask less questions. The less lying Ukyou did in response, the better.
“I just wanted to talk because you two don’t seem to be talking much, and I think you’ve both sort of come to some wrong ideas here.” Ukyou ran a hand through her bangs. “I just want to clear the air here. You’re both my friends. Ranma, I’ve known you since we were six and Akane, I know more about who you are now than I do Ranma. But you’re my friends, and I like you both. I don’t want to be at the centre of some little war you two wage on each other.”
“Hey! This isn’t my fault!” Ranma cried indignantly. Akane only turned her nose up at him. Which looked kind of funny, considering he was perched in a tree over her head.
“I’m not laying blame,” Ukyou pointed out at Aaron’s prompting. “Nor am I trying to dictate how you two interact. If you want to hate each other, fine by me. I would just rather not have to choose between the two of you.”
That seemed to quiet Ranma right down, and made Akane smile a bit.
“First off, both of you know that I’m not really a guy.” Ukyou noted their nods. “So Ranma, before you get any ideas: no, neither Akane or I swing that way.”
“Huh?” Ranma spun around in place, shifting his eyes over the two of them. “But I thought you said that you weren’t-“
“I never said anything about being a lesbian, Ranma.”
“Finally!” Akane said as she threw her hands into the air. “This moron has been going on about me being like that all day!”
“Well, technically I can’t speak for Akane…”
“I’m kidding!” Ukyou protested as she warded off a few flung pebbles from Akane’s direction. “Akane isn’t a lesbian either, Ranma.” Ranma looked at her with a raised eyebrow, and his arms crossed casually over his chest. “She just doesn’t like the guys at her school and they couldn’t get that through their heads. So I stepped in to help with this fake dating thing. It helps the both of us.”
“But this crazy chick-“
Ranma blinked at the harshness of Ukyou’s tone.
“Part of you two not involving me in your feud means not trying to kill each other in my presence. So maybe we can keep this civil?”
“I guess,” Ranma mumbled sullenly and cast a glare at Akane. For her part, Akane returned it with equivalent smugness.
“Akane is a fully-functional heterosexual,” Ukyou pointed out with a shrug. “Just ask her about Ono Tofu some time.”
“Ukyou!” Akane blazed red as Ukyou smiled down at her.
“He’s… our family doctor…” Akane said she twiddled her fingers together. Ranma blinked at this, but seemed to accept it with a shrug.
“Fine, if Ucchan says you’re not that way, then you aren’t.” He grinned down at Ukyou. “I trust her, she doesn’t lie to me.”
Ukyou could only stare speechlessly at him for a few moments. She didn’t wince; Aaron saw to that. There weren’t any tell-tale signs of the turmoil in her heart on her face at all – once again Aaron’s work. She wanted to say something, but couldn’t seem to form the right words. In this part of her, Aaron couldn’t help at all.
“See! I told you this wasn’t about me feeling THAT way about you,” Akane pointed out. Ranma seemed about to retort, glanced at Ukyou, thought better of it and shut his mouth with a shrug. “And I already told you I’m willing to be the better person here, so once you apologize for the way you’ve treated me-“
“Apologize!?” Ranma snapped.
“Never mind whose fault what was now,” Ukyou pointed out loudly, catching the attention of both of them. She held up her hands. “Let’s just make a clean break of things. No matter who saw who naked or under what circumstances or how many insults have been thrown in either direction, let’s just start over from here, okay?” The two of them looked at her in confusion. “It’s really simple. All this malice is just because of stupid misunderstandings. It’s kid stuff. You can’t let one or two incidents rule the rest of your life…” Oh man, those words tasted bitter in Ukyou’s mouth. “Just start over from scratch, okay?”
“Okay…” Akane said slowly.
Ranma looked at Ukyou, then back to Akane and then to Ukyou once more. He shrugged and looked up at the leaves of his tree-perch. “Whatever.”
“Now, Ranma, say ‘I’m Ranma Saotome, pleased to meet you’ and Akane, you do the same.” They both stared at her. “Humor me.” They did, and managed to do it without sounding snide, or hostile or anything. Ukyou felt rather proud of the two of them.
“Like I said, I’m fine with working things out between us,” Akane noted, apparently noticing some expression on Ukyou’s face. Ukyou cocked her head to the side, and Ranma looked down at her. “Well, given what the two of you have been through, what Genma did to both of you… I can accept that. It’s not your fault. It’s really all Genma’s doing.”
Ukyou blinked. This was unusual. Aaron would give higher odds to the sun rising in the north tomorrow than to Genma admitting the truth about what had happened ten years ago. This meant that Akane was probably off in some strange self-delusion about what was going on. An amused part of… one of them, she wasn’t sure, wanted to tease that out and see what it led to. A bigger part realized that this could (and probably would) lead to the wrong kinds of misunderstanding, and it was more trouble than it was worth.
“But… we can’t let this lie, you two. This whole situation is just poison. I know that you don’t want to talk about this, Ukyou, but you have to put your personal friendship with him aside. This isn’t right. What happened between the two of you needs to come out in the light.” Ukyou blinked again. “I know it’s personal and it hurts, and it involves bad feelings… but Ranma deserves to know the truth about you and him and how you feel and what Genma is really after! It’s sick and twisted, and talking about it might hurt, but if we get this all-“
“Hey, Ucchan! Hear about that murder this morning?”
Aaron snapped her head towards Ranma so fast Ukyou felt her tendons protest. The boy was squatting on the branch, clutching it with both hands and sweating nervously.
“Murder? What murder?” Aaron said in an implacably calm voice. Ranma blinked at the sudden shift in his friend’s demeanour.
“Just some guy killed half-way across the city,” Akane pointed out from behind her. Her tone was annoyed and dismissive. “Dad got all worked up about it this morning and tried to convince Ranma to escort Nabiki to school-“
“Wait!” Aaron cut Akane off with a sharp motion of Ukyou’s hands. “Soun told you about this? Soun Tendo?”
“Well, yes…” Akane trailed off, obviously confused now.
“Yeah,” Ranma agreed with a nod when Aaron stared at him in that cold, expressionless manner.
Ukyou felt herself frowning. Aaron was worried about this, but for reasons she wasn’t sure she agreed with. This world existed beyond the confines of the story Rumiko Takahashi had defined. Murders happened the world over and it certainly wasn’t ‘out of continuity’ for them to occur so that the cast of her little manga would become aware of them. But still… there had never been anything like that in the manga, or the anime for that matter. And if it had been serious enough for Soun to be worried about Nabiki’s safety, it should also have appeared in the actual story. Except maybe whatever prescience Takahashi had to see this actual world and draw it up had been tainted by her desire to tell a funnier story and…
Ukyou clutched her head. She was giving herself a headache. Such mental debates with Aaron always did. They always led themselves in circles until they finally decided to just stop thinking about it.
And of course, there was the fact that Sailor Pluto was interested in Ukyou.
Okay. Something was going on here. Something had gone wrong with the continuity of this world. And Aaron was damn sure that nothing he had done had led to someone getting killed in Tokyo and Setsuna Meiou acquiring a sudden interest in Ukyou Kuonji. Not now. The timing was just too damn convenient.
“Ukyou, are you okay?”
“Where did this happen?” Aaron spoke in a level voice, but didn’t look up at either of them.
“At the Tendo place-” Ranma began but Aaron cut him off quickly.
“The murder! Where?”
“Uh, I dunno… it was in the paper this morning…”
The newspaper. Of course. Aaron berated himself and Ukyou internally. He had been so sure that this world was the same – as far as most news went – as his own that he didn’t need to bother reading the news. It wasn’t like he was interested in the human interest stuff, and he knew all the major news stories for the next dozen years. How could he have been so stupid?
“Ukyou, where are you going?”
Ukyou looked over her shoulder at Akane. She had already leapt down from her seat before she even realised it.
“To get a newspaper,” she explained.
“Wait, why?” Ranma also leapt down from his perch. His muscles were tense, and his eyes flickered across the landscape quickly.
“For nothing, I hope,” Ukyou said slowly. “Listen, you two…” Ukyou pondered how to phrase her request. “Just go back home. I have to see about this. It’s just a bad feeling I have, and I have to make it go away.”
“I’ll come with you,” Ranma informed her, in a manner which made it clear this was not a request.
“Ranma, I…” Ukyou sighed. What harm would it do? “Okay.” Ranma nodded to himself.
“I’m coming too!” Akane pointed out, standing and flexing her arms.
“No you’re not,” Ukyou pointed out. “I hate to be harsh, Akane, but you’ll just slow us down. Speed is our advantage here. And you can’t leap across the rooftops like we can.”
“Just go home, Akane.” Ukyou waved her hand towards the houses in view nearby. “This is probably nothing. I’m just overreacting to bad news. But I don’t like surprises, and I need to…” Ukyou sighed again. “Just trust me, Akane. I’ll come back to the dojo as soon as I’ve cleared this up. Okay?”
Akane stared back at Ukyou defiantly. Aaron loosened up his grip on their emotions and Ukyou let a bit of her concern for the girl show in her expression. Akane couldn’t met her gaze after that. After a few seconds of staring at her shoes shuffling in the dirt, Akane sighed and nodded.
“Great!” Ukyou nodded happily. “Come on, Ranma. I don’t think this is anything, but I want to make sure.”
“Whatever you say, Ucchan.”
Sitting in the pipe, listening to the water flow, he wished the Internet had been invented a little earlier. It existed, but it’d be years before it was really useful. Luckily, he’d thought of that before, and gotten the information he needed before leaving the police box. The Tendo Dojo was close. She was close.
He felt… something. It might have been a shiver running up his spine, but not quite so bold. It was more… dull. More blunted. Less alive. Of course, so was the cold from the water that rushed around his naked body, the feeling of wetness. So dimmed.
But why had he felt it? Was he having second thoughts? Damn, he couldn’t afford that. He had told himself before. Had to be done. Had to be done. It was the only way. She was the only one. The only one he was sure about, anyway.
He grimaced. Telling himself that didn’t make it any easier. But what else could he do?
It was with mild surprise that he realised he could no longer see. So night was falling. Time flew when you were… hiding naked in a pipe draining into one of those ubiquitous canals? Or perhaps it just flew when you were… well, best not to dwell on that. Besides, it was time for action.
His joints, despite being still all day (fifteen hours? Perhaps.), moved fluidly and effortlessly. And, of course, he felt no discomfort. The cold and wetness were distant, shadows. He crawled from the pipe, glanced cautiously around. No one was near, no one took notice of the faint splashes. Good, good. He’d picked a good area. But of course, he knew that.
Near his hiding place, he dug the bag of clothes and towel from the ground where he’d hidden them early that morning. Using the canal wall for cover, he dried himself. The uniform was a little musty and wrinkled, but nothing too bad. She wouldn’t really have any reason to be suspicious. Of course, the police would be looking for him by now. But he knew how to avoid them. It wouldn’t take long, anyway.
Finishing dressing, he threw the towel and bag into the canal. The money he had retrieved from their bank accounts, he’d hidden elsewhere. Best to get that afterwards. He turned, facing in the direction of where he knew the dojo to be. His perspective was a bit off, too slanted. With a small, irritated noise, he reached up and straightened the broken neck.
It wouldn’t take long at all.
It would be sunset soon, and the lengthening shadows were beginning to make their mode of transport more hazardous. Still, Ranma moved with ease as he followed Ukyou along the rooftops. He could have moved maybe half again as fast as she was, but he had to admire her style. The girl seemed to have a great deal of practice moving quickly and efficiently. For a moment, Ukyou paused and looked down from the lip of the building they had landed on. Frowning, she flipped open a city map she had pulled out and consulted it, then looked down at the street again.
“Haven’t these people ever heard of street signs?” she muttered, before putting away the map. “It’s that way,” she said, pointing north. “Probably about ten more blocks.”
The trip went relatively quickly, and there was no doubt they were at the right place once they arrived. The area below was a bustle of controlled chaos. The police box rested near the sidewalk, out of the main pathways but clearly available to anyone who needed it. It was dark and silent now, surrounded on all sides by flashing reflective police tape. A single police cruiser was parked nearby, and two uniformed officers were leaning against it, calmly directing the flow of humanity away from the incident. Near the corner, a newsvan was packing up its gear.
“Well, we’re here,” Ranma pointed out.
“Indeed…” Ukyou murmured softly as she surveyed the scene herself. They were too high up to be easily spotted by the people below, so their presence went unnoticed. Ranma began to fidget as time passed and Ukyou seemed content to examine the scene without pause. She was spinning a minature spatula between her fingers, but otherwise not doing anything.
“Whatcha lookin’ for here, anyway?” Ranma asked when the silence finally got to him. He had been hoping for something blatant and obvious here. Maybe a lurking monster to beat up or something. That would have been cool.
“Small details,” Ukyou said as she stepped back from the edge of the roof. “But this place has been cleaned up. Too much time has passed, I guess.”
Ukyou looked at him with an unreadable expression for a few moments, then shrugged. “Not much you’d really get. I have… a unique perspective. But nothing I see suggests this was anything but a regular murder.”
“Except for the where,” Ranma said.
“Yeah,” Ukyou crossed her arms and leaned backward slightly. “Still, maybe I’m just being paranoid. This looks perfectly normal.”
“So there’s no danger?”
“Not here, at any rate.” Ukyou looked up at the descending sun. “It’s late, and I don’t want to hang out here anymore. I could learn some more by questioning the people down there, but I don’t think I want to get involved with this.”
“Probably for the best,” Ranma nodded. “I’ve dealt with the police before, they’re nothin’ but trouble.”
“I’m not surprised you think that, given your father,” Ukyou chuckled. Ranma grinned a bit himself. “Come on, let’s get back. Akane’s probably worried sick. I want to tell her this was all for nothing.” Ukyou took a few steps forward, then paused and looked over her shoulder at Ranma. “But let’s hurry anyway.”
“Why?” Ranma shrugged. He wasn’t really averse to another long run across the city, but was curious.
“Because I still don’t like surprises.”
Akane was really trying to do her homework. She understood how important math was. Normally she was very good at it. Or, at least, she was very diligent at it. But outside, the light was fading and the day was coming to a close, and Ukyou and Ranma were out there somewhere.
She was worried. What was Ukyou up to? Why get so concerned over an anonymous murder half-way across the city? It didn’t make sense. Plus, Akane was a bit annoyed with her. Akane was a martial artist, too. Whatever problem Ukyou thought was coming up, Akane could help. She just knew it.
“Akane, you have a visitor,” Kasumi called from downstairs. Akane bolted up, barely noting the distressed tone of her sister’s voice. Her only thoughts were on Ukyou and Ranma. She had never doubted the girl would live up to her promise. Still… Akane grinned wickedly. That didn’t mean Akane was going to spare her a stern lecture, or let her get away with anything less than a complete accounting of every detail.
At the bottom of the stair Kasumi was talking to someone standing just outside the door. Akane would have to remind her sister to let Ukyou in right away next time and-
The man outside the door was not Ukyou. He was tall and thin, and dressed in blue. It took Akane a few moments to note the glint of a badge on his familiar uniform. On his belt hung a leather holster and a simple firearm. For a moment, his face was cloaked in shadows by the angle of the light and the door. Akane stopped in place, a cold chill running up her spine to rest like a hard knot against the base of her skull.
The officer moved forward a bit into the light, and his face came into view. It was just a normal face. Not especially handsome, but not ugly either. Perfectly normal. When the man saw Akane he smiled, a wide and pleased grin that utterly failed to reach his eyes.
“Hello there,” the officer said. “You would be Miss Akane Tendo, I believe?”
Akane bowed deeply before responding. “Yes. I’m Akane Tendo. May I help you, officer?” Kasumi, seeing she was no longer needed, stepped around Akane and back into the house. Akane noticed her and Nabiki standing just out of the officer’s line of sight in the background.
He bowed, slightly less deeply, in return. “Yes you can. I need you to come with me to answer a few questions.”
Akane opened her mouth to ask why, but thought better of it. Still, she didn’t want to be somewhere else when Ukyou showed up. Maybe if she cooperated right away, this could be over quickly. “Of course, officer. But can we stay here? I’m sort of waiting for somebody to show up…” Akane trailed off.
The officer bowed again, apologetically. “I’m sorry, that won’t be possible. I need you to come back to the box with me, so I can fill out some forms. However, I promise it won’t take very long. Your…” he hesitated, “…older sister, is it? I’m certain she would be able to entertain your guest for a few minutes, correct?”
Akane resisted the urge to frown and nodded slightly. She turned towards her sisters. “Kasumi, if Ukyou shows up tell… him to wait for me. I’ll just be a few minutes with the officer here.” Kasumi nodded.
She felt, more than heard, a sharp intake of breath from behind her. But when she turned around, the policeman’s expression was calm and composed. “All right, Miss Tendo. Let’s see if we can get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.” He smiled, but again the expression never seemed to reach his eyes. Akane suppressed a shiver but gestured for him to lead the way. She was going to be with a police officer, after all. Whatever premonition of danger she felt, she would be perfectly safe with him.
Aaron was about to leap down to the street when Ranma stopped him by laying a hand on his shoulder. He peered casually back, wondering what was up.
“Can, uh, we go in the back way?”
“Back way?” Aaron asked.
“Yeah,” Ranma fidgeted. “I sorta wanna avoid… uh…” Ranma trailed off. Aaron smiled to himself. The way Ranma kept trying to avoid saying he was scared of something was kind of endearing in-
Aaron frowned and cut that line of thought off right there. He silently berated Ukyou to keep her feelings to herself. She gave him the mental equivalent of a raspberry. This caused them both to frown as the feedback gave them a small headache.
“Well…” Then Ranma’s eyes brightened. “You may want to avoid too much time with Akane’s sister, ya know?” Aaron raised an eyebrow and stared at Ranma for a few moments until the other continued. “Well, they’re real perverts, get it? They like, have this thing for girls… and if they ever find out you’re a chick, with you being so cute and all, they might get some ideas in their heads and never leave you alone… why are you laughing?”
“Nothing, nothing,” Aaron tried to stifle the chuckles with reasonable success. “I’m just… you’ve suddenly reminded me that I don’t know how you and Akane met.”
“I think I’ll want to hear her perspective on this, too,” Aaron said as he ran his hand through Ukyou’s bangs. “Let’s go in the back.”
They landed in the backyard without preamble. Ranma seemed more than happy that none of the various residents were available. “Since you’re concerned about me, why don’t you go in and fetch Akane?” Aaron teased before Ukyou could stop him. Ranma jerked a bit, then looked at Ukyou and sighed before wandering into the house.
Aaron began to pace casually about the yard. Ukyou wasn’t too upset with him for playing with Ranma like that. It was her intention to play neutral mediator in their disputes. The Tendos were really very good landscapers, he noted idly as he waited for Ranma to make a reappearance.
Ranma emerged from a second floor window and dropped gracefully to the ground. Aaron rolled his eyes at the boy’s antics. He really was going to have to learn what had happened here if he was going to be able to manipulate the situation to his needs. Not that Ukyou really liked to use the “M-word” when it came to Ranma, but Aaron had no illusions about how they were playing the boy like a ten cent flute.
“Akane isn’t here,” Ranma said with a shrug.
“What?” Aaron blurted out.
“Please hold the comedy for a moment,” Aaron said as he held up his hands. Akane wasn’t likely to have left. It wasn’t in-character for her to… unless she decided to take off after them anyway. Which meant Akane could be halfway across the city right now. Damn, he should have seen this coming.
Without bothering to say anything to Ranma, Aaron directed Ukyou into the house. It didn’t take long to locate Kasumi; she was busy cleaning up the kitchen and preparing it for tomorrow. Ukyou noted with a professionally critical eye that the place was kept meticulously clean and well-stocked. She would be okay with using this place herself.
“Oh, Ukyou!” Kasumi gasped when she looked up. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Sorry.” Aaron shrugged. “Where’s Akane?”
“Oh, she left. She asked you to wait for her,” Kasumi explained cheerfully. Then again, Kasumi did everything cheerfully, including becoming a homicidal maniac. Heh. But…
“Indeed,” Aaron said with a frown. “When did she leave, and why?”
“I think she and the officer left a little over ten minutes ago,” Kasumi said as she tapped her finger against her chin.
“Officer?” Aaron stepped forward and did his best to loom over Kasumi, despite being shorter than her. Kasumi blinked. “What officer?” Aaron had a bad feeling about this. Too many coincidences.
“Officer Takashita,” Kasumi pointed out, after another moment’s thought.
“Takashita…” Aaron stepped back and frowned. The name was unfamiliar to him, it certainly wasn’t from any anime or manga he had ever read. At least, not the name of any major character. But why on earth would any police officer talk to Akane? No, this was just too convenient.
“Thanks!” he shouted over his shoulder as he dashed out into the backyard. Ranma was pitching small stones into the koi pond, staying well out of splash radius. “Ranma!”
Ranma leapt up, having heard the urgency in Ukyou’s voice.
“We have to find Akane, quickly.”
“Just being cautious,” Aaron noted as he leapt up onto the roof of the Tendo home. Ranma followed him easily. Damn, it felt good being able to do that. Ukyou never really did appreciate how mobile she was until Aaron had arrived to show her what life was like without mad martial arts skills. “She’s with a police officer, so she’s likely at the local police box or station. You head off there and look for her. I’ll check around here myself, see if I can catch up with them before they get where they’re going.”
“Okay…” Ranma murmured. He looked about to object, but Aaron felt time was of the essence. His horror movie instincts told him it was a bad idea, but splitting up really was the fastest way of finding Akane.
“I’ll be fine,” Ukyou pointed out for him with a genuine smile. “This is probably nothing. At least, it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“If you say so,” Ranma grumbled before leaping off in one direction. Ukyou opened her mouth to point out that he didn’t know where the police box was, then closed it and shrugged. He would find his way there soon enough. With a quick step Aaron propelled them in the opposite direction. Ukyou may not be much of a tracker, but it shouldn’t be too hard to spot a police officer with the streets nearly deserted.
“This isn’t the way to the police box, is it?”
The officer looked at her for a moment, then rubbed the back of his head. “I’m sorry, I’m not from your local office. We’re going over that way,” he said, and pointed vaguely in another direction. “But it’s not too far, I promise.”
Akane mulled over that for a few seconds. They walked further onward, though Akane noticed they were actually moving away from the main thoroughfares to the other parts of the city. It was certainly possible to get to other places through the back roads, but not very efficient. She was opening her mouth to ask Officer Takashita about this when he cut her off.
“So,” he said conversationally, “I’m sorry to have kept you from your friend. Ukyou, wasn’t it? Are you two close?”
“Well s-,” Akane stopped herself. She had promised not to reveal Ukyou’s condition to anyone. Besides, the officer didn’t really need to know details.
“Ukyou and I are… really good friends.” Akane made herself smile a little wistfully, trying to affect the ‘dreamy girlfriend’ expression she had seen on more than a few girl’s faces from time to time. “But it’s not like we had a date tonight. He just wanted to talk to me. I’m certain it can wait a little while.”
There was a long pause, and then the officer smiled again. “Ah, young love. I remember being young myself. How’d you two meet?”
“Uh…” Akane blinked. “Well he was stalk-” Akane cut herself off. Wrong word to use when you’re talking to a police officer, you dummy. “He was… following me around and we just sort of, um, hit it off?” Akane ventured. She really wasn’t sure she wanted the man to dig any further.
The officer seemed to have a small coughing fit, covering his mouth hastily. “Umm, yes,” he continued. “Well, I’m glad to hear you’re… getting on well. I’m sure you make quite a cute young couple.”
They walked on in silence for a few more minutes. Akane tried to look anywhere but at the officer. The strange way he was looking at her set her nerves on edge. It was something about his eyes. Not the way Ukyou’s eyes sometimes seemed guarded or hidden. These eyes were just.. .wrong, in a way she couldn’t place her finger on. Akane sighed to herself as they passed a landmark she recognized. They were heading further into her neighbourhood now, going in circles as they entered increasingly deserted areas.
“Officer, are you sure this is the right direction?”
“Ah, yes. Well, now that you mention it…” he hesitated, biting his lip, and then suddenly his eyes widened, and he pointed behind her. “What’s THAT!?”
Akane spun around, adopting a fighting stance. The shadows in that direction were deep, but empty. She frowned and turned around to ask the man what was going on.
There was a scream.
Ukyou propelled them across another street with a graceful leap. Aaron was letting her do the ‘driving’, as it were. He was too busy thinking, planning and theorizing. He did that a lot. He was trying to think of every anime series he had ever seen, remembering which ones involved the police in some fashion. Recalling faces and identities and names. But none of it was adding up in the back of her head.
But the number of possible things this COULD be was beginning to frighten Ukyou a bit. Akane could be the target of some soul-sucking plot by the minions of the Dark Kingdom, or whatever villain Sailor Moon was fighting this season. She certainly had energy to spare. And there were other things that were even worse. Psychotic demons from the Yuu Yuu Hakusho universe? Zoanoids? Insane martial artists with a thing for little girls, like M. Bison? The list was – almost literally – endless. But he wasn’t willing to worry too much about it. It was just a strange series of badly-timed events to him.
Ukyou felt her heart beating like a triphammer as she bounced across another alleyway, glancing down to see if there was any movement. They couldn’t find them. It was dark, Ukyou had never really trained herself to be a tracker, and while Aaron was good with directions, that only helped if they knew where to go. And they didn’t.
Akane could be literally anywhere. Anywhere at all. It could already be too late.
Aaron warned her to calm down, but Ukyou wasn’t willing to listen. The desperation seemed to lend energy to her flagging strength, which she definitely needed by now. Her legs seemed to be made out of lead, having already sprinted across the city not once, but twice. Plus it didn’t help that she barely slept anymore.
Ukyou let out a small prayer of thanks to the Kami when she spotted them. They were walking in a street below, heading, oddly enough, towards the area of town where Ukyou was staying. That was not a nice part of Nerima Ward, and at night it was practically deserted and empty. Her first instinct was to leap down and ask what the hell was going on, but Aaron restrained her. The two were just walking, slowly and surely into the neighbourhood, and nothing was happening. It could all still be just something… innocent was the wrong word. At the very least, it wasn’t necessarily something to get involved in. Yet.
Aaron directed them to a rooftop across the street from them. Deliberately keeping the officer between himself and Akane. He wanted a good look at the man’s face. Unfortunately, the officer was busy staring down at his feet, obviously thinking hard about something. They couldn’t see his face, as the brim of his hat cast his face in shadow.
Ukyou fidgeted and slipped her hand up to her bandolier.
“Officer, are you sure this is the right direction?”
“Ah, yes. Well, now that you mention it…” he hesitated as he looked up at Akane, away from Ukyou. “What’s THAT!?”
He pointed, off into the shadows behind Akane.
Akane spun, adopting a fighting stance.
Ukyou looked up slightly. The shadows were empty. Her eyes drifted down. The man’s hand was resting on his gun, gripping the handle.
Ukyou wasn’t even aware she had screamed before her feet hit the pavement. The throwing spatula impacted into the man’s hand with a meaty thunk. But he didn’t react as if he felt the pain. Instead, he turned around and looked at her, his eyes narrowing. Ukyou pulled her battle spatula from her back with ease as she closed in.
He continued to stare at her as she approached. And then his eyes snapped wide at the last second as Ukyou body-checked him away from Akane. The man flew like a rag doll across the street and landed limply against the other sidewalk. Ukyou spun around and briefly checked on Akane, Aaron’s practiced eyes noting a lack of any injury. Her mouth was open in a small ‘O’ of surprise, but that was okay. Ukyou turned her attention back to the man across the street without saying anything, shifting her grip on the spatula to bring the wide plate in front of her.
Damn, would this thing stop bullets?
“Ukyou! What on earth are you doing? That’s a police officer!”
“He was reaching for his gun and-“
“He saw something! Oh my god! You’re going to jail!”
“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. Let’s see what he has to say about it.”
Akane began calling out to the downed man – Ukyou refused to think of him as a police officer – as she tried to rush around Ukyou. Ukyou’s arms moved as Aaron interjected her spatula in the girl’s way.
“Ukyou, stop it! He’s hurt!”
“I should hope so,” Aaron pointed out coolly. “I hit him really hard.”
Akane was gaping at Ukyou, but Aaron refused to look away. The man was lying there, seemingly unconscious. But his eyes were open and pointed in their direction. Still, there was a glaze to them. He really could be unconscious. Ukyou felt the first niggling threads of doubt begin to worm their way into her mind, but Aaron kept their expression icy and unreadable.
“Yes. Yes, the young la… man did indeed hit me quite hard,” came a weak voice. Akane looked over, seeing the police officer rising to his feet. His good hand dropped to his pistol, but he made no attempt to draw it. “And I think you and I, young man, definitely need to have a talk.”
“Indeed,” Aaron said coolly. “Let’s talk. First, you can tell me who you are, and why you were with Akane.”
He narrowed his eyes at them again, penetratingly. Then he glanced at Akane. “Given the seriousness of the situation, I think you, young lady, should go home. We will have to talk another time.”
Ukyou and Aaron began a furious mental debate back and forth. Ukyou was all for getting Akane out of here, the better to lessen the amount of danger she was in. Aaron, on the other hand, was more inclined to keep her there. For one, there was no guarantee that Akane would go all the way home. For two, she would make an excellent witness if things began to become more serious than they were now. Ukyou tried to point out that things couldn’t get much more serious than they were now, but Aaron only rolled his metaphorical eyes at that. Akane, for her part, was spending the few seconds Aaron and Ukyou spent psychically debating looking back and forth between Ukyou and the man.
“This is very serious.” His voice cracked like a whip. “Go home NOW, young lady.”
That decided it.
“She’s in no danger here,” Aaron pointed out. “She makes an excellent witness. Why don’t we just have her stay and keep notes.”
“Believe me, she will undoubtedly be called as a witness. But she has no reason to stay here to be picked up by the authorities. I want her to go home, now.” His face softened a little. “I’ll make sure someone calls you later to update you on the situation and your… friend. But please, go home, Miss Tendo.”
“Doesn’t that hurt?” Ukyou noted, pointing with her free hand at the spatula still resting in the man’s hand. She didn’t see any blood.
“Yes,” he noted, “but I’m trained to ignore that sort of thing. Besides, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated very far.”
Aaron narrowed his eyes. This guy was good. He could see Akane hesitating out of the corner of his eyes. He was across the street and it was dark out. It was hard to tell exact details at this range, probably even harder for Akane, who he knew had the medical skills of a hyperactive second grader. Ukyou still felt that small butterfly of doubt in her stomach.
“Ukyou… I think I should probably go home,” Akane said after another minute of hesitation. She began to edge away. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think-“
“Akane, the only reason for you to leave is if you think I’m a danger to you in some way,” Aaron pointed out calmly.
“I’m afraid I’d have to respectfully disagree,” the man said. “She has been told to leave the area by an officer of the law. I’ve been patient so far… but as I said, this is a very serious matter. Miss Tendo, if you insist on staying here, I’m afraid you will be obstructing justice.”
“Bullshit,” Aaron pointed out, still keeping his voice level. “No officer of the law would want a witness to leave the scene.” He paused. “Why haven’t you called for back-up yet?”
“You don’t seem very familiar with how the law operates here, ma’am,” he noted, with a hint of irritation. “Miss Tendo has not committed a crime. Her residence and contact information is known to the police. She will be called upon to dispense her statement in due time. I do intend to call backup, but as you have not made further threatening moves, I felt it more immediately necessary to get the innocent bystander out of the area.”
“Hmm… fine,” Aaron said, with a smile. He reached into his pocket and pulled out ten yen before flipping it to Akane. “Akane, be a dear. There’s a payphone nearby, no doubt. Go find one and call the police. Tell them to send a few officers along.”
Akane hesitated and looked at the coin in her palm before nodding and running off.
“I figure we have a few minutes before they show up,” Aaron told the man laconically. “Whatever you have to do now that she’s gone, I suggest you make it fast.” Ukyou was a trifle worried about what might happen if this turned out to be all her fault. But Aaron was willing to spend a few days in jail, if this all turned out to be completely unfounded. But there was the fact the man wasn’t bleeding. Aaron couldn’t see for sure. But his and Ukyou’s ears were quite good, and that had been a strong throw. There was no sound of dripping blood. Something was wrong here, he’d lay money on it.
The policeman glanced off in the direction Akane had run, hesitated a moment, then shrugged. Grabbing the spatula, he removed it from his hand.
“Indeed,” he noted. “So let’s start with who, exactly, you actually are, ‘Ukyou’.” The snide emphasis on the last word was unmissable.
“What the hell do you mean, you jackass!?” Ukyou pointed at her chest. “I AM Ukyou Kuonji!” Ukyou felt her nerves fraying at that. That hit a little too close to home for comfort. “Why don’t you tell me who you are, before I beat it out of you!”
The officer smirked. “Ha. Nice try, but Ukyou doesn’t say ‘indeed’, ‘bullshit’, look at me the way you have been up until now with that icy, detached stare… and oh yes, Ukyou wouldn’t attack someone out of nowhere and drive a spatula into their hand without provocation.” He spread his hands. “And, since you DID attack me first, I think it’s only fair you give me a little bit of explanation, whoever you are.”
“How would you know what I would or wouldn’t do?” Ukyou replied evenly. All doubt had just evaporated from Aaron’s mind, and thus, from Ukyou’s mind as well. “No wait, don’t answer that.” She held up a hand to forestall him saying anything. Aaron began to think, trying to find a question that Ukyou could ask but that wouldn’t play his hand too much, and would trap this man if he gave the right – or wrong – answer. “If you know so much about me that I can’t possibly be Ukyou, then why don’t you ask me something only Ukyou would know.”
He paused for a moment, considering, then smiled again. “As I recall, I just said you owed me an explanation first. And you should probably hurry, since I imagine Akane is already calling the police, and you’re in a fair bit of trouble already. I suppose you could run away – and be a fugitive – or try to pound my skull in with that spatula of yours – which I’m sure Akane would love to return to see – but wouldn’t it be much easier just to cooperate a little?”
Aaron paused and considered. Then he and Ukyou shrugged as one. “Fine.” Without taking her eyes off him she walked to the curb and sat down. “Let’s sit down and wait, then. Unlike you, I have nothing to hide.”
“Aside from attacking an officer of the law?”
“Then I’ll go to jail,” Aaron said with a shrug. “If I really did do something wrong, I’m willing to live with it. If not…” he paused. “Well, I just have a feeling that this has something to do with this.” Aaron plucked his newspaper out of storage and flipped it into the centre of the street.
“Isn’t that right, Officer Takashita?” Aaron put on his best poker face as he stared back at the man.
The man, whoever he was, just looked at them for a moment, his expression unreadable. Aaron didn’t like to bluff like that. He had no clue whether this had anything to do with the murder last night. Except for those storyteller instincts of his. It was too good a coincidence. Akane hears about a murder at a police box, which leads to him hearing about it, which leads to a desperate flight across Tokyo, which leads to this moment. It was a pattern, and Aaron was good at recognising patterns. Ukyou had her doubts, and for that matter so did he. But he wasn’t about to let that show on his face. The key to a good bluff was always appearing to know more than you did.
The pause stretched out another couple of agonising moments. And then the man suddenly laughed, twirling the mini-spatula around in his fingers. “All right, it seems we’ve both called the other’s bluff. Fair enough, then, ‘Ukyou’. I’ll tell you what. You can leave and we’ll go our separate ways, or we can head off somewhere before Akane gets back and have a more candid talk while she worries herself sick. Though you’ll need to come up with a good explanation for the police, I’m thinking.” He paused, then smirked again. “I can probably help you out, there, actually. A little favour, if we can be civil.”
Aaron opened his mouth to say yes. If this really was something beyond the pale, then he rather suspected the police would be ill-equipped to handle it. Plus, he had the power. But Ukyou wasn’t about to let it go that easily.
“Before we go anywhere, tell me what you were doing with Akane.” She looked off into the distance for a second and mimed hearing something, even though she couldn’t. “And hurry.”
The man pursed his lips, considering his words. “As it turns out, I wasn’t going to do anything to her. I thought… but she’s not the right sort for what I wanted. You needn’t worry. Even if you hadn’t showed up, she was perfectly safe. And she will continue to be so in the future.”
Aaron frowned. He certainly sounded sincere. Ukyou still didn’t trust him, but was willing to admit that Aaron was right. The police would likely be completely unable to handle this situation. Now it just remained to defuse it when they showed up.
“Okay, I agree,” Ukyou began, standing up and returned her oversized weapon to its harness. “But I don’t relish explaining this to the proper authorities. What do you suggest?”
“As I said, let’s get out of here first. I’ve got a good story for you to give when you get back. But come on… do you expect me to give everything away when you haven’t told me jack? A little good faith here, please.”
“Fine.” Ukyou paused, and then started towards him with her hand extended. “Your weapon?”
He laughed. “As if I could hurt YOU with it. But sure, whatever makes you happy.” He unbelted the gun holster and tossed it casually at her. “Mind you, that’s just a loaner. I expect it back once our business is concluded.”
Ukyou caught it with one hand and smiled back at him in a reasonably pleasant manner. Now that he was unarmed, she felt much better about the whole situation. Aaron might think a martial artist’s skin could stop a bullet, but Ukyou wasn’t anywhere close to wanting to test that theory. “I hope you don’t get motion sick,” she warned him before reaching out and grabbing his collar. In a few bounds she leapt clear of the street. Before she left, she did note one thing: there was no blood on the pavement.
She was looking for the blood. Sharp of her to notice that. Well, couldn’t be helped. But it distracted her attention, looking as she grabbed him, and he took that opportunity to study her closely. She certainly LOOKED like Ukyou, or like what he had expected Ukyou to look like.
As she jumped up to the rooftops, he noted closely the rising and falling of her breast. Mind you, his chest was also rising and falling, but… ah yes, the breathing sped up as they started to move. Whoever she actually was, she was either a damn good actor with a lot of practice at looking natural, or that body was alive. He was betting on the latter. Interesting. Very interesting indeed.
Of course, that also neatly destroyed his previous theory. So, if this ‘Ukyou’ wasn’t like him… what was she? Possessed? A doppleganger? Shapeshifter? Any way he sliced it, it didn’t make sense. Akane had had long hair, and he wasn’t even sure if Ranma had arrived yet. Ukyou had no business being here, and even less business being the one saving Akane from danger.
That thought left a bitter taste in his mouth. All that preparation, that perfect plan… and he couldn’t do it. It was his own stupid fault for TALKING with her. He should’ve found some other way to distract her, keep her quiet until they were alone. But once they had talked… ah, it was like staring a rabbit in its innocent, frightened eyes before strangling it for dinner. Not that he’d ever done that, but the concept was similar.
Of course, it turned out for the best. He doubted he’d be having much of a civil conversation with this pseudo-Ukyou if he’d actually tried to kill Akane. As it was, there was no way she could be sure killing Akane was actually what he’d planned to do. And he intended to keep it that way… at least until he knew a little bit more about why this person didn’t act like Ukyou should, talk like Ukyou would, and was in Nerima long before Ukyou was.
And on that note… she’d decided on a nondescript rooftop as their rendezvous point, apparently. Smart idea; normal police probably wouldn’t be looking there. And Akane couldn’t leap to rooftops to check. They’d have some time. She let him go, and he brushed himself down. About time he took a more aggressive role in this conversation. “So, I’ve cooperated with you and told you what you asked. Now it’s your turn.”
Ukyou held up a hand to forestall him. She spent a few minutes examining the edges of the rooftop and checking about. “You asked who I am, and I’ve already told you. My name is Ukyou Kuonji. As for why I’m here…” she trailed off and stared at him in the placid, dispassionate manner that had first niggled at his perceptions. “I was looking for someone. I found him staying at Akane’s place. Akane and I are friends. I heard about her going off with a police officer, so I followed her. When I caught up, I watched your conversation… right up until the point you distracted her and tried to shoot her.”
He allowed himself to smirk openly. Really, how stupid did this person think he was? “Please. I give you my good faith, and you reward me with this load of crap? I asked for some answers, not a thinly-veiled attempt to get more answers from me.” He raised his hand to cut off her response, ticking off points on his fingers. “First off, don’t think I didn’t notice how you evaded the question of who you really are. Second off, don’t treat me like I’m ignorant. I KNOW Ukyou Kuonji. You don’t talk like her. You don’t act like her. And Ukyou Kuonji is not, at this point in time, supposed to be in Nerima, being friends with Akane. You can avoid it all you like… but I know the truth. Thirdly, you obviously know more than you’re letting on… since, after all, why on earth would you follow Akane if she’d gone to answer some questions for a police officer? You were worried for a reason. Now, I’m going to ask you again: give me some real information. You’ve attacked me without warning, threatened me, taken my weapon, and spirited me away here. I’ve cooperated with you up until now, and I’m willing to cooperate with you further. But don’t think I’m willing to keep spilling my guts while you sit there carefully avoiding saying a damn thing.”
“I didn’t lie at all,” the not-Ukyou said simply with a shrug. “And what do you mean, I’m not supposed to be here yet…” She trailed off, and her eyes widened. “No… you can’t be. There’s no way that she sent you after me.” She began to look around again, her expression worried and guarded. Then she looked back at him, her eyes alive with worry. Then she closed them and took a single deep, cleansing breath before mastering herself again. “It doesn’t matter. Even if she did, I plan on clearing up that misunderstanding in the next few days.”
‘She’, huh? Heh. He kept his expression neutral and waited for her to give more away.
“Listen, I don’t like you very much,” the girl pointed out as she grabbed her weapon’s haft. “And while it isn’t my style to kill people, that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to beat you black and blue a bit, or just chain you down and give you a thorough medical exam to figure out why you don’t bleed.” She paused then, letting the threat sink in. “Or we can be civil about this. You’ve cooperated, I’ll give you that, but I’ve also cooperated. You asked me if I’m Ukyou Kuonji, and I told you the truth. I AM who I say I am. If you don’t believe me, that’s your problem. I answered your question, now you answer mine. Quid pro quo.”
First rule of debate: Never let them see you sweat. Less of a problem when you didn’t sweat anymore. He glanced at her spatula with casual disinterest. “Thorough medical exam, huh? Kinky. And kindly don’t threaten me. I am unintimidated by your oversized cooking utensil.” Not true, of course… he sure as hell couldn’t even hope to escape from a superhuman like Ukyou. But she didn’t know that. And she didn’t know WHY he didn’t bleed, or what it meant. Best keep it that way. “Fine. You’re Ukyou Kuonji. You still evaded the real question, and you’re hiding something. If you actually WERE just the normal super martial artist/okonomiyaki chef you say you were, you’d be utterly confused that I thought you weren’t yourself. But instead, you’re being evasive and defensive. Just letting you know I noticed that. But since you – technically – answered one question, I suppose you’re right. So, ask one question… Ukyou.”
“Now we’re being civil,” the girl said cheerfully. He repressed the urge to react to how quickly her expression changed. Her entire face lit up and became much more animated in the space of a heartbeat. “Now that we know my name, all I have to do is know yours and we’re properly introduced. So why don’t we start with that. Tell me your name, and don’t try to convince me you’re actually Officer Takashita.”
Hmm. Easy answer. Stupid answer. Why’d she ask? She had to know his next question wouldn’t be so easily wriggled out of. But, of course, he didn’t know what she WAS, yet… fishing for a “true name”? He couldn’t think off-hand of a series that used that cliche, but there were probably some. That could be bad, given his circumstances. Well, two could play the semantical game. “All right, simple enough question. My name is Chris.”
Chris blinked in confusion as the girl’s mouth dropped open and she began to open and close it soundlessly. She stared at him, pointing a single finger in his direction for almost a minute. Then she physically closed her mouth with one hand and shook her head, seeming to regain control of her reactions again. “Indeed… your name is Chris.” She paused thoughtfully. “That probably means you’re from a long way from here…” she trailed off. “Okay. Pleased to meet you, Chris.” She bowed. “I believe it is your turn.”
Okay, what was THAT all about? Unless… that “indeed”…but it didn’t make sense. That body was ALIVE. Maybe it was a trick. He frowned slightly, considering the phrasing of his next question. Then he grinned a little bit as a recent memory occurred to him. Chew on this, ‘Ukyou’. “Hmm. So it is. So, when you first met Akane, you were stalking her. Might I ask why exactly you were doing that, or even knew who Akane was?”
Ukyou didn’t react, keeping her face impassive. She considered her reply for a fraction of a second and then answered easily. “That’s two questions. I was following Akane because I wanted to know as much about her and her family as I could. I was given to understand the person I was searching for would soon arrive at her household, and wanted to know exactly when that would happen. I had learned from a reliable source that the Tendo family had… has a family pact of honor with the person I am looking for, so I came here searching for them.”
Slippery. But he wondered who that “reliable source” was. And he also wondered why she was looking for Ranma. Did that mean Ranma hadn’t arrived in Nerima yet after all?
Ukyou affected a look of concentration for a few moments, then finally spoke. “Since you asked two questions, I’ll ask two questions, just to be fair. I’ll even keep them related. What makes you so sure I’m not ‘supposed’ to be here, and, for that matter, how do you know me at all?”
Well, that was easy enough to be vague about. “I know you’re not supposed to be here because I know the sequence of events laid out to happen for you, Akane, and quite a few other people you may or may not know. You – that is, Ukyou – should not even be in Nerima for… well, let’s just say a while. As for how I know you…” He grinned. “I’ve watched you from afar. As you surmised before, I come from a long way from here.”
Ukyou sighed. “Ah, you are a master of debate, I see.” For some reason, despite her disappointed sigh, she was smiling to herself. “Now, let’s keep this to one question at a time.”
“Sure. Who exactly was the ‘reliable source’ you learned about the Tendos from?”
“He never said his name to me,” Ukyou said with an easy shrug. “He was pretty much average-looking. I do know that he’s from the West. He certainly didn’t speak very good Japanese until I helped him out with that. I trust him because he revealed a bunch of things to me that turned out to be true.”
Chris clapped slowly, sarcastically. “And you are obviously no stranger to the art of twisting words yourself. Very unlike Ukyou, I might add… but it’s your turn now. Ask away.”
Ukyou frowned at that. “Don’t think you know me because you’ve seen snippets of my life from far off places,” she growled out between clenched teeth. “Let’s get to the meat of this, then. Why don’t you bleed?”
He glanced down at his hand, smiling slightly, bitterly, to himself. Ah, that was the crux of it all, wasn’t it? And what was the phrase…? “This body is just a vessel.” He looked up at her, stared her in the eyes. “Just a vessel. It doesn’t bleed. It’s not even alive.”
“A vessel…” Ukyou drew in a sharp breath. The anger seemed to drain from her face, floating briefly through that placid expressionless visage, before her mouth softened and her eyes, while still cold, were less angrily so.
“Wow. That’s harsh.” She stepped back from him and sat down on the rooftop with legs crossed. She reached up with one hand towards her face, stopped herself, and continued onward, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “So I guess it’s your turn.”
Harsh. Ha. She had no idea. Unless she caused it, of course. But he doubted that. Hmm. So, what was the next tease attempt in this little game? He thought for a moment. Anything he asked that was ‘different’ about her compared to the real Ukyou – ah, irony – she’d just deny or chalk up to the mysterious unnamed gentleman. It wasn’t really that important why she had followed him and Akane, though he was curious. What could he ask that would give him the real answer, what was really going on here?
Well, the direct line of inquiry wasn’t working… let’s toss out a non-sequitur and see how she handled it. Maybe she’d let something slip. “So, this person you’re looking for. Why are you looking for him or her, anyway?”
“Hmm?” Ukyou quirked her head to the side. Chris got the impression that she hadn’t been watching him until now, despite her eyes never leaving his face. “Oh. He dishonoured my family, stole our property and left with my best friend. I plan on beating him up a bit for it.” She paused a moment. “Listen, I don’t really care about you that much. Once I’m sure you’re no threat to any of my friends, you can go on your way. You could be Lucifer or Susano-wo or Gendo Ikari for all I care… so long as you stay away from me and my friends, it doesn’t matter to me. So my question is this; how would you convince me you’re no threat to them?”
The words came out before he even thought about them. “Why Ukyou,” he noted softly, “I never knew you watched Evangelion.” It was giving it away, giving it away, a part of his mind screamed at him… but that slip-up she’d made… he had to know. What the hell did SHE know?
She released a long, slow breath. “Well, the game is up, I guess.” She flowed effortlessly to her feet. “You just answered my last unasked question. And if I didn’t believe you were about to shoot my friend, I’d answer yours. But there is a question on the table. If you answer it to my satisfaction, I’ll leave you be and we never have to meet again.”
Bitch. He clenched his fists, then forcibly relaxed. “Actually, even when I answer your question, you still owe me one more before you go anywhere. I started with the answering, and thus it’s only fair. Now, about what you asked…” he paused, and then shrugged. “I can’t convince you I’m no threat to them. Because I don’t even know who your friends ARE. As you say, Ukyou, I don’t know nearly so much about you as I thought. So how am I to answer if I might not be a threat to a completely undefined group of people? For all I know, your friends might include a mosquito I swat, or someone who attacks me in the night and I have to defend myself against.”
“And I can’t guarantee I won’t find more friends in the near future,” Ukyou shrugged and began to fiddle absently with the gun belt hanging over her shoulder. “You could answer the question by telling me exactly why you took her all the way out here, in the middle of the night, and distracted her while reaching for your gun, but I guess you’re not going to do that. But still, if I knew why you were after her, then I could be satisfied.” She looked up. “I have a feeling our paths don’t have to lead us to be enemies, unless you force the issue. I might even be inclined to help you, depending on the circumstances.”
“Tch. I did answer your question, Ukyou.” Now he felt better, slipping easily back into the verbal fencing of debate. It didn’t hurt to award himself a mental point for catching what the other had clearly missed. “You asked me how I would convince you. I told you I couldn’t, under the circumstances. That IS an answer, even if it wasn’t what you wanted. And that means, I believe, that it is now my turn again.”
“Ah,” she said, and nodded. “Point.” She gestured for him to go ahead.
He considered. Well, he’d been sharper so far. It was worth a bit of a risk. “I’m going to be a little unfair here, but I’ll let you return the favour if you continue our game of twenty questions. I want to know how you know the name Gendo Ikari. And if your answer is that this mysterious unnamed stranger that you trust told you, I want to know how HE knows. And if he never told you that – despite telling you enough that you listed him alongside Lucifer – then I want to know where to find him. Because I want to talk to him.”
She shrugged, as if expecting the question. “Yes, my mysterious unnamed stranger told me about him. According to him, Gendo is a man from a story where he comes from. And I’m afraid you’ll never get a chance to talk to him directly.” She looked down at her feet for a moment, her bangs falling forward and casting her eyes in shadow. “He’s dead.”
He laughed. He couldn’t help it. The irony was just too much. He laughed loud, and long, and hard. Probably the police searching somewhere below could hear. He didn’t care. This was just too rich.
Finally, he quieted. She was just standing there, unreacting. He felt a great weariness overtake him in the wake of the bitter laughter. Someone else. Someone else from his world, but they were dead. Dead like him, except not like him, obviously. And for some reason they’d hooked up with Ukyou, allowed her to mess up the plotline, and then died. Why? How? Who cared? Maybe they’d tried bakusai ten ketsu training or something. But whatever the reason, this avenue was closed. He knew he should probably try to talk to Ukyou, gain her confidence, try to learn the clues she knew. Maybe he would, later. But not right now. He just couldn’t care enough right now.
“All right. I guess you don’t really have anything to help me with, then. Fine. As per our agreement, give me back my gun, I’ll tell you how to get out of trouble with the cops, and I’m out of here.”
Ukyou came out of her reverie only reluctantly, her face soft but unfeeling. “Okay. I don’t think you’re a threat to my friends. You know I know you, and no matter how you try to hide, I think I can spot you for who you are and act accordingly. I suggest you leave Nerima for a while.” She stepped forward and pulled the gunbelt from her shoulder. “Before we part ways, I want to give you a gift. I suggest you keep an eye on the classified section of the newspaper. If you ever see an ad asking for Gendo Ikari to come to visit the Evangelion, then you’ll know I’m trying to get in touch with you. Whatever your problem is, I have at least one way I think can solve it.” She placed the pistol on the ground and backed off, cautiously.
He stared at her. “You know I know you…” he repeated, slowly, almost tasting each word. “What do you mean by that?”
“The game is over,” Ukyou pointed out simply. “I believe you promised a way for us to clear this up with the police?”
The fact he knew Ukyou could crush him like a bug didn’t stop him from stepping forward, fists and teeth clenched. He was tired of being dicked around. Extremely fucking tired. “If the game is over, then stop PLAYING with me. What the HELL did you mean by that!?”
“No,” Ukyou replied evenly. “I want you to think about that. Wonder what kinds of skills and abilities I may or may not have. Wonder what information I may or may not know. I want you to not be sure of anything but one thing, that I LET you go.” She flicked her head, causing her hair to fall over her shoulder. “I don’t enjoy playing with you. If you want complete and total honesty out of me, then you go first. If you aren’t willing to tell me the whole truth, then live with not knowing the whole truth yourself.”
He had to restrain himself. The frustration threatened to overwhelm him. He wanted to snap, to grab her around the throat and force the answers from her. He wanted to… he realised he wanted to kill her, take the answers from her brain, pick it apart, get the knowledge and body he needed at the same time. But that was stupid. He couldn’t do it. And realising that, he calmed himself. Somewhat. He snatched his gun and rebelted it to his side, conscious of how she watched his every move. He felt a vast wave of contempt. As if I’d ever attack you like this, bitch, when you’re on guard and hold all the advantages, he silently flung in her face. But he could change that equation.
“Fine,” he spat. “For someone who doesn’t enjoy playing with me, you certainly seem to be pursuing it to the point of masochism. But that’s fine.” He glared at her. “We’ll talk again, sometime. Maybe you’ll be more willing to come clean then.”
A shrug was her only response. Icy rage surged through him at the sight. That was no more the real Ukyou than he was the real police officer whose body he was inhabiting. She’d lied, whoever she was. He’d find out the truth soon enough. But he didn’t say that, or let anything show on his face. Let her think she knew his measure. Without further response, he walked to the edge of the rooftop, and stared down. Once, he’d been afraid of heights. He didn’t have to be anymore. Another broken bone or two wouldn’t hurt. A step forward, and he allowed himself to plunge into the inky darkness.
The rain came down suddenly and with unexpected ferocity. Aaron had to surrender control to Ukyou so as to keep from slipping as she propelled them across the rooftops back to where they had first confronted Chris. It was just as well, since he was too busy thinking about what he had done, and wondering if he had made a mistake.
Chris was here as well. That idea didn’t really surprise him as much as he thought it would. The crash probably hadn’t played any favourites, and if one boy could find himself catapulted across reality by such an event, then two could just as easily.
He hadn’t enjoyed turning his face from his friend, but really, what choice had he had? Ukyou certainly didn’t like him. His acerbic personality and continuing insults against her already-fragile sense of self had cemented her bad impression of him from Aaron’s memory. Plus, she was convinced that they had interrupted him just before he shot Akane. But why would Chris do such a thing? He was a jerk, but not a murderer. There had to be some reason…
Not that it really mattered now. Aaron couldn’t understand why Chris was so angry with them, angry enough to walk off without fulfilling his promise. Aaron had only decided it was best to play things close to the chest. After all, Chris appeared to have it better than Aaron himself. He wasn’t stuck with a voice constantly in the back of his head. Whatever form he was in had improved his normal human host to the point where he didn’t have to worry about breathing or falls from three stories up. It was obvious Chris could take care of himself in the coming months. Until then, Ukyou and he agreed that keeping him away from Nerima and their lives was for the best.
It was okay, in a few months it wouldn’t matter. By then they would have The Sword. With The Sword they could make everything all right. Three wishes, one for Ukyou and Aaron and one to solve whatever problem Chris had as well. Until then, it was better to focus on their current problems then getting caught up in Chris’s. No matter how close they were, Aaron barely felt a pang of regret at driving his old friend away. Or so he kept telling himself.
“Ukyou! You’re all right!”
Ukyou landed on the familiar street, avoiding a puddle by a few inches. Akane was running up to her, and just behind the girl was a sopping wet and disgruntled-looking female Ranma. Behind them were no less than four police cars with various officers turning to regard the scene.
“Well, I asked you to call the cops Akane, but I wasn’t expecting the entire force,” Aaron deadpanned. Akane enveloped her in a brief hug before breaking contact. Ranma just slouched into position nearby and nodded a greeting, apparently willing to let Akane take the lead.
“What’s going on?” Aaron asked.
“That’s what we were about to ask you, young man,” an officer asked as he stepped forward. His uniform was slightly different then the others, and his badge identified him as a Sergeant Ushio.
“Man, Ukyou, you certainly know how to get attention,” Ranma pointed out. “These guys are all real interested in this police officer you disappeared with.”
“Yes,” the sergeant grunted as he pulled out a pad, but frowned as it began to be soaked by the downpour. “What happened between you and Officer Takashita?” The man was asking more than a question. His voice was slightly uneven, and he was trying to suppress a frown. Aaron took a logical leap and answered with almost the truth.
“After Akane left, he went off in that direction,” Aaron pointed Ukyou’s hand in the direction she had come. “I followed him as best as I could, but he escaped into an alley. I might have been able to catch him, but he had a gun.”
“A wise decision,” the sergeant muttered as he nodded towards some of his fellows. “I need you to come with us to the station for a few questions, Mr…?”
“Kuonji, Ukyou Kuonji,” Ukyou pointed out and indicated how to write her name.
“Tell me, before we go…” the policeman looked around. “Did the man appear… disturbed to you?”
“He was very angry, when I last saw him,” Aaron answered carefully.
“I see, I see…” the man sighed. “Let’s go.”
“Wow, Ukyou,” Akane gushed. “How did you know? A dangerous rogue police officer! Who would have thought?”
“Indeed,” Ukyou grunted. “A rogue police-officer? I think a bit more than that.”
“What was that?” Ranma cut in.
“Nothing,” Ukyou dismissed him with a wave. “It’s taken care of. I have a feeling I’ll never see Officer Takashita again.”
Ukyou followed the officers over to their cars, with Ranma left in the pouring rain behind her.
To Be Continued…
Blade: Well, I promised to explain why I was in the author’s notes last chapter, but I’m guessing you’ve figured that one out on your own by now.
Epsilon: Unless of course our readership has the collective intelligence of pond scum.
Blade: Please don’t insult the readers, Aaron. It’s an endangered species thing.
Epsilon: That isn’t an insult. It’s a backhanded compliment.
Blade: Suuuuuuuure it is. Well, since certain people find our pretentious, self-absorbed banter to be uncomfortably pretentious and self-absorbed, we should probably move onto whatever actual points we wish to bring up. Aaron?
Epsilon: I’m not really sure what to say at this point, actually. The text pretty much speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
Blade: Hmm. And contrary to our practice in every other fanfic ever, we have yet to have climactic fight scenes, so no new special technique names yet.
Epsilon: I guess we could ask why you got involved in this project, since I gave my reasons last time.
Blade: Oh yes, good point. It’s not just hubris, because frankly, I would have rather had Aaron get working on the CoD rewrites than starting something new. But there was a very important reason I’m in here. I’m involved in the plot, of course, but more than that, I’m involved in the writing process, and not in the usual way.
Epsilon: We’re actually doing co-authorship! You know, with Blade actually WRITING parts and everything, instead of his usual practice of just taking credit for all my hard work.
Blade: Le sigh. Way to miss the point. The thing is, yes, I’m writing my own scenes, but that’s only part of what make this project somewhat unique. I’m writing my own scenes… but I am NOT writing them according to a laid-out plot and plan. I am, in fact, writing things Aaron has absolutely no idea I’m writing, and doing things he has no idea I’m doing. That’s the point.
Epsilon: Yes, which means that I’m also writing things that Chris has no idea what’s going to happen. And we have divided up the writing chores for characters inside the series as well, with the whole thing split about 70/30. And whenever we have characters in both of our quote/unquote ‘camps’, we write the scenes literally at the same time, with whoever’s playing the perspective doing the bulk of the chore. So don’t expect to see many scenes from Chris’ perspective.
Blade: Oh, go to hell. Anyway, yes, that’s it. The idea here is to avoid a problem we’ve had in many of our fics, where we plot out things far in advance and get a large degree of ennui as we wade through the plot, always looking forward to the “good stuff” that’s just a few chapters down the line. But now, there IS no long-term plot, because I’m a force of chaos in the series that Aaron can’t be sure (either in or out of character) of the long-term actions and impact of. Thus, there’s always a great degree of spontaneity.
Epsilon: Which isn’t to say we don’t have a Plan, and a Point, and a Purpose. The fact is we do have all of that for Hybrid Theory, and a backstory, all of which will be revealed piece by piece during the plotline to Ukyou, and Aaron, and Chris, and all the people they interact with.
Blade: But what we do NOT have is, for instance, any conception beyond the absolutely vaguest where we’ll be in Chapter 12.
Epsilon: Aside from “things will get worse”.
Blade: But then, that’s always the case in our fanfics. Anyway, I think enough of our improv skills (thanks, GRIT) that I think the long-term plotline will still be quite coherent, and the spontaneity keeps our interest keen and writing fresh. I like the results so far, and hopefully you will too.
Epsilon: After all, it could lead to even MORE releases from C&A Productions in the future! And everyone wants that!
Blade: Of course they do!
Epsilon: Don’t they?
Blade: DON’T YOU!?
Epsilon: Okay, enough of our self-indulgent babbling inanity. Here’s the part where I say yadda yadda yadda, no rights to these characters, blah blah, archive where you wish, whoop-dee-do, fruitful and multiply, and so and so forth and do unto others as I would do unto a cockroach, and you know the rest.
Blade: But what you DON’T know is what’s going to happen next. So why not have a teaser?
“Damn it, Pluto,” Ukyou lowered her arms and seemed to quickly compose herself. “You must have made some kind of mistake. If we can just talk this over like reasonable people…”
The tip of Setsuna’s staff wavered slightly. This wasn’t right, a voice in the back of her mind cried out. This girl didn’t look like a threat to all creation. She looked like a scared teenager, a girl in over her head. Wasn’t her mandate to protect the people of this world? Maybe there was an explanation.
Then she remembered the destruction. And the terrible energy she could even now feel inside the girl in front of her. Her grip on her weapon firmed up.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Pluto aplogized, trying to put as much of the remorse she felt in her voice as possible. “Your death is neccesary… You may not know it now, but its best you never find out why.”
Hybrid Theory, Chapter 3: Foreword