The Understudy

It was evening and Ukyou was putting out the trash behind her restaurant, when she heard something landing softly behind her. She knew that footfall by heart and there was a bright smile on her face, when she turned to face her visitor. It fell, as she actually saw him.

"Oh, Ran-chan! That looks bad." She rushed forwards to gingerly touch a purple bruise on his cheek.

Ranma looked at her, surprised. Apparently, he didn't even realize what she was talking about. He reached up to his cheek and then a short flash of remembrance came over his eyes. Obviously, neither the bruise, nor it's cause were among the foremost thought on his mind.

"Oh, that!" he laughed. "That's nothing."

"It's not nothing!" said Ukyou concerned. "You don't bruise easily. It was her again, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, yeah," said Ranma, not really interested in discussing it. "I was talking without thinking again. Or rather, I was thinking - only not about what I was saying; And it showed in my words, so she showed me."

"What were you thinking about?" inquired Ukyou.

Ranma looked at her for a second before answering. Then he said "You. I was thinking about you."

Ukyou smiled brightly. It was nice to know that he thought about her, when he was away.

"Ucchan..." he began. "Um, Shampoo tried something stupid again, today. Nothing really happened, and even Akane took it pretty much in stride - but it got me thinking. I was... I was thinking about my three fiancées. And about the future; About choices; Where this all leads to." He paused. "And then I had to think about you."

Ukyou noticed that he had gotten unusually serious. She got uncomfortably aware of the fact that Ranma thinking about his relationships was a rather uncommon thing. Whatever he had thought of must have been pretty important to take precedence over a beating from Akane.

And he had been thinking about her. She felt her knees go a bit weak.

"Ucchan." He held her hand.

Ukyou shivered with tension. Whatever he had to say now, would likely send her into blissful exhiliaration or soul-tearing despair. She forced her voice to sound normal, as she said "What is it, Ran-chan?" A tight knot was forming in her chest.

"I... I want you to do something for me." He paused. "Um, please, Ucchan, you've got to find someone else whom you can love."

For a second, the night itself seemed to hold its breath. When time finally started again, tears welled up in Ukyou's eyes. "Y-you're telling me you don't w-want me?"

"No, Ucchan!" Ranma grabbed her shoulders before she could turn or run away. "That's not what I meant. I just... Look, all three of you are playing this 'Oh, he'll choose me, of course'- game, and I'm not really doing anything to end it. But in truth I have no idea what I'll do, when the day finally comes."

He looked at her earnestly, willing her to understand his position. "I thought about what would happen when I actually chose one of you. What would the other two do?" He laughed sadly. "Most probably try to kill the chosen girl - no, don't say anything. Anyway, I could handle that. But after that? Who will take care of the broken hearts of these two girls? Shampoo has Mousse, who adores her and he's a damn good fighter to boot. I think she secretly likes him a lot. Akane - heck, she had to beat them off with a shovel, before I arrived and they realized they couldn't beat me. She could easily find someone to whom she could turn her heart. That leaves only one girl..." He looked her straight in the eyes. "Whom could you turn your heart to?"

"Well, I..." The pause in her answer grew longer. Finally she slumped.

"There's no one, is there?" Ranma softly asked.

"No," said Ukyou very quietly. After a pause "Konatsu is sweet and everything, but he's not..." She looked at him.

"Not me?" Ranma laughed. "Nah, only I am me - thank god. But that's the point, Ucchan. I want you to find someone who's not me, to take care of your heart if it comes to the worst." He grew very quiet. "I have no idea how I got here, but my situation is impossible. One way or another I'm going to hurt two girls I care very much for in the worst possible way. I'm pushing the moment of decision away as long as I can, but one day it'll be there. I couldn't bear the thought that one of you three would have nobody to turn to, in case I cannot choose you when the decision is upon me."

"Does that mean you would choose me, right n..?"

"NO!" Ranma yelled, before she had even completed her question. Ukyou's heart skipped, but she realized that he had not answered the question - he had refuted it completely.

"Ucchan, please. Stop this. I'm trying to make you understand." He was very urgent, and she knew he depended on her to take this weight from him. She sighed; This was going to be hard, but she had to show him that she understood - and cared.

"Yes, Ran-chan, I'm sorry." She looked to the ground, then up again. "I won't pressure you... and that includes not making you feel guilty about my fu- my future in case..." She gulped audibly, then continued in a small voice. "Give me time."

Ranma grabbed her hands and squeezed them. "All the time you need, Ucchan. I only needed you to understand. I'm sorry if I hurt you with this."

She touched his cheek again. "You did the right thing, Ran-chan. That's what I love you for."

Ranma smiled at her. "Good night, Ucchan."

"Good night, Ran-chan," she said softly and watched him bounce away over fences and roofs, into the night. Then she turned back home.

As she entered the Ucchan's, Konatsu was still there, waiting for her. He shot her a smile, as radiant as a sunrise. And for the first time in a long while, Ukyou noticed it.

<It's true,> she thought, surprised at the new perspective, <He is 'sweet and everything' - and I shouldn't really care that he's no Ranma. He is pouring all his love out over me. It's time I stopped dodging it.>

Konatsu knew not how it came about, but his heart soared with the clouds, when Ukyou returned his smile and told him it was nice of him to wait for her.

The End

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