Not Quite What You Were Expecting
Disclaimers, Acknowledgments, and Author's Note at the end.
Of course, he'd noticed her the minute she'd walked into the bar. Someone like that turned heads just for the sake of satisfying curiosity, if nothing else. She was... different, and a shade of cyan for hair color was more than a little noticeable. Once the curiosity had been sated, however, one stared simply because she was gorgeous.
Against his better judgment and his prevalent mood of the evening, he wished she might sit next to him.
Of course, she'd noticed him the minute she'd walked into the bar. He was the only man in the place without a spreading gut, and that alone piqued her curiosity, and the tightly braided pigtail of his black hair seemed to move of its own accord, not always following his head. His aura just begged one to peer a little closer, and once that arcane curiosity had been satisfied, one looked him up and down simply because he was gorgeous.
Against her better judgment and her prevalent mood of the last year, she hoped he wouldn't mind a little company.
"Buy me a drink, stranger?"
Ranma had watched the woman walk straight to him, and smiled slightly on one side of his mouth, realizing that even after life had tried to crush him, the Saotome charm still hummed like a well-oiled, out-of-control machine. He nodded and held up a hand to catch the bartender's attention. Once achieved, Ranma turned back to his company. "I had a feeling I was going to meet someone interesting tonight, but you're... not quite what I was expecting."
Ryouko cocked an eyebrow. "Is that a good thing or bad?"
Smirking, Ranma turned to the bartender as he said, "I'll let you know."
Frowning slightly, Ryouko thought, <Cheeky bastard. Well, I'll take the free drink and leave him high and dry.>
"What's your poison?" Ranma asked her.
"Sake, and bring the bottle."
"And for the gentleman?" the bartender inquired.
Ryouko almost fell out of her chair. "Club... SODA?!"
As he turned back to Ryouko, he had a full-force smile filled with pearly white teeth that made Ryouko's heart stop. "I don't drink... ever... anymore." The smile faltered to be replaced by a mournful look that disappeared almost as quickly, leaving him with his original smirk.
The play of emotions rang inside Ryouko like a temple bell; she'd recognized every one of his feelings as things she had also experienced. <Okay, maybe I'll have more than one drink...>
"What's your name, sport?" Ryouko took her cup and bottle from the bartender and poured for herself.
"Ah. I've never known a Ryouko too well."
"And you don't know this one that well, either," she said smartly.
Ranma laughed for the first time, eliciting a grin from her. "No, I don't." <Yet.>
She read that thought as easily as if it were her own, causing her to blush. "Ah... yeah. Ahem. So... What brings you here if you don't drink?" She sipped her cup of sake.
Ryouko paused, then said, "Um..."
"I wanted to be around people, but not have to join in. Does that make any sense?"
She nodded and then sipped again. "Yeah... it does. I've felt that way before... On the other hand, I drink, so that's a wash." She chuckled. "So why don't you drink?"
Something hard flashed in his eyes then faded away. "It kills the reflexes." He finally picked up his club soda and drank.
"That's part of its charm, ne? And it kills a lot more than reflexes." She drained her cup and refilled it immediately.
"Is that why you drink? To forget?"
Ryouko started. "How did, errr..." She relaxed. "I guess that was pretty obvious." He hummed noncommittally, and she swirled her cup for a moment. "Yeah... to forget. Or... to not hurt so much."
He bowed his head, staring into his glass and was silent for a time. "Yeah," he finally said, then was silent for another brief period before he said, "I train to forget."
Ryouko blinked. "How do you train yourself to forget?" That brought out another laugh and killer smile, and Ryouko mentally cursed herself as her heart started leaping around in her chest.
"Heh, sorry; that wasn't what I meant. I'm a martial artist, and to forget, I bury myself in training."
"Oooh, I see. Workaholic type, ne? Heh, that sounded funny at first."
"So it did," he said and grinned.
"A martial artist, huh? So what do you do with that?"
That brought him up short, never really needing to think of it in any way other than a means unto itself. "Um... I teach at a local dojo. Pass on what I know. ... It kinda pays the bills."
"Hmmm, I know a little myself. Maybe we could spar sometime?"
"Sure. So... what do you do?"
"Nothing, really." She gulped down her cup of sake. "I... exist."
"For a living, I meant."
"... Okay. Must be nice."
"No... Not really."
The conversation lulled, both man and woman suddenly absorbed in their own thoughts. Another bottle of sake and another club soda came and went.
"So... What was her name?" Ryouko asked, braving the waters again.
"Who did she leave you for?" Her voice was laced with personal bitterness.
Ranma caught her tone and realized that she must have been jilted, but that didn't describe his situation at all. "The next life," he said quietly.
Ryouko jerked and brought her hand to her mouth. "Uh, sorry. I, er, didn't... know?"
"How could you know?" he said, still quietly.
She fought with herself, but there were no comforting words where death was concerned. One lived with it until time and circumstance helped one to forget. That was it. That was all.
They drank silently for another round of memories.
"So... What was his name?" Ranma eventually asked.
Putting her sake down, she said, "Tenchi."
"I take it he didn't die."
"No. I've wished her dead a few times, but it wouldn't have changed anything."
"Sounds... complicated," he said, arching an eyebrow.
"You have no idea how much."
"Me, too... for you, that is."
After another lull, Ryouko stood. "I should go."
"Yeah... This place stinks, present company excepted."
She smirked at him. "Why, thank you, kind sir."
"The pleasure was entirely mine," he said with false gravity, chuckling afterwards. He laid four one thousand-yen bills on the counter.
She reddened slightly, still affected by the nice words in spite of the joke.
"Let me walk you out, at least."
"Thank you," she murmured, and they strolled across the bar, the entire room falling almost silent. Ranma could almost imagine "Lucky bastard!" echoing in the men's minds. He smirked to himself just a tiny bit at the irony. <If you only knew...>
The door approached all too quickly for the both of them, and standing on the sidewalk, they regarded each other until Ryouko held out her hand for a western-style handshake. Ranma smiled gently, his eyes glinting in multiple colors from the street lights, and Ryouko cursed her leaping heart again. He took her hand, shaking it twice.
"It was a pleasure, Ryouko."
"For me, too."
"Maybe we'll run into each other again, sometime."
"I'd... like that. Be well, Ranma, the martial artist."
"You, too, Ryouko, the mystery woman who exists."
She laughed at his description, released his hand, and then turned and walked away. Ranma turned as well, and walked in the opposite direction.
After a few yards, she stopped and peered back over her shoulder, watching his strong back and lithe form receding into the thin crowd.
"Look," she whispered. "Look back. Please let me know you're interested... as interested as I am... for the first time since--" The thought went uncompleted as Ranma glanced over his own shoulder, catching her staring. She blushed and waved cutely. "Oh, real smooth, Ryouko-baka. Now he probably thinks you're a ditz."
Regretfully turning away, she lowered her head and tried to blend in with her fellow pedestrians. What she really wanted to do was phase into the ground and hide in embarrassment, but that would attract the wrong kind of attention.
Catching her watching him thrilled Ranma in a way he'd almost forgotten. He'd intended to see if she might look back once, just to see if she was really interested, if the butterflies in his stomach might carry him to a better tomorrow.
As he walked on, letting the vision of her staring after him hang in his mind, he discovered that for the first time in so long his heart felt light. There was something... special about her, but he couldn't put his finger on it. However, the fun of the mystery was in the slow unraveling; Nabiki had taught him that, if not directly.
Grinning to himself, he thought of dear Kasumi. She'd taught him patience by example, and strangely enough, dense as he was, he'd learned it, even if his eager hopes now strained that patience.
And Akane... Akane had taught him to welcome the unexpected in life simply because she existed. She had been the question and the answer for him, all rolled into one package.
He stopped again, looking back at the top of the bar's storefront, enough distance between him and the wonderful hole-in-the-wall that even the sparse crowd obscured his view. No, Ryouko was special, somehow, even if she only existed, right now. It would do, given the chance to solve her riddle, to find the hidden question, and he thrilled to the certain thought that the answer within her, within himself, wouldn't quite be what he would've expected. But maybe... Maybe it would be just what he needed.
From the rooftop overlooking Ranma and his thoughts as he stared back at the bar, Ryouko leaned back and hugged herself, finally seeing a spark, a chance for something better, something for her, some-ONE for her.
"I think, Ranma... that it was a good thing."