Finally, after so much procrastination, I've finished chapter 7. Please forgive the delay; I'll try to be faster next time.
Truckloads of thanks go to my prereaders, Larry F, Wanderer D, Henrique M. Holschuh and Con_Man. Especially Larry F, who is responsible for every bit of accurate information about the workings of the military--not to mention all the scenes that would've been much poorer without his help. Thanks, Larry!
Now, please, people, send C&C. Those who know me are aware of my bias towards public comments, but I'll take anything you can throw this way. Just a word or two to let me know what you think of it; you'll make one happy Latin guy. C'mon, you know you want to... ^_^
Larry F also hosts all of my fanfics (not that there're so many to begin with), so previous chapters can be found at: http://lwf58.tripod.com/fan_fiction/latin_d/
And while you're at it, you could visit Joy Lyn's great crossover archive. It also hosts Silent Battles, and many other crossovers--including many which have nothing to do with Ranma (yay!). Go to: http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Shores/5533/index.html
Now, if Ranma crossovers or fusion is what you want, you must try Tannim's webpage, at: http://tannim.anifics.com/index.html Some of the my favourites are hosted here--like SB. :-p
With all that behind us, enjoy!
DISCLAIMER: Ranma 1/2 belongs to the brilliant Takahashi Rumiko. Robotech is owned by Harmony Gold USA, Inc. No copyright infringement is intended.
This story is based on McKinney's books.
Chapter 7: Insights
The last of his students from the afternoon class walked out the big metallic double door, and Ranma Saotome, master of the Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts, leaned back against one of walls of the training hall, his brow glistening in the cold white light. He rested there for a few seconds, but his dry throat demanded attention and thus, with a soft groan of complaint, he pushed himself forward and headed for the vending machine across the room, his bare feet sinking slightly in the soft blue gym mat that covered the floor. The chamber was unusually bare, having been cleaned out in haste to function as an improvised classroom. The vending machine was the only appliance in the room, and stood alone near the entrance. Luckily, he needed nothing more.
It had been a long day, and it was not over yet. A beginners class was scheduled next, and then he would have to stay after hours to train the girls... Even when he was starting to doubt they really were interested in martial arts at all. He shook his head wearily. People said new jobs were always difficult to adapt to, and he was beginning to see the truth in this assertion. It had come as a pleasant surprise that some of his new students had been regulars at the dojo; it was one of the few anorexic rays of light to be found in what was otherwise an ocean of darkness.
The morning classes were comprised of lieutenants and other commissioned officers, and some among them still viewed Ranma as an outsider--although the Army had granted him the rank of second lieutenant, hence making his incorporation to the RDF official. This, added to the fact that word of his close relationship with the Captain of the ship himself had somehow filtered through, had transformed teaching during the past few days into an uphill task.
He fed the machine a few coins, and grabbed the soda it offered. "Thank you, sir," a rasping synthesized voice addressed him. Ranma started, not used yet to the wonders of Robotechnology, and half-waiting for a crossdresser to attack him. Casting off the painful memories, he opened his soda and took a long sip, sighing contently as the cold beverage coursed down his throat.
It was no wonder that Ranma preferred his afternoon classes. They were mainly formed by young recruits, just out from boot camp and without as many prejudices. Plus, the cadets' bodies were fit and healthy, having undergone a thorough training under the drill sergeants' attentive care, and the elementary hand-to-hand skills learned during it were still fresh in their minds, to boot. They were all diamonds in the rough, any sensei's dream come true.
Likewise, basic training seemed to have instilled a serviceable philosophy in them: "Do things the way your superiors order, no matter if it makes sense or not." Genma would have drooled in the face of this opportunity, Ranma thought, and promptly ordered them to jump into a pit packed with starving cats. But he would use it to make them into martial artists, instead. And they would learn.
Ranma threw the empty can to a nearby trash bin with a flick of his wrist, and strolled to the center of the room. He let his arms hang loosely for a moment as he relaxed both mind and body, seeking the needed focus. All at once he fell into his trademarked stance, and he began a slow, if complex, kata. His feet danced across the floor, his arms and fists moving precisely along the familiar pattern.
A small part of the pig-tailed martial artist's mind which wasn't focused on the both graceful and forceful movements of his body felt a tinge of nostalgia. The new position as a trainer for the Army left him with little time for almost anything else. He arrived at the base early in the morning, and never managed to escape before the city's artificial sky was dark and spangled with innumerable imitation stars. He was beginning to feel like a vampire, it had been so long since he had last seen the light of day. Because of this, Ranma saw very little of the Lynn family, and had been forced to cancel his classes at the dojo- -though he kept on training Jason in his rare free moments.
However, on the plus side of things, he hadn't meet Rick in a couple of days, which was no petty gift. Ranma grinned mentally at this, then sobered up. Truth be told, the boy was not in the restaurant so much any more, as he had taken to spending long hours in walks around the ship. Rick seemed permanently sad and glum lately, and avoided people whenever possible. Perhaps he ought to look into that...
The kata's finale found Ranma back where he had started: the exact center of the training hall. An instant later, a new kata started, this one explosive in its speed and vivacity--one of the more "aerial" of the Saotome School. Colossal leaps carried him close to the large chamber's ceiling, and Ranma appeared to stubbornly hang in the air for seconds on end. At long last, gravity reclaimed him and brought him back to earth, where another jump would begin it all anew. Arms and legs rent the air, his red satin shirt painting fugacious crimson streaks through the room, and caused loud snaps as the air rushed out of their way.
To top it all, he missed his dojo. He missed its wooden walls and sliding panels; he missed the feeling of his naked feet on its polished floor. The dojo possessed a warm, cozy feel to it, a hidden yet alluring aura which couldn't be matched by the spartan, sterile practicality of the military facilities. His father had taught him that all places were suitable for martial arts training, and that even the most dull and boring activity could become a challenging exercise--but during his stay with the Tendos he had come to appreciate the comfort a dojo provided, and now that he had finally regained it, he regretted not being able to enjoy it.
A high kick marked the kata's ending, and Ranma lowered it ever so slowly, tendons taut yet steady and firm. He let out his breath, not at all tired, and flicked the damp bangs of shiny raven hair covering his eyes out as he inhaled deeply. Sensing a presence, he pivoted, discovering a small audience of twenty-some young men gathered at the doors. They stood frozen, their mouths gaping in wonderment at the amazing display of skill. Ranma smiled inwardly, recalling that these were new students coming for their first class--Veritech pilots in training all, if his memory did not fail him.
"C'mon in!" he called out, shocking them out of their collective stupor. "That is, if you're not too busy actin' like statues...."
The recruits rushed in, some blushing slightly in embarrassment, and formed up into perfect lines opposite Ranma with a precision that betrayed their recent military training. He gave the drill instructors that followed them in a nod of greeting and turned back to the inductees, who were looking at him expectantly.
"I'm your new sensei, Ranma Saotome. Nice to meet ya all." He bowed, and nodded, pleased, when his students returned the gesture.
With only a limited experience in the Army, Ranma had already learned an important lesson: making a good impression was at best secondary to making a lasting one. "My pop liked to say the path of the martial artist is fraught with peril." He gave them a toothy smirk, his blue eyes shining in barely-contained mirth, noticing the curiosity plain in their faces. "In the next two hours I'm gonna show you why."
Many feet shifted uncomfortably, and the class began.
Only inches worth of the strongest polycarbonate the UEG's scientists managed to develop after ten years of research separated him from the dark void, which patiently waited to suck him into oblivion. It was a fearsome and humbling picture, capable of throwing the bravest person into an inner philosophical debate about his or her actual place in the grand scheme of things.
Perhaps this was the reason the Super Dimensional Fortress One's only viewport which was allowed to be visited by the fifty thousand plus refugees was virtually always deserted. Most of Macross' war-weary inhabitants preferred to ignore the fact that they were lost amidst the cold vacuum of space, far away from their home planet, and sheltered from the harsh reality in the urban bliss their transplanted city provided.
That same solitude turned it into a good, quiet place for thinking and pondering--what Rick Hunter most needed at that moment. The viewport (simply called "the window" by the civilians, in a show of utter disrespect for military tradition that amused Rick greatly) was almost six meters tall and double that wide, and beyond it lay a breathtaking sight: a firmament richer than any other ever observed from Earth. Rick was not able to appreciate it, though, as his mind was busy on other rather sadder matters.
The days he had spent trapped with Minmei had been demanding, frightening... and magical. Like futuristic Robinson Crusoes, they had shared an adventure, with enough drawbacks, action and intimate moments to merit a novel. He had thought something had formed between them, a special bond. But now Minmei ignored the entire incident, as if it had never happened, trivializing one of the most intense experiences of his life as a mere anecdote.
Their kiss, just before the workers had found them--it had been real; he still could feel her sweet taste in his lips. How could she deny it?
And then the war seemed to have caught up with him at long last. He had promised his father never to become a fighter pilot. "Fliers shouldn't be killers, Rick," Jack "Pop" Hunter had told his only son back when he was still a little kid. "Don't make the same mistakes I did." It was ironic in a way that Uncle Max had used those same words to prod Rick into joining the Army.
When had it all started to come apart? What was the exact moment he had lost control of his life? When Roy left the air circus to fight the Global Civil War? The day his father died? When he had gotten into the cockpit of that Veritech back on the infamous Launch Day? While stranded with Minmei in the SDF-1's labyrinthine bowels? Or maybe when they were finally rescued? Did it really matter? So many questions...
Rick grabbed his head with both hands, frustrated and angry with himself at his inability to reach a decision. A faint light illumined him briefly; he looked up, seeing a Veritech soaring away across space, thrusters flaring brightly with the power of its reaction drives. Rick followed it with his eyes as it lost itself in the distance, another bluish star.
All of a sudden, a hand fell on his shoulder, causing Rick to jump in surprise. "It's really something, ain't it?" came the familiar, roguish voice. "Finest fighter ever built, in my humble opinion."
"Oh, hi, Roy," Rick greeted half-heartedly.
"Gee, feeling depressed today, kiddo? C'mon," Roy said, clapping Rick on the back, "cheer up! We beat the bad guys again; the city is back in top shape; we haven't been attacked in days.... What else d'ya need?"
Rick looked forlornly to the floor. "It's just that... I--I can't seem..."
"Lemme guess:" Roy interrupted him, smirking knowingly, "it's 'bout Minmei, right?"
"No. Yes. Sort of. She--she's different somehow, and I don't know how to act around her any more. ...She changed."
Roy made a dismissing gesture with his hand. "If I were you, I wouldn't worry much. Minmei's young, and a bit scatterbrained. She'll come around, you'll see; you just need to give her time."
"Yeah, I guess..." An uneasy silence ensued, until Rick couldn't bear it any more and asked, "Uh, how's the fighting going, Roy?"
The blond pilot looked him oddly, and then drawled, "We're still hurting for pilots, if that's what ya mean." He gently turned the younger man around and stared right into his eyes, his face seriously set for once. "Stop beating around the bush, Rick. Didja decide what you're gonna do or not? Are you joining the Army, or you're still busy moping around like an overgrown schoolkid?"
"Hey," Rick protested hotly, "I'm not moping! Besides, this's not my war to fight!"
"As long as you live in this ship, the war is gonna find you sooner or later," Roy assured matter-of-factly. "Where d'ya wanna be when that happens: stuck in a shelter as a bystander or inside the cockpit of a Veritech, fighting for your home and the safety of your loved ones?"
"Pop wouldn't have wanted me to enlist..." Rick mumbled in a low voice.
Roy's eyes softened somewhat, and his voice was warm and reassuring when he next spoke. "He woulda understood, trust me. You must make up your mind, and soon; war's not gonna wait up for you.... Gotta go now, but think about it; think hard, okay?" He whirled around, and began walking towards one of the large corridors that ultimately led to Macross city. "Talk to ya later."
Rick's troubled gaze returned to the vast space outside the enormous viewport, yet found no solace in the unconcerned stars.
The RDF base buzzed with activity as the ersatz sky started to gradually darken overhead, doing the EVE specialists' bidding. The continuous, light breeze that ran throughout the colossal alien vessel's interiors carried a deafening cacophony of hundreds of different sounds, and it was not unheard of for the occasional civilian to feel a little dazed during their first visit. New recruits, adolescents most of them, were herded like cattle to the barracks which would be their home for the next two months; drill sergeants loudly chanted snappy cadence calls, eliciting roaring choruses from the recruits marching in rank- and-file formations beside them; the doors of the officers' club were wide open, and laughter and muffled voices drifted out, adding to the sonic chaos.
This same constant clamor was the one which allowed the sudden outcry to go mostly unnoticed.
"An instructor?! HIM?!"
"Yeah," Kim responded with a bored expression, "he's been at it for a week now."
Lisa blinked twice, trying to shake off her shock "But... how?"
Sammie, walking next to Lisa, leaned towards her and, with the edge of her left hand pressed against the corner of her mouth, stage- whispered, "I heard somewhere that the Captain himself arranged it." She, like the two other enlisted-rating techs that formed the Terrible Trio, was dressed in a brand-new white gi, though more as a concession to tradition than because of a request from their trainer.
"Nepotism," the SDF's First Officer said to herself with utter disgust, as if that lone word gathered everything that was wrong with the world. "Now, explain me again why you're going to see him so late, please."
"Because," Kim informed, "the classes at the dojo were called off, and we really wanna see him, and he's very busy in the mornings, and Ranma was so sweet that he let us come after hours for some--" She made a short pause, heaving a melodramatic sigh-- "late training."
Lisa patiently ignored the giggling around her, and asked, "And why must I come with you?"
Vanessa was the one that answered this time, showing a degree of unspoken coordination with her two girlfriends that struck Lisa as eerie and unnerving. "Because," she said, resettling her glasses with her right-hand forefinger, "you gave your word, and we're not gonna let you go back on it."
"And why is Claudia here?" Lisa glanced at her long-time friend, who was separated from the foursome, her hands in her jacket pockets.
Claudia herself answered, a slight grin surfacing in her face. "Because I've wanted to spar with Ranma since I met him, and this's my chance." She looked at Lisa, and the grin widened. "Besides, it's always fun to see you at each other's throats." She was wearing a gray sweat suit, apparently intent on carrying out her plans.
"You seem to have all the answers, eh?" Lisa commented, a bit peeved, idly combing her thick brown hair with her slender fingers. "Okay, you win. Just make it short; I don't want to waste my first leave in weeks in the presence of that jerk."
Minutes later, they reached the large complex of rooms and corridors where new recruits received the bulk of their training. Like most of the areas in the ship used by the Army, it was made up of the kind of spacious, empty chambers that were so abundant in the alien craft's huge inside. They entered through the main door, carefully picking their way through the lines of inductees walking in the opposite direction. In time, they arrived at the training hall where Ranma worked, and were about to go in when the door unexpectedly swung open of its own accord, letting out, to their complete astonishment, the sound of pained groans and muffled moans.
Out came exactly twenty two young men--they walked so slowly Lisa was able to count them with no problem whatsoever, a testament to their sorry state. They staggered past them, lurching like drunkards, and slowly fell in formation less than a meter behind the flabbergasted officers.
"Guy's insane, I tell ya," one of them was panting, inhaling loudly as he tried to recover his breath. "And I thought Morales was bad..."
"I hear you," a burly man beside him concurred. "Oooh, dammit! If I kick one more time my leg's gonna come off, I swear it."
"But... he... did... some very... cool stuff... back there," his scrawny companion pointed out between gasps.
"Yeah," the first man agreed, grimacing, "he did. He's gotta be some kinda Japanese Superman, or somethin'."
A tall, beefy, nasty-looking man, who Lisa immediately identified as the squad's DI, exited the gaping door, bringing the conversation to an abrupt halt. The recruits snapped to attention, backs straightening and shoulders squaring--but she could note some of the young men's knees trembling because of the exertion it required.
Claudia and Lisa looked at each other, both finding the same doubts etched in their faces: What had just happened? And more importantly even, what had Ranma done to those men? They shared a shiver as they witnessed the most horrible pictures in their mind's eyes. Sparring did not sound as such a good idea to Claudia any more, and Lisa expanded her mental list of Ranma's defects, adding "abusive", "cruel" and "brutal".
The trio of young techs, on the contrary, appeared to take the whole episode in stride.
"First class," Kim observed nonchalantly, receiving casual nods from Sammie and Vanessa. Without further ado, they stepped into the room, unaware of the incredulous looks their companions were directing toward them. Claudia and Lisa warily followed them, and saw the Terrible Trio waiting close to the wall, in an uncharacteristic show of restraint, fascinated stares fixed on what was taking place ahead.
On the blue gym mat, Ranma was performing powerful, graceful spin kicks with an ease almost surreal, and a tall, lean man, slightly behind him, copied his every move, if not with the same elegant fluidness, skillfully all the same. The man was in his early twenties, and had a thin, slender face, with a small nose and refined features that gave him a sort of urbane handsomeness. His skin, white as milk, contrasted against his serene dark eyes, which stayed focused on his sensei. His tall if lithe frame flowed from one position to the next in calm, swift movements, and tough his gray sweatshirt was soaked wet with perspiration, he gave no sign of fatigue when Ranma sped up, and merely followed suit.
Not bad, Vanessa mutely decided, even though she still preferred Ranma's exotic looks.
But just then a sergeant was approaching the pair, making Ranma stop the exercise. "Sir," Drill Sergeant Morales said, "I'm sorry, but Preston cannot stay behind his squad. He must be in the mess hall in ten minutes, so I'm afraid further martial arts training will have to wait until tomorrow."
"Can't he stay for just one more minute? I've got this great technique I want to show him, where you use--"
"Sorry, sir," Morales interrupted, "but if we permit the recruit to stay any longer, it'll play havoc with the training schedule. Major Ghent set up that schedule personally. Would you want to be the one to tell the major why you think it's necessary to throw his schedule out the window for the benefit of one soldier?" The lean, square-shouldered man's face showed the slightest hint of the beginnings of a sardonic smile.
"Huh? Oh, in that case..." He turned to his student and bowed, the man quickly returning the gesture, slightly more deeply. Then, Ranma spoke: "This is it for the day, Greg. Remember to practice the kata I showed ya, 'kay?"
"Yes, sensei. Goodbye, sir." The young man bowed once more and rushed out of the room, Sergeant Morales one step behind.
"See ya tomorrow," Ranma called, and Claudia could hear him softly adding to himself, "He's good..."
The door closed silently, and the trio of techs walked up to the mat and bowed. "HI, RANMA-SENSEI," they said as one. Lisa shook his head in disbelief and embarrassment for her friends' behavior. What did they see in that man?
Ranma groaned, "Heya, girls. ...So you came, eh?" He did not sound very thrilled.
"We wouldn't miss your class for anything," Sammie declared cheerfully, "sensei!"
Kim was fast to agree. "You're the best sensei ever!"
"And the most good-looking, too!" Vanessa finished, winking slyly.
The pig-tailed martial artist flushed slightly, then cleared his throat, his left hand busy rubbing the back of his head. "Yeah, er, that's, um, good. You, uh, keep that attitude." He gazed past them, finally noticing the two officers standing by the wall. "Hi, Claudia," he greeted the brunette woman, and she responded in kind. Only then she faced Lisa and, suppressing a grin, he called, "Hello, Tomboy."
Claudia and the techs winced, waiting for the outburst sure to come. They did not have to wait for long. "Tomboy?!" Lisa roared, her face red-hot and her fists tightly clenched. "Why, you loud-mouthed, good-for-nothing--"
"Yeah, yeah," Ranma cut off, "whatever. Anyway, what brings you here? Don't tell me you like martial arts..."
Lisa was still all steamed up. "As a matter of fact, I do!"
"Really?" Ranma gave her a quick once-over. "Your hips were so thick I thought your hobby was eating cakes."
"For your information, I was the best in my class, and I bet I could wipe the floor with you in no time at all, jerk!" Claudia would have sworn Lisa's eyes glowed red with fury, as she ran to the gym mat, practically shoving Sammie and Kim aside, and fell into a classic karate stance.
Gotcha! Ranma thought, content. "Well, there's only one way to find out, dontcha think?" His hands clasped behind his back, Ranma saw Lisa taking a swing at him, and grinned.
"Why won't you... stop... dodging and... fight me... for REAL?!" Lisa heaved as she directed a blow at her opponent's midsection. Her fist swiftly closed in, but just when the punch seemed unavoidable, its rapidly target moved sideways, and she struck the empty space it had occupied only a fraction of second ago. Again.
"Hey, Lisa's doing really well," Vanessa pointed out from her sitting position on the floor, her back against the wall and her eyes intently taking on the on-going fight.
Cludia, seated next to her, turned away from the encounter long enough to send her a skeptical look. "What do you mean 'really well'? She hasn't hit him once!"
"Yeah," the bespectacled tech conceded, "but she actually came close a couple of times. That's more than most of Ranma's sparring partners can say."
Kim nodded. "Pity she won't last; she's already getting tired."
"I always told her she needed to exercise more," Claudia said, turning a critical eye to her superior.
"Yes, all that time at her station can't be healthy. I know it isn't for me..." Sammie actually sounded concerned for a moment. "All that stress is gonna make my face become wrinkled, girls, I swear it!" On the blue, padded mats Ranma dodged another flurry of blows by backflipping in the nick of time, and she promptly forgot her distress. "Go Ranma! You can do it, Lisa!"
"Who're you cheering on, anyway?" Claudia wanted to know.
Sammie pondered for an instant, her forefinger to her lower lip. "Well, Lisa's my friend and my superior officer, and Ranma's my sensei and a hunk, so--both, of course!"
Ranma paid no heed to the girls' remarks and made a show of yawning mightily, covering his mouth with one hand while the other rested behind his head. "You're so slow I could fight ya in my sleep..." he said to Lisa. "Actually, this's so boring I'm fallin' asleep right now." He yawned once again.
Lisa launched a powerful kick at his head, trying to catch him when his guard was down. Ranma merely ducked to his left, her foot missing by less than a hairbreadth, and then evaded the follow-up sharp, slanting chop that nearly clipped his chin by tilting his head back. "ARGH! When I... get... my hands on... you," she threatened, breathing heavily, "you're... gonna wish... you hadn't born, you sneaky dirtbag!"
Ranma put a hand to his chin as he absently hopped over a footsweep. "Hmm, I think I heard that before. Okay, I'll tell ya what we're gonna do: if you can at least touch me, then I promise I'll fight back. Is that okay with ya?"
Lisa simply charged at him, executing the most complex combination of lightning-fast punches and kicks she knew and putting all her remaining strength in them. It made no difference in the end, as Ranma seemed to dance around her blows, shifting, sidestepping and dodging with practiced ease. Her attack met nothing but air, and her frustration increased exponentially. Suddenly, she had an idea. She looked behind Ranma, abruptly standing to attention. "Captain Gloval, sir!"
"Uncle...?" Ranma began before recognizing the maneuver for what it was. Only his heightened senses and superior speed permitted him to avoid the swing aimed at his face by letting himself fall to the floor and quickly rolling away. He came to his feet, a trace of newfound respect in his eyes. "Nice try, I give ya that. Now, are we finished?"
"Not until I make you eat your words!"
"Sorry, I already ate. A tomboy like you probably can't cook anyway!" Ranma taunted, playfully sticking his tongue out at Lisa. "Besides, it's late and I gotta get goin'--so say goodbye." Ranma bore down on her, his hands blurring before him and forming a small yet destructive tornado of flesh and bones. Lisa was so set in her attack that her hastily-erected defenses were overwhelmed in a matter of seconds, leaving her wide open for Ranma's barrage. She shut her eyes, waiting for the blow that never came. Instead, she felt a feathery touch on her brow and, opening her eyes, saw Ranma pressing an index finger to her face.
"I win. Lesson's over," he said, that devil-may-care grin Lisa had come to hate plastered in his face.
The sound of hearty applause interrupted the staring contest that resulted, and both fighters turned towards its source. Lisa's four companions were clapping wildly, Claudia nodding to herself knowingly.
"Great match!" she enthused. "I didn't know you had it in you, Lisa. And you weren't lying, Ranma; I don't think I ever saw someone as good as you."
"No one is as good as Ranma-sensei!" Sammie concurred excitedly.
"Not even a pissed-off Lisa," Kim added. "Which is a lot to say, really."
Lisa tried to ignore the smugness that virtually radiated from the martial artist's body after the praise and did her best to calm herself before she did something she would probably regret.
Claudia stepped forward, smiling widely. "If you two lovebirds are done playing, maybe Ranma and I could have a little sparring match..."
It took an instant for the words to register through Ranma's self-satisfaction and Lisa's irritation, but register they did. "LOVEBIRDS?!"
"Just a joke, guys. No need to get flustered," Claudia said, placating hands risen in the air. Then, cocking her head like in sudden remembrance, she consulted her tiny wristwatch and gasped--perhaps a little too loudly. "Oh, no! I forgot I had plans for a late dinner with Roy! If I run I'll make it on time, I think." She slipped Ranma a sly wink, and added, "I trust you'll escort Lisa to her quarters, Ranma. And you still owe me that match, mister! Later!"
"Wait!" Lisa yelled, but Claudia did not halt her sprint and was out of sight in no time.
Lisa was still staring at the gaping door when the bridge bunnies shared a look and started edging towards the door, too. "Well," Vanessa sniggered, "if you two want time to get lovey-dovey, we'll just see you tomorrow, Ranma-sensei! Have fun, Lisa!" The girls giggled their way out of the room, leaving Lisa alone with Ranma in the now overly-silent room.
The brunette officer let out one of her distinctive growls, but did not follow them. Instead, she stood still for a moment, unsure of what to do and suddenly all too aware of Ranma's closeness. The quiet continued for what seemed to Lisa like an eternity, and she inwardly swore to take vengeance on her friends, her anger towards Ranma forgotten for the time being. At last, she could not take it any more and simply started towards the exit.
"Where are you goin'?" Ranma asked her, stopping her in her tracks.
"Where do you think I'm going, hotshot?" Lisa countered, her tone openly hostile. "To my bedroom, so I can chew myself out about the night lost and maybe get some sleep." Her blouse was ruined after the one-way fight which it was never meant to endure; her loose-fitting cuffed pants felt sweaty, and she certainly was not in the mood for shopping anymore, as she had first planned.
"Oh." Ranma shrugged. "Well, let's go."
"'Let's go'?" she repeated, incredulous. "You're not going anywhere. When I need a bodyguard, I'll let you know."
"Have it your way." He turned his head and crossed his arms. "Jeez, you try to be polite..."
Lisa snorted. "This coming from a man who insults me every time he sees me."
"I never insulted you," Ranma said to her, unfortunately unaware of the effect his words had until it was too late.
Lisa spun on him, seeing red. "No? So when you called me 'Tomboy' today you meant it as a compliment, eh?!" she exploded, punctuating her words with angry jabs with her finger. "Oh, PLEASE forgive me! I hadn't understood! You must be too SUBTLE for the likes of me!" She was literally yelling at his face by now.
Ranma, who had closed his eyes during the onslaught, warily opened one of them, peeking at her with more than a little fear--even if he would never ever admit it. "Oh, that," he mumbled feebly.
"I'm, er... I'm..." Ranma swallowed hard and, after a series of false start, got out a weak: "I'm sorry."
"I can't believe my ears," Lisa affirmed in mock-amazement. "Have you just said you're sorry?"
"Yeah, I said I'm sorry, alright?!" He offered Lisa a contrite look. "I just wanted to get the girls outta my hair for a while and then I saw you and..."
"...and you thought picking a fight with me would be a good idea," she finished for him.
"It worked well enough," Ranma muttered, but Lisa's smoldering glare silenced him for good. However, watching him standing penitently opposite her, as if waiting for her to hit him or punish him somehow, Lisa could not find it in her to stay angry at the pig-tailed man. With a weary sigh, she threw her arms to the air and gave up.
"Fine, fine, apology accepted," she yielded at long last. "Come, but try to keep your foot out of your mouth for a change."
Ranma's smirked devilish, and followed her out into the well-lit corridor. "You got it... sourpuss."
A multitude crowded Macross City's main shopping street, to the point where Rick found himself forced to walk sideways on many occasions. It eluded him how Minmei, who was guiding him across the thronged sidewalks, shops and shopping malls of the modern city with expertise, was able to walk so gracefully among the people, especially compared to his rather awkward gait. She cut through the crowd like a fish though water, men and women alike seemingly parting before her. Like a queen among her subjects...
Rick took a moment to look about and collect impressions. All around him, the vivid image of prosperity greeted him: carefree laughter, lustrous cars, green trees and blue sky. Abundance and lushness were the order of the day, and the war was far away in the minds of the citizens, a taboo topic to be avoided whenever possible. He, still a teenager, was more worried about the future than those who had seen their homes destroyed twice already. He hoped someone appreciated the irony, for he sure did not. In that moment, he felt lonelier than ever before.
A gentle but firm tug at his hand prodded him onwards, and Rick reluctantly complied. He enjoyed window-shopping as much as the next guy--which was, in truth, not all that much--, but after one entire hour of it he was rapidly approaching his limits. Minmei finally stopped at another storefront, and Rick jumped at the chance.
"Minmei, listen, why don't we take a walk through the park?" he suggested, placing himself between her and the shopwindow, blocking her view. "What do you say?"
"Sure, Rick, in a minute." She kept on gazing longingly over his shoulder at the mauve, low-cut dress displayed, craning her neck as though to see better.
"But we've been shopping for hours!" Rick protested, annoyed at being ignored. "A short break won't hurt."
"I just have to try on that dress," she resisted. "I promise we'll go later."
"I need to talk to you, Minmei, I really do." He turned an almost pleading look at her. "Please?"
A strange expression crossed her face, but she assented in the end. "Okay, Rick, you win. What's so important, anyway?"
The throng streamed past them, oblivious to the young couple. It was as if Minmei and him formed a tiny world of their own, like an island that witnesses the waters of a river race by, indifferent to the small chunk of soil. Nevertheless, Rick felt uncomfortable, unwilling to give voice to his fears and concerns in such a public place. "First let's go to the park; there's too many people here."
The Chinese waitress agreed, and both headed towards the park at a slow pace. After the modular transformation that laid waste to Macross, the city plan was revised to avoid further catastrophes of the kind. Danger zones were thoughtfully cordoned off, and shelters were clearly marked. Thus, the entire Macross Central Park was also transplanted off the communication tower it had originally been constructed on into a more secure area: it was now situated in the center of the uppermost of the three tiers the city was rebuilt on.
Rick's aloofness wound up rubbing off even on the buoyant Minmei, and they went on in almost complete silence. She could not hide the sudden misgivings she was feeling, and tried to get Rick to open up many times during the short trip to no avail. None too soon, they reached the park, and sat at one of the benches--close enough to indicate they were together, adequately distant to evidence they were not lovers.
"C'mon now, Rick, tell me, what's the problem? You're scaring me."
"I..." He fumbled for the right words, then chose all the wrong ones. "Minmei, I may not be able to see you for some time..."
Minmei was by his side at once, holding his hand. "What's wrong? Are you sick or something?" she asked him. "Tell me the truth!"
"No, no," he hastened to clarify, "nothin' like that!" He turned to her, and spoke slowly, with all the cheer of a man facing a firing squad. "Roy, he came to see me today, and asked me to join the Defense Force." He fidgeted a little as he waited for her to reply, not certain if she would give him the reassurance he needed. He was half-hoping she would try to convince him that his first reaction, that of staying well away from the Army and all it entailed, had been the correct one, and his latest decision was wrong.
"Oh, Rick, that's wonderful!" Minmei gave a dumbfounded Rick a quick hug, her face aglow.
Rick held her at arm's length, his eyes unbelieving. "So--so you think I should enlist?"
"Well, you told me flying was your whole life, didn't you?" she returned. "Besides, you'd be fighting for all of us--you'd be a hero!" She seemed so excited about the idea that Rick was not able to find the heart to contradict her.
"Yes, perhaps I would..." he agreed, but his dispirited expression told otherwise.
"Of course you would! I'm so happy for you! You'll be the best pilot in the ship, you'll see!" Minmei proclaimed, not allowing Rick put in another word as she raved on.
He listened the words of encouragement that gushed forth from Minmei's lips, which foretold a career of glory and triumphs, a future of perpetual happiness and a brilliant destiny, and yet, try as he might, he could not force himself to believe them. However, even as he saw her beautiful features, her eyes shining as though with a light of its own, confident in what fate held in store for them even after the many calamities, he realized just how special and precious she truly was. Help her preserve that charming innocence of hers would well be worth a small sacrifice, he mutely resolved.
Even if it cost part of his own.
Ranma attentively gazed as Greg Preston, his raven-haired, light- skinned student, performed the kata he had taught him less than an hour ago. He did it with a precision that could have deceived most into believing he had practiced it for months--most, but not Ranma. His adept gaze perceived numerous if minor mistakes: a foot half an inch too low, a kick executed a second too late. But the core of the exercise was there; all it needed was polish.
Acknowledging the young man's latent aptitude for the Art, Ranma had singled Greg out of his class immediately, and practically railroaded his DI into accepting to let him come back after his regular class for some special training. At the moment Greg was only a very good martial artist, but with the right sort of help he could become a true practitioner of the Art--Ranma's help.
Sensing his student's growing weariness, Ranma signaled Greg to stop his exercises and beckoned him over to the vending machine, next to which a long bench had been placed at Ranma's request. They sat, and Ranma offered his student a cold soda, who gladly accepted it with a nod of thanks.
"I notice ya studied Kempo, Greg," the pig-tailed instructor pointed out.
The young pilot nodded. "Yeah, I started when I was ten. My father sent me 'cause he thought it'd teach me self-discipline."
"Well, you're skilled," Ranma admitted, then hurried to temper the assessment, "but a bit slow. And maybe a tad on the weak side. And your kata are a bit sloppy. And your reflexes are not all that impressive. And--"
Greg winced with every further clarification, until he decided to butt in: "Er, sensei? Please, no more praise. I'm gonna blush..." he trailed off, sarcasm dripping from his voice.
Ranma checked himself, and went on, "The point is, I believe you've got potential. We'll have to work hard, but I think I can make a martial artist out of ya yet. Whaddaya say?"
Greg shrugged. "Sure, sensei. Though I don't think I'll be able to come so often. Flight school starts in three days, and they say the schedule's gonna be hell for us." He shook his head and clicked his tongue resignedly, but there was a hint of barely-hidden pride and eagerness in his voice.
"It's no problem at all," Ranma told him, grinning from ear to ear. "We'll just have to train ever harder, won't we?"
"Slave driver," Greg muttered, low enough to ensure his sensei would not hear it, lest he decided to order more of his backbreaking exercises.
Ranma gulped down the rest of his soda. "How didja end up in Macross, anyway?"
"Oh, my old man was one of the first to come to Macross. He's a designer, y'know, one of the men that rebuilt the Fortress, and worked for the Internationalists during the War. So he got a good look at her, and realized he'd better bring in his family, 'cause that sure wasn't a summer job." He grinned at this, and Ranma involuntarily conjured an image of the SDF-1's burnt wreck as he himself had witnessed it, repressing a shudder. "So," Greg continued, "we moved in to the city- -which was really just a buncha houses next to the port back then--and that's pretty much it."
"Your father still works in the ship?"
Greg pointed aft, where the starship's engineering section was located. "Yeah, he's one of Doctor Lang's Robotechnicians now. He really got involved in this whole Robotech business."
"What 'bout the rest of your family?" Ranma asked, not noting how Greg's shoulders tensed upon hearing the question. "They live in Macross?"
Greg, who had been talkative until then, seemed reticent now, and refused to meet Ranma's eyes. At length, he answered, "I'm an only child. And my mom, she--she passed away," Greg said, stumbling over the words.
Ranma, taken off guard, only stuttered an apologetic: "Oh, Greg, sorry. I didn't know that."
Greg shook his head, dismissing it as unimportant. "It's okay, sensei, you couldn't've known." He leaned back on the bench, his head touching the wall, and closed his eyes. "She was killed on the Launch day. My dad's status gave us some privileges, so our home was over the hills--where the aliens first attacked the island. We'd gone back to the house after the sirens went off, and only got the order to evacuate to the bomb shelters after the SDF-1 took off. We'd just gotten into the car when they came.
"Those damned metallic ostriches fell on us from nowhere, and one stepped on the house and destroyed it. I took to the road at once, but the sonofabitches hopped faster than my car! And they kept firing--at us, at the woods, at the buildings... I thought we were gonna die right there but, thank God, the VTs came and they distracted the bastards enough for us to reach the city safely--and then the battle caught up with us again.
"It was hell, sensei, pure hell. There was so much dust in the air that sometimes I couldn't see where we were going. Big rocks fell on the road by the hundreds, and I had to swerve all the time to dodge them. We were just a block away from the shelter when we run out of luck: A big piece of concrete struck the hood, I hit my head against the wheel, and it knocked me out. I don't know how long I was out of it, a coupla minutes I guess. When I woke up, my face was covered in blood, and I couldn't see very well.
"Mom, I--I found her sprawled on the street. It seems the crash sent her through the windshield. She was unconscious, and had a long cut across her forehead; the blood didn't let me see her face. Her left leg was broken, too. I searched for a pulse, but found none, so I gathered her in my arms, and ran for the shelter.
"When we finally reached it, someone took my mom and a nurse tended my wounds. Mom died before I got to the shelter, they told me. The doctor said it was painless, that the impact killed her instantly, but I don't believe him. I myself stayed at the hospital in Macross City for a week while they treated the concussion. Luckily, my father'd been inside the ship all the time..." A bittersweet smile crept onto his lips, and he repeated to himself, "Luckily."
Ranma had kept an uncomfortable silence during the entire story, and now found himself at a loss for words. How were you supposed to act when an acquaintance told you something so personal? "I'm really sorry, Greg. I didn't mean to pry."
"Don't worry, sir. I didn't have the chance to talk about this much," Greg admitted, "and it feels good to get it all out for once."
"This's why you became a pilot, right?" Ranma asked in sudden understanding.
"Yes. My home seemed too quiet after that, especially 'cause rebuilding the city kept my dad busy at work most of the time. And I wanted to pay the bastards back some of the pain they'd caused." He stared at the elder man in the eye. "Vengeance's as good a reason as any to join the Force, isn't it?"
Ranma chose not to answer, for he knew better than that. The desire for revenge, for some sort of retribution or justice, had driven his life for many years after Akane's death, and he wanted nothing more with it. So he decided to change the subject, and enthused, "Awright, break time's over! Now I want ya to repeat that last kata I showed you over and over and over again 'til you have it down to a T, understood?" He started towards the mat after dropping the can in the dustbin.
"Bully," his student said under his breath, the past conversation forgotten.
"I heard you," Ranma called over his shoulder, making Greg startle. "Both times. I guess it's time for another coupla hours running across the base grounds--ya seem to need the exercise."
Greg simply groaned.
The officer's mess was empty and silent, save for the two young women sat at one of the small tables over the old jukebox, by the wall. Which suited them just fine, as their ears still rang with the ceaseless din that dominated the bridge at all times. If the mighty reflex engines were the SDF-1's heart, then the bridge was its brain, and it was never idle or inactive. Because of this, any respite, no matter how short, was welcomed and cherished by its crew.
It was especially hard for Claudia and Lisa: they were perhaps two of the few truly irreplaceable people in the entire ship. The Bridge Officer's experience made her indispensable in hairy situations, and Lisa's knowledge of the spaceship's systems was second only to Doctor Emil Lang's, the resident Robotechnology wizard. Thus, the permanent alert they had supported for weeks now, with its restless nights and constant vigilance, had taken a heavy toll in them--the reason the women currently sat hunched at their respective chairs, shoulders drooping.
"Ooooh," Lisa moaned, bleary-eyed, as she rubbed her neck in a vain attempt to loosen up the kinks hours of leaning over her station monitor had created. "I'm so tired I feel I could sleep through the whole trip home--" She tilted her head, as if pondering-- "and then some more."
Claudia sipped at her ice tea, absentmindedly listening to the soft music coming from the jukebox. "Join the club. I haven't had a good night's sleep since we were on the island." She tried to suppress a yawn, and failed. "Well, if things quiet down for awhile, we might be able to get a pass."
Lisa snorted. "I sincerely doubt it after yesterday's catastrophe."
Claudia nodded, her countenance turning serious at once as his mind replayed the previous evening's events. She was on duty when it all came to pass; Captain Gloval was on his quarters and Lisa away on some errand or another. The radar picked up a signal: ten alien mecha travelling fast in the direction of the ship. At first, no one was alarmed; the enemy had sent small parties of fighters regularly during the past weeks, but they had all been easily repelled.
A flight of Veritechs which was on patrol at the time was ordered to engage the incoming enemy, and the VTs easily succeeded in keeping it at bay. Sustaining heavy losses, the pods turned to flee, and many thought the danger was over. But then the radar screen showed a new signal, and alarms flashed in the bridge crew's consoles. Another group of Battlepods, taking advantage of the momentary confusion the skirmish occasioned, had managed to slip close to the SDF-1, unnoticed by an untimely stroke of misfortune. A squadron of VTs was promptly dispatched after them, but before they could do anything to stop them, the alien aircraft shot their missiles at the battle fortress, scoring numerous hits against its hull. The pods were quickly pushed back by the Earth fighters, but the harm was already done. While the damage to the ship's superstructure was minimal, one of the missiles passed through a gap in the armor, detonating in the training complex's proximity. The ensuing explosion provoked the cave-in of numerous holds and compartments.
Including the one in which the mess hall had been set up.
"I just received the last reports:" Lisa informed her, "nine deaths, a recruit in coma, and twenty others with minor injuries." Practice allowed her to talk of these grievous matters with only a hint of emotion behind; shielding yourself from the horrors of commanding was a lesson they had both learned a long time ago.
"What a tragedy..."
"By the way, what're you doing tonight?" Lisa asked Claudia, looking for a new topic.
"I'm busy, sorry. I've got a date with Roy; we're going to that new Italian restaurant that opened last week." She smiled to herself in anticipation. She and Roy had found it near to impossible to find free time to spend together, and so she jumped at every opportunity.
"Oh," Lisa breathed, disappointed and slightly sad, too. The mention of Claudia Grant and Roy Fokker's romantic and passionate love affair had always caused certain uneasiness in Lisa, as it accentuated her own loneliness and forced her to face a part of her personal life she was not comfortable with--and brought forth memories she wanted to leave behind. "Well, the girls told me they had work tonight, so I guess I'll just go to bed earlier than usual..."
Claudia saw her friend's downcast visage, and then ventured, "Why don't you ask Ranma out?"
"Ranma?!" Lisa repeated loudly, as she was lately wont to whenever Ranma's name was invoked. "Are you crazy? Why would I do that? I don't want anything to do with him."
"As he walked you to your quarters, I thought you'd become friends..." Claudia trailed off in a playful tone.
"I only let him accompany me," Lisa retorted, "because he begged me!"
"He begged you? Ranma?" Claudia asked, the very concept so foreign as to be inconceivable. In the weeks she had known Ranma, she had never heard him apologize for anything nor give excuses for his actions. He seemed to be a person with a healthy self-pride, to put it mildly--much like Roy. "We're talking about the same person here?"
Lisa turned her eyes away, cheeks rosy. "Okay," she conceded, "so he didn't exactly beg me--but it was practically the same. Anyway, I don't want to talk about it any more, so drop it, alright?" Lisa crossed her arms, letting her friend know that she was serious.
"Fair enough," Claudia said, but her smirk told Lisa she would not give up so easily.
The day started in the usual fashion: breakfast, early training with Jason, a quick snack before going to the base, class, lunch at the mess hall, more classes... The routine was already so ingrained in him that he was almost able to go through the familiar motions of his new life mechanically. Hectic as his life had always been, first travelling with his father across Japan and then living in Nerima, with the constant fights and adventures, Ranma had never had nothing remotely similar to a routine. And, to his utter surprise, he realized it was not as tedious and boring as he had initially believed--or rather, it was tedious on occasion, but that proved a sought after relief from the madness that followed him wherever he went.
But Ranma had learned something about himself in the last years: though the excitement that marked his life could be bothersome at times, it was also the one thing that defined him. Without it, he could not feel complete, and would certainly wither and fade. Yet that did not stop him from enjoying the momentary peace to the full, and gathering his strength for the next escapade.
In fact, so smoothly had his day glided by, that the first discordant element immediately set off alarms in his head. His final class was mute and subdued as it slipped into the room, although they were normally a boisterous lot. They walked wearily, their backs rounded as if carrying the weight of a mountain on them; their eyes wandered aimlessly, refusing to make eye contact neither with Ranma nor with each other. The martial artist felt a cold sensation in his gut, and the atmosphere turned dense and oppressive as the trainees lined up in front of him, hesitantly waiting for an unknown signal in nervous muteness.
He promptly counted them, and discovered with dread that two men were missing; he spent a few instants to recall the name of one of them, but the other's face was foremost in his mind: Greg was not there.
"What's the problem, guys?" Ranma asked, and there was in his voice only the slightest tremble of doubt and uncertainty. "Where're Greg and Paul?" He sensed more than saw his students grit their teeth, the air thickening even further. "So?" he pressed on in the face of their indecisiveness as he tried to calm himself, hoping against hope he was jumping to conclusions.
A short, brown-haired boy whose name was lost in Ranma at that moment finally, reluctantly, took a step forward and raised his head to look at his instructor; his eyes shone with unshed tears amidst his boyish face. "Preston and Rusedsky tuned out, sensei," he whispered barely loud enough for Ranma to catch, using the pilot's slang term with infinite sadness.
"What?" Ranma said, not familiar with the lingo.
A broad-shouldered man named Marcos Wade came to his help. He was built like a boulder, and towered above the rest of the class like a skyscraper among houses. "He means," he explained, the faintest Spanish accent noticeable, "they're not with us any more, sensei. They died yesterday in an accident at the mess."
Ranma drew back as if someone had thrown ice water at him, and his mouth suddenly dried. It was not possible! It had to be some sort of mistake!
And yet one look at the grim expressions on the young men's faces completely crushed his hopes, and his words of denial died before reaching his lips. There, standing as vulnerable as a brittle leaf in a windstorm, their young ages were more evident than ever before. Nothing had prepared them for the loss of two friends, not all the training, not life. Hearing Marcos' words seemed to encourage them, though, and soon others were speaking, most looking at their instructor, as though searching for something that would allay their pain.
But Ranma was in a daze, trying to come to terms with the situation, and thus only partially listened to his students as they rambled on. They talked and talked, trying to exorcise their own demons, and slowly, taking turns, recounted what had happened. How they were standing in line at the mess hall, waiting for their meals after a long, tiring day. They told him of the sudden explosion, the thunderous roar that boomed across the chamber, deafening them and throwing some to the floor in pain, dazed.
And Ranma heard some of their voices crack as they related the moment in which the large metal plating blew off the ceiling, falling over the hapless recruits, who had not the time to jump away. Marcos was the one in charge to narrate the chaos that came after, the cries of the wounded and the blood of those whose luck had run out that evening, the rush and the tears.
A heavy silence followed, and no one dared to break it for a long time, busy reminiscing about their memories of the two boys. Nobody cried nor wailed inconsolably, nor swore to take revenge, nor protested hotly about the unfairness of it all--it was not needed; the sentiment was there all the same.
Eventually Ranma called off the class for the day and sent everyone back to the barracks, and the young cadets left the chamber like a funeral procession. They were not done mourning for their fellow pilots, but time was all they needed. Yet even though their wounds would be healed, there would be a scar in them forever--as there was in him since Akane's death.
Turning off the lights of the training hall, he left, closing the door behind him. He only encountered a few people as he walked down the endless corridors, and simply nodded his head tersely in greeting the one time he saw a familiar face, a young lieutenant who was in one of his morning classes. The man responded in kind, and both continued their separate ways, not a single word spoken. He stepped out of the complex; the false twilight was ending, and swift came an equally-fake night.
He reached the chainlink fence's main gate and flashed his identification card to the guard, who gave it a quick glance and then moved aside, letting him pass. Two Battloids stood unmoving at both sides of the gate, their Gatlings shouldered. Ranma paid them no attention, and continued onward. As he was leaving, the streetlights lit up, casting his shadow ahead of him into the distance.
Soon enough, he found himself walking through Macross's street, making his way through the crowds. In striking contrast with the base, the nights at the city were thriving and crowded, and there was a permanent festive atmosphere. Ranma quickened his pace.
He reached the park and went directly to his favorite spot, a secluded bench shaded by the low-hanging branches of an old tree survivor of the fold operation, with a beautiful view of the splashing fountain. Ranma sat, letting the hours lapse into painful memories and regrets, but finally stood up and left, hearing the water flowing away behind him.
By the time he arrived the White Dragon was already closed, albeit lights could be seen behind the thick curtains. He went in, not bothering to announce himself, and heard muffled sounds coming from the kitchen, letting him know someone was still awake. Not that he had not expected it; Max liked to prepare the restaurant for the morning rush with anticipation, and thus stayed late tidying up the place. The chef always took the time to whip up something for him, too.
Max must have heard him enter, for he came out of the kitchen at once. He was wearing an off-white apron, and he smiled jovially upon noticing the newcomer. "Oh, hi, Ranma. How was your day? Rest while I prepare something fast." He swiftly moved back into the kitchen, and Ranma picked up the sound of clanking woks and sizzling saucepans.
Ranma obediently sat at one of the tables, and not five minutes later Max returned, holding two fried noodles dishes and taking the seat opposite his. "Help yourself, Ranma," he said, handing him one of the dishes and setting the other on the table. "Gosh, you won't believe the day we--" He cut himself short, noting the expression on his guest's face. "What's wrong, son?" Max asked, concerned. "You look upset."
The martial artist remained impassive for a few seconds, but then he met the other man's eyes with his own. "Two of my students died today," Ranma finally answered in a dead voice.
Max caught his breath, shocked, but after staring at the crestfallen youth for a moment, he wordlessly stood up and went behind the counter. When he came back, Ranma saw a bottle of whiskey firmly grasped in one of his massive hands and two glasses held in the other. The restaurateur deftly poured Ranma a large whiskey, and then did the same for himself.
"Here," Max said as he offered Ranma the glass, "have a drink. It may not solve anything, but this has helped me in the past."
Ranma looked at the beverage curiously. Though during the travels with his father and later after leaving Nerima he had drunk sake on a few occasions, he had never felt much affinity for liquors. And yet he found himself now not wishing to think, to remember. Perhaps if he drank sufficient alcohol, his brain would numb enough for it to not hurt so much any more...
Grasping the glass with newfound conviction, Ranma gulped it down, not stopping even for breathing. He set the empty glass on the table, confused at the lack of effect--and taste--of the whiskey. Was it not supposed to be strong? Then he felt it: a searing warmth running up his throat, drying his mouth and dulling his senses. Ranma felt as if he were about to vomit fire. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and dizzily decided the drink worked well enough.
Ranma was about to ask for another round, when suddenly someone threw open shop's main doors. Both men turned towards the sound immediately, only to relax as they identified the arrival.
"Hello," came the familiar, normally jaunty voice, albeit unusually hushed at the moment. Rick walked up to the table, eyeing the pair warily. "What's with the booze?"
"Never mind that," Max hastened to respond. He gestured Rick to the chair to his right. "Where've you been, Rick?" he asked with a hint of reproach. "Minmei looked for you the whole day."
Sitting down, Rick began to nervously toy with the half empty bottle of whiskey, self-consciously gazing as the golden liquid within it softly rippled. "I took a walk around the city," the youth at length admitted, "and then I went to the base."
Ranma, who had been lost in his own personal musings until then, now paid close attention to Rick's tale. What reason could he possibly have to go to the base? Perhaps he had gone to visit him? Max just quirked an eyebrow.
"They ran me through a thousand fitness, hearing and eye tests," Rick continued, "and then decided I was good enough to join the Army." He offered them a weak smile, noticing their dumbfounded expressions.
Max was the first to react: he nodded to himself, got up, headed for the counter once more, and returned with another glass, mutely pouring a whiskey for Rick. Ranma, on the contrary, simply stayed frozen in his seat, his mouth agape. "Huh?" he finally reacted. "What? When'd this happen?"
Rick shrugged. "I didn't wanna tell anybody 'til it was final. I thought that I might as well stop idling and start doing something useful." He grinned wistfully. "Who knows? I could even become a hero."
Ranma stared at the young pilot, not quite believing his ears. What had made Rick take this decision? Him, who had been so adamant about it before? He could see right through the cheerful facade, and felt Rick's fears and doubts. Yet he appeared determined even so, and Ranma sensed that nothing would make him change his mind. Why...?
Then, as he was looking at Rick, he witnessed his face changing, shifting. His skin whitened considerably, his features softening while his eyes darkened, until they were two tiny black holes that seemed ready to swallow him. And Ranma realized he wasn't looking at Rick any more, and Greg had taken his place. Greg, who had been his student for merely a few days. Greg, who had showed promise. Greg, for whom he had had great plans. Greg, who had sought revenge. Greg, who had died at the hands of a nameless enemy... He wanted to close his eyes, but they remained transfixed on the face, taking on its every detail as if with a will of their own. And thus he watched Greg's hair abruptly beginning to grow, his eyes changing anew, turning an impossible sapphire. And his lips twisted just so, forming a beautiful little smile he had only seen in dreams for years. And then he saw her...
Suddenly he knew what he had to do.
"Hero?" Ranma sneered at Rick. "Hero my ass! You're more likely to become a corpse!" He gave a short roar of laughter.
"Who asked you, you Jackie Chan wannabe?" Rick riposted, leaving the bottle aside and turning to Ranma, suddenly reanimated. "When it comes to piloting, I'm the best! If it has wings, I can make it dance!"
"Really?" Ranma drawled. "Y'know, I was thinkin' of requesting reassignment for pilot trainin'. If ya can make it 'dance,' then it can't be that hard, dontcha think?" He grinned widely.
"Hah! You couldn't pilot a Veritech if your life depended on it. Don't waste your time, old geezer; flying is not for everyone."
"What's the matter? Afraid I'll make ya look bad?" Ranma leaned back in his chair, balancing on its two hind legs and obviously pleased with himself.
"Afraid of you?" Rick repeated mockingly. "Not in a million years! If you really think you can keep up with me, then it's okay. We'll see who's the better man soon enough. But don't come crying later, okay?" Surprisingly, Ranma did not hear any real anger in his voice. In fact, he almost sounded... relieved?
"You got a deal, flyboy!" Ranma held out his hand to Rick, who reluctantly shook it.
From his forgotten position at the table, Max pondered on this new turn of events as he drank his whiskey. After a moment, he shook his head, smiling to himself. He had a feeling those two would do just fine...