[personal profile] the_rck_fic
Fandom: Ranma 1/2
Rating: PG for mild language and discussion of childbirth
Warnings: Diverges from canon some time between v.20 and v.27 of the manga.
Pairing: Ukyou/Mousse
Summary: Ukyou could think of many worse people with whom to be stuck in unknown territory, but that didn't mean that she wanted to be there.
Other Notes: Written for Jaye Random the Shameathon exchange on LiveJournal in response to a request for Ukyou/Mousse treated as a serious pairing. This story fought with me, particularly over Mousse's characterization. I finally had to accept that canon gives him more in the way of a comedy routine than it does characterization. I hope I've not done either character a serious disservice in how I've interpreted them and the liberties I've taken with them. This story takes place in the manga continuity (because I had more time to review that), some time between v.20 and v.26 (I never found a copy of v.27, so I need to split this off before that), and should be considered a diverging universe. I apologize for any canonical details I've unintentionally gotten wrong.
Thanks to Olna Jenn for massive encouragement, hand holding and beta reading. Thanks also to Retsuko and Hope of Dawn for beta reading and to my husband for hand holding, baby sitting and other encouragement.
Last Updated: 3 October 2007

Ukyou learned rapidly to hate rain. Most of the time, Mousse was a pleasant traveling companion, but rain transformed him from a man capable of carrying his share of their supplies to a duck who... wasn't. Waking to rain beating against the tent wasn't so bad. By unspoken agreement, they made no effort to break camp on those mornings, instead waiting until the rain ended. She still had to tend to all of the chores outside the tent, but at least it wasn't sudden. There was no rushing to get Mousse under cover, no getting stuck setting up camp wherever they happened to be.

Ukyou could set up camp alone. She could protect them both against importunate wildlife. She could find firewood unaided and coax it, even wet, into flame for long enough to heat water. She just didn't enjoy it. Those were the nights when she snapped at Mousse and pointed out the ways in which their predicament was All His Fault.

He answered her only once, a few days into their travels, pausing as he squeezed water out of his hair. "Indeed," he'd said. "If I hadn't... mistaken you for Shampoo and hadn't come out yelling that I'd save her, Tarragon might have realized that Cologne's heir wouldn't fight with spatulas, but--" He shrugged.

Ukyou glared at him. "You knew I wasn't Shampoo!" She'd suspected before that he could see better than he pretended to, but it had never been any of her business why he played the blind fool in front of Shampoo and Cologne. And I wasn't sure before that he wasn't a fool.

"Ukyou, Tarragon was determined that someone be Cologne's great-granddaughter-- He couldn't have vengeance otherwise, and Shampoo was in Hong Kong."

Ukyou narrowed her eyes. Still, avoiding admitting that he knew I wasn't her... What was that moron Tarragon thinking, anyway? The old hag wouldn't pay ransom to get Shampoo back. Mousse was sure of it. All Tarragon was going to get was Cologne beating him into a paste. She bit her lip. If only I hadn't taken that route home... But I did. She gave Mousse her full attention again.

He started running his fingers through his hair, dislodging various objects that no observer would have thought could be hidden there. "Maybe-- just maybe-- Cologne would come to rescue some other woman who wasn't Shampoo. She might even come to rescue me if I were with somebody else. I'm not worth her time, usually, but I am a member of her tribe." He tossed his hair back over his shoulder. "I didn't know what the old bastard was going to do, but would you rather be here alone? Really?" He sat down and looked directly at her face. "You have a much better chance of getting home than Shampoo would have, you know, or than some random woman off the street would, even with my help."

Ukyou looked away. That's not true! Except-- She shook her head. Then she considered the girls she knew. Her shoulders sagged. "Shampoo would do all right."

Mousse snorted. "Until the first rainfall. Then she would be a very small cat. A very intelligent cat with a lot of skills, true, but most of those skills require opposable thumbs. She'd be trapped in Tarragon's lovely vacation retreat. A very pleasant prison, but still... a prison and a place where he could find her any time he wished."

Ukyou still couldn't look at him. And we did talk about all of that before we left Tarragon's house, about how he could find us there any time, how no one else knew where it was-- not even us. Walking out to find something was the only sensible thing to do. We couldn't sit in a house in the middle of nowhere and rot, just hoping that someone would find us. "Would you have stayed, if you were alone?" She raised her eyes to study his expression.

He shook his head. "But I can fly if I get wet, so I could always go back if I found no other hot water." He gave her an odd, flat smile. "Still... I do apologize for any of this that is my fault."

Ukyou didn't have an answer for that. She considered his words for several days before bringing the subject up again. Then, while she was cooking breakfast and he was darning one of her socks, she asked, "Do you really think Cologne would sacrifice you to get rid of me? I mean-- It's not like I'm Akane or anything."

Mousse snorted. "Sacrifice? Cologne sees me as a trouble maker." He set down the sock. "As to you-- If Ranma's mother were choosing a bride for him, who would she prefer, you or Shampoo?"

"I've never met Mrs. Saotome--"

Mousse waved a hand to cut off her words. "If any Japanese mother were choosing, then."

Ukyou looked away. There's no way to answer that without being insulting. I'm a hick, but I'm a Japanese hick. Shampoo is... Well, I don't know if Mrs. Saotome would call Shampoo a barbarian. Out loud. And this is a woman who would force her son to commit ritual suicide over 'manliness.' "I thought Ranma's choice mattered."

"That was when Cologne thought Ranma's mother was dead." Mousse pulled scissors from his sleeve and snipped the thread. "I think that will hold." He tossed the sock onto Ukyou's pack.

Ukyou handed Mousse a bowl of rice porridge then tucked the sock inside her pack. "I hope we find a town soon."

Mousse shook his head. "We still don't have trade goods." He turned to stare down the steep hillside next to their camp. "And I'm not sure there are any towns. It's been three weeks, and we haven't even smelled smoke." He managed a small smile. "Well, apart from our own campfires."

"We can work around lack of trade goods." The lack of towns-- or even farms-- is another problem. At least the stars are still familiar. She changed the subject, and for the rest of the morning, they spoke only of practicalities.

A few days later, as they were climbing over a dead tree, Mousse asked, "Do you miss him?"

Ukyou used her need to pay attention to her footing to delay answering. "Sometimes," she said at last. "Cologne would have bargained to get him back."

Mousse leaped from the decaying trunk across a small ravine. "Maybe. Maybe not." He turned and caught Ukyou to ease her landing as she made the same leap. "If she could go home and say that Ranma's gone where Shampoo cannot follow, most would take that to mean that he's dead. Shampoo would be released from obligation." There was a slight hitch in his voice.

"Do you miss her?" Ukyou found Mousse's devotion inexplicable, but she'd seen the evidence over and over. Though not so much since Tarragon threw us through his... whatever it was. Portal? Gate? Whatever. It doesn't matter what it was.

"Occasionally." Mousse shrugged.

Ukyou blinked then spent a few moments regaining her footing on the damp moss. "You don't sound... heartbroken?"

"She's better than most of the alternatives."

Ukyou waited, but Mousse didn't elaborate. She considered asking, but then the rain started, and a cougar tried to eat Mousse. By the time she'd driven the large cat off and put up the tent, she'd forgotten what they'd been discussing.

As she struggled to get the tent set up, Ukyou cursed Tarragon, Cologne and-- for good measure-- Ryoga and Ranma for causing the property damage that had led to her being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Tarragon showed up. I guess we all should have known Cologne had enemies. You don't get that old or that powerful without enemies, and any that are still alive are going to be scary. Still, he wasn't as good as she is, and she could have saved us. I saw her coming over the rooftops toward us just before Tarragon's spell took us.

She coaxed a small fire into burning long enough to heat a little water to change Mousse back and watched him as he sat just inside the tent, watching her in return. When did I get used to a duck with glasses? She fed another stick into the flames. When did all of this become normal? And how on earth does he manage to look both silly and dignified? I couldn't pull it off. She sighed. "We're going to have to make some decisions soon." She nestled their pot in the heart of the fire and carefully emptied her canteen into it. At least, that should be enough. I don't want to wait for the rain to fill the pot or to search for a stream. "We're starting to run out of... things. We haven't seen another human being since Tarragon sent us here."

Mousse quacked four times.

Ukyou suspected that he was objecting to her bringing the matter up while he couldn't talk. "I don't want to go back to the house. It's nice. It's got everything we might need, but... He knows where it is. And..." She clenched her hands in the fabric of her pants then raised her chin. "I'm not going to give up. I don't do that."

Mousse quacked again. He sounded like he was laughing.

"Besides, I don't think we could find it again." She watched the water. No hint of bubbles yet. "Anyway, that means we either have to stop for a while and try to make the things we need or..." She glanced at her pack, knowing he'd understand. "I can, you know. I don't want to, but I've done it once, and what we got from it was a lot better than what we can make." We'd have survived with just what we were carrying, but we wouldn't have done nearly as well. And you'd spend a lot more time as a duck.

Mousse's flurry of quacks sounded like a protest and a lecture.

"Yeah, well, that's why I'm saying this while you can't talk back." Ukyou managed a smile. "Think about it. If you come up with a better suggestion, I'll be glad to hear it. Stripping naked, pretending to be Shampoo and begging a statue of Tarragon to give us soap and salt and new socks is almost more humiliating than having my dowry stolen. I survived that. I can survive this." And someday I'll find Tarragon and gut him. I may even let Shampoo help given that she's the one he intended to do this to. Or maybe not. She hasn't rescued us, and she treats Mousse like something she scraped off her shoe.

Mousse remained silent.

Ukyou poked at the fire. "By the time we get back, Saotome Genma may well have his grubby hands on the Tendo dojo." Bubbles had just started to form at the bottom of the pot. It's probably warm enough now. Has he had enough time to think? She glanced at Mousse, trying to make it look like she wasn't.

Light from the flames glinted off his glasses.

She couldn't tell if he was looking at her or not. She sighed. Time. I don't want the water too hot, either. She used a rag to protect her hand and pulled the pot from the fire.

Mousse ruffled his feathers and stepped forward so that he was only just under the awning off the front of the tent.

Ukyou averted her eyes and poured. I'm glad we specified an awning when we begged for the tent. And a waterproof floor. And...

"Why does the Tendo dojo matter to you?"

Ukyou blinked, glad that Mousse couldn't see her face. I shouldn't be so startled to hear his voice. It's not like he quacks when he isn't a duck. She snorted. Still keeping her face averted, she said, "Do you know how much money that place is worth? Bet Genma knows to the penny. He's sold Ranma often enough, and this is just once more." She turned her back to the tent. "I don't see why he should get anything more than whatever he got from selling my cart."

Mousse cleared his throat twice, letting her know that all embarrassing bits of skin were once again safely covered. "You have a business of your own now. A successful one. You could replace the cart..." He sounded tentative, as if he were threading a maze while blindfolded.

Although, blindfolded is scarily close to his usual state. Even if he does see better than he lets on. She allowed herself a brief smile. Not that I'll tell anyone. I expect he's got his reasons. Just like I do. "It's not the cart itself, not exactly." The pain of that loss was too old, too accustomed to come out in her posture or expression as she turned back to the tent.

Mousse stepped back so that she could get inside. He frowned. "Revenge then?" He sounded surprised.

Is he... disappointed? She shook her head. No need to let him think that. "There were spells on it, magic in every splinter. If I marry without it--" She sat down, hoping that her clothes and hair wouldn't take too long to dry. "There's a curse on the family."

She could tell that he wanted to ask her more, but he refrained. They each limited how much they pried into each other's pasts.

After all, a... fight between us would kill our chances of getting home. However slim they are now. No. We can do this. We will do this. Ukyou pulled two hairbrushes out of her pack and tossed one to Mousse. Later. It's not urgent. It's not like you're going to marry me or anything. You don't need to know.

The rain lasted for two days. On the second morning, Ukyou took the statue of Tarragon and the list of needed supplies that she and Mousse had come up with and did what she had to do. Fortunately, the statue had no more than rudimentary intelligence. As long as she groveled enough and claimed to be Shampoo, it never questioned her identity.

Mousse refused to talk to her when she returned.

Not that she wanted to talk to him anyway.

She prepared a feast for dinner, using fresh vegetables, crab and hen's eggs. They ate in silence with Mousse looking like he wished something would happen along just so he could kill it.

She took the dishes outside and washed them. She could tell that Mousse was watching through the open flap of the tent. I'd let you do the dishes if you could. I'd let you do them every meal. You can't, not unless we heat water, and we can't. Not today.

When she came back in, she changed out of her wet clothes while Mousse politely looked the other way. "If I marry without the cart--" It was a peace offering of sorts. The only one she had, given that food had failed. "There's a demon who will come to take the children. One of my ancestors was a moron like Saotome Genma and sold his unborn children." She sniffed. "I think he got more for them than Genma usually does."

When Mousse turned to face her again, his face was perfectly composed. "I suppose I can see why the loss of the cart affects you and your family so strongly." He frowned slightly. "But Genma and Ranma don't have it either. Why do you want to marry Ranma?"

Ukyou looked at the floor and let her shoulders sag. "If I don't marry someone before I die, if I don't have at least one child, the demon will come for my brother and sister. Or maybe for their children. Ranma might actually be able to defeat it. That's always possible, right?" She sighed. "I was just going to kill him and his father, but then I saw him fight..." She wanted to look at Mousse, to try to judge how badly his opinion of her had changed, but she didn't dare. It sounds so mercenary. I'd almost rather he think I was doing it for revenge. Especially since there's an evil sort of revenge in it-- If Ranma fails, Genma loses his grandchildren. And probably his son, too. A high price for stealing.

Mousse put a hand on her arm. "Do you know," he asked, "the real reason why an Amazon warrior has to marry a man who defeats her?"

She looked at him and shook her head. Where is he going with this?

His jaw clenched for a moment. "Cologne would tell you that it's to improve the tribal bloodlines, but... Everybody knows-- It's so that men with no other prospects have something to keep them busy, some hope that they can still find a woman to take them, even if it's as a second or third husband." He shrugged. "And a well trained man can serve the tribe as well as a warrior, better sometimes since losing one doesn't diminish the tribe."

Ukyou blinked. You have no other prospects? Are the Amazons blind as well as crazy? Her eyes narrowed a little as she considered that. "Genma would hate that sort of place." Ranma would, too, but it might do the two of them some good. Not forever. Just for a while. She offered Mousse a smile and, after a moment, had the pleasure of seeing it returned.

Three days later, they found the first sign of human habitation. A partially rotted door stood in an opening in the hillside that they'd only found because Ukyou had chosen that particular bush as a screen when she needed to attend to some personal business. Concluding that the door probably wasn't going to disappear or open to release monsters, she found another bush for a privacy screen, attended to business and then called Mousse to join her in looking at the door.

The door didn't fall apart when Mousse tried the handle, but the latch did come off in his hand. He stepped back and gave Ukyou a questioning look.

She shrugged. "I don't think anybody's coming back." She didn't mention any of the things they both knew might be within. Vengeful ghosts. Demons. Cursed items. Insanely amorous weirdoes. Happosai. She shuddered.

"We can't afford not to look," he said after a few seconds.

Right. Ukyou kicked the door in.

With both of them standing in the doorway, not enough light got past to show more than murky shapes. Mousse blinked and squinted. "Can you make anything out?"

As close as he'll come to admitting that I see better than he does. "Not really, no." Ukyou slipped an arm out from the strap of her pack and swung the pack to the ground. "Flashlight time."

Mousse frowned then tried to cover it by pushing up his glasses.

I might have missed it if he hadn't drawn my attention by fiddling with his glasses. Ukyou gave him a glare in return. "What? I like flashlights better than lamps, and we'd still have to beg for oil or kerosene or whatever every so often. And carry the supply. Batteries aren't much worse."

"You can use a lamp to heat things." Mousse's heart wasn't really in the protest.

"But I'll never set the tent on fire with a flashlight." She put the pack back on before turning on the flashlight.

The light showed them a small mudroom, shaped like a wedge. The walls and ceiling were lined with wood that was in slightly better shape than the door had been. The floor was stone, cobbled rather than worked. A row of metal hooks lined each wall. At the rear of the room, there were two doors.

"Think the ceiling'll come down on us?" Ukyou wasn't at all sure it wouldn't.

"Not if they built it well." Mousse produced a staff and prodded the wall. "I think the wood's decorative, not structural. Which door?"

Ukyou considered it seriously. Two doors almost inevitably meant a good choice and a cursed choice. Or a bad choice and a worse choice. Still... She tried to remember the terrain they'd recently walked. "On the right-- Won't that lead back toward that ravine? The deep one with the fast river?"

Mousse stepped back and looked around. He nodded. "You're right. Maybe they wanted a water supply. There aren't all that many reasons for people to live underground." He ticked them off on his fingers. "Lack of building materials. Extreme weather. Frequent bandit raids or other marauders." He tilted his head, considering. "And personal preference, but it's a lot of work to do for that."

"If they all build like this, we could have passed dozens of houses and never noticed." Ukyou kicked the dirt. "We weren't looking for the right things."

Mousse shook his head. "We'd have noticed other things. Gardens. Trails. Domesticated animals. Trap lines. Latrines. Middens. People don't live without leaving evidence." He shrugged. "Whoever used to live here, they're not here now."

"And haven't been for some time." Ukyou swallowed. "Do you... do you think they died in there?" I'm not squeamish. It's just... creepy.

"It's not impossible, but I don't think so. At least, if they did, someone cleaned up after them. Anybody dying would have left shoes and coats out here. Do you see any dirt that can't be explained by wind through the door or by animals lairing in there?"

Ukyou studied the room. "I don't think so. Let's try the door on the right then. If we're going to use this at all, I want to know where the water is."

Mousse nodded. He pulled a second staff from his sleeve and offered it to Ukyou. "Just in case."

Ukyou let Mousse lead the way, trusting his speed and his ability to use senses other than sight to spot traps. I should train blind for a while. But only training. No giving up advantages in a real fight.

As they explored the underground dwelling, Ukyou found herself becoming more and more tense. I am not going to make the mistake of thinking that not all places have to be weird or cursed or dangerous. Even if they don't. The moment I start thinking things are normal, that assumption will bite us.

Still, she found it hard to get excited about abandoned furniture, broken pottery and a compost pile. Even if Mousse does have good points about why it matters. They couldn't make the pottery or the bits of metal with what we've found here, so they had to carry it in. That pitcher was only cracked. If it was hard to replace, they'd have taken it anyway.

She felt a little relief when they found the third exit. "At least we won't be trapped if someone finds one entrance." She rubbed the back of her neck. "It's getting late. Do we sleep in here tonight or set up the tent?"

Mousse took off his glasses and polished them. "We've been fine in the tent so far..."

Ukyou suppressed a surge of irritation. Why can't he just tell me what he thinks? She raised her eyebrows. "But?"

"If this was built so for the weather or for preference, then it doesn't matter."

Right. I get it. I still wish he'd say it. I can get there, but why should I have to? Bandits or war and lack of building materials are the other options he mentioned earlier. And in a forest, in rocky, hilly terrain... Lack of building materials would be due to utter idiocy. Ukyou pinched the bridge of her nose. "But if they were hiding from something, then we've simply been very lucky to avoid it so far." She shrugged and offered him a smile. "Or maybe whatever or whoever just knows we'd beat the crap out of it." I'm not too worried about any fights. Except... We wouldn't be here to begin with if we hadn't lost a fight. And at night, when we're both asleep inside the tent... Yeah. Lots of ways that could go bad. "So, inside for tonight, clean up in here tomorrow and then we explore the area?"

Until he relaxed, she hadn't even realized that he was tense. "Having a base for a while might be useful. There is this, too-- We've been here weeks, but, since we don't know where here is, we don't know how much good weather we have left."

Ukyou nodded slowly. I should have thought of that. It was August which makes this... She counted weeks. ...September. I think. "I've lost track of days," she admitted. She rubbed the back of her neck. "Kept thinking we'd be home soon. Or at least somewhere soon."

"I've been writing it down. When I remember to."

"So what day is it?"

Mousse pulled out a notebook. "The fifteenth of September. More or less."

Ukyou turned away to study the geometric pattern carved into the trim on the wall. My landlord's certainly noticed that I'm gone. Has he started selling my stuff yet? Has Ranma even noticed? Probably. I'm not there to feed him now, after all. But... my restaurant. My business. I'll have to start over.

"Cologne's probably moved in and taken over your lease." Judging by the rustling sounds, Mousse had started to unpack. "Your location's quite desirable."

Ukyou spun round and stared at him. "What--? How--?"

Mousse shook out a bedroll, lowered it to the floor then looked at her. "You're practical, and you speak of your business with pride." He shrugged. "Hearing the date, you'd naturally think about when your bills were due. Another reason Cologne disliked you. Akane could not run a business-- or a household-- and no one is trying to teach her. Shampoo was learning, but you--"

And this time, he does explain. Why now? "I see." Ukyou waved a hand to cut him off. I don't want to think about any of it, not even Ranma. Not now. She shook her head, trying to force her thoughts into order. "I'm going to find some wood for a fire. It's too warm to use the stove, even if we were sure it's sound. If we're staying, we'll have to figure that out."

Mousse didn't follow when she left.

Just as well. If he saw me crying, I'd have to kill him.

Testing the stove was the first order of business the next day. The underground dwelling needed cleaning, and if the stove worked, they could heat enough water for Mousse to help. Ukyou built a small fire, just enough to smoke, then fiddled with the damper. "It's not backing up on us." Yet. "We'll let it burn a while and see if we smell smoke anywhere."

"I'm not sure I'll notice." Mousse waved a hand to indicate the state of his body. "My clothes are the cleanest part of me." He grimaced. "I'm not sure I can smell anything."

And he doesn't mention that his clothes are clean because I wash them. Ukyou sighed. Somehow, I can't hold it against him. He never asked me to. "Why don't you scout the area then? See if you can find any game or berries or..." She shrugged to indicate that she was open to possibilities. "If we're even thinking about wintering here, we'll need stores." We can get them from the statue, but I'd rather not depend on it. Actually, if Mousse goes away for a while, I can ask for a few things now. Lamps, oil for them, seasoned wood and shaped stone for a proper tub. Except that, if we don't stay, those are things we'd have to leave behind.

Mousse nodded. "For a little while. Your eyes are better, though." His face went blank for a moment then he bowed, just an inclination of his head. "Next time you... petition the statue--" He cleared his throat. "We could use some guides to the local plants, something with plenty of illustrations and information about what's edible, medicinal and toxic." He didn't quite look at her after that, instead slipping his hands into his sleeves and leaving without saying anything else.

After dealing with the statue, Ukyou spent the rest of the morning scrubbing the kitchen. It wasn't, strictly speaking, dirty. More dusty. To be really dirty, it would've had to have been used since it was cleaned last. Still, soap, bleach and a stiff scrub brush...

Their days settled into a pattern after that. They gave half of each day to working on improving the underground dwelling and then spent the rest of their time exploring and gathering food. At Ukyou's suggestion, they also started spending time sparring.

"Just because no over powered lunatics have jumped us recently is no reason to assume they won't." She nodded firmly. "It might happen tomorrow."

Mousse laughed and agreed. Neither of them admitted to hoping that it wouldn't happen.

Mousse found the scouts three days later, the first day he went south. He evaded detection and returned to warn Ukyou. "They're wearing very similar clothing but not quite uniforms, and they're carrying short swords and bows. They're on foot and searching the area."

"Are they looking for us?" Stupid question. There's no way he can know that. Ukyou tried to remember whether they'd left any traces outside that would lead to their hideout. Of course we have. It's just whether or not it leads to our door. "We weren't paranoid enough."

"I don't think they'll find us. Not if they continue in the direction they were going." Mousse shrugged. "There's not much we can do but be ready to fight if they're hostile. Unless you think we need to capture one of them...?"

Ukyou frowned at the word 'capture.' "We aren't sure they're hostile."

"We can't take a chance." Mousse started shoving food into a pack. "We should also be ready to run if we need to. Pack the things we'd need immediately. Or that we... can't replace." He handed her a water skin. "Fill this, please." He hesitated. "You've... you've never been in a war zone or under martial law, have you?"

Ukyou shook her head.

"The men out there mean business. They're not expecting ambush, but they're also not acting like they think they're safe. That means that they'll treat us as a threat first. Neutralize us if they can, kill us if they have to, and worry about whether or not we really are enemies afterward. And..." He sighed. "I don't recognize them. They're not Japanese, they're not Musk Empire, and they're definitely not Amazons. They don't look like any of the militias or armies I know of. At least..."

Ukyou touched his arm. I don't need to hear more. "After we pack, we'll both go and watch them, see if we can see where they're coming from. We'll have the packs in case we have to run. We'll watch, and we'll listen." And find out where we are.

"I'm sorry," Mousse said four hours later. "I don't recognize the language." He hunched his shoulders, making himself as small as he could without turning into a duck again. "They're disciplined, though. They didn't shoot at me."

Ukyou nodded. She'd watched the soldiers not shooting. And they are soldiers. Marching down a graded dirt road with scouts out to either side. She pressed closer to the trunk of the tree in which they were hiding. We still don't know that we aren't on Earth. She closed her eyes. But it seems less and less likely. "Home now," she said and tried not to think about what using that word meant. "We'll try the road again in a few days, when they've had time to get past." She studied Mousse. "Would you rather fly?"

He shook his head. "We should stick together." He sighed. "And there's no place for me to change back if anything happens to you. No handy hot springs or public baths. Not even a private house to invade. I'm more mobile and less noticeable as a duck, but I'm also... less useful." He raised his eyebrows as if inviting her to agree.

And I can't disagree. I just... Ranma's curse embarrasses him, but it's hardly more than a minor inconvenience. In spite of the fuss he makes about it. Mousse is really... extraordinary. She smiled at him, reached up to touch his cheek, hoping that that would say what she couldn't. I'll find words for it later. Then she leaped to the next tree, heading home.

Later, while sitting at the kitchen table and eating a cold meal, Ukyou found herself studying Mousse. What do I really know about him anyway? A lot, actually. ...And not very much. I know how he likes his tea and how he wakes up in the morning, but I don't know if he has any brothers or sisters or why he kept pretending to mistake other people-- and things-- for Shampoo. She poked at the mess on her plate. "We should make a list," she said. "There's a lot we know about where we are." And where we are is a better topic for discussion than who you really are and what you really want. No matter how much I want to ask.

Mousse set down his chopsticks, lining them up very precisely. "We're somewhere with seasons. Deciduous trees and evergreens both, and a decent annual rainfall. The plants aren't growing like there's too much water or too little." He tapped his fingers on the table. "There are large areas-- well, one at least-- with little to no population, and there's a disciplined army with primitive weapons that's used to marching on dirt roads."

"Neither of us recognized the language they were speaking either." Not that I would. None of my foreign languages are more than passable. But Mousse... He's very near fluent in Japanese and knows I don't know how many other languages, at least enough to recognize. Ukyou pulled out a pad of paper and started taking notes. "We don't recognize all of the plants and animals, but we do know a lot of them. Kind of. Well..." She rubbed a sheet of paper between her fingers. "At least... we didn't poison ourselves."

Mousse nodded. "Before I saw those soldiers, I'd have guessed we were somewhere in China. At least, if I'd had to guess. It wouldn't have seemed quite right, but it was possible. Now..."

"Could Tarragon have thrown us back in time?" Ukyou found the idea appalling, and she suspected that it showed in her voice.

"Possible." Mousse didn't sound convinced. "But those uniforms and those weapons..." He shook his head then shrugged. "I only know a little history, but weapons are one of my interests."

"Then... Where are we?" Ukyou hoped that the helplessness she felt in face of the question didn't show too much. Except... He looks lost, too, and... a little hopeful? She cleared her throat. "We could spend a week listing all the places we aren't." But neither of us wants to say it. "If we're not in a different time, we're in a different world."

"It seems possible." Mousse started eating again. A few moments later, he said, "After the army passes, we should watch the road. Eventually, there'll be a traveler, someone alone, who we can ask to teach us the language." He smiled at her. "It could be worse. We could be in Europe somewhere where, even if we dressed right and learned the language, people'd still think we didn't belong. Europe at the time those weapons would indicate would be worse."

She stared at him for a few seconds then looked away. "I hadn't thought of that." She wrinkled her nose. "Didn't they have some sort of religious thing against bathing?" And that's about all I remember about their history.

Mousse laughed. "I think so." His expression became more serious. "Being in another world makes-- Well, nobody's going to find us. Even if they look for us, why would they look here?"

Ukyou decided that she wasn't going to finish her meal and scraped the rest into the bucket next to the sink. "I keep hoping that Ryoga will wander through." She kept her back toward Mousse. "He could always turn up anywhere on Earth, right? I thought maybe we'd just grab him and wander with him until he took us home. He keeps going back to Akane over and over again, after all." She clenched her hands on the edge of the sink. "We're stuck here, aren't we?"

She felt him walk up behind her. He didn't touch her, but she could feel warmth from his body as he stood at her back. "Ukyou... We will be well. We will. We've both faced problems before. We can face this one. Neither of us ever admits that something's impossible."

"I do." Her voice broke a little. "Sometimes..."

"There is something I didn't quite understand...." Mousse hesitated for a second or two. "You wanted Ranma to fight your demon. You're quite strong enough to do that yourself. Why rely on him?"

Ukyou blinked. Way to change the subject. Still, she decided to go along with the new topic. "I don't know how to find the demon except by having a baby, and I don't know any woman who's up to fighting a demon before the afterbirth's out." Or any time soon after that. Days at best. At worst... She looked at Mousse. "Or did Cologne do that once?"

He blinked. "If she did, no one's ever told me about it." He frowned. "By custom, Amazon women do not fight for several weeks after a child is born. I'd thought it was for the child's protection."

She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. At least I still have Mousse. "Do you think you could defeat a demon?" I bet you could.

"I'm willing to try." He put a hand on hers, and she leaned her body against his.

"Thank you." That's enough for now. For tomorrow... We'll see. Yes. We will see. "We're still going to find a way home, you know."

"I know." He put his arms around her. "If Tarragon--" He sniffed as if dismissing Tarragon's competence. "--can learn to move from one world to another, we certainly can."

She put her hands on his. "Yes." Yes, we can. And I... like... Mousse a lot better than I ever did Ranma. "You're... This isn't..." She squeezed Mousse's hands. "This isn't second best, you know. Even when we get home, I..."

He sighed, his breath warm through her hair. "I'm still an Amazon. If we go back to Japan-- even back to our Earth-- we need to keep Cologne from finding out."

Even though she doesn't want you? She managed a laugh that only sounded a little forced. "I guess I'll have to learn to fight your demons while you fight mine." She considered that. "Not a physical fight. I don't want her obligated to kill me. Can we bribe her?"

He laughed in return. "Maybe. I'm sure that-- somewhere-- we can find something she'd value more than me."

Yes. Good. "Something. Somewhere. Just not today." Today, we rest. "Mousse, there's still a lot we don't know about each other. Not the important things, but..." Ukyou smiled. We have time. Now let's see... Yes. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
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