Shocked silence met Shampoo. She stopped in thought for a moment.
"Where is Hibiki?" the intruder haltingly tried again.
"I know a Hibiki, but I don't know where he's at," Ranma answered first, shrugging in an only slightly exaggerated manner to aid comprehension.
"Airen here. Shanpu know."
"Well, he's not here here," Ranma insisted as she held he-who-was-not-there in her lap.
"Who are you anyway and why do you want to know where Hibiki is?" Nabiki asked.
"Ah, ni hao," the girl replied in greeting. "I Shanpu, come from Nujiezu to find husband, not come back without."
"Well, Shampoo, you're welcome to walk back home with us, have some tea while you wait for Ry--Hibiki to return," Nabiki offered, glancing at the cat in her girlfriend's lap that was freaking out at the idea.
"Xièxiè," Shampoo accepted with a nod of the head and a small smile.
As the girls took their bags and left, the owner of the café cried out about his wall.
Later, at the Tendou compound, Kasumi served a cup of tea to the visiting Chinese girl, while the others were off doing their own things; Akane was practicing in the dojo, Nabiki and Ranma were in the former's room. Kasumi was of course fully aware what the two got up to, including Ranma's somewhat conflicting outlooks on all things sex. Ryouga, still a cat, warily sat and watched from the other side of the table.
And the parents? Nobody quite knew.
Shampoo thanked Kasumi for the tea and sat in thought. She knew not to blindly assume anything about Japanese customs, but didn't think bringing one's cat to a skating rink was something people normally did. She wasn't so blind as to not notice how this particular cat had reacted to the idea of her coming home with these girls, nor how the trail of the young man she'd tracked all the way from China had suddenly disappeared in ways that the stories about wanderers such as he couldn't account for.
And those stories accounted for a lot.
Just a moment after Kasumi disappeared into the kitchen again, Shampoo muttered to herself as she took her teacup in hand. "Great-grandmother, please don't look down on me if I'm wrong."
Within seconds, Ryouga ran up the stairs, naked and afraid, and stumbled into Nabiki's room.
"She knows! She knows! Ranma hide me!" he cried out, hiding his shame behind the nearest sufficiently-large object -- the office chair.
It was only then that he noticed Ranma and Nabiki weren't wearing much more than he, their only source of modesty a single bedsheet.
They interrupted their cuddling to stare at their guest. This would've been the third time in the week that he'd come in without knocking, and the second time one of them was naked (he'd walked in on Ranma bathing), but it was certainly the first time he'd caught them in the act. Ranma's ears flattened against her head, shock clear on her face, as it was on Ryouga's.
Nabiki evidently relished the situation and was only pretending to be shocked.
...I never stood a chance anyway.
In dead silence, Ryouga turned towards the backpack in the corner, extracted his shorts and pants, and put them on as the girls watched. He shuffled out and down the stairs, stopping in the doorway to the living room with his head down.
Shampoo was just about to run to her airén when she felt almost physically repelled by something. A force, unseen but clearly and easily felt, radiated from the lost boy. If Shampoo focused, she could see the very world around Ryouga look diminished.
Clearly, this boy--this young man, was horribly broken. He didn't need to be hauled anywhere against his will for marriage just because some law required it. This man needed love. He'd come back to China willingly and happy... but only after what ailed him was fixed.
Shampoo steeled herself and walked, pushing against the walls of despair given form. She reached the young man, and softly took his head in her hands.
He didn't respond.
"Wo," she started, then caught herself. Ryouga had to understand her words.
"You I love."
Ryouga promptly embraced Shampoo and openly cried into her shoulder. With an audible noise like a fierce gust of wind, the emanations came to an end, knocking over various small objects like the tea service on the table, and jingling the little bells in Shampoo's hair.
Ranma and the Tendou sisters watched from the hall and kitchen, and all four couldn't help but smile.
"That's some reaction," Nabiki joked, poking her girlfriend in the side. "Can you do that?"
"Don't think so. Ryouga's always been a bit over the top about his feelings but this is a new low."
"And a high, I'd think."
Akane turned to face them, her smile quickly turning to a serious but mild frown. "That's all well and good but why are you walking around naked? Even he got pants on at least!"
"Because Ranma's a little pervert and I like the way you react, sis."
"You've got to be kidding."
"Mostly. Now shut up and watch the romance."
"Y'know," Ranma whispered as she watched her childhood friend find love, "what he did kinda reminded me of this technique I read about once or twice."
Nabiki glanced at her for all of half a second. "Hmm?"
"Something miners and such would use. I forgot what it's called, but it involves channeling your depression or some such. They'd use it to escape from cave-ins."
"Did you try it?"
"Just once, couldn't do it. Figure I'm not sad enough."
"Look at that, the great Ranma Saotome can't do a thing," Akane scoffed.
"Love ya too, brick."
Later, when the parents had returned, it was decided to shuffle around the visitors' sleeping arrangements. Ranma would sleep in Nabiki's room, something they were both quite happy to agree with.
Genma eagerly agreed to the change, as that would free up a space in the guest room and let him finally sleep in the same room as his wife.
Nobody expected the old master to return with any hurry, so they got some extra paper wall panels out to split Happousai's room in two, turning one part into a sleeping space for Ryouga and his new sorta-kinda wife. It wouldn't do to give him reason to leave -- he mightn't come back for weeks!
That evening, when Ranma prepared for bed, she looked in the mirror. Her greatest fear looked back.
False reference in the title is false X3
A bit shorter than I'd like, but what can you do, right? If you feel any disappointment about it, rest assured -- I'm a little disappointed too. I try to get these things up to at least eight kilobytes of pure HTML, including the notes at the end but I can't seem to get this one quite there and it'd be a cheat to use the notes as a stream of consciousness ramble.
Now, what could that fear be? Fear of cliffhangers? Please, feel free to speculate in the comments!
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