After doing whatever a ranma might do around town, Ranma returned to find Kasumi waiting for her in the entrance hall, holding a paper-wrapped okonomiyaki, still warm.
"Pops got a challenge letter?"
"Yes," Kasumi confirmed, "and a very strange one at that."
Indeed, the okonomiyaki had a challenge clearly written on it in sauce.
"Who would do such a thing?"
Almost immediately, Ranma put her shoes back on and ran off again, to the empty lot specified in the strange challenge, taking the medium with her to eat on the way.
Kasumi stood for a moment in thought. "Wouldn't Shampoo usually be with her?"
When she was almost at the lot, Ranma ran into Akane carrying a half-conscious Genma back with her. "Hey, 'Kane? What happened?"
"I'm not really sure, actually. I was barely there in time to catch the start, but it was over in seconds," Akane said as she put down the bulky man down and propped him against a wall. "You're an only child, right?"
"By my count, yeah."
"There was this masked boy with a giant cooking spatula..."
"It's been a long time, Genma Saotome."
"Hmm? Have we met before?"
"Don't pretend that you don't me, the child you left behind!"
"Ukyo? Forgive me! I was poor! I could barely feed Ranma and myself!"
"So you how that'd sound like... wait, aren't you shocked?"
Indeed, Ranma didn't seem to impressed. "Nah, Ah knew the ol' bastard had it in 'em."
"Whoever said I have illegitimate children?" Genma groggily argued.
"Really? Then what'd Ukyo mean?" Akane asked.
"I don't want to talk about it. If you thought that was shocking, the truth would be much worse."
"Eh, f'geddit. School day tomorrow, better get home."
In Ranma's room, Shampoo sat in thought, staring out the window.
When did I start to think of Ranma like this? She's good to me, but...
Nothing could come of it. In my dreams, we're human. Wife and husband. Not like we are now. If she was the only one cursed, I guess I could be... flexible.
But that's not an option now. I really should stop fantasizing about this, it hurts.
"Class, I'd like to introduce a new student," the teacher said as Ukyo, dressed in a boy's uniform but still with the giant spatula, prepared a portable stove.
"Ukyo Kuonji, pleasure to make your acquaintance y'all," the new kid said as he quickly whipped up an okonomiyaki and drew a saucy smile on it.
When Ukyo said his name, Ranma and Akane immediately looked at each other in shock. Moreso when Ukyo called out to the redhead and tossed the still-hot pancake right into Ranma's reflexively-raised hand. The sight of the smiling sauce face brought it all back to her.
"Now I got it! You're Ucchan, from the cart!" Ranma said as she bounded out of her chair and towards the front of the classroom, blindly dodging the sharpened spatulas that Ukyo hurled at her.
"You were childhood friends?" Akane called out behind her.
"Yeah, yeah. For a while anyway, while Pops and I were trainin'. For a good while we hung out 'round Ucchan's dad's cart, and every morning I'd be there to challenge Ucchan for a free okonomiyaki. Fun times. Sad when we left though."
"How dare you," Ukyo exclaimed trying to hit Ranma with the giant spatula.
"What? What're you so mad about?"
"Think back to the day you left, Ranma, and think hard."
So Ranma did, scratching her hair, remembering exactly what you already know. She still a black-haired boy, sitting on the cart, little Ukyo running after her as Genma pulled the cart and ran like hell.
"Y'know, come ta think of it, why were we travelin' on your cart?"
"You were supposed to take me with you, you jerk! Not just the cart! You broke your promise and left me behind," Ukyo swore, fighting back tears.
"But why would ya wanna come with my stupid old man when you got a perfectly good dad yerself?"
"You really don't know, do you, Ranma?" Ukyo muttered, cooking up another pancake which was quickly flung into Ranma's face with a loud splap. "I have a special recipe in mind for you, Ranma," Ukyo proclaimed as he walked out the door. "Prepare yourself!"
Carrying her outfit in a cat-sized backpack, Shampoo quickly made her way to where baba said he was setting up his restaurant.
"Ah, Shanpu," Sachet called out as he spotted his daughter come in. "What brings you here?"
"I have a big problem, daddy."
"Well," the old man said as he picked Shampoo up and set her down on what was soon to be the kitchen counter, then set a smaller than usual cup of tea next to her. "Why don't you tell me about it?"
What happened next was a prime demonstration of how strange martial arts could be. Ukyo's challenge involved a ring with what was soon revealed to be an oversized grill along the edge, searing hot, and various food ingredients gone potentially lethal.
In the explody sense, not the poisonous sense.
Every time Ranma called Ukyo a man or said anything like it, her opponent got angrier. This was of course part and parcel of Ranma's family style, Saotome-school Anything Goes. The only problem was, she wasn't trying to rile Ukyo up, and the aggressive reactions pissed her off in turn. When Ukyo tried to bind Ranma in noodles, the redheaded fighter broke free and returned the attack, slinging Ukyo far out of the ring.
"Come on, ya sissy! Fight like a man," Ranma called out as she chased her target down over the school grounds, completely unaware of the irony behind that statement. Properly angered, Ukyo took a swing with the giant spatula, only to have it caught by Ranma, who simultaneously kicked her opponent square in the stomach. Ukyo released the handle of the spatula, allowing Ranma to take a swipe in return, cutting Ukyo's shirt.
"I try to be nice to you, and what do you do," Ranma said through clenched teeth as she bent the spatula. "You've had yer fun on that grill... but now you're on my turf."
Ukyo, holding the front of his shirt closed with one arm, ran towards the P.E. equipment room as he produced a bag of exploding flour, like he'd used in the ring, and let it blow on entry.
"I see... that's quite a problem," Sachet agreed when his daughter finished tearfully explaining her problem, gently hugging her against his shoulder. "You know, I was going to wait for your birthday, but I didn't bring just some of my belongings and some cooking gear with me."
"What do you mean, daddy?"
Sachet, in reply, reached inside a cabinet half-stocked with various ingredients and produced a small cask with crude but effective warning labels slapped on it.
"My daughter... you know of the Musk, right?"
Shampoo nodded as she beheld the cask.
"According to legend, in ancient times, the men of the Musk would capture wild animals, bring them to Jusenkyou, and throw them into the Spring of the Immersed Girl. The animals would come out as human women and, once tamed, they would bear the Musk men their children.
"I don't know if they only used female animals, or if that even matters. To be honest, this is most I've ever even considered to think of the Musk. I find the deeds in the legend depraved, but my love for you outweighs my opinion, my daughter. For the sake of your wellbeing, I brought this cask with me. This is water from the Spring of the Immersed Girl, my daughter, and I have my hopes that it might restore your true form."
"Gotcha!" Ranma cried out as she spotted her target in the cloud of flour. But when she grabbed Ukyo, she felt something oddly familiar.
Ukyo, naturally, slapped Ranma in the face. "Hands off!"
Ukyo, Ranma found out, was not a boy as she'd always thought her to be. There was really only one explanation that made sense to her.
So she grabbed Ukyo and cried out. "I'm so sorry for what happened!"
"The cart?" Ukyo asked, too confused to get out of the embrace.
"That you'd get cu-hu-hursed!"
"Did the sight of another girl's tits fry your brain when the grill didn't?" Ukyo asked as she finally pushed Ranma off of her. "What's this about a curse?!"
"Back then, I thought you were a guy," Ranma tried to explain through her inelegant and quite off-character blubbering. "That you'd gone to Jusenkyou and gotten cursed to be a girl, like I did."
"Wait what? Cursed to be a... you mean you weren't a girl?"
"...no?" Ranma carefully answered, blinking away some tears.
"So you thought, way back then, that I was a boy... and I thought you were a girl, but you were a boy," Ukyo recapped, pointing left and right with her free hand, the other covering her chest. "But then you..."
"Caught an ancient Chinese curse that turned me into a girl, yeah."
"Huh. And here I thought you just dyed your hair."
"Can't have anything not messed up in ma life, can't I?"
"And this was..."
"Couple months ago now."
"Huh," Ukyo repeated. "Guess that kinda ruins the whole point for your asshole dad to steal the cart."
"Why's that?" Ranma asked as she wiped off her face, stood up and walked out, Ukyo following behind her.
"That cart was supposed to be a wedding dowry."
"Yeah, that would be a problem," Ranma agreed. She picked up the horribly bent spatula and straightened it back out as easily as she'd bent it in the first place, then offered it to her old friend. "I just have one last question."
"Why'd you dress like a guy?"
By the time Ranma and Akane arrived back home, she'd just about figured out how matters of personal honor could drive a girl to "throw away her femininity", as Ukyo'd explained it.
When she opened the door to her room, there was a lump in her futon.
There was not supposed to be a lump in her futon. Not one that size.
Carefully, Ranma padded over and took hold of a corner.
Whatever was in her futon, she could take it.
She was not prepared to find a softly crying figure, with long purple-blue hair and covered in soft, light purple and white fur, wearing one of her Chinese shirts.