The Metronome: Chapter Six: "No Matter What"
In Rei's dream, she was on Mars—the old Mars, the untouched Mars. The one with breath taking river systems and mountain ranges that went on forever. The one with a capital city that mimicked old Edo: wooden houses with thatched roofs and rice paper doors; women and men in kimonos of beautiful colors; a high-rising, tiered castle in the middle of it. Japanese culture originated on Mars, she knew. Based on her dreams, that much was indisputable.
Also, in her dream she was running. The hooded burlap cloak covering her head partially distilled her vision as she ran through the streets of Ikusa, causing her to bang into merchant carts and the occasional bystander. She wanted to stop, to apologize—it was the polite thing to do—but the royal guards were after her; she had to keep moving.
The bright red gate leading out of Ikusa wasn't far away, just past a series of armour and weapon supply shops. Freedom! Rei could feel it in her lungs with every quick breath she took.
"Spread out! She couldn't have gotten that far!" a guard shouted.
'Blast! They might find me at this rate. I can't stay on the main roads.'
Rei turned a corner and ran onto a side street. She ducked behind a large rain barrel and watched as a pair of guards ran past. 'Thank goodness,' she thought with a breath of relief. Another minute or two passed before she found it safe to stand and peer around the corner.
"Hiding from something?" someone asked.
She jumped and spun around. A man leaned against the wall and watched her with folded arms. From under her hood she couldn't see more than the lopsided grin on his face and his cloth commoner's kimono.
"Those guards look mighty fierce," he added, nodding toward the main road. "What'd you do, steal the Emperor's prize fox or something?"
"It is none of your concern," she replied, careful to keep the hood covering her face. She couldn't reveal herself to anyone, not even a commoner who might not know who she was. "If you'll excuse me—"
"Wait," he said, tensing up.
Rei looked around—'Oh no!' A pair of guards were heading straight for the side street.
"Quick," the man pushed her toward the rain barrel. "Hide behind this!"
The Princess Mars did as she was told. Moments later, she heard new voices coming from the entrance of the alleyway.
"Oi! You there!"
"Who, me?" the main with the grin asked.
"Is there anyone else around, then?"
"Sorry," the grin-man replied. "I'm just a little surprised at being called out."
"Never mind that," the guard said. "Have you seen a young woman run by here? About this tall? Black hair?"
The grin-man laughed then. "You're describing pretty much every young woman in Ikusa."
"Trying to get smart with me, then?" the guard said sharply.
"Not at all!" Rei imagined the man throwing his hands up defensively—that's what she would've done. "It's just hard to help you out when you're being so vague. Do you have any more details about this young lady you're searching for?"
"She'll…" the guard hesitated, as if carefully determining which details he wanted to give out. Surely the guards wouldn't want anyone to know they were searching for a runaway princess; revealing her identity could put her in jeopardy of being kidnapped for ransom. "…She'll have herself concealed under a hooded cloak, or something like that. And she'll be trying to hide herself behind something such as that rain barrel over there."
'Oh, no…' Rei sucked in her breath. 'Don't come over here…I can't go back…please, don't come over here!'
"What, that?" asked the grin-man. "Nothing behind that put a pile of my sick. Had a bit too much to drink followed by a bit too much to eat. You're free to look, if you like, but it isn't pretty."
"I'll…" the guard paused. "…Take your word for it. But if you see her—"
"—I'll report her immediately."
"Very good. I'll be off then. Carry on."
After a moment, footsteps scuffing against the ground came steadily closer to Rei. They stopped just in front of the barrel. From under her hood she could see only two sandaled feet.
"He's gone," said the grin-man. He lowered a hand to help her up. "You can stand now, if you like."
Rei took his hand and allowed him to pull her up. She stood in awe of this stranger's kindness. Her past-self had always been warned about the dangerous people of the City—that it was filled with looters and thieves and she should never, ever wander about. The gentle touch of this man's hand made her wonder if all of that was made up to keep her from leaving the palace walls.
"You…didn't turn me in…" she said in disbelief.
"It isn't my style," he replied. "If you're running I'm sure you have your reasons. Who am I to assume they're bad reasons?"
"That is quite fair of you," she said.
"Well, fair is my style." He chuckled. "Anyway, are you going anywhere in particular, or are you just running in circles?"
She sighed. "I haven't quite figured that out yet. Some place discreet." Her stomach rumbled. 'How embarrassing!' Rei blushed. "And, some place with food, I suppose."
"You're in luck, then!" he said jovially. "I know just the place. Real hole in the wall. Great food and a great place to hide. You'll love it."
Even after all the times she'd been warned about the tricksters who lived in Ikusa, Rei wanted to trust this man. Something about him screamed of honesty and virtue. Besides, if he did try anything, she always had the power of fire to protect herself with.
"I'd like that."
"Great!" He bowed. "So what's your name, then?"
"I would rather not say," she said quietly, expecting push back from him.
But he didn't try and push her for information. Instead, he compassionately said, "Fair enough. I wouldn't want anyone to know my true identity if I was on the lamb. Let's try this: why don't you make one up? What's a name you've always liked?"
The Princess Mars thought about it for a moment. "'Rei,' I suppose. I've always liked that name." In fact, if she ever had a daughter, that's the name she'd give her.
"Well, 'Rei,'" he replied. "If we're making up names I'll do it, too. Just call me…Ranma. Yeah, I like the sound of that."
"Ranma it is." She couldn't help but smile. He really was a complete and proper gentleman.
Her stomach rumbled again. Rei coughed to cover it up. "About that food?"
"Oh, yes!" he said with excitement. "Let's go. If you don't mind, can we wait for my friend for a moment first? No need to worry, he's quite the classy fellow. Totally on the up-and-up. You'll like him. Everyone does. Oh, actually, here he comes now."
Another man walked up, though Rei couldn't see his face, either. She sensed a kindness about him, however—something demure and almost innocent—even without being able to read his face.
"There you are!" the new man scolded Ranma. "I've been looking all over for you!"
"Just helping a damsel in distress," Ranma replied in defense. "And she's hungry, so I figured we'd go to the pub."
The new man turned to Rei. He paused a moment, then offered a bow. "My apologies, Miss. I did not see you standing there."
"It is no bother," Rei replied. At that point she became curious about the looks of these two men. Holding her hood to ensure it didn't fall down and reveal her face, she lifted her head and dared to look at them. But the dream world did not want her to see who they were; their faces were both blurred and fuzzy as if the television was on the wrong setting. All she could make out was that goofy, charming grin on Ranma's face and a modest smile on the face of his friend.
"Rei," Ranma gestured to the new man. "I'd like you to meet my good friend and partner-in-crime, Zoicite."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Rei," Zoicite said, offering another bow.
The current Rei shot out of bed in a panic and instantly put a hand to her sweat-covered forehead. She tossed the covers aside and walked around her room in swift circles. Was the dream a truth? Had she actually met Ranma and Zoicite after running away from the Martian Palace?
And what in Mars' name was Ranma doing in the Moon Kingdom, anyway? Did he have a tie to the past life, too?
'No, no, Rei, your mind is playing tricks on you,' she thought. 'You've been spending too much time with the brain-dead moron recently and now he's spilling into your dreams.'
She also rationalized that all the other Senshi's talk about collaborating with Zoicite was the reason she dreamed of him, as well.
'Yes, that's it,' she reasoned. 'It's all in my head…literally.'
Returning to her bed, Rei climbed back under the covers. She shut her eyes and repeatedly told herself the dream wasn't real. The mantra did little to quell her unease, however; she found herself still awake when the sun rose the next morning.
The next few weeks were uneventful for Ranma: no random clay monsters terrorizing the streets of Tokyo; no talk of Moon Kingdoms (or worse—talking c-c-cats;) no being approached by super-human strangers who want him to join their merry band. Best of all, however: no Crackpot.
Well, almost no Crackpot.
Despite the constant protests of his newest student, Hino Rei, Haruka insisted that she walk the fiery maiden to and from each class. On a couple of occasions Ranma questioned her on why she was so determined to play the role of bodyguard, but soon learned not to ask.
"Until you're prepared to accept the Moon Kingdom and all that comes with it, you aren't prepared to know," she'd said.
As he wasn't prepared to accept the Moon Kingdom and all that came with it, Rei's curious security detail remained a mystery.
Speaking of Rei, she'd been acting curious herself throughout today's training session. She refused to work on any close-up combat and ripped her hand out of Ranma's when he tried to grab her to practice a throwing technique. She insisted on practicing Kendo instead, and swiftly jumped back every time Ranma tried to move in for a close swing.
"Hold it," Ranma finally said an hour into training. He removed his kendo mask and gave Rei the most serious of looks. "Something's been up with you this whole session. You aren't focusing and it's causing us to go nowhere. What's up?"
Rei removed her mask and stared at him, her face stoic. "It's…nothing."
Ranma knew she was lying, and he didn't appreciate being lied to. Not after what he went through. And as for Rei, she was never so reserved and wasn't one to shy off. She even seemed to relish in beating on him, as it were. For her to not take the opportunity to swing at his head meant something grave had to be wrong.
"Come on, Rei. Talk to me," he said with mild frustration. "We've known each other long enough for you to have at least a teaspoon of trust in me."
"I—" Rei took in a deep breath, then responded with one of her typical comments about brain-dead morons being untrustworthy.
He wasn't having it this time, though. As infuriating as she was he'd allowed himself to grow close to the girl—well, just a tiny bit—over the past weeks and wanted to help if he could. It was in his nature. And, though he deign admit it to anyone, being in her presence was becoming somewhat comforting…again, just a tiny bit.
"Fine!" she shouted testily after several minutes of Ranma's prodding. "If you must know…" Rei blushed, cast her eyes downward and hastily said, "I had a dream about you last night."
His eyes widened. There was a slight tightness in his chest. She…what? Ranma grew increasingly excited. He hadn't felt that way since Ak—since her. Thinking of her riled him up and before he could catch himself he asked, "Was it saucy?"
Ahh, yes. There's the swing to the head.
"Oww! Hey! Watch it, my mask is off!"
"That's the point," she growled. "And you are so not a complete and proper gentleman!"
"Oi! Where'd that come from?" A swing and a miss. "And knock it off!" Ranma found himself dodging a slew of wild swings from Hino Rei. He barely got his mask back on in time to save him from a smack in the face by Rei's wooden practice sword.
"I'll have you know," he began, putting his sword in front of his face to defend against another swipe. "I was a complete and proper gentlemen until Akane—"
He stopped himself before uttering another word. Aside from it hurting to talk about, he was cautious about what happened between his ex-fiancé and he. He didn't want anyone to know about his painful experience—especially not Rei.
Rei stopped swinging. "Akane?" she asked, removing her mask. "Who's Akane?"
Turning around, Ranma looked at his feet and focused on his breathing. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
"Ranma? What's wrong? Who's Akane?" Rei asked.
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Ranma felt a hand press against his shoulder.
Rei's hand gripped his gi and tugged at it, pulling him around to face her. He could have fought her, lord knew he was strong enough to ignore the pull, but a small part of him didn't want to. A small part of him wanted to see the quite rare look of concern in her exotic eyes and to know she wanted to understand him.
But the pain of thinking about Akane's betrayal, how she'd left him at the alter as he clutched a ring she promised she wanted to always wear, it was too much. His defenses crept in and the need to chastise every woman he met overwhelmed him once again.
"Just forget about it, Rei, please. I—" Ranma stopped talking when the chime at the door signaled a newcomer.
A man stood at the door—bright eyes, curly blond hair, a nervous expression. Scuffed boots that didn't quite match his pristine suit. He seemed decent enough, no threat there, so Ranma walked over to the counter and asked, "Can I help you?"
Before he could respond, Rei ran up to Ranma and sharply said, "No, Ranma, you can't help him." She pushed Ranma back and held a straight arm in front of him. "Stay behind me. This guy's trouble."
"What?" Ranma asked. He looked between Rei and the man at the door. The man's expression changed from nervous to something more somber—as if he was saddened by Rei's mistrust. Did they know each other? Given Rei's stick-straight posture, they must have had a bad interaction at some point.
'Then again, Rei thinks every interaction with a man is a bad interaction,' Ranma thought. 'Maybe he just told her he liked her shoes, or something.'
Ranma turned back to Rei. "He doesn't look like trouble, at all. In fact, he looks downright pleasant. And what are you doing? I'm the man here. I'm the instructor. You should be hiding behind me!"
"Not this time," she replied, her shoulders stiff. "And I'll have you know, I'm quite capable of taking care of myself." Rei reached for something small inside of her gi—something Ranma couldn't entirely see.
"I will transform in front of him if I have to," she growled.
Ranma turned and looked at her. 'Transform?' Was she one of them?
"There's no need for that, Hino-san. I assure you," the man said. "And please, at least allow me to introduce myself to your friend."
"You're not welcome to introduce yourself to anyone, Zoicite," Rei seethed.
'Zoicite…Zoicite?' Ranma knew that name—and, suddenly, that face.
But how? He'd never met this man before in his life! Or had he? He couldn't be expected to remember every stranger he'd bumped into on a train platform, or every waiter who'd served him a meal. Maybe he did know him, somehow, from somewhere.
"It's a pleasure to see you again, Ranma," Zoicite said, craning his neck to look past Rei.
A sudden pain filled Ranma's head at the sound of his name His sight darkened. He clutched his forehead and took a step back, now unable to keep his balance. As his sight faded out completely the last thing he saw was the frightened look on Rei's face as she tried to keep him from falling. He thought she said, "Stay with me!" but the ringing in his ears drowned out her words. Then all went dark and cold—until the vision flooded his mind with an explosion of color, that is.
"Run!" Zoicite shouted, pushing Ranma forward. "These guys don't look like they want to take prisoners!"
"AKA they want to shoot us in the neck!" Ranma replied after an arrow shot past his head. "I don't suppose telling them who you are and that they're terribly confused is going to help our case."
In an effort to trip the guards that were chasing he and Ranma, Zoicite grabbed a fruit cart and tipped it over. A variety of exotic fruits tumbled to the ground, littering the guards' path. "They think we kidnapped their Princess," he said. "I doubt they're willing to give us a minute to explain the situation properly."
"But we were just walking her home!" Ranma argued, dodging another arrow. "We were seeing her safely back to the palace. We should be commended!"
"Yes, and in their eyes we were 'caught with her.' They didn't know she ran away. To them, the logical explanation upon seeing the Princess with a pair of strangers is that we kidnapped her."
Ranma hopped over a pair of crates and looked back. The guards were trying to maneuver their way over the mound of fruit. 'Good job, Zo,' he thought, turning a corner. 'Still…I can't believe she turned out to be the Princess…'
"I can't believe she turned out to be the Princess!" Zoicite shouted, matching Ranma's thoughts. "Of all the girls to choose, you choose the Princess!"
"I was trying to help her," Ranma shot back. "And what do you mean by 'choose?' I'm not some playboy, you know! I just so happen to be a proper gentle—oh no."
They'd run down an alleyway with no exit. Ranma beat against the wooden wall in their way. 'Great. No weak spots…and the guards are closing in.'
When the guards reached them Ranma and Zoicite threw up their arms in defeat. The guards said something about them really being in trouble now. Ranma closed his eyes in frustration. How could he be so stupid as to not look down the alleyway before running into it? Now he and his best friend were in danger of losing their lives all because he was a brain-dead moron.
"You'll both come with us," one of the guards said after catching his breath. "To be tried for the kidnapping of the princess."
'Good,' Ranma thought. 'At least they've decided not to kill us I wonder what changed their minds so quickly...'
Zoicite dropped his hands and stepped forward. "Please, Sirs, if you will. If you must arrest anyone, arrest me. This man had nothing to do with what happened between the Princess and myself. He was just an innocent bystander who unfortunately got wrapped up in the situation. He's entirely innocent."
"Zo, what are you doing?" Ranma whispered in surprise. "You aren't taking the wrap for my mistake."
"I'm an Earthen General," Zoicite replied. "They're bound to have leniency on me once I can convince them to contact our prince to prove who I truly am."
But Ranma would have none of that. This man was his friend, his ally and his mentor. There was no way he'd allow Zoicite to face this fate alone. Not after everything his friend had done for him—not after everything they'd been through together. It wasn't Ranma's style to let anyone go down for his mistakes—especially his best friend.
"Don't listen to him!" Ranma shouted, stepping forward. "We are both to blame. He's simply trying to cover for me."
"I am not!"
"I don't care what either of you say," one of the guards interrupted. "You're both coming with us!"
"Thanks for having my back again," Ranma said as the guards led them away.
"I'll always have your back," Zoicite said as if deeming Ranma's comment as entirely ridiculous. "No matter what."
'Man, my head hurts,' Ranma thought as the world came slowly back into focus.
"Thank goodness, you're awake!" someone hovering over him said. Distinctly female with a sweet but toughness about it, he knew that voice. It was too unique to ever forget.
"P…Princess," he stuttered, trying to raise a hand to his head. It was too heavy for him and it fell back to his side. "Princess, is that you?"
"No, no. I'm not a princess," she said, her face a blur. "It's me, Rei."
"You always liked that name," he replied forcibly. It hurt to talk.
"He's delirious," an equally familiar voice said.
"No one asked you!" the Princess snapped—it was quite unlike her. She turned her attention back to Ranma. "Can you tell me where you are? Do you know your name?"
Ranma's head hurt.
"Yes," Rei replied, her voice awash with anxiety. "Do you know your name?"
"Ranma," he whispered. "I always liked that name."
Ranma lost consciousness again.
With Mars' Spring season upon them, the courtyard smelled wildly of Asiatic lilies. Decidedly Ranma liked the scent. It was calming and activating all in one. They were nice to look at, too. Their perfectly white petals never failed to bring a much needed smile to his face.
"Daydreaming again?" Zoicite asked, breaking him from the soothing trance the garden had over him.
"He certainly loves his lilies," the Princess Mars teased. "More so than I, it seems. Perhaps we should refer to him as Princess."
"Very funny, Princess," Ranma replied, trying to hide his lop-sided smile. "Does that mean we get to share clothing? I'm a few sizes larger than you; I might stretch things out—especially those evening gowns you purchased for the Moon Kingdom balls."
"Ranma, how many times have I told you not to call me Princess?" she scorned, waving a finger. "If you keep doing that I'm going to be forced to refer to you by your real name."
"But—but—I like 'Ranma!'" he pouted. "It suits me much better than my real name."
"And I like 'Rei,'" she replied. "It suits me much better than 'Princess' or 'Akahana.' I hate that name. It sounds like something one would order at a noodle shop."
"Fine, fine, Rei it is," Ranma said, drooping his shoulders in defeat. He never could stand up to her; he liked letting her have her way far too much. "But if a guard or, worse, your father, come around, 'Princess' it is."
Rei sighed. "Deal. But I still won't like it. Even if it is to save face in front of Father."
"Come on, Rei!" Ranma said in exasperation. "After everything we went through with your father while we tried to prove our innocence I need to save as much face with your Father as possible."
"I have to agree with Ranma on this one," Zoicite added. "Ever since we were arrested for 'kidnapping you' after you ran away from the palace, your Father has never looked at us in a proper light."
"That certainly was a fun little trip to prison," Ranma said sarcastically, remembering how they threw a freezing cold bucket of water at him when he wouldn't shut up about his innocence. "We try and bring you home safely and they accuse us of kidnapping you? This planet certainly has a unique way of 'trusting' people."
"It all worked out in the end, did it not?" Rei asked sweetly.
Ranma swallowed. 'There she goes, fluttering her eyelashes again.' "Yeah, yeah. I guess it did. And you became best friends with Zo and I. Can't complain about that."
Rei flashed one of her killer smiles. "I've never had best friends before. Sure, I have the other princesses, but their relationships were forced. I've never been able to choose who I wanted to spend my time with. It's refreshing…but…" Her smile dropped. Ranma's heart dropped with it.
"What's wrong, Rei?" Zoicite asked. "Why so suddenly glum?"
"With the wedding coming up…" she paused. "I'm worried our dynamic might change once I'm married."
Ranma bit the inside of his cheek to keep from frowning. 'The wedding…' He hated that topic. Mainly because he'd fallen for the princess a long time ago, but he also hated it because she hated it. She wanted anything but to marry the Martian general everyone called 'The Metronome.' That she was being forced into marrying him broke Ranma's heart.
"Ranma?" Rei was staring. "Are you all right?"
"Oh, right, sorry," he replied, scratching the back of the head. "And you don't have to worry about us, Rei. We're too enchanted by you to ever leave your side."
She slapped his arm playfully. "You flirt. You always did know how to make a girl blush."
'You're the only one I ever want to make blush,' he thought, plucking a lily from the garden, he handed it to her. "We'll always be here for you, Rei. No matter what."
When Rei's cheeks flushed, Ranma's chest tightened. 'I'd do anything for this wedding not to happen…'
"Promise?" she asked. "No matter what?"
Ranma and Zoicite nodded in unison.
"No matter what," they said together.
Outside of the Anything Goes in Tokyo School of Martial Arts, thunder rolled and lightning struck. A barrage of rain beat down on the building's metal roof, causing clinks and clanks inside of the modest-sized dojo.
Ben—or Zoicite, as he was known in his past life—watched with baited breath as Rei repeatedly tapped Ranma's cheek.
"Snap out of it, Ranma." she called, her voice shaky. "Come on, then. Wake up!"
"He's all right, Rei-san," Ben said in the most comforting voice he could muster. "He's just remembering. It can be a bit overwhelming."
"No one asked you!" she shot back. "And how do I know this isn't one of your tricks? How do I know that you aren't doing this with your…your witchcraft!"
"Rei-san, please, it isn't me! It's the memories!" Ben pleaded, stepping forward. The weight of her accusing glare pressed down on his shoulders, sinking them. The three of them were so close once—like family. Closer than that, even. For the Princess Mars to stare at him with such forthright hatred, it left his chest tight and restricted.
"You stay back!" Rei warned, reaching into her gi again. "He's out cold. He won't see me transform and roast you."
"I already told you, there's no need for that," Ben replied, putting his hands up defensively. What had his clone done to make her hate him so much? "Look, I don't know what the man who pretended to me did to you, or your friends, but it wasn't me. If you'll allow me to help you remember—"
A streak of lightning flashed across the sky, bringing a stream of light to the otherwise dimly-lit space. It brightened Rei's face, revealing a mask of suspicion and scorn. Ben's face also lit up, it awash with disappointment.
Ranma roused slightly, catching Ben's and Rei's attention.
"Ranma, are you all right?" Rei asked.
"Brain…hurts…" he mumbled, trying to lift his head. "World…spinning…"
Rei placed a hand on Ranma's forehead and gently pushed his head back down. She turned to Ben, her eyes still full of that earth-shattering loathing. "Look at what you're doing to him. You're hurting him." She pointed at the door. "Out. Out!"
Another streak of lightning.
"I assure you, it isn't me, Rei-san," Ben pleaded again. "I'm your ally, your friend—"
Another flash of thunder.
"I said get out!"
Ben pursed his lips so as not to frown in front of her. His point was moot. She wasn't going to listen. Not yet, at least. She'd quite obviously been scorned in this life. Ben hurt for one of his oldest and dearest friends. Whatever happened to make her this way, he wished it hadn't.
"No matter what, huh?" he asked, more to himself than to her. Ben raised his collar and walked out into the storm. The bell chimed, signaling his exit. So fixated on his own footsteps, he missed the look of startled curiosity Rei gave him on his way out.