Finally. FINALLY. Here I give you the final chapter of Without Her, a fic that took me 11 years to write. Reading through the previous chapters, I realized how much my writing has changed. I'd like to think that it has matured, but if it hasn't I hope you still manage to enjoy it.
I don't know if I've given this story a proper ending. During re-reads, I find it trite, but maybe I'm just thinking too much. Whatever your verdict may be, I'd like to thank all of you, my readers, for your continuous support for WH. Special thanks to regular commentors (you know who you are), and one guest reviewer who called me out for my wrong spellings in nihonggo. Hehe, I only got a C in that class from ten years ago, so I'm sure I'm pretty much a rusty loser.
I got the inspiration for some of this chapter's parts from Banana Yoshimoto's "NP", while the instructions on how to make sencha I got from Maiko ( . . ).
Do read and review. Again, thank you, and see you in my next fics. :)
Disclaimer: Ranma is not mine.
Lunar Ember Presents
a Ranma ½ Fanfiction
Part 10: As the Circle Closes
I loved you first: but afterwards your love
Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song
As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove.
Which owes the other most? my love was long,
And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong;
I loved and guessed at you, you construed me
And loved me for what might or might not be –
Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong.
For verily love knows not 'mine' or 'thine;'
With separate 'I' and 'thou' free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of 'thine that is not mine;'
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.
- Christina Rossetti
Afternoon sunlight filtered through the gently rustling leaves of the bamboo grove that swayed gracefully around her. The wind threaded among the old canes that bent at its passing, making soft, creaking sounds that reminding her of the slow swaying of a child's cradle.
She stood in silence, looking up at the small patch of sky above her. There was peace in her small clearing; peace that she had yearned to call her own upon her return to the hidden village of Joketsuzoku. With the Council acknowledging her victory against her former fiancé, she had come home with her head held high and her honor intact. The few who contested the decision and who stressed her inability to put a man to heel were quieted by her challenge and their eventual defeat.
Yet even as she was once again accepted as the village champion and her Great-grandmother's heir, she couldn't regain the sense of contentment she had before she had ventured off to the Farlands. Japan had ruined her, she thought. Japan, and Nerima, and a certain pigtailed boy who had first broken her heart. But no matter how much she wanted to hate all of them, she found that she couldn't. The fight had gone out of her that night after she had raised her hand and claimed victory against Ranma, and now she felt empty.
The unshed tears in her eyes surprised her, and she quickly blinked them back. She was tired of crying and of pining for people and things that she could never have. Now, she just wanted to pick her self up and have a heart as strong as her fists.
Exhaling slowly, she closed her eyes and fell into stance. As the wind blew around her, she flowed into the first positions of Quigong. There was calmness in the slow, deliberate movements, and she allowed herself to bask in it, her initially ragged breathing falling into a gentle rhythm that blended with the sound of dancing bamboo.
There was a shift in the air, and she was suddenly aware that she wasn't alone.
Without breaking technique, Shampoo turned and grabbed the hand of the person who approached her on quiet feet, her soles deliberately pushing against the ground as she moved to a stance that gave her full access to her assailant's neck.
Her fingers stopped midway as she recognized the man she had pulled close, his eyes smiling behind his glasses.
"Mousse!" Noticing their proximity, Shampoo unceremoniously pushed him back and placed a good distance between them. "What are you doing here?"
The young man adjusted the bag that was slung over his shoulder and shrugged. "Going home, I guess."
She blinked and bit back a retort. Mousse hadn't returned to the village with her and Cologne; he disappeared as they set up camp one evening, leaving a note that said that he had something to do.
This was the first time that she saw him again, and somehow he seemed different. His stride was more confident, his shoulders broader, and he stood to his full height. The changes would not have been noticeable for someone who barely knew him, but the amazon had spent most of her time in Nerima living under the same roof as he, and so to her they were as glaring as the sun in high noon.
The transformation worried her. Suspiciously narrowing her eyes, she asked in smooth Mandarin, "What have you been up to?"
A knot slowly formed in Shampoo's stomach. "For what?"
"This year's Festival."
"You intend to challenge someone?"
The way he stared at her sent off warning bells in her head, but still she ventured to ask.
A chill settled in her belly even as exasperation contorted her features. She didn't need this. She just wanted to be left alone. That wasn't too much to ask, was it?
"Why are you at this again?"
The young man looked at her, unruffled by her apparent frustration. "I've tried for years to claim you. I never did stop."
"Precisely. You've tried for years. What makes you think that you can defeat me this time?"
"I trained - "
"A few months of being alone in the mountains won't do you much good."
"I trained not just my body, but also my heart."
She studied him, slightly surprised by the answer. Mousse looked at her with a silly grin on his face, but his eyes told a different story. They held her as they've never done so before, burying deep into her own, searching for something that she suddenly was afraid they might find.
She shook her head defiantly and hardened her gaze. Whatever witchcraft he was using, she would not fall for it.
"Go away, Mousse. You're disturbing me."
"Not just yet."
To her shock, he reached out and held her wrist. She retaliated instinctively, whipping up her leg for a sharp side kick that met nothing but air.
She teetered for a split-second, hissing as she snapped her head back in time to see Mousse above her. Shampoo spun aside, throwing her arms in a wide circle as his feet hit the ground. He blocked her strikes calmly, the light smile never leaving his lips.
It annoyed her to no end that he seemed to be enjoying their situation immensely. Biting back the urge to scream, she crouched close to the ground and moved through a series of sharp forms that he had never seen her use. Counting on his new-found agility to avoid them, she turned for a back fist which she had expected to be blocked and quickly twisted for a well-calculated roundhouse kick that swept a mere inch from his face.
His thick glasses flew and fell broken on the ground meters away from them. Shampoo snorted.
"Go away, Mousse," she repeated as she made to leave. "Without your glasses, you're nothing."
She had only taken a few steps when she heard him whisper.
"I don't need my sight to claim you. Not anymore."
She blinked, slowly turning back to glare at him. He was facing her, his eyes wide and blank but still eerily trained to her own.
"I can defeat you."
His soft declaration made her dash forward in sudden anger. The sharp wind of their clash blew the hair out of Mousse's almost sightless eyes, while hers widened in shock as he blocked punch after punch that flew with the speed of Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken.
No, she thought, gritting her teeth. She wouldn't allow this. Suddenly changing tactics, she sharply spun for a high hook kick. He was a blur before her, and before she even had the time to feel confused, a sudden sweep from underneath her made her feet lose their purchase. Time stood still as she fell backwards, disbelief washing over her as she instinctively braced herself for a badly positioned landing.
It never came.
She felt the air rush out of her lungs as he caught her in one arm, his eyes looking into and through her in all seriousness, his lips a tight line that made her unknowingly lick hers.
She was drowning in a flurry of emotions - embarrassment, frustration, and though she wouldn't admit it, awe and even fear. Her heart pounded in her chest. Fear? Why was she suddenly afraid of this boy who had been nothing but a nuisance to her for years?
He languidly moved, his chest pressingly warmly against her arm, and once again took her wrist with his free hand to put something on it.
"I just wanted to give you that," he said, almost reluctantly helping her to her feet. The amazon gazed blankly at her forearm now adorned by a simple bracelet.
"I couldn't find anything else, so I used soft branches and vines and wove them all together." The confidence he earlier displayed seemed to quickly slip away from him, and now the young man nervously moved from one foot to another. "It's not much, but wanted to bring you home something."
Shampoo ran her fingers over the band. When she kept her silence, Mouse bitterly smiled and slightly shook his head as if clearing them of any illusions of her warm gratitude. He walked to where his broken glasses lay.
"You know," he said, kneeling to pick up the ruined frames. "I just suddenly realized that I've been wrong about wanting to claim you."
She glanced at him, saying nothing.
"You're not mine or anyone's to claim. You're a person, not a prize. And even if I understand you wanting to find someone strong enough to handle you, in the end it should still be your choice. I will fight you during the Festival, but it's only to show you that I'm capable of protecting you - that I want to protect you - and not to force you to remain by my side."
Her brows furrowed as he walked towards where she stood to pick up the bag he had earlier discarded. "If you defeat me," she started, surprised that she even entertained the notion. "If you defeat me, I'll be required by law to marry you."
"But one who defeats the village champion is also entitled to a boon."
A quiet breeze whispered softly through bamboo leaves. Shampoo lowered her gaze as realization dawned upon her.
"You'll ask to free me from what binds me to you."
"If that's what makes you happy, then yes. I just want what makes you happy," he gave her a gentle smile as he leaned over her. "And so I challenge you."
His breath was warm on her ear and his lips soft on her cheek. She stood still, almost thinking that she had just received the Kiss of Death when in fact she hadn't - it confused her as she knew what the gesture meant but didn't know what it was for, and before she could even react he was already gone.
There was silence, save for the light breeze that whispered around her. Shampoo let out a breath that she didn't know she held as she watched the sunlight filter through the swaying leaves. She felt the way one would after carrying a heavy burden and suddenly having been relieved of it - tired, light, but missing the weight. She didn't know whether to be happy or mad, and the confusion caused her to fall into a void of sudden resignation. Oddly, the emotional surrender felt nice.
Her fingers absently caressed the knots on her make-shift bracelet. It wasn't perfect, but the shades of brown, green, and yellow blended into the promise he had given her: freedom, and the choice to love who she deemed worthy.
Nobody had given her so much before.
His honest eyes filtered back into her mind, and she roughly wiped away the tears that she didn't notice had fallen. Pressing the trinket against her chest, she whispered with a smile: "I accept your challenge."
He was already there when she arrived.
She took her time to approach so she could observe him. Recently, there has been something different about Kuno Tatewaki – something deep and intriguing that wasn't there months ago. She requested a cup of soy latte from a passing waiter before sitting opposite him.
"Sorry, I'm late."
He tilted his head in acknowledgement. "It's quite all right, Nabiki. May I get thee something to drink?"
"I already ordered, thanks. Besides," she looked at with half-lidded eyes. "I – we – have already imposed on you way too much."
"It is the best that I can do. And it still continues to be a pleasure."
After the Black Rose incident, Kuno requested that they meet without telling her family. In spite of her misgivings, he gave him a chance, and they sat in the very coffee shop that they were currently in. Looking weary and older for his age, he apologized profusely for what his sister did, saying that she was now seeing a doctor as his father was. He then offered financial help for Akane to somehow make amends.
Knowing how almost empty her family's pockets were, Nabiki swallowed the last of her pride and accepted. It was mutually beneficial, she thought. He would get his illusion of forgiveness, while she would manage a bigger budget.
However, something else happened; after a few more meet-ups and longer conversations, Nabiki realized that Kuno had changed. He was still comically extravagant in words and actions, but now he was gentler, kinder, and more aware of the world around him. Before she knew it, she wasn't just being civil. She had ever so slowly started to forgive him and saw him for who he truly was.
As the waiter placed her cup on the table, Kuno asked, "How fares your sister?"
"She's doing therapy, and she's been trying her best to walk around the house on her own."
"She has always been quite determined."
"Yeah. Tofu-sensei said that the Phoenix Point has managed to speed up her healing process, but it could only do so much. The rest is up to her will. You know how stubborn she is, but still," she placed her hands around the cup, "she won't be able to do kempo for a long time."
When Tofu-sensei and Ayame broke the news that she may have to hang her gi for an indefinite period, Akane just stared at her hands in silence. They never talked about it again, until she said one morning over breakfast, "How can I carry on the Anything-Goes School if I can't fight? I'll train again as soon as I can walk without anyone helping me."
"Now she's been trying to walk around Nerima by herself, much to Ranma's dismay. You should see him trying so hard not to say anything that would get Akane all worked up."
"He is good for her."
The smile on his face somewhat surprised her. "You? Complimenting Ranma? That's a first."
Kuno chuckled. "It may come as good news for thee that I have given up on thine sister. I have seen how Saotome truly cares for her, and I cannot compete with that. Moreover," he looked out the window. "There are more important issues that I have yet to address."
Nabiki followed his gaze. A black sedan had pulled over their side of the road, and the driver was in the process of opening the backseat door. A pair of dainty ballet flats appeared, followed by a flowing dress that could belong to none other than Kodachi.
"I apologize, but think I may have to cut our conversation short." Kuno discretely pushed an envelope across the table. "That is for this month's expenses."
"Stop that," Nabiki pushed it back. "What you've already given is enough. Thanks, but we can already manage."
"Then let this be the last. After all, we shall not be seeing each other any time soon."
She blinked at him as he called the waiter to settle the bill. "What? Why?"
"Dachi and I will be heading to our mother's ancestral home in Kyoto. The doctor says that it would be good for her to be away for now." He looked at her, and suddenly broke into a smile.
"That seems to dismay thee, Tendo Nabiki."
"What are you talking about?"
"It seems that thou art actually saddened by my inevitable leaving. I think will be missed."
Nabiki snorted. "Don't be so full of yourself, Kuno."
The kendoist laughed. "I will be back so there is no need to worry. But do give my farewells to the pig-tailed girl, if you see her. I have not seen her countenance it the longest time."
"Just when I thought that you've completely changed, here you are being a prick yet again."
"I shall let that pass." Nabiki stared him down, but he only seemed to find it amusing as he stood. "Good bye, Nabiki. Thou hast my gratitude for everything."
"I won't say 'bye' because I know you'll be back before I've even had to time to relax, but yeah. Thank you." She allowed herself a small smile. "For everything."
She watched him as he went out the door and approached his sister. He spoke and gestured towards where she sat. Kodachi met her gaze, and for the first time since she had known her, Nabiki saw no madness in her eyes. They were empty, and sadly so, but she was almost sure that her brother would be able to help them with happiness. Maybe then, they can be a family again.
Kodachi bowed her farewell, her dark, loose locks falling over her shoulders.
Nabiki took a sip of her drink, not giving a second look at the black sedan that sped away. Left on her own, the Tendo-middle child listened to the hushed conversations around her, running her finger on the rim of her cup, feeling calm, slightly content, but all of a sudden, lonely.
"I think I will be missed."
For once, the bozo was right.
"So here's the list of her medicines, a few instructions, and my number in case you have any questions or need my help," Ayame handed over a folded sheet of paper and smiled. "Akane's doing well, but that doesn't mean that she can be clumsy about her health."
After months of helping her sister and her entire family recover, Ayame decided that they did not need a round-the-clock nurse anymore. Kasumi knew that she was right – after all, Akane had been healing quite nicely – but she had to admit that she had grown fond of the girl. She was kind and sweet, and she loved her imouto almost as much as she did.
And so a few days before her leaving, Kasumi helped her with all her stuff, giggling with her over the most mundane of things. She needed the laughter, after all. In spite of her happiness about Akane's recovery, there was still a dark corner in her heart that ached for another person.
"Must you really go so soon?" Kasumi asked as she placed the list in her apron pocket.
"I'll always visit, Kasumi-san," the older woman said. "Besides, if I stay here as I nurse, you'll have to keep on paying me!"
Kasumi laughed lightly before reaching out to hold her hand. "I know that you still have a couple of days with us, but I just want you to know that we're all so very grateful about what you did for my sister."
Turning serious, Ayame shook her head and held her fingers tight. "I should be the one thanking you. You still accepted me even after you found out about Hiro."
"Because in the end, it wasn't your fault. In a way, every one of us is trying to make amends for something." Kasumi smiled sadly. "Come. Let me get us some sencha and kasutera."
Kasumi bade her to sit at the dining table as she padded to the kitchen. Amends, she thought. There were so many things that she needed to compensate for, especially with one certain person. She and Tofu haven't spoken much since that time in Akane's room, and the flowers he had given her were never discussed. They would exchange small talk – "The days are becoming cooler", "Yes, better keep yourself warm" – but that was all. And every single day, she felt as if she had to do something, at the very least salvage the friendship they once had, but neither him nor she was brave enough to make the first move.
"I should stop thinking too much."
She busied herself with pouring hot water into the teapot and waited for it to cool down. "If the water's too hot, or if you soak the leaves too long, your tea will taste bitter," her mother used to say. After a bit, she poured the water into to two tea cups then proceeded to place the sencha into the pot. She waited as the clock ticked the seconds away, before pouring back water from the first tea cup, then the second –
She felt a warm hand halt hers midway. She turned to see the doctor beside her with unreadable eyes.
He didn't say anything, and she avoided his gaze only to follow the line of his cheek, his jaw and the hand that gently rested on hers. She couldn't stand the feel of him, and so she gently pulled back.
"I'm preparing tea for Ayame-san, so if you could please – "
"She just left. She said she'll be back tomorrow morning to get the last of her things." He took a step closer to her. "She also said that we needed to talk, and I think she's right."
The world suddenly seemed so small. He was now so different from the love-stricken boy who clumsily followed her around. She could see the effort it took him to come to her like this, the tense line of his lips relaxing only to softly say her name.
Cornered and inwardly panicked, she did the only thing that she could.
"What can I help you with?"
He stared at her dumbfounded, suddenly surprised at the nearness of her. He stepped back, slightly stumbling. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I didn't realize – "
Kasumi watched him as he tried to find the right words, as he raised her eyes to meet hers with the look of a desperate man who had much to lose.
Neither spoke a word. She could almost hear the air around them crack with tension, if she wasn't deafened by the sound of her own heartbeat.
The doctor licked his lips. "Kasumi, I – "
"I'm swiping the last of the chocolate chip cookies if that's o – "
Peeking comically from under the noren, Ranma suddenly froze.
" – kaaay... "
He stared at them, biting his lower lip and backing away slowly. "Uh... I'll just go get them cookies later."
The boy turned to run, and Kasumi could hear him shouting for Akane to be careful about something from across the hall.
She once again looked at the doctor who was turning several shades of red at the awkward interruption. "Ka-kasumi, as I was saying I just – "
"Oh hello, Nabiki."
"'Nee-chan, you can spend this for the next month," the Tendo middle-child said as she entered the kitchen. Casually, she handed Kasumi an envelope and proceeded to get a soda can from the fridge. Then, without missing a beat, she breezed past Tofu and patted him on the back, muttering a quick "good luck" before leaving.
Kasumi bit her lips while Tofu's ears burned.
"Again, as I was saying Ka – "
"Kasumi," Soun called out as he walked in on the couple. "Where are our sake cups?"
Tofu winced painfully and before she could reply, he said, "They're on the third row on the cupboard to the left."
"Oh, thank you, thank you," the old man said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was somebody else who gave him the answer.
Kasumi stared in surprise at the doctor who was rubbing his nape in both embarrassment and frustration.
"How did you know where I kept the sake cups?"
"Wha – huh?"
"I said, how did you know where I kept the sake cups?"
Tofu looked at her, not exactly understanding where she was coming from.
"I guess I've always known," he began, shaking his head slightly as if to jog a memory. "I also know that you keep your water glasses on the row beneath the cups… " Then he blinked. "Oh no. I hope I'm not creeping you out. Am I creeping you – "
He stopped short when he saw her crying.
She didn't even notice her tears before she felt them slide down her cheeks and fall on her apron. She blinked once, twice, clearing the disbelief from her mind and focusing on the blurred vision of him before her.
"Nobody really took the time to know where I kept the sake cups."
Nobody, she thought. Not Akane, not Nabiki, and not her father. She didn't fault them for that. When she put on the apron the day her mother died, she knew that she had to bid her childhood farewell. Out of love, she became both sister and mother, nurturing a family broken at the wake of a tragic death. Years went by and she found that she had somehow managed to salvage what's left of the happiness that the four of them shared, but slowly, she felt herself melting into the mother-sister figure she conjured. The little thankless tasks of everyday would consume her, and although she knew that her family appreciated her and protected her with fierce loyalty, sometimes she wondered when she would have her a life to call her own.
I wonder if they look at me and find something more than who they need me to be?
Then out of the blue came Tofu, with his nervous habits and his sharp perception that found her just when she considered hiding from the world.
"You can see me," she whispered, taking a step forward in spite of herself. "You can see me."
The doctor broke into a gentle smile. "Of course I can."
"But you said you were afraid – "
"Only because of what you do to me. Kasumi, don't you understand?" He gingerly placed his hands on her arms. "You make me do things that are illogical, even by the standards of this crazy town. Of everything and everyone around me, it's you," he said urgently. "It's you who I see clearly."
The world was suddenly a dizzying spin before her, and all she could do was to choke back a sob and hide her face in her hands.
"I'm sorry," she heard him whisper. "Did I upset you even more?"
"You've just made me very happy," she said as she tried to wipe her tears away. "You don't know how – "
"Kasumi?" Soun's voice echoed from the dining area. "Can you hand your dear father the sake bottle? I forgot to get it."
The break in the moment caused her to breathe in sharply. Steadying herself, she called out of habit, "Coming, 'Tousan!"
"Let me help you with it," Tofu said, offering her his handkerchief. "Rest a little."
Shaking her head she took the piece of cloth and gingerly wiped her face. It smelled of him and the clinic, and somehow, she found it to be very comforting.
"I'll be okay."
Mustering all her courage, she reached out and carefully placed a hand on his cheek. She let it linger, feeling the warmth underneath it grow as a tell-tale blush crept up his face once more.
"Thank you," she whispered. "I see you, too."
Maybe it was a confession of sorts. Maybe it helped them mend the bonds that she thought had been broken.
"But maybe," she ventured, "maybe we've brought back more than what we had before."
As she offered her father his drink, she knew that things would start being different. In the middle of all the distractions and her sudden tears, she had finally made her choice – and her choice now stood by the kitchen doorway, watching her with a gentle smile on his lips.
The evening was cool, the grass they sat upon was soft, and a light breeze blew over the creek that gently moved before them. From afar came the low hum of the city.
Ukyo smiled. It was nice being out.
Ryouga had come to Ucchan's earlier that day, carrying his wooden bucket of shampoo and soap, thinking that he had entered a public bath. She had a good laugh over that, much to the young man's dismay – and then suddenly, for some awfully weird god-forsaken reason, she just felt so alive. Right at that moment, with Ryouga standing absurdly at her doorstep, she knew that life was fucking beautiful. And heck, she had to celebrate that realization.
After leaving a jealous Konatsu to close the restaurant and grabbing a couple of saké bottles, she dragged the still disoriented Ryouga with her and – well, here they were, sitting together by the creek, downing their liquor like there's no tomorrow.
"I think I'm drunk."
She glanced at him and saw that his face was red.
"Aw, poor widdle Ryou-chan couwldn't handwle hith saké…"
He playfully swatted her and she laughed.
It was funny how things turned out. Before Akane's accident, Hibiki Ryouga to her was nothing but an accomplice. He wanted Akane, she wanted Ranma – they both had similar goals and working together did have its merits (in spite of the mess that usually followed). When Hiro happened, their relationship became more than just co-dependency – the tragedy was actually the beginnings of friendship. The whole affair burdened both of them with so much grief that was unbearable when carried alone. So they stayed together, comforted each other, and soon it was not anymore about making one's self feel better, but making sure that the other was okay.
Ukyo learned that when Ryouga was not busy being a pig or haranguing Ran-chan into fights, he was actually a nice guy. During their lighter times together, he would tell her about the places he had gone to, though he oftentimes had problem with their names, what with his awful sense of direction. She in turn would tell her about the provinces where she had taken her Art. Sometimes their experiences would meet halfway and they would end up finishing each other's sentences. In the midst of their laughter Ukyo would feel that though the world was impossibly big, she was not alone.
When Akane finally emerged from the coma, they both had to face something that they silently denied for a very long time: the pain of heartbreak. Ran-chan didn't need to tell her about his decision anymore. Everything that had happened since the accident was more than enough proof that he loved Akane and not her. She knew it; she had known it all along, but somehow she had tried to "postpone" the feeling. It wasn't real after all. Her loss was only made real when Akane woke up.
She had cried on Ryouga's shoulder then. It was during a night like this, too.
"We've been though a lot, you know?"
"I know." Ryouga took a swig from his bottle. "Funny, isn't it?"
She smiled at him. He looked like he was about to pass out anytime soon. Ah, so it would only take one bottle of saké to defeat the indestructible Hibiki Ryouga. She softly chucked at the thought. When the young man clumsily leaned on her, she placed her arm around his shoulders and patted him sympathetically.
"There, there. It's just sake, Ryouga.
"It kinda feels nice."
"It wont' feel nice in the morning."
They stayed that way for a quiet moment, watching the creek softly run its course.
"I think I'm falling in love with you."
He contemplated her answer for a moment.
"Okay. Maybe I'll think about it again next week."
She laughed and shoved him away.
"Ow. What was that for?"
"That," she said, "was for Akari."
There was silence. From far away were the echoes of a lone dog's barking. Ryouga sighed and rubbed his arm, gazing at the light currents before him.
"Do you – Do you think she'll stay with me?"
"Who? Akari?" Ukyo looked at him. "If you won't go around telling girls you're in love with them just like what you did with me now, of course she will. Why the heck won't she?"
"I dunno. I mean, why would she love a guy like me?"
Ukyo rolled her eyes. Sometimes, men are so very dense.
"Look," she said, clasping his shoulders and turning him around to face her. "I can list down a hundred reasons why she would, but sometimes in the end, there isn't any real reason. She loves you because she loves you. Because you're you. And that's that."
"But she could have any other guy who's a whole lot better than – "
"Ran-chan could've picked me or Shampoo. Modesty aside, we're much better cooks and martial artists than Akane. But we aren't Akane. And he'll love nobody else but Akane."
It surprised her how she heard little of the melancholy that was once in her voice.
"See? Even if the Prince of Wales professed his undying love for Akari, she wouldn't love him because he isn't you. So stop running away from her because you're damn well lucky you have somebody who loves you that much."
"Running away? Look who's talking!" Ryouga flicked her forehead. "Why don't you take your own advice and let Konatsu catch you."
"Hey, we aren't talking about me – "
"He practically changed his whole wardrobe ever since you told him to dress like a normal guy. C'mon, Ukyo. Give him some credit."
She huffed and folded her arms over her chest. Almost all of their conversations ended with Konatsu ever since the day that she, driven to the edge of her patience by the omnitsu's perpetual self-degradation, practically screamed at him to "Act like a man!" and "Dress up like one, too!"
Little did she know that he would take her words seriously.
The very next day, she almost fell down the stairs in shock when she saw Konatsu wearing one of her old schoolboy uniforms, his doll-like face clear of any make-up.
"Holy sh – !"
"I hope this pleases you, Ukyo-sama."
"But those are my - "
"Pardon me, but I didn't exactly have button-up shirts so I took the liberty of borrowing your old ones… Didn't you want me to dress like a man?"
He spoke an octave lower, but his voice still retained that soft, refined tone which, for some odd reason, made Ukyo's cheeks grow quite warm.
Konatsu awkwardly smiled, and Ukyo managed to grab hold of the banister before her knees gave way.
Later that day, she repetitively hit her head on the classroom wall to clear the images of Konatsu's shy, lopsided grin.
"Admit it, Ukyo. You like him."
"Give me a break, Ryouga."
"Just say it. I can keep a secret."
"Shut up," she barked. "And stop changing the subject. We were talking about you and Akari."
He ignored her. "Konatu's not half-bad, especially now that he finally decided to dress like a man. Why don't you give him a chance?"
"Because nothing. Nothing's gonna hold you back now."
Ukyo sighed. It was true. Time, the great healer, eased her longing for Ranma, and before long, it disappeared without her even knowing it. The past months' incidents had put a lot of things into perspective, teaching her the value of things – and people - that she had taken for granted.
Like freedom. Like happiness.
"Can you really keep a secret?"
She whispered something to his ear.
"Well, finally." He said, smiling.
"Don't tell anybody."
They simultaneously downed the last of their sake.
"Wait, wait, wait."
"I'm still making sure if I'm really not falling for you."
"You're not, Ryouga."
"Oh." A pause. "You're right. I'm not."
"Silly, navigationally-challenged little boy…"
Ukyo leaned over and gave him a tight hug. Ryouga blinked, his face flaming red from the liquor and something else. He smiled sheepishly at her, patted her hand, and fell back onto the grass, drunk.
She shook her head and gazed up at the sky. It was a great expanse of dark blues and violets, decked with stars that sprinkled diamond dust over her eyes. Before her, the creek went on silently tracing its course, and around her, the wind gently waltzed the night away.
Suddenly, Ukyo was overwhelmed by the immensity of her life, of the world, of it all.
Everything was beautiful, so very beautiful, and it made her want to cry.
"Look at those two idiots. They cluck like a pair of hens."
"Let them be, Ranma. It's not nice to be so judgemental."
He snorted, mumbling something about how it's not even legal for Ukyo and Ryouga to be drinking, before falling silent at her side. The evening had been wonderful, and the visit to Yuka's house was exactly what she needed after an almost frustrating therapy session with Tofu-sensei. She could walk, and she knew that it was already a miracle that she could, but at times she couldn't help but feel depressed about how quickly she felt tired, how her muscles refused to do what she wanted, and how she had only a 50/50 chance of returning to the martial artist she used to be.
She gazed at her companion from the corner of her eye. And yet…
And yet there were times that she knew that she was the luckiest person alive. Emerging from the deep void that she found herself in wasn't easy. The first time she felt her eyes open she saw nothing but colors, but one thing had been clear - his voice that shakily called out her name. The dark engulfed her soon after that, but the next time she awoke everything was painfully sharp: the desperate hope in his eyes, the deep creases on his forehead, and the dry stiffness of his lips stabbed her like a hundred knives.
I made you worry. I'm sorry…
She tried her best to say something but her throat felt dry, and so she did her best to lift her hand up, her fingers jerking clumsily as they did, and rested it on his cheek.
Dawn seemed to break in his eyes when he felt her warmth on his skin.
The following days and weeks were a blur. Between medications and therapy sessions, she learned of what happened after Hiro. She would sit in bed, propped up by pillows, piecing together the stories her family and friends told her during their visits. Kasumi, Nabiki, Ukyo, Ryouga, Tofu-sensei, and even her nurse Ayame would recount their experiences, and she sat through tales of Hiro's death, Shampoo's leaving, and Ranma's brokenness in silence. They all wondered what she throught of everything that had happened, and some were even convinced that she was in denial, but she wasn't.
When you survive looking at Death in the eye, you learn to see things differently, she thought. And you realize the importance of those that matter the most.
"What are you smiling about, 'Kane?"
She was still innocent enough to blush when she saw him staring at her, but instead of defensively retorting like she used to, she simply sighed.
"I was just thinking about everything that had happened."
He didn't know how to respond to that aside from a clipped "Ah."
Talking about the past few months always made Ranma nervous, but despite his uneasiness, she could see that he was no longer the boy that she argued with the morning Hiro took her. He seemed to be more sensitive to what she felt; he managed to read the light tapping of her finger when recovering caused her impatience, the hitch in her breath when therapy gave her pain, and the frustrated furrowing of her brows when a short walk tired her out. Their bantering transformed into a comforting habit instead of something to feel bad about, and he had managed to learn to hover without making her feel helpless.
A passing breeze made her hug her sweater closer to her. Only one thing hadn't changed about Ranma, and that was his inability to put his emotions into the right words. The way he worried about her sometimes came out in gruff and sharp sentences, but through the months she had managed to read between the lines.
"You'll have to forgive him," Kasumi had once told her. "He's been through so much, but trust me when I say that he loves you so."
She smiled wryly at that. He did, didn't he? She knew the truth behind Kasumi's words, but somehow, she wished she could hear it straight from him.
"Ranma? I - "
A sharp pain in her right calf made her gasp. She collapsed, clutching the throbbing muscle, and immediately Ranma was at her side, his eyes flashing with worry.
"I'm fine," she said between clenched teeth. "But I think it's cramping up."
The concern in his blue-gray eyes melted into a look that said "I told you so". Gently, he straightened her leg helped her flex back her toes, staring at her as she grunted against the flashes of pain.
"This is so unglamorous."
"Tofu-sensei said that it's good for you to walk around," Ranma said, ignoring her comment. "But that doesn't mean that you have to overdo it. The Phoenix Point can only speed your recovery by so much."
"But I wanted to see Yuka - "
"That's cool, but we should've taken breaks instead of walking straight home."
She bit her lips in slight embarrassment. It's true, she shouldn't have insisted on overexerting herself. Now her stubbornness had her sitting on a rough pavement while other passers-by looked at them curiously.
She turned to see him peering at her.
"Does it still hurt?"
She tried moving her leg, and although it felt spent, the pain was not as horrible as it was earlier.
"I think it's better."
"Good." He then proceeded to position himself at her side and offered her his back.
Akane blinked. "What are you doing?"
"You're in no condition to walk anymore. Get on."
"You're not about to piggy-back me all the way home."
"Okay, then we'll stay here the entire night 'cause you're not walking on that leg."
She sighed loudly and pushed herself to stand. "Ran - ow!"
The leg throbbed, and the still hunched Ranma gave her a bored but knowing look.
That was how she ended up being carried on Ranma's back, her legs gently rubbing against his soft, well-worn pants in time to his regular pacing. The light breeze brought to her nose his warm, distinct scent - a mix of fresh laundry and wood and sweat - and as she watched their entwined shadows shorten and lengthen under each street lamp they passed, an understanding came upon her like a match struck in the dark.
There was no need for him to voice out his feelings for her. Not any more. Ranma had never been good with words, but the way he looked at and after her spoke louder than any of the things she had wanted to hear him say.
Feeling heady with her realization, she propped her chin on his shoulder and let her arms fall in front of his shirt. She felt the calm cadence of his heart, and with every beat, she knew that this, that he was her certainty. Whatever would happen, whatever tomorrow would bring, she knew that his unspoken promise would go past curses, lost relationships, and an arranged marriage that at first was unwanted, but now anticipated.
He may not be able to say things the way she wanted him to, but she was better at words. And so she wrapped her arms tentatively around his neck and lightly pressed her lips to his ear, whispering ever so softly her answer to everything he had selflessly given, and to everything he had ever done for her.
"I love you, too."
He didn't miss a step. No, he continued his steady pace, but she could see the softening of his gaze and feel the warmth move beneath his skin. Slowly, gently, he pressed his cheek against hers, leaning into her in both acceptance and gratitude. She smiled, letting her head fall in the crook of his neck, and felt the cool tip of his nose rub against her temple in a half-eskimo kiss that made her giggle.
They continued their trip home in comfortable silence, broken only by light laughter and contented sighs.
After all, everything that needed saying had finally been said.