Thanks so much, everyone, for all your reviews
For waiting and waiting for the story to close
For supporting me when I was so dreadfully flamed
(Some even, in fact, called the pairing 'deranged'!)
For responding to causality loops with precision
For making me post when beset with indecision
For putting up with second-rate poetry and rhyme
For reading this story - for taking the time.
It is mostly because of you that I have decided to jot
A story with new characters, setting, and plot
I hope you will continue to read as you have before,
And bid me farewell as I walk out the door.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: 1999-2000
"Ranma," Akane whispered softly, reaching out to take Ranma's hand in her own.
Ranma's eyes found their way to hers, and for a moment he felt pity for her. It had to be rough to be Akane right now, to see her energetic fiancé reduced to this. She didn't deserve it; she was a good kid. "What is it, Akane?" he inquired in the same soft, gentle voice. There was a cool wind coming in from the north, Ranma observed. Winter was on its way.
She brightened almost immediately. "It's... uh..." She obviously hadn't thought he would respond, because she turned red and dithered for a moment. "It's just that... uh, you have a visitor. Ryoga's back."
Ranma stiffened, turning to view her fully for the first time: her worried expression, her slender figure framed in the light coming from inside the house. "Oh, really? The one who got me into this mess? Sure, bring him on out. Why not? It's not like he can do any worse."
Akane blanched, stammered some more, and slipped back inside, leaving Ranma sitting quietly on the back porch facing the dojo.
Ryoga exited the house, took one look at Ranma's bleak features and sat down next to him with a thump. "It's not anything to worry about," Ryoga said without preamble.
Ranma turned to blink at him in surprise. He had gotten used to conveying his thoughts without saying much, over the past several months.
"I mean, you'd just woken up. After hitting your head. No big deal."
Ranma felt the sudden and almost hysterical urge to start laughing. Ryoga thought he was upset because he'd kissed him? "Oh?"
"Yeah... I mean, it's not like you knew what you were doing. So... so no need to mope about it, Ranma... like a little girl or something."
Ranma doubled up, his hands under his knees and made a small choking noise. For a moment, he thought that he'd break the cycle forever by dying then and there.
Then, against his will, his resolve cracked; and hysteria spilled out of him like water rushing over a ruined dam. When he remembered Akane's story about this laughter – how she had seen it as a turning point in his 'condition' – he helplessly laughed some more.
He kept laughing until Ryoga said irritatedly, "glad one of us thinks this is funny."
"I can't help it!" Ranma realized that the laughter was blending into tears down his cheeks. "You... telling me not to be like a girl..."
Ryoga was never one to beat around the bush. "What the hell happened to you, Ranma?"
"I had... a dream. At least, I'm hoping that's what it was. But it's seeming less and less like a dream every moment."
"A nightmare," Ryoga said, "doesn't do crap like this."
"No," Ranma said, his eyes suddenly clear. "It was... it was Twilight-Zone-esque... but it was a real good dream! Real good." He wiped the tears from his cheeks. "Maybe I'm pining away for it."
Ryoga snorted. "You? Fat chance."
Ranma nodded, more to himself than to Ryoga.
"I mean, after all, you're probably just doing this to get Akane-san's attention..."
Ranma didn't realize his fist had gone through the porch until Ryoga's strained and worried exclamation. It was a moment or two after that that he began to feel the pain. "Ouch," he said mildly, shaking his wrist loosely, splattering drops of blood into the wood.
Ryoga was viewing him with different eyes, now, much more carefully, warily. "I'm gonna go get Kasumi..."
"No," Ranma protested, softly but intensely. "Don't bother Kasumi, pig-boy." She's got enough to deal with…
"Then let me see."
Ranma blinked down at their entwined hands, an instant flush covering his cheeks. Please don't let him see!
Ryoga tsked under his breath, pulling wooden splinters out of Ranma's right hand with no tenderness, but with a methodical intensity that was so quintessentially Ryoga; and seeing it made Ranma love him again, and loving him again felt miserable.
"You know," Ryoga was saying almost conversationally, "depression like this can get you in trouble."
Ranma snorted. "Oh, yeah?"
"Uh huh." Ryoga looked up, meeting his eyes with Ranma's.
Ranma rapidly shifted his own eyes, staring out with hot cheeks across the koi pond to his left automatically. He had the paranoid suspicion that if Ryoga looked him in the eyes and uttered a sympathy, he would completely unravel Pain brought him back to the situation at hand. "Ow! Damn it, Ryoga..."
"Well, don't go punching your hands through crap like that. Idiot."
Ranma brought his breath rapidly through clenched teeth. "You could be a little more gentle..."
Ryoga's eyes met his again, and Ranma swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat. "I'm being as gentle as I can," he said, and for a moment it seemed like he had the same voice as Ranma remembered, kind and slow; not through stupidity, but through the need to think over everything carefully before it escaped his mouth and became words, before it garnered the ability to hurt and harm. "It would help if you held still and tried not to flinch."
Ranma's jaw slid shut, but he waited patiently and without jerking his hand away.
"The rest are going to need a magnifying glass," Ryoga said after about ten minutes or so. Then he was silent; but he didn't leave.
Ranma frowned at him in contemplation, before realizing that, like him, Ryoga didn't know how to give comfort to people in pain. He didn't want to leave Ranma, since he felt at least partially responsible for the way Ranma was behaving; but he didn't know how to apologize.
"This'd be easier if you were a girl," Ryoga suddenly commented, looking anxious and confused.
"What?" Ranma glared at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know," the other boy groused, shifting uncomfortably. "Just… it's easier when you're a girl. To talk to you, I mean."
"Sorry to disappoint," Ranma quipped. Then he realized he was smiling ruefully. Smiling – for the first time in weeks. It wasn't fair that Ryoga had so much power over him.
"I'm – I'm not disappointed!" Ryoga exclaimed. "I just – I don't know how to deal with kissing a guy. If it had been Akane acting weird, or Ukyo, I could, I don't know, explain it easier to myself."
"Go back to Akane, then, if that's where you want to be," Ranma spat, wrapping his arms about his knees, being careful not to abuse his damaged hand. "She's a real girl after all."
The other martial artist eyed him warily at first, the hint of fear leaving his features slowly, leaving him looking only worried – but he was still immobile, Ranma noted. It was good of him, the pigtailed martial artist decided, for wanting to help so badly, even if he didn't know how. The empty space gave Ranma some time to collect his thoughts.
"I'm sorry," Ranma muttered. "I didn't mean it like that. I know you're trying to think of the right thing to say, and I really do appreciate that, that you care enough to try so hard, I mean. But there isn't any right thing, so you can stop looking."
It was the most he'd said at once since he had woken up here.
Ryoga eyed him with an oddly blank expression for a moment, then closed his eyes.
"Don't say a word. I'm trying to picture you as a girl, so just – just shut up a minute, okay?"
Ranma gaped, about to say something he would probably regret, but Ryoga was still talking.
"I'm sorry you're hurt," he blurted, eyes squeezed tightly shut. "I'm sorry if I'm the one that hurt you." He opened his eyes. "There."
Ranma blinked at him and snorted, once; a laugh escaped him again, although he tried to hold it back. This time it felt pretty good, not as though he were smashing himself inside with every sound.
Leave it to Ryoga to apologize at just the right moment, for just the right thing, without even knowing why he should.
Ryoga looked puzzled, and slightly injured. "It's not a hentai thing to think, Ranma. It's not! You kissed me!"
"And you kissed me back!" Ranma shot back. Ranma, you idiot, he thought as he saw the expression drain from Ryoga's face.
"I don't have to listen to this," Ryoga said in a voice without affect, standing jerkily. "I'm not – we're not having this conversation!" He stormed off of the porch and disappeared around the house before Ranma's brain, still awakening after a long period of deadened disuse, could come up with a pithy reply.
The numbness settled again over Ranma like a straitjacket.
Ranma stood at the makeshift altar in the Tendo backyard, watching Akane walk down the aisle. The youngest Tendo looked more than nervous; she actually appeared distressed, eyes red-rimmed and bouquet of flowers slightly unsteady in her clasped hands. Ranma couldn't help but wonder why she seemed to be ready to go through with it when it was rather obvious that they'd lost interest in one another a long time ago.
Well, admittedly, it was more like Ranma had lost interest in everything and everybody, but he wasn't one to quibble. In fact, he was startled, mildly, by the presence of the curiosity at all. Perhaps Nabiki had woken it in him the day before, when she told him she was planning on stopping the wedding before it ever came to completion.
She never got the chance; Ryoga beat her to it.
"Not a chance, Ranma!" he called out. "Prepare to die!" He ran at Ranma with his fists, not even bothering to use his traditional weapon.
Ranma didn't avoid the hit, he simply rolled with it. Ryoga landed on top of him, and Ranma held quiet and still. Looking up into the martial artist's enraged features with blank, half-lidded eyes, Ranma said calmly, "Do it then. Go on; I really don't mind." His eyes found Akane's. "She might not even mind, by now."
Akane was standing, watching the both of them, her own expression surprisingly blank, her lips one, compressed line. By now, they had attracted the attention of a small crowd of their guests.
Ryoga didn't move. "What?" he finally managed.
"Go on, I said," Ranma repeated, and allowed his eyes to slide shut. Do it, Ryoga, he found himself thinking forcefully. Break the cycle. Break it! Go on! He didn't care anymore – didn't care that it was in front of Akane, his whole family. He wanted it to be over.
A moment passed, a moment that seemed like an eternity to both boys. Finally, Ryoga slid off of Ranma, grabbed him by the forearm and pulled him to his feet. Ranma's eyes flew open as he remembered a very similar scene between himself and Ryoga... right after a certain trio of Tendo sisters walked in.
Why was he in this tuxedo? What a joke!
"I don't know what's wrong with you, but I won't stand for it," Ryoga hissed at him, shoving him away and stalking off.
"Funny way of showing your support," Ranma said to himself, massaging his arm. Ryoga's grip hadn't exactly been gentle.
Ranma watched as Nabiki caught up to Ryoga and interposed herself between the Lost Boy and his route of escape; watched her lips move with more interest than he'd felt in a long time. What could she be saying?
"Now that that difficulty is out of the way," Soun was saying from his position near the gazebo they had erected in the Tendos' backyard. "The quickest version of the vows, I should think," he added, gazing around the yard anxiously.
The monk who was marrying the pair nodded. "All right then. Want to join your hands in holy matrimony?"
"Uh," Akane said timidly.
"Oh, yes, and does anyone object?"
Ranma and Akane whirled towards their audience at the veritable chorus of voices.
Ryoga growled. "I object, damn it! Ranma, you're not getting Akane that easily!"
Ranma slapped his palm to his forehead. "Idiot. Sachiko named you well."
"I object too," Nabiki cut in, her voice hard and acerbic. "There's no way that these two should be married; they're too young, and Ranma's... Ranma's not himself."
There was a deep sigh as Genma stood up ponderously. "Well, in that case... Ranma, you idiot of a boy... I guess I object too. With reservation!"
Soun growled. "Saotome!"
"Sit down and shut up!" Genma roared suddenly, seeming to imitate Happousai and Soun's demon-head technique.
Ranma felt a little more awake with every moment, with every voice. He looked at Akane. "Sorry, but they're right, ain't they?"
Akane nodded slowly, tears brimming in her eyes.
"It's not right. I'm sorry to put you through this. Someday..." He smiled at her gently. "Someday you'll wear that dress again, and you'll get married... but not today."
Akane shook her head, seeming beyond words. "Ranma!" And she threw her arms around him.
Ranma stiffened, his eyes widening in surprise; but a moment later he relaxed, his arms coming up easily around her. "I'm sorry, tomboy," he said quietly into her hair. He was surprised to find he meant it with all that was left of him. "I'm really sorry. Lookin' real good, though."
She gave a helpless laugh into his shoulder. "Idiot. But this is the smartest thing you've done in a long, long time." Her body shivered, and she whispered even softer: "do you love him?"
Ranma froze. "Love who?"
"Dummy," she repeated. "Let me know what I can do." She drew away, then, tears in her eyes and a wry, mocking smile on her face – mocking him, her, the white dress, the situation, the tear stains on the shoulder of his tuxedo. She moved determinedly into the house, tossing the bouquet into their trash bins without pausing.
Nabiki was standing beside him. "Some guy's going to be real lucky someday, huh, Ranma?"
"Yeah..." Ranma murmured. "Wait. Huh?"
"I may not be very well versed in affairs of the heart," she confessed, still staring after her little sister, "but I still know the end of a relationship when I see one." She patted him on the back. "I don't think she'll cry anymore except on Valentine's Day and Christmas. Good job."
Ranma looked at the Tendo girl and it came rushing back to him, the way she had advised and guided him in that future plane. Just now she looked more like her future-self than the grasping girl he had come to know. "Nabiki," he said. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for being like this."
She blinked at him, tucking a bit of hair behind one ear, a ploy for time, eyes gazing at some indeterminate point over his left shoulder. "Your father was up all night last night, you know, and so was Akane, so, well… We're all worried. Someday, you'll have to let us know what this is all about. It – it isn't because of me, is it?" Nabiki inquired in a small voice, still focused not on Ranma, but on that same middle-distance.
Ranma shook his head. "No, it's me, Nabiki. My fault. Honestly." Gazing over Nabiki's shoulder, he caught sight of Ryoga glaring at the two of them ominously. When Ranma quirked a confused brow, the other boy growled and stormed away.
"Listen to me, father," Kasumi said in her most pleasant yet undisputable tone of voice. "It is my life and I'll do with it what I choose. If I want to become a ballerina and join the circus, even something so stupid is my business. And going to school to become a chiropractor is hardly so ridiculous."
Soun whined back at her. "But Kasumi... who will clean this house? Who will cook? Akane can't manage it; Nabiki's never shown an interest. What will we do without you?"
"You're leaving one child out," Kasumi replied, bringing Ranma-onna before her abruptly.
Ranma blinked. "Huh?"
"You're good at it," Akane admitted grudgingly. "And I can do things like..." She cleared her throat, coloring. "I can do things like wash the vegetables and set the table."
Ranma grinned at her. "Sounds good, Akane-chan."
Once Kasumi left for school, the pair began to cook in the kitchen. Marvelous scents began to waft out from under the kitchen door. "Perhaps this wasn't a bad idea after all, eh, Saotome?" Soun inquired heartily.
Genma was staring out at the koi pond. "What was that? Oh! Yes, it's a marvelous idea. Ranma always had a good hand for cooking, even on the road."
"What I mean is, perhaps it will bring our two children together! Didn't you hear what Ranma called my Akane? The schools shall finally be united!"
Genma was blinking at his friend in undisguised shock. "Were you at the wedding?"
Soun glossed over his obviously disheartened friend's comment with a smile and a wave. "Just listen to them! They are becoming closer and closer… and someday soon, perhaps we shall see some grandchildren, eh, Saotome?"
Genma grumbled under his breath: "the only way you'll ever see children come from Ranma is if he ever manages to talk to that Ryoga boy without stumbling over his own tongue."
"I may be stubborn, but I'm not blind," Genma said roughly. "Don't you have eyes and ears? Ranma and Akane are more like siblings, and Ranma's set his sights on–"
"Enough!" Soun looked torn between bawling and yelling. "To say such things... in my own house! How could you, Genma? I thought we were friends! My poor Akane... to have such a deviant fiancé...!"
"You'd do your 'poor Akane' a disservice by marrying her to Ranma!" Genma returned crossly. "And my son is NOT a deviant! And anyone who calls him a deviant will have to answer to me!"
Soun sensed abruptly that he'd gone too far. "Now, now, Saotome. You'll forgive me; I'm not thinking about what I'm saying. Let's continue this discussion a little later, with cooler heads."
Behind the closed, yet thin kitchen door, Ranma and Akane were staring at one another in shock; Ranma holding a paring knife, Akane holding a potato under a cool stream of water at the kitchen sink.
A week later, Soun left on a quest to find the cure for Ranma's curse.
Genma categorically refused to join him.
"So where were you this time?"
"Borneo, if it's any of your business." Ryoga tapped his umbrella meditatively into the ground. "And..." He appeared to be struggling with some silent enemy, his face contorting angrily. "And... and how are you doing?"
Ranma's eyes widened. "Much better, thanks. Uhm... thank you for objecting at the wedding."
"Huh!" Ryoga jerked upright from his examination of the soil at his feet.
"It meant a lot. I appreciate it."
"You just live to hurt Akane, don't you?" he demanded sadly.
Akane herself appeared on the back porch. "Ryoga! I didn't see you there!" she announced cheerfully, her eyes sliding from the Lost Boy and back to Ranma, taking note of the faint blush she saw on both faces.
Ryoga continued to glare at Ranma in frustration. "Why the hell didn't you marry her! You... you had her, at the altar..."
Akane blinked. "Uhm, hello...?"
"Uh, hi, Akane," Ryoga said with a polite bow. "Sorry, Ranma and I are having a very important conversation." He whirled to face the pigtailed boy. "And I'm still waiting for an answer."
Akane sighed and rolled her eyes. "Boys are dense. Have I ever told you that?" Then she disappeared back into the house.
"I couldn't marry Akane as I was back then, Ryoga. You know that." Ranma couldn't keep his voice from being gentle. "And anyway, the truth was that I didn't want to marry her at all. We like each other. Maybe once we loved each other. But whatever we had then, it's different from what we have now. A lot... a lot easier. A lot smoother. Less excitement, but a lot less pain, too." He moved to perch on the deck, seating himself Indian-style.
Ryoga stood quiet for a moment, finally nodding in agreement. "I can see how that could be," he admitted wryly, moving to sit on the water-barrel that sat behind the house.
Ranma flinched, hearing again something of how he remembered Ryoga in the other boy's soft, self-mocking voice.
"Anyway, I came to see you because..." Ryoga's fists clenched. "Because..." He turned half-away, only viewing the other boy out of the corner of his eye. "Well, I came to – to apologize to you."
"Apologize for what!"
"Uh, for kissing you. So, uhm, I'm sorry – even though you kissed me and it's all your fault."
Ranma snorted. "Funny."
"It's NOT my fault!" Ryoga continued grimly. "What was I supposed to do?"
"Pull away," Ranma suggested. "Fight a little harder."
Ryoga was turning red. "I don't know what happened, okay! It... it was scary! At first, I wanted to get away... I tried really hard to get away, but you're very strong... even in your girl form." He closed his eyes tightly, and his clenched fists quivered. "I was about to break free, when you did that stupid technique on me and drained me dry."
"Technique?" Ranma inquired mildly, finding himself less uncomfortable than he would have supposed, with Ryoga talking about it this blandly.
"Yeah, the technique... you must've picked it up from Ms. Hinako. All the fight just drained out of me, and all I could do was..."
"Was be kissed," Ranma filled in. "I see." He cleared his throat. "So how did your arms end up around me?"
Ryoga's voice was small. "I don't remember doing that! I just knew I must've when I came to myself and I was... holding you."
Ranma barked a laugh. "No kidding!"
"How dare you laugh at me!" Ryoga shot back. "With all the shit you've pulled, I'm surprised I didn't do more than just kiss back!"
"Pretending to be my girlfriend all the time... my sister... my fiancée! Damn it, Ranma, you've screwed me up for life!"
Ranma frowned, irritated at Ryoga, but also concerned at the distress he saw in the other boy's eyes. "Ryoga..."
"And don't say my name like that! Like you give a damn, because I know you don't! You're always laughing at me! This is just another opportunity to poke fun at P-chan, huh! Is that it!"
"Yes, Ryoga. I pretended suicidal depression just to get to you," Ranma deadpanned, waving his hand dismissively.
"Maybe!" Ryoga shot back, his eyes wild. "With all that you do, it isn't surprising that I... that I..."
"That you what exactly?" Ranma inquired, leaning slightly forward.
Ryoga's shouts fizzled into nothing. He became almost eerily silent. His eyes shut tightly again, as if he wanted to block Ranma from his vision. To Ranma's surprise, tears began to form at the corners of his eyes.
Something told Ranma that a touch or a kind word could end this discussion; he'd find himself flat on his back with a good old Ryoga footprint in the face. But then Ryoga kept his silence. It seemed he couldn't say what he had to say, or get up to leave, just as before.
"It sucks, doesn't it? To not know what you want," Ranma finally interjected.
Ryoga met his sympathetic gaze and acerbic words with surprise, quickly covered by heavily guarded wariness. "I know I don't want this..."
"Then what's the trouble?" Ranma demanded. "Get out of here, then, you're taking up space."
The hurt on Ryoga's features seemed to intensify, and Ranma found himself crouching in front of the Lost Boy, looking up into his features to assure him of his good intent. "I'm sorry, Ryoga. I'm sorry. I'm an idiot. Me an' my big mouth..."
The other boy laughed oddly, not angered by Ranma's closeness, but looking, if anything, even closer to imminent breakdown. "I was just going to say... I don't want it... but..." He laughed again, a small, choked-off sound. "...I can't seem to help it..."
Ranma's features crumpled in the face of Ryoga's obvious pain. "I'm sorry. I've hurt you, and I can't fix it."
"I just... can't stop dreaming about her! You. Her! It's not real. It was just a kiss! A kiss... with a fictional person... and so now I'm in love with an illusion." His eyes finally met Ranma's – wild and empty and more than a little desperate. "Ranma, I'm in love with your girl half." Then he closed his eyes again, tightly, pressing his palms to his forehead as if that would somehow contain his anguish.
Ranma shook his head with a sigh, still crouched in front of the seated Lost Boy. "There's no such thing," he finally said quietly, "as my girl-half."
Ryoga slapped his forehead rapidly with his palms. "I know! I know all that! Don't you think I -!"
Ranma grabbed his wrists, stopping their destructive motions. "You're in love with me."
Ryoga stared at him blankly for a moment. "You're... you're crazy."
"I know you are, but what am I? Besides, I thought we'd established that awhile back when I decided to turn the back deck into a practice dummy," Ranma replied, his voice calm and almost casual.
"Huh? Yeah... I mean... what the hell are you saying, anyway?"
"You're the one who said it. You're in love with me."
"That's not what I said!"
"That's what you meant."
"Listen, Ryoga," Ranma went on in tones of firm clarity. "Listen to me. Me and what you call my girl-half are the same person. Just who do you think you fell for? You're not Kuno, to separate us entirely because it's more convenient for you." The martial artist's blue-eyed gaze suddenly hardened, became searching and wary. "Are you?"
Ryoga's lips were parted slightly in surprise, and he silently shook his head a small distance in negation.
"No," Ranma agreed. "Which means I'm the one you love."
"But that's even worse," Ryoga whispered, panic shining in his eyes.
Ranma sighed, releasing him from his gaze, his shoulders slumping in defeat. He stood, turning half away from the other boy, and shrugged. "I know."
For another moment, they were both silent. Then, Ryoga stood abruptly. "I'll go," he said. "I'll go, and I'll never come back."
Ranma sprang to his feet, too, alarmed. "What! Why?" He sobered, eyeing Ryoga hopefully. "I mean... you don't have to."
"You love me... I... really like you..." He flushed.
Ryoga flinched. "Stop teasing me, Ranma!"
"I'm not teasing you."
Ryoga turned away from him. "Damn it, Ranma... this hurts! Please..."
"Look at me," Ranma commanded. "No, look. I'm serious. Dead serious."
The other boy scanned his features, as though he could divine Ranma's sincerity.
Ryoga's wide and wild eyes worried him. A small tenderness, a kind word had the ability to destroy him, Ranma realized, because he'd had so little of either. Slowly he slid back, away from the other boy, who was breathing heavily, like a hunted and wounded animal.
"See?" Ryoga breathed, misinterpreting Ranma's sudden wariness. "I knew... I knew it was a trick..."
"It's not a trick – you looked like you were in pain." He tilted his head to one side and took him in, concern and doubt filling him in equal quantities. "I'm ready for you. Really ready. But you're not ready for me." His eyes grew hard, flashed a challenge. "When you're ready, come on back. I'll be waiting." For a moment, the old grin shone on Ranma's features; then the pigtailed martial artist disappeared back into the house.
Ryoga did the only thing he could think to do.
He got lost.
Ranma was surprised to see him on the front porch. She couldn't help it. As much as she felt she knew the future for certain, she felt almost as certain that she'd bungled it all miserably somehow, made him run away from her. But now here he was. It was storming. He was standing under his wide umbrella. He wouldn't look at her.
"Come in," she said, stepping back to allow him space. "How are you?"
He swept inside, folding his umbrella and leaning against the wall. He closed the door behind him before turning to her. "Miserable," he replied, with a rough chuckle. "How am I always?"
She eyed him curiously as he followed her back into the kitchen, stirring a host of memories Ranma knew she shouldn't have. Abruptly, his words flooded her mind: "I can't stand the thought of six more years of wandering without anything to my name but a stupidly heavy umbrella and a lot of depressive chi..."
"And you?" he tacked on suddenly, strain cracking his voice.
Miserable, too. "Well, I've been all right, I guess," she replied. "It sucks that Kasumi's gone – she's such a good cook she made it look easy. Mom's been by to help out sometimes, but she has her own house to deal with, so now it's mostly up to me..."
She nodded. "I'm just getting started now." Ranma opened the refrigerator, pulling out vegetables and chicken stock. "I thought I'd do some soup and bread. The weather's so miserable..." Ranma wanted to stop herself chattering, but she couldn't seem to. "I made the chicken stock last night, so everything's set to go–"
"–and Akane's coming home after practice tonight, so–"
Ranma forced her mouth shut with extreme willpower. "Yeah?"
Ryoga's lips thinned. "Uh... I..." He stopped, suddenly, throwing his hands up in the air. "Damn it!" he swore. "This shouldn't be so hard. This shouldn't feel so insane."
She smiled at him, crookedly. "You haven't stopped dreaming about me?"
His voice was quiet, and haunted. "No."
She grinned wider, feeling her cheeks heat. "I'm glad."
Ryoga looked tense as a drawn blade. "Don't look at me that way! It's creepy."
"I don't understand," Ranma said, frowning. "This is pretty simple stuff. I want to be with you. You want to be with me. What's the problem?"
"The problem is that you're a guy! We're both... so we can't!"
"Who says?" Ranma replied, daring him to answer, her blue eyes stabbing through him. "Do you say so? Have you made up this rule?"
"No, of course not," Ryoga answered. "Everyone says so. Not just me."
"Who's everyone?" Ranma demanded.
"You know... everyone. Kingdom, country, I don't know."
She smiled at him, wanting to laugh – but her smile dissolved as she recalled her own initial reactions to Ryoga. He looked close to breaking point – a tough place to be. Was he just wishing she would grab him and kiss him and not let him go? She knew that thought had been in her darkest heart almost from the very beginning – that the whole business would be over, and she could settle for being docile, submissive, and second-best if he just made her his, and got it over with.
Was Ryoga thinking along those lines, too, wondering why she wouldn't just take the decision out of his hands?
"Why can't you leave me alone?" he was murmuring plaintively.
"Is that helping?" Ranma inquired. "It's been nearly a year since that kiss, you know. I'm feeling better," she added slowly, almost to herself. "I think I could recover from it. From all of it."
Ryoga's breath caught, and a fleeting expression of pain decorated his features, then was lost.
"But I really don't want to," Ranma informed him solemnly, edging a small step closer. "I have a pretty good picture of how we could be. I've got that picture in me, you know. I depend on it all the time."
Ryoga's eyes were scanning hers, his expression still one of confusion, but she noted that his breathing had deepened and some of the squareness of his shoulders had smoothed. He was relaxing in her presence, and it was good to see.
"So I can't leave you alone; don't want to. Besides, I promised."
"That's a secret," Ranma replied with a grin. "But I swore I'd stick by you."
"So you're doing this because you promised someone." It wasn't a question. In fact, Ryoga seemed almost relieved, and he stepped unconsciously away from the redhead. "For a minute there, I thought you meant it."
"Is there a problem with wanting to hang around you?" Ranma inquired, beginning to get frustrated.
"Of course there is!" he snapped. "Until I can figure out what happened to you, what's wrong, I can't fix it!"
Ranma blinked at him, her jaw dropping in shock.
"What?" Ryoga demanded belligerently.
Ranma blinked at his flushed features, his hair, wild around his eyes, and his rigid stance and blurted, "There's no spell or reversal jewel or potion. Not even love arrows or koi rods. I'm not tricking you, you know. I'm sorry I ever did. It just – it struck me as funny – in a horrible sort of way – that you would assume anyone who showed an interest in you had to be bewitched."
Ryoga winced. It was blatantly obvious that he hadn't thought of it that way.
Ranma examined him in the surreally bright glow of the kitchen's florescent lights. "I like you," she said. "I might even love you someday soon." She smiled, her heart racing; she could feel the warmth in her cheeks. "There may be extenuating circumstances," she admitted, "but the truth is I like you because of who you are." She reclaimed his personal space, moving close enough to look up into his eyes with all of the conviction she could summon. "Because you're Ryoga."
The breath hitched in his throat as he looked down at her; so much incredulity was trapped in his gaze.
"Do you hear me?" she demanded, whapping him on the chest with her fist. "Say something, you dummy!"
He nodded. "I... hear you. I don't understand, though. Not even a little."
She grinned. "That's all right. It'll come to you, I'm sure." She drew him down to her, then kissed him gently on the lips, very softly and carefully. Then she drew back to examine him, searching for signs of distress. "Okay?" she managed.
His eyes were still wide and confused, but they were also still locked to hers. He nodded. "Okay, Ranma," he said hoarsely.
She leaned over towards him again, applying a little bit more pressure this time. Gently, she sucked on his lower lip. He had taught her how to do this; she had taught him. She buried her face in his neck, hiding herself, trying to hide the feeling of home he was to her.
He wasn't doing much, but she didn't blame him; her first kisses with him had been much the same. When she finally withdrew from his embrace, those eyes of his were dark with wonder. He had relaxed completely into her, and his features held the warmth and solemnity she had missed so badly.
"I don't care if you're tricking me," he told her, one of his hands reaching out tentatively, nervously, to cup her cheek. She leaned into his touch. "It doesn't matter to me anymore, so long as…" He flushed, embarrassed even then. "So long as you'll do that at least one more time."
Ranma grinned. "But it's not a trick. You'll see that it isn't."
"Or... I've got it! It's another dream..."
The redhead shrugged. "If you like." She grinned. "A good one, this time around."
He nodded, a grin across his own features, as he leaned in to capture her lips with his.
Ranma flashed her teeth nervously at Nabiki's camera. "Hi, everyone!" she said. "It's my wedding day! Can you believe it?"
Ranma swiveled quickly to glare at Nabiki. "Heh heh. Right. No one can. Me least of all. Anyway, thought I'd be marrying a girl at least."
"Shut up, Ranma!" Akane growled. "I'm trying to fix this bouquet, you idiot," she murmured softly.
"Yeah. Anyway... it's because he got me knocked up, the bastard..."
Akane threw a safety pin, Nabiki threw her bra and Ukyo threw a small vase at her, but she wove around them expertly. "Oh, all right. It's really 'cause he used these magical love arrows on me..." She shook her head sadly, as if at the manipulation of all men.
Akane snuck up behind her and smashed the bouquet over her head.
"Ite! Oh, all right. I just... I love him... that's all." Ranma still didn't quite know how to say it, and she didn't think anyone would believe her if she tried. She blushed and shifted her feet. "Ain't that enough? I know we'll be happy together. I'm one-hundred percent sure we'll be happy..." For four more years at least... "Mou, I can't say anything right when I want to!"
Nabiki turned the camera back to Ranma. "Come on, Ranma, fess up. Why do you love Ryoga?"
"Why?" Ranma wondered pensively. How to answer that question?
"Yeah, Ranma," Ukyo cut in. "Tell the camera why. This is for posterity, you know."
"Well, uh... lessie. He's the only one who comes close to me in martial arts... uh, he's nice... and real cute. And dependable, once you attach a tracking device."
Laughter sounded from off-screen. "That's changing," Kasumi protested gently. "He made it all the way to the clinic yesterday and back."
"And, uh... he smells good. And holds me tight. And kisses like he was born knowing how."
"Hope that's not all he does!" Nabiki jibed.
The girls whooped in delight. "Go, Ranma!" Akane cheered.
Ranma cast about, turning almost in a full circle. "Where's my father? Isn't he supposed to be here by now?"
"Sure he's supposed to be," Nabiki said, "but when has that ever mattered?"
"I'm sure he'll be here, Ranma," Kasumi soothed.
"No, I mean... I... I remember him being here..."
"What is she talking about?" Ukyo wondered.
"Pre-wedding jitters," Kasumi replied sagely. "That and all the sake I made her drink before coming."
The other girls turned to stare.
"I'm kidding. Kidding!" Kasumi exclaimed. "Do you think I'm Daddy, to do the same stupid thing twice?"
Nabiki and Akane relaxed.
"Where is my husband, anyway?" Kasumi inquired. "I'm going to go and make sure..."
Kuno poked his head into the dressing room. "Decent?"
Kasumi perked up. "I was just wondering about you, dear."
"Wondering what, now?" he inquired, stepping carefully inside. "I'm sorry to say there's a great deal to ponder over."
Kasumi giggled. "You're so silly. I was wondering if it was time to change, yet."
"I'd say so. Ryoga's already there, and looking as nervous as..." He paused. "Oddly enough, no appropriate analogy comes to mind."
Ranma stared at him. "You must be nervous, too."
"Yes, that certainly is a first," Nabiki added flatly.
"You girls are never going to let me live high school down..."
Kasumi kissed him on the cheek. "Flee before us, dear. Ranma needs to change."
"But how will she get married that way?"
Ranma chucked a shoe at him, but it only hit the closed door. "Once an idiot, always an idiot." She tsked. "Whoops. Sorry Kasumi."
"Yes, but he's my idiot," Kasumi replied placidly. "Where's the veil?"
Ranma glared at Nabiki. "If you turn that camera on when I'm changing, you'll regret it."
"Easy, Ranma, easy. I promised. I swore. Don't you believe in Tendo honor?"
Ranma rolled her eyes. "When my husband flies. I see your hands twitching towards a camera and you won't have any hands to twitch. Got me?"
Nabiki blinked. "Easy, Ranma," she repeated, but she didn't move.
"Where's Dad?" Ranma repeated, her own fingers twitching.
"Don't know, but here's the dress," Ukyo said with a grin. "Here we go. First one leg, then the other."
Ranma stepped into the white monstrosity, her hands on Ukyo's shoulder for balance. "He should be here."
Kasumi stole up behind her to place the veil.
"Careful of the hair!" Akane warned.
"Damn it, this is the weirdest bit of crossdressing I've ever done." Ranma caught a blinking light on the edge of Nabiki's camera. "Damn it! Is that thing on!" She turned to glare at Nabiki, who flinched.
"An honest mistake," she mouthed.
At least now I know where I am in the when, Ranma thought. Dad still has time...
A minute or so later, Genma slid through the door, and the redhead felt her heart lift in relief. She grinned. "Let's do this," she said.
Ranma waited for Nabiki to turn off the camera. "Only... one second," she said.
"Huh?" Genma turned to gape as Ranma ran to the makeup bag. "Here," she said, pressing a small box into his hands. "This is Ryoga's fifth anniversary present."
"What? Fifth? And why are you giving it to me?"
Ranma's intense expression held her father's. "Up until now I wasn't sure that I wasn't involving myself in a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the videotape clinches it. Hold on to this box. The day before today, five years from now, give it to Ryoga or to me. Don't let anyone else deliver it for you. Let us know it's important." She closed his fingers over the small box. "Frankly, I think I already broke the loop when I woke up after I'd left, and I think I noticed a couple of differences in the video, but this is just to be sure."
"What's in it?" Genma whispered.
"Just a note saying, 'don't send her back', along with the present; I'm not certain I'll be there to give it to him. If it ever comes to that, they'll understand."
"Who's 'they'!" he demanded.
The wedding march began out in the hall.
"I'll tell you during the father-daughter dance at the reception. Okay?"
"I suppose it'll have to be."
"Thanks, Pops. And if you forget the damned thing, I'll find some way to punish you!" She lanced him with her sharp blue eyes. "I'll find a way!"
He gulped. "Uh, I won't forget, Ranma."
She grinned at him as Akane and Ukyo began to walk down the aisle ahead of her. She grinned at the audience – at Cologne, at her mother, at anyone who'd smile back and those who looked bewildered alike. Her smile became radiant for the man standing with the monk who would marry them. He looked confused, too, or bemused; like he wasn't quite sure how he'd managed to win the smile she was offering him. Oh, but you don't deserve it... yet, she thought, her grin turning a little wicked.
The mischievous turn of her lips was doing things to him. He blushed bright red.
She walked with wide but measured steps towards a future that was, for the first time in a long time, truly uncharted territory.
This was, in some ways, a very quick write. I wrote it in about three days of intense plot creation, creating symbolic sketches of Ranma's time travel, the way she saw it (as switching places with someone else) and the way it actually was (that is, switching with herself.) As I stated last time, Ranma is now in a completely different timeline, disparate from the first. (If you'll notice, things are going very slightly differently from how it was explained to Ranma in 2004.) If Ryoga followed Ranma's advice and 'didn't send her back', it would create paradox and loopiness, too, so it's lucky that no one can depend on Genma. He probably pawned the gift a loonng time ago.
It took three days of viable plot creation, but literally dozens of pages of this story were cut over time! Some of these I'll post as deleted scenes because they're funny, telling or interesting, despite not furthering the plot. For instance, The Tendo sisters, Ukyo, and Ranma's girls' night in was documented far more extensively in the original; and Kasumi explained causality loops in a rare moment of genius. After I'd finished, I wondered what kind of crack I was on. Kasumi can't explain causality loops! Most physicists can't. I figured that Nabiki could refer to it; those who wanted to, could think about it, hard. Those who didn't could skim past it with a shrug and take Nabiki's word for it that Ranma's remaining in the future would be very, very bad. For those of you with a burning interest (and a desire to snatch at infinity with your brain, and miss) that deleted scene will also be included on the website.
Overall, I have no idea how this one popped into mind. I guess I was thinking about old stories of mine, and wondering how Ranma would view being married to a guy for years. Wouldn't take it well, would he? But what if that guy was a good guy... and pretty cool and understanding? Could Ranma fall in love again? Answer: yes, but only if she was later snatched away for appropriate pathos. The odd sci-fi sort of element snuck in later on.
This is also a work that has a depressingly large backstory, most of which was never incorporated into the tale. Well, can't have everything.
Thank you so much for reading this story, responding to my writing, and giving feedback. I can't tell you how fascinating it is to read everyone's take on causality loops; I highly recommend going to the reviews and checking them out for Chapter 16.
Oh, and bless you all for waiting so long.