Guest Ki: Chapter 57
Where Your Hopes Are
Akane rolled to her knees, retching, trying to vomit from a stomach that had been forcefully evacuated seconds before. Had it been a shout? An explosion? She had felt a pressure, been seized by an all-encompassing sense of nausea. Her ki was off. She managed to shift it back to where it belonged, an effort that sent her once more to retch and heave. She was having trouble seeing. She wiped her face and realized tiny blood vessels had broken and she was bleeding from nose, mouth and ears. She made more adjustments and her head cleared.
Water mains were hissing. She stumbled to one releasing cold water, to scrub her face. Her vision improved and she went looking for a pig-tailed form.
She passed Taro without a glance, his form human again from the heavy cloud of steam in the air. The steam rose from the manhole Barry had uncovered in his initial attack on Taro. It was partially crushed and the steam was hot enough to make approach painful. Just beyond was a shallow crater, condensing water already pooling in it, making it appear to be an onsen for an elite customer at a spa. Ranma's male form was resting peacefully, his arms out along the edges of the pool as if waiting for her to drop in and snuggle close.
Thirty meters away, Genma rolled to his knees and looked around blearily. Where was he? He tried to get to his feet but tripped over Ryu. Landing in a puddle, he went panda and for some reason, that helped. He shook Ryu awake and pointed to where the gaijin and Taro had been moments ago.
Fifty meters away, pieces of burned bleachers soared skyward as Ryoga let loose a Shishi Houkudan. He and Ukyo stumbled out of the smoking ruins that had fallen on them in Taro's attack. Ryoga's shields had been more than sufficient for the task but, like Akane's, brought up almost too late. They were smoke-blackened and worried. What had Barry done?
Sixty meters off in another direction, bushes and trees still blazed merrily and a glowing sphere rolled out of the woods, propelled by the will of a purportedly three hundred year old Amazon sorceress and martial artist. Her great-granddaughter and her half-blind companion leaned against one another in an attempt to stay upright in this strange environment. As they left the fires behind them, Cologne dissolved their protection for easier travel.
"Come along, children. I fear that things got far out of hand."
"I go to Akane, Grandmother," replied Shampoo, as she took off at top speed for the tiny crater. If her 'Sister of Heart' were anywhere, it would be beside the body of the man she loved.
"Stay back with me, Mousse," Cologne said sharply, as the hidden weapons master made to follow. "I may need your assistance with Taro."
"Yes, Elder," he replied submissively. A bystander might think he was looking around at the destruction in a daze, when in fact, he was noting that damage had been relatively minor this time, a house, a few buildings, half the school and the soccer field. They had escaped lightly. He stiffened as he heard a feminine wail start up. Maybe not so lightly after all.
"Quickly, boy!" Cologne snapped. "I'll see to Barry-san as soon as we're certain Taro won't start this all over again!"
Taro lay on his back, breathing shallowly, his body looking as if an army of angry Akanes had been beating on it. His iridescent vest and bracers gleamed in the fading firelight. To one side lay the Taochinpang, hissing on the earth, the contact beginning to glaze the ground beneath the sun disc, and crackle with frost beneath the moon blade. Cologne glanced over his body and jerked faintly. She could see the lines of energy curling and interlacing within his body.
Barry and the children had tried for some time to teach her ki-vision, or barring that, some of their techniques. It had made her nervous and unhappy that Mousse, the weakest of the Amazons present in Japan, seemed inherently better at ki than she. They had tried several ways to induce the odd centering required, but her horde of experience had actually gotten in the way and it had seemed too difficult to unlearn old habits.
It had taken the sight of that huge ball of magical fire coming at them to send her into extreme focus and cast away her habits to concentrate and use what they had taught her. Not the best way to learn the ki-shield and the ki-vision all at the same time. She traced the lines almost lovingly, noting that only a little more damage could push the boy over into death.
But Taro had to give some answers first and before that, they had to secure Taochinpang. She rapidly touched several points on the young man's body, noting the look of the ki as it twisted, locking him in slumber. It would not interfere with his healing, but Taro was having no second chance at starting this all over again. She drew a finger over the scaly vest and bracers, trademark items for this martial artist.
"Mousse, remove Taro's vest and bracers. I have an experiment to conduct. If these items are authentic dragon scales, it might explain what happened here." Mousse nodded and at her direction, picked up the scaly vest. Using it like an oven mitt, he gingerly grasped Taochinpang with his hands. "Good. Now try to separate them," Cologne commanded.
Mousse glanced at the juncture of the staffs. Gold and silver, it seemed a solid and integral bond. He tugged experimentally. Nothing. He heard Akane wailing in the darkness beyond and with his ki senses made out the others approaching. Shampoo's voice called out, filled with concern. He didn't have time for this. "Come apart, dammit!" He gasped as, with a brief flare, the two staffs separated, leaving him holding the two, weapon/Jusendo faucets awkwardly in his hands.
"Move them apart, but don't touch them further, Mousse," Cologne warned. "Now let's find out what happened to Barry-san and Ranma."
Akane had splashed across the shallow pool to fall to her knees beside the still form. She examined the body of her fiancé on many levels, discovering that physically he was relatively unhurt, but that on the ki level…
Barry was gone. The twined astral bands were nonexistent. Of the body's astral energy, a single strand stretched out almost limply, bent around some indefinable corner and vanished from her perception. The body hung in her arms, limp and unresponsive, eyes closed as if asleep. She could see, however, tiny blemishes, as the outer edges of his aura were beginning to separate and sublimate away.
"No!" It was an agonized choking cry. "Please, Ranma, don'tleave me!"
Shampoo had been picking her way past puddles of water. There was no way of telling whether they were hot or cold, and she really didn't need to go cat just now. Her sharp ears picked up Akane's anguish and she threw caution aside, racing forward to kneel beside the pool and touch her friend's shoulder. She didn't need ki-vision to sense what was happening.
"Great-grandmother, hurry!" she called out, even as Genma and Ryu stumbled up.
Genma slid into the water on the other side of Ranma's body and changed back to human. He carefully supported Ranma and Akane as the girl cried and called out over and over for the young man she had hidden her love from for nearly two years. Suddenly, Genma understood Soun's tears and he was ashamed of ridiculing his old friend. Some losses were too much to bear.
Ukyo stumbled up using her twisted mega-spatula as a crutch and toting a transformed Ryoga. He had not seen a puddle and had been pigged. He heard Akane's anguish and wept himself. They had stopped Taro. Big deal. Ukyo set Ryoga down and sat beside the water's edge. She reached out and stroked Ranma's hair, then Akane's. Such a waste!
Cologne laid her staff down and knelt between Ukyo and Shampoo at Ranma and Akane's heads. She sighed as she took in the state of things. She didn't know how she would tell Akane that, if Ranma did not return from this journey within a few minutes, they would have to burn his body immediately to avoid possession by demons or malicious kami. "Akane… Akane, child! Listen to me." It took her a few moments to get her attention.
"What? Leave me alone! I want…"
"You want Ranma. If there is any chance of getting him back, you're going to have to work at it. Remember how you untangled the lines of ki, child? Use your training. Trace him, find him and call him back. Whatever you do, don't stop calling!"
Akane blinked back her tears. Cologne's words implied there was some hope. Her jaw firmed – the stubborn tomboy set that usually sent Ranma running for cover. She closed her eyes and pressing herself as tightly as she could to his body, began her search.
Ranma blinked, or tried to. Gwen had been very intent on giving Barry his birthday present and Barry's body seemed equally intent on accepting it. He had tried desperately to escape. He wasn't some damn Peeping Tom pervert! If he was going to look or touch or… or… at a girl's body, he wanted it to be Akane's. No! Mentally he belted himself. She'd kill him if she knew he had such thoughts… absolutely kill him! Or would she? He remembered how she looked on the night of the Ramen Noodle event and shivered. His lips tingled from a kiss that hadn't quite happened.
His head jerked up from his musings. Before him floated a pigtailed figure, hands on hips, breasts pointing provocatively. They were unclothed in this place, which suddenly embarrassed him, as looking at his female body in a mirror never had.
"I've seen it already. No need to hide," she said glibly as he began to turn away.
"What's going on?" he asked.
She bounced and clapped her hands. "Ranma, you can be so dense!" girl-type Ranma exclaimed acidly. "Don't you remember the plain of light or the radiance… or even Barry?"
"Barry?" Ranma jerked as if struck. "Of course I remember Barry! I've been stuck in his body for a week, after all!" He wondered why she smiled sadly. "What about this… radiance?"
"Oh, Ranma, Ranma, Ranma!" She looked disappointed. "We're between worlds. That's what the radiance said. Somewhere nearby is the road back home, if we can find it and make use of it."
"To Akane?" he exclaimed and was startled, as the other seemed to shoot toward him, almost within touching distance. The redhead smiled.
"Yes, to Akane." She turned half away. "But, Ranma… There is something else you can do here. You can rid yourself of me." She receded then, only brought back into perspective by the almost bone-jarring force of Ranma's will.
"…" Ranma blinked wordlessly at her, somehow very aware that this was the truth. Finally, he inquired, "At what cost?"
The redhead smirked. "So; Nabiki finally rubbing off on you?" She looked away suddenly, uncertain. "You could lose all the girly stuff."
Ranma considered. Ice cream. Tears of sadness. Appreciation of a sunset or a waterfall as something other than information. Akane's smile... There was a lot of 'girly stuff' in his life. "Can I get a new Pops, instead?"
His curse blinked, then snickered. "You could, I suppose, but if you did, it might change whether you would have met Akane."
"Ahhh... I'd rather not risk it." Ranma looked around. "So where do we go from here? I don't see any road," he said rejected the idea of rejecting his alter ego.
The redhead frowned this turn of events. "Ummm… About me, now – you don't seem excited that you could be cured."
Ranma shrugged. "You've been with me long enough that… well… I could live with ya. Right now I'm more concerned with getting back to Akane." His eyes narrowed as he tried to discern something, anything that would provide him with a guide. "I don't feel somehow, that I should stay here too long." His eyes narrowed. "Did Barry-baka get back okay?"
The girl-curse frowned, then shrugged. "The radiance took him."
Ranma thought a minute then shrugged. "Is it coming back for me?"
The curse shrugged. "How should I know?"
"Did you hear that?" Ranma cast about desperately, trying not to think of the implications.
"That was Akane," the other nodded. "She sounded upset." He jerked back to look at his curse. "She sounds worried."
"Man, there ain't much that makes our tomboy worried," he said shakily. "I…"
"If she sounds like that, I'll have to pass on the offer," he pointed out. "Maybe next time." He turned in the direction Akane's voice seemed to come from but then looked back over his shoulder. "You comin?" But the cursed form had vanished. With a final shrug concerning things otherworldly, his form blurred.
Behind him a voice softly whispered, "Have you embraced your curse then, Ranma Saotome?"
)))"Ranma! Please come back to me…"(((
He felt buffeted now.
About him swirled other copies of himself, all searching, all yearning, but they weren't precisely copies either. Differences in size, hair color, the way they held themselves, betrayed the fact that some were martial artists, many in other disciplines, but some were not at all… He locked eyes briefly with one as tall and massively present as Ryoga, with a braid to his waist, who nodded in passing in a grim abstract manner that made him shiver. The curse was present in all of him and in each was subtly different.
He gaped at one that swirled by, a look of determination on this other Ranma's face. The curse's difference was obvious. This other Ranma's Nyanniichuan should have been called the pool of the drowned nymphomaniac bimbo! That Ranma turned grimly toward him.
"Don't get distracted! She's waiting for us. Find her!" the nympho-cursed Ranma growled before turning back to his quest.
He could hear the tears; almost feel the gulping sobs, as her body shook. On the tapestry of black were a myriad of lights he had taken for stars or perhaps other distant selves. One in particular twinkled and beckoned.
"I'm coming, Akane!" He threw himself toward it.
"Oh, Ranma! W-why don't you c-c-come back…?" Akane shivered as the cold breeze met her damp clothing.
Cologne sighed. Life was like that sometimes. The best would go to ashes, preserved only in memory. Ranma, and for that matter Barry's legacy, would live on in the techniques they had taught others. She dreaded trying to take Ranma's body from the girl. It might almost be kinder to kill her, too. She opened her mouth to speak…
Light that was not light, flared, pouring from the pigtailed form's face and body, turning his skin translucent as awareness shouted to all their senses that life, nearly extinct, had returned. Akane clung desperately to the body, arching as it accepted the power pouring in, before it sank back limp against the pool edge. One could read in everyone's posture that they were aware that someone had just joined the party. They were only waiting to see if the guest was who they hoped it would be. Akane, practically pasted against Ranma, was desperately seeking signs of him. She had touched what was uniquely him only once through the astral link to Barry's body. She sought desperately to see if he had come home to her.
"Ranma?" She sought with other eyes and saw the aura firm up and strengthen – felt the breathing deepen as only a martial artist breaths, and her ki sang with a familiar thrill. "Oh, Ranma! Oh, Ranma!" her tears started again, but anyone could see the difference between joy and sorrow.
"Ai-yi-yi-yi-yah!" screamed Shampoo, rocketing into the air. "Ranma is back!" No one chastened her for the impromptu fireworks display as she exhausted herself launching ki-arrows skyward, with deafening effect.
For the moment though, Ranma had concern only for the small dark-haired girl who was burrowing into his chest and crying. His arms held a precious treasure he had no plans of letting go of again.
Barry suddenly gripped Gwen by the arms, toppling her sidewise and staring at her as if at a ghost.
"Barry?" She was almost in tears. Not again! He'd been acting so strange, so distant, like a stranger. She wanted her friend, her lover back the way he had been before that stupid horse training accident. She blinked. He had felt like he was on autopilot, as he sometimes was if she woke him from a deep sleep, but now he was alert and awake and… his eyes were drinking her in, like a thirsty man a cup of cool water.
Barry blinked. Something about a plain of white and a choice and… an angel? A brief vision of a strong, confident boy in a pigtail… or was that a girl?' He was confused about his dream, but not confused about the feminine form he had pinned to the bed beneath him. He gazed into the eyes of his wife and nearly wept. She was so beautiful, everything he had ever wanted or could ever conceive of in his life. He felt as if he hadn't seen her or touched her in months. Well, that was about to change. He drew close and kissed her firmly, long and seductively and with every minute bit of his attention, to let her know how much he loved her. "God, Gwen, I love you!"
"Oh, Barry," she whispered, shaking, as he began to nibble along her jaw and down her neck. Her tears were also of joy and a sense of balance restored.
On a plain of white an angel stood. Wings that were not wings whispered in the realm of its presence and a smile grew fondly on its face. A sweet smile of innocence and knowledge combined. Words were spoken and a mirror shimmered into existence. With a light step, the radiant being was gone.
"I can't believe it! I can't believe it! After all these months!" Akane celebrated into the neck of Ranma's shirt, making it salty as well as wet.
'Months?' thought the returned martial artist.
"Jeez, Ranchan! You had us all worried we'd never see you again," babbled Ukyo. "It's been demons and fights and extra fiancées like you wouldn't believe while you were gone! When I think of all the times that Barry-san nearly screwed it up…"
'Demons, fights and extra fiancées?' That thought nearly squeaked past his lips.
"Was Barry's wife, Gwen, like Ukyo?" asked Shampoo wearily in almost perfect Japanese. "He said she was very much like her. What did you think of her, Ranma?"
"I didn't do nothin'!" Oh, boy! That one squeaked out before he could control his mouth. Akane raised her head from where it had lain.
Three feminine gazes began to show a certain familiar tenseness. Three girls were suddenly remembering their fears and jealous fits about the possibility that Ranma might be getting a little too close to Barry's wife. "Really! I… I didn't… 'do it' with her… or anybody else! I was... just…"
"Ra-a-an-n-MA!" The fact that it came from three throats instead of one was chilling.
"Some things never seem to change," murmured Cologne, shaking her head. Goddess! The boy was dense sometimes! She searched in her robes for her pipe and grinned. More than enough had changed to make life really interesting in the months ahead.
Ranma roared by again, his voice switching in mid-syllable between baritone and soprano as he splashed through puddles. "C'mon, guys! I ain't done nothin'! Awww… c'mon-n-n-n…" Behind him sprinted three angry girls shouting questions that offered no possibility of a satisfactory response.
Cologne just hoped Ranma managed to survive till morning.
Ranma slumped dejectedly on the roof of the Tendo dojo and watched the sun rise. He ignored the wintry feel of the air, letting it raise goose bumps along his smoothly muscled arms. The trees, except for the evergreens, were mostly free of leaves now and the garden was quiet, in the beginning of its winter sleep.
He had been gone one lousy week.
When he left, it had been summer, around the end of the break. When he returned, it was nearly winter, and so much had happened, in that week for him and in the four months for everyone here, that he wasn't sure where he stood.
One. Lousy. Week!
He had ended up trading places with the gaijin, Barry Barlowe, a married man in his mid-thirties, disturbingly similar in appearance to his father and, he supposed, himself, if he let himself go to pot in his later years. The gaijin had a son and a wife whom he loved so much that many of the responses had become ingrained, like well-ordered kata. The gaijin was an equestrian, a trainer of, among other things, unruly horses. Ran-ema. At the academy where he worked were many horses and many, many cats.
Ranma had also gotten some interesting training. He had discovered there were things worse than an Amazon glomp. Having an attractive woman running around who believed you were her husband and was enthusiastic about sharing the marriage bed had shown him how seriously that game could be played. If he hadn't started off the week injured and played on her sympathies… Kamisama! Hiroshi and Daisuke would drop over dead if they ever learned of the chance he had and the way he had run from it, and if his mom ever found out… He shivered.
He still had the curse. He discovered that as the three girls chased him across the burnt out field. Cold and hot water pooled there, courtesy of the broken water and steam lines from the battle with Taro, of all people. Ranma splashed in and out of girl-form as Akane, Shampoo and Ukyo threatened at him with mallet, bonbori and spatula. After escaping their ministrations, he'd circled back and dropped into the yard behind the dojo.
Taro, minus some of his clothing, was tied up under a tarp there. Unconscious, bruised and cut, Ranma wondered whom he had crossed. He had overheard the old ghoul say something about his vest and bracers being out of season this time of year, but why tie him up here? He looked like hell! He looked like he should be in the hospital. Someone must have really gone all out on him, which would seem to implicate Barry, as Ranma had been the only martial artist in Taro's class.
He had to admit that Taro could be a bit much. The guy was one of the best martial artist that Ranma had faced to date. Maybe Barry had overreacted. Ranma wished he could somehow see what had happened while he was gone, or could remember even the last two or three days. Heck! He couldn't remember anything of the whole four months! A lifetime… At least Barry had only a week to worry about! Ranma hadn't done anything too significant in that time, at least as far as Barry's life went. Barry's life…
'I love you.' It was the most basic kata of Barry's relationship with his wife. It was easy to say something like that when you didn't mean it, but so intensely special when you did. He wanted more than ever now to say it to… Akane. To find some special time or perfect place or… He shook himself. He was being stupid. Barry and Gwen exchanged those pleasantries anywhere. So different from the reserved, modest, proper behavior expected of a Japanese couple. The right time to say it was simply any time alone when she wasn't ready to throw him into orbit. Yeah, right!
He rested his head on his hand again and used his ki-vision to sweep the house below. Akane was in her room, lying like she had a board strapped to her spine, arms down at her sides, legs straight. She was obviously still awake and still angry. It was stupid to try to talk to her when she was like this, even dangerous. So why was he standing up and crossing to the edge of the roof, to swing down and reach out to tap the glass?
"Just come in, Ranma!" he heard her say before his knuckle struck once.
The window was open, so he glided over the jam and dropped lightly to the floor. He watched Akane in the dark room, listening to her breath, smelling her fragrance… He fought back tears. How he had dreamed of being with her the way Barry was with his wife.
'I love you,' he thought. He wet his lips, fists clenching nervously.
"Just spit it out, Ranma," her tired voice spoke, "I don't care any more."
Ranma's heart hit the soles of his feet. She didn't care? Nothing that she had said could have wounded him more keenly. His determination left him. She didn't care. He opened her door and left.
Akane curled into her pillow and cried. Why couldn't they have a happy ending? Why had it gone this way?
Each thought, 'It's too late!'
Breakfast was a bit crowded. Everyone found some spot to kneel down and have their meal. But with nine people (including Ryu Kumon, for some reason), it was a claustrophobic. He ate quickly despite his mother's glares and headed for the dojo. Being next to Akane at the moment was like sitting next to an iceberg. Also, the weird looks Natsume and Kurumi had been sending his way were getting on his nerves. What did they want? He hadn't a clue. Hell! He'd be lucky if he ever had a clue again!
He paused in the doorway and glanced back over his shoulder. "Is today a school day?"
"Yes, dear," his mother answered. "By the way, how is your leg?"
Ranma shifted uncomfortably. His leg? "Ummm… Fine, I guess. I'll be in the dojo if… anyone wants me." He had inadvertently looked at Akane when he said that and saw the upward tilt of her head, her frown. Not her, certainly. His heart kicked around in his toes as he shuffled his feet, leaving the house by way of the garden shoji.
It was shocking. The garden was the same, yet so… different. Where it had been pretty and peaceful, it was now a warm hug and a welcome, even in the bare chill of early winter. More and more, he was wondering if he had found the right address. Had he accidentally switched with one of those other Ranmas he had seen in his vision? He knelt at the edge of the koi pond and gazed into the waters. He had a brief vision of himself and Ryoga and a stranger working on this. He struggled with the memory, but it was gone before he could clearly focus.
Ranma rose and wandered to the dojo. He walked around behind it, on a whim, and looked in on Taro. From the smell, someone was going to have to clean him up soon. He gazed at Taro on the ki-level and saw the constrictions and refocused energy that clearly showed the old ghoul's work. He didn't see why anyone had bothered to tie him up. He wasn't going to be coming around soon. He thought about undoing the blocks and realized he knew exactly how – that easily. Ranma frowned, he hadn't had to think about it and the implication frightened him.
In the dojo, he feinted and struck, feeling for the precision of a complex but familiar kata. He wasn't doing very well. He smiled though, grimly satisfied. Barry hadn't been able to keep up the physical training! Barry wasn't a martial artist. Ranma worked his muscles, slowly redeveloping the linear strikes and sweeping defensive movements, pleased with his progress, satisfied with his wind and curious over what other new thing would blow his mind.
"Ranma?" He finished the movement and turned toward the door. Kurumi stood there, looking as cute as ever. He grinned. She was nearly as good as the tomboy. He waved her in, wondering if they were challenging Soun again. "Do you remember anything of the last four months?"
Ranma groaned and face-faulted. Jeez! Did everyone know he had been gone? "When did he tell you?" he asked, disgusted.
"Saturday night, right after Papa and Mr. Tendo tried to drug you and Akane and get you hitched at an all-night chapel."
Ranma face-faulted again. "Ah?" he said hoarsely, before frowning. Images flashed across his mind's eye. "They tried to…" He blinked. "Who's 'Papa'?"
"You don't remember anything, do you?" she said tearfully.
"It's not like I was here to remember!" he exclaimed, irritated. He expected more tears, but suddenly she smiled.
"Oh, yeah! That's right." She hugged him suddenly, which made his pigtail jerk straight up in terror, because of course, that was right when Akane walked in the dojo. He was dead!
She snorted and began to warm-up at the other end of the room. He had never felt so devastated by such a reaction from her. He almost missed Kurumi say, "I just want you to know, I'm glad you're my big brother."
"No way!" The words burst from his lips into the stillness of the dojo. Kurumi's lips quivered.
"Yes, 'way'," drawled Akane irritated, "If I thought you were making moves on your own sister…" Her hand clenched then relaxed again. "What a pervert." She turned away.
Kurumi's sobs brought Ranma back to himself and away from his own pain. "No, no. I didn't mean it like that! I'd be glad to be your big brother. I just didn't… U-urk!" Kurumi hugged him again, hard. He continued in a hoarse whisper. "When did this all happen?" he asked almost mournfully.
Akane snorted. "Right after the koi pond was fixed, Dad decided to take a stone from the pond back to Mt. Fuji, where he stole it from…"
"Fixed!" Ranma exclaimed. "I knew it was changed, but fixed? What happened to it?"
"Akari's sumo pig? What was it doing here?"
"Akari was looking for Ryoga," Akane frowned at his peculiar look.
"Why was Ryoga here?" Ranma was getting angry. Why couldn't someone just relieve him of the pain and help him get up to speed? Maybe because, like usual, he wasn't asking for help. "Oh, never mind! Dumb tomboy," he humphed, "Why do I bother?"
He froze as Akane, in a peculiarly lithe movement, used her toe to launch a set of thin cement blocks into the air. He had assumed till then, that they were there for her morning 'kill the blocks, work out the anger' routine. His jaw dropped at what she did.
Five blocks. The uppermost was struck with a variation of the Amiguriken as the blocks separated at the top of their arc. It powdered. The second block from the bottom was struck precisely once and fractured in half, the leftover momentum turning the pieces not more than 180 degrees and at vertical right angles from their original position. The third and fourth blocks were struck almost delicately, yet sections of the block seemed to slice away from one corner and one side. Akane's other toe came up then to catch the falling masonry at waist height, the bottom-most block the foundation for a sort of child's building block house. Then the roof slid, and the blocks hit the floor with a bang as dust from the masonry created a tiny snowstorm about the debris.
"What the hell was that?" he almost squeaked out. Yep! He was in the wrong world! That had all the amateurish exhibitionism of an ice-breaking event combined with an oddly difficult… It was so alien to his Akane that he almost wept.
"Church in the Snow," Akane said abstractedly. "It's supposed to end up looking like a building covered in snow. Barry said that if I started practicing as soon as you came back that, maybe this time, I might beat you at doing something in martial arts before you caught me again."
"Hah!" The 'hah' was not unexpected to Akane. The weakness with which he said it was.
"What's wrong, Ranma?" she scowled at him sitting there, Kurumi now behind him, her hands on his shoulders.
"I think I took the wrong turn at Albuquerque," he said quietly.
"What?" That statement was so unlike Ranma that she was chilled. "Where did that come from?"
"A week of watching cartoons with Brendan." He was staring into space now. "Oh, Kamisama! I'm in the wrong universe. I must be. Oh, Kamisama," he whispered. "Oh, Akane…"
Akane suddenly lost her jealousy and her anger. She heard his pain and remembered how often he had comforted her, rescued her, tried to tell her without words what he felt. It wasn't his fault that someone, somewhere, had shown him a normal life, a normal way to love and that he had fallen for it. Look at Ryoga. He had been a pig, but love made one do stupid things. Look at her.
She knelt down before him and caught Kurumi's eye. "I need some time alone with my fiancé, Kurumi. Do you mind?" The girl nodded, gave Ranma's shoulders a squeeze, and then left quickly.
"First, you're not in the wrong universe. Your astral bodies had exchanged places. The strand that joins the body to your astral projection was growing thin, but if it had broken, you would have died. You could return only to your own universe and Barry could only go back to his." She struggled with herself. "I'm… I'm sorry you had to leave, but you couldn't have stayed much longer. Because your astral projections were in host bodies, it let you live for weeks instead of hours, separate from your body, but your links were getting weak. You…" Tears threatened. Ranma hid his despair desperately, Akane tried to restrain hers. "You were both going to die if we didn't do something soon."
Ranma dully heard the pain in her voice and nodded. In some ways this was worse. It was his home, but so different. He wondered when Barry had found the courage to tell Akane that Ranma was missing. He wondered if it had been prompted by a scene like the one he escaped from. And after three months of living Ranma's life, it must have been awfully tempting to… He wanted to scream as Akane knelt there, immersed in her sorrow, to hold her in his arms and tell her… But instead he muttered, "Life's like that, I suppose. At least, ours has been." Ranma looked away. The pain was too much. 'Dammit, Barry! If only…"
"So much has happened. Barry thought you might have some troubles when you got back," Akane said softly. She saw Ranma's face twist with barely suppressed emotions. She wondered how he'd take his mother's manliness issues, or lack of them. "He made a daily journal…"
"What?" Ranma's eyes snapped back to her.
"A journal. A diary, I suppose."
"Where is it?" His frustration suddenly crystallized into anger: Barry had left a journal behind? What was it, some sort of 'How to seduce Akane' manual? A, 'see how much better a real man could do, Ranma'? The only thing he could think of at that instant was to find that piece of paper crap and blow it to hell! "Where is it?"
Akane gulped. His intensity was frightening, even with the confidence her advanced training gave her. "I-I've never s-s-seen it. H-h-he said he kept it 'where your hopes are'."
Ranma froze. Of course that perverted, backstabbing baka would know about that, the place where Ranma kept all of his mementos. He probably hadn't lost any time delving through all of Ranma's fantasies and… With an almost audible snap, he rose to his feet and leaped out of the dojo and up. Akane followed him with ki-vision onto the roof of the house then couldn't contain herself anymore. She leaned forward and put her head on the cool wood of the floor and cried. Her hopes were all but gone.
Ranma quickly found the loose roof tile and lifted it aside. In the space beneath was the sturdy wooden box he kept his secrets in, his hopes. He popped the lid and there it was.
They were, actually. One was labeled: Results of Advanced Studies in Ki Manipulation. Beneath Ranma recognized the kanji of Ryoga, Akane, Ukyo and Konatsu, followed by unfamiliar kanji that he finally worked out were the signatures of Cologne, Mousse and Shampoo. Under that was sprawling roman-ji script that Ranma guessed was Barry's signature. Beneath that were the kanji of his own name, along with the note: 'In honor and inspiration of a martial artist and a Man.' His mouth twisted. Man? He was a sex-changing freak, and everyone knew it. He held it for long moments, and then laid it aside. The multiple signatures implied there were duplicate copies, and he had no intent of being second to anyone when it came to martial arts.
The other binder was labeled more simply and less formally. It said: Ranma's Guest. Guest? His hand trembled as he lifted it. He started to turn a page, then hesitated. Maybe it would be better not to know what was within this book. He glowered at the wire bound notebook and debated simply destroying it. He couldn't do it. There were several reasons. There were four months of interactions and obligations that he was honor-bound to take up. There were memories that he had to access if he wasn't going to simply go before his mother and ask for seppuku. Hell! He had to find out if maybe that was all that was left anyway!
Then there was Akane. He had the feeling that this was all that was left in this world of Barry; and Akane, he believed, had fallen for the man. He might hate what Barry had done to him, but it would it be fair to deprive Akane of the thoughts and notes that were all that existed in her world? It might be all she had to live on the rest of her life. This really belonged as much to her as to him. And there was always the chance that something in there might tell him how to win her back and try to make her happy. Kami! Was he really that lame? Akane's presence in the dojo beat on his ki senses like an arc lamp. If nothing else, he wanted to make Akane happy. He let out a ragged breath.
He jerked around to find Kurumi looking at him curiously while munching on something. Damn! He'd have to find a new hiding place for this stuff. "What are ya doin' up here?" he snapped.
"Akane said she needed to talk to you alone, so I left. She didn't say anything about me not coming back when you were done." Kurumi continued to speak around a mouthful of cookie.
"Are ya gonna follow me around?" he asked nervously.
"For a while," she confirmed. "Barry — we thought it was you then — he was okay, but too busy to act like a brother. He suggested I give you a chance."
"Ummm… How do ya know I'm yer brother?" He'd been meaning to ask that.
"Papa… your dad? He admitted it to Momma last week," she frowned, "or was it the week before that? Anyway, he admitted a lot of things and they cried, and she promised she'd skin him alive if he hadn't told her everything, and they cried some more and then Momma… your mom?" Kurumi made certain he knew whom she was talking about. "She said she would like to try to be a mother to us, and then she hugged both of us and we all cried some more."
Ranma gaped. She was serious! Dead serious and his mother had apparently accepted the situation. In a daze he asked, "I've never been a brother. What do I do?"
"I don't know." She scuffed with a toe. "What would you do if I told you Ryu Kumon snuck out with Natsume last night?"
Ranma started to say he didn't care what that hentai, Kumon, did; then stopped, his eyes widening. If Kurumi was his sister, then Natsume was… his sister. If Kumon was… If they were… "Kumon!" Face darkening, he moved to leap down from the house to find and throttle the jerk for daring to touch one hair on hissister's head. Kurumi grabbed him with her ribbon and brought him up short.
"Cool," she said as she untangled him. "But, you shoulda asked me if it really happened." She grinned at him possessively. "This is gonna be so much fun!"
Affronted by her giggles, he picked up his box and returned to the dojo. The sight of Akane, curled up on the floor crying, brought him up short. He rushed to her side and pulled her into his arms, cradling her, rocking her, asking what he could do to make it right. For once, he'd done the right thing.
"Oh, Ranma," Akane wept into his collar. "I tried so hard to get you back! It's been so hard! If you don't… If you can't… It's so unfair!"
"Akane, I'm sorry I'm not what ya want me to be," he mumbled miserably. "Here." He fumbled back into the box and dragged out the wire-bound notebooks. "Ya might as well keep this; I guess I can get by without it."
He tried to hand her the journal and dropped some other things in her lap as well. A hank of black hair bound by a ribbon and a piece of duct tape carefully pressed to a sheet of paper and covered by numerous strips of clear tape, a badly made scarf; they fell into her lap as he pressed the notebook to her. Ranma didn't even realize what had happened, until her shaking hands picked up the hair.
"Ummm…" He flushed, trying to think of something to say. The last thing he wanted was to reveal his unwanted love of her, to her when she was like this.
He saw her gently pick up the mementos of his heart. She petted the length of hair. Then giggled faintly, a little wildly even, as she turned the salvaged tape this way and that to see the faint print of lipstick under the protective layer of cellophane. "So you did love me… once?" she asked.
"Once?" He stared into her tear-filled eyes. His control cracked. He hugged her fiercely. "Once? Dammit, Akane, I love you! I may be no better than Kuno shoutin' stuff at ya, ya don't wanna hear…" Akane, shocked by the sudden gentle violence and the declaration, held still. She felt a hot wetness strike her arm and realized Ranma was crying himself. Ranma never cried in boy-form… that unmanliness thing of his.
"Let me finish. From the moment ya said 'ya wanna be friends', I felt ya were special. Even when ya beat the crap outa me because of Shampoo or Ukyo or Ryoga… it didn't matter. But I couldn't tell ya. It'd be giving in ta Pops. It'd be makin' ya marry some dumb-ass jock who isn't a man. But this dumb-ass jock — I've almost lost ya too many times — always wished I coulda told ya." He choked on his tears. Letting years of pressure and torment out, unable to stop now that the floodgates were open. She struggled to see his face and he suddenly relaxed his arms, certain she was disgusted with his immature yammering. His tear-filled blue eyes met her still damp, dark brown ones, set beside that beautiful nose above the half-parted lips…
Akane's tongue moistened her lips. Why was he staring?
With a groan, he pulled her close and did what he had wanted to do the night of the ramen fight. He twisted slightly to bring her head against his shoulder, cupped a hand gently behind her head and drank in the salty taste of her tears as his lips stroked the gentle bud of her mouth. She began to tremble, but he couldn't stop. He felt how her lips gently meshed and rippled against his, almost exploring. The trembling increased and he began to release her, ashamed of his weakness. He didn't expect the flash of movement as her arms whipped up about his neck, forcing their lips back together. He opened his mouth to exclaim in surprise, but all that did was prevent them from mashing their lips against their teeth. As Akane fiercely continued the kiss, she opened her own mouth and gently, timidly sent her tongue questing for his. Things got rather intense for a few minutes.
They broke apart, gasping for air, hearts racing, frightened by the responses they had evoked in the other, that it was somehow all a mistake or a misunderstanding. Akane curled in his lap, hands now grasping his shirtfront as if he might jump up and run away — he had done it before — head below his chin, and panted and cried all over again. Ranma stiff, but arms cradling her protectively, eyes wide with fear and wonder, and praying that this would notbe the last time he kissed this beautiful, wonderful girl.
"Akane?" he whispered.
"Yes, Ranma," she whispered back. Her trembling started again.
"Ummm… Did I… make a mistake?"
"What do you mean?" The trembling stopped, but her tone sent him a signal to exercise extreme caution.
He thought how he should say this. He would only have one chance. Then it hit him (no, not Akane this time). If there was one thing he would be forgiven for saying, it was… "I love you. I always wanted to tell you that." He swallowed. "And at least, even if it never happens again, at least, finally, I got to kiss you." He jumped a little as she shifted, bringing herself to look him in the eye.
"Ranma Saotome," she said in a voice that promised pain, "it had better happen again!" Her voice broke at the end and new tears threatened to fall. "I love you, too, you baka! I've studied and trained and searched for months and I thought… I thought you had…" she choked. She couldn't say it, and all he did was act like he had no idea what she meant! "I thought that you had fallen in love with Barry's wife!" she finally grated out. She buried her head back under his chin, growling to herself and flushing at her thoughts.
"She was very nice," he said softly. Akane groaned and tried to pull herself into a ball of pain. She didn't want to hear this. "But she wasn't you. Barry was here more than three months, but I was there barely a week. I spent half of that pretending I was too hurt to, uh… do anything romantic and the other half trying to duck her. She almost got me at the end, though." He bit his lip. Why did he always have to just spill everything out like that?
"What?" Akane was looking him in the eyes again, expression hostile. "Why?"
"Marital arts," he gulped. She didn't hit him, so he went on. "Barry and Gwen's marriage has become a kata. Things like holding a door open for her or helping with the dishes or simply saying 'I love you' have become automatic. Reflex. I… I thought I had control over them but that last day was Barry's birthday and Gwen (gulp) decided he needed a present…"
"What kind of present?" she asked flatly. He blushed. "I don't think I want to hear this," she said, beginning to withdraw.
He pulled her back down. "It's not like that! The other nights she tried that, I could control myself and figure out how to talk her out of it without hurtin' her too much or lettin' on who and what I was," he said, talking quickly. "I had an idea I was gonna try that weekend that I thought might get me back here. If it didn't work, I figured I was gonna hafta tell her who I was after all. Kamisama! She was worse'n Shampoo, fer cryin' out loud!" Akane let out a disturbed sounding giggle at that remark. "But that night, I didn't have any control! It was worse than when Barry first came here and I'd find myself lookin' outa my own skull watchin' the world go by! I tried to keep her from doin' it and then I simply tried to ignore her while I tried ta use my idea to get outa there." He was sweating at the memory. "It musta worked, 'cause I suddenly was back here."
"You had no control?" she asked, color draining from her face. "You had it before, for a week, but suddenly it was gone?"
"Yeah. Sorry!" he said, dropping his eyes.
"Oh, my poor Ranma!" He looked up at her words, sure she was being sarcastic, but saw only honesty. "When I was doing the work on this end to bring you back, I had to untangle all sorts of knots and loops that had tied your two astral lines together. Afterwards, when we found out Barry had lost his controls again, we realized they let Barry tap into your discretion. I never considered it might work the other way!"
"You mean…" He flinched. Akane had done that to him?
"I'm so sorry, Ranma! When you got back and then looked so guilty…" She drove her head back into his shirt, crying, "I'm such a nasty, suspicious bitch!"
She was surprised at the force he was willing to use to bring her eyes back up to meet his. "Don't you ever call yourself that again!" he said with such angry intensity that she nodded, cowed. "You… are my baka, un-cute, tomboy…" His lips curled a bit. "…who I love."
"Oh, Ranma!" They held each other a while in silence.
"Ya know? This is right where ya dared me ta kiss you after Mikado nailed me at the ice rink."
"At least this time we don't have the entire family breathing down our necks with a camcorder," Akane answered. By unspoken consent, they both looked quickly around. Then they used their ki-vision and looked outside.
'Oh! I guess sisters can be pretty useful after all,' Ranma thought, nonplused. Kasumi, Natsume and Kurumi were pointedly keeping Soun and Genma away from the dojo. Ranma sighed and switched back to normal vision to look down at the notebooks on the floor. "So what do we do now?" he asked. He caught her eye. "What do you want, Akane?"
"I want us to be a couple. I want us to be able to walk to school without worrying about what anyone says and be able to say 'Yes, that's my fiancé, Ranma Saotome, the man I love'."
Ranma shivered at her words and his chest shook as he gulped in air to still his reaction. "I'd like that… but, what about Shampoo, Ukyo and Kodachi? What about our parents?" He really wished he hadn't said it, but it needed to be said. They needed a plan.
"You really need to read that journal, Ranma," she said strangely. "But I think almost everyone will be willing to accept a simple 'we will when we're ready'."
"No way!" he said astonished.
Akane laughed, a joyful sound and giggled, "Yes, 'way'!"
Ranma huffed, astonished at the idea that their parents may have finally gotten a clue. Then he smirked and cocked his head. "So… Ya missed me?"
"More than I can ever say," she answered in a small voice that made his heart jump. "Wanna spar? I was beating Barry half of the time before he left."
"Yer that good, huh?" he said, just a little uncertainly.
"C'mon, Ranma, give me a break! Just one little match to see how the new, improved Akane Tendo stands up to the old Ranma Saotome." She gave him a soulful look. "Ple-e-ease?"
"Okay," he gave in gracefully. "Ya ready ta lose?" he asked as she rose to her feet. He ignored her offered hand and bounded up by himself.
She looked at him archly. "You're really gonna want to read that journal," she said cryptically. "Tell you what, if I win this match, you'll audition with me for Nutcracker Suite after school on Friday, okay?"
"Whatever…" he said carelessly. Whatever happened now, he could deal with it. They set themselves… and the new dance began.
So ends the first arc of Locked Outa Love. Coming soon is Ki Cutters a 40 + chapter sequel that gasp! is almost 100 Ranma and deals with the consequences of Akane and Shampoo's Sisters of Hearts duels and Ranma and Akane's developing relationship. Fights, supernatural threats and complications abound! This next arc also more deeply involves the goddesses, Beldandy, Urd and Skuld, the provisionary god, Keichi Morisato and Our favorite cat-girl-android Nuku Nuku who is far more than window dressing in the coming chapters. See Ya Soon! BTB