(Author's note: You may either read "Angel" first or "Iris"; either one will do. I posted the works in chronological order, not order of initial release.)
The first thing Ranma knew in the morning was pain.
This didn't come as much of a surprise to him; he'd heard what it was like to drink, and he'd certainly had a lot. His tongue felt like Kasumi had used it to polish the floors and his head pounded with the drums of some faceless marching band. For a moment, he wondered if his mother had made good on the seppuku promise, as white-hot knives jabbed at his insides. Skin prickled at his every touch, as though the entire world was on fire. He rubbed his arms together; why did it itch so much?
Groaning, ignoring the warning sirens in his head, he forced himself to his feet. He didn't mean to drink so much... waitasec. Yes he did; he just didn't want to feel like this afterwards. It was a bachelor party that made him this way; he never knew that 'bachelor party' meant 'make as much fun of the groom-to-be as possible'. He inwardly vowed that Hiroshi and Daisuke were going to pay for that little stunt... he adjusted whatever it was he was wearing, and staggered out of the bedroom. Nature was calling him, and he was compelled to listen.
He only made it halfway down the stairs. The burning around him intensified... as did the internal pain. His groin hurt like Akane had malleted it; gravity took him the rest of the way down as his body coursed in waves of pain. He felt tight around the chest... was he having a heart attack?
On reflex, Ranma placed his hands over his most treasured spot - then gasped. It was smaller; he was smaller.... somehow, he was changing, in the middle of a bone-dry room. The changes intensified, and he fought back the screams... but couldn't hold back the tears.
He'd changed before, but then it had been much more innocent, much less... offensive. Here, he could feel breasts and hips swell; he whimpered as his testicles rose into his abdomen, and his body reshaped around new lines... new purposes. It... it felt like the first time, when he'd come from the water, or when he...she got into the hot bath after facing Herb... He...She fought the screams for a full two minutes, as bones ground against each other, and muscles shrank to fit a different existence.
After what seemed an eternity, the pain began to subside, leaving a dull ache to replace it. She knew the change was almost done; she knew her second body, after all, and the way it felt. She could feel the breasts pushing against her arms, and her reshaped privates still cupped by now-slender hands. She couldn't think straight; the hormones were kicking in.... she felt so tired.... so tired.... so....
A work of Ranma 1/2 fanfiction; the first work in the Iris Tales.
All Ranma 1/2 characters created by Rumiko Takahashi. All rights reserved. I must ask that you not do anything with any part of this work without the author's permission.
"Akane! Wake up!"
Harsh whispers snapped Akane from her alcohol slumber. Her thick tongue rolled around in her mouth, tasting what was left of last night. She blinked, then looked up.
"Sa... Sayuri? What... is it now? If you're trying to get me to drink another concoction of yours..."
The harsh whisper came again, sounding to her like a leaking balloon. "Dr. Tofu's on the phone! He says there's something wrong with Ranma!"
At the mention of Ranma's name, Akane's eyes snapped wide open - a move she regretted, as the light poured mercilessly into them. "Wha... what's wrong?" She tried to get up, fighting the headache and nausea that plagued her. The phone was mercifully handed to her; she placed it backwards on her shoulder, then corrected herself.
"Hello?" Her voice cracked from last night's reverie.
"Akane." Tofu's voice sounded tense - as though he were worried about something. "Ranma... something's wrong with him. I think you should come down here right away."
"What's wrong?" Akane fumbled with the buttons on her blouse, turning an immodest party outfit into something moderately respectable.
The pause on the line seemed to last an eternity. "Akane.... there's something wrong with the curse."
Akane nearly dropped the phone from shock. "I... I'm on my way, Doctor." She handed the phone back to Sayuri, who replaced it on its hook.
"So what happened this time?" Sayuri whispered. Apparently the party had taken its toll on her as well.
Akane shook her head. "Dunno... but nothing good." She straightened out her skirt, and moved toward the foyer.
She began to slip on her shoes. "Could you please come with me? I don't know if I can make it alone."
Sayuri frowned. "That bad, huh?"
Akane shook her head. "No... but I doubt I could find my own house after last night."
The ensuing laughter was painful - for both of them. Sayuri sat next to Akane, and started putting on her shoes. "Okay, Akane. Let's go."
The journey to the clinic was a long one - the subways and city streets glared with the bright light of the morning and blurred with the colors of pedestrians, making Akane wish for sunglasses. Sayuri wasn't much better; she'd had to take a bathroom break at one point, to offer her respects for last night's partying. Akane never thought she'd be so glad to see the clinic in all its spartan glory. She leaned her head against the doorframe once she walked into the clinic, giving herself a moment of rest before going in.
To her surprise, Ranma was male when she entered the room; he was sitting on the small bed, looking as though he was locked in a prison. She glowed when he saw the light in his eyes; he wasn't the most expressive of men, but she could see his feelings broadcast in a blue sparkle.
She thought about smiling back, then decided on a more familiar tactic. "And what are you doing here?"
Ranma grumbled. "I... just had a little attack. That's all."
"A little attack?" The voice startled Akane; she hadn't heard Tofu walk in. "Ranma, you changed over the course of minutes in the middle of a dry room! I wouldn't call that 'a little attack'. I'd call it a problem."
Ranma moved off the bed; Akane responded by moving next to him. "Well, I'm fine now."
Akane looked at him closely. She could see through his bravado; Ranma was genuinely scared. Forcing him to look her in the eye, she gave him a glare... one with all the love she could muster.
He turned away, a clear sign he was lying. "Yeah."
She took a deep breath. Anger was her enemy, and she would not let it overcome her. Not now. "Ranma, you will get in that bed this instant and you will not get out until Dr. Tofu has determined what's wrong with you. Okay?"
Ranma looked downward, like a scolded child. "O... Okay, Akane. If you want me to."
"Good." She sat next to him on the bed, and moved her hand to slide into his. "Now what happened? Really?"
She felt his grip tighten. Whatever had happened had definitely shook him up. "Well... I woke up from the party... and felt... strange. I went down to the bathroom to do some stuff, when... I... started to change.
"Started to change?"
He nodded slowly. "It.... God, it was painful. When I change normally, it's just a quick tingling, and that's it." He shook his head. "This time... I could feel every bit."
Tofu sat down across from them. "The shock to the system was so bad that he collapsed. Kasumi found him sprawled out on the floor this morning, and assumed the worst."
Akane blinked. "And there was no water involved?"
"None." Ranma shook his head. "Something else triggered the change. And I have no clue as to what."
Akane looked over to Tofu. "Did the alcohol affect his curse somehow?"
Tofu's eyebrows furrowed. "Well... I don't think so. Mr. Saotome drinks fairly often, after all."
Akane started to play with the hem of her dress. "What do we do now, Doctor?"
Tofu frowned. "We keep a close watch on him for a day or so, and see if it happens again. In the meantime, I'm going to go over to the Nekohanten; Cologne has more experience with Jusenkyo than I do."
Something flashed within her at the mentioning of Cologne's name. Something nasty. "Doctor... could she be behind what happened?"
Tofu shrugged. "Maybe. If she is, though... I think we'll find out about it." He pulled a coat over his shirt, and moved for the door. "Akane, I trust you'll keep an eye on him..."
She gave a sidelong glance toward her fiancee. "Oh, I... think I could do that."
"Good." He smiled. "I'll try to have this solved before the wedding; I promise." He closed the door behind him, encouraging Sayuri to come along with him. She was grateful for that; at the moment, she wanted nothing more than to be alone... with him.
Shampoo was worried.
She wiped the tables of the Nekohanten quietly, afraid that a word would crash her inner silence. It was still late morning; the lunch rush hadn't started yet, and only a couple of diehards were in the restaurant. Mousse was busy at the register taking an order; she'd have to go back into the kitchen in a second. Everything seemed normal, but still... she couldn't get the feeling of emptiness from her mind.
For her Hibachan was gone.
Her great-grandmother had left three days ago. She had said that she was picking up herbs somewhere in Kansai, but that she would be back the next day. She waited for her to come; Hibachan never missed a promise like that... but she had to shut the restaurant alone.
Truth to tell, the place felt empty without her. She missed those sparkling eyes that gazed on her with parental love, her hard-as-iron hands that could shatter stones and hold her close, her wrinkled smile, her wisdom born of age... she had grown up knowing Cologne's presence, and life felt hollow now without her.
A shadow passed over the door, and she looked up, half expecting to see her face. The shadow was larger than she'd wanted, though...
"Welcome, Doctor. What can Shampoo get to eat?"
She could see it; he was worried as well. "Is... Cologne around?"
"No," she forced out. "Hibachan... not here."
The doctor's eyes narrowed; he was angry at her absence? "Where is she?"
She stared at her feet for a moment. "Shampoo not know. Hibachan leave three day ago, say she back next day." She wrung the dishtowel in her hands. "She not back since."
Shampoo could feel the doctor's eyes examining her, piercing through to her very essence, then felt relief at his relaxing.
"Shampoo, would your great-grandmother know any methods of manipulating a Jusenkyo curse besides the Cat's Tongue?"
She stopped. There were a couple of methods... "Why ask?"
Tofu bit his lip. "I think that someone used one of those techniques on Ranma last night."
Shampoo's heart dropped. "Ai... Ranma? What happen?"
Tofu's gaze burned into her. "He changed... slowly... without the use of water. He complained of a tingling feeling along his skin, and stomach problems just before the change."
She gasped. Memories came back to her, nightmares of her childhood; a man crying, pleading for mercy... the half-animal screams... She steadied herself against one of the chairs, as she fought to keep from falling. "No... No..."
"What is it, Shampoo?" Tofu moved closer to her, his hands shadowing her shoulders.
Shampoo looked at the hands, then turned to Mousse. "Mousse, close shop. We have business." She tried not to appear nervous as she changed the restaurant sign, but knew she was failing.
Because, if she was right, Ranma was in for a LOT of trouble.
For a moment, Tendo Akane was at peace.
She lay on one of the cramped cots Tofu used, jockeying for a comfortable position. Each movement only brought her closer to him. She could feel the resistance of his muscles as she snuggled close, smell his musky scent when she found herself pressed in, sense the aura of contentment around him, see his gentle smile, feel his body warmth... she felt his hand close around hers, clutching in a soft embrace.
"Sorry to worry you, Akane." He squeezed the hand tightly, reassuringly.
She smiled, and relaxed. Ranma was here, she was here. That was all that she needed. "It's okay, Ranma. I... I know strange things tend to happen with your life."
Ranma blushed. "Yeah, well..." The hands around Akane quivered for a moment.
"Ranma, are you okay?"
He looked downward. She could see he wanted to lie so badly, if only to protect her... but he couldn't. Not to her. "No, I'm not."
She turned around. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead. "You... you're really not feeling well, are you?"
Ranma only shook his head. She could see that look in his eyes - a haunted look that came only when things were their darkest.
"Can you handle it? Or do you want me to get a glass of cold water?"
"I can handle it," he whispered. She felt his arms tighten around her, as though she were a lifeline.
She bit her lip, trying to form the right words. "Um... Ranma? What do you feel right now?"
Ranma blinked, his mind lost in thought. His hand played with her own, even as the muscle coordination decreased. "I... it's like there's an itch all over my body. Whenever I changed, I would feel this... tingling, then find myself changed. I'm still feeling that... but it's magnified, somehow. I... didn't feel it when I woke up, but once Tofu put me in the tub..."
Akane swallowed the saliva in her throat. "Do you... think that you'll change anytime soon?"
"Probably," Ranma whispered, then winced. "Probably."
Akane could feel twin heartbeats, as they both sat in long, painful silence. She could feel his hands lose their steady control, see the sweatbeads on his forehead multiply, feel the internal quivers in his body...
"Akane?" The voice was shaking.
"Ge... Get some cold water."
She got up from the cot, just in time to see him double over in pain. Warring loyalties raged for a moment, her desire to be with him conflicting with the responsibility to help. Summoning her will, she walked away, her eyes never leaving his form, and ran to the sink.
What was happening to Ranma seemed out of some horror film. His body slowly contracted on itself, as though his entire being were exhaling. Muscles lost definition; hands narrowed; his face was painfully reshaping itself. She nearly threw up when she heard the creak of bone, then recovered.
The cold water. If she splashed him, he'd change instantly, ending his pain. She filled up the kettle as fast as she could, and ran over to him. She heard noises in the background; she turned to see who it was as she tipped the kettle over...
A flash of purple intercepted the teakettle, sending it splashing away from Ranma's form. A ball of wet Chinese clothing rolled to a stop a few yards away.
"Sh... SHAMPOO? What do you think you're -"
Tofu walked up behind her, and put a firm hand on her shoulder. "She knows what she's doing." He turned to Ranma's writhing form. "How long has he been transforming?"
Akane shook out of her adrenaline rush. "A... About a minute, I think." She looked over at her fiancee; Ranma was about halfway changed; strands of red hair mingled with the black, and his body was shrunk to about the same size as her own. She shuddered; she'd made fun of Ranma's curse so much in the past, and now this...
Tofu walked over, and picked up the bundle of clothing. Something, no doubt Shampoo's other form, wriggled inside. "Akane... I know this may sound difficult, but I think we need to trust Shampoo for once."
"Trust her?" Akane yelled, then turned back to Ranma. It was almost done... woman's curves peeked out from his clothing, and his facial features were too far refined to be masculine. "Why?"
Tofu put Shampoo on the counter, and turned back to her. "Because she's the only one who recognizes what's going on. And, if I'm right, her great-grandmother was probably responsible for this."
Akane had known a lot of anger in her life. It was her vent, her way of dealing with a world too twisted for her otherwise; if something got in her way, she smashed it. A different emotion settled in her heart at Tofu's words, a dark, seductive feeling she was unfamiliar with. Someone had hurt someone very close to her, all because of some stupid Amazon law, and she vowed that the person responsible would pay - dearly.
For the first time, Akane knew true hatred. And she vowed, with whatever lifeblood remained in her, that she would see Cologne dead.
"Okay, Shampoo. What's wrong with me?"
Ranma sat at a table in Tofu's clinic, gently rubbing her sore muscles. Her body had been put through a blender; every part of her ached from the change, and she desperately wished for some time to lie down.
Unfortunately, if she was to find a way out, time was something she didn't have a lot of. She watched as Shampoo paused to gather her thoughts, her hands clasped in front of her face.
"Once, when Shampoo child, evil man come to village. He try to beat women in combat. When fail, he try to... violate one in night. Stupid man caught, and found guilty by Amazon Council."
She closed her eyes, not wanting to see what happened... but being forced to nonetheless. "Amazons declare that he no man, that he animal - he pig. Take man to Jusenkyo, and dunk in Heitonnichuan. Then... Amazons make man drink potion."
"What sort of potion?" Tofu asked.
Shampoo shook her head. "It mixture of Heitonnichuan and certain herbs - Shampoo not know which ones. It give curse to inside of body, not just outside." She sighed, and tried to continue her tale. "Man... change to pig every few hours, just as you change to woman. Over time, it become harder for man to change... until, one day, he no change back. He pig... forever. Amazons let him free, think it worse punishment than death."
Shampoo's eyes bore into Ranma's. "Curse potion play with person. Hibachan tell man, if use water to stop painful change, he become pig forever. Man hold out - he strong man, if evil - but eventually he no change back."
Ranma's eyes darkened. If Cologne knew... then... "So the old ghoul knows how to make the formula?"
That was all Ranma needed to hear. She moved to get up, ready to take that Amazon apart... when she felt an arm grab her shoulder.
"Wait a second, Shampoo." Akane was nonplussed. "How do we know that you didn't make it?"
Shampoo shook her head. "No know how." She locked eyes with Akane for a moment. "Shampoo promise as Amazon: If Shampoo have anything to do with Ranma changing forever into girl, Shampoo agree to drink potion, to change forever into cat. Okay?"
Akane looked at her critically for a moment, then nodded. "Okay. So what do we do now?"
Ranma smiled. "Isn't it obvious? If the Amazons know a cure for this, then we're going to China."
"And if Cologne's there?"
The smile vanished. "Then I show her what I'm really capable of."
Ranma silently packed her items in the bedroom, selecting for maximum usage with minimum weight. Extra clothing was barely a necessity; the tent would be better, though she never really needed it. Other supplies were packed in rapid succession, as basics such as extra food and matches made their way into the backpack. The packing done, she looked around the room, looking for something... anything she might have missed.
Sighing, she moved back, and leaned against the wall. She didn't want to admit it to anyone, especially Akane, but she was honestly scared. Sure, she'd been in worse situations before... but this one just felt different. There were no challenges, no condemnations, nothing to indicate a way out. All that she knew was that her curse was overcoming her, and that the person responsible hadn't come forward.
The more she thought about it, the more she suspected it wasn't Cologne. The old ghoul was crafty, to be sure, and had the know-how to pull it off; however, she was also very manipulative, and bargained like a devil. If she had done it, Ranma would have known that day what was happening to her, and how quickly she had to marry Shampoo to get out of it. No... there was definitely something else going on.
Biting her lip, Ranma pulled out a small box, and opened it. Gold glittered in the sunlight, as the simple bands reflected the morning's glory. They weren't flashy, weren't expensive... just two simple wedding rings, with declarations of love on the inside.
Saying a quiet promise to herself, Ranma closed the box, and stowed it in her backpack. Once she was cured, they'd exchange vows right then and there. It didn't matter if it was at Tokyo, Jusenkyo, or the Amazon Village; she loved Akane, and Akane her. And they would seal it for all time... once she was cured. She hefted the backpack, and walked out the bedroom. She was about to go downstairs when she heard Akane call her.
"Um... Ranma? Can we talk for a moment?" Ranma blinked; her voice sounded... timid.
"Sure." She turned around, and walked into her room.
The instant she walked in, she found herself on the receiving end of a bear hug. Akane held onto her tightly, the shaking in her arms letting Ranma know how much she didn't want to let go. Ranma reciprocated the hug as best she could; there were still some things she wasn't used to in her body.
"I'm so scared..." she whispered.
Ranma swallowed. She hated everything about this situation... but she couldn't tell Akane that. "Don't worry, Akane. We'll get through this. I promise."
"But what if..."
Ranma gave a cocky grin - one she couldn't see, but was largely for her own benefit. "Akane, I am a guy. Even if I don't get through this, I'll always be a guy. Never forget that."
Akane shivered inside her grasp. "I... I won't. I just wish..."
"I know." Ranma stroked her hair gently. The smell of cherry blossoms danced at the edge of her memory. "We'll get married soon enough. I promise."
"Okay." A sniffling sound made itself heard next to Ranma's ear. The two ended the embrace, and stood staring at each other.
"Are the others ready?" Akane asked, picking up a backpack.
Ranma shook her head. "I dunno. I hope so... we've got a long road ahead of us." She took Akane's hand in her own, and led her downstairs.
Shampoo leaned against the stern-end railing of the ship, watching as the morning sun rose from a perfect horizon. The seas were calm, for once; no storm sought to topple them this day. Occasionally a bird would fly by, migrating from one place to another; beyond that, the South China Sea was their only companion.
Once again, she was saying goodbye to a place she had come to regard as home. She had needed the past two years in this barbarian land, to break her spirit, to show her failure... and to bring her up, to be forged anew. If she survived the journey, she would be, without a doubt, the premier warrior in the village - and a skilled leader as well.
If she survived the journey, that is.
If her great-grandmother had truly turned her back on them all, then she was worse than dead. Cologne's cursing of her had been a warning to her, a message to prove herself strong... or face the punishment Ranma now endured. The council had warned her of the consequences of any future mistakes. If she had truly been deemed unworthy...
No. That will not be, she told herself. Her Hibachan would not be so petty as to strike uselessly. If there were a method to Ranma's punishment, she would think differently. Great-grandmother never struck without good reason. Here, there was no reason, no threats, no bargains, no promises... just a woman where a man should be, and far too many questions to answer.
"Lovely sunrise, isn't it?"
She turned around. Tofu was busy replacing his glasses with sunglasses, to shield his eyes from the light.
"Hai." Shampoo scratched her nails along the railing. "How Ranma?"
Tofu shook his head. "Quiet." He moved over to the railing. "Too quiet. I think the change got to him, this time."
Shampoo sighed. "Potion is worst punishment Amazons offer. It get to anyone."
Tofu bit his lip. "Were there any other instances of the potion being used?"
Shampoo shrugged. "Once or twice, though person not last long. They use cold water so fast that it lock them quickly." She put a hand on Tofu's shoulder. "What Ranma do if... no find cure?"
Tofu's response was a shake of the head. "I don't know, Shampoo. I don't know." He gave a soft, weak chuckle. "How are things between you and the tribe?"
She winced. "Shampoo not know. If Shampoo say 'run', you run, okay?"
"That bad, huh?" He looked so tired in the morning light; only she knew how much time he'd spent in search of a cure. "Well... hopefully they'll show three women some mercy."
She put a hand on Tofu's shoulder. "Hopefully they show two women mercy."
Tofu grinned, stretching dark lines on his face. "Hopefully, Shampoo... hopefully." The two stood there together on the boat, admiring the sun until it burned brightly in the sky.
The valley stretched out below Akane's field of vision, as bright green grass and dark, rich soil framed gleaming pools of sapphire. Bamboo shoots stood sentinel over the pools, daring any adventurous visitor to come closer. Forests and small mountains ringed parts of the valley, guardians trying to shield any who might come to drink.... and be forever changed.
"A cursed place, full of many tragic stories." The guide's words from her first visit came to her, soon followed by her own memories. Here, Kiima had forced one of her greatest fears on her - drowning - and used it to steal her very self. There were nights when she woke up, screaming, as she remembered the comfortable light slipping away, the burning in her lungs growing... the shock as she breathed and found, not life-giving air, but water...
"Not exactly the most luxurious of vacation spots, is it?"
She looked over toward Ranma... her fiance. For once, her expression was unreadable; ruby lips were tensed into a thin line, and her blue eyes mirrored the mysterious waters below them. The redhead looked around for a moment, as if expecting something to happen, then moved away from the cliff.
"Come on. We've got work to do." Ranma adjusted the fit of her backpack, and moved down into the valley. Akane and the others moved to follow.
"Wait." Ranma turned around to face them. "Akane, Tofu, stay back. I don't want either of you getting curses over me."
Akane fumed at the comment, but kept her cool, mainly because Ranma was right for once. She'd been stuck in the middle of Jusenkyo before; the idea of being there once again, even with Ranma beside her, gave her shivers. Both she and Tofu began to hang back by a few feet, making sure that Ranma and Shampoo were the only ones to go near the pools.
If anything, Jusenkyo looked even more impressive from the ground. Pools stretched as far as the eye could see, lines of blue in an earthy landscape. Each one had its own tragic story - a story that could tell itself, if a person looked hard enough. It wasn't difficult to imagine a sixteen-year-old Saotome Ranma leaping onto the bamboo poles in savage delight, ready to conquer whatever challenge resided here.
She heard a shuffling from the hut, and noticed the guide and his daughter coming to greet them. They looked in better shape than they had been; Plum had grown up quite a bit in the past year, while the guide was... well... content seemed to be the word.
"Ah... Welcome!" He waved to the group in greeting, then frowned. "Why you still girl?"
Ranma sighed, a vent for a rising temper. "Some... other people disrupted the wedding. In the ensuing mess, the water was drunk."
The guide simply nodded. "I see... So you come here for cure?"
Ranma turned her eyes toward the pools; Akane swore that a tear rolled down one eye. "If I can, sir. If I can."
Plum walked up to the person who'd saved her, and frowned. "What wrong, Ranma?"
Ranma took a deep breath. "Something's wrong with my curse, Plum. I... I'm hoping a splash of Nannichuan will fix it."
The guide nodded, understanding. "Come this way." He looked over to Shampoo. "You wish for cure as well?"
Shampoo shook her head. "No want cure. Is Amazon punishment. Shampoo will stay Amazon, if can."
"As you wish. Come. We cure, if can." Akane watched as Ranma followed the guide through the springs, a strange meandering path as they walked around various pools of horror. Ranma nearly lost her footing on one occasion, a move that paralyzed Akane in fear, before the two stopped in front of one spring.
She watched the two of them talk for a minute; she was out of casual earshot, and couldn't make out what was said. She wondered if it was the 'tragic story' that the guide made his living on knowing, or if it involved more mundane concerns. Tragic stories did exist, after all... at the moment, she was engaged to one.
She took in a deep breath when Ranma jumped feet-first into the spring. A prayer came to her lips, a plea for a cure... for relief... for anything to ease her fiance's pain. He'd suffered enough; he shouldn't have to suffer more. And, for that moment of prayer, no sound was heard in the valley.
Then she heard the scream.
Ranma's scream was unlike anything she'd heard before. It was primal, animal, a wail of pure agony... the cry of someone out of their rational mind. Water splashed around the Nannichuan; anyone within the splash radius would be changed easily.
Then he slipped under again, and stunned silence returned.
She caught a blur of brown, and turned to her right. Tofu was leaping along the bamboo poles, his urgency showing in his rapid, precise movements and his disregard for his own form. There in seconds, he dived quietly into the Nannichuan, like an Olympian.
A few seconds later, he broke the surface of the pool. Ranma was twitching in his arms... still female. He touched a point on Ranma's neck, and her struggles ceased. It took another moment for him to drag her out of the pool.
Akane stood, helpless, as Tofu and the guide manipulated Ranma's form. She could barely hear their exchange; at any rate, it was in Mandarin, a language she didn't know. After a moment, they hefted Ranma's form, and ran to one of the other pools, near the edge.
It didn't take much for Akane to guess which one.
Tofu dropped the body halfway into the pool, then hesitated for a moment. She knew why; if Tofu dived in, he would find himself with a whole new set of problems. After a second's thought, he moved to fall in.
"Wait!" she shouted. She knew it was crazy; if truth be known, she was terrified. She moved next to Tofu, and took the body from him. She shuddered; she could feel the water tingling against her skin...
"Grab my hand."
Tofu blinked at her for a moment, then got the idea. He took her hand, and began to lower her in. She took a deep breath as she descended into the spring... into the darkness.
Ranma's form still twitched in her sleep; whatever had been done to her didn't like the idea of a Nannichuan cure. She felt the struggling cease as she eased herself in. She tried to swallow her fear, the sinking feeling inside... and relaxed. Soon, her body was immersed into the water, Tofu's grip the only think keeping her in the world.
As soon as it was done, she felt Tofu tug on her arm. She climbed out of the water, still holding Ranma tight, and fell onto the ground.
"Thank you, Akane." Tofu's voice came from the darkness; she didn't want to open her eyes. Plum came over, and handed towels out to them.
"What happened?" she croaked.
Tofu looked downward. "According to the guide, it rejected Ranma's attempt at a cure. It... It seemed to be working at first, then... fought back."
Akane swallowed, and looked up at him. "Fought back? You mean..."
The guide took off his hat. "Ranma given curse punishment, yes?"
She sighed. She didn't like this one bit. "Yes."
The guide shook his head. "Jusenkyo alone no cure for that. That curse strong, is part of person inside and out."
Akane bit her lip. "Do you know of any cure for it?"
The guide only shook his head. "Only two people use punishment: Musk and Nyuchiezu. Talk to them."
Akane moved over next to Ranma's form. She moved her hand out to her fiance's, and grabbed it with all of her might.
Because... she was afraid that, one day, she would have to let go.
Hatred was a strange thing, Ranma thought as she watched the clouds roll in. Sometimes it started from almost nothing, a little slight against one person that would be quickly forgiven. Time would roll on, things happen... then that 'little slight' wouldn't seem so little. She'd known people devastated by her or her father's mistakes, and seen them deal with the hatred in various ways.
Right now, she had so much hatred inside of herself, it frightened her. And, worse, she had no clue as to what to do with it. She hated Mr. Tendo, for using the Nannichuan like a bargaining chip, and for treating her like some prize to be won. She hated Ryouga and Mousse, for trying to steal the cure from her, and for turning her life into some battle. She hated Happousai and his glomps, and hated Cologne for her underhanded tricks. She hated her father for taking her here, for the Nekoken, for selling her to the highest bidder...
And, most of all, she hated herself. For not being strong enough to do something about it. For not being man enough to show her face to Mother for so long. For listening to all of these idiots who gave her advice, no matter how sage or informed.
She hated herself for being a goddamn woman, and not having the strength to change back.
Her eyes turned back to the inside. Plum and Akane sat in a corner, playing a card game together. She never would have thought it, but Akane was remarkably skilled with children; the impatience she showed with the rest of the world faded in a child's eyes. The tomboy would make a great mother one day.
She only prayed she'd get the chance to father them. This should have been their honeymoon, not some desperate gamble for a cure. And, unless some success turned up elsewhere, she'd never get that chance.
The rain started to come down onto the valley, first in quiet droplets, then opening into a true storm. Ranma always hated the rain; after all, she could never feel truly complete there. Now, for the first time in too long, the rain was calling to her, beckoning her outside.
Without a word, Ranma exited the hut and stood outside. The raindrops flecked against her body, one by one, each drop slowly drenching her. She didn't care about getting wet; she just wanted to feel something, anything to let her know she was alive, that she could still sense what went on around her. The wind chilled her, the icy droplets tore at her skin... but she didn't care. In the heart of the storm, she was alive, in a way she hadn't been in a long time.
The complex kata came to her, guided by the inky darkness in her heart, urging for an outlet... pleading for a purge. She started slowly, not totally sure of the movements in her form, then melted into it, as she found a natural rhythm to go with. In moments, she was attacking the wind with savage ferocity, each cut daring it, almost pleading with it to take away whatever she had left - if it had the courage. Her bones were cold enough to shiver, the wind threatened to knock her off-balance at critical junctures, but she would not give in, never give up... never, ever. She had lost too much already.
All too soon, the kata was over. She bowed to the rain, thanking it for its defiance, then moved into position for another round, this one even more difficult than the last. Only one of them would be standing at the end, and she'd make damn sure that it would be her.
Kasumi folded the last of the clothing, and set it down on the pile next to her. She picked up the clothing, walked to her father's bedroom, and placed it in a drawer. She slid the drawer closed slowly, and looked at the clock.
Nine-thirty. She was done with all of the chores, and it wasn't even time to start lunch yet.
To put it simply, the silence around the place was oppressive. Ranma and Akane were away on their trip. Nabiki was immersed in college entrance exams and was virtually unapproachable, day or night. With them effectively gone, the chaos had vanished, and she could finish her cleaning in record time.
Truth to tell, she preferred the chaos. It let her know that she was alive, that she wasn't some dried-up old maid stuck caring for her father and sisters. With Ranma's 'friends' coming over regularly, she could feel, and know that her life was of some importance. Insanity had become her link to sanity; conversely, mundane existence threatened her to madness. When there was nothing going on, it took much of her self-control to keep from snapping at her father and Mr. Saotome.
Not that they didn't deserve it, of course...
She paused, and remembered a regular source of chaos around the Tendo home. It was a place she'd been told not to clean up; after all, the person in there knew better how to take care of the room than she did. She usually left him alone, just like he wanted. Unfortunately, he hadn't been around lately, and didn't feel like bothering anyone.
Right now, she was too bored to care. Even if it meant getting felt up, at least it'd be more interesting than her father's inaction. She knocked on the attic door.
"Master? Are you in there?"
Silence. For a moment, she considered just going back and finding a good book to read, but thought better. Besides, chances are, the place needed cleaning up. She opened the door a crack to make sure he wasn't up and about, then pushed it open.
Something was very wrong. The panties he so prized were strewn about the room, the byproduct of some whirlwind - or a fight. Books and tomes - his second-most-valued possessions - were scattered about in a haphazard way. Some ancient ones were crumpled to dust from the exertions.
Instinctively, she walked over to the walls. She knew what to look for: a place where the dirt was less thick than usual. It took her a moment, but she found it - a smudge mark where someone had placed their hands.
The dust was thin, almost nonexistent... but it was there. Whatever had happened hadn't been that long ago - a week or two, at most.
Taking one look at the mess around her, Kasumi nearly fell down the attic steps and ran to get her father. This was something that would not be good to clean up immediately.
"Ranma? It time."
Ranma looked up at Shampoo, and tried to ignore the knotting in her stomach. This was her best chance at a cure; at the same time, it could cost Shampoo's life. Going into the Amazon meeting room was a roll of the dice; she could end up saved, or could damn them all. She rose from her seat, and entered.
The decor in the meeting room was not what Ranma would have envisioned. It was essentially someone's living area, with chairs and tables thrown around for simple utility's sake. Even the furniture was ordinary; there were no valuable antiques to speak of in the home, no useless knickknacks set here and there for its own sake. It was a far cry from what she'd expected; somehow, she'd pictured the Elders of the village to meet in a more venerable place.
The Elders themselves, on the other hand...
Even being in the room with them was disconcerting. Hawklike eyes stared back at her from the tables and chairs, each one seeming to examine every fiber of her being. This group of a dozen or so carried within themselves supreme confidence; she had no doubts that they'd be able to pull off a Mouko Takabisha easily. Some were hearty warriors, veterans of the battlefield, while others were withered, though by no means decrepit. To a woman, these people were used to rulership, and carried themselves with the quiet defiance of the world that comes with it.
Unconsciously, Ranma swallowed. She really didn't want to get these people angry.
One of the group, an ancient member casually sipping on her tea, spoke in Mandarin. Ranma didn't know what was said, but Shampoo stood up and made some sort of quick reply.
"Very well." Ranma blinked; the old crone had spoken Japanese. "We will converse in this... tongue, in deference to our guests." She took another sip of her tea. "Now. What is it that you wish to discuss?"
Shampoo cleared her throat. "First, would like know if Elders ordered punishment on Ranma."
A soft murmuring came from the crowd in reply. "We have no idea what you are talking about, Shan Pu. We ordered no such punitive measures. May I ask what was done to the outsider?"
Shampoo hesitated, then spoke quickly in Mandarin. The reaction was instantaneous; the Elders' reactions bordered on somewhere between outrage and disbelief. After a moment of this, the old woman (the leader of the group, apparently) spoke up.
"Silence!" The old woman glared at the group, cowering most of them into submission. "Shan Pu, this is a... very delicate matter. To hear that our most serious form of punishment was used without our permission gives us cause for concern. This, along with Khu Lon's disappearance, leaves us in a difficult situation." She gestured over to Ranma. "How long has it been since the second curse took hold?"
Ranma took a deep breath. "Two weeks. During that time, I have only changed twice."
The Elder nodded at this news. "And you seek a possible cure from us?"
She swallowed. "Yes, Ma'am. I do."
The old woman closed her eyes. "Shan Pu, leave us. We must speak to Ranma alone."
Ranma felt like going with Shampoo as she left; the idea of being alone in front of the Elders scared her.
She turned to the Chief Elder.
"Ranma, there are a couple of things that you should know about the Jusenkyo punishment."
Ranma nodded. She could feel it inside, see it in their faces... "There's no cure, right?"
The old woman sighed. "There is no cure that we know of. Most of our notes concerning the procedure were stolen from us decades ago. A young man tore through our village then, vandalized and tormented our fellow warriors, and stole various objects before leaving. This man, I take it, needs no introduction to one of the Musabetsu Kaketou."
Ranma looked down at her hands. She flexed them, wishing they were filled with someone's neck. "Happousai."
She flinched at the glares from the women. "Correct, Ranma. A few of the elder warriors of the time knew the formula by heart, and were able to transcribe it into our notes; however, the original scrolls are gone from us. If there were any cure to it, it would have been on those." The old woman got up from her chair, and moved to face her.
"Ranma, if there is any cure to be found, it is with the Musk. We stole the formula from them centuries ago; if anyone knows a cure, it would be them. However, I do not hold much hope for you. The formula was made without a cure in mind; it was intended to give a fate worse than death." She took Ranma aside. "I gather that you view your predicament as precisely that?"
Ranma blushed; she didn't want to answer. "Well..."
"It's all right, Ranma. I imagine that, were I changed into a man, I would view it in much the same way. I can only hope that, if you do not find your cure, you will at least come to find womanhood bearable. It isn't as bad as you think, after all."
Ranma swallowed. "I... I dunno... I mean, Akane -"
"You love her, don't you? We have guessed as much from Khu Lon's correspondence."
"Yes," Ranma whispered. "Yes, I do."
The old woman was sad for a moment. "I have no easy answers for that. Loving someone in a way foreign to instinct is difficult at best. She may continue to love you as a woman. Then again, she may grow away from you, and choose to leave. That is the way of love - we concern ourselves too much with the physical, and not enough on the spiritual." She began to lead Ranma toward the door. "At any rate, Saotome Ranma, if you ever find the world of men to be unbearable, remember that you are always welcome here - as a fellow warrior among us."
Ranma blinked. "You're offering me a place in the village?"
"If you want it." She smiled quietly. "We understand that you will want to search more before even thinking about it. However, if you find that fate has chosen this life for you, remember us - and that we will welcome you with open arms."
The redhead took a deep breath. "What about Shampoo?"
The old woman smiled, and opened the door. "Things have changed, Ranma. Her past mistakes are in the past."
Ranma looked at the group of them. Most had taken to talking amongst themselves; the rest sat there quietly, gazing on her with those piercing eyes. Truth to tell, they were impressive - a person would be hard pressed to find a better assembly of warriors anywhere - but the place was not for her. They were women, who gloried in their gender and who took pride in a matriarchal heritage. She was a man, always was, always would be - regardless of what body she wore.
If it came down to it, she'd die before embracing her curse.
"I... I'll think about it - if I don't find a cure. But don't bet on it."
The old woman smiled, seeming to laugh in Ranma's lie. "We know, Ranma. We know."
Akane had never felt so alone.
She sat in the guestroom at Shampoo's house, diary in hand, her pen wet with potential... but with nothing coming. She didn't even know how to describe it. In the past twenty-four hours, she'd watched as her fiance nearly drowned in Nannichuan's waters, then stood silently outside the Elders' meeting as Ranma was told the news; that they didn't know the cure, and that any cure was unlikely.
Ranma was cursed to become a woman... and she didn't know how to take it.
How often had she joked about the curse? How many times did she splash him to get revenge on something? She felt like kicking herself for every time. It had been so innocent then... so temporary. All it took was a splash of hot water, and he was back.
It would never be innocent again, she knew. Even if Ranma did find a cure, she'd never view the curse in the same way. The curse should never have been treated as a game - and it would never be again, if she had another chance. She wouldn't splash him, make fun of him... he never wanted the curse, and didn't deserve the abuse from her for it.
She closed the book, and set it aside. Too many sins were in there.
She turned to the door, wide-eyed. Ranma - RANMA - stood there, his mouth twisted in that cocky grin she adored.
"Ra... Ranma?" She got up, almost afraid to touch him. She thought it was a dream, it had to be a dream oh God, please let it not be a dream...
"Akane, I don't have long. I... can feel it ready to change me right now."
Akane swallowed, and moved to touch him. She felt his hard chest between her hands, and quickly snuggled in. "I... why?"
"The Elders said that I probably won't be able to change for much longer. Also... I have to leave you in the morning."
Akane glared at him. She was not leaving his side, not now! "I don't care how dangerous it is, Ranma. I'm going with you."
Ranma shook his head. She could see the beads of sweat on his forehead. "Akane, you can't go where I'm going. The Musk are not kind to women. They may be kind to me, due to my past. But... I can't protect you there, Akane."
"O... Okay, Ranma." She wanted to plead with him, to tell him he was wrong, that she could go with him... but saw it disappear in his blue eyes. "Ranma... just hold me. For now, just hold me."
Ranma nodded uncertainly. His hands moved to her cheek, brushing away tears she didn't know were there. She felt him cup her chin, and bring her lips close. The kiss tasted slightly of fish; it was warm, inviting... she never thought it would taste so good, or so precious. In a moment, they were melded together, two bodies moving in synchronicity. It seemed the most natural thing to Akane in the world, this moment of sharing... this peace.
The first tremor came; she could feel Ranma fighting for control, holding on to what little remained of his physical manhood. She tasted salt; she wasn't sure if the tears were hers or his. The arms around hers shook, and began to change shape even as they held her. She could feel the physical changes in Ranma, as the chest she leaned on began to soften. Ranma still held on, though she could feel him fading. She could feel the teeth inside his mouth changing, shifting positions and shapes...
Akane broke off the kiss when she noticed Ranma not responding. She touched the lips one last time with her fingertips, wishing she could feel them one more time... then lay Ranma's body down on the floor. She waited until the changes were complete, then moved into a corner of the room to cry... to mourn.
The morning was a somber one; the sky was a solid gray, and rain drizzled down onto the group. Occasionally a bird could be heard tending its young in the distance; beyond that, the woods around the village were eerily silent. The five that met outside that early morning were also silent; if a word was spoken, then it would release emotions nobody was ready for.
Akane held onto Ranma's hand; it felt strange with her hand encompassing someone else's, but didn't mind. She knew it would probably be the last time she would see Ranma for awhile, and she wanted to enjoy what time she had left. She rubbed a finger along Ranma's thumb, and tried to smile.
"Well... I guess this is it." She grimaced; the words were so... inadequate.
Ranma smiled gently, appreciating them all the same. "For awhile, anyway." She cupped Akane's chin in her hands. "I... I love you, Akane. I will be back - I promise." She then kissed Akane gently on the lips.
Akane swallowed; it hurt to even speak. "Ranma... I'll be waiting." She took a step backwards. "Be careful when you're searching, okay?"
Ranma nodded in reply. "I will, Akane. I'll see you soon." She touched Akane's hand once before turning to Tofu. "You got the instructions on the water, right?"
"Of course." The doctor scratched his head. "Though why you want those rules followed is beyond me."
"It isn't that hard to figure out, once you find out why." Ranma hefted her backpack. "Shampoo, I'll probably stop in for a visit once I'm done."
"Okay," Shampoo whispered. She walked up, and kissed Ranma on the cheek. "Take care."
He turned to Shampoo's father, their host throughout their visit. "Sir, your hospitality was excellent. Thank you."
"My pleasure." He bowed in humility, as men were wont to toward women in the village.
Ranma sighed, and set his eyes toward the open road. "See you later, everyone." Trying not to make eye contact with anyone, Ranma walked off. Akane knew why; Ranma hated to show anyone that she was crying. She watched, heart breaking, as Ranma walked slowly down the road, her backpack seeming to swamp her, until finally disappearing over a small hill.
Akane stared at the place where she had vanished for a long time. She brought her jacket in closer, and hugged herself for security. Warm hands grasped her shoulders from behind, startling her.
"Don't worry, Akane," Tofu whispered. "He'll come back." He brought her in close, for a friendly hug. "He'll come back."
As Akane leaned into Tofu's embrace, she found something she'd been aching for since the previous night. She slowly buried her face into Tofu's chest, and let out a low, almost musical sob.
Hibiki Ryouga coughed nervously, and adjusted the collar of his shirt. He still wasn't sure how he was going to do this; sometimes it was difficult for him to say what he wanted to... what he needed to.
Still, this was inevitable. Ever since she'd bared her feelings to him, ever since she'd known what sort of heart beat inside... he knew this day would come. The benefits far outweighed the risks, he knew... but that didn't make it any easier. He had to lay his very essence out to the woman he loved... and hope she wouldn't reject him outright.
He spotted her in the courtyard, and his heart skipped a beat. She was a vision to a wanderer like him, an oasis in a desert far too bug for his liking. She sat on a rock overlooking the pond, occasionally throwing rocks in, and watching the ripples come forth. She seemed so lost, so forlorn. She'd been that way for the past week, ever since she'd returned from her trip, as he'd watched her from his pig's eye view. He walked up to her, human once more, and bowed deeply.
"Akane, can I talk to you for a moment?"
She blinked at him for a moment, then smiled. "Ryouga! I've been wanting to talk to you! How are things going between you and Akari?"
Ryouga looked downward, obviously avoiding her gaze. "Not... not well. We had a fight the last time I was there, and that was months ago."
Her eyes saddened for a moment. "I'm sorry to hear that. You two seemed like a nice couple."
Ryouga shuffled his feet. "Yeah, well... she didn't want a husband. She wanted a pet."
Akane chuckled lightly. "Surely it wasn't that bad, Ryouga. You're probably just exaggerating a bit."
He shook his head, remembering the moments of their last fight. "No, Akane... it's over." He walked over, and sat next to her. "Akane, there's something I need to talk to you about."
She blinked. "What about?"
Ryouga inched closer to her. "Akane... before I start, I just want to say I'm sorry. What I did was wrong, and not in the actions of an honorable warrior. I hurt you, I hurt Ranma... I hurt everyone around me."
She gasped. "Ryouga..."
Unheeding, Ryouga continued. "And the worst part of it was that I couldn't stop! I felt so comfortable here, inside your home... it all happened so fast that I had dishonored myself before I could do anything about it. And, by then, I was too afraid to stop. I was afraid that I would disappoint you, Akane." He threw a rock into the pond. "I understand if you decide not to help me, Akane. After what I did, I am no man, and don't deserve to be."
Akane ran a hand along her dress, smoothing out the wrinkles. "What is it, Ryouga?"
Ryouga moved off of the rock, placing an envelope there as he left. "When I chased Ranma after he... after I didn't make our duel, I followed him all the way to China."
She blinked for a moment, then remembered what Tofu had said about the water. "Jusenkyo?"
He nodded. "I came at precisely the wrong day. Ranma was in a berserker fury thanks to being cursed, and he... unwittingly knocked me into a spring."
Her dark eyes stared at him fearfully. "What do you change into, Ryouga?"
He took a deep breath. "Twelve hundred years ago, a small black piglet wandered into Jusenkyo, and drowned in one of the springs there."
"What?" The question was flat, without pity - and it nearly caused Ryouga to falter.
He sighed. "I... I am P-chan, Akane." With that, Ryouga walked into the spring - and vanished inside his clothes. He struggled to find his way through the wet fabric, even though part of him wanted to stay. He could hear her screams from underwater; to say she was angry was an understatement.
A sharp pain jabbed at the back of his head, and he fought for consciousness. His head rang with cathedral's bells; he guessed she'd thrown a rock at him. Perhaps it would be best if he died here...
He felt large hands picking him up; was he being saved, or being taken to a better place? This didn't feel like dying... he struggled to keep conscious, to figure out what was happening to him.
The hand laid him down on the grass; it felt so soft, so cool... his vision was returning, along with what hearing he had. He turned toward a large shape swiftly retreating from him.
"...I'm sorry, Ryouga... so sorry..."
It was time for him to leave, he decided. Once he got his bearings, he'd find some hot water, pick up his things, and go on a long training trip. It was no more than he deserved; he was no longer a man, and didn't deserve the cure.
Sighing, he lay down on the ground, and closed his eyes. All he needed was a bit of rest, and he would be on his way.
Herb, Lord of the Musk, was not a patient man. Throughout his life, he had been tasked in ways that would break a lesser man, all to learn the rules of rulership. Every day had been spent honing his skills, preparing for the day when he would be forced to take up the mantle of leadership. Even then, the honor was nearly denied him, after a freak accident at Jusenkyo left him stuck in female form. He'd nearly been forced to abdicate then; only through secrecy and determination was he able to win his manhood (and the throne) back.
Now, he was forced to listen to someone in a similar position... someone who, like him, had no concept of patience. He looked at the request for herbs, frowned for a moment due to the recipe's potency, then looked up at the person requesting them.
"Ranma, may I see the scroll you got this from?"
The scroll was handed to him, which he quickly unrolled. He glanced through it, found the description of the potion, then sighed.
"Ranma, are you aware of what this formula is capable of?"
He was not surprised by Ranma's reaction - indeed, he'd seen it the last time Ranma tried a potion. He knew the desperate emotions of her situation. Ranma would try anything now - as long as it stood a chance of curing her. "Yes, I am. Right now it's the only shot I have left. Time's running out; you know that as well as I do."
Herb sighed, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Ranma was right; the longer the punishment stayed unchecked, the more likely it was to stay. But to use that formula for a cure... "Ranma, this is dangerous. Some might even say suicidal. This potion is as likely to kill you as cure you."
Ranma nodded in reply - exactly what he would have done. "I know. Believe me, I know. But... I would rather take that risk and die than continue living like this." The man-turned-woman walked to a window, and looked outside. "Do you know how hard it is to live in this form? How demeaning it is to even look in a mirror? Right now I should be married, and enjoying life with Akane. Instead... instead I'm here, a thousand miles away from her, in a body that neither of us can love." She turned to look at him. Ranma was truly desperate; Herb could tell by the eyes. "It ends now, Herb. I've tried everything else. I... I'd rather she mourned a dead body than a live one."
Herb's voice remained even - the product of years of court discipline. "As you wish, Ranma. However, this time one of my men will watch you prepare it, to make sure you do it right this time."
"Okay." Ranma was action again; she paced around the room. "I'll be ready to prepare it tonight. Will that be fine?"
"Of course." Herb rose from his seat, and moved to the door. "Come. It is time for us to eat." He hoped that Ranma would at least enjoy the meal. After all, it was likely to be his last.
Warmth surrounded Ryouga's body; it felt inviting, almost naughty to feel so good. A dull headache rang in his mind, one rapidly fading in the warmth. He decided to chance opening his eyes; he cracked his left eye open, and waited for the light to fade.
He blinked, as he found himself in familiar surroundings. To be honest, he didn't expect to wake up in Akane's room, not after what had happened before. He looked down; he was human. Funny... he didn't remember changing back...
"Oh, you're awake."
His head turned sharply. Kasumi was standing to one side, placing some clothes in Akane's dresser. He coughed; he wasn't sure as to his status here.
Kasumi finished putting the clothes away, and smiled vacuously. "Yes?"
He pulled the covers off of himself, and sat up. "What was Akane's mood when I was brought in the house?"
Kasumi walked over, and put a hand on his shoulder. "Ryouga, I think you need to go talk to Akane as soon as possible. She was pretty upset at you, for some reason. Also, she's been so lonely since Ranma left." She sat down next to him.
"You told her last night, didn't you?"
Ryouga blinked. "How did you know?"
Kasumi fingered his trademark headband. "I may not know much about Jusenkyo, but I know a lot about fabrics. And your little pattern here is very distinctive." She sighed, and grabbed his hand.
"Ryouga, I don't know why you and Ranma have been angry. What I do know is that you need to put it aside. Akane needs your help - and she doesn't need someone who holds a grudge on her fiance hanging around with her."
He stuttered, trying to bring objections to his lips. "But... But Ranma..."
"But Ranma's hundreds of miles away, trying to search for a cure. You should know he doesn't deserve something like that. And his fiancee doesn't deserve to be going through what she is."
Ryouga swallowed, remembering the time when he'd been stuck - and how Ranma tried to help him back. "No... no, they don't." He coughed nervously. "Where is she?"
"She's in the living room, watching television." She gripped his hand tightly. "Good luck, Ryouga." She led Ryouga out of the room, and left him at the edge of the living area. He could hear Akane's breathing at the other side, along with the droning of some television show.
Perhaps at no other point in his life did he really want to get lost.
Steeling himself, he walked into the room. He sat down several feet away from her, to give her some comforting distance. He tried to make sense of the television show; it was some sort of drama that he never had a taste for.
He looked over at her. Tear streaks ran down her cheeks; her eyes were puffy and red from crying. There was a possibility that it was from the story... but he seriously doubted it. "Akane?"
She wiped her eyes with a quick, annoyed flourish, and turned to face him. "Ryouga, I... I wanted to apologize."
He blinked. "You... want to... but I..."
"Don't remind me," Akane said, her voice icy cold. "What you did was wrong, and I still don't know how to feel about it." She traced her finger along the ground, her shell fading. "But... what I did was wrong, too."
Ryouga shook his head. "How could you do something wrong, Akane? I was the one who -"
Akane's hand silenced his words. "When I found out... what you'd done, I was so angry... I threw a rock into the water, hoping... WANTING to hurt you, for what you'd done. And I... I did something I vowed I'd never do again."
Ryouga was speechless. "What?"
"I took advantage of your curse. I took you in your weakness and hurt you." She shook her head, clearly trying to fight off the tears. "I... I promised I... would never do... that again. Not after Ranma." She swallowed, and handed him an envelope. "Here. It's the permission you need to get the water."
He swallowed, and took the envelope. "You... love him, don't you?"
She nodded slowly. "I do... and now... now he might not be back... or he could be stuck forever... and I'd... and he'd... Ohgod, Ryouga, what am I gonna do?" She degenerated into tears with her words, turning away so he couldn't see her face.
"Leave me alone, Ryouga!" The voice calmed. "Please... I... I don't..."
Ryouga held his ground for a moment, unsure of what to do. He knew better than to touch her; he'd already violated her space too many times before. Instead, he hovered over her, trying to offer whatever comfort he could.
"A... Akane, it'll be all right. Ranma's gotten through worse stuff before, right?" He winced; his voice sounded so... phony. "Remember when that Herb guy came for a visit, and he got stuck? He got through it then, didn't he?" Ryouga smiled as he saw her nod. "You see? He'll get through this." His eyes drifted to the television, as the hero and heroine faced some family crisis. "He always does."
Akane sat down at the table carefully, her stomach tied in knots. Ever since she'd heard about the attic, a storm of emotions had hovered over her like a cloud. She hated Happousai for what she did, for letting his perversions distort him into something to be reviled - and feared. At the same time, the attic held some hope: if Tofu found the scroll with the poison on it, perhaps a cure could be found.
She glanced around, at the others around the table. Her father sat on one side, Nabiki and Kasumi flanking him. None of them were smiling; that couldn't be a good sign. The Saotomes were on the other side, for once holding each other close.
Finally, on the opposite end, was Dr. Tofu. He was calm, surprisingly calm for the situation; then again, he was calm when Mom died, too. He coughed once, and looked down at the scroll in his hands.
"Well, I looked through the scrolls that were left in Happousai's room. I... most of the scrolls were of a medicinal nature, so I'm going to be busy with them for awhile. However, upon just skimming through them, I found this." He unrolled the scroll, and laid it down on the table.
"This was found in the middle of the pile, so I hadn't thought it would be important. However, when I looked through it, I found that it gave the formula, as well as its effect on someone cursed and non-cursed."
Akane looked down at her hands. "Is there a cure?"
Her heart broke when she saw Tofu's eyes. "Akane... I don't think so. There is one mentioned; unfortunately, it must be used within days after ingesting the punishment for it to be effective." Tofu looked over at the others. "Do you mind if Akane and I speak alone?"
The others nodded their assent. Akane didn't fight as she was led out into the backyard. She startled when Tofu wrapped his arms around her.
"Akane, I... I'm sorry. I don't think there's going to be a way out this time. I... if I had found that scroll earlier, we might have been able to cure him."
Akane's eyes blinked furiously. She didn't want to believe, didn't want to even think about... about... "D... Doctor, what does this mean? For Ranma and I, I mean?"
He shook his head. "That is up to you. Ranma... as far as I can tell, Ranma will be a woman for the rest of her life, regardless of anything that any of us do." He tried to smile. "I will look at the other scrolls, though, to see if they might tell me anything different."
Her eyes darted around the grass, looking for something. Anything. "What about... I mean, I've heard of operations where they..."
Tofu sighed. "Those will work - but only superficially. What you would have is a barely five-foot, redheaded, slim-looking man, who could not have children."
Akane shivered. "Then... then there's nothing we can do."
She felt hard hands over her shoulders. "Akane, I... I will continue to try to find a solution. Don't give up yet. But also... be prepared, in case Ranma or I don't succeed."
They were quiet for a moment, as words remained poised on their tongues.
"What are you going to do? If he can't change back, I mean."
Akane bit her lip. She didn't want to hear that question. "Tofu, I... I don't know. I love the man inside, but..."
"...but you're not physically attracted to his cursed form, are you?"
She hated the answer. She knew it was wrong, that she shouldn't be so concerned with sexuality and personal appearance and public opinion... but she was. God help her, she was. Unable to say the words, unable to vocally curse her fiance, she shook her head.
Tofu stepped back for a moment. He nodded sadly, almost as though heunderstood. "Well then. You have to make a decision, Akane. You have to decide which you care about more." He slowly walked away from her. "I'll be talking with the others about what I have left to do, Akane. I'll see you later."
Unconsciously, she straightened up, trying to look more like the woman she wanted to be. "Thank you, Doctor." She watched him walk inside, wishing she was woman enough to go in there with him... but knowing that she had a long way to go before she could claim such a distinction.
The little restaurant was nestled in one of Kobe's suburbs, a quiet town where people worked their darnedest to keep a feeling of community, even while the city tried to force its impersonalization on them. The houses just being built weren't quite ostentatious yet, the parks were nothing compared to the wilderness nearby, and the community group was still a strong influence to be felt. It tried to make itself feel like a home, even while outsiders coming in wished to be left alone.
It was here, for all the reasons above, that Kuonji Ukyou decided to make her new home.
The okonomiyaki chef hummed a tune as she whipped up the orders, her spatula zinging across the metal surface. All was right with the world; all she had was a close friend to help her, a grill to make her living, and no more obligations - to anyone. She'd given up on everyone else; either they wanted something from her, or just felt like taking from her when they wanted.
Well, she'd had enough of that. Here in the 'burbs she could just escape, be one of a faceless crowd even while rejoicing to the crowd's music. She could be friends with someone for an hour and have no regrets.
The door chime rang its soulless tune; both she and Konatsu turned to greet them. Konatsu finished his greeting, but hers died in her throat, soon to be replaced by more colorful greetings.
"What are you doing here?" Ukyou spat. "I thought I told you... you..." Her words died as she got a look at the guest.
Ranma, for perhaps the only time in her life, looked sick. The belt was tied tightly around her waist; muscles once well-toned on Ranma's cursed form were weakened... normal. Her face was a pasty white; dark circles were drawn beneath her eyes. She moved with the care of a person uncertain on her feet.
"What happened to you?" Ukyou whispered.
Ranma moved to the table, and set her backpack down. "I... wasn't feeling well for awhile. I'm better now, but I'm still trying to get over its effects." She smiled. "You look well."
"No thanks to you." Ukyou moved to another section of the grill. "What do you want?"
The redhead pulled her backpack closer to her, and pulled out some money. "One shrimp 'yaki, traditional style, with some green tea to drink."
Ukyou stared at the money for a moment. Ranma had never offered to pay for her food before. Of course, Ukyou had never asked her to. "All right," she said evenly. "One shrimp 'yaki, coming up." Her hands became a blur on the grill as she fixed Ranma's meal. In a moment, the food was ready, and she served it to her onetime fiance. She took the money, handed Ranma the change, then fixed an even glare on her.
"Okay. So why are you really here?"
Ranma sighed. She reached into her backpack, and pulled out an envelope. "I know it may not be much, but I am trying to atone for what Pop and I did."
Ukyou blinked, and fought back her anger. "What's in this, huh? Money? Some deed to something your dad cheated out of someone else?" She threw the envelope on the counter. "Ranchan, there's nothing you can do. I lost my family and ten years of my life because of you, and there isn't enough money in the world to atone for that." She turned back to the grill. "The only thing you could give me is your life, Ranchan, and someone's already taken that."
She didn't expect Ranma's reaction. The woman was almost in tears at Ukyou's words. "You're right, Ucchan... I don't have a life to give you anymore. Goodbye, Ucchan... and good luck." The redhead picked up her backpack and left, leaving the envelope behind.
Ukyou stared out in space for a moment, at the envelope that Ranma had left behind. It took her a few minutes to open it. She was startled at the amount of money that fell out of it; it was enough to pay for several yatai, and would give her business the capital boost she'd been waiting for. After reading the letter, though, she didn't feel like celebrating.
She was right; Ranma didn't have a life to give to her anymore. But for once, she desperately wished she were wrong.
Ryouga rubbed a finger along the edge of the envelope, feeling its comforting presence in his hands. He twirled it around, trying to do something to keep him from thinking. If he actually stopped to consider what he was doing, he wouldn't do it - and, more than anything, this was something he had to do.
He walked up to the door, his eyes never leaving his target. He could see the bright duck with her name written in English letters; he knew enough of the language from his travels to know who resided in there. Gathering what courage he had, he reached a hand up to the door, and knocked.
He slid the door open carefully, clearing the entrance to holy ground. Akane sat at her desk, weighing him with neutral eyes.
"What's the problem, Ryouga?"
The lost boy looked at the letter in his hands once more. "This. Akane, I... I can't accept it."
Akane blinked. "Why not? It's your ticket to get the cure. Don't you want it?"
He nodded. The cure meant so much to him... but he knew he wasn't ready. Not yet. "Akane, I've been doing a lot of thinking ever since you left this for me. I... I thought a lot about all the stuff I did, and all of the things I was angry about."
He sighed. "Sometimes I think that our curses were given to us so that we could become who we are supposed to be. Ranma thought he was so manly, so some Nyannichuan came by to show him where he needed to improve. I thought I was so honorable, so mature... when all the time I was just a pig." He handed the letter back to a surprised Akane.
"When I can prove myself as something other than my cursed form, then I'll ask you for it." He lowered his head and turned for the door.
He turned back around. "Yes, Akane?"
"Do you know how often I abused Ranma because of his curse?"
Ryouga shook his head. "I was there a couple of times. Beyond that..."
The young woman bit her lip. "I always called him a pervert. I always thought that he got some sort of kick out of being a girl. It took me a long time to realize how much he hated it, how... disgusted he was by the fact that he had this other body to deal with. And now... with what happened... I don't know if I can forgive myself."
The lost boy shuffled his feet for a moment. "I don't think Ranma ever told you this but, for a time, I was stuck as a pig during the Kaisuifuu search. That moment - that agonizing moment when I realized I was stuck, possibly forever - was worse than anything I'd ever been through. That was why... why I helped Ranma on the mountain, once I'd been freed by the Kaisuifuu. Nobody should have to go through that - and their fiancees shouldn't, either."
He took a deep breath, and looked her in the eye. "How are you holding up?"
She shook her head. "I... God, I wish he was here. It's been six months, Ryouga. I'm so afraid he did something stupid... right now I'd accept him as a girl, if it meant having him back..."
Ryouga screwed his eyes shut. "Akane, I... passed by Ucchan's. Apparently Ranma visited there about a month ago, and talked with her for a bit. Ranma was still stuck as a girl, but... but there was something else wrong with her. According to Ukyou... it was as though she'd starved herself for months."
Akane turned pale. "Oh my God... are you sure?"
Ryouga shook his head. "No. None of us will be sure until we see Ranma in the flesh. I just think... you should be ready for the worst."
Akane nodded to him. "Th-thanks, Ryouga." She looked around the room. "Could you turn off the light on your way out? I'd like some time by myself."
Ryouga nodded, trying to keep his sadness at bay. He knew she was going to cry; he felt like crying along with her at the look on her face. "I... I will. Good night, Akane." He switched off the light and shut the door behind him. His first tears came as he heard her first sob; by the time he moved out of earshot, his own were in full torrent.
It was raining again.
How goddamn appropriate.
Ranma buttoned the top button of her jacket, and continued on. It was night; the rain shone like diamonds against Tokyo's lights. It would have been a breathtaking sight - if she didn't feel so miserable. Her nose was stuffed up, she was running a fever, she had to go to the bathroom...
She was looking forward to home.
It had been too long of a journey. At first, she didn't want to go home. She had barely survived the last cure attempt; it had taken her awhile to get her strength back. Besides... she needed to get used to the idea of being in this body, and a place without the stereotypes of gender seemed perfect. She wandered throughout Japan and China, much like Ryouga... lost in a lost world. It was nice for awhile but, in the end, she knew she had to come back. No matter how much it hurt, she owed it to them... to her. Besides, the road proved to be an unforgiving home; it was no wonder that Ryouga was so depressed and angry.
She paused, and realized what she was passing. She'd missed months of classes at Furinkan; with college entrance exams coming up in a few months, she'd probably have to work doubly hard just to get in. It wouldn't be easy... then again, nothing in this life was for her. Not anymore. She thought about leaping over the gates, to explore the halls alone before returning, but a passing car splashed her, driving the cold rain deep within her.
Unconsciously, she shivered. It wouldn't be long. She walked away from the gates, and carried on her way. She thought about walking on the fence like she usually did, without a care in the world... but those days were gone, and would never return. She imagined she would have to get used to using the women's facilities - assuming they'd let her. It wasn't like she could go into the guys' locker room anymore...
After too long a walk, she found herself there. The house gleamed with light; she just stared at it from outside for a moment before entering, drinking in the sight. She could hear, very faintly, the sounds of conversation from inside; she was probably missing dinner. They sounded... happy.
They didn't need her breaking up their happiness. She'd just go away for the night, find a nice, dry place to feed herself, and come back in the -
She stopped, frozen. Akane stood at the doorway, a garbage bag in her hands. She was still a vision to Ranma's eyes; her face glowed red from the cold, most of her body was bundled up to protect her, but it was still Akane... still her fiancee. Ranma watched her brown eyes, looking for love... acceptance... anything.
Anything to feel like she was home.
She stuttered for a moment; it had been six months, and she'd been wondering what to say for her in all that time. "Hey." Not the best of greetings, but it would have to do.
Akane walked over to Ranma and touched her shoulder, as though convincing herself that what she saw was real. "Ranma... are you..."
Ranma bit her lip. She was not going to cry - not over this. "It didn't work, Akane." Unable to hold it anymore, she grabbed Akane in a tight embrace, holding her like a lifeline. She could feel the tears mixing with the cold rain. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"It's... it's all right." Akane grabbed hold of her, tight enough to crush her still-weakened form. "I... we'll discuss it tomorrow." She relaxed the embrace, enough for Ranma to look her in the eye.
"Welcome home, Ranma."
She swallowed. "It's... good to be back, Akane. I've missed you."
Ranma didn't complain as Akane led her by the hand. She didn't utter a word as she was pulled into the house... into warmth... into the place where she belonged.
Ranma rose a little later than her usual that morning; in other words, just before dawn. She rolled over, half-expecting to see a panda on the other side, then felt strange at seeing the empty futon. Groaning, she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and rose to her feet.
Unconsciously, she shook her legs. It still felt strange to her, walking around in someone else's body; part of her hoped it always would. Letting out a long sigh, she walked over to the closet and pulled out a shirt and pants, purposely shoving away a school dress that had been hung up inside. She wanted to get at least some sort of workout before school, to get the kinks out of her system.
Her face fell when she walked outside. The backyard was quiet, almost too quiet for her comfort. She wanted to see her old man waiting for her, a derisive barb urging her on to fight - but she suspected that wasn't going to happen anymore. Sighing, she got into the opening position of some kata, and began to fight the shadows.
Sometimes she wondered why she practiced anymore. The last attempt at a cure had nearly cost her life; it had also cost her much of her strength. She was still stronger and faster than most, but she wasn't anywhere near as good as she had been.
She knew why she practiced, of course. Practice was her only time to feel normal. She couldn't take a bath to relax; any time she got in the hot water, it just made her feel worse. School was a nightmare; yesterday had been her first day back, and she had been forced to sit out of physical education due to the... classification problems. Living in the Tendo home wasn't much better, as each of the other occupants dealt with her change in different ways. To some she was a ghost, to others a girl. Nobody saw her for who she was.
Her exercises ended all too soon, with a call from Kasumi. Pop was living in an apartment with Mom, so any contests for food were done. She sat down quietly at the table and began to eat, purposely ignoring the stares she got from everyone. They acted like she was going to fall apart or something over this.
Well, she wasn't. She was made of stronger stuff than that. She picked up her backpack and moved for the door. A movement caught her ear from behind; Akane was moving to follow.
She didn't walk on the fences. She wasn't in the mood. Instead, she walked among the other mortals, casually shuffling her way to the daily grind.
A hand caught her own, and she stopped.
"Ranma, what are you feeling? Tell me, please."
"I'm fine," she lied.
She could hear Akane inhale. "No, you're not, Ranma. I know you too well. Now please... talk to me, Ranma."
"I said I'm fine, Akane," she said mechanically. "There's nothing I can do about this body right now, so I might as well learn to live with it." She continued on her way to school, purposely ignoring the concerned look on Akane's face... or the emptiness she felt inside.
"Well, if you've decided to live with it..." Ranma stopped. She knew that tone of voice from Akane. "...then maybe we should just throw your old clothes away. After all, if you've resigned yourself to being a girl forever, then maybe it's time you started dressing like one."
That got Ranma's attention. "No way, Akane. No way."
She smiled wickedly. "What's the matter Ranma? Afraid to dress up?"
Ranma took a deep breath. "Akane, I am a guy. I may happen to have this body, but I am a guy." She fixed a cold stare on her fiancee. "Do not ask me that again."
Akane's face fell. "At least I got some sort of reaction out of you, Ranma." She turned away. "I'll see you at school, okay?"
Ranma swallowed. "Okay, Akane." He watched her walk away for a moment, drinking in the sight, wishing for what she should have had... before following her path down the road.
For the first time in too long, Saotome Nodoka was at a loss.
She sat on the couch in her living room, staring at a picture - one of better times. Ranma and Akane had only announced their engagement a few days previous, and the family went out to celebrate. Everyone looked so happy then - Ranma held Akane tight, she and Genma looked so proud, even Nabiki seemed happy for once. Choking back tears, she hugged the picture to her chest.
How had it all gone wrong? Ranma was changed forever into her cursed form, with no sign of ever returning to normal. Worse, something had broken in her; gone was the confident, cocky young man she had been so proud of. It was almost as though someone had taken away the best parts of him, leaving what was left to try to cope. And, as her mother, she was obligated to help her through it.
But how? How could she help someone who has lost their very self? How could someone raised to be a man among men be taught to cope with a woman's body, a woman's life?
Then, there were matters of honor. The Tendo engagement still stood as far as she knew, though she would need to talk with them to make sure. There was also the fact that Ranma's new form meant required changes in behavior. Akane had been a bit of a tomboy, and had needed some training in etiquette: now Ranma was in the same boat. Honor demanded that she educate Ranma to be a proper young woman, when eighteen years of life had pushed her in the opposite direction.
It was time for her to unlearn all of that - and she had an idea as to how.
Biting her lip, she hung the picture back on the wall, and straightened her kimono. She had a lot to do, and very little time to do it. She walked over to the phone, and dialed the number. She knew Ranma wouldn't be in; school wouldn't be out for another few hours.
"Hello, Tendo residence."
She smiled. "Hello, Kasumi. How is everything today?"
The sigh on the other end spoke volumes. "Not good, Auntie. Ranma is so depressed after returning. And Akane... she spent the last night breaking bricks to work off her anger." She looked over her shoulder. "Did you want to speak with Father?"
"Oh no! He's the last person I'd like to speak to on this!" She placed the mouthpiece closer. "Kasumi, could you and Akane meet me this evening? I think it's time the three of us had a little talk."
She could hear the thought coming from the other end. "It's about Ranma, right?"
Though no one could see her, she nodded grimly. "Yes. I think it's time that the three of us discussed Ranma's future, while he... she still has one."
Silence hung on the phone for a good ten seconds. "Auntie, what do you have planned for Ranma?"
Nodoka frowned. "I must do as honor demands, Kasumi. I must make sure that personal promises are kept, if at all possible... and to make sure that Ranma is capable of acting as a proper member of the family."
"Auntie, I'm not sure if that would be a good idea. After all, Ranma is just getting used to the fact that he has a different body. If you try to push proper manners on him..."
"There isn't a choice, Kasumi. My son is now my daughter, and I have to make sure he's ready to go out into the world." She held her breath for a moment. "Kasumi, I think it best if we discussed this in more detail in person. Do you know of an appropriate time and place?" Nodoka heard the clacking of fingernails against the receiver; Kasumi was clearly thinking hard about this.
"Auntie, I think the two of us should meet at seven o'clock at the Shokaido coffee shop, near the restaurant district. I'll tell Akane to join us at eight. That should give us enough time to discuss this."
Nodoka nodded. It was exactly as she would have done it - if she had disagreed with them on something. "Very well. Try not to let anyone else besides us know about it. This needs to be a girls-only meeting."
"I understand perfectly, Auntie. I'll see you at seven, then."
"Okay, Kasumi. Good-bye."
"Goodbye, Auntie." The empty space replaced Kasumi's voice, and she put the phone down. She had a lot to think about before the meeting that night.
The coffee was good - it smelled heavenly, and had enough kick to it for Akane to appreciate. The cheesecake flooded her mouth in creamy goodness, as she let the tasty morsel melt along her tongue. She looked at the pair that had brought her out, causing her to forget momentarily about the cheesecake.
She knew these two. They were the closest people she had to a mother. And, when they weren't smiling, something was very wrong. She took her fork, and drew a picture into the cheesecake's surface.
"So. Why did you bring me out here?"
Kasumi and Nodoka glanced at each other. The uneasy look between them reminded Akane more of the male heads of their respective households. "Would you like to speak first, Auntie? It is your idea, after all."
Nodoka frowned. There was clearly something going on between them. "I believe I should." She stirred her tea lightly, then turned to Akane.
"Akane, it is time we talked to you about your relationship with Ranma."
She nodded. She'd been expecting this. "What is it that's bothering you about it?"
The two looked at each other again; an eyebrow raised on Kasumi's face, while Nodoka's acquired a slight blush. "Well, Akane... we were wondering what your feelings toward my child are - specifically, how you feel about him... her right now, and if you still have any romantic plans."
Akane picked up her coffee cup and tasted a sip, the bitter edge to it giving her courage. "Auntie Saotome, if I could clearly answer that, I would. It's just that things are difficult right now - and not just because of the curse."
"What else is bothering you, Akane?"
"Studying for entrance exams, wondering how I'm going to be able to afford college, the fact that Ranma has barely talked to me since he returned..."
Nodoka reached over the table, and touched Akane's hand. "Akane, Ranma is going through a difficult time right now. She won't accept who she is, and hates herself all the more as a result. As such, I... I think that the three of us need to help Ranma accept who she has become."
Akane absorbed these words for a moment. "You mean... you plan to teach Ranma to be a girl?"
The two sipped their tea in response. "My child was raised to be a proper Japanese citizen, a man among men. The problem is, what Genma taught him included some things that, while masculine, are no longer appropriate for who he... she has become." She put her cup of tea down. "It is now time for me to teach Ranma how to be a woman."
Images of Ranma acting feminine came to her mind - along with the faces of disgust that came later. "Um... Auntie Saotome, I'm not sure if that's a good idea."
Nodoka closed her eyes for a moment. "Akane, believe me when I say this decision does not come easy for me. Right now, my child is dying - and in more ways than one. About all I can do to save him... her now is to try to teach h...er to accept who she has become."
Akane sighed. "Ranma is trying to hold onto whatever manhood is inside of him, to the point of denying anything even remotely feminine inside of him. If you try to force that on him now..."
"I know, Akane. Kasumi and I have argued at length over this very subject. Unfortunately, time and honor do not wait for us. Ranma is slowly retreating into herself, and we need to help her accept her new role in life." Nodoka took a bite of her cake, then continued. "That is one reason why we brought you out here tonight."
"You want me to help out... because I'm his fiancee." She shook her head. "This is crazy."
"Yes, it is, Akane." Kasumi's dark eyes stared through her. "No one should have to go through what you and Ranma have. But... we have to deal with what happened, no matter how much we may dislike it."
She sighed. All of a sudden, cheesecake didn't taste so good anymore. "What's the other reason?"
Kasumi took a sip of her tea. "How do you feel about Ranma now?"
Akane twirled the diamond ring on her hand. "I... I don't know. It hurts me to see him like this. I know he hates his curse so much, and now this..."
"Are you attracted to his cursed form?"
Akane blinked; Kasumi was almost never this direct. It took a full minute before she could answer. "I... no. No, I'm not."
"Do you want to continue the engagement?" Nodoka sipped the last of her tea.
She continued to twirl the ring nervously. "I... I'd like to try. I don't know if I can love this Ranma... but I do love Ranma."
Both of them nodded appreciatively. "We... understand, Akane. Believe me, we do." Kasumi's expression broadened into a secretive grin. "After all, there's nothing quite like a man holding you close, is there? Those strong arms, that hard chest, those soft blue eyes staring through you..."
Akane blinked at her older sister. "K-Kasumi? I... I never thought you would..."
Her older sister smiled, though this time it looked more... mischievous. "Akane, I had to give up a lot to help raise you and Nabiki. That doesn't mean I still don't dream."
Akane chuckled at the idea, then turned to her half-full mug of coffee. "So... we have to get Ranma to become a girl." She felt like crying into her mug at the thought; unfortunately, there was no time for tears. "What do we do first?"
Nodoka smiled gently. "Well..."
Ranma stared at the fabric in her hands. It was red, silk, almost like the shirts she preferred. Beautiful gold embroidery decorated the Mandarin-style collar, as did the cuffs and the hem of the dress; however, the overall cut of the outfit was western, as it flared out much like one of Kasumi's dresses. She noted the way it danced in the light, and imagined that it would probably look quite flattering on her. Sighing, she looked up from the outfit, and fit her mother with an all-too-common stare for her.
"Mom, you have got to be kidding."
Her mother looked hurt at the words. "Dear, this outfit is just perfect for you!" She took it from Ranma, and held it out. "Look at it! It's just like those outfits you usually wear."
"With one exception, Mom." Ranma picked up the hem of the dress. "This bottom end wasn't exactly a part of it."
Ranma sighed again; her mother was giving her that stare. "Ranma, this is the twelfth outfit that we've picked out for you, and you don't like any of them!" Nodoka took a deep breath, and calmed herself. "Okay, Ranma. What outfit would you like to wear?"
She looked around. Truth to tell, there wasn't much in this store she did like; most of the clothing was too feminine for her tastes. She looked around for a bit, her eyes scanning until she found something with possibilities.
"How about this?" She held up her prize to the others - a pair of jeans and a bulky shirt.
She could see her mother counting slowly, clearly in an attempt to control her temper. "Ranma, I will not have my daughter running around in anything so... improper."
Ranma closed her own eyes. She felt like crying; however, she would not allow her mother that satisfaction. "Mother, despite current appearances, I am not your daughter. I am still your son. I have been your son since the day I was born, and I will continue to be your son until the day I die, even if I have to do it in this body."
The sigh from her mother was not what she expected. "Well, then. If you have to do it in that body, shouldn't you dress appropriately for your body?"
She thought about retorting about how many guys wore dresses, but thought better. After all, there weren't many guys who had fully-formed breasts, a total lack of facial hair... and a monthly visitor, which at that moment was reminding her just how 'manly' she was. Instead, she opened her eyes, and gave her mother the fiercest of stares.
"Mom, this is not an option."
Kasumi chose that moment to step in, and interceded between the two. "Auntie, I think perhaps we should go. Ranma clearly isn't ready for this yet."
Nodoka frowned. "Perhaps... perhaps you're right, Kasumi. It is a little premature. She does need time to adjust to her new life, after all."
Ranma turned away, not wanting to hear about their plans. Surrenders came one step at a time until there was nothing left; she knew this from her earlier experiences with Jusenkyo. First would come the clothes, all for outward appearances; manners and speech would follow sometime later. Before she would realized what she'd lost, she'd be looking at guys the same way girls looked at her old self. And that was the LAST thing she wanted to do.
She was a guy.
A small teardrop trickled down her cheek; she wiped it away quickly. There was no room in her life for tears - not anymore.
"Ranma, I need to talk to you."
Akane caught the redhead by the arm, and whirled her around. She fought to keep her emotions under control; however, it was a losing battle.
"Akane, if it's about the shopping trip-"
"How could you treat your mother like that? She's only trying to help you!"
Ranma simply looked back at her. She swallowed at the blue eyes that stared flatly at her - blue eyes that once laughed, or shone with anger.
She's worse, Akane thought.
"Akane, I don't expect you to understand or to even pretend to understand. Nobody can, not even Ryouga."
"Understand what, Ranma? How can we understand when you won't even talk to us?" She bit back more choice words. "Ranma, we are trying to help you."
Ranma turned away. "The only way you can help me is to leave me alone."
Something flared in Akane at those words. "That's not an option, Ranma." She held up her left hand for Ranma, to show the diamond sparkling in the sunlight. "Remember this, Ranma? I'm trying to keep to my promise, believe me. But it's getting harder and harder to do that." She lowered her hands to grab Ranma's. "Now talk to me, Ranma."
Ranma sighed. "Akane... I don't want to lose what's left of me. And it'd be so easy, too, now that I'm stuck this way."
She blinked. "How would you lose what's left of you?"
Soft lips pursed, a clear indication of Ranma's thoughts. "Back when I was just cursed... I found that I slowly got used to feminine things, if I allowed them to be used for one reason or another. First it was a skirt, usually for some disguise. Then... when Happi came along and made me weak, it was underwear. Eventually, it got to the point that I could pose as a girl easily, without really feeling self-conscious about it." She shook her head. "If I go through that again - if I start to dress and talk like a girl, just for appearances - I'm afraid I won't be able to go back."
Akane swallowed. She could see something in Ranma's eyes now - fear. "So? What's wrong with being a girl? I happen to be one and like it just fine, thank you very much!"
Ranma shook her head. "I can't accept this, Akane. I just can't. If I start to accept this body, then whoever cursed me like this really has beaten me. And I won't be beaten, Akane." Her eyes flared red. "I won't."
Akane moved closer to Ranma. She could feel her own tears threatening, as she wanted to scream at the changed man, tell her how much she already has lost...
"Akane, Ranma! Father and Uncle Saotome would like to talk with you!"
She fixed Ranma with as fierce a stare as she could muster. "We'll talk about this later, Ranma." She walked out of the room, making sure that Ranma's footsteps echoed behind her.
The main living area was about like it always was. It was shut up to keep the warm air inside; she missed the open-air feel of the summertime. Her father and Mr. Saotome sat on one end of the main table, while Nodoka stood nearby. The look on all of their faces spoke of the nature of their business. The two sat down on its opposite end, and looked over at them.
"Akane, Ranma, your parents have been talking of late concerning the future of the dojo." Akane turned to Ranma at Nodoka's words; she could see the desperate look on the girl's face. Seeing the look as well, her father sighed, and took a sip of his tea.
"When I inherited the dojo from my father, I had to perform one final task first. He took me out to the building, and showed me each and every square inch of my inheritance. He showed me where hasty patches had been made, where the roof was leaking, what supports were in need of repair... and then ordered me to fix them. He said that I would have to make the dojo my own before I would be allowed to take in any students."
Soun set the mug down, and fixed a stern gaze on the two of them. "It is now time that I ask the same of you. You both have come of age; it is time for you to prepare your future."
Akane looked over at Ranma. A hundred reasons why not passed between them without a word.
"But, Daddy... it's October! It'll be snowing in a month!" She looked over at Ranma. "Besides, Ranma and I have college exams coming up."
The smile grew beneath his mustache. "Much of the repairs I had to make were also in wintertime. As for your other responsibilities... your parents are quite aware of them. We will not expect you to work during the week; however, we will expect you to put some effort into it during the weekend."
Genma coughed, indicating his wish to speak. "Also, we expect the two of you to work together on the project. You both will be inheriting the dojo; you both should be responsible for repairing it. Besides, it will give the two of you a chance to mend your fences."
Akane stared blankly at Genma for a moment, then realized what their parents were trying to do. She had to admit; it was one of their better schemes. "Okay. When do we start?"
Soun smiled. "Next weekend. We should be able to get the supplies for you by then."
Akane bit her lip, and looked over at Ranma. The young woman had her head bowed; for once, her expression was unreadable. She wanted to be able to understand that face again, to know who it was inside there... to have her Ranma back.
Maybe this way, she could.
"Okay, Daddy. We'll be there."
"I'm sorry, Ranma. There is no cure - not anymore."
Ranma clenched her fists, and rested them against her thighs. She'd known... she'd known ever since she'd awoken from the last disastrous attempt... but it still hurt to hear. It made her feel strangely tired... old. "Are you sure? I mean... there must be some sort of amulet or formula or something to cure me..."
Dr. Tofu shook his head. "If I knew of one, Ranma, you'd be the first to hear about it. As it is, I've read just about everything the Musk and Nyuchiezu had to offer. I... I can't find anything helpful, Ranma. I'm sorry."
It hurt for Ranma to swallow. She could feel the wetness in her eyes, wanting to come out... but she couldn't. She just couldn't. "It's... it's okay, Doc." She rubbed her toes along the ground. "Has there been any word on Happousai or Cologne?"
"None," Tofu sighed. "And, with no leads to look up..."
"...they won't get found until someone stumbles across them somewhere." She ground a thumbnail into the palm of her other hand. "Which leaves me like this."
Tofu nodded, and sat down next to her. "I... Kasumi tells me that things haven't been well for you lately."
Ranma snorted. "Gee, whatever gave you that idea?"
"Ranma..." Tofu sighed, and put down his clipboard. "Ranma, how is your mother treating you right now?"
She closed her eyes in frustration. The less she thought about her mother anymore, the better. "How do you think? She keeps on harping about 'family honor', and how I need to act like some stupid girl because I look like one now..."
"Ranma, your relationship with your mother isn't easy, mainly because the two of you are stuck together whether you want it or not. I know I had some difficulties in dealing with my mom when I was your age." The doctor looked over at an eye chart. "Know what I did to solve it?"
Ranma was genuinely curious. "What?"
Tofu smiled mischievously. "I went to college for eight years."
Ranma glowered at him for a moment... but only a moment. "You mean... you became a doctor because you wanted to get away from your mom?"
He shrugged. "Well, she was always trying to marry me off at the first opportunity - something I'm sure you might find familiar. So... I went away to college so that I could live by myself, away from any pressures she might put on me."
She couldn't help but laugh. "Did it work?"
"Not totally... but enough." Tofu smiled at his patient. "How are exams coming?"
Ranma looked downward. "I have a lot to do before I'll be ready for them."
"Then I recommend you get ready for them, young man." He held a hand out to her. "And come by if you ever feel like talking, or whenever things get too rough. Okay?"
The hand was met with enthusiasm. For once, Ranma had someone on her side. "Okay, Doc. I will.
Sometimes Kasumi hated her role in life.
Ever since Mother had died, she'd always been the one to try to install some sanity into the family. She'd had to put aside everything she'd dreamed of to raise two little girls... girls who were only a couple of years younger than her. She was the one who cooked instead of studied through school, she was the one who made sure Father had some classes going on in the dojo... and she was the one who had to make sure that the best interests of Tendo Akane were seen to.
Sighing, Kasumi knocked on the door. She smiled at the duck nameplate; at least some things were still around to comfort.
She opened the door. Akane sat at her desk, a book cracked open for study. Kasumi idly noted the subject material, then gestured to the bed.
"Do you mind if we talk?"
Akane turned away from the desk. "Sure, Sis. What about?"
Kasumi wrung her hands together, searching for the most diplomatic way to speak her mind. "Akane... about what Auntie Saotome said earlier about teaching Ranma... I don't think you should concern yourself with it all that much."
Akane blinked. "You don't agree with what she's saying, do you?"
"In a way, I do... and in a way, I don't." She ran a hand along the side of her apron. "I do agree that Ranma should eventually start to act her gender. However, I believe that that will simply come in time, as she adjusts to her condition." She let out a gentle sigh. "Unfortunately, Auntie Saotome doesn't see it that way."
Akane reached around and closed her book. "Kasumi, what are you asking me to do?"
Kasumi bit her lip. "I... think that you should try to work with Ranma to make her feel more... at home as a girl. She needs someone close to her, someone who she can talk with and relate to. Right now, she's so guarded that I don't know if she'll ever come out of it." She got up from the bed, and moved to stare out the window. "Auntie Saotome is going to force this on Ranma whether she likes it or not. To her, it's a matter of honor. What I need you to do is to make sure it's a matter of honor she can live with."
She could hear the tapping of an eraser against the desk - a sure sign of Akane's thoughts. "Well... okay, Sis. I'll try. It's just... right now I can't get through to her. She's so closed off..." A muffled choke came from the desk. "Kasumi, I don't know what to do with her anymore."
Kasumi walked over, and grabbed Akane's hands. "Akane, this dojo idea is probably your best chance. Talk with her. Help her. See to it that, no matter what happens, she isn't alone."
Akane swallowed. "Okay, Kasumi. I... I will."
The young matriarch breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. Now... I do have some ideas for the renovation of the dojo..."
The dojo was gone, at least in any way that Akane thought. The shrine she'd bowed to every morning was taken down, as were the various other decorations along the walls. She knew it would be a matter of time before the roof and wall paneling were similarly vanished... like everything else she cherished in life.
Perhaps this was the point of her father's final exercise. So many of life's blessings had been taken from her, just as she'd come to take their gifts for granted. She never expected to ask Daddy when Mommy was coming home, only to meet a torrent of tears. Despite the odds, she never expected to see Ranma, cursed and slightly pale, standing at her doorway like a stray puppy come home. Life gave to her, and life took away.
This, on the other hand, was something she could fight to keep, and do whatever she could to keep running. Unlike illnesses or tragedies, this was something she could do something about, a piece of her to be built and maintained. She was the captain of her fate, for the first time that she could remember, and the prospect was a little frightening.
She walked over to the bare walls, and felt its reassuring hardness. As she looked closer, she could see more closely why she was doing this. The past few years had not been kind to the old place; she could see patches and odd-colored boards from various impromptu demolitions. Already her mind was calculating the repairs required. It would be a long, drawn-out project; fortunately, she had time. She'd been preparing for exams already, so she didn't have to play catch-up like Ranma.
In other words, she'd just been given her final exam, and she licked her lips in anticipation.
"Ryouga?" She turned around to the entrance. "How have you been?"
"Fine." To Akane's eyes, he was more than fine. For lack of a better term, Ryouga looked at peace. The anger that seemed to twist his face so often was wiped clean, leaving a sad, enigmatic smile in its place. His whole bearing seemed to be relaxed as he casually walked into the dojo.
"That's... good to hear, Ryouga." She shuffled her feet against the wood, and looked around at the dojo. "Did you hear about what's happening with this?"
Ryouga nodded. "Sounds like a fun job - when the weather's warmer, that is." He felt the wooden paneling. "Considering how often Ranma and I trashed the place, it certainly needs it."
The young man looked down at his feet. "How's she doing, by the way?"
Akane blinked. "Ranma? She's... doing about as well as can be expected. She... I don't know. I've never seen her depressed like this before."
"That's why they're called 'curses'," Ryouga said solemnly. "If they were something people wanted, then they would count it a blessing." He leaned against the far wall. "And how about you?"
"Me?" Akane blinked.
"Of course, you. How are you handling what happened?"
She sighed, and leaned against the wall. "I don't know. I still love her, of course, but..."
"But I don't know what's going to happen to our relationship now." She turned around, and sat down. "I mean... Ranma's changed, in ways that are more than physical. She's... scared, I guess. Scared of what she's become. I never thought I'd miss Ranma's arrogance or tactlessness... but right now I'd rather have her insult me than just sit there."
"Oh." Ryouga looked down sadly. "Have you tried talking with her?"
Akane nodded. "She's too far inside of herself right now. Her whole life's changed, and she's still trying to figure out what to do with it." She knocked a fist against the wall. "She won't talk to me, Ryouga, and I don't know what to do."
"Just wait, Akane. She'll come around in time - I hope." He looked around for a moment, the light shining in his eyes. "Hey, Akane."
"Want me to teach you the Bakusai Tenketsu?" He pointed to the walls.
Akane looked at him for a long moment, and couldn't help but smile. "Okay. But you're helping me clear the pieces..."
The chalkboard danced with the symbols of learning: elegantly curved Arabic numerals, sharp root signs, blunt variable letters. The sensei added to the dancers with each word, his fingers scratching across the blackboard like some abstract artist on hard black velvet. He would occasionally turn around to make one comment or another; for the most part, though, his voice echoed from the blackboard to the students behind him.
Ranma sat through the class, trying desperately to stay awake. Before, she would have had no compunctions about sleeping in class; after all, what did a martial artist need with math? Now, though, she had a very good reason for studying in class, and for sitting through this cram school.
To put it simply, she wanted out.
It wasn't easy for her to admit that. She had come to regard the Tendo house as her home; to say goodbye to it would mean letting go of the last of her old life. But... just living at that house anymore hurt too much. She was a stranger in everyone's eyes; as such, everyone was a stranger to her. If it weren't for Akane... she'd have left long ago.
She twirled her pencil on the desk, and frowned. She was so tired; she still hadn't fully recovered from her trip to find a cure, and a part of her feared she never would. Sure, she was still the best; unfortunately, her best was nowhere near what he had been at his peak. To make matters worse, most of her time was drained in either school or the dojo; she missed the idea of free time. Unconsciously, she flexed her hands, wishing for vanished strength.
A commotion at the front got her attention. She watched the professor place the chalk on the tray, the first time in two hours that he'd stopped to rest. Ranma smiled; she'd made it through another session. She noted any scribbles from the professor that she might have missed, jotted them down, and stuffed the notebook in her bag. Now was the time for her to be alone... the only time she could feel alive again. She stood up, and got out of the building as fast as she could.
She grimaced; the icy wind cut at her face, taunting her in her infirmity. Her hand closed the final clasp of her coat, and in an instant she was no longer part of the crowd... but above it. With a couple of well-placed bounds, she was on the rooftops, moving through the night air at high speed.
Of course, like everything else, it didn't feel the same; here, though, she was glad for it. The wind howled around her ears, its uncaring chill seeping the life from her small body. Muscles only recently reconditioned screamed at her efforts, desperately urging her to fall back among the mortals.
She would have none of it. Her old self would have laughed at these conditions; she tried to do so, though all that came out was a shivering chatter. She leapt from one rooftop to another, never stopping, never yielding. She'd yielded before, and it had cost her manhood. She would never, EVER yield again - not to her parents, not to the Tendos, not to anybody... never again.
To put it simply, she couldn't afford to anymore.
She let out an animal groan as she came across a particularly difficult passage; it was a fair distance from one roof to another, and she needed a boost of strength to make the jump. She stepped in just the right place, thrust her legs out just right...
She knew the instant her legs pushed off that she was in trouble. Drained by the cold and her condition, she'd leapt poorly, without the power needed to make the jump properly. There was no rotation to her body during the jump; she was going to meet the roof in a rather unpleasant manner.
Ranma slammed hard against the building, hitting in that edge where roof and wall meet. She howled as her torso was bruised by the hit; there were times when she truly hated her endowments. Fighting back the pain, she reached out to the roof, and managed a handhold. Once she was in control, it was a piece of cake; she pushed off of the wall, and bounced her way down to the surface. She rolled onto the ground, only making whatever movements were necessary to keep from getting injured.
After a moment to check herself, Ranma stood and looked up at the roof. She'd made that jump hundreds of times, back when her body was her own, back before she'd had to risk her life for a cure. Now, though, she was worse than cursed. She was mortal.
She hated that.
Ranma brushed some dust off of her outfit, and began to walk home. Occasionally she would look up at the sky, and wonder exactly when her wings to fly had been cut.
*wham* "Baka." *wham* "Baka!" "*WHAM* "BAKA!"
"Enough, Akane!" Ryouga grabbed the hammer out of her hands. "Enough." He looked hard at her. "Now what's wrong?"
The dark-haired beauty let out an exasperated sigh. "Oh... it's Ranma again."
Ryouga lay his own hammer on the ground. This was a story he'd heard before - too many times before. "What did she do this time?"
Akane started to gesture with her hands, as though her movements would translate into concepts. "We... took her shopping again yesterday."
"And how did that go?"
Akane sat down next to the half-finished wall. "How do you think? She tried on everything that her mother gave her, said she didn't want any of them, then walked over to the men's section to look. She was rude, inconsiderate... it frightens me anymore, Ryouga. I know her mother's pushing her a little hard, but..."
The lost boy sighed, and adjusted the fit of his bandanna. This was a story he'd heard before. For a moment, he wondered if Ranma was doing it on purpose, just to get everyone she loved away from her. After all, he would have done the same - and did to an extent, after being given the Heitonnichuan curse. "A... Akane, Ranma's just going through a difficult time right now. I mean... she's having to come to terms with so many things at once that it's overwhelming her." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Akane, have you considered the possibility of backing off of the fashion lessons for awhile?"
Akane blinked. Apparently she was lost in her own little world. "Huh?"
Ryouga sighed. "Akane, right now Ranma thinks of herself as a man. She's been raised not just to be a man, but a 'man among men', an example of masculinity for others around her. Now... all of a sudden, those same people who were encouraging her to be manly want her to go in the opposite direction."
He sat down next to her, and tried to give his best smile. "Akane, how would you feel if you suddenly found yourself to be a guy, and had everyone around you forcing you to act as manly as you could?"
She sighed. "I... I wouldn't know how to take it. I mean..." She broke off, then stared at him. "That's the point you're trying to make, isn't it? Ranma can't take what we're doing to her."
Ryouga nodded. "Unfortunately, by the sound of things, it seems like her mother isn't bending on this."
Akane just shook her head. "Auntie Saotome may be a wonderful lady, but she's about as bad as her husband at raising Ranma sometimes."
"Hmmm. That is a problem." Ryouga took off his bandanna, and wiped his forehead. "Have you considered trying to get him...er, her... to do feminine things she might like?"
Akane just looked at him.
"Um... good point." The lost boy sighed, and threw a nail across the room and into a bucket.
"Akane, somehow, you need to get Ranma accustomed to the fact that she is female. I don't know how; knowing her, there may be no way to. But... I think the more you include her in whatever you're doing, the better off she'll be."
He looked in Akane's eyes. The gears were turning inside; he could see them through her glassy stare. She was getting ideas - the better for both her and Ranma. "Okay, Ryouga. I... I don't know if it'll work, but I'll try. She probably won't be willing to do anything until after entrance exams at the very least."
Something clicked inside Ryouga at Akane's words. "Um... shouldn't you be studying right now?"
Akane nodded. "Probably. I've been preparing for nearly a year now, though, so I can afford a little time to build. Ranma, on the other hand, needs all the time she can get." She got up, and winked at him. "Fortunately, what I have planned for her shouldn't take too long."
Akane wiped her sweaty palms along her skirt, and looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes focused on every detail, from that small scar near her right cheekbone to the way her bangs fell down her forehead. She looked at the eyes that stared back at her, and asked herself the question no one else could.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
Swallowing, she focused her emotions on what she was about to do. She reminded herself constantly that it was a guy she was going to meet, the man that she had fallen in love with, and had pledged her life to.
She just had to remember that when Ranma's flesh was pressed against hers.
Grimacing, she walked out of her room and down the hallway. She could hear Ranma in her room, a borrowed stereo turned on to help her study. Akane bit her lip; she knew how hard Ranma had been working lately, and wondered if perhaps this wasn't too much of an intrusion. Ranma had a lot of catching up to do, and she wanted to make sure, even though her past wasn't anything to write home about, that Ranma's future would be the best one possible. She knocked tentatively, then slid the door open.
"Hmmm?" Ranma looked up from the book she was reading. Akane swallowed; those eyes were still so pure, so beautiful... even if the body they were attached to was different. She never took her eyes off of Ranma's as she walked toward her.
"Ranma... I'd like to talk. About our relationship."
Ranma, for her part, looked surprised - and nervous. "Um... what about, Akane?"
Akane knelt down next to her, and cupped Ranma's chin in her hands. "About... certain things. It's been lonely in the past year, you know..."
Ranma nearly jumped out of her skin. "Akane? Are you feeling all right?"
"Never better," Akane sighed huskily. She could see it; Ranma was getting excited. "And... I wanted to share the moment with you."
"With... me?" Ranma squeaked. Akane could see that Ranma was getting aroused; her nipples were starting to poke out.
"Yes, you. You are my fiance, right?" She advanced on Ranma like a panther stalking prey; Ranma looked like a delectable piece of meat to be sampled.
"Well, yeah, but..."
Akane put a finger to Ranma's lips. "No buts, Ranma. I want you. I want you now. I want to show you just what it's like to be made love to." She let her finger trace down to Ranma's neck, while her mouth kept Ranma silent.
Strange the differences between bodies, Akane thought. She knew that Ranma changed on a basic level with the curse; she never imagined how much, though. The redhead's teeth felt different as her tongue played with Ranma's; the skin beneath her fingertips was soft, almost like a baby's. She could feel Ranma's mammaries gently pressing against her own; it made her somewhat envious, as she'd always been self-conscious about her chest size. She lowered her hands slightly, and began to slip the buttons away.
"Um... Akane..." Ranma managed in between kisses.
"No words, Ranma. No words." Akane moved another button away, and slid her fingers inside Ranma's shirt. She gently teased at the edges of Ranma's left breast, running her fingernail along the areola line. She could feel Ranma shuddering beneath her; her ministrations were having the desired effect. Sure, it wouldn't be as enjoyable as if they were man and woman, but... she couldn't be picky.
It was time for her to up the ante, she decided. Giving one last lazy circle around Ranma's breast, she moved to her own shirt, and began to take it off.
"Um... Akane, I don't think we should do this now," Ranma breathed. Akane watched Ranma's eyes widen as they followed her hands, down... down... She struggled with the last button, and tossed her shirt open with a flourish.
"What's the matter, Ranma? Don't like what you see?"
"Um... Yes! I mean... Dammit, Akane..." Ranma moved to her chest, and began to button her shirt. "Akane, I'm not ready for this."
The dark-haired woman sighed. The mood was lost. "Then when will you be ready, Ranma?"
Ranma shook her head. "I don't know. Things are so strange now... and I'm still not sure how to deal with it."
Akane backed up, and began to button her blouse. She fumbled with a couple of them; her hands were shaking. "Ranma, I know this is difficult on you. But it's been four months. You need to get over it, and get on with your life."
The redhead didn't say a word; her head shook in response. Akane stood up, and finished adjusting her outfit.
"Ranma... I... I love you. We all do. Please remember that - before you find all of us gone."
Ranma looked up at her with eyes like a trapped deer. Words hovered on her lips; all that came out were twitches and quivering. Not wanting to look, not wanting to do anything, Akane walked out of the room. She needed something to break.
The dress fit around Ranma's frame lightly, its soft fabric tickling the skin of her calves. She played with the collar; it felt a little tight on her, though, considering the size of most of her current clothing, that was to be expected. A frown came to her face as she examined the cuffs; they weren't meant to be rolled up, like she often did with her shirts. Forcing down her revulsion, not listening to the part of her that said how good the dress felt around her, Ranma turned around to face the mirror.
Much as she hated to admit it, she looked pretty. The forest-green cotton matched the red of her hair, and flattered her lithe frame perfectly. It wasn't particularly overly-feminine liked Kasumi preferred, nor was it some sexy man-catching outfit. It was simply a dress.
And that was the problem. It was a dress, a symbol of womanhood the world over. As good as it felt on her, as good as it looked on her, it didn't belong on her. And, if she had anything to say about it, she'd never wear any sort of dress again.
Mustering up what resolve she had, she walked out of the dressing room, to where Kasumi, Akane, and Nodoka were waiting. She knew their reaction to the outfit; they'd give some exposition on how pretty it was on her, or how it matched her eyes, or how it flattered her figure... and how she just had to get it. She almost felt like bringing a baton anymore, and conducting their statements as though the trio were some orchestra.
"Ohhh... it looks beautiful on you, Ranma!" Kasumi started this particular round of compliments, and swiftly turned to Nodoka. "This would be perfect for the Christmas party!"
Nodoka nodded her agreement, then walked over to the redhead. "Oh, Ranma. You look so much like I did at your age. You look just beautiful."
Akane approached her from the side, and appraised her carefully. "Gotta admit, Ranma: I'm envious." She walked closer, kissed Ranma on the cheek, and whispered into her ear. "Please..."
Ranma stiffened. "Mom... I can't wear this."
The sighs of exasperation came in response, just like they always did. "Ranma, we have been through this before. The Christmas party is in two weeks, and I am not going to have my daughter looking like some tomboy!" She looked over to the side. "Besides, Akane approves of it. Don't you want to look good for her?"
"No. Not if it means looking like some stupid girl." She stormed back into the dressing room, and slipped out of the dress as fast as she could. It took longer than she wanted; she fumbled with the buttons on the dress, and nearly ripped her own shirt while putting it on. She came back out, handed the dress to her mother, and purposely turned away from her.
"I'm going home, Mom. Have fun shopping." She headed for the exit in as fast a polite walk as she dared.
Akane was not so polite.
"What do you think you're doing, Ranma?" she hissed, matching Ranma's stride. "Can't you at least humor your mother for Christmas?"
Ranma stopped, and turned to her. "No. I can't give in even the slightest inch, Akane. I am a guy. I have to tell myself that every time I get up in the morning, every time I go to the toilet, and every time I take a bath. And I can't let some stupid party that my mom and Kasumi are planning get in the way of that."
Akane closed her eyes, apparently to control her temper. "Ranma, I am sick and tired of hearing you complain about this. You are a girl. Not a guy, not a guy in a girl's body, a GIRL. Nothing you can do will change it; you tried, and it nearly got you killed." Softening, she reached out to grab Ranma's hands. "Please, Ranma. Give up. I like you as a girl. Just please... let go, before you hurt yourself any more."
Ranma almost broke. She could see the pleading in those dark eyes, the desire for her to be in one piece again... but it was too late. Far too late.
"You don't understand." She shook herself from Akane's grip, and continued out of the store. She managed to make it to the subway before she started crying; even then, all that came out was a solitary tear.
There were few things as rewarding as the taste of warm soup.
Akane sipped the broth gently, allowing each drop to pass over her taste buds. She could feel the first sip trickle down her throat, spreading a warm glow through her insides. It was almost painful once the warmth faded; it was addictive, almost like a drug.
There was nothing quite like Kasumi's cooking; she knew exactly what was needed to warm up after a freezing-cold day. She reluctantly set the bowl down, and reached for her rice.
"So, Auntie. What are you planning on doing tomorrow?"
Nodoka smiled. "Kasumi and I are going out by ourselves. We were thinking of looking for some things for Ranma to wear." Her grin faltered. "It is clear that Ranma isn't willing to cooperate with us, so we have to act on our own."
Akane coughed. "Um... Auntie, aren't you pushing this a little too far? I mean, it's fairly obvious that Ranma doesn't -"
"There isn't a choice anymore, Akane. If Ranma is to become the woman she needs to be, then we must start educating her now."
Akane bit her lip. "It's just that I think that Ranma needs some time to come into it on her own." Nodoka was about to make a reply; her mouth was open when she was interrupted.
"What the hell is this doing in my closet?" She turned around, to find Ranma standing there. Forest-green fabric lay in her hands.
Akane gulped. Ranma was not happy.
Nodoka, for her part, remained cool. "That is the dress that you WILL wear for Christmas. Is that understood?"
"Not by me, it isn't!" Ranma clenched her fists, stretching the garment nearly to tearing. "I am not going to go around prancing in some silly dress just because some foreigners decided that December 25 made for a good holiday!"
Nodoka set her soup down, and closed her eyes. "Ranma, I will not have my daughter dressed up like some vagabond!"
Akane blinked; Ranma tried to hold her temper in a manner almost identical to her mother. "Mother, I have said this a thousand times before. I am a guy. I will not wear any sort of girl's clothing while I live."
"Ranma, you will wear that dress, and that is final!" Nodoka's voice was positively icy. "None of us have a choice as to what gender we get to be. Fate has decreed that you are now my daughter, and, as such, I expect you to live up to your responsibilities."
Ranma growled. "Fate? You want to see fate?" She ripped the dress in her hands. "That's fate, Mom. I make my fate. And I will fight this to my dying day."
"Ranma!" Akane shouted. "What are you doing?"
Akane realized her mistake the instant she said it. Ranma whirled around, the focus of her anger changing. "And you! You're trying to help them change me! What is it with you? Do you want a girl for a husband?"
Akane fought back her own anger. "What I want... is for some peace around here! All I hear from you is 'how you're a guy' and 'how your life stinks'. Well guess what, Ranma: fifty percent of everybody have to live their lives as girls. Just because you happen to be one of them doesn't mean the world's coming to an end."
"How do you know?" Ranma shot back. "Have you ever been a guy? Do you know what it's like to miss all that?" He looked down at her. "Of course, if you had, that would explain your tomboy nature!"
Akane shook. She couldn't think of anything to say. Her fiancee had just insulted her in the worst possible way. Her voice couldn't go beyond a whisper. "Damn you, Ranma. Damn you..." She ran out before anything else could be said.
Now, more than ever, she just wanted out.
The streets of Nerima were quiet; most people had already gone to bed, leaving dogs and cats to sound their calls throughout the neighborhood. Fluorescent lamps illuminated the ground, casting the snow in a harsh blue-white glow. Occasionally some dog would complain to the world its chilled state, its mournful howls cutting through the silence.
The streets never looked so desolate, Akane thought. All the life of the city seemed to have evaporated. She tried to imagine Kodachi running over the rooftops, or Shampoo making some late-night delivery, or Ukyou and Konatsu closing up shop... but it would never happen again - not like before. All of them had left this mecca, and gone on to other places, other lives.
It was so quiet now that she felt like screaming, just to break the tension.
She looked up, and noticed where she had wandered to. She needed a friend to talk to, and she could see that friend's light in the window. Careful not to slip on the ice, Akane walked over to the house, and rang the doorbell. She waited for a moment at the door, as shuffling occurred inside, and tried to force a smile.
"Akane?" Sayuri gasped on opening the door. Akane sighed; she must look a fright, with tear streaks frozen along her face and everything. She stepped aside, allowing Akane to enter.
"What's wrong, Akane?"
The young woman just shook her head. She wasn't even sure how to explain it. "It's... there was a fight at home. With Ranma."
She could feel Sayuri look over every inch of her. "Just a sec, Akane. Let me put some tea on, okay?" Sayuri ran back to the kitchen, leaving Akane alone to gather herself. She looked at the assorted knickknacks in the living room, trying to lose her thoughts in their quiet, useless beauty.
"Okay. What happened, Akane?"
Akane turned around, as Sayuri set a tea tray down filled with snacks. She waited for Sayuri to pour the tea. Words started to come to her as the warm liquid poured down her throat.
"We... a few days ago, Kasumi, Auntie Saotome, and I took Ranma out shopping. Ranma's mom wanted to get her a nice outfit for the Christmas party we've been planning. Ranma... didn't like the idea of wearing a dress."
Sayuri nodded. "Tell me about it. I thought she'd die when they made her change in the girls' locker room."
Akane took another reassuring sip of her tea. "Anyway, there was this one that looked just great on Ranma... but that she absolutely refused to get. So... after she ran off, Auntie Saotome bought the dress and put it in her closet."
Sayuri put a hand to her forehead. "Don't tell me... Ranma found the dress hanging there, and had a fit."
"To put it mildly. Ranma was yelling at everyone. She ripped the dress to shreds, even got into Kasumi's face... and into mine." She shook her head. "I... I can't take this anymore. I don't even know her anymore."
Sayuri reached over, and put her hands over Akane's wrists. "Akane, do you love Ranma? Do you honestly love her?"
After a moment's thought, Akane nodded. "It's just so hard anymore..."
"Then it's time you let it go."
Akane blinked. "Huh?"
Sayuri sighed. "I think that you should just stop being her fiancee for awhile... and just be her friend."
"What good will that do?" Akane set her tea down. "She refuses to accept what's happened."
"For now, she has." Sayuri put her own cup down. "But what about later? What then? Do you want so much bitterness and hatred between the two of you that you never want to speak to each other again?"
Akane shook her head. "No... No."
"Then let her go. Be her friend for now, even try to be her older sister, but don't be anything more. If she comes around and you want to start over with her, then go ahead."
Protests tried to make their way to Akane's lips. "But..."
"Akane, Ranma's dead. There's nothing you can do about it. However, what you can do is help this new girl come to life. And that won't happen if you keep on holding on to Ranma's ghost."
Akane picked up her glass of tea, and stared at her reflection in the greenish waters. There was a part of her that still rebelled, still wanted to have Ranma by her side forever... "I... I'll try, Sayuri. It's just that letting go may be difficult."
Sayuri cocked an eyebrow. "Just as it's difficult for Ranma, ne?"
Akane traced a finger along the rim. She didn't want to let go... but there was no other choice. Not anymore. She took a sip of her tea, noting its slightly bitter tang.
On the other side of Nerima, a lonely woman walked. Red hair, shining under the lampglow, hung over her face, obscuring what was beneath. Shoulders slumped as the figure walked along the streets, and sandals shuffled along the icy path.
She didn't know what to do anymore. She'd talked to them, she'd pleaded with them, she'd threatened them... but they just refused to accept it. They wanted to make some girl out of her, no matter what she thought, no matter how she was raised.
She was a guy. No matter what her body may be, she would always be a guy. She spent the first sixteen years of her life as one in every way; just because the body changed didn't mean that everything else should. Sighing, she kicked a stray can in the road, and continued on.
Truth to tell, she didn't know what to make of any of them anymore. Her mother would be urging her to try on a dress one minute, then encouraging her to be closer to Akane the next. Her father was a panda so often now it was hard to tell whether he was a parent or a pet, while Soun wavered between silent stoicism and crying fits. Kasumi had become Mom's co-conspirator, even going so far as to refer to her as 'Ranma-chan'. Akane...
She could feel the distance growing between them, and it hurt. There was once a time when they knew each other so deeply it was hard to keep secrets; now, the woman who wore her ring was a stranger to her. In some ways she was just like the other women of the dojo, always pushing her to act or dress more feminine.
Did she want a woman for her husband?
Sighing, she looked up, the light shining in her eyes. There was so much that she wanted, so much that she wished would just go away. She never wanted this curse, she never wanted this body, and she most certainly didn't want the life her family was thrusting onto her. She hated what she was doing to them, unfortunately, she also hated what they were trying to do to her. Why couldn't they just leave her as she was?
The answers that came to her weren't to her liking. None made sense; most were byproducts of paranoia, and one or two she couldn't even classify as anything other than perverse. She wanted nothing of this existence, and the effects of it were getting to her.
Which was why she was studying so hard for exams. Those exams were her ticket out, her way of escaping whatever her mother had planned. Once she got into some college away from Nerima, she could show Akane just how much man she was. There would be nobody pressuring her to do anything; she'd be living in the strange, often-legendary life of a college student, and anything she wanted to do could - and would - be done.
Her face fixing in a mask of resolve, Ranma cast her gaze forward, and started the journey for home. There was still some studying to do that night, and she'd be damned if it would all end up in vain.
The morning light shone in Akane's eyes, rousing her from slumber. She blinked at the light; normally, it was the alarm clock that woke her up. She paused and looked at her surroundings, taking into mind the events of the previous night.
The emotions were still there. She could feel the outrage at Ranma's rantings, the helplessness as Ranma ripped up any decency she had left along with that dress... and the horrible, deafening quiet that came afterwards, once she had stormed off.
She never thought she would hear her own heart break.
At least she understood why Sayuri had said what she did. Ranma was so hurt at the moment that she couldn't help but hurt everyone around her. If Akane did continue with the emotional attachment between fiancees, there would be no chance of them even speaking to each other, let alone getting together. On the other hand, as a friend, she actually stood a chance of helping Ranma without getting too entangled in her barbs.
"How are you feeling today, Akane?"
She turned inside of herself for a moment. Already she could feel the scars begin to heal. "Great, Sayuri. Just great."
"Ranma, we must talk."
Ranma winced. She'd been expecting this ever since that blowup a few days previous. "Yeah, Mom?"
Nodoka's gaze burned into her. "Ranma, I don't care what you say to me. I am your mother; I am simply trying to do what is best for you. I know you have some deep-rooted desire to hurt all around you for what's happened, and I am trying to understand that."
Her form seemed to loom over Ranma. "But you are never, EVER to treat your fiancee like that. What you said to her was entirely uncalled for. Do you understand, Ranma?"
"Yeah, yeah..." Ranma dismissed the words casually, then instantly regretted it.
"Ranma, have you given any thought to what Akane's going through right now? She sees you hurt like this, and is trying to help, and all you can do is yell at her! Do you know how hard it's been standing by you ever since you came back? She's been trying as hard as she can to not leave... and you go off and pull a stunt like this."
Ranma looked downward. She thought about Akane, and what had happened. True enough, she had been trying whatever she could to get her to open up. Problem is, she was afraid of what would happen if she did. "O... okay, Mom. I... there are some things I can't do - not yet. However, I will try to talk with her. Okay?"
Nodoka nodded, her anger receding. "Good." She reached over and hugged Ranma. "All I want is the best for you and Akane. I wish things could be different for the two of you."
Ranma fought to contain the emotions inside; she felt like breaking down in her mother's arms. "I... I know, Mom. I know." She looked at her mother, a hard glint in her eye. "I will make it up to everyone when this is all done. I promise. It's just that right now..."
To Ranma's surprise, Nodoka chuckled slightly. "We know, Ranma." She broke off the embrace, and pushed Ranma's bangs back. "You know I don't want a daughter. I just want someone who is happy with who she is. I know that must sound like the worst thing to you right now."
"Give it time, Ranma. You may find that being a woman isn't as bad as you think." She sat back, and gave her child an approving stare. "And, when you do come to that conclusion, let me know. It's difficult for a woman to learn on her own - and I would like to at least teach that woman some things..."
Ranma snorted. She didn't approve of a lot of what her mom said, but at least she wasn't being forced into anything anymore. "If it happens... I'll let you know. Okay?"
Her mother gave an enigmatic grin, as though she knew something Ranma didn't. "Okay."
Akane still wasn't sure why she was doing this.
Here she was, in a coffeehouse somewhere in Ginza, drinking some thousand-yen brew with a guy whose claim to fame was getting lost, a guy who'd betrayed her trust so long ago. He stared nervously back at her, and fidgeted in his seat.
"So, Akane. Um... why did you bring me out here?"
She tried to smile, though even she could tell it looked phony.
"Ryouga... first of all, I wanted to thank you for helping me with the dojo. It was really nice of you."
She looked down at his coffee cup, as it began to crack under pressure. "Thanks, A-Akane." He took out a napkin to wipe his hand off. "It was no problem."
Akane rubbed her hands against her own cup, trying to find comfort in its warmth. Once she said what she needed to say... there was no turning back. Unfortunately, she had to tell someone - and her former pet seemed as good as any.
"Ryouga... I need to talk to someone. Sayuri knows; she was the one who suggested it to me. Beyond that, nobody has any clue on this. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I need some advice."
Ryouga nodded, seeming to take it at face value. "Okay."
Akane rubbed her fingers against the formica table surface. "Ryouga, things have... not been good between myself and Ranma. She's been extremely depressed ever since she came back, and... and she's taking it out on everyone around her."
"I've noticed," Ryouga said glumly. "It's almost like her soul left along with her body."
Akane closed her eyes. "About a week ago, there was a big fight between Ranma and the rest of the family. I... I'd never seen her that far gone, Ryouga. She was yelling at everyone; it didn't matter whether they were a part of what happened or not. It frightened me... and I don't know if I can take any more."
She saw Ryouga's Adam's apple move up and down. "Akane, what are you asking me?"
She bit her lip. "Ryouga, I can't take it anymore. I've tried to stick by her, really I have... but I can't bear to watch her destroy herself like this." She picked up the coffee; its bitter taste lent her some courage. "Ryouga, Sayuri suggested that I should give up on the engagement for awhile... so that I can try to be Ranma's friend, rather than her fiancee."
The moment that Ryouga waited seemed to last an eternity for her. Emotions passed through Ryouga's face, one after the other, like looking at pictures from some trip. He coughed, and fixed a stern gaze onto her.
"And you decided to accept the idea."
Akane blinked at the comment, said with cracking emotion. She felt like crying; she'd been holding back the tears for so long, and they were begging for release. "Y... yes, I have, Ryouga. Yes, I have." She could feel the tears running down her face; she casually picked up a napkin to try to hide them, even though she knew how ridiculous it looked.
To her surprise, she found something wrapping around her - strong arms, like the ones that used to comfort her at night. She could feel his trembling; was he as scared as she was?
"Let... Let it out, Akane."
She nodded weakly. Her eyes turned to the coffee cup, as it slowly cooled in the evening air. It seemed like such a waste; then again, a lot of things seemed a waste. Sighing, she let the tears continue, sobbing without holding back, letting out months of frustration in some other man's arms.
Kasumi pulled out one more ball of dough, and rolled it in her hands. She gently placed the moist morsel on the cookie sheet, along with the others, and set the sheet down on the counter. Glancing at the clock, she decided to clean up her kitchen before continuing with her cooking.
Baking cookies had always been her way of dealing with stress. Ever since she had been put in charge of the house, she had found that they had a way of defusing whatever crises came up. Her sisters' problems tended to melt with the chocolate chips, and right now she knew that someone in the house would need them. Besides, with Christmas coming up, she needed to do something to keep the mood festive.
She heard a shuffling behind her, and turned to the entrance. There were times when she hated being right; this was one of them. Akane walked in, and leaned against the wall.
"Um... Sis? Can we talk?"
She put on her best smile, though inside she was wary. She'd seen that look on Akane before - when she'd accidentally sent one of her would-be suitors to the hospital. "Sure, Akane." She gestured to the plate. "Would you like a cookie?"
Akane's eyes brightened at the mention of the word 'cookie' - just like she did when she was younger, Kasumi thought. "Yeah! Thanks, Sis."
Kasumi glanced at the clock, sniffed the air just to make sure, then moved to take out the most recent batch. "So. What is it that's bothering you?"
Akane looked down at her cookie. There was only one thing that would bother her that much. "Sis, I... I've decided to let go of the engagement for awhile."
The older woman looked down at her apron, and brushed some flour off of it. She would not let her sister see her disappointment - not at this time, anyway. "Are you sure, Akane?"
"No," Akane said simply. "I may want to continue it once Ranma comes to her senses - which is why I don't want anyone else to know." She bit into the cookie. "Right now, though, it hurts too much to be in this relationship. I want to get out while we're still speaking to each other."
Kasumi nodded evenly. "Have you tried talking to her?"
"Of course I have! You know what she's been like lately! Even mention the idea of her accepting the curse, and she goes bonkers!" Akane shook her head. "I can't take anymore - not unless I want to end up as bitter as her."
Kasumi turned away, and began to remove the cookies from the pan. Once she was done with the last one, she put the past pan into the oven.
"Akane... if you really want to do this, I can't stop you. I know how hard it's been on you. I... I just hope you realize what you may be giving up."
Akane closed her eyes. Kasumi could see her fighting the tears. "I... I know, Sis. Believe me, I know." She put the last of the cookie in her mouth, and hugged herself tightly. "There's just no other way anymore."
The elder sister swallowed, fighting back the tears. She knew how hard it must have been for Akane to come to that point. "As you wish, Akane. I... just hope you don't regret your wish one day." She wrapped her arms around Akane, holding her close. "But... I think you should be honest with Ranma. If... it comes to a situation where you find someone else, you're going to have to be straight with her."
Akane wasn't talking; she only nodded. Kasumi, for once, didn't know what to do. She just held on to her, and waited for her little sister to get enough strength to go on her own.
Christmas was a somber time at the Tendo home. Last year had held so much hope; this year, hope had decided to go somewhere else. Desperation was a regular visitor; tears came on a nightly basis.
Akane placed another ornament on the tree, and wondered why. What did she have to celebrate? Her life was too high-strung for celebrations. Exams were coming up in a month, and she still had a lot of studying left for that. Her personal life was a shambles; she took the ring off of her finger every night, and wished for the day when she could decide once and for all whether to keep it or not. She couldn't even celebrate with Ranma; her former fiance was in such a crabby mood that she doubted if Ranma would even leave her room.
"Akane? Can I help?"
She turned around, about to give a retort, when she paused. She blinked for a moment, just to make sure her eyes weren't deceiving her.
Ranma was wearing a dress. An honest-to-goodness, one-hole-at-the-bottom one-hundred-percent-female dress. It didn't look familiar; she honestly had no clue as to where it came from.
"Ranma?" She put down the ornament in her hand, and walked over to her. "You look... nice."
Ranma's face turned red; it wasn't quite a full blush, but it was close. "Thanks, Akane. I... I just thought that, since it is Christmas and all and that I'd made everyone sorta mad over the past few weeks, that..."
Akane swallowed. "It's okay, Ranma. Thanks for thinking of us." She gestured over to the ornaments. "Care to help?"
Ranma nodded. "Sure."
Akane tried to fight back the tears as Ranma helped her build the tree. Ranma was relaxed; for once, she wasn't obsessed with her manhood or moping about the twist of fates that had changed her; she was an ordinary human being. She knew it couldn't last; once the Christmas night was over, Ranma's pride would call her back to oblivion.
All too soon, the tree was finished. Ranma smiled, and plugged the lights into the socket, bathing the living room in a rainbow glow.
"Not too bad, eh, Akane?"
Akane smiled, and slipped an arm around Ranma's waist. "Not bad. Not bad at all." She grabbed the young woman by the arm. "Come on. It's time we take you into the kitchen."
"The kitchen? I dunno... I mean, I..."
Akane looked Ranma in the eye. "Ranma, your mother needs to see you like this, if only for a minute. You... you hurt her pretty badly that night. I think you need to show her, just to mend fences."
To her relief, Ranma remained silent as Akane led her to the kitchen. The sounds of domestic industry filled the room, as Kasumi and Nodoka worked away to make the Christmas at least bearable.
All noises stopped once Ranma entered the room. Kasumi sat back and smiled approvingly; she knew better than to say anything. Nodoka, on the other hand, put her dish on the back burner.
"Ranma, you... you..." She reached over and hugged her child. "Thank you, Ranma. I know how hard this was for you."
Ranma shuffled her feet. "Well..."
Nodoka grabbed Ranma's hand, and led her away. "Akane, can you take over for me? All you have to do is keep it cooking until it browns."
"Okay, Auntie." She smiled, and moved the pan back to the main burner.
She looked over to Kasumi. "Yes?"
The elder sister crossed her arms. "How did you convince Ranma to wear a dress?"
Akane shrugged. "I didn't. She did it by herself. She said..."
"What did she say, Akane?"
"She said she wanted to make up for what she did."
Kasumi nodded at this, and returned to her cooking. "Does this mean that she's going to be..."
"Not likely." Akane turned off the burner, as the dish turned a faint brownish color. "She said it was only for tonight."
She started, as warm hands wrapped around her. "Do you still want to give up on the relationship?"
Akane bit her lip. She desperately wanted to go back to it; unfortunately, hurtful words still echoed in her ears. "I... I don't know, Kasumi. I don't know."
She felt Kasumi nod against her neck. "Merry Christmas, Akane."
"You too, Sis."
Life was much simpler when viewed like a kata, Ranma thought. Each moment brought its own changes, its own variables; the challenge of the Art was to perform the required maneuvers regardless. Due to her old man, she'd done them atop bamboo poles, underwater, and in the most horrific of weather conditions. Those times had toughened her - just as recent times had toughened her for her most recent storm.
Gritting her teeth, she looked at the next problem. If truth be known, she HATED Trigonometry; it had a set of maneuvers far removed from what she was used to. Forcing her mind on the task, she brought the mental strikes to bear, as she went through the motions of the 'kata'.
After a moment, she found her answer, and wrote it down. She hoped it was right; was it secant squared plus one is tangent squared, or vice versa? The moves were still new to her, and she didn't know if she had all of them down.
Sighing, she bore down, and focused on the next problem. She hoped that her scores in the history section would make up for any other faux pas during the test. She treated the past like some legend, as Ieyasu fought to subdue a country out-of-control, or as the Meiji Ishin struggled to turn a country from centuries of stagnation. It worked... at least, she thought it worked.
Hmmm. She smiled. Graphs she knew; the problems she faced carved the paper like wind, with each section of the problem shaping it in its own way. She looked at the problem, watched its curve shape, take form... then put it on the paper.
Now, if only she could get through the rest of them like that.
"Remind me why we're doing this again?" Ranma walked along the fence's edge, above the mortals once more. She fingered her back, uncomfortable at the bra she wore.
Akane smiled. "Because you need to loosen up for once. It'll just be a bunch of friends getting together to shoot the breeze after entrance exams." She looked up to the fence and, after a moment's calculation, leapt up behind the redhead. "Besides, you look like you could do with some fun."
Ranma stopped and turned around, without a moment's hesitation. "Fun I don't mind. All I need to do is kick Pop or Ryouga around for fun. Hanging out with a bunch of girls while they gossip... now that's something else entirely."
Akane tried to look at Ranma's feet as she walked backwards; unfortunately, keeping her own balance was difficult enough without figuring out how someone else did. "Well... we don't just gossip, you know. We play games, watch a movie or two... you never know, Ranma. Even Ms. Macho Jock might find it enjoyable."
The new woman cursed under her breath. "I've got some studying yet to do, Akane. After all, I still have finals to worry about."
Akane jumped off of the fence, and landed gingerly on her feet. "Come on, Ranma, and stop whining. We're here."
Ranma sighed, then followed her down. She adjusted the strap on her duffel bag, and followed Akane to the front door.
"Hey, Akane!" Akane was grateful for Sayuri's cheerfulness; hopefully, it would be infectious tonight. "Come on in, we just started the tape!"
"What're we watching?" Ranma's voice sighed from behind her.
The comment elicited a smile from the hostess. "Well... you'll just have to see it." She waved them inside, and guided them to the living area.
Akane couldn't help but smile at Sayuri's choice, as a redheaded samurai fought on the small screen. Ranma frowned at the sight.
"Hmmm. Looks interesting."
Yuka looked back at them. She was already clad in her pajamas; the others around them were as well. "You mean you've never seen this?"
Ranma shook her head. "Naah. I don't watch TV all that much."
Akane smiled. "Well, this I think you'll like." The dark-haired woman grabbed Ranma by the arm, and led her onto the couch. She could see Ranma's apprehension; this was her first slumber party, after all. "Don't worry. It'll be fine."
Ranma just gave her an unreadable look, then turned to the television. Akane occasionally glanced at Ranma's face on occasion, to see how she was doing; fortunately, the pigtailed woman seemed to be getting into the story. Once in a while, she curiously glanced at her friends; they were similarly struck by the tale.
Which, of course, was precisely what Sayuri intended. Allowing herself a quiet smile, Akane moved in closer to Ranma, and started to lose herself in the story. She tried not to see herself in the heroine too much; she'd felt suffocated enough already.
The video ended all too soon for them. The heroine saved herself from the villain's death grip, allowing the hero to keep the humanity they both desired. The villain destroyed himself in the end, wasted and useless to the world around him.
Akane risked a glance at Ranma, once the tape began to rewind. Blue eyes appeared electric as the TV screen shone in them; slender hands held each other tightly, fighting some internal battle. Akane leaned closer, and whispered into her ear.
"Ranma? Are you o-"
"Wasn't that so romantic...?" Yuka squealed. "I mean, he was willing to kill Jin-e to save her, even though it would cost -"
Sayuri piped up. "But, if it came at such a cost, wouldn't Kaoru have preferred to die, rather than know that she destroyed..." Some nods of agreement came up at the words.
A surprising voice cut through the group. "Well, I... I don't think Kenshin would have been able to live with himself if he had let Kaoru die. I mean, Kaoru... even though they were just friends... if she had died, then whatever humanity was in him would have died, too. It was just a matter of choosing which one would have been better. And... and Kenshin would rather have had Kaoru alive and hating him than see her dead." Ranma gestured to the screen. "Say what you want about Kaoru but, until she was able to save herself, she had nothing to do with the decision."
The sound of rewinding tape was the only noise in the room for a moment.
"But..." Akiko, a raven-haired girl near the front, spoke up. "...what would Kenshin have done when it was over?"
Ranma swallowed. "I... I don't know. Probably run away until he could get his soul back."
Yuka rolled over onto her back, and stared at the ceiling. "Well, I think Kaoru would have taken him in regardless. I mean, she does owe him her life."
Ranma smiled. "But would Kenshin be willing to go back after what he'd done? Again, it's not Kaoru's decision."
Various grumbling occurred among the other girls at the comment. "Why can't a man stay at home where he belongs?" Megumi, a petite girl on the couch, moaned.
Akane looked over at Ranma. For the first time, she knew why Ranma was doing what she did. Also, for the first time, she knew without any shadow of a doubt that it was over - for good. She tried to find her voice; the words were said as much to herself as anyone else. "Because... sometimes, for a man to stay a man, he has to do some things he hates - like go away on some trip, or... or even leave behind the woman he loves." The tape stopped; Akane gathered her wits, and grabbed Ranma by the hand. "C'mon, Ranma. We need to get dressed."
Akane stared at the ceiling at Sayuri's place, her mind too occupied for sleep. She could hear the other guests around her, engaging in the activity that gave slumber parties their name. Even Ranma was conked out, joining in the chorus of snores.
She was wondering why she came to this place anymore. It was here a year ago that she first found out about Ranma's problem; it was here a month ago that she decided to give up on the engagement. Now, she understood her former fiancee, and why their relationship couldn't last.
Ranma, for all the underhandedness his father had taught him, still went by the warrior's code. The man-turned-woman had remained silent concerning Ryouga's curse, instead forcing a situation where Ryouga would be called to honor... and thereby convincing the lost boy to confront himself. She had fought for the weak so often, even gone so far as to help her enemies... one of whom had betrayed her in the end. She lived by the code; she would likely die by the code.
And that code forbade her to give up.
Her pride would not, could not allow it. She suspected that a part of Ranma wanted desperately to let go, to become a woman in name as well as in form. Unfortunately, that would mean allowing defeat, allowing herself to be subject to the will of her adversary. Ranma would die before allowing that.
That, of course, made her job all the more urgent. She had to let Ranma know it was all right for her to give up, that it was fine for her to be a girl.
She tapped her fist against the floor. That wouldn't work; she'd tried for months. Moreover, Kasumi and Auntie Saotome had also tried. The only result had been alienation between Ranma and her family, as the redhead slowly walked away from them.
Her eyes drifted to the woman sleeping next to her. Part of her wanted to cry out, to bash some sense into that thick skull of hers... but she knew that it would never work. There was only one person on earth she knew who was more stubborn than Ranma - and it happened to be her mother's youngest daughter. Ranma would give up on her manhood the day she'd give up on breathing.
Sighing, she stared up at the ceiling, and started to count the raised dots in the plaster.
February rains were the worst, Ranma thought. The weather was still cold from the winter, causing the ground to be covered in mush, and chilled the droplets to near freezing. Wind blew hard into them, inverting umbrellas and stymieing attempts to say dry.
This was the fifth she'd been to, she thought. The college she'd wanted to go to had decided she wasn't their kind of person; her second choice had decided that Akane wasn't their kind of person. This place was in Tokyo, in the old Shinjuku district; it wasn't bad, but it was close enough that she couldn't justify living away from the dojo.
Sighing, she turned her eyes toward the campus. It really was a nice college, with that venerable feel that hinted at the timelessness of such places. The buildings were done in a Western style she wasn't familiar with; it seemed like some foreign land to her, a new place to discover.
"Ranma? Are you coming, or are you just going to gape?"
She blinked. This was Akane's first choice; she still wanted to stay close to home, and this place had a nice business program. Sure, it wasn't the University of Tokyo but, then again, nothing was. "Sure, Akane." She started to move with more determination, passing the recruitment booths of the clubs as though they weren't there.
It wasn't difficult to see where the list had been posted. The crowd had, for the most part, dispersed; some still strained to see the results, while others cried their joys or sorrows away. Ranma brought her ticket out, holding it with both hands as though presenting a business card.
"What's your number, Ranma?"
Ranma shrugged. "4975." Her eyes scanned the board; she lingered around the three thousands, not really sure if she wanted to know...
"Ranma, it would seem you now have a second choice for where to go to college." Akane smiled, sending a warm glow through her. "And... so do I."
Ranma's eyes lit up. "You mean..."
Akane pointed to the board. "Congratulations... college student."
Ranma's eyes looked at the numbers there, at the combination that, on some level that only school administrators understood, referred to the entity known as Saotome Ranma. She could feel the whoop of joy building up inside of her; it didn't take long for it to explode outward, merely the last of many cries that echoed across the campus.
Akane walked into the dojo slowly, her eyes drinking in every sight. The floor was sanded and polished until it shone, glowing under the glare of the new light fixtures. The walls, similarly treated, were solidly built; she'd tested them herself by putting her weight on them. The shrine and other decorations were still there, along with a few new ones to add a woman's touch to the place. On top of that, she'd put in air pump units discreetly throughout the hall, and installed insulation to keep the heat inside. It had taken nearly five months of work... but the place, her place, was done.
She looked behind her, at the faces of her family. Her father positively beamed, though he clearly made an effort not to cry in happiness. Kasumi smiled, and walked over to look at the flowers on one wall. The Saotomes were more reluctant to go in; they stood reverently at the entrance, like outsiders asking for permission to enter. She opened her arms up, and smiled.
"Welcome to the new Tendo dojo."
The group started to walk around, noting the craftsmanship that went into the renovations. She'd tried to do a good job at making the place as comfortable as possible; she knew she wasn't much of an interior decorator, but, with some advice from the others, had come up with some tasteful, warm decorations. Heirloom weapons hung next to fresh flowers, and old-style paintings breathed life into the new walls. The pumps blew in warm air to heat the dojo; snow lay outside, but nobody could tell from the inside.
Murmurs of approval carried across the hall as they browsed the room, filling her with pride. Truth to tell, at times she had thought this would have never succeeded. Ryouga and Ranma had helped out when they could, giving her advice (and, on occasion, added muscle) on completing some of the more complex parts of the renovation. As she watched their smiles and nods of her family, she knew that she had done well.
Her father approached her. He was crying by this point; there was only so much that he could hold in. "Akane, I am very proud of you. You and Ranma have exceeded my wildest expectations."
She fought back her tongue. Ranma had helped when she was available; however, with her studies, her role in the construction was a secondary one. "Thanks, Daddy."
Her father's eyes scanned expansively around him. "Yes... Now that the dojo is completed, it is time for you and Ranma to formalize your relationship... and get married right here."
Akane froze. "Daddy... I don't think -"
"No buts, Akane. You two have waited long enough."
Akane fought to bring some retort to mind... but couldn't come up with one offhand. If she mentioned what had happened to the engagement, then things would end disastrously. "Um... Daddy..."
"Ranma and Akane have a lot to work out yet. There have been a lot of changes in Ranma's life, after all." Kasumi smiled, and put her hand on Akane's shoulder. "Isn't that right, Akane?"
Akane blinked at Kasumi's save, then smiled weakly. "Um... yeah. You'd be surprised how much Ranma and I are having to go through right now."
Soun gave a stern look to them. "We can't wait around forever, Akane. Please work it out as soon as possible. We want the two of you to be married before the end of the year. All right?"
Akane swallowed. "All right, Daddy." She looked up at him.
Much as she enjoyed showing them the dojo, she didn't want to face the Saotomes. "Can I go up to study? I do have finals coming up in a few weeks, you know."
Soun looked at her for a moment, then nodded. "Go ahead, Akane, though I think you should wait for a moment."
She didn't want to wait. She turned around, ready to run out the door, when she ran into a large presence.
"Excellent dojo, Akane. You and Ranma should do good here, if you both built something this well." Genma smiled, beaming with something between fatherly pride and disgusting greed. "It'll be good to practice in here."
"Um... thanks," Akane whispered noncommittally. Ranma's parents simply disgusted her sometimes. "Excuse me, Mr. Saotome, I need to go study."
He shrugged. "Okay." Genma turned to Nodoka, allowing Akane a chance to escape. She walked briskly out of her dojo, and didn't stop until she was safely in her room. She took a moment to gain her bearings, then opened her English book.
After twenty minutes of staring at the same page, she stopped. She rolled over on the bed, and stared at the ceiling.
This was a lot harder than she thought. She never wanted to deceive those around her; she just wanted some space away from them. Being in a family hurt sometimes; they expected things of her that she couldn't give, no matter how desperately she wanted to give it to them.
They wanted her to stay with Ranma. Staying with Ranma hurt too much. Leaving Ranma would hurt them. If she stayed with Ranma, the relationship would swiftly disintegrate, hurting everyone. Hurting her family hurt herself.
Why did this have to hurt so much? There were times when she wished she could stop feeling, that she could cease being a Tendo and just be Akane, no name, no face. Even feeling empty there would be better than the ache she felt.
Worse, she didn't have anyone to blame for it. It might have been Happousai; after all, he had the knowledge. It also might have been Cologne; she knew the curse formula as well, had Amazon law to uphold, and those elders were awfully accepting of Ranma, even to the point of inviting her into the tribe. Hating both was impossible, as one probably tried to stop the other.
Diabolical, she thought. Absolutely diabolical. Nobody to blame meant nobody to hate, leaving too many pent-up emotions floating around inside, increasing the damage. In the end, everyone would be shook up in its wake, as the family slowly tore away at each other, burning the heart's skin away.
Sighing, she closed her book, and tried to get a nap in. At least in her dreams things were safe.
Ranma set down her duffel bag, and breathed a sigh of relief.
She'd done it. Somehow, some way, she'd done it. After perhaps the most unorthodox educational program ever conceived, she'd finally fought her way through school. All she had to do was go to the ceremony, and she'd be done.
Her eyes searched the spartan room around her, looking for... something. There was nothing for her to do for once, no major pressing concern to worry about. She'd been fighting for so long that she couldn't comprehend of a life without struggle. The silence after so many battles was disconcerting to her, at the very least.
She sighed, and thought about the past months. Truth to tell, she regretted a lot of what she'd said; she'd been in such a difficult situation that she had no choice but to push everyone away. For awhile, it looked like she'd have to give up on the relationship, as she fought to control a life growing steadily out of her control. Now, though, there was nothing stopping her. Her mother had stopped taking her on shopping trips after Christmas, and didn't want to force it anymore. Things between her and Akane were... well... friendly again. They were letting her live as she wanted to live now.
It was time to make amends. They'd stuck by her for so long, through some of the worst events they could ever imagine... now it was time to pay them back for that.
Nodding to herself, Ranma walked down to the kitchen, to have a talk with Kasumi. If she was going to have her way, this would be a night they'd never forget.
The spring wind was blowing in Akane's face, soothing her fevered brow. She'd never expected finals to be that bad; she'd spent too much time goofing off, and it nearly cost her. Still, she passed, and at that stage of the game, it was all that mattered.
Twirling in the air, she couldn't help but notice the turquoise dress around her. She'd always hated the fashion crime, preferring something more in a sailor cut; still, it would be strange to sell it to some incoming freshman. She'd worn it for so long that it seemed like a second skin to her. Pausing to feel its polyester one more time, she entered the gates to her home, her heart soaring.
She was out. Out. The word was a foreign one to her; she'd been in school ever since she could remember. No more strenuous pressure-cooker classes, no more disciplinarians, no more uniforms... no more. She walked in the door, noting the quiet the permeated the place.
She turned around. Ryouga waited next to the phone, assurance, she presumed, that he would stay indoors. She studied his face for a moment; it reminded her of the sheepish look he had when she had taken him out for coffee. "Yes, Ryouga?"
The lost boy pressed his fingers together, and followed her into the living room. "Um... I was wondering."
Akane put her hands on her hips. "Is something wrong, Ryouga?"
He bit his lip. "Well, considering that you're finally done with finals, would you like to go out with me tonight?"
Akane paused at the question. "Go out? As on a date?"
Ryouga fidgeted nervously. "Um... yes."
Akane stared at him for a moment. Sure, he was a friend, but... "Um... Ryouga, I dunno. I mean, Ranma..."
He sighed. "Akane, if you decide that you want to get back with Ranma, I won't stand in your way. Unfortunately..." He left the truth hanging unspoken, then smiled grimly. "Besides, it's not like we haven't done this before, ne?"
Memories of their first 'date' filled Akane's mind - and the petty jealousy Ranma showed all throughout that day. She closed her eyes; at least Ranma was feeling *something* then. "Okay, Ryouga. But, considering everything... I think we should leave now, before Ranma makes it home."
Ryouga looked around for a moment, then nodded. He held his hand out to her, as any gentleman would. "Shall we go, then?"
Akane looked down at the hand, and frowned. "Tell you what. You tell me where to go, and I'll lead you there. Okay?"
He smiled. "As you wish." Akane paused at some racket from the kitchen; Kasumi probably just dropped something. Shrugging, she turned to the doorway, leading Ryouga by the hand until they were safely away from the house.
Kasumi blinked at the words that came from the dining area; she wasn't sure what she was supposed to feel about what happened. Guilt was first; after all, she'd known all along how Akane felt, and still allowed it to happen. Anger came a close second, as she realized that Akane had abused a trust between them.
As she saw the pan begin to slip from Ranma's fingers, a third emotion took its place: concern. Kasumi quickly grabbed an oven mitt and took the pan from her before it fell.
The redhead said nothing. Her head quivered; occasionally, she blinked. A shimmer of threatening tears formed in her eyes. Kasumi sat the woman down, and began to speak quietly.
"Ranma, I... I'm sorry. I..."
Ranma's head swung around slowly to face hers. "She... she left me. After..."
Kasumi nodded, swallowing her own emotions. This was no time for a gentle smile; she just put her arms around the girl, holding her close. "Akane couldn't take it anymore. She tried... but, after one blowup too many, she decided to give up on the relationship for awhile... so that the two of you could remain friends. She told me... that if she didn't, that the two of you would probably part on unpleasant terms."
"And... she's with Ryouga... has been the whole time... all the planning... everything..."
"Ranma, I know how hard this may seem to be for you. Heaven knows you've been through enough already. But... you've got to learn to let her go."
Ranma just looked back at her; it was an empty gaze, without anything of the energetic child she once admired. "She left me... and she didn't bother to tell me. You didn't bother to tell me."
Kasumi felt the accusation in the words; it hurt, but it was a hurt she felt she deserved. "No, Ranma... I didn't bother to tell you. Akane said it to me like it was her only hope at making the relationship work. So... I went along with it." She bowed deeply to the young woman. "I didn't know about Ryouga. I'm sorry."
Ranma seemed to stand like a statue, as she clearly pondered Kasumi's words. After a moment, she nodded, then mechanically took off her apron.
"Ranma, where are you going?"
The redhead muttered some unintelligible reply, then headed out the door. Kasumi watched her leave, then turned back to the vegetables. Someone had to finish the meal, after all - and sometimes a good home-cooked meal was just what was needed to cheer a person up.
Akane carefully slid the entryway door open, as though she were expecting some sort of ambush. Seeing that nobody waiting for her at the entrance, she muttered a quiet "Tadaima" to the house, and slipped off her shoes.
Truth be told, she had an enjoyable time. It felt good to be normal again, to go out on a date or to hang out someplace without the feeling of responsibility that usually bore down on her. Also, Ryouga was a good companion; he understood the scars on her heart all too well, as he held similar ones. She found succor in his presence, as though his time as 'P-chan' had helped his empathic skills.
"Akane? Would you come in here for a moment?"
She blinked. Kasumi had heard her, and called from the living area. "Sure, Sis. I'll be there in a sec."
Kasumi knelt in front of the table. A pot of tea was steaming in front of her. "Would you like some?"
Akane blinked. There was something not quite right with Kasumi's voice. It was almost as though she was under some sort of strain. "Sure, Sis." She sat down diagonal to her, and accepted the steaming mug.
"So... where did you go tonight?"
Akane coughed nervously. "Oh... out. Once finals were done, I decided to go and blow off some steam."
Kasumi shut her eyes once, and sighed. Akane gulped; she knew her sister, and she knew she was in big trouble.
"Akane, is there anything else you'd like to tell me?"
Akane looked downward. "You know it was a date, don't you?"
Kasumi looked forward, away from Akane's presence, and sipped her tea. "Akane, Ranma was helping me in the kitchen when Ryouga asked you out. She had come to me asking if she could prepare a celebration dinner for the two of you."
Akane's face turned ashen. "You mean... Ranma..."
Akane put her face in her hands. "Oh, God... I never meant to..."
"Nevertheless, you have." Kasumi sipped her tea thoughtfully. "So. What are you going to do about it?"
Akane sighed. "Apologize, I guess. I didn't know..."
Kasumi sighed. "Akane, Ranma hasn't come back home yet - at least, not as far as I know. I suggest you take your bath and think about what you are going to say to her. After all, the future of the dojo rides on what you say to her tonight."
Akane's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, Kasumi?"
The elder sister took a sip of her tea. "The Musabetsu Kaketou has been depending on the fact that its two heirs work together to train others in the Art. If that falls to pieces... so does our school."
Akane gulped. "I guess it's time I had a talk with Ranma, huh?"
Kasumi nodded. "Don't worry, Akane. I have faith in you." Kasumi kissed her younger sister on the forehead, sending her off. Akane walked as though in a daze, not sure of what to do.
Ranma... loving her was like hugging a porcupine. The closer she got, the more she hurt. Yet... the girl she'd once been engaged to had anguishes of her own - anguishes nobody had attended to.
Perhaps it was time someone did.
She entered the bath area, and paused on looking in the clothes hamper. Ranma's clothes were in there; presumably, she was taking a bath as well. Steeling herself for the confrontation, she finished undressing, and knocked on the door.
She heard something in reply; a small splashing, along with a weak groan.
"Ranma, do you mind if I come in? I just want to talk."
Silence. She wrung her hands together, and readied to open the door.
"Ranma, I'm coming in!" She forced the door open.
It took a second for the sight to sink into her. Ranma lay unconscious in the furo, her head the only part of her above water. Blood - too much blood, Akane thought - mixed with the bath water, staining the sides of the bathtub red. She could see a stream trailing from Ranma's arm into the water, like red smoke. Akane looked down, saw the pile of blood at her feet next to the razor... and screamed.
Her head slammed into the back of the wall; she barely felt it. She'd done this; she'd... she'd...
"Akane, what's wrong? Are you o- OH, MY GOD! Ranma!" Kasumi ran past her, and dragged Ranma from the pool. She took a moment to check for vitals, then looked around. "Akane, get those towels over there!"
Akane blinked for a moment, still stunned. "Huh?"
Kasumi pointed. "The towels! Hurry!"
Akane ran over, and gave her the towels. Kasumi wrapped them around Ranma's wrists; they were already staining red...
"Akane, call 119!"
Akane nodded hastily and ran down to the phone. She worried if she was dialing the right number, her hands were shaking so bad.
"Hello, emergency hotline..."
"Help, we've got an emergency! My... she tried to commit suicide!"
To Akane's surprise, the voice remained calm. "What method did she use?"
Akane shook her head for a moment, to clear it. "Um... s-she slit h-her wrists."
The line was silent for what seemed an eternity. "Okay. The paramedics are on their way. Are you alone in the house?"
"Um... no. Besides Ranma, my sister's also in the house. She's a doctor's assistant, so she knows a bit..."
"Is Ranma the victim?"
A low feeling settled in Akane's stomach. "Yeah. Yeah, she is."
The questions droned on, about how Kasumi was handling Ranma, if there was any sign of alcohol or drugs, if she'd been moody lately, if she had had a history of problems... Akane just wanted the questions to stop. Having caused this was bad enough; being judged by some telephone deity was worse.
She just wanted everything to stop.
Akane saw the door slide open, and the paramedics come in. She motioned over to the bath; she wasn't capable of speech anymore. She just leaned by the wall next to the phone, shaking uncontrollably.
She'd... she'd killed her. She didn't stop to think about what she'd done, and she killed her.
At that moment, she felt like joining Ranma. The paramedics whizzed in and out past her; it was all a blur to her. She barely noticed when someone came up behind her, and wrapped a blanket around her.
She blinked; she'd never heard Kasumi speak so quietly before. "Is she okay, Sis? Is she..."
Kasumi bit her lip. "I don't know, Akane. Her heart stopped while you were on the phone; I managed to get it pumping again, but..." She looked Akane up and down. "Come on. We've got to get ready to go."
Akane nodded mutely. She watched as Ranma was wheeled out on a stretcher; she gasped at how pale the girl looked. It took a full minute of prodding for Kasumi to move her upstairs; she didn't complain while Kasumi helped her dress.
Being torn was a feeling Kasumi was used to. She had grown up as both parent and child, acting to keep her sisters in line even as she yearned to join them in play. Tempers flared easily, then: Akane reacted to Mother's death with fists, while Nabiki resorted to more covert methods of rebellion. She'd oftentimes been forced to act as mediator between the sometimes-warring factions known collectively as a family, never taking sides, but trying to act as peacemaker to all.
She'd tried to keep the peace. She'd sought to help Ranma learn about her new life so that her family's honor would remain intact, tried to help Akane to accept Ranma's new body, and sought to comfort the man-turned-woman whenever she needed help.
Gods, she was a fool.
Gentle sobs echoed in her ears, like they had too many times since Mother's death. Akane was beyond comfort, beyond speech, beyond her own forgiveness. Through the window she could see Ranma, her arms bandaged, the steady droning of a heart monitor letting all know how her battle went. The dreams of two families, as well as the shining stars of those families, were in ruins. Whoever had inflicted their vengeance on Ranma had truly won. Kasumi tried to murmur what encouragement she could into Akane's hair, letting her know that, no matter what had happened, it would be all right in the end, but feeling inside that nothing would be right ever again.
Kasumi closed her eyes and counted to ten before responding. "Ranma tried to commit suicide tonight, Auntie." Her even words faded back to murmurs, as Akane's sobs turned to howls. She didn't move toward Nodoka; she had more important things to do.
"Why? What would cause my child to want to kill herself?"
Kasumi bit her lip. "Now is not the time to discuss this, Auntie. If you wish to know why, I will be able to tell you once I am unoccupied."
"Kasumi, my child is in the hospital, fighting for her life. You will tell me why, and you will tell me now." Nodoka's tone was ice-cold. Kasumi fought back more choice words before responding.
"The engagement between our families was formally ended today, Auntie Saotome. Ranma did not take the news well."
"Excuse me?" Nodoka's gaze nearly caused Kasumi to falter.
"Akane decided that it was best if the engagement ended, due to various circumstances." Akane wailed for a moment, a move which Nodoka saw as confirmation.
"You mean... the engagement... was called off... WITHOUT CONSULTING ME?" Nurses began to move, to quiet the group. Nodoka noticed, waved her hand to them, then whispered harshly, "What were you thinking allowing this to happen, Kasumi?"
Kasumi closed her eyes. Every moment where things could have been different replayed itself for her. "I was wrong in allowing this to happen in the first place, Auntie Saotome. I was wrong in forcing Ranma to be something she wasn't, and for pressing things too much on Akane from my end." She looked downward for a moment. "You may think Tendo family honor cheap right now, Auntie, and for that I don't blame you. However, for what we did to Ranma and Akane, for the... for the hell we put them through, we are both to blame."
Nodoka's dark eyes blazed. "I did what I thought was best for my child and my family."
Kasumi glanced into the hospital room. She was too tired to fight, too tired to stop fighting. "I know. We both did. And we were wrong."
White knuckles gripped the bundle in Nodoka's hands. She could see the wavering of control, the avalanche of anger and helplessness coming over the middle-aged woman, until finally settling into a shaky equilibrium.
"I... It would seem... that I have a lot to think about. I... tried to... help Ranma... and Akane... but apparently my help was not appreciated." She moved backwards, and bowed deeply. "I hold no grudge against the clan Tendo for what happened. However, should my daughter die because of what happened, I will expect individual honor to be upheld." She pulled a wrapped tanto from her sleeve, and handed it to Akane. "I will be back later, to check on Ranma's condition."
Kasumi's eyes darted from Nodoka's retreating form to Akane, to where she held the tanto in her hands. She could see the uncontrollable rage, the fury Kasumi recognized from so long ago, building up inside Akane's dark eyes. Acting quickly, Kasumi held on tightly to her younger sister, embracing her with a ferocious love. Whispered peace came urgently to her lips, to try to calm the firestorm before it went too far. She waited until Nodoka was out of sight and Akane no longer struggling before relaxing her grip.
She looked downward past Akane's shoulder, at the tanto now lying on the ground. She stared at the blade for a long moment, then moved Akane in the opposite direction, away from places where honor would distract them.
She was dead.
Funny how long it took her to realize that.
She shuffled along the corridors of the hospital, with no real life to her movements. She'd had her fun already today; the guard's shoulder was still stiff from the throw she'd given him this morning, if his movements were any indication. A quiet, malicious part of her dearly hoped it still hurt.
Her mind, though, was primarily on other things. It was amazing how easy it was to commit suicide, once she actually considered it. The needles the physicians used to tranquilize could also be used to cut; the sheets by which she kept warm at night made for an excellent noose. Heck, if she was truly desperate, a massive ki maneuver, done right, could end her life quickly; that, however, would be... messy. She had other plans, though. Once she was out, her life (and death) was her own. She would disappear into the wilderness, and join the elusive ghosts in the tree line. No one would ever find the body. Her family would mourn her, of course, even though the death had occurred long before the final rest. Unconsciously, she rubbed the bandages around her wrists, longing for the day when there would be no more itching.
As she moved through the residences, she tried not to look to her sides. She was probably the only completely lucid one in the whole place. The patients frightened her; some had been locked up too long, and looked more animal than human. The doctors and orderlies weren't much better than their charges.
She heard a shuffling behind her; she ignored it. Another patient decided to rebel again, most likely. It wasn't her concern anymore, anyhow.
"Pigtailed girl! Wait!"
She froze. She shouldn't have been surprised to find him here; nevertheless, she was. At the moment, he represented everything she hated about herself - and everything she wanted to avoid. "Kunou, let me be," she scratched out. "Let me die." She began to regret the words as soon as she said them; after all, Kunou had a love for the pigtailed goddess that knew no bounds.
The disbelief in his voice was obvious. "What? Why?"
Lying, though, never occurred to her. Truth hurt; she wanted to hurt others, so that they could share her pain. "Because... my life is already over. Goodbye, Kunou."
"Wait! Please... at least tell me your name."
Something in the request touched a nerve in her. Her body may be gone, but she would NOT die anonymously. "It's Ranma. Saotome Ranma. And don't you ever forget it." She started the road back to her cell, anxious to get away from him as fast as possible. Of all the people she HAD to run into in here, it would be him. She quickly amended her thoughts from before as she made her way to her room.
She wasn't just dead.
She had died, and she had gone to Hell.
I often debate how I should feel about some of the less-than-useful critiques in regards to the Iris Tales.
For those unfamiliar, let me set the scene.
I released "Iris" (the second story in this series) in July 1998. Now, up to that point, I'd been fairly non-controversial as a fanfic writer. For the most part, I advocated a "Possibilities" view. In other words, events change people; the more traumatic the event, the more radical the change, especially in the short-term. I've seen (in real life) relationships that I thought were sure things blow up nastily in fairly short order, so I know how fast things can go south. No relationship is guaranteed in the long run, no future absolutely certain.
Needless to say, Akane shippers didn't like me much. After releasing "Iris", I found out just how much. I got a whole bunch of "critiques" from Akane shippers saying how "Akane would NEVER dump Ranma and start dating Ryoga in the time stated." So... I wrote "Angel", partly to prove these people wrong, and partly to work my way through a bout of depression I'd fallen into around this time.
Unfortunately, such an argument is like making an abortion argument. Those who were convinced before will still be convinced, and those who weren't convinced still won't be convinced.
Still, it's a good work - one of my favorites. Probably no work left more of me bleeding on the keyboard than "Angel", and I am glad to have written it. I guess I should give thanks for that.
Despite that, I've erased most of the thanks I had written for this one. Frankly, I give thanks that are as genuine as the critiques themselves.
I genuinely thank those who appreciated the work and let me know; also, I thank those who pointed out issues of grammar and spelling (esp. Jeff Hosmer), and went out of their way to try to improve the work without destroying the premise of the work.
To "Da Guyz": Thanks for being there, while we were there.
Finally, as for the leadership of the FFML at the time (and you know who specifically I'm talking about, if you were there then): If you're charged with keeping the peace, you don't start and continue a flamewar just to push your own views. It's called "conflict of interest". You took a place that was good for getting useful criticism for works, and turned it into a mouthpiece for your views. And something like that... I don't think it can be condemned strongly enough.
Original version: September 29, 1998
Released to fanfiction dot net: March 24, 2009