I must give credit to MZephyr for posting the basic idea on his livejournal. I initially set out to write this story as an exercise, and I'm fairly pleased with the result.
"You're such a jerk! I guess it's not manly to support your school's volleyball team, is that it?"
"I'm sorry, Akane. I just have no interest in watching a bunch of tomboys like you run around in those really short shorts. Those shorts just show how thick your thighs are, you know. Thick as a bri—"
"Fine!" she yelled in his ear. "I'll be back tonight with a trophy, you know! We don't need a pig like you rooting for us anyway!"
With that, Tendō Akane boarded the bus with the rest of her teammates, the Furinkan High Girls Volleyball Team, and made for the prefecture championship. Rest assured, Saotome Ranma wasn't going to give in to any urge to cheer on the girls in their skimpy outfits, least of all an uncute tomboy like Akane.
He had much better things to do, like sleep. Not that he could do much of that with a snoring panda beside him. It'd almost be better if he snuck into Akane's room and borrowed her bed. Surely the wall between them damped the wheezing, the dull thuds that shook the room when Genma rolled over and banged a paw on the floor boards. If he slept in Akane's bed, he wouldn't have to sleep through class, too. Goodness knew Hinako-sensei would have a field day with his battle aura if that happened.
And there were side benefits to this plan, or so he imagined. He'd noticed a couple times, usually when he had to remove a certain black piglet: if Kasumi hadn't washed the sheets in a while, they would bear Akane's scent: a subtle blend of sweat from her workouts in the dojo and the light lavender she wore for special occasions (like their date in the hedge maze). There was something else, too—tiny streaks on the pillowcase. They smelled not just of salt but of intensity, passion even. It was that passion that defined her, that she brought to everything she did. Ranma had little doubt he caused more than a few of those tears, not that he understood why. She was always getting upset over the most bizarre, boneheaded things.
Really, what was she thinking, waking him up at 4:30 in the morning to ask him if he wanted to come? He'd already said no. Repeatedly, if memory served. If he went, the other girls would jump all over him in outrage—no doubt Ukyō and Shampoo would open concession stands and fight over him during the matches. Kodachi would make an appearance and try to rig a game or two for St. Hebereke's while feeding him paralyzing powder. The whole affair would be a total disaster, and more than that, it would ruin any chances of Akane—er, the school—winning fair and square. Kodachi, at least, could be contained. Bring in the other two and the resulting melee would shut down three city blocks in every direction.
He sat by her bed in contemplation, unwilling to defile the sheets with his own smell. Come nightfall she would hit the sack and curl her nose at foreign odors. She might even recognize them as his own, though why she would know his scent, as he knew hers, eluded him.
Or worse, Nabiki could find out he'd spent the night in Akane's room (conveniently neglecting her absence, of course) and spread the word to the others. Then there would be no peace for any of them until penance was done or the middle Tendō sister handsomely paid off. It was thoughts such as these that made him wonder if it'd be better to settle matters once and for all. He minded little the fiancée commotion himself, but he wasn't the only one who had a stake in affairs. All the girls did, too. Their lives, their futures, rested in his hands, and who was he to keep them in limbo?
Sure, he'd contemplated changing the status quo, but where he lay right now was like the low point in a valley, with cliffs and mountains in all directions. Move too far one way, and the slope steepens and pushes you back down, back to equilibrium, with all forces—all fiancées—pulling equally.
He chuckled to himself. It was an apt analogy, but there was a slight problem: Akane liked to push rather than pull, at least until one of the other girls gained headway. It was then, and only then, that she would yank. Hard.
What a strange girl she was.
Water splashed behind him, and the heat of steam wafted to his back. "This is no time for sitting around, boy," said Genma. "It's morning. Time to train."
Ranma leaned over the sheets, now cool and devoid of Akane's body heat. She'd left about an hour and a half before. He sniffed once, smiled, and followed his father to the pond.
Those moments alone almost made him think his choice was easy. The way to school, however, quickly reminded him that that wasn't true at all. Shampoo ambushed him on her bike, and he noticed three things right away: first, she was sweaty—perhaps she'd delivered some early-morning catering. Second, she wore a white shirt. These two put together allowed him to notice the third thing.
Well, third and fourth things.
"Airen like?" she asked. "Is new top. Great-grandmother buy and say airen will like."
She jerked her hips forward, into his. "Shampoo need airen soon," she murmured. "Now is right time to marry and bring children to village."
She glared. "What you think law for! Think Amazons like bring outsider into village? Think for entertainment?" She shook her head. "Is for survival. Children of strong outsider be stronger, make village stronger."
"Is that the only reason you want to marry me?"
Her eyes widened, and she searched his hard gaze. "No! Wo de airen! Ranma is only one for Shampoo!"
Ranma thought back to his musings of the morning. Perhaps now he better understood where she was coming from, but where was she going? Where did she want them to go?
"And if you marry me, Shampoo? What then?"
"We make village strong!" she said. "More children have, more influence both of us have!"
He smirked. Power and influence. So that's what it all boiled down to. Power, influence…
…and stray trucks running over puddles, splashing rainwater over the sidewalk. Boy became girl, and girl became…
Camel? Cobra? Coyote?
The little pink cat was no match for the speed of the pigtailed girl. Ranma blazed down the canal and into the school courtyard several minutes early, as a matter of fact. If only he could harness that sprinting ability every morning—he'd never be late (and never let Akane clock him for Shampoo's indiscretions, either). So early he was that he sat under a tree and panted, just wanting to rid himself of the memory of the cat.
But from the arms (or claws) of one fiancée into another. Kuonji Ukyō took a very female Ranma by the hand. "You're soaked, Ranchan. What happened?"
"I discovered that water's magnetic. To me."
Ukyō giggled. "Not much of an exaggeration, is it? Well, let's get you some hot water, yeah? Unless you'd like to stay that way for class. It's not like Akane-chan's around to call you a pervert."
"Oh, I think she's said it enough times to have it in surplus."
The okonomiyaki chef frowned. "She mistreats you an awful lot, doesn't she?"
"Mistreats me? It's not like that at all, Ucchan."
"But she won't accept you for you, will she."
Ranma frowned. This was sounding a good bit like another of Ukyō's 'this is why I'm the better fiancée' routines. "How do you mean?"
"I mean your curse, of course."
"Well, it'd be better if I were cured."
"And what if you aren't? Do you think people will accept you?"
"Most people do, I guess."
She had a point. The curse had been a sore spot ever since he and Akane first met. "I don't know."
Ukyō grinned. "Well, I just wanted you to know that I will accept you no matter who you are, Ranchan. You don't have to be shy about things around me."
Ranma blinked. "Ah, thanks…Ucchan." They arrived at the nurse's office, and Ranma splashed himself with the water meant for the coffee machine. Still, Ukyō's remarks troubled him. She seemed certain she could live with him no matter what, but how could she know? How much thought could she have really put into it?
"Say, Ucchan, have you ever wondered what it'd be like if we were married?"
The gasp and blush on her face elicited an immediate cringe, and the sudden crushing hug squeezed the rest of the air out of him. "Oh, Ranchan, of course I'll marry you!"
"Hey, hey, wait a minute, that's not the question I'm asking you!"
She gaped, and her eyes watered over. "It isn't?"
Oh, this was dangerous territory. The thin dividing line between grief and anger. He'd seen it before, usually in Akane. Play this one wrong and he'd be eating spatula, no doubt about it.
"I just wanted to know," he said, "how you imagined it to be."
"Oh, well why didn't you say so!" She giggled. "It's simple, really. I run my restaurant, and you can help out on the side or maybe open your own dojo. Whatever makes you happy, Ranchan."
The whole idea sounded agreeable enough. Ukyō adored him, after all. The only snag was that, in spite of the girly mannerisms she could affect around him, she still talked and acted more like a man, a buddy, not a woman. He felt no longing for her, not like the small bit of emptiness that tugged at him when he looked to Akane's seat and saw no one there.
He scoffed. Like I should miss the tomboy. She's only been gone a few hours.
Still, as Hinako-sensei droned (and drooled) on about English grammar and subject-verb-object constructions, Ranma wondered what Akane would say. He'd already asked Ukyō and Shampoo their thoughts. How might Akane imagine their marriage?
"Hah!" she would say. "Like I'd want to get married to a jerk like you."
Right, well, he could permit a certain suspension of disbelief in a fully conjectural scenario. If she didn't start off with total incredulity, what might she say?
She'd shrug. "I don't know. You'd still be a jerk, but I guess to marry you, you'd have to have some romantic qualities."
"Yeah, like…take me on dates. Tell me I'm pretty. Don't call me an uncute tomboy, or you'll regret it."
She wanted him to tell her she was pretty?
"It's hy-po-the-ti-cal, Ranma. Try that now, and I'll know you're just being a cad."
He laughed. So much for that idea. Even in his imagination, Akane couldn't really give him a clean break. Still, the morning had been informative (even if school itself hadn't been—gods only knew he was never going to understand this rubbish about adjectives; why couldn't they just have the good sense to let nouns and verbs modify other nouns and verbs? worked well enough for Japanese, anyway), but it left Ranma feeling…like something was off. Intentionally or not, Ukyō and Shampoo had both told him what they saw in their futures, but that didn't mean they were right. Ranma couldn't fathom a happy ending with Shampoo, for example, or that he and Ukyō would have the real passion necessary for a relationship. Kodachi…he wasn't crazy enough for her, in every sense of the words.
And Akane? There were times he indulged himself, sure. The question was not of feelings like it was with the others—he honestly wondered how he could develop feelings for Ukyō at all, let alone Shampoo or Kodachi—but what was the point of marrying someone if your very presence made them froth with anger, tremble with rage?
Thus, Ranma left school with a starving belly and a tired mind. This was far too much thinking about nebulous things. He preferred subjects that were concrete: physics, oddly, was very concrete, for the same principles that governed levers and balls covered joints and bones. Martial arts was about the directed application of force, after all. Not to say he enjoyed the mathematical aspects of it, but the concepts, at least, made some amount of sense. Either way, he could go home, do some sparring with the old man or practice katas like Akane would. Calm his mind.
Or not. If experience had taught him nothing else, Ranma could count on Gosunkugi Hikaru to be at the center of trouble, either the root cause or an unfortunate victim. Ranma felt compelled to investigate, lest the boy unleash a pack of wild c-c-camels on the school or some other such nonsense.
"Out of my way!"
Ranma sidestepped Gosunkugi, but the boy tripped over a tree root, and a pack of bystanders followed.
"Aw, come on, Gosunkugi," said Daisuke. "We just want to see what trinket you've dug up now."
"That's right! It's mine; it's not yours, so go away." Gosunkugi clutched the object—a small, golden lamp, dirtied and scuffed in his fall.
"What's that?" said Ranma.
"Can't you tell?" said Hiroshi. "It's a magic lamp! You know, summon a genie, get three wishes."
"If only the genie would come out!" Gosunkugi rubbed his shirt on the metal, to no avail. "Then I'll make Akane-san love me!"
Ranma rolled his eyes. "You guys can't tell me you really believe in that stuff." He plucked the lamp from Gosunkugi's grasp and tapped the handle. "There's nobody inside this thing."
"For a guy who turns into a girl, you sure are skeptical," said Daisuke.
"Hey, now wait just a—"
"A mystical lamp, you say?"
"Foul sorcerer Saotome, you would use this magic to woo the fair Tendō Akane!"
Ranma put a finger on the end of Kunō's shinai and pointed it aside. "I ain't using this thing to woo anybody."
"You mean you wouldn't use it to get that Shampoo girl?" said Hiroshi. "Come on, you have to admit she's pretty hot."
"Can I please have my lamp back?" said Gosunkugi.
"I shall relieve you of this curiosity, Saotome," said Kunō, "and use it to let Akane-kun and my pigtailed goddess see my inner nobility!"
"More like inner slime…"
Kunō glared. "You fiend! Strike strike strike strike strike!"
Ranma dodged Kunō's thrusts, ducked under his guard, and punted him into the school wall, but a thin, bony boy cushioned the upperclassman's impact.
"Aw, Gosunkugi! You all right?" Ranma flung Kunō into a tree for good measure, freeing the helpless victim underneath.
"I wish…I wish for…aspirin," was all he could say. Unconsciousness claimed him, and with no one else willing to fight for the lamp, Ranma pocketed the defective wish-maker and headed for home.
Nothing to be done, I guess. On the off-chance it does work, it'd be terrible if Kunō or Gosunkugi got their paws on it again.
But still he rubbed it mercilessly, until he thought the gold itself would flake off. Figures a real lamp wouldn't work like the ones in the stories anyway.
He should've known it wouldn't be that easy. Wouldn't you know another way to cure his curse would fall into his lap, only to stubbornly refuse to help him. That didn't mean it wouldn't be useful to list out his wishes, just in case. Better to put in that thought now.
"Let's see," he said. "I'd wish to be a man again. That's obvious. I'd wish…" He found this part more difficult. How could he justify changing the world in his favor? His curse was his; that was easy. While money would certainly ease some issues, what if it came at someone else's expense? Weren't some genies in the movies like that? Nay, he shouldn't try to change the world too much with one wish.
"I'd wish for a cure for Pop, too, I guess," he said. "Unless that stupid old man likes being a panda more. Maybe for Ryōga and Mousse and Shampoo too. Anybody who's cursed and doesn't want to be. That way, if they don't like it, they can go back to Jusenkyō and fix it themselves."
That left a third wish on the table, though, assuming number two didn't count as several. He thought back to his ponderings of the morning, his talks with Shampoo and Ukyō and the imagined one he had with Akane. Perhaps the genie of the lamp could solve his fiancée problem—not directly, of course, that would be a disaster, but surely knowledge couldn't hurt. That could be much more persuasive and satisfying than wishing his problems away.
"I wish we could just look at each other and know what it'd be like to be married. That's gotta fix something"
The lamp rattled, spewing deep blue smoke. "Granted!"
"Eh? 'Granted?' Granted what?"
"Your wish, of course." A small figure coalesced and stood atop the lamp. She dusted off the thin blue fabric that clothed her and struck a pose.
"You're the genie?"
"In the flesh! Er, smoke. Thank you for making a wish and freeing me."
Ranma frowned. "Aren't I supposed to free you and then get some wishes?"
"Who told you that?"
"Ah, well, no one exactly…"
"You don't know how long I've been waiting for someone to just make a wish already! Everybody just rubs their fingers over it like that's supposed to do magic!"
Ranma laughed nervously.
"Anyway, I hope the wish works to your liking! I'm going to go enjoy the world!" The genie looked around. "Huh, I guess a lot's changed in the last few thousand years."
"Hey, wait a minute! Don't I get two more wishes?"
"Eh? Who told you that?"
"…well, no one exactly."
The genie giggled. "Have fun with your wish!"
"But wait, how's this wish supposed to work? What about—"
The tiny figure and the lamp turned to smoke and dissipated, but not without the genie's high-pitched cries of glee.
"You've got to be kidding!" said Ranma. "Why couldn't she have given me my first wish?" He bowed his head and sighed. "I guess there's nothing else to do but go home. At least I got one wish, even if I don't know how it works.
Thus, Ranma returned to the Tendō home and dojo, not at all sure what to expect. Indeed, he tried to recall the exact words he used to make the wish, to no avail. Something about fiancées and knowing what it'd be like to marry them. Everything else was lost, but he hoped a good meal would restore his memory.
"Ah, welcome home, Ranma-kun," Kasumi called from the kitchen. "Lunch is almost ready."
"Oh yeah?" He ducked inside, and steamy broth perked his nose. "What kind of soup is it?"
Kasumi tapped a spoon on the edge of the pot and turned to him. "Oh, it's just simple miso soup. It'll be ready—"
Their eyes met.
"It'll be ready in a few minutes, dear," she finished. "Plenty of time, don't you think?"
Ranma grinned. "I think so too."
Exactly what she wanted to hear. "Come along then." She took him by the hand, dragged him lightly to her bedroom. The room was dark, but light from the hall poked under door. Kasumi's apron fell to the floor. She reached back, undid the clasp of her bra, and—
"Whoa!" Ranma staggered back, and his head hit the doorframe.
The kitchen doorframe.
Kasumi blushed. She pulled on her apron and blouse, still quite intact. "Oh my."
"You—you saw it too?"
She turned to the soup and nodded. "Perhaps it'd be best if we discussed this now and never again, Ranma-kun."
"Ah, well….you've always been like a big sister to me, Kasumi-san."
She pursed her lips. "Don't you like older women?"
"Oh, no, it's all right, it's all right." She laughed, though she wouldn't look at him. "I prefer older men anyway, but…I'm still a woman, Ranma-kun. You understand that, don't you?"
She poured a bowl for Ranma and handed it to him blindly. "I think I'll be in my room for a while. I might eat later. Your mother is picking up groceries, I think, our fathers are out, too, but Nabiki should be down shortly. There's one here for her."
"Do you feel all right?"
"Oh yes, just fine." She hung up the apron and headed for her room.
That was strange. Ranma walked his bowl to the dinner table and sipped the broth; perfect, as usual, and he needed it to be. Food could convince him of normalcy even when strange happenings distracted him. Kasumi and I were going to…going to…
But it didn't happen. It was a daydream, a shared daydream perhaps. Was that what the genie did to him? As he ran into women, he'd have visions of his life with them?
Well, all in all, marriage to Kasumi didn't seem so bad, but the thought of doing that…with her…she was like family! The closest thing he'd had to a mother in a long time, at least until he found out he had his own after all. Maybe that life wasn't frightening, but he couldn't fathom how he'd get there.
"Ah, onē-chan won't be joining us? Pity."
Ranma seized. Nabiki! Nabiki was here; was he going to have a vision with her? But wait, he hadn't intended to have visions with Akane's sisters, just his fiancées! Was he going to have dreams of marriage with every girl he ran into on the street?
"Yoo-hoo, Saotome." Nabiki waved her hand in front of his face. "You in there?"
"Of course I'm in here!" he said. "I'm just trying to think and—"
Their eyes met. Nabiki's gaze hardened. "Who was it this time?"
Ranma looked around. The dining room and koi pond vanished. This place was modern. Like an apartment—no, a penthouse. Great windows, pale gray colors. A television hung on the wall, but it was no thicker than his thumb! And probably as wide as he was tall.
And marred with radial cracks from an impact, a punch.
He stood up, and glass crunched under his feet. A cold breeze swept through the room, and shattered windows opened up to a view of the city, dark with night and thirty stories high.
"Well, dear?" Nabiki put her hands on her hips, wrinkling her business suit. "Who or what was it this time?"
"It was leggings," he replied simply.
"Pantyhose? Pantyhose Tarō? Again?"
"The old lecher dropped by to say hello and hide from him. Apparently there was a problem with the new birth certificate." He twiddled his thumbs. "They misspelled 'Awesome.' Twice."
Nabiki sighed and rubbed her head. "I don't believe this."
"It's not my fault!"
"It's the fifth time this month! And today is the 6th!"
Ranma checked his watch. "Actually it's the 7th."
"You know what I mean." She walked to the couch. "God, I need to sit down."
"Ah, no, wait!"
She plopped on the cushion, but it promptly split down the middle and left her windmilling and flat on her back, amidst a cloud of dust.
He ran to her side. "Nabiki, you all right?"
Her glare could freeze a volcano. "Saotome, get the hell away from me."
Ranma blinked. The clink of porcelain caught his attention, but he resisted the reflex to look at the source. Instead, he stared into his own miso soup as Nabiki trudged upstairs.
"There is no way I want you anywhere near me, Saotome!" she yelled back. "It's bad enough otō-san drains my college fund to cover your dojo repairs! I'm not doing that for the rest of my life! Take Akane! For the love of the gods, take Akane!"
He heard a loud slam and gazed into the soup bowl again.
"You've got to be kidding."
After lunch, Ranma barricaded himself in his room, thumbed through his manga collection, even opened his English textbook and considered doing his homework a full two days in advance. As long as he could avoid people, he wouldn't have to worry about strange visions of married life, would he?
Would they just work on women? What if Tendō-san or his own father…?
His eyes bulged. He flipped open the textbook and buckled down over it. " 'The past participle of a verb is—' "
Ranma blinked. "I think that's a present participle."
"I mean boring." The genie of the lamp hopped onto the pages and plopped down. "This is what you do with the wish I gave you?"
"What are you doing here?" said Ranma.
"I noticed you weren't using my magic as much."
"As much as what?"
"There are dozens of women out there, and you're satisfied with only two?"
"Now wait just a second…"
"Aren't you going to visit some of the others?" The genie grinned, and a rolled-up scroll appeared in her hand. "Now that I've been back out in the world, I've heard about you, Saotome Ranma. Let me see here…" She unfurled the parchment and read it with glee. "Cursed at Jusenkyō, huh? That's a good one, worth some points; what kind of curse did you get?"
"Well, if you must know—"
There was a faint poofing sound above him. A metal bucket materialized and overturned…
"Ooh!" The genie clapped as Ranma wiped water from his face. "You're pretty!"
"Just what I wanted to hear," said the pigtailed girl.
"And you've got three fiancées! Or is it four? This isn't written very clearly…"
"It's three, just three!" said Ranma. "And where did you get that, anyway?"
"How else are gods and demigods and divine pasta creatures supposed to keep tabs on the mortal planes?"
"Shh!" said the genie. "You're not supposed to know about that for a few years." The genie glanced at the scroll and smirked. "Well, you sure will have an interesting life, Saotome Ranma!"
"Will have? What do you mean?"
Ranma grabbed at the scroll, but it went up in smoke.
"Nuh-uh, that's cheating," she said. "Why don't you go exercise that wish I gave you? It only lasts until midnight, you know."
"Well, in your time it lasts until 11:54 and twenty-two—"
The genie nodded and smiled.
"So what if I make eye contact with a guy?"
"You of all people should know. That doesn't rule out anything."
Ranma followed the genie's gaze…straight to his very feminine chest.
"I try to forget about that," said Ranma.
The genie rolled her eyes. "So, are you going to go out and use it or what? I hate it when I grant wishes and people don't make the best of them. It gets me in trouble with the higher gods."
"They figure I won't need as much power the next year, and let me tell you something: that's annoying."
Ranma narrowed his eyes. "I can't believe I'm talking to a genie about budgets…"
"Well? What are you waiting for? You've got a wish; go use it!"
"Can't I trade this wish for another? I'd really like to get rid of this curse."
"But why? You're so cute!"
Ranma groaned. "I guess I should go find the kettle then…"
Say what he would of the genie, Ranma had to admit she had a point. As long as he had this bizarre wish granted to him, he might as well make the most of it. What other chances would he get to end the masochism tango between him and his betrothed? Granted, it'd be a shame to break some hearts, but at least, if all went to plan, he wouldn't have to say or do anything. How could anyone hold him responsible for the knowledge the wish gave them?
Then again, he was well aware it could all backfire. His visions with Kasumi and Nabiki had been…interesting, but not all of them had to be so. What if, say, he had a good vision of life with Shampoo and Ukyō? How could he really choose between them? How could they ever give up on him, knowing how wonderful their lives might be? His mind strayed to the tug of war analogy he'd thought of earlier. If emboldened, both girls would tug harder and harder until…
Snap. He stepped on a twig.
Heh. I am the twig.
He moved on, eyes down and shaded behind sunglasses. Perhaps, if he couldn't get the genie to change the terms ("Sorry, but once a wish is made it can't be undone!"), he could avoid eye contact as much as possible, deter people from looking at him with a totally hideous pair of sunglasses. The lenses obscured half his face and tinted the world in a sickly orange-red. He congratulated himself on his cleverness, for as he passed people on the street, they glanced in his direction and looked away, lest they laugh in his face.
He made a note to thank Akane for borrowing them without permission. The real test would be whether he could avoid telling her why he used them, how he knew no one could look at them and keep a straight face. Then and only then could he escape the mallet. Or the shinai. Or a hefty helping of good old-fashioned foot.
She was nothing if not versatile with her weaponry.
He stopped. He shuddered. When Akane came back, he'd have to look her in the eye, too. It would only be fair.
What if it was bad? What if there were no happiness for them? Shampoo, Ukyō, Kodachi—he expected those matches to disappoint. Given how they fought, he could well predict the same of Akane, and yet that bothered him. For all he cared, Kodachi could go get measurements for a straitjacket and Shampoo go home to face punishment. Ukyō? He hoped they would stay friends. Now and then she tried to help him, and she deserved someone who could love her back. But Akane…
…hadn't they been through too much just to break apart? Since he and his father returned to civilization and settled down, Ranma spent most of his days with Akane. They teased, they fought, but they stuck together, didn't they?
He looked aside. By now, she'd give him a quizzical look. "Baka, what are you standing here for?" she might say. "Ranma?"
Was that annoyance on her face?
Was it concern?
He jerked. A pair of hands shook him by the shoulders. He inched his eyes along the sidewalk, hoping to avoid the stranger's gaze, but he knew right away who it was when he caught sight of the flowery kimono.
"Are you all right, my son?"
He smiled. "I'm fine, Mom. Just fine."
"I saw you from the corner. You were staring off into space. I called to you, but you didn't answer."
"Sorry. Must've been daydreaming." And that was a mistake. Out here in public, he had little time to dilly-dally. Sure, weird things liked to happen in Nerima, but looking a stranger square in the eye and seeing visions of your future with them? That could be nothing less than creepy. He had to get where he was going.
"Those glasses—don't they belong to Akane-chan?"
"Yeah, I had to borrow them."
Nodoka gazed skyward. "Strange, it's so cloudy."
I wish I'd remembered that…
"Is there something wrong with your eyes?"
"Eh? No, nothing wrong at all! Why would there be something wrong with my eyes? I don't—"
She cupped his face in her hands. "Here, let me take a look—"
Their eyes met, and Ranma realized that sunglasses might be good for dissuading people from looking at you, but if someone was intent to look you in the eye, well, not much could be done about that.
Saotome Nodoka paled. Her eyes glazed over; she teetered back…
Ranma dashed behind her and caught his mother, but he fought back the acid that welled up his throat.
I'm just catching her from falling; that's all. I'm not touching her in any way like…like that!
Nodoka rubbed her forehead. "Ranma? My son?"
"I had no idea…"
"No, no, you don't understand—"
"I had no idea you were so much like your father."
Ranma nearly dropped her on the concrete.
After he got her some water to recover, Ranma sent his mother merrily on her way back home. Though woozy, she promised to speak with him and his father later that evening.
"I must warn you, though, Ranma," she'd said, averting his gaze. "Pining after your mother is…well…I don't know what it is, but I don't think it's very manly!" That said, she made no move for her katana, merely fanning herself. "I really must see your father, though. As long as there isn't any cold water around, anyway…"
Ranma scratched his head for a moment, weighing the possibilities.
She just won't get any answers out of him as a panda, he told himself. Yeah, that's it.
His mother touched her hand to her cheek and sighed.
That has to be it.
Satisfied with this explanation, Ranma continued on his journey. The sooner he made his rounds among the fiancées, the better, and he figured this would be an ideal time to get rid of the single most annoying suitor on the face of the planet: Kunō Kodachi, "The Black Rose."
More like "The Black Loon." But, her mental state notwithstanding, there was an upside to her madness: she was the only one he figured couldn't be encouraged anymore than she already was.
He prayed to whatever gods that might watch over him (even if they were pasta creatures) that he wouldn't have to regret those words. He'd rather eat Akane's cooking.
"Yo, Kodachi!" He buzzed the speaker at the front gate. "It's Ranma."
"Go away, Saotome," said Kunō. "You humiliate me at school, and now you trespass upon my home? What do you—agh!" He coughed and wheezed. "What is the meaning of this, sister? What have you…done…?"
Well, for once I'm thankful she has paralysis powder around.
"My most profound apologies, Ranma-sama!" said Kodachi. "What brings you by this lovely day?"
That voice curdled his insides, and today, he'd actively sought it out! Best not to prolong the ordeal. "I just want a moment of your time," said Ranma. "That's all."
"A moment is all our love requires." The gate creaked open, and Ranma ventured onto the grounds of the Kunō estate. He hopped over the pond and the ever-curious Mr. Turtle, and though the crocodile eyed his approach and snarled, Ranma paid it no heed. He peeked inside the house.
Her voice echoed through the halls. "I think you know the way to my bedchambers, do you not, Ranma-sama?"
He groaned. Sidestepping a sleeping Kunō, Ranma followed the voice to Kodachi and pointedly left the door open.
"Ah, at last!" Kodachi stretched on her bed, obscuring herself behind thin black curtains, so only her shadow was clear.
Can't make eye contact with a shadow. Ranma twitched. Oh no, please tell me she's wearing something, anything!
"Well, Ranma-sama? I await your caress…"
Even not knowing what lay behind the curtains, Ranma turned away. "Isn't it a bit early for that?"
The shadow crept to the corner of the bed. Kodachi brushed the curtain aside, revealing a silken black nightgown. "Surely it's never too early," she said. "It's never going to be…"
Their eyes met.
Kodachi smiled and crossed her legs, brushing the sand off her one-piece swimsuit. The sun floated low over the horizon and the crashing waves, and Ranma pulled on his trunks and lay back in the beach chair.
"Are you happy?" he asked her.
"Thrilled, truly," she said. "We're here together, aren't we?"
Ranma propped himself up on his elbow. "Kodachi…"
She closed her eyes, puckered her lips. "Ranma-sama…"
Crash! The chair snapped and sent Ranma tumbling over the sand between them…
…and into a cooler of melted ice.
"My beauteous pigtailed girl!" Kunō wrapped his arms around her and rubbed her chest against his own. "At last; I'd thought you'd disappeared forever!"
"Ranma-sama?" Kodachi stared and gaped at the sight. "Are you…my husband?"
"No…" She rose, tripping amidst the dunes. "No, no, no!"
Blink blink. Ranma looked away, breaking the vision, and caught a glimpse of shredded curtain on the floor.
"Forgive me, Ranma-sama!" she said, brushing by him. "I must go thrash my dear brother for ruining such a lovely dream! Stay right there, won't you?"
As Kodachi introduced her brother to plaster and support beams, Ranma excused himself from the mansion. Kodachi herself was probably a wash (strange, though—she actually seemed…almost normal), but knowing that she came with her equally mad brother…
…well, good thing he never seriously considered her anyway.
"Brother, would you like to play with Mr. Turtle? You would, wouldn't you?"
Perhaps, while he was here, he could open Kunō's eyes, too, let him see…
Kunō Tatewaki spiraled into the pond, and the resulting torrent drenched the passing Ranma. "Oh! Could it be? My darling pigtailed girl?"
So much for that idea. Ranma punted him back to the house and barged through the gate. He still had two fiancées, real fiancées, to visit.
On the way to Nekohanten, the Cat Café, Ranma studied the sidewalk. Akane's sunglasses looked less ridiculous on a girl, he realized, and since they didn't protect him anyway, he shoved the shades in his pocket.
He knew they didn't protect him when he ran into Ryōga, who left muttering something about fishing rods and burying Ranma in a grave again. Given that Ranma left this encounter retching, he could hardly blame Ryōga for the thought, however.
But, now it was time to get real. Visiting Shampoo with the wish still upon him held the promise of destroying the status quo. On one level, he welcomed change, the prospect of thinning this most unwanted harem to reasonable levels, but on the other hand, every fiancée he eliminated would encourage the others. He could actually find himself getting married, and soon, too! Knowing his and Akane's fathers, it'd probably be soon, anyway. They had monks and priests on speed dial, after all.
…who said it would be Akane? It could just as easily be Ukyō, at least. Probably not Shampoo, though. Ranma couldn't conceive of a marriage scenario with Shampoo that didn't involve drugs, magic, or liberal combinations of the two, and he hoped that, despite Shampoo's reliance on these methods, she would see marriage under those circumstances to be loveless and unfulfilling. If she believed that, she could leave him alone.
Or maybe she'd just try to kill him. He could take her, though. Not her and Cologne, but Shampoo herself he could take down—after all, that's what got him into this mess.
All the same, Ranma crept into the Amazons' restaurant with some trepidation and showed himself to a table.
"Airen!" A crash. Half a dozen plates smashed on the floor. "Airen need hot water?"
Shampoo smiled. "Mousse! You clean mess! I get Ranma hot water!"
"You clean mess, or duck you be!" She shoved him into the main dining room, and the bespectacled waiter resigned himself to the task. He fished out a dustpan from shirt and stacked the ceramic shards on top of it.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised he has everything up his sleeves.
"Why are you here, Saotome?" he said.
"You're plotting to win Shampoo, aren't you?"
Mousse raised an eyebrow. "Why don't you look me in the eye and say that?"
Ranma huffed. "This isn't the day you want to do that."
"Shampoo agree." The buxom Amazon sat across from Ranma in the booth and smiled, holding the kettle out for him. "You want?"
"Thanks." As the steaming water restored his masculinity, Ranma shifted in his seat. Unlike Kodachi, he didn't want to spring this effect on Shampoo without some warning. He wanted her to understand exactly what would be happening, so she would take the vision as the truth.
"What wrong?" she asked. "Airen no look at Shampoo."
"You remember what we talked about earlier today?" said Ranma, admiring his own lap.
"Of course. Shampoo remember everything about airen."
"Well, when I left school, I came across a magic lamp."
"The genie inside gave me a wish, you see."
"Oh!" She clapped her hands together. "Ranma wish for Shampoo, yes?"
She frowned. "Ranma wish for pervert girl?"
"It's nothing like that!"
Shampoo relaxed, but her excitement waned to curiosity…and uncertainty. "What then?"
"I wanted to know what it'd be like if I married someone. It was kind of an accident; I thought I'd have more wishes than that."
"Oh! Great-grandmother tell story of such thing. Wish-granter very tricky; not give all what you want."
"Well, this wish-granter gave me what I asked just a bit too…literally. When I look into someone's eyes, I see what would happen if I married them."
He looked to the napkin dispenser, for it bore Shampoo's reflection, or at least part of it. Her mouth hung open.
"Airen want look into Shampoo eyes?"
She tensed. "Airen not know what in Shampoo heart?"
"It's not about that!"
Mousse knelt beside the Amazon and grinned. "Don't be afraid, Shampoo; you don't need to look into his eyes! I will take care of you forever; I will—"
She flicked her elbow and decked him on the spot. "Shampoo not afraid! Shampoo look in Ranma eyes, for Ranma is airen! Ranma is Shampoo future!"
Ranma gulped. "Well then, here goes…"
Their eyes met.
Ranma twirled his pigtail. "Well what?"
"Aren't you going to tell me, Daddy?"
Across from him sat Shampoo, and in her lap, a little girl, with shining dark hair like her mother, but tied into a short, braided pigtail…
…like her father.
"Tell me how you and Mommy got married!"
Ranma looked away. Firelight flickered off the tent's walls, and aside from the crackling of the wood, not a sound could be heard.
"Well," he said, "we first met long ago, when my father and I happened across the village. I mistakenly ate the feast for the tournament, the one meant for your mother. I defended myself; this was when I still had my curse, so I was a girl at the time, and when I defeated her, she gave me the Kiss of Death."
The little girl gasped, and Shampoo nudged her slightly.
"But soon after she saw the true me, and I defeated her again, and by law, we had to be married. The elders decided that that held precedence, so your mother followed me back to Japan."
The little girl smiled, totally entranced, but Shampoo wore no such grin.
"It was a long time before I could accept her," said Ranma. "I was stubborn, but so were the elders. I was too good a catch to leave to the outside world. They sent other warriors to help your mother subdue me and bring me back to the village."
There was a small stir within the tent, but a handful of voices hushed the remaining listeners.
"I defeated them all, one-by-one and together. I'd been training as a martial artist since I was your age, after all, to carry on my father's school. But this played into the elders' hands; even if I could fend off every warrior of the village, it would only serve their plan."
Shampoo closed her eyes, pain evident on her face.
"By defeating the other warriors, I was obligated to marry them, too."
The crowd at Ranma's feet oohed in awe. Ranma met their gazes one at time: some could stand, like his eldest here, but others nestled in their mothers' arms. Some were bald, too young to have hair, but of those who did, they bore not ponytails or long, flowing manes.
They all wore pigtails.
Shampoo punched the table and split it in two. "Ranma is Shampoo airen, not other airen! No belong to other girls, no belong…"
She panted and trembled. The patrons of the Nekohanten stared at her, and she withered under their gaze.
"So many children," she whispered, "but not all belong to Shampoo. Ranma not belong to Shampoo either…"
She dashed to the kitchen, and both Ranma and Mousse sat among the wreckage. After a few seconds of stunned silence, Mousse swept up the debris and grinned. "At last, Shampoo can be mine…"
Good for Mousse, perhaps, but Ranma sighed and ran his hand through his hair. Some way to break a girl's heart this was, even if Shampoo had done nothing but plot and scheme for his love since the day she arrived. Still, it was—
RAP! A walking stick banged him on the head. "Son-in-law, what have you done to my great-granddaughter? What have you—"
Their eyes met. Cologne shuddered, and Ranma covered his face and looked away.
"This magic," Cologne said, "how did you come across it?"
"It's complicated," said Ranma, "but it'll be gone by midnight."
"I'm glad." Cologne hopped away on her stick. "Excuse me, son-in-law, while I go find a large body of water to drown myself in. I'd suggest you stay away from people until tomorrow, but I know you won't. I dare say the fates won't let you."
Ranma only picked up the remains of the kettle Shampoo had brought and gulped down the contents. Even scalding water was better than heaving his lunch all over the café.
"You should be happy you got rid of her!" Akane would say. "It's just like you to want to keep her around and stroke your ego."
Ranma moped his way across town as the afternoon waned. The thought of Cologne in a string bikini wasn't the only thing that turned his stomach. Despite everything she'd done to hurt him and Akane, Shampoo was a person, and he'd broken her. Maybe not physically, perhaps, but mentally, emotionally? More than that, he knew well enough he was ill-equipped to fix such things.
"As long as you don't go crawling back to her and tell her you love her," said his imaginary Akane. "We all know what happened last time."
"Yeah, you put me in a body cast for a month solid."
"You deserved it!"
He always deserved it. Well, no, some of the time he felt he didn't. Other times he knew he did, even though he could seldom pin down the offense he'd committed. Of late, it was better to expect the fist first and ponder the causes after the fact.
But, "Akane" was right. It might patch up Shampoo's feelings to go back and apologize to her, but in truth, the vision had only confirmed his preexisting inclinations. He had no desire to marry Shampoo. Maybe, if the vision had been pleasant, he would've reconsidered, but he certainly wouldn't now.
Still, he contemplated whether he should go home, as Cologne had suggested. There were only two people left to see, really: Akane, who wasn't home yet, and Ukyō.
"But she's crazy about you," said Akane. "She's cute, she can cook, and—"
"That's not everything."
Akane raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what is?"
"I don't know. I still kind of think of her as a guy, really."
She gestured toward the canal. "That shouldn't stop you."
"I mean, you know…"
"I may be part of your mind, Ranma, but that doesn't mean I can read it."
Ranma stopped on the corner, with the Ucchan's awning across the intersection. "I guess I mean I wouldn't know how to treat her like a girl."
"If you're saying you have no romantic sense—"
"Like Hiroshi and Daisuke are always talking about."
"What are Hiroshi and Daisuke always talking about?"
He smirked. "What are Yuka and Sayuri always talking about?"
Her eyes widened, her face redder than a fire engine. "Ranma no baka!" She punched him on the shoulder. "You spy on us?"
"It wasn't my idea!"
"But you went along with it, and I bet you enjoyed it, too!" She huffed and crossed her arms, turning away. Ranma looked across the intersection, hands in his pockets.
"I know Ucchan is cute," he said, "but to do things like that…"
Akane giggled. "I don't believe it. The great martial artist, Saotome Ranma, is shy! Of girls!"
"Do you hear that, everyone?" she yelled. "Ranma is shy! He doesn't know what to do with girls!"
"They can't hear you. You're just my imagination."
"But you can hear me, and it's making you blush."
He put his hand to his cheek. Whether the heat under his skin was real or imagined mattered little, of course, for Akane would taunt him either way.
"You just need practice," she said.
Practice? What could she mean by—
She skipped in front of him, meeting his gaze. "Hold me."
"Pretend we're dancing," she said. "You know how to dance, right?"
Before he could protest, she raised her arms and rested them on his shoulders and behind his neck.
"You just hold me by the hips."
Oh, of course, make it sound simple why didn't she. Begrudgingly, he obliged her.
"All the way around."
This, of course, would force them even closer together, but her brown eyes enchanted him. Even in the plain blue-green uniform, she radiated vitality. To bring her closer and put their bodies in contact…
"Shy," she mumbled. "Scared of women."
He scowled. Outside of cats, no one could accuse of him of being scared of anything! He wrapped his arms around her waist and forced her against him.
And he froze. Her chest pressed against his, and she sighed with contentment. He felt every motion and muscle contraction. It was like they were one body, connected in a thousand different places.
"So you see, Ranma," she said, "if you can come to touch an uncute tomboy like me this way, it should be easy to do this much and more with Ukyō, don't you think?"
"I've been daydreaming too much," he said. "You act much sexier in my head. The real you would've slapped me by now."
She smiled, pulling her arms away. "Well…"
BAM! Gut, meet Akane's fist. It's so happy to get to know you.
"That's what you get for comparing me to other women."
"But I was comparing you to you!"
"It doesn't make a difference."
Still, after nursing his hurt pride (even if it was only in his mind), Ranma hesitated, just out of sight of the front door to Ucchan's Okonomiyaki.
"What's the matter?" said Akane. "Just go in there."
"I don't want to upset her."
"You can't control what the vision shows you. If it isn't the picture of a happy marriage, what can you do?"
"I guess you're right…"
Akane frowned. "You're really worried, aren't you?"
"Ucchan's a friend. You remember how it was when she transferred in? I was glad to see her."
"Is that after you remembered who she was?"
"Well, it was ten years since I saw her. But anyway, she's a friend, and even though I don't know if I like the idea of her being my fiancée, I don't want to damage that. It's going to be the same with you, too, you know."
"You don't like the idea of me being your fiancée."
"I mean that we're friends! Sheesh." He rolled his eyes. "Dumb tomboy! You blow everything out of proportion!" He cringed. That was worth a good smack, even if it was imaginary. Didn't matter that he was right, either, because the wrath of Tendō Akane would surely launch him into low earth—
"You really think we're friends?"
He relaxed. Thank heavens his mental image of her had the right kind of selective hearing.
"After all the names you call me?" she asked. "Are we really friends?"
"Hey, just because we call each other names doesn't mean anything."
"Maybe not, but where does that leave us then?"
Ranma sighed. "I don't know. I just wish we could talk like this when you're really here, without one or the other of us flying off the handle."
She opened her mouth, as if to spout a witty retort, but instead it hung open.
"What?" said Ranma.
"I was going to say you don't get another wish."
"So why didn't you?"
"Ranma, if you want me to talk to you, you should tell me so. The real me."
"You misunderstand a lot of things, though, and…well, I mess up saying a lot of things, too."
"So make it a challenge," she said. "Don't stop until you've made me understand; don't stop until you've said exactly what you want to say."
"And if that doesn't work?"
"You have to try first."
He sighed again, uncertain. "You really think it could work between us?"
She grinned. "If you want the answer to that…" She tapped him on the nose. "…you're going to have to look me in the eye. Get it?"
Giggling, she crossed her arms behind her back and started walking. "See you at home, Ranma."
He looked down at the pavement and smiled. "See you at home, Akane."
He checked both ends of the street. There were some pedestrians, passers-by: a woman pushed a stroller, and a man carried a briefcase, but there was no sign of the lithe and limber teenage girl, nor did he expect there to be.
With that, he walked up to Ucchan's and whipped open the door. Ukyō was nowhere to be found, but Ranma spotted a kimono in the corner. "Hey, Konatsu."
"Good evening, Ranma-sama! Ukyō-sama is just in the back. Would you like to sit down?"
He nodded and took a stool at the counter. The restaurant was fairly busy—Ranma marveled that Ukyō could satisfy all these customers with only occasional help from her waiter, but cooking was her passion, after all. Aside from him, anyway.
"Who is that, Konatsu?" came the chef's voice from beyond the curtain. "Someone coming or going?"
"It's me, Ucchan."
"Ranchan!" She peeked out, but Ranma covered his eyes with his hand. "What's the matter?"
"Did you hear what happened after school?"
She tapped her spatula on the counter in thought. "Something about a magic lamp?"
"I took it from Gosunkugi and made a wish by accident."
"Did you get it?"
"The cure for your curse, of course. That's what you wished for, isn't it?"
"Well, it was by accident, so…no."
"Oh! Well…" Ukyō sat across from him, trying to peek under his hand. "What is it, then?"
"When I look at people, I see what would happen if I married them."
"Really? What made you wish for that? Oh, that's right, we were talking, and—" She frowned. "Who have you seen already?"
"How were they?"
"Nothing I cared for."
"You want to look at me now?"
"You need to see the future to decide to be with me, Ranchan?"
"Does it hurt?"
She laughed slightly, to herself. "A little. But if it helps you make a decision—"
Ranma put both hands on the counter and looked her square in the eyes.
"Move it, Ranchan," she said, leaning over the griddle and kissing him. "You have students."
Ranma smiled and ran his fingers through her hair. Kissing Ukyō was like having a lover and a friend all rolled into one—a pleasing and tranquil sensation.
He pulled away, and with a cocky grin, he jogged out of Ucchan's…
…and headed right next door. "Saotome Dojo," read the sign. "Anything Goes Martial Arts."
For the rest of the afternoon, Ranma tutored all ages of pupils, from waddling toddlers to awkward teenagers to full-grown adults, even old men. Twice that day challengers from other dojos announced their intentions to fight the Grand Master, and twice over Ranma dueled them in the finest traditions of the Art.
And after a long day of teaching and training, Ranma washed up in the bath and met Ukyō in the bedroom, to enjoy the pleasures meant for a man and his wife. Sure enough, when he emerged, Ukyō greeted him in a corset and black leggings, her hands behind her back.
"You got something there?" said Ranma. "Let me see."
She shook her head and grinned. She backed away as Ranma approached, but Ranma held her by the shoulder, and she stumbled on her feet.
Water splashed on the carpet and sunk into the floor.
"Oh no, Ucchan, again?"
She revealed the glass pitcher, and clear water sloshed within. "Please, Ranchan?"
"But I just took a bath!"
"It's just for tonight, I promise! Please?"
Ranma sighed. "Will there be spatulas?"
Ukyō smiled. "Not tonight."
"Yay!" Ukyō dumped the pitcher over him and yanked the pigtailed girl to the bed. "This is just part of why you're so wonderful, Ranchan…"
He glanced across the counter, where Ukyō did her best imitation of a beet.
"So you like—"
"No, it's not like that! I like your male body, too, Ranchan, I promise!"
Promises, promises. He closed his eyes and heard her last promise, that it would be "just for tonight." She'd pleaded with him, and his whole body went slack. He knew he'd heard those words before.
"I'll see you Monday, Ucchan."
Ranma stuck his hands in his pockets and headed for home.
"I don't see what the problem is," said Akane. "Haven't you touched yourself as a girl before?"
Ranma snorted. "Can we not talk about that?"
"Well, if it's not the 'being a girl' thing, then what is it?"
That was a good question. At the time, all Ranma knew was that he felt extremely unsettled, sitting there on Ukyō's stool as she fantasized about his girl form. Well, maybe that was harsh; it wasn't her fault that he saw it, and he couldn't hold her accountable for her actions in the future, in a vision that almost certainly wouldn't come to pass now. All the same…
"She didn't ask," Ranma realized.
"Sure she did," said Akane. "She said, 'Please, Ranchan?' and batted her eyelashes to make you go all melted inside."
"That's not asking."
"You have a funny way of defining it, then."
"I mean…" He stopped. "She wouldn't be happy if I didn't."
Akane shrugged. "It's possible."
"Possible." Ranma scratched his head and moved on. "I guess I should be happy; she's more comfortable with my curse than I am, than…" He winced.
"Than I am?" asked Akane.
"If anything, Ranma, I can see you're not a pervert," she said. "Curse or no curse."
"But that's you, not her," he said. "Not the real Akane."
"Maybe we're not as different as you think."
But as Ranma took his dinner upstairs and locked himself in his room once more, he couldn't help but think they were that different. He'd said more to her today than he had in the last week. He could trust his thoughts and feelings to a figment but not the genuine article. Maybe that's what he yearned for all along: a dream, a fantasy unattainable. Even the visions that seemed good at first unraveled at the end.
Perhaps it'd be better if he let the clock tick by. At least if he didn't look into the future again, glimpse the marriage between him and Akane, he could hope for a life that didn't turn completely upside down. Not knowing the future, he'd have no reason to fear it.
Night descended on the dojo, and Ranma occupied himself as best he could. Seven o'clock. Eight o'clock. Nine o'clock. Just a few more hours. Akane would come home at some point, but he'd turn her away. He was good at that. A well-placed insult to her femininity, her intelligence, or both, and she'd leave him alone for three more hours. For all the things he didn't understand about her, he knew how to push her away…
…just not how to hold her in his arms, how to feel connected.
He knew that voice, and this time it wasn't his imagination. "Akane?"
"Nabiki-onē-chan told me things were pretty weird today."
He looked to the door. The hallway light cast her silhouette against the thin material.
"Oh, you know," said Ranma, standing across from her. "Nothing special."
"She said she and Kasumi-onē-chan had daydreams about being married to you."
"They're not daydreams; they're real. It was…a botched wish."
"Sounds like another day all right."
"Did you win a trophy?" asked Ranma.
Akane dropped her bag and rummaged through the contents. She held the figurine against the fabric. "First place," she said.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.
"You have to look at me to trigger it, huh?"
She nodded. "I understand why you don't want to."
"I'm sure I don't hold a candle to what you saw with Shampoo or Ukyō. You visited them, didn't you?"
"I didn't like what I saw."
"It's not a lie! Why are you so paranoid?" He winced. Oh, that's gonna do it…
"Paranoid? I'm not paranoid! If you didn't like what you saw, then you're even more of a jerk than I thought! How could you not be happy with them? They're cute, and they're sexy, unlike me!"
She picked up her bag and marched down the hall to her room, slamming the door behind her.
"Good job, Ranma," he muttered to himself. "Did it again."
He sat back and picked up a manga, but the pictures and words gave him no solace. An old piece of advice crept into his mind.
"Don't stop until you've made me understand; don't stop until you've said exactly what you want to say."
He huffed. Not if he wanted his health he didn't.
But then, what did he have to lose? If he started fumbling again, she'd put him through a wall and make him think it over while he was unconscious.
He slid open the door and faced the duck-shaped nameplate. "Akane!"
"I didn't mean to call you paranoid; I'm sorry."
"Not good enough!"
He growled. That was Akane, all right. Hard to please. "I couldn't marry Shampoo without marrying half her tribe!"
"I bet you liked it!"
"I didn't! Nobody was happy about it, and I had more children than I knew how to deal with!"
"Couldn't keep your hands to yourself, huh?"
"But that's not even the worst part!"
"Oh really? What then?"
"I had to learn Chinese!"
Silence. He'd stunned her speechless. "Akane?" There was a muffled noise, something he couldn't quite make out. "Akane!"
"You must've sounded like Sham…" She burst out laughing. "Like Shampoo does! You must've sounded like even more of an idiot!"
"Hey, I'm not an idiot!"
But she laughed over him, and he stayed his tongue and spared her joy, even if it did come at his expense.
At last, Akane stifled her giggles and asked innocently, "What about Ukyō?"
He gritted his teeth. As a friend, Ukyō deserved some privacy in this matter. "There was a restaurant and a dojo, but it didn't work either. I had to do things to make her happy that I didn't like."
"I'm sorry, Ranma…"
"I'm sorry, too. I'm still sorry."
A pause. "When did you get so nice?"
"I've been thinking," he said. "Thinking too much, probably. Having a crazy wish come true does that, I guess."
"You're nice when you take time to think."
He smiled and leaned on the door. "Thanks, Akane."
"You know, I wanted you to be there, at the tournament," she said.
"I know. Now I know."
"But you got this wish, and—hey, why didn't you ask for a cure, anyway?"
"Sheesh, everybody asks that! It was an accident, that's all!"
She laughed, and after a moment's confusion, he laughed with her. In a way, it was like he got a second wish—he learned how to talk to her—and that made this day worth all the craziness he'd endured.
"You shouldn't hang out in the hall like that," she said. "Do you want to come in?"
"I don't know what we'll see," he warned her. "It could be anything."
The doorknob rattled. "Well, we can't be afraid, can we?"
"No," said Ranma. "We can't."
The door opened. Their eyes met.
Morning. Daylight. Breakfast at the Tendō home. While the rest of the family enjoyed their meal, Ranma and Akane sat beside one another stiffly.
Akane blinked, her hand on the doorframe. "That—that's it?"
"Ah, Akane!" Nabiki paused at the top of the stairs and smirked. "Sharing precious visions of the future with Saotome, are we?"
"It was nothing!" said Akane. "Could hardly be different from any other day here!"
"Really? You two look to be awfully close to each other."
Ranma stepped back, and Akane shut the door. "Good night!" she called through the wall.
He retreated to his room but lingered at the threshold, watching the duck-shaped nameplate wobble on its string.
11:30. Ranma watched the minutes tick off, unable to sleep. He'd hoped he could just turn in and let the wish wear off, but his mind raced through the day's deeds, unsettled.
He frowned. Surely they'd come further than that; to think themselves doomed to the endless cycle of insults…
At least the other visions showed some sign of love. Shampoo and I had a child. Ucchan loved me, even if I couldn't love her all the time. Kodachi seemed sane when she didn't have to chase me. But Akane and I…I thought we could get over it. We're kids; people aren't supposed to insult each other forever.
Maybe they wouldn't. Maybe they'd outgrow it, but the vision surely didn't say so.
"I can't believe that was it," he muttered, turning over.
"Who says it was?"
He yelped and scrambled upright. The little blue genie stared at him.
"My, you're jumpy," mused the genie.
"What are you doing here?" said Ranma. "What do you want now?"
"You don't seem too happy with your wish. I thought I could help."
"Can you change it for something else?"
The genie scoffed. "Not after you used so much of it already."
"Then what can you do?"
"You still have time," said the genie. "Anyone else you thought you could marry?"
Ranma shook his head.
"Maybe you should take a second look, try someone again."
"You might see something different," said the genie. "You might not, but you might."
"Something different? Like another future, a better future?"
"Silly mortal, there are lots of futures!" The genie laughed. "But, in all seriousness, the magic I used shows you something that is likely, something that is relevant. Something that will resonate with you. If you choose to marry one of these girls, I can't tell you things will work out that way no matter what. Hey, knowing the future you could change it, too, you know."
"But I can look again?"
"Of course! I make no guarantees, however."
He didn't need one. He would settle this right now. No way he and Akane would spit insults for the rest of their lives.
He crept into her room, as he'd done dozens of times before, for a host of reasons. There was no pet pig here tonight (thank you, gods, for keeping Ryōga out), and Akane slept soundly, like a queen. Most of the time he feared waking her, but she could call him a pervert and a jerk all she liked; he had a mission here, and he would not let fear deter him.
She smiled and stirred, but her eyes remained shut. "Ranma…"
He knelt beside her, and the same scent she had—of sweat and lavender and life, sweet life—intoxicated him. It was so strong with her here, this close to him.
"I need you to wake up, Akane."
"But I'm sleepy," she whined.
"I need to see more," he said. "Open your eyes."
"Why? What do you want to see?"
"That we can be friends," he said, "even if we can't be…"
She smiled. "I'd like that," she said, "but…can you do something for me, Ranma?"
He gulped. "Okay."
"So when I open my eyes, I don't have to look for you."
"All right." He leaned over her, blocking the moonlight in the window and casting her face half in shadow.
He lowered himself, and her breath tickled his lips and cheeks.
How did I ever call this girl uncute and unsexy?
"I can feel you," she said, grinning.
"Is this close enough?"
"Yes." Her eyes fluttered open, and…
It was like dinner at home after a long vacation. Each morsel satisfied yet left you wanting more.
Ukyō, he realized, was too secure; there was no risk with her. Kissing Akane was a dangerous thing—a passion that threatened to explode. But that was okay. Indeed, the danger excited them. Bothof them.
Their lips parted.
"I love you, tomboy."
"I love you, too, baka."
Blink. There she was—not the woman he kissed, the mother of his children, his partner in running the united dojo. She was a girl now, a teenager. She wore a canary yellow nightgown, and he hovered just an inch over her face.
"Did you see—"
She nodded. Her eyes watered, but she made no effort to wipe the tears away.
"Why are you crying?" he asked. "It was good!"
"Yeah…" She sniffled. "It really was."
He grinned. "That was really good. Better than the vision with Ucchan."
She hit him. "Baka! You don't kiss and tell!"
"Oh yeah? Maybe I'll go tell everyone I kissed a tomboy; how's that sound?"
She smiled: a warm, heart-melting smile. "That'd be nice, but—"
"Not today," he said.
"No, not today."
Maybe not today, but he had hope for tomorrow. He had a lot of hope. "Good night, Akane. Sleep well."
She sat up. "Ah, Ranma!"
He stopped at the door. "What is it?"
"You don't get much sleep, do you?"
He listened. Even in the hall and her room, the panda's snoring carried through the walls.
"No," he said, "not much."
"Sleep here then."
"What do you mean sleep here?"
"I'm sore," she said, "and sometimes it's cold."
"But you have thick thighs and—oof!" A flying pillow muffled the rest of the sentence.
"You know what people are gonna think, Akane!"
"I'm just talking about sleeping," she said. "There's no need to be a jerk and a pervert to boot."
"But only married…er…"
She blinked. "Married what?"
He laughed. He laughed and smiled and shuffled his feet. Maybe this was what the first vision meant: that he didn't need a vision of the future, a glimpse of life married to Akane, for in their own way, hadn't they already chosen each other?
Weren't they already married?
"Are you coming or what?"
And if they were already married, well…why not?
He reached down and tossed the sack of feathers back to her. "I like my own pillow better."
"So let me get mine," he said with an impish grin.
"Baka!" she spat. "Don't you dare take too long!"
He winked. "Don't worry, tomboy. I'll be right there."