"Could you finish up and then file the rest of these charts for me?" Dr. Tofu stood in the doorway leading back to the exam rooms. "Then," he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes, "we can close and really begin to work tonight." He held his breath and waited for the explosion.
Akane looked up with undisguised excitement in her eyes, "Really we're going to start tonight?" Her face fell, "I didn't bring anything I could work in…I guess I could run home, but I know I'll just get trapped there."
"Don't worry about it. I have some scrubs in the back. You can wear those tonight, and just plan on bringing workout clothes from now on." Akane nodded and he continued, "We will be starting with the basics tonight. I have seen you fight and there are a few things we need to correct before we can move forward." She was a little stung by the implication that her martial arts were lacking, but even more overwhelming was the joy she felt at having someone finally take her seriously enough to formally train her. "Dr. Tofu," she said with a quavering voice and shining eyes, "thank you so much. You have no idea how much I needed this."
He nodded sagely at her and turned back to the exam rooms smiling to himself and thinking, actually I do know how much you need this. That's why I offered.
Akane quickly finished up the patient bills for the day then gathered up a stack of manila folders with brightly colored tabs and headed back to the file room. She sorted the pile alphabetically first, and holding the folders in her arms like a stack of books began to slide them in their respective slots. As she put the folders away her eyes lingered on a file that was much thicker than the others, Ranma Satome's. If there was any subject in this world that could distract her from her upcoming training it was her ego driven fiancée.
It had been three weeks since the wedding and four weeks since their return from China. Four weeks since he had said he loved her or so she thought. The intervening week between the miracle at Jusendo and the disaster of the wedding had been the happiest of her life. It was uncontainable. It was the kind of happiness that bubbled up inside of her, made her smile at strangers, and do little skippy dances when no one was looking.
On the boat back from China she should have been furious at having been kidnapped, imprisoned, and her form made into a cursed spring, but she couldn't seem to work up any anger. It didn't matter that she had no clothes, and that Shampoo tried to push her overboard. Ranma loved her and things were going to work out.
Sighing Akane ran her fingers over his file. She really was as stupid as Ranma always claimed. How could she have been idiotic enough to try and marry the man she loved?
Looking back at the last two years of her life she realized that it had been just her. She'd simply loved him for so long. All those times he had reached for her, to save her, and her heart had pounded and she felt like there was a circus of monkeys inside her stomach, it was all just her. She was projecting what she wanted onto him. She had deluded herself into thinking that she was something special to him. He would have rescued anybody who needed his help. She'd seen him do it a million times. It was one of the things that she loved about him. Those feelings were far from returned. He didn't want her. Even if she didn't take into account everything he'd been saying for the last two years the wedding was ample proof.
She had asked him point blank if he loved her and he had denied it. There was no one else around, just the two of them in her bedroom. He hadn't denied it to save face. There wasn't anything to prove. The only reason he could have for saying what he'd said was that he had really meant the words. He didn't love her. The beauty of the day, the elegance of the dress and her happiness had vanished. The bubbly happy feeling that had followed her for a whole week had evaporated like a solitary raindrop on a hot sidewalk. It was just like all the other times, the cheerleading match, and Do-chan. He'd profess his affection and then take it back. He had offered her a gift. Not just a gift, but the only thing she'd wanted for the last two years, the chance to be with him and like always the gift had either been made into a joke or taken back. This time however had been the most painful.
She'd had a whole week to let her guard down—to think things might actually work out. It wasn't an exaggeration to say that he had broken her heart. No, she thought wryly, he had blended it up, set fire to the goop, and handed her the ashes back with the question, "Do you want to fight?"
She snorted. What kind of clueless guy asks his wedding dress wearing fiancee if she wants to fight?
The kind of guy she would walk through fire for. The kind of guy she was hopelessly in love with. That was the crux of her problem. She had finally figured out what she felt for him only to discover that he didn't feel the same. This left her unsettled and at odds as to how to act around him.
The job from Dr. Tofu and been an answer to a prayer. She worked Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and half day on Saturday. She wasn't around him as much, so she didn't have to see him with his other fiancées. She also didn't have to constantly try to hide or mask what she felt for him if they weren't around each other. While it wasn't the most challenging job it served its purpose by mitigating the pain.
She shut the light off in the file room and briefly rested her head against the cool door frame. Not tonight Akane, she thought, don't do this to yourself tonight. You have training to do. With that she raised her head, squared her shoulders, and went to find Dr. Tofu's scrubs.
Akane was ten minutes late. Ten minutes was nothing. She probably stayed after to talk or something. Ranma looked around the room. No one else seemed to even notice that Akane wasn't back from work yet. His father was busy playing GO with Mr. Tendo. Nabiki was working on finalizing her graduation plans. Kasumi was in the kitchen humming to herself as she got dinner ready. He should go out to the dojo and work out, but he was afraid she might slip upstairs without seeing him. Instead, he settled for running through a kata near the koi pond where he could keep an eye on the door.
Since she had taken this job with Dr. Tofu Ranma found that he was missing her. More often than not he would go to say something and look over at her, but only to find she wasn't there. It was unsettling. For the past two years they had been together. Much of it had been forced, but Akane had never let him down. Absently throwing a rock into the koi pond he scowled at the fish. Why did she need a job anyway? What was wrong with things going back to normal?
In his heart he knew that there would be no "normal" again. There was no way they could go through everything they had been through and not be changed. He was changed. For the past two years he'd gone from crush, to infatuation, to love so gradually that the emotions he had for the blue-haired tomboy snuck up on him with their sheer intensity.
He knew now that he needed her, in fact loved her. It had been something that had been floating around in his brain for a long time, but he never could admit it. Not to himself and especially not to her.
His mind drifted back to China. It had been four weeks since he'd lost her and she'd come back to him. Four weeks since the idiot girl had jumped into his fight, making it the biggest fight of his life. One second she was there telling him to run and the next second she was gone—her clothes being all that was left.
At night when he closed his eyes he could still see those empty robes floating down into his hands. They were still warm when he pressed them to his face and they smelled like her. His stomach clenched at the memory.
He loved her and when she had asked him about it he had denied ever saying it. In truth he hadn't said it, but still. To this day he was still kicking himself about that. He knew that she took it to mean that he didn't love her. There had been pain in her eyes as she had processed what he'd said, and then the shutters had come down.
Hurting Akane was the last thing he wanted to do he just needed a little more time to get used to the idea of loving her so deeply. He needed to make sure that he did things right for once. Akane would forgive him for being a jerk—she always did.
Seventeen minutes, where was she? Ranma wondered. He would give her three more minutes and then he would go and look for her.
Settled on a course of action he stood up and looked up at the darkening sky. It was a good time of day. Things were slowing down, but if he waited much longer it would be completely dark. Akane couldn't be trusted to find her way home safely. Why oh why, did he fall in love with someone who couldn't keep herself out of trouble for five minutes? Screw three minutes he was going to find her now. He bounded up to the roof and set off in the direction of the clinic oblivious to the ringing phone inside the house.
There was no sign of her. He was fairly certain that she did this kind of thing just to irritate him. She knew he worried about her, knew it had been worse since the disaster on Phoenix Mountain. There was a knot in his stomach that was coiling tighter and tighter as he neared the clinic and saw no sign of her. Landing on the clinic roof he could hear voices rising out of the twilight.
"That's it Akane. Now twist. No, not like that, you telegraph the move. It's from the leg. Again. No. That was incorrect. Try it again. No. Again…"
Ranma could make out the forms of Dr. Tofu and Akane in the yard. It looked like he was guiding her through a beginner's kata.
Dr. Tofu was training Akane? What the hell?
He was going to have to ask her about it. Why would she ask Dr. Tofu when she had him? He could show her katas.
"No, Akane it's like this." Dr. Tofu demonstrated the move. "Look, I know that you had to fight off all those boys everyday, and for fighting more than one opponent what you are doing is correct. We are not in that situation presently, so the way you are coming at me is wrong."
Akane blew the sweaty hair out of her eyes. When Dr. Tofu said he had a few things he wanted to work on she didn't realize that he would be going back to the beginning. It was embarrassing and her pride was smarting. To make matters worse she wasn't even performing the beginning moves to his standards.
"You lift your leg up using these muscles here on the outside of your leg. They are called the abductors; I would like you to start learning the muscles of the body. As I instruct you in new moves you will know exactly how a move should be performed based on the muscle set I ask you to use."
Akane nodded and felt a smile rise to her lips. He was taking her seriously. Dr. Tofu wasn't going to disappoint. He would help her become better. Lifting her leg she attempted the move again and again she fell off balance.
"What am I doing wrong?" The frustration was evident in her voice.
"You are lifting your leg from your hip and that puts you out of line for the kick and knocks you off balance for the transition."
Ranma listened eagerly. Usually he was just shown a move and practiced it over and over until he got it. Rarely did Ranma think of the anatomy of how a move was to be done. It was interesting to hear Dr. Tofu explain about muscle dynamics. Maybe it would be worth it to learn the muscles, it might change the way he thought about certain moves. If he could see what groups of muscles were being used by an opponent then perhaps there would be a weak spot he could exploit. This would definitely call for further investigation. Leaning in even closer he watched Tofu lift her leg rotating it slightly.
"When you throw a kick like this," he said, turning her leg slightly outward, "you put more power into it allowing you to disable an opponent, but it takes your body a split second longer to move out of this position. That's why it's ideal for multiple opponents because your next attack will likely come from another direction. But, if you throw a kick in this position," He subtly turned her leg inward, "your body is able to recover more quickly so that your defense is in place for the counter attack."
Akane was absorbing everything. This was the kind of stuff that Ranma knew by instinct. Knowing that there was a chance she might be able to learn these kinds of subtleties lit a fire in her. She might be able to learn the things that came naturally to Ranma. Thrilled at the way her training was going she tried to squelch the rising frustration she was feeling at her inability to do the moves correctly. Theory was good. It was very good but in martial arts it really only served you so far.
"Come on, Akane, Ranma would already have this down." she muttered.
Dr. Tofu heard her and chose to ignore the comment for now. Again and again she tried to execute the kick from the proper muscles, but her body seemed to be on autopilot and again and again she failed. Her mental comparisons to her fiancée weren't helping matters. They only served to feed the frustrations and her movements became jerkier and less fluid.
"Ok, I think that is enough for now." Dr. Tofu said, eyeing his new student thoughtfully. "Can I ask you a question? Why did you accept my offer of training?"
Akane thought about it. A million things ran through her mind. She wanted to avoid Ranma. She wanted to kick Shampoo's butt for threatening to kill her when she was a helpless doll. However, Akane knew that neither of those answers were going to fly. Why did she accept?
I love martial arts. I have trained my whole life. I thought I was pretty good. It was when I was fighting off all those guys that Ranma showed up. When I first met him he was in his girl form and I offered to be his friend and asked him if he wanted to spar in the dojo. There was never any contest. His skill was just eons ahead of mine. After we sparred I was so excited thinking I had a friend who could help me pick up where Daddy left off, but something happened," she blushed, "and before I knew it we were engaged and at each other's throats."
"What happened?" Tofu asked. He had always known that Ranma and Akane had gotten off on the wrong foot, but he never knew exactly why.
"Um….well. I walked in on him in the bath, but it wasn't my fault. I didn't know that he was going to turn into a boy when he got in the bath. I thought he was a girl. I mean, we were in the dojo that whole time and he could have told me or warned me or something. When I went into the bathroom I was expecting a girl to be in there." She ground to a halt, looking at Dr. Tofu with pleading eyes. Glancing away she said in bitter tones, "He didn't have to look at me so long."
A lightbulb went on in Dr. Tofu's brain. He could suddenly see the situation in his mind's eye. A naked Akane walking into the furo to bathe with her new friend, only to find a strange naked boy ogling her. He chuckled to himself as he thought of the terminally awkward, male teen's reaction to seeing Akane au naturale. A small play of Akane's various reactions was performed in his brain, all of them ending in severe pain for Ranma.
Finally he said, "And how did you react?"
Akane could feel the heat from her face reflecting off the side of the clinic. In a small voice she replied, "I tried to smash him with a piece of some statue in the yard."
"Did you ever try to talk to him about it? I mean you did walk in on him. If he had said something to you in the dojo would you have believed him?" Dr. Tofu asked reasonably.
Akane shook her head and looked away again. "After I had time to think about things I realized it wasn't his fault, but what do you say? Besides peeping on me had nothing to do with the huge jerk he was after. That he did all by himself." She added as a justification.
Dr. Tofu raised his eyebrows. That was a pretty big Matzo ball to have hanging over their heads for two years.
"I thought I was going to have someone to help me improve my skills, but after everything was said and done Ranma decided that watching me work out in the dojo would be the extent of his willingness to help. He made a lot of jokes about my speed and strength, and never really took me seriously as a martial artist. Then more and more crazy people started showing up and I was able to see how good he was. He's a freak! Normal people don't learn techniques the way he does. I ended up following him around and soon I wasn't fighting as much. I was just watching Ranma. It was ok for a while because most of the fights were his anyway, but I guess I got sloppy and lazy about things. I knew that Ranma would always be there to fight, and he always was. But…I…things inside of me have changed. I don't want to watch on the sidelines anymore. I know that realistically I probably won't ever reach Ranma's level, but at the same time I don't want him to feel like he needs to protect me all the time. I want to protect me again," finishing her statement a little awkwardly, but with passion and conviction.
It was the response he was looking for.
"Don't you wonder why I offered to train you?" Tofu asked, remembering that he'd spotted Ranma on the roof earlier. He was probably still up there listening in on their conversation. While Tofu didn't mind Ranma listening to Akane spill her guts he wasn't about to do the same.
"Let's go inside and get a drink, I have an important story to tell you."
With that they dusted off their clothes, cleaned up the yard and headed inside. Akane's stomach was rumbling and she had a ton of homework, but nothing could make her leave the clinic without hearing Dr. Tofu's story.
"Damn," Ranma cursed, "just when things were getting interesting."
He sat back from the eve of the roof to think over the things he had heard. In his heart Ranma had always been a little bitter that Akane had offered her friendship and then turned on him the minute she found out he was a boy. He had never even considered that Akane might be excited for a new friend that shared her interests. It never entered his thought processes that Akane might have been just as lonely as he had been on that fateful rainy day. He hadn't been exactly nice to her. After seeing all those jerks attack her the next day at school he understood how she could have overreacted to him seeing her naked.
A small corner of his brain then replaced the term "seeing" with "taking a long hard look at the gorgeous, naked girl in front of him." It was the same part of his brain that he did his best to ignore, because it made his justifications seem inadequate. She was right. He had been a super jerk afterwards. but like Akane said, "What do you say?" Although knowing him, anything he could have said would have only made things worse. He smiled when he heard Akane say his martial arts abilities were freakish. It was nice to have someone think that about his abilities instead of his body. It was even nicer that it was Akane.
He didn't understand this need of hers to train. She was still recovering form her ordeal in China. She needed to take it easy. He was planning on sticking around her until she was back to her old self. What was wrong with depending on him? Needing him? Of course she needed him. To save her, to defend her, and to jump in the middle of things because… the thought of her not needing him was too depressing to consider. If she didn't need him to protect her then he had nothing to offer her. Was that why he never offered to do more than watch her train? He shoved the uncomfortable thoughts into the part of his brain he tried to ignore.
"Oh man, it's getting cold. I hope Dr. Tofu's story is short because I am starving." He muttered to himself and settled down on the least windy patch of roof he could find.
Akane and Dr. Tofu walked down the narrow hallway of the clinic to the back where there was a little kitchen. He put some water on to boil and fussed around with the things he needed for tea. It was a lame attempt to delay the inevitable. His hands were shaking slightly as he carried the tea tray to the table. Drawing things out he slowly served the tea. Come on, he thought, this is why you offered to train her. You help her and she helps you. Checking that all the windows were closed tight, he took a deep breath and began his story.
"I know that you may find this hard to believe, but I am in love with Kasumi." He waited for an astonished outburst from her, but was only met with silence.
Akane looked at him and blinked twice. Looking down at her tea she raised a very confused face to the nervous man in front of her. Did he think this was news? Should she fake some kind of reaction?
"Um….No, Dr. Tofu I don't find that hard to believe at all," she finished searching his face for a clue as to what kind of response to give him.
Akane's lack of surprise as he confessed his love for her older sister, quite effectively, pulled the rug out from under him.
"You already knew?"
Smiling with gentle exasperation Akane said, "Oh Dr. Tofu, everyone knows…except Kasumi."
"That's not true. She knows. I proposed to her and she refused me."
Lulled into a false sense of security Dr. Tofu was completely unprepared for Akane's outburst. The sheer volume of the screech knocked him back a few feet and if his ears weren't ringing he would have sworn he could hear his neighbor's dog howling.
"You proposed to Kasumi? You proposed to Kasumi? You proposed to Kasumi?"
All the poor doctor could do was nod his head dumbly. Why was it so unbelievable that he could do it?
"When? What did she say?"
"About three years ago, shortly after her 18theighteenth birthday, she refused me."
"Wha…" was all Akane could come up with. So great was her agitation at hearing that Kasumi had refused Dr. Tofu's proposal of marriage that she got up and begin to pace around the room. How was it possible that she didn't know anything about this? He said Kasumi had said no. She had always thought that Kasumi liked Dr. Tofu. Why would she refuse?
"Please sit down, Akane, you are making me more nervous."
"All these years," she was muttering to herself. "How could I not have known? I mean, it's Kasumi. I thought she would tell us these things."
"Please, Akane, hear me out."
Akane looked down at the hand that was pulling her back towards the table. Dr. Tofu had such a look of helpless desperation that she quieted her inner dialogue and listened to the poor man.
"I proposed to Kasumi three years ago. She said that it was flattering, but she couldn't possibly leave her family. She didn't say it would never happen, but the timing wasn't right. There was no possible way she could leave her father in the care of her two younger sisters. Kasumi felt that if she were to marry and leave, the fragile glue that was holding her family together would dissolve. She chose duty over love. I was heartbroken. I tried every way I could to convince her that the two weren't mutually exclusive, but she wouldn't listen. I felt awkward and unsure of myself around her. Not to mention how painful it was, so I hid my pain in stupidity. Every time she came around I would act silly and incoherent so that she wouldn't see that my soul had been rent in two. It became par the course for me to act out around her. I was lovesick but not in the way everyone thought. Finally after a year of the same old routine I needed a change so I left. I traveled, trained and collected books and scrolls that would make me a better doctor and a better man. Three months ago I got a letter from Kasumi saying she missed me and wondering when I would return. I high-tailed it back here only to discover…" he trailed off and started to blush like a little boy. It was funny really and if Akane hadn't been so confused she would have laughed at the sight.
Leaning in close to the doctor she asked breathlessly, "What, what did you discover?"
Squinting up at the overhead lights he said sheepishly, "Have you ever heard of Ivan Pavlov?"
For the second time that night Akane blinked twice as she tried to process this out of the blue comment. Pavlov? That did sound familiar. Her brain raced over her classes and homework until it arrived at an association, Pavlov's dogs. The dogs were classically conditioned. Her mind began to put two and two together.
"Dr. Tofu are you telling me that you have classically conditioned yourself to be a moron?"
"Well I wouldn't put it in those terms exactly…."
"What kind of terms would you put them in? You act completely insane whenever my sister is around."
He nodded glumly. "The worst part is that her letter implied that the timing might be better now, and I can't even find out because I act like an imbecile whenever she comes in the room. Everything I want is right in front of me, but I'm too much of a fool to be able to reach out and take it." There was such self derision in his tone that Akane laid a comforting hand on his sleeve. "I would appreciate it if you didn't mention this to anyone else. It's embarrassing enough without having all my patients know."
"Don't worry, Dr. Tofu, we'll find a way around this. If Kasumi asked you to come back I don't think your hopes will be dashed this time. We just need to overcome your little problem." She said the last part in a tone that downplayed the seriousness of it. Dr. Tofu was instantly reminded of a Viagra commercial that he had once seen. If only his problem was so easy to fix.
"I have to confess, Akane that is one of the reasons I asked you to come work and train with me. I was hoping you could help me."
"Dr. Tofu, I would have helped you no matter what. You didn't have to give me a job."
"I said it was one of the reasons I offered you a job. The other reason is I saw the look on your face the day of your wedding. You looked just like me three years ago. I didn't want you to have to live through a painful year before things started to change. I know what you are going through and I wanted to help you."
Akane blushed and looked away. Apparently her feeling for Ranma weren't as well concealed as she thought, but none of that mattered. What mattered was that he didn't want her. Tears welled up in her eyes as the thought played over and over in her head. She wouldn't cry in front of Dr. Tofu. It wouldn't change anything. She lifted her chin in an unconscious act of defiance against her own emotions.
"Your offer was perfect timing and I am so grateful for the job and training, but if you hadn't offered. I would have found another way to change things. I meant what I said when we were training. I won't only rely on Ranma's abilities any longer"
Dr. Tofu took a second to admire the fire in her eyes. She was a tough girl. "Well, I think I've taken enough of your time tonight. You should probably head home. I hope they aren't holding dinner for you. I've some things I want you to take home" With that he stood to retrieve the items.
"I called to tell them I would be late." She turned to gather her things. "I'll just wear these clothes home, wash them and bring them back with me next time," she said raising her voice so he could hear her down the hall. With the last of her things in her hands she looked around the room for the doctor. He came into the room with two books in his hands. He handed her the first one it was large and thick and to Akane it looked a little foreboding, Netter's Guide to Human Anatomy.
"I meant what I said about learning the muscle groups. When you have those underway I want you to review the immune system of the human body as well." Human Immunology was placed in her hands doubling the weight she was carrying. It was going to be a long walk home.
"Uh..thanks for everything Dr. Tofu, I'll see you in a couple of days. Ok?"
"One more thing Akane, you accept me as your teacher and master now don't you?" She nodded shifting the weight of the books to her hip. "Good, I am going to give you an at home training exercise."
She nodded again trying to figure out the best way to carry the blasted books. They kept sliding down her hip. They were large and cumbersome and it was hard to get a good hold on them, so focused on the books was she that she almost missed Dr. Tofu's at home training.
"I want you to stop hitting Ranma."
The books clattered to the floor and Dr. Tofu winced slightly as the weight of the pages pulled at the spines. He bent down and picked them up for her.
"I want you to stop hitting Ranma. You need to get a firm grip on your temper. He seems to rule your actions even when he isn't around. I want you to stop competing with him."
"I don't understand how not hitting him will change anything. He will still be a super jerk to me." She said a little desperately. Didn't Dr. Tofu know that hitting him was her best defense? If she pounded him out of the area she didn't have to endure his stinging remarks or watch him with the other girls. It was the best plan she had.
It was as if Dr. Tofu was reading her mind. "You're going to have to come up with a new strategy if you want to continue training with me." He said softly. "Akane, has it ever worked? In the end did your plan get you what you wanted?"
She looked down at the books in her hands. Absently she rubbed her thumbs over the embossed lettering as she tried to stop the tears from welling up in her eyes. It was bad enough to admit to herself that she didn't measure up, but it was five times more painful to admit that most of the reason she didn't was probably her own fault. She shook her head, not trusting her voice. No her plan hadn't worked. If anything it had backfired.
"Akane," he continued, "it's time for a change."
All she could do was nod again. Not looking up she said, "I'll do it, but I really need to go now."
He walked her to the door and let her out. Watching as she walked down the street, a shadowy figure emerged from the roof and slowly followed the girl home.
Wryly he said to the figure. "If you can't make it work after this, Ranma, you don't deserve her.