Ranma's relationship with his mother has always struck an emotional chord with me, for all in all it feels very genuine, despite the hilarious hijinx required to keep Ranma off the tip of her sword. In the end, though, what child doesn't want their mother's approval, to hear that they've grown up to be worth something? Especially for someone like Ranma, who's trained for years to meet a martial arts standard, the quest for a mother's blessing must be a tough, almost visceral challenge. That's one of the reasons I've liked the stories focused on Ranma and his mother, and in this, I hope to show the effects and that relationship from an outside perspective.
I had this idea from before I wrote "Glimpse," which was about two years ago now. I had this story half-finished, sitting on my hard drive, for the majority of the time, and only since finishing book one of Identity did I find the inclination to return to it. It's an interesting experience, returning to something I wrote so long ago, but I hope it's as enjoyable for you as it has been for me.
Sunday at Mother's
I lost my mother when I was small. Every year, on the anniversary of her death, my family visits the grave. We bring flowers. We tell her we're well and ask if she's the same. I love my mother, even now. She was kind and tranquil. She held me when I was sad. If I could grow up to be one person and no one else, I'd want to be her.
But I'm nothing like my mother. Father says I look the way she did at my age, but that's where the resemblance ends. Mother named me for the color of passion, of both love and hate. I think it's appropriate. Sometimes, you can't disentangle the two. What is it Americans say? Two sides of the same coin? I don't know where I heard it, but it's a good analogy. Surely, there must be someone else like me, who sits with the coin on edge, waiting to fall on one side or the other.
I'm not angry today. Ranma would say that's a nice change, but he's not up yet. This is my private time, when the chaos of the past few days washes from me, dripping away like the sweat from my brow.
"Ah, Akane-chan! Another five kilometers today?"
This is when I run.
I jogged up the walkway to the Ono Clinic, waving to Doctor Tōfū. "I might try for six," I said, running in place. "Depends on the time."
"Well, it's always good for a martial artist to push herself a little, yes?" Sensei smiled and watered his plants, and I smiled with him. It's strange, though. I used to drop in to see him almost every chance I got. That's why I run by each morning. Once, a long time ago, I had good reason to. Now it's a habit, even when that reason is gone. I still love talking to Sensei, though, every now and then.
"Do give my regards to Ranma-kun, will you?" he said. "I haven't seen him lately, which, don't get me wrong, I don't mind. In my business it's good to have less business! Means people are healthy, not hurting themselves or each other, don't you think?"
I laughed. Maybe it just meant some of us could take getting slapped with a wooden sign and knocked through the wall of a house without so much as a bump on the forehead.
Oh Ranma. He can take a beating, but that's just his body. On the inside, beneath the callous obliviousness to people's feelings or the ego large enough to inflate a fleet of blimps, there's something normal there. Something human. I know because I saw it.
"Goodbye, Ranko-chan, Akane-chan." It was a few days ago. Auntie bowed slightly and strolled down the street, and Ranma put his hand up, waved back. He wouldn't cry, not even for her, but he looked like the last person on Earth, terribly alone. He won't talk about it. He never does, but I knew then—I've known for a while—that something must be done. It's just too hard to get mad at him now, knowing he can be so…so…
…vulnerable? Ranma? The words hardly belong in the same sentence!
Still, as I circled back home, I thought it'd be good to do something nice for him, take his mind off his mother and the promise his idiot father made to her. Even jerks can stand to have a little relief from time to time, as long as he doesn't get too used to it.
Maybe I'll make him some curry. He doesn't need to know it's from me. If he knows, he won't eat it. What he will do is scatter blankets and clothes all through the house. Unreasonable, ungrateful slob! What does he think he's doing? Look at this: I think he's broken the door to guest room down!
"Ranma!" I called out. "Have you lost your mind?"
Mumbling. Incoherent mumbling. Honestly! Can't he at least face up to when he's made a mess of things? I followed the muttering up the stairs, and I was surprised. Uncle Saotome greeted me in front of my door…
…bound and wiggling in a mass of ropes.
"Uncle, what happened here? Where's Ranma?"
The panda jerked its head, thumping on the floor. That's when I realized it—one of the things I'd stepped over was one of his wooden signs.
"Hot water!" it read.
"Oh, of course." I ran to the bath and filled a bucket with steaming water. I splashed Uncle, and his body shrank free of the ropes.
"Thank you, Akane-kun," he said, drying his glasses. "Now, we must hurry! Ranma is in great danger!"
Oh gods, not again. Who or what now had come for Ranma, rummaged through his belongings, tied up his father, scattered his belongings, his pictures…
It was an old photo, bent at the corners and faded slightly, but I recognized the people in it: Auntie Saotome, younger, vibrant; Uncle, too, with some traces of hair.
And little Ranma, a boy too small to remember his mother from back then, but now that he had this picture, only he would bring it out. Maybe he'd finally had enough of pretending. Maybe…
"Uncle," I said, "who tied you up?"
He flinched. "Eh?"
"Was it Ranma? Is he going to see Auntie?"
"He's in great danger; we both are!"
"Uncle, answer me!"
"Now, Akane-kun, you don't want your fiancé to die before your wedding, do you?"
"Wedding? Nobody said anything about a—ugh!"
Uncle shoved me down. He bolted through my door.
"It's for his own good!" Uncle slid the window open, kicked my pencils and papers off my desk, and jumped! "It's the best for both of us!" he yelled back.
I leaned out, but Uncle landed on the dividing wall. He ran down the street, out of my sight.
If Ranma's really made the choice to show himself before Auntie, I can't let Uncle stop him, not again!
"I'm coming, Ranma!"
I stepped on the windowsill, bent my knees, and…wow, that's really high. How did Uncle even make that—no, I know better than to ask that question.
Don't worry, though, Ranma. I am coming.
Just…down the stairs first.
Not that I should help him. Oh no. If it were up to Ranma, he'd do everything by himself, and this plan of his (if you could even call it that) is just the same. He beat Uncle into submission and tied him up, but he didn't think Uncle would free himself? He didn't think someone might come along, see a panda bound and gagged, and let him go? I mean, that would be normal, right? And Ranma—he should've considered that.
"You moron," he would say. "There you go butting in again."
Well, I'm sorry, Ranma. Sorry all I can seem to do is mess things up for you. Because you can do it better, I'm sure.
"You keep interfering in my fights and you're going to get yourself hurt," he'd say. "Or worse. Not that I care or anything."
Don't talk to me like I'm fragile. I don't break just because I turn a key in a lock or a faucet in the bath. I may not be superhuman like you, but I'm not ordinary, either. I used to be the best around here, but then your father took off along the rooftops chasing you, and I could do little more than run along the sidewalk after him.
Don't get me wrong: I can jump. I remember Father used to rig up a bar on two poles and stick them down in the yard by the pond. He set them low at first, and I hopped over that. For each jump I made, he set the bar higher and higher, and when I finally struck the crossbeam, he would catch me. If I kept hitting it, he'd mark a line on the two poles, and the next day, we'd quickly work up to that again. I still remember my record from when I was younger: 4.81 meters. I don't know why Father stopped training me so strictly—whether I weighed too much to catch or if I reminded him of Mother…. When he did stop, I tried jumping by myself, but it wasn't the same, and after I hit the ground a couple times on my own (and bent my elbow in ways no one should ever try), I wondered if I really did have what it took to carry on the dojo, the school. At the time, I was better than everyone else, but that's not enough.
And it certainly isn't now. Uncle Saotome's getting away. I need to catch him; I need something—
That's it! I need Shampoo!
"What this?" Shampoo skidded to a stop. "Akane alone without Ranma?" She cocked her head. "This could be opportunity."
"Wait a minute," I said. "Ranma's in trouble; his father's after him, to keep him from seeing his mother!"
Shampoo blinked. "Why panda keep Airen from seeing mother?"
Oh great, she doesn't know? "If she doesn't judge him a man, she's going to force Ranma to commit seppuku!"
" 'Seppu—' "
Oh? That's it? Am I speaking German here? We're talking about Ranma dying! We're—
"That silly," said Shampoo. "Ranma is man!"
"Well yes, but—"
"He strong fighter."
"He know how to take care of woman."
"Yeah, he—wait, what?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Akane sound surprised. Not know Airen visit Shampoo often now?"
I laughed. Shampoo's good at playing games with people. And sometimes, even now, I catch myself listening to her, even when I shouldn't.
"So, where Ranma mother house?" asked Shampoo. "We need go, catch panda."
"I know the way," I said. "Let me take the bike. You can walk on the rooftops or something, can't you?"
She shook her head. "Even rooftops slower than bike."
"You have a better idea?"
She hopped off the bike and huddled under a faucet.
"What are you—hey!"
The little kitten tracked water from the running tap and jumped up the pedal to the basket by the handlebars.
Wish she could've turned off the faucet, though. Oh well. I got on the bike and pedaled away. "Better hope Ranma doesn't see you like that, though."
The cat nodded, watching me, staring. She doesn't trust me, you see. She knows we're rivals, and as a cat, she's open to attack. If our roles were reversed, would she hesitate to grab me by the collar and snap my neck? A dead cat on the side of the road would attract no suspicion at all.
It's a morbid thought, I know, but Shampoo is a warrior. I can hope that a code of honor will keep her in check, but the truth of the matter is, I'm scared, for me and for Ranma. If for some reason Ranma doesn't eventually marry her—not that he should; I can give a thousand reasons why he shouldn't, but with a body like hers, it wouldn't surprise me if one day, his perversion got the better of him, and—
What? Oh, the cat. Why are you nya-ing at me, Shampoo? Is it dog on the corner barking at you? Or the post box we just grazed by? Or the telephone pole that's square in our path?
I swerved, and thankfully, the pole passed us without splattering me or Shampoo on the sidewalk. I need to pay attention here. This is no time to think about how sexy or strong Shampoo is. Despite her curse and her methods, she really is the best match for Ranma, at least in terms of fighting skill. None of us—me, Ukyō, or Shampoo—could ever hope to beat him fairly, but Shampoo would put up a good fight.
Me, I can't even touch him.
Shampoo and I cycled through the neighborhood, on the trail of Ranma and his father, and on the way there, we met the first signs that Uncle Saotome wouldn't let Ranma see his mother without a fight.
"Release me, you foul cretins! Do you know whom you arrest this day? Kunō Kodachi, the Black Rose! Star of Saint Hebereke's Martial Arts Gymnastics team! You will suffer dearly for this trespass! You will—"
The two policemen quietly stuffed Kodachi into the back seat of their car and shut the door, muffling her rant. Sadly, their car wasn't the only one. Three units and an ambulance choked off the street by the canal, and more officers setup a barricade, blocking the road.
"I'm afraid this section of the canal's closed, miss," said one of them. "You wouldn't be able to pass through even if you tried."
One look past him and I saw why. Something—a punch? a kick? —shattered the pavement. Water seeped through the cracks.
"Do you know what happened here?" I asked.
"Report's kind of confused," said the officer. "Something about a panda dunking a girl into the waterway. Then these two kids from the Kunō family jump in—"
"That girl is after my darling Ranma-sama!" yelled Kodachi. "She even masquerades as him, stealing his name! It's only fitting to attack her on sight!"
"…so they started making a real mess of things," said the officer. "Didn't find the girl or the panda, but the Kunō girl is all right. Her brother, however…" The officer pointed out the ambulance, where paramedics lowered a stretcher into the back of the vehicle. "We think he must've taken a blow to the head."
"Oh?" Kunō-sempai sat upright, straining against the medics. "Tendō Akane, surely you'd escort me to the hospital, tend to me in this most humiliating and fragile condition?"
"No," I told the officer. "He's always like that."
A shot of sedative later, and the ambulance sped away without any problems.
"Those two are making trouble all the time," said the officer. "We arrest them on occasion, but their father usually bails them out."
"Really? But I know they've done things, tried things—"
"Some say he bribes the arresting officer."
"Strange. I guess they have money, but—"
"Oh, not with money."
"With what then?"
I pictured our entirely composed and sane principle walking to the police station with a bag of coconuts, accosting the officers in his mangled mix of Hawaiian and Japanese…
That's not bribery. That's torture.
I groaned. "What is it now, Shampoo?"
The cat pointed her paws at the officer's coffee paper cup.
"You're kidding," I said.
"Nya, nya, nya!"
"Will that even work?"
The officer leaned over the barricade. "Quite the smart little kitty you have there."
I smiled faintly. "You might say that."
Shampoo growled. I guess it couldn't be helped.
"Officer, about your coffee…"
"What about it?"
"Is it still hot?"
A few minutes later, Shampoo came back from the alley and combed the coffee grinds from her hair. The officer eyed the empty cup but said nothing.
"Well?" said Shampoo. "Now what we do?"
"The road's closed," I said. "We'll have to go around."
"Go around take too long. Where Airen mother house?"
The officer kindly offered me a map and a pen, and we unfolded the paper on the hood of his car. "We're here," I said, circling the spot in red, "and Auntie's house is across the canal, about a kilometer down…over here."
Shampoo stared at the map, frowning.
"You have an idea?" I said.
She nodded, folding up the map. "Is simple," she said. "Fastest way is over canal, but bike cannot go over. Road to bridge closed. Go around take too long."
"That's what I think. So?"
"Quickest way is jump."
She snatched the map and stuck a landing on the fence. "You see?" she said. "Jump."
The police officers gathered around us, mumbling to themselves. Really, what was she thinking? She's making a scene here!
"I can't walk on the fence!" I said.
She shrugged. "Is too bad. Shampoo go find Airen now."
"But what about the bike?"
"Bike come back for. No can carry!"
She leapt again and came down running on the other side of the canal. The officers blinked and stared.
"That's not normal."
She's not normal. Ranma's not normal, but neither am I! If she can do it…well, if she can do it, then I'm not that far behind!
"I'll catch you, Shampoo!" I lugged the bike on my shoulders and threw it into the canal!
"Miss, I don't think that was a good idea."
"Why's that?" I snapped.
He pointed out a bent handlebar and wheel that floated down the water.
She made a fool out of me. Again. And this time, I didn't even see it coming. The first chance she got, she ditched me. She'll save Ranma from his father all by herself. She'll get all the credit, and me? I'll be late to the party.
I said so, didn't I? Shampoo's clever. You can't let her bad Japanese lull you into thinking she's dumb bimbo. She's a smart bimbo, and that's dangerous.
I crossed the canal on foot. I don't know why I kept going. Shampoo would certainly beat me to the house now, and if she couldn't defeat Uncle Saotome, what chance did I have?
So I took my time. I walked. I wandered. I made it to the shopping mall where Ranma and I went with Auntie, looking for clothes.
Honestly! Where does he get off being so insensitive? He insults my body, and there's no way to knock any sense into him!
But I used his mother to punish him. I put him in a position where he was anything but a man in front of her. He may have deserved it, but not with his mother around. He sees her so little as it is.
"Back so soon, miss?"
I blinked. "Pardon?"
"Are you here to return something?"
I looked around. The dressing rooms, the curtains, the Ranma-shaped impression in the ceiling…
We were just here—me and Ranma and Auntie. This is where we went bra shopping.
"We don't usually see someone back so quickly unless they're unhappy with the product," said the clerk. "Everything to your liking?"
"Oh, just fine," I assured her. "I was just…looking for my friend." And I know he's not here, so what am I doing in this store again? I didn't even mean to walk inside!
"The one you were with last time?" asked the clerk.
"That's right," I said. "We were here with his mother. He's on his way to her house now; he needs to prove to her he's a 'man among men.' "
The clerk frowned. "Um…"
"I know it sounds weird. It really makes sense once you get to know them."
"No, I mean—"
"And he really shouldn't have to, you know. Granted, he's not the picture of a perfect gentleman, but I'd say he's a man. He's not a coward, at least most of the time."
"I was just going to say—"
"And sometimes, he fights when a reasonable person might be afraid to. He's saved my life. More than once. Doesn't that make him man enough?"
"What, you don't agree?"
"I just thought you were here with a girl."
A girl. Of course. I was here with a girl.
"About this high," said the clerk. "Sort of a single-braided pigtail?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Oh, good. I thought I was losing my mind for a second. I was just thinking that couldn't be a boy, could it?"
"No," I said, "not a boy."
"If you have a problem with anything you bought, just let us know," she said.
I nodded and drifted out of the store.
Sometimes, he wasn't a boy at all.
Strange to think I've forgotten that. Boy or girl body, he's still Ranma, yet on occasion, I catch him as a girl, and he looks…different somehow. Not just because he's a girl, either. I've seen him do a lot of things as a girl. He mooches food from unsuspecting boys, for instance, and despite the disdain he expresses for his curse, I can't imagine he hates it that much if he tolerates womanhood long enough to go for sweets.
But when he behaves that way, he's not Ranma. When he pretends to be Ranko in front of Auntie, that's not Ranma. Ranma knows nothing of Shakespeare or Romeo and Juliet, but Ranma's an actor. I see that now. With his mother, certainly. He has to. With those strange boys? Absolutely. It amazes me, how naturally he can switch gears and convince himself he's something he's not. That one time, when Ukyō tried to set me up with Ryōga-kun against his will, Ranma had the boy totally fooled with just a wig and glasses. It was a terrible trick to play, but Ranma put all he had into it.
And I can't help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, he never stops acting, if the only time you see the real Ranma is when you catch him looking in the mirror and he sees not the body he was born with but that of a girl, the form and shape of a curse.
I wish I knew that Ranma.
"Why? You think he'd be any less of an insensitive clod?"
Sadly, my older sister didn't agree.
"I'll tell you something about Saotome," said Nabiki.
"Is it free?" I said, huddling in by the public phone.
"We can discuss fees later. Consider, for a moment, that Saotome grew up for ten years with little human contact outside of his father, and we all know what kind of role model that is."
Alone, in the wilderness, with someone who will steal the food and clothes out from under you if he needs it?
"Granted, he's been here almost a year; that should've been plenty of time to catch up to social conventions."
"What are you saying?"
"Well, it's possible that's just how he is. Classically uncaring about other people's feelings."
"Lives solely to satisfy his own ego and self-worth. Stringing all you girls along would certainly do that."
"He's not stringing me along."
"Has he broken the engagement?"
"Then you probably feed him most of all because unlike the others he can try to wear you down and…well, seduce you."
"You don't think Saotome would enjoy such pleasures? He is a boy, you know, and a pervert."
"You make Ranma sound way worse than he is, Sister."
"How's that? He's a coward for hiding from his mother—"
"He should be afraid, but that's why he's going there now, to come clean."
"He can't stand to think anyone might be better than him."
"He wants to be the best. I wanted that too."
"He belittles you in every way, puts down your skills, your intelligence—"
"Why are you picking on Ranma now?"
"I'm telling it like it is, little sister. He's a greedy, selfish, narcissistic boy who wants nothing more than total superiority over everyone he meets. He's brought nothing but trouble to all of us. He's a terrible person, Akane, and we should be ashamed we ever took him into our home."
A terrible person?
Ashamed we ever took him in?
I gripped the phone cord and shook my head. I seldom get so angry with anyone other than Ranma. Nabiki's done a lot of things, played us both time and again, but I don't need to stand here and listen to her badmouth Ranma like this! It's mean. It's foul, and I won't stand for it.
"You're wrong, Sister. Ranma may be those things, but he's more! If a little boy is sick and only Ranma can convince him to take his medicine, he does it. If a girl loses her stuffed rabbit out the window, he picks it up and gives it back to her, even if it's out of his way. He's saved me more than once, risking his own life or his strength—his pride—to do it. He's a good person. If he weren't a good person, I wouldn't love him, and I don't care if you disapprove of him! I love him, Sister, and you can't stop me! You won't!"
I trembled. My muscles tensed. My hand shook, and I squeezed the handset so hard I thought it would crack, but my anger with Sister ebbed away, and I realized with horror what I'd said. Of all the things to tell Nabiki, I told her I love Ranma? That's insanity! That's like asking to be her photography model for the rest of your natural life—and probably a little after that, too!
But as flawed as Ranma is, I spoke out in his defense, and you know what? I could live with that. I could live with whatever Nabiki would do to me, whatever coercion or petty game she'd try to play. And if she really did think so little of Ranma, I expected a scathing rebuke, a logical counterargument or, at worst, a wretched rumor she'd pull to convince me otherwise, that Ranma really was scum and I was a fool to think otherwise. I got none of those things, however.
"Ah, my little sister," she said, laughing, 'it's so refreshing to hear such honesty from you."
"Let me tell you something true about Ranma-kun now, not like the other things I've said—he, like you, has a difficult time telling the truth to himself."
Not like the other things? Not like…?
"Sister, you manipulated me!"
"And consider it a courtesy when I put the tape of this conversation in a box at the bank, rather than disseminate the copies to your rivals, Akane. Hearing that you're actually serious about Ranma-kun now would greatly change things, I'm sure."
"Well, if you're not using the tape for money, then what?"
"Don't be silly; of course this is about money. I'll just get a lot more when Shampoo, Ukyō, and Kodachi all suspect you're serious, rather than approaching them out of the blue. We must wait for demand, little sister. Demand drives up prices. It's basic economics."
"But there is something else, too," said Nabiki. "Akane, you should be honest with yourself. I hope this conversation has taught you that much. Now that you've said aloud what Sister and I have known for ages."
"And this advice…is free?"
"Of course not! I found three thousand yen in your laundry this morning. Consider that your payment."
"And oh," said Nabiki, "your hunch was right: your boyfriend's shown up on the news again."
"He's not my—"
"He and Uncle seem to have made a mess at the fountain park. Apparently there's someone buried under rubble? Report's kind of vague; perhaps you should hurry?"
The fountain park? That's not very far. I could get there pretty fast. "Thank you, Sister!"
"You know, Akane, I can offer you relationship advice at reasonable rates—"
I hung up and dashed out of the booth. On the other end of the line, I'm sure my sister snapped her fingers in dismay, cursing that her business plan had failed, but some things are more important.
Nabiki thought to do me a favor, making me realize I loved Ranma. She must've believed I carried on, sniping at him and punishing his indiscretions, none the wiser to my own feelings. And, to her credit, if she'd pulled this stunt on me a few months ago, I'd have dropped the phone and stumbled from the booth in a daze until I made it home. The idea of liking Ranma, let alone loving him, wouldn't have made any sense at all.
And really, it still doesn't. I've known how I felt about Ranma for a while. I don't know when it happened, when I stopped resenting this boy for invading my life and thought I might like to share the rest of it with him. I think Nabiki and I put the two sides of Ranma together pretty well—prideful and egotistical on the one hand, forgiving and kind on the other. I guess he can afford to be both when he's as good at the Art as he is. It must be awfully convenient for him, knowing that he could have any girl he wants—yes, even me. Though I hide behind insults, I can't hold back the hurt and envy I feel when Shampoo glomps him and he hardly resists. Shampoo is sexy, whereas I'd settle for just cute, but Ranma has someone who's already cute.
She's here now.
"What is this?" said Ukyō. "What's Ranchan up to?"
I could appreciate Ukyō's dismay. A marble fountain shattered halfway up the spout, flooding the park and the grounds. Little boys and girls, on a Sunday stroll with their parents, steered clear of the disaster. The grassy Earth sloshed and turned to sludge.
Always like Ranma to make a mess of things.
"Akane-chan?" said Ukyō. "Is it true? Ranchan did this?"
Ah, Ukyō. Ukyō and her precious "Ranchan." I think I could accept it if Ranma chose her over me. Ukyō's nice. She has her own interests, at least in cooking, the restaurant business, and she's reasonably skilled with the combat spatula. She's cute, too. Everything Ranma could possibly want.
"Where did you hear that?" I asked. "My sister?"
She nodded. "Cost me a thousand yen."
"That seems generous."
"She wouldn't say much. Just mentioned something about Ranchan's mother?"
"Oh, well, you know how that is."
You should. I mean, I know Ranma likes you. He calls you a friend. I don't see why you shouldn't know, why he wouldn't have told you about that pledge his father made. You'd both agree it was silly; it's another way Uncle's crossed the both of you. It'd make sense for Ranma to tell you, but Ranma likes to keep to himself, doesn't he. He goes alone to mope if his pride is wounded, at least until he figures out some way to mend it. When Ranma has a problem, something he needs help with—though how often does that happen? —who does he go to? If not you, Ukyō, then who?
It makes me wonder. Auntie's house and ours aren't so far apart. If Uncle hadn't pushed Ranma to train at such an early age, we could've met a lot sooner. Our families could've came to this park, when the fountain was intact and the sandbox dry, and spent Sundays together. With my mother. With Ranma's mother. We could've played with pails and plastic shovels and pulled each other's hair. Not like we need to be children to do that. Still, I wonder, though: would that Ranma keep an honor pledge from a childhood friend the way the real one has? Ranma and I could've been friends that way. No, that's silly; we are friends. I believe that, as much as I mistrust him sometimes, as much as I give him reason to taunt me. I care what happens to him, whatever that's worth.
That's why I told Ukyō the story. If Uncle were still after Ranma, I'd need help to slow him down, give Ranma the chance to get away.
"Some family that is," muttered Ukyō. "Deadbeat for a father, and a mother who's constantly looking to kill you. No wonder it makes Ranchan uneasy."
Uneasy isn't the word for it, but that's a debate for another time. We set out following the wreckage of Ranma's fight with his father, and wouldn't you know it, dazed and snoring under a pile of steel pipes and plywood was…
"Look!" said Ukyō. "It's the panda-man!"
Uncle Saotome's ears perked up. He batted away some cardboard with his paw and blinked, eying us. He held up a sign.
"Nothing to see here!" it read. "This isn't the panda you're looking for!"
No, Uncle. The panda who writes on wooden signs in perfect—well, legible—Chinese script isn't who we're looking for at all.
I think Uncle got the hint about that. He barreled out of the rubble pile and took off down the street, his hind-paws pounding into the pavement as he ran.
"Hey, get back here, you animal!" said Ukyō, giving chase. "If you're keeping Ranchan from his mother, I'll have more than a harsh word for you!"
A sign zipped over our heads, clattering on the street. "I can't hear you!"
"All right, you asked for it!" Ukyō drew a pouch from her pocket. It was a ball of batter wrapped in cloth. As we ran, she poured oil over it and lit the ball with a cooking lighter.
"Say, Ukyō…" I said.
"Don't you think that's a little dangerous?"
"It's a perfectly safe weapon; watch." She spun the fiery ball like a circus performer, and when the trails of smoke made rings in the air, she hurled it over Uncle's head to land in the street before him.
KA-PAM! There was a shower of asphalt, a crater blasted from the road by the canal. And Uncle—I think he was a little surprised. He skidded to a halt and peered over the edge, like he was afraid to step on a mine. But for the rest of us—for me and Ukyō—the dust billowed into the sky, blocking the sun for a time.
"This," I said, coughing out the gray dust, "is perfectly safe?"
"I might've overdone it a bit," she said sheepishly.
"Is good to lead off with bing, though." Leaping in from a rooftop, Shampoo stuck a landing on the far side of the crater, leveling her maces on Uncle Saotome.
"It's bang!" his sign read. "Lead off with a bang!"
"Is same indifference."
Uncle covered his eyes with his paw, shaking his head.
"Whatever you Japanese say," Shampoo went on. "You fight with Ranma. That make you enemy. Even if Shampoo must have no father-in-law, is only way of doing things if you make difficult."
"I can't say I'm in it for the same reasons," said Ukyō as we circled around to stand with Shampoo. "But we all love Ranchan, and that means we won't let you hurt him! We won't let you make him do things to you in that panda body! I know you like it. What is it you make him do? Trim your back hairs? Pick through your fur for bugs? Huh?"
"Now wait a second," I said, wincing.
"What's between me and my boy is my business," read Uncle's sign.
"No chance of that!" said Shampoo.
"But…" read the other side, and Uncle scrambled behind his back for another. "There's nothing between any of you and Ranma now."
"Can't you just get some water and speak instead of making us read your riddles?" said Ukyō.
"Sorry," read a sign. "Left the kettle at home."
That's strange for Uncle to say, though. Not about leaving the kettle—that's common enough—but what's he trying to do, make them go after Ranma? I mean, there's Uncle, standing at the edge of the crater. Here're Shampoo and Ukyō and I, across from him. We blocked his way. We kept him from Ranma and Auntie's house.
The house that was behind us, down the road. We were the ones between Uncle Saotome and Ranma, so Uncle was right—there was nothing between us and him.
And the way Ukyō and Shampoo relaxed, I think they realized it, too.
"Is no matter!" said Shampoo, pointing her mace. "Panda man make much trouble for Ranma! Too much trouble!" She wound back like an Olympian at the hammer throw; she hurled her mace, and it tumbled end-over-end.
WHAM! Uncle sidestepped, but the mace burrowed into the ground, caving in the pavement and soil beneath.
WHAM! Another hit, and the earth exploded! Dirt and water sprayed upward like a geyser. The maces' handles stuck out from ground, bent and shattered. Uncle covered his face with his paws, peeking out between the claws.
"That was crazy," marveled Ukyō. "That was—hey!"
That was a distraction as Shampoo dashed down the street.
"Akane and Ukyō take care of it!" she called back. "Shampoo make sure Ranma safe!"
Damn that Shampoo…
"She knows where the house is?" asked Ukyō.
"Yeah," I muttered. "I showed her a map."
"Oh." She turned and ran.
"I'll see to it she doesn't bother Ranchan or his mother, promise!"
That's nothing to smile so brightly about!
But Ukyō ran off too. They left me and Uncle Saotome to stare at one another across the hole in the canal road. Honestly! They acted like Uncle can't do anything, can't fend for himself. And maybe that's true some of the time—he tends to be lazy, cowardly, and act like an animal to avoid responsibility for what he does—but who do they think trained Ranma, anyway? Uncle's decades my senior in the Art; what could this do except set me up for the impossible, get me out of the way?
I guess that was it, wasn't it. Ukyō and Shampoo were happy enough to let Uncle disable me for the rest of the morning, even if it meant they'd have to face him themselves afterward.
"Go home, Akane-kun," read Uncle's sign. "All I'm doing is keeping my boy safe. If his mother finds out his secret, it'll be seppuku for sure! You want Ranma to be safe, don't you?"
Safe? Absolutely I want him to be safe. I'd see him do the honorable thing if Auntie demanded it. I think he would if she asked him to, but I'm not like you, Uncle. I'm not so afraid. I have faith in Ranma. I have faith that, as much as he's hid from Auntie, perhaps out of fear of his life or of disappointing her instead, he's the son Auntie wanted all along. He shouldn't be afraid because, when it counts, Ranma is a man among men. I have no doubt of that, and neither should you.
But I guess it's easier to believe in someone else. It's easier for Ranma, or else he wouldn't have pretended to be "Ranko" for so long. Maybe what we all need is little more faith in ourselves.
Uncle's undoubtedly stronger than me. He's faster, more agile, even in that panda body, but he's still Uncle inside. He still takes great pride in his Art, and maybe, just maybe, I can use that.
"No, Uncle," I said. "I'm not moving. If you want to get to Ranma, you'll have to go through me."
It's a strange sound when a panda tries to laugh, but Uncle didn't seem unnerved by it. "You're asking for more than you can handle, you know," read Uncle's sign.
"I'm not scared," I said. "Ranma beats you all the time, Uncle. You're getting old and slow. I can hardly feel your strength. Show me why I should fear you, but right now…" I stood upright, relaxed and unprepared. If Uncle attacked me then, I'd hardly be in a position to defend myself, but that was the risk I had to take. "I'm not afraid of you at all," I said.
Uncle frowned. He tossed his signs aside. He trembled, and so did I. There was a strong energy in the air. It tingled the back of my neck. It made the hairs there stand on end. Uncle stepped back from the crater and grew. He swelled above the houses and the skyscrapers in the distance. Godzilla and King-Kong would've hesitated to fight him, and his aura pulsed with a frightening glow. I could imagine what he'd say if he could speak, or if he had a sign large enough to hold his words. "Do you mock me now, Akane-kun?" it would say. "Do you know the gravity of your disrespect?"
I do, Uncle; I promise I do! I did because my knees wobbled and banged into each other. I'd seen it before. I remembered the last time, when Uncle and Father grew this tall. It was powerful and intimidating, and for a moment, Ranma and I thought they'd fight a battle with the old master as giants in Tōkyō. Right then, as Uncle towered over me like a fantastic beast, I thought he could squash me underfoot like a piece of bubble gum.
But only for a few seconds because, well, the price of making oneself seem so large is too much to fight with. Before, Uncle and Father fizzled out in moments, and the same was true here. Uncle staggered and shrank, falling backward. His aura dissipated with a poof, and he fell flat on his back, barely shaking the asphalt.
That's when I finally took a breath. If he'd had just a couple more seconds before he exhausted himself, I'd probably be up to my neck in the road or still flying from the hit, but I think this is our School's greatest weakness—pride. Ranma has it, and it's cost him. Uncle too.
I'm no exception. I've let pride keep me from admitting things: that I could be a better martial artist, a better woman, a better person, and I don't know what it is, but Ranma can show me up in all of those traits (yes, even as a better woman, as much as I hate to admit it). It means I'm not what I could be. It means I'm not good enough. I'm not good enough, not yet.
For a day's work, though, I could take seeing Uncle fall asleep on that street by the canal. As I recovered my wits, I heard sirens. A pick-up truck with police lights pulled up by Uncle's body. The men in the flatbed loaded long rifles. They put Uncle in their glass scopes.
Two darts with green feathering lodged in the panda's fur.
"It's okay, young lady," said one of them. "We'll get this loose animal back to the zoo in no time."
I thought about correcting them, about saying how they should give him a good hot bath before putting him back in his pen, but Ranma could use some time for himself, I thought. I decided against it. The zookeepers tied Uncle in ropes and rolled his body onto a huge, leathery stretcher, but I left them to their work. I ran down the street the other way; Ranma would be with his mother by now, and I guess there's nothing more manly than showing that he has two girls fiercely interested in him. Maybe even more than that. Auntie would be proud, and Ranma…I guess he'd shrug it off, say it's nothing, but he'd be a liar then. And that's okay. We're all entitled to lie to ourselves a little bit, aren't we? Even if we can't admit how important family is to us, that doesn't mean we don't feel it.
I rounded the corner and trotted up the drive to Auntie's house. I slipped off my shoes by the three other pairs at the step, but the house was quiet. Too quiet. I searched the halls, and soon enough, I found Ukyō and Shampoo strangely still, peering into Auntie's bedroom.
There was Ranma, kneeling at Auntie's beside in the dark, draping a wet washcloth over her forehead, watching the three of us from the corner of his eye.
"So that's how it is," he said quietly, shooting a glance toward the three of us in the doorway. "Everybody's after me on a Sunday morning, huh?"
It's funny, hearing him speak so gently when he's in that body, when he's a girl. You'd almost think he really was one, but there's still that slight edge to his voice you can't shake.
"What happened to Auntie?" I asked.
"She called late last night. That's what Kasumi said, anyway. She wasn't feeling too well, was hoping Ranko-chan could come over and bring some supplies first thing in the morning." He touched a hand to her cheek. "She's not so bad now, a good bit cooler than when I got here, so that's good. You all dealt with Pop?"
The three of us nodded.
"Not bad," he said. "It was getting a bit annoying, having to fight him all over town."
"Apparently you made the morning news," said Ukyō.
"No way, really? Aw, come on, it's not like we destroyed that much irreplaceable property, right? Right?"
"Is only few million yen, maybe" said Shampoo.
" 'Million'!" He slapped a hand to his forehead. "Damn that old man. Doesn't know when to leave well enough alone."
"But Ranma…" I said.
"I got the impression from Uncle that you were going to tell your mother where you've been all this time."
"He's always afraid of that."
"But should he have been afraid of it today?" I asked.
He looked to Auntie with a stern, pensive expression. "I did think this would be a good day. You come home to take care of your mother—that has to count for something, right? Something to make up for being right under her nose for so long?"
Shampoo stepped forward with an excited pump of her fist. "Is good, Ranma! Is what tribal women value in husband! Future mother-in-law will see—Ranma is manliest of manly man. He to have Shampoo as wife, see?"
"Now wait a second!" said Ukyō. "Ranchan, your mother and I will get this all straightened out, see? I can cook your favorite childhood food once we exchange recipes."
Ranma made a face, rising. "Oi…"
"Is not Ukyō place to do that!" said Shampoo. "Recipe should be handed down, generation to generation, mother to daughter. Ukyō not going to be part of family."
"I think you're forgetting who has the obligation—and the choice—to marry me," said Ukyō. "Ranma and I were acquainted long before you came into this. I think his mother will want to know one of his childhood friends!"
Auntie started to stir. Oh gods, who knows what would happen if she heard us? "Hey, both of you," I said, "keep it down!"
"This isn't your concern, Akane-chan," said Ukyō. "You're not even interested in being part of the race!"
"Now that's not what I—" Wait. "Who said I'm not in the race? I never said—"
"That you'd leave Ranchan to us? I think there've been times you were more than happy to let him be. Why the sudden change of heart?"
It's hardly sudden!
"Is no matter," said Shampoo. "Both of you lose to my body. Airen no can resist it. Is what Mother respect, no? Respect man of man who take—"
Ranma took to his feet, even as Auntie rolled on her futon, unsettled with her fever. He stormed to the doorway, where the three of us bickered, and faced us all, glaring.
"This is my mom's house," he said, his voice deadly and calm. "She's sick, and you can't seem to talk quietly and let her sleep. I'm closing this door. You're not going to see her anymore. You're not going to tell her how you're going to be her future daughter-in-law or whatever. She's sleeping. Shut up and get out."
Shampoo and Ukyō blinked. I think I did the same.
"Get out!" he roared.
The three of us jumped back, startled, but honestly? We shouldn't have been surprised. Well, I shouldn't have been, anyway. And I wasn't, really. While Shampoo and Ukyō trotted out silently, I looked back at Auntie with the washcloth soaking over her head. That's how Ranma is when he cares about you, after all. Yeah, he can be lazy or undiplomatic. He can be cowardly, but he'll stay at your bedside when you're sick and yell at anyone who might disturb your sleep. I'd be hard-pressed to say there's anything better than that.
I went to the front step and started slipping on my shoes, but a hand caught me from behind, took my wrist, and pulled.
"Where do you think you're going?" said Ranma, dragging me back into the hallway.
"But you said—"
"Wasn't talking to you," he muttered crossly.
We went to the kitchen. Ranma scoured the cabinets for a tea kettle. He turned the faucet and filled it halfway to the top. He turned the oven burners on low and set the kettle on the front-right placement. I pulled up a chair. He sat on the counter, kicking his legs idly, for they wouldn't reach the floor. Not in that body, anyway.
"So what happened to Pop?" he asked.
"The zookeepers got him," I said.
"What, again? You'd think they'd know by now he's not their panda."
"I wasn't about to tell them otherwise."
He nodded. "Yeah, that's good."
A trace of vapor started to rise from the kettle.
"Are you really going to do this?" I asked.
"You think I'm going to chicken out?"
"I'm just asking."
He stared for a second, like he was trying to figure if I was being sarcastic or not. "Yeah," he finally said. "I'm going to do it."
"And tell her about Ranko-chan?"
He winced. "Do I have to? Today?"
"You should tell her!" I said.
"I know that! Gods, you don't think I know that? Just let her think I'm a manly man or whatever for a day or two before she makes me commit seppuku, huh? Is that so bad?"
That wouldn't be so bad, Ranma, but I don't think you should worry so much about it or be afraid to face it. You are who you are.
"Anyway," he went on, "I do want you here when I do it."
My heart skipped a beat. "Me?"
"She knows you. I think it'd help her, having you here, and…well…"
" 'Well' what?"
He twitched. "I'm not saying you have to stay if you don't want to!" he said, his voice rising. "This is my family, my business. I'm not dragging you into anything."
Don't think I don't know that, Ranma—you went off on your own in the first place. Never mind that we're engaged. It's not really my concern, but I know how much your mother means to you. I know if my mother were back somehow, if I hadn't seen her in a long time, I'd be happy. I'd be thrilled to see her. I'd give anything for that, but I'd also be a little worried. I think I'd be a little scared that she might see who I've grown up to become and be—I don't know—disappointed? I know that's not what Mother was like, from what little I do remember, but still, I'd want my family there, to make it easier.
I'd want you there, too, Ranma—to meet her, to stand beside me.
The kettle whistled, and Ranma hopped off the counter without a word, taking the handle.
"Hey," I said.
"I know this is your family, but Auntie's important to me, too. I'll stay for her; don't worry. For her and…"
Our eyes met. His stare, sometimes—I know some people say the eyes are windows to the soul, but most of the time, when Ranma looks at you, the windows are shuttered: he smirks, he snickers, he makes fun of you, but at times like these, you can catch him off guard. You can surprise him. You can touch his heart, and he won't shy away.
He might not, but I—I'm not sure I have that stuff in me, either. His gaze just took the words right out of me, made them all puny and inadequate. I looked away, straightening the folds in my shirt, and said the only thing I could think of.
He blinked. "Huh?"
"That kettle's been going for a while now. Are you going to do it or what?"
He snorted. "I would've done it a long time ago if you hadn't distracted me with that talk of yours."
"Distracted you? I didn't do anything!"
With a step, he took the kettle off the burner and watched me out of the corner of his eyes. "You did. You stayed. Thanks for that."
I smiled. "Go on now. Go meet your mother."
He nodded. He took off the top of the kettle; he held it in both hands—
I think Ranma and I both jerked in fright. There, in the doorway, stood Auntie, yawning.
"I thought I heard some commotion," she said weakly. "Must've been you, Ranko-chan, yes?"
Ranma laughed nervously, nodding.
"I'm so glad to see you both," said Auntie, forcing a smile to her weary face. "I didn't want to impose so late last night."
"Ah, actually," I said, "the truth is, Auntie—"
"The truth is we're glad to visit!" said Ranma. "Auntie's always been so kind to us, after all."
Auntie nodded. "I may just have a sip of tea and then go back to sleep. I'll be at the table, all right?"
We smiled and nodded as Auntie went back into the dining room, but once she was gone—
"Ow!" said Ranma. "Come on, I'm still holding a kettle, and it's really hot! You want me to drop it?"
"Maybe," I said, pulling my elbow from his stomach. "You should go to her. For real this time."
"No way, not like this. I can't."
"It's not like you to back down from a challenge," I said. "Come on—you've fought people decades older and wiser than you and held your own. You can do this."
He shook his head. "It's not the same."
Opening the cupboard, he took a packet of tea, and when he crossed the threshold into the dining room, he hesitated, as if steeling himself for battle.
"Those were things I knew I could do."
In an instant, the doting smile of "Ranko" appeared on his face, as if painted with temporary dye, and he stepped forward, hailing Auntie with his usual exuberance and charm. That's what Ranma knew how to do, I guess, and as much as I wanted to stop him, to make him go back and dump that kettle of hot water over his head, I couldn't. There are things we can't bring ourselves to do or say: between Ranma and his mother, between Ranma and me.
We stayed with Auntie until mid-afternoon. We took turns watching her as she slept and took her temperature every hour. Her fever dropped comfortably, and the neighbor said she would check on Auntie regularly, just in case.
"I'm glad to see Auntie today," I told Ranma as we left her gate. "She seemed cheered up, seeing you."
"Yeah," he said. "I'm glad, too."
"And Ranma," I said, stopping.
"Whenever you decide to tell her, whenever you choose to show yourself, I'll be there. It's not just Auntie's happiness that's important to me."
He stared for a moment, his mouth hanging open. Honestly, Ranma, say something! Say something so I don't have to stand here, looking as red as a beet!
"Akane, that's, um, real nice of you. It means a lot to me—ah, that is, it will mean a lot to my mom. Yeah."
I smiled to myself. You're welcome, Ranma.
We started walking again, and Ranma—I guess he had to recover from being as flustered as I was. He put his hands behind his head and looked up, past the rooftops. "Who'd have thought," he marveled. "I guess Kasumi was right. You really are a nice girl after all."
" 'After all'? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, you're so uncute and jealous all the time—"
And that earns you a punch to the shoulder.
"Ow! You see? Violent, too!"
"Well, you're wishy-washy and lazy and a pervert!"
"Then I guess," he said more gently, "we both got stuff to work on."
Ranma hoped to make a joke, to defuse the awkwardness, the tension, and that it did, but he couldn't have been more right, too. We do have a lot to make of ourselves, Ranma, and I wouldn't mind spending every minute of that process with you. It's on days like these I can let myself think that way, when I can look to the sky and think quietly, in my own voice:
Look, Mother. I made my fiancé happy, at least for today.
Ranma and I are so very similar that way. We both have something to prove to ourselves; to our mothers, whether in life or death…
And to each other. I know I can say that, but I won't speak for Ranma. For now, he's okay if he can be with his mother now and again, even if she knows not her son is so close, and I'm okay walking beside him after. I hide and pretend and fight with him, so this will work for me.
At least, for right now, because when I look at Ranma and he looks at me, sometimes we catch each other. Sometimes, we're surprised. And maybe we look away, pretend it didn't happen, but on days like today, one of us—sometimes me, sometimes him—will smile, and more often than not the other does, too. That's when I think that maybe, just maybe, he could—
"Did Kasumi tell you what happened?"
I shook, startled. Daydreams. They're dangerous, you know.
"My, my," said Ranma dryly. "Didn't know a simple question could make a tomboy quake in her boots!"
I shoved him lightly. "She didn't say anything. I just found Uncle in your room all tied up. Next time you want him kept quiet, you should leave a note."
"Sorry for not thinking ten steps ahead."
I let that one pass. For now, I could be happy, walking with him under the cloudless sky. I know there will come a time Ranma won't be able to stand hiding from his mother any longer. There may come a day when I won't be happy like this, either. Some people might be afraid to do that, to change things, and I admit, I'm a little scared, but like I said, I have faith in Ranma, and maybe, believing in him, I can have a little faith in myself, too. For the moment, we walked together, undeterred by what the future might hold. The wind picked up, rustling my hair—
And a piece of paper, a flyer, smothered Ranma's face.
"It's got me!" he said, waving his arms. "I can't breathe!"
"Honestly!" I said, snatching the flyer away. "You're impossible."
He laughed like a mischievous child. "Just a little fun."
Uh-huh. I unfolded the flyer, brushing the dirt away.
"What is that, anyway?" he asked.
"Looks like an advertisement," I said. "A one-day sale."
I held the flyer by the corners and showed him the front. Ranma tilted his head, puzzled—it's another look of his that I'm glad for, that he doesn't use to hide anything.
"Incense candles?" he said.
May all the sons and daughters of the world show love to their mothers, and may they in return take pride.
May 10, 2011
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