Shirley Road Shirley
It was a small, but well-built cabin that stood out among the trees on top of the snow-covered hill. Barely more than a mile away from the coast, the hill overlooked the Sea of Japan and was dwarfed by Mount Shirakami, which towered in the distance. The cabin itself was set at the end of a winding narrow gravel paved road and nestled at the edge of the large forest in Aomori Prefecture. It was a small house, barely big enough for a living room with an open kitchen, a bath, and a modest bedroom. It was far away from civilization aside from a general store and gas station along the coastal highway. It was as far away from where she had spent the most formative years of her childhood as possible and she had come to prefer it that way. Peace suited her just fine these days, as she approached middle-age in relative solitude.
Though not as active as she was in her youth, one would be hard-pressed to describe her any less charitably than 'fit'. Aside from the beginnings of crow's-feet and laugh lines, she overflowed with vigor, looking closer to 30 than 40. Her hair was short and neatly trimmed, fitting her practical, down to earth demeanor. This was reflected further by her clothing, preferring to wear either jeans and a T-shirt, a simple house dress, or rugged work clothes when she was outside. Her days were spent farming root vegetables out back and raising chickens in a coop built next to the large dojo. It was a good way to stay fed, especially during the harsh winters, though she would be the first to admit it didn't cover all of her food needs. The household thankfully earned a small amount of income that was mainly used for large bulk purchases of rice, salt, dried beef and fish, and other long-term staples that were bought about every three months, when she would drive her twelve-year old pickup truck down the small road into town.
Today though, she was at home. The first snowstorm of the season had made itself known with a loud howl as the wind came barreling down the mountain. She merely added a log to the fireplace and put on another sweater. She glanced at a small panel, checking the thermostat before entering the modest bedroom. She heard the windows rattle and moved to fix the shutters, making sure they were tight. from the cracks of the shutters, she saw the heavy flakes begin to fall, a sign that a powerful blizzard was beginning.
"Idiot better not freeze ta death..." was the only thought in Ranma Saotome's mind as she walked to the kitchen to make a pot of tea.
Twenty years before, Ranma Saotome was still just a child. At the waters of Jusendo, he held the love of his life in his arms. Her body was limp and cold. No amount of hoping, wishing, or crying was able to bring her back. He couldn't go back in time to stop her. He would have given all of his power to get her back. He wondered why it hadn't been him who had died. She had so much to live for. What good were fists in the face of death?
Thus in his grief, Ranma too had grown cold inside. The spark of life that had made him so charismatic and drew others to him was smothered.
The white tuxedo meant for a happy wedding was traded in for a severe black suit as he stayed up all night, watching over her in the Tendo dojo. Her casket was lined with lotus blossoms. Her photo, one from when they had returned from Ryugenzawa, was placed next to the wooden box that now held her. The next day, along with Soun, Kasumi, and Nabiki, he sorted her ashes and prepared her remains for the Tendo family grave. He didn't cry. In part, Ranma felt like he couldn't. It was left unsaid, but who he was depended on remaining stoic in this most grave of times. However, there was a part of him that just couldn't, that just wouldn't let himself let go of the anguish he felt.
After the funeral, the Tendo family were sympathetic, but Ranma could sense the cold anger from Nabiki. Kasumi appeared sympathetic, but busied herself in the kitchen or with the laundry when Ranma was present. Soun was still warm towards Genma, but had refused to speak more than a few words to Ranma. One night, three months after graduating high school, Ranma left Furinkan. He left a short note to his mother. It was a small piece of paper, the only words written on it: I'm sorry. I have to go.
With that, he slipped past the conditions of his old life like a thief in the night.
Ranma had only made it 10 kilometers out of Tokyo's city limits when he ran into him. In one sense, it was odd to run into a familiar face at this moment of departure. Then again, running into Ryouga Hibiki when you least expect it is, ironically enough, only to be expected. His mustard-colored tunic and dark green pants were stained with dirt and grass stains, but otherwise he seemed as he always did. His expression was stony as he bared down on Ranma.
"Saotome..." he grunted.
"Whattaya want, Ryouga?" Ranma said in a tired voice.
"Going somewhere?" Ryouga asked, with neither malice or concern in his voice.
Ranma shrugged. "Maybe. Ain't nothing left for me."
"What about Shampoo or Ukyou?" Ryouga asked.
Ranma shook his head and said, with a snort, "What about 'em? The amazons left as quick as they came and I told Ukyou to take a hike when she tried ta kiss me at graduation."
Ryouga blinked. "Your family? The Tendos?"
"I left Ma a note. She n' Kasumi are they only ones I'm gonna miss." Ranma let out a bitter laugh. "Pops and Nabiki can go screw," he scoffed,"And even if Old Man Tendo would let me, the dojo'd just be a shrine ta her." He shook his head. "I won't turn Akane into some kinda monument."
Ryouga blinked. "Monument?"
Ranma crouched down on the side of the road. He looked down at his feet. "I don't want her to become a thing, ya know? I want ta remember Akane like she was. I don't wanna forget that stubborn tomboy who couldn't cook to save her life," he choked back a sob, "a-and had a smile that could turn my knees ta jelly." Ranma face became wet. He didn't sob, but didn't hold back the tears either.
Looking at his rival, Ryouga nodded slowly. "Hey, uh, if it means anything, I'm sorry about what happened in China." Ryouga said, not sure what else to say at the moment. He just let the moment pass, giving Ranma to shakily breathe as the pavement was stained with small droplets from Ranma's tears. Ryouga did the only sensible thing and sat down next to Ranma and waited for him to finish.
After a few minutes, Ranma wiped his face and said, his voice still shaky, "Sorry 'bout that. You make fun of me for it and I'll kick your ass." Ranma laughed a bit. "What about you? Why're you here anyway?"
"I got lost," Ryouga said matter-of-factly.
"You want me ta take you back to Akari's place?"
It was Ryouga's turn hesitate before shaking his head. "After what happened... I couldn't stay there. I like Akari. She's nice to me and she doesn't care about the curse, but that... that's not love. I only ever loved one person. I guess..." He gave Ranma a direct, earnest look. "I guess I wanted to tell the guy she loved I was sorry for messing things up with them." he let his head slump down.
Ranma looked at the boy next to him, noting his downcast expression.
"Hey..." Ranma said, "wanna get lost together? I could always use a sparring partner. You can lead me."
With that question, Ranma Saotome let the only other person who felt personally responsible for her death into his life again. It probably wasn't healthy, Ranma thought to himself in retrospect, but the death of the woman they had fought over had smoothed over whatever tension they had before. For the first time in a long while, Ranma left like he could breathe, just a bit.
Six months later found the two in close to dire straits. Their clothes were ragged. What rations they had were spoiled or eaten by rodents long ago. For the past week, they had been walking through what Ryouga kept describing as "an interminable desert". By the time Ranma's sense of self-preservation kicked in, he was as nearly as lost as Ryouga. All Ranma could do was appreciate the wind through his newly shorn hair. Marching through the hot sand under the bright sun was difficult. Ranma saw the ocean as a devious temptress, for as much as he'd like to splash in the surf, curse be damned, he was too dehydrated to risk the salt water.
"This desert goes on forever..." Ryouga said aloud.
"Shut it, P-chan." Ranma muttered
"Don't call me that."
"What else do I call you?" Ranma asked pointedly. " 'Shit for brains'? 'Stupid asshole'?"
"Fuck you, Ranma," he muttered under his breath.
Ranma stopped moving. Ryouga sensed it and stopped as well.
"Turn around and tell that to my face."
Ryouga took a ragged breath, wiped his brow, and turned the loudest voice he could muster, he said, "Fuck. You! RANMA! SAOTOME!"
In an instant, Ranma threw himself at Ryouga, fists raised and seeing red. A small part of himself noted the dramatic irony of the situation, but his attention was focused on attacking.
Ryouga, to his credit, kept his cool as much as he could. He blocked one attack with a forearm, only to get struck in the gut by a kick.
"Fuck me? Fuck you! Look at us!" Ranma yelled.
"You didn't have to come with me!"
"Where else did I have to go?"
"You had a house, a family."
"I had nothing left! Nothing without her."
"Akane loved you, you bastard. Not me, you."
Ranma's anger grew at that. He stopped caring about tactics, forms, and strategies. Like a wild animal, Ranma began to mindlessly wail on Ryouga. He threw his arms out, thrashing, clawing, punching, biting Ryouga.
"Ow, Dammit Ranma!" Ryouga yelled through the pain. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"You took her away from me! All of you!" Ranma cried out, his voice low, almost roaring more than speaking.
Ryouga steadied his feet in the sand and grabbed Ranma's arms. He pushed Ranma back, keeping him at bay. "I'm sorry."
Ranma kept going. "Sorry ain't gonna bring her back. Sorry won't let me hold her in my arms. Sorry won't let me run around like an idiot to get her a Christmas present. Sorry won't let me be the father of her kids!"
Ryouga narrowed his eyes and yelled back at Ranma. "And whose fault is that? I'm not the only one to blame! You could have told her. You could have taken the initiative, man up for once, and told her how you felt. Your indecisiveness is as much to blame as anything, Ranma!"
Ranma, with a thrash of his body pulled free of Ryouga's grip. "I know that! I'm a coward and I know it! I... I wish I could've told her everything, Ryouga."
Ranma slumped down in the sand.
"I wanted ta graduate with her, Ryouga. We coulda gone ta college, and-and..."
Ryouga moved back to give Ranma space. Ranma sat there, looking out at the ocean, his arms at his sides, limp.
"It shoulda been me. I shoulda been the one. Why'd she have to go away? I shoulda been the one who died. I shoulda..."
Ranma began speaking incoherently. Slowly, the babbling turned into a feral wail, yelling out towards the sea. Ryouga couldn't help but hear the cat in Ranma's voice as the shouting devolved into tears.
Ryouga didn't know what else to do, but he felt it was the right thing to stand there. He felt that, to look away, would be a disservice.
Ranma fell forward into the sand, near the surf. He continued crying silently, even as the tide came in. It was near sundown when she picked herself up from the water and wet sand. Ranma came to her senses and saw Ryouga, safely away from the water, tending a small fire.
Ranma walked over and spied a pile of driftwood as Ryouga gave her a pot of heated water. Changing back, Ranma sat down at the fire and warmed his hands.
Ryouga wordlessly offered him a coconut which was torn from its outer husk and cleanly opened at the top, its liquid still in place. Ranma raised an eyebrow and Ryouga pointed at a nearby tree. Ranma could barely see against the dying light, a small group of green coconuts.
Ranma let out a strained, quiet laugh. His throat was too raw to make any other noise.
A change of clothes later, Ranma and Ryouga fell asleep beside the fire. The next day, they stumbled into the small village of Iheya, on an island just north of Okinawa.
A year later the two boys, now young men, looked up at the nighttime sky from their bedrolls. They were camped out somewhere in the wilderness of Hokkaido. It was the height of summer and, even this far north, it was warm enough to not need a tent. The first thing Ranma did after leaving Tokyo with Ryouga was cut off his pigtail and he enjoyed the breeze on his scalp after years of long hair.
"Hey. Whaddaya think you'd be doing if she lived?" Ranma asked idly.
"Ranma?" Ryouga asked confused, "I thought you didn't wanna talk about that anymore."
"I'm just askin' a question, P-chan."
Ryouga let out a tired groan, He shrugged as he placed hands behind his head and shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe still with Akari? Maybe doing exactly what I'm doing now, just by myself?"
There was a pause.
"You?" Ryouga asked in return.
"I dunno." Ranma scratched his head. "Married, I guess. Maybe a kid on the way. Goin' ta college, working at the ol' Tendo Dojo. Settled down, ya know?"
Ryouga smiled wistfully. "Yeah..." He turned his head to face Ranma."You ever think you'll get there one of those days?"
Ranma thought on that. He nodded slowly.
"Yeah. I hope so. I liked havin' a home."
"Me too." Ryouga whispered quietly in response as he looked up at the sky once more.
Not long afterwards, when the campfire began to die down, Ranma stood and, with a quick movement, grabbed his bedroll and set it next to Ryouga's. Ranma lay down and rolled over until he rested against his traveling companion.
"What the hell are you doing?" Ryouga asked in an agitated voice.
"Then get a damn blanket!"
"Aw, come on, P-chan. I ain't gonna do nothin'."
"It's just... weird is all," Ryouga grumbled.
Ranma rolled his eyes, "Enh, Maybe a little, but I thought we were friends."
"... I guess," Ryoga said,
"Yeah. So it ain't a big deal, then. We're friends." Ranma let out a wry chuckle, "Hell, you're my best friend."
"Really?" Ryouga asked, incredulous.
"Well you're my only friend so it stands ta reason..." He smiled. Ryouga let the matter drop and kept looking at the stars.
Hours later, when the moon set, Ryouga let out a tired yawn.
"Hey, Ranma, I-" Ryouga finally noticed the soft snores of the black-haired boy who, like an insistent cat, curled up into a ball and burrowed himself into the crook of his arm.
For a second, the old anger built in him and he was about to stand when he heard a soft purring from Ranma.
"I oughtta beat the stuffing out of him on principle," Ryouga muttered, taking in the utter ridiculousness of the person who had called the lost boy a best friend and just shook his head.
"Aw, to hell with it, I'm tired."
Ryouga rolled away from Ranma and fell asleep.
The izakaya in Aomori City was rather bustling that Saturday night, with a healthy mix of young people who for whatever reason didn't flee the prefecture for Tokyo and groups of older businessmen and other types who have made peace with their lot as they sought to curry favor with their boss on a night they should be at home with their families.
Ranma and Ryouga were seated at a small table, sharing a pitcher of beer and eating small bites of yakitori and bacon-wrapped leeks. Ranma was a bit wobbly as he finished off his glass of beer.
Ryoga, one eye half-closed, leaned in, "y-youuookay there?" he slurred.
Ranma nodded jerkily. "yaaa... tired. Fuckin' job."
"Hey, you cann use that curse 'a yours ta get a decent payin' job," Ryouga countered. "Ain't no construcsshon or marsshial arts jobs. Tillin' ol'man Hasegawa's farm's shitty work."
"Y-yeaaah?" Ranma raised an eyebrow. " 'Least the oxen don't try ta feel up yer assss..."
Ryouga laughed boisterously and refilled his cup. They bantered back and forth between sips of beer. Their reverie was interrupted when the door opened and two young women entered. One was petite, curvy with long brown hair. The other was tall, lean, and had short black hair. They sat down at a nearby table and ordered some beer and a few small plates of food. The snuck a glance at Ryouga and Ranma.
"They lookin' at us?" Ryouga asked.
"Cute. Both of 'em," Ranma replied, a skewer of chicken dangling from his mouth.
After a beat, the two women moved towards the two men.
"May we sit down?" The shorter one asked.
"Uh... yeah. Sure." Ranma replied with a shaky smile. The two women did so. The shorter one pointed at herself, then at her friend, "I'm Nastumi. This is Yumiko."
"H-hi," Ryouga stuttered, "Ryouga."
"R-Ranma," Ranma replied.
"We didn't expect to see a couple of hunks in a place like this," Natsumi said in a stage whisper. She eyed Ranma closely and giving him a more than friendly smile.
"I think we've had a lucky break, Nacchan," Yumiko said, turning her gaze on a blushing Ryouga.
A week later, Ranma was sitting on the floor of his boarding house room. He had just gotten home from work and was nursing his aching feet. Reaching over for a steaming kettle, he poured hot water into a styrofoam cup of instant ramen noodles when the door slammed opened and a naked Ryouga came in.
"Jeez man, what the hell happened to you?" Ranma said, unsure whether to project embarrassed shock or nonchalance.
Ryouga ducked into a closet and, after a second, came out dressed in sweatpants and a shirt. "Worst week ever."
"How was Yumiko?" Ranma asked as he placed the lid on the steaming styrofoam cup.
"What?" Ryouga strained to remember.
"Did you two have a nice time?" Ranma teased.
Ryouga waved his hand weakly. "We made out. We got naked in bed, but... I couldn't. Felt guilty."
"She didn't take it too well, I take it?" Ranma supplied.
"She threw me outta the love hotel buck naked! I found a sink and changed into the pig. Then I..." He sighed. "I got lost."
Ranma chuckled, "Poor piggy."
"I finally got back an hour ago and had to run from the hallway bathroom."
Ranma chuckled as he peeked into the contents of his cup ramen. Dissatisfied, he put the lid back down.
Ranma looked back up at Ryouga and asked, "You think we ain't cut out for this kind of livin'?"
Before Ryouga could respond, Ranma continued. "Listen, uh... I'm thinkin' of gettin' a second job bouncin' at this club nearby the restaurant... I think, no I know I wanna save up some money and buy a house somewhere. In the country or somethin'. Whaddaya say?"
Ranma glanced at a nearby clock. "You wanna go halfsies on a place somewhere? We can probably pony up the cash in a year and a half or so. Anything we find's gotta be better than this dump."
"Why should I?" Ryouga asked.
Ranma opened up the styrofoam cup and stirred up the steaming contents inside. He took a bite of reconstituted noodle, making a loud slurping sound.
Ranma nodded, idly stirring is cup ramen with his chopsticks. "I wanted to do it with Natsumi. Kinda. I mean, I got it up, but halfway through, it just didn't feel right." Ranma laughed. "Pissed her off but good. She threw her drink on me. Then she really let me have it. Kicked my drunk ass out of her apartment."
Ryouga let out a bitter laugh. "We're fucked for life, huh?"
Ranma shrugged. "I don't know nothin' about that, but..." he paused, slurping some more noodles.
Ryouga slowly nodded. After a beat, he sat at the table across from Ranma.
"Got another one of those? I'm starving."
Ranma replied by tossing another styrofoam container towards Ryouga, who ably caught it in mid air.
"Thanks, man." He looked down at the lid. "Pork flavor?" he groaned.
"They were on sale," Ranma said before gulping down the last of his soup.
Ryouga looked askance at the pinnacle of 'student cuisine' he held in his hands. He muttered indistinctly as he went to fill the kettle.
The snow was beginning to come down in heavy sheets, blanketing the hillside. The clay pot on the stove burbled softly over the low flame, the light clattering of earthenware was audible throughout the house. Ranma was bundled up by the fireplace, drinking tea and reading a book. She could see the heavy snow come down and, now and again, would let out a small sigh.
Ranma would alternate between her book, some easy stretches, and checking on her stew as she made more tea. It was mid-afternoon when the stew was finished. The daylight had disappeared from sight and Ranma could hear the door open.
"I'm home." The man said as, with practiced ease, he took off his sturdy boots, thick winter coat and wool hat and scarf, careful not to let the melting snow get on him.
"Took you long enough this time, Pork Butt," the woman said.
"I got lost..." he said, with the same ease as he demonstrated in taking off his boots,
There was silence as Ranma hastily grabbed a second bowl from the shelf above the kitchen sink and began filling it with rice.
As he approached the small oak table, he said, "I missed you."
"Did you now?" Ranma replied with a smirk as she placed the bowls of rice on the table and then returned to grab two thick potholders from a kitchen drawer.
"Ranma..." he groaned uselessly.
"Quit yer whinin' and sit down." Ranma said curtly as she put down the large clay pot followed by a pot of tea and two mugs.
She kept talking as she pulled out two more bowls from the small cabinet. "Good timing. And I ain't talkin' bout the weather. I made mizore nabe today." She said, raising the lid of the clay pot.
"Smells good," Ryouga said, still rubbing his hands and face for warmth.
"I used the shiitake you got a while back. Dried, they're almost as good as fresh."
Ryouga sat down as Ranma ladled the vegetable and fish stew into a bowl and gave it to him, leaving him stunned.
"Jeez, Ranma. You don't have to-"
She looked at him with a look of both annoyance and concern. "You've been wandering around like a jackass in the cold. You're starving, ain't ya?"
With a grimace, Ryouga nodded. "Thanks."
Ranma merely huffed lowly as she served herself. After taking a bite, she looked up and smiled a bit.
"Good, eh?" she prompted.
"As always," Ryouga replied. After practically inhaling the first bowl of nabe to sate his immediate hunger, Ryouga finally took stock of the tableau and said, "Hey Ranma?"
"Yeah?" she replied, mouth half-full of rice.
"Look, I-" Ryouga narrowed his eyes. "Why are you a girl today? Last three times I've been home, you've been a girl."
Ranma looked back down at her soup. She replied, "Maybe you got a sixth sense about these things."
"You're not as funny as you think you are, you know," Ryouga said dryly.
Ranma didn't look at him as she reached back to the pot and served herself another scoop of rice, "I'll explain later."
Ryouga just looked at her incredulously.
Ranma waved him off with the chopsticks in her hand. "Later. Just… eat your food, P-chan. Lemme eat. I'm hungry."
It had been five years since Ranma and Ryouga had gotten lost that summer. They had wandered down a stretch of a small dirt path in Aomori, which led away from the sea.
The path ended at the top of a hill where, two broken down wooden structures stood.
The short-haired young man said absent-mindedly as he scanned the scene. "Looks like an old farmhouse or somethin'. That musta been the barn."
Ryouga nodded. "Probably why the land was so cheap. Gonna need a lot of work to make this place livable again."
Ranma began to stroll around the site. He said in a raised voice, "Foundation still looks good." Nodding to himself, he added, "We got time before typhoon season starts. Barn looks like the right size to be a dojo. Hell, with some work we can store rice or anything we grow here. Probably take three months to get it all going."
Ryouga let out an unsure noise, "You sure about this, Saotome?"
Ranma shook his head but let out a small chuckle. "I ain't sure about nothin' no more. But I think we can do it. Let's get back into town and see if we can't get the building supplies brought in."
Three months later, Ranma was fitting a solar panel on the roof of the cabin. He was proud of the tile work he had personally put in, the pattern used gave him extra stability as he connected the wiring to the dark silicon and metal plate.
"Okay, punch it, P-chan!" He yelled down at the ground. A moment later, a porch light in the front of the house turned on. Ranma easily jumped down, landing next to the slightly taller man.
"We got power." Ryouga said, a hint of wonder in his voice.
"Free power," Ranma corrected.
"The panels and wiring cost a ton."
"It'll pay for itself soon enough. Firewood's nice and all, but I can't wait to have a hot shower whenever I want!"
That night, Ranma and Ryouga were laying down in the spartan bedroom, empty save new tatami mats and two old futons, laid next to one another. Ranma was fiddling with a small night light he had set next to them.
"Go to sleep already," Ryouga whined.
"Can't. I'm just… I dunno…"
"Happy?" Ryouga suggested.
"Man, happy, excited, relieved… everythin'."
"Looks like it. You're like a kid who just got their New Year's money from a rich grandparent."
"Yeah… I got something I've been wanting since I was a little kid. Something I almost had before, but…" Ranma stopped speaking for a moment.
Ryouga nodded. "Same here. Welcome home, Ranma."
"You too." Ranma sat up and looked at the man next to him. "Look man, I don't know what you think, but this is your home too, Ryouga. No matter what, this will always be your home."
Ryouga raised an eyebrow. "'No matter what'? Dude I chipped in my fair share. You been talking to any girls interested in me or something?"
Ranma shrugged. "Hey, man. I dunno. Knowing you? You could always wander out into the forest, find a pretty girl, and settle down somewhere far away from here."
"What are you talking about?" Ryouga asked as he sat up to meet Ranma's eyes, "I ain't goin' anywhere anytime soon. I've sunk too much money into this place."
"But seriously, if you meet a girl who's interested, give her my number for me," Ryouga added, winking at Ranma.
Ranma punched him in the shoulder, "Asshole. I'd like ta see ya try. Besides, "
"Look man, I…" Ranma pursed his lips. "I don't think I'll find anyone else again."
Ryouga's eyes widened. "What? You just turned twenty-five! You'll find someone," he replied casually.
Ranma shook his head. "No, Ryouga. I can't. More to it, I don't wanna."
Ryouga faced Ranma. "Akane wouldn't want you to-"
Ranma covered his mouth with a hand with a slap. "That ain't it!" he hissed.
Ranma slowly moved his hand and Ryouga let out a frustrated growl. Before he could say a word, Ranma moved over him and, quickly pecked him on the lips.
"Wha-" Ryouga half-uttered.
Ranma closed his eyes and held his arms up in defense. "I'm sorry. That was really stupid. I just wanted you to know. I don't wanna find anybody else. I got all the people I need."
Ryouga blinked. He held his own hands up in defense. "Woah, woah, wait! I ain't-"
Ranma stared at Ryouga dead in the eye. "Neither am I! I promise ya, ain't like I give the guys in town a second thought. But you're different. Maybe it's cause you're my only real friend. Maybe it's cause I'm half-girl, but even when I guy, I feel it. You get me. And... I like you." he said in a whisper.
Ryouga looked unsure. "Hey, uh, shit, I know we've been good friends but..."
Ranma nodded. "I know. If you wanna run off and, uh, find that nice girl, it's okay."
"Ranma," Ryouga whispered. Ranma turned away and spoke quietly.
"Y-you've done more for me than I can ever repay ya. And ya didn't hafta do it and, and-"
"And, I meant what I said! This is as much your home as mine. Even if we can only ever be friends I wanna know you're always-"
"Ranma you idiot!" Ryouga yelled as he grabbed Ranma's shoulder and pulled it so he could look Ranma in the eye.
"I'm not mad at you. I'm... shit, I'm surprised a bit, but... look at us. People probably already think we're… you know. We might be the only grown men who platonically sleep in the same bed together for years. You think that's somethin' good friends do?"
Ranma considered his words and, unsure shook his head slowly.
Ryouga rolled his eyes at the sudden display of naïveté. "Look, whatever, Ranma. You're a guy. I'm a guy. We have needs. And we're friends. I get it if you wanna… do stuff. It doesn't mean I have to be your," he hesitated, "boyfriend."
Ranma gulped. "Well, well I wasn't expectin' ya to be!" he countered.
Ryouga gave Ranma a smirk. "You are so full of shit, Saotome."
"Am not, P-chan. I can take it or leave it. You're my best friend and... and if I wanna kiss him, that doesn't mean anything 'cept the fact that we're good friends." Ranma nodded as though it made it such.
"You really are a little kid somtimes, Ranma." Ryouga patted Ranma's head softly, if a tad condescendingly.
Ryouga rolled his eyes and leaned forward, hesitantly kissing Ranma on the forehead. "That... that was kinda nice," he remarked to himself before he looked down and, with the same quickness as the his once-rival, kissed Ranma on the lips.
"Huh?" Ranma asked, dumbfounded.
"Yeah... Not bad at all." Ryouga said in a whisper before he kissed the distracted boy once again.
The next morning. Ranma and Ryouga sat quietly on the floor of the living room. Save for the small light on the ceiling of the room and the sink, the entire space was bare. Their movements echoed along with the sounds of unwrapping the lukewarm protein bars they had for their breakfast.
"So..." Ranma began. "I was thinking about going to town to get the supplies to work on the dojo. Ya wanna come? Or did you wanna get ta work on installing the stove?"
Ryouga stood and crumpled the wrapper into a ball. "Ranma, I need time to... I need to think. I think... I gotta go." He walked towards his pack.
Ranma looked up at Ryouga's retreating form. "Oh," he said. "Yeah, I bet. I-"
"Don't say it. I'm not going forever, just... for a while."
Ranma pursed his lips and was silent for a moment. Finally, with a sense of finality, he said, "See ya round, buddy."
Three weeks later, Ranma was sanding a newly built heavy oak dining table when he heard the door open. He didn't even look up from his work, running a hand over the edge to gauge it's smoothness.
"What did you decide?" Ranma asked.
"Huh?" Ryouga dropped his pack unexpectedly. "No 'Welcome back' or 'where've you been, asshole?' "
"You left cause you needed time to think, " Ranma bit his lip as he rubbed the paper on the underside of the table. "Did you decide what you wanna do?"
"Yeah." Ryouga walked over to Ranma and, kneeling down, put a hand on the pigtailed man's shoulder. Ranma feigned nonchalance, but Ryouga felt his shoulder tense up.
"Look, I dunno about anything serious, but... I liked what we did. It was a little weird, but..."
Ranma relaxed a bit and continued to sand the table. Ryouga let go of his shoulder and rubbed the back of his neck.
"Ya need some help with that? Looks good, by the way."
"Thanks..." Ranma thought for a moment before pointing behind his shoulder with a thumb. "If you can get me that level over there, I'd appreciate it P-chan."
Ryouga suppressed a groan and handed Ranma the measuring tool on question. When Ranma was satisfied that the little bubbles where in the right places, he stood up and brushed off the fine sawdust in his arms and legs.
He turned around and looked Ryouga in the eye.
"I know you ain't... that way, Ryouga," Ranma began. "I didn't think I- I dunno about that kinda thing anyway. Gay. Straight. I don't even know what that kinda thing has ta do with me."
"Well, with your cur-"
"Who gives a damn about that? I'm a grown man, no matter what, and if I happen ta like another grown man... like that, then what the hell's the problem with it?"
Ryouga couldn't help but let out a snort of laughter.
"What's so goddamn funny?"
"You're- you'd do anything for a chance at happiness, wouldn't you? When we were younger, the idea of doing that stuff with a guy would have scared the pants off of you."
Ranma shook his head, "No. I'm done with 'happiness'. I just want some peace. I want quiet. I dunno 'bout love or that kinda thing, but..." In a voice barely loud enough to travel the short distance.
"I want you around."
The dojo had been carefully structured to take advantage of the high ceiling of the old barn. Since the property was purchased and the main house built, Ranma had taken great pains to turn the old barn into a place he and Ryouga could keep their skills at their sharpest.
One example was the ceiling of the building. Where once the rafters held hooks and pulleys for storing and and retrieving bales of hay, Ranma had personally carved and installed several wooden Muk Yan Jong dummies in order to practice mid-air sparring with multiple opponents. It was late May, almost summer, but the weather at that elevation ran a bit chilly. Both men looked like they were just out of college, though the truth was they were turning 30 that year.
Ranma was wearing loose black pants and a long sleeve red cotton shirt, reminiscent of his wardrobe in high school. Ryouga, in contrast, had on a khaki button-shirt, dark green pants, and sturdy hiking boots. The shirt in particular had a patch on the left shoulder which read "Shirakami Sanchi - World Heritage Site - Park Ranger"
After a final exchange of strikes and kicks, they both landed with a soft thud. Ranma walked over to one corner and poured himself a drink from a small sink installed there. After a second glass of water, he poured as third and handed it to Ryouga, who was sitting in the center of the dojo, stretching.
"So, how was the dedication ceremony?" Ranma asked as he began his own stretched. "The U.N reps were really there?"
Ryouga nodded as he slowly brought a leg up until his foot was over his head. "A little boring, but the food was good. The prefectural government got to share the spotlight with the U.N. guys, so they were pleased as punch. Lots of talk about the 'importance of preserving nature' and the 'natural wonder that fit the Japanese spirit and the spirit of UNESCO'. All I care about is making sure things stay quiet."
"How is the office gonna keep track of ya? What's ta stop you from endin' up in Africa or somethin'?"
Ryouga bent over pulled down one of his long green socks to reveal a black ankle bracelet. "Well they gave me this GPS band. It starts beeping if I wander out of the forest."
"They ain't gonna make us move, are they?" Ranma asked hesitantly as he finished a calf stretch.
"Nono. We're just outside the area. Hell, half the reason they hired me was because I live right here."
"That and you're probably one of the only people out there with twenty-somethin' years of outdoorsmanship experience."
"You could get work with them too," Ryouga said. "You know almost as much as I do."
Ranma waved a hand dismissively. "Nah. I do okay here. I like the farm I got goin'. Thinking about getting some chickens. Just for the eggs, even. Plus I like the occasional student that comes here. I get ta do the whole 'sensei on the mountain' thing. I love to freak them out when I show em the curse."
"Akane was right. You are a pervert."
Ranma stretched his arms over his head, his hands clasped. "Hey, I ain't gonna be young forever. I gotta flaunt what I got while I still got it."
Ryouga laughed, "Okay, that's pretty gay. You told me to tell you if you were acting too gay and, saying that as a guy pretty much crosses the line."
"Asshole." Ranma muttered as Ryouga laughs echoed across the dojo. After a moment, Ranma said quietly.
"Good luck out there."
"Oh…" Ryouga ran a hand through his hair. "Thanks, Ranma."
"I..." Ranma grew quiet as he began to twiddle his thumbs. "I don't know what you think about us. If we're just uh, real good friends or somethin' else, but... Is it okay if I think of ya as family?"
Ryouga quirked an eyebrow. "What brought that on all of a sudden? Girl side getting her period?"
Ranma punched Ryouga lightly in the shoulder. "Ass. I didn't leave Tokyo on good terms. If they wanted to talk ta me, they could've found me by now. More to the point, I guess I don't wanna talk to 'em. I messed up running out on them."
"Aw, come on. Anybody could see staying was a recipe for being miserable.":
"Nono, I fucked up. I did the dumb kid move and ran away from my problems. Not that Pops was right, but I lost too much time with Ma... If she's alive, I doubt she'd wanna talk to me. Especially If I told her how I spent the last ten years."
Ryouga stood up and stretched his back. "I wouldn't throw away the possibility, if that's what you really want to do. As far as we go, I'm okay with you calling me a bastard every now and then."
"Hey, that's only cause you act like one every now and then." Ranma replied, smiling. "Nah. You're important, ya know?. You're my family."
Ryouga returned from his shower to see Ranma put away the remains of the mizore nabe into the small refrigerator. She looked at him and then to the sink and, without a word, he turned on the sink and began washing dishes. Ranma stood next to him, using a well-worn dish towel to dry the dishes handed to her by Ryouga.
"Hey Ranma. Is there something wrong with the boiler? Water doesn't feel as hot as it usually does. I thought I was gonna step out of the shower as P-chan."
"I uh, turned down the boiler. Saving the batteries since we don't get much sun this time of year."
"Huh…" Ryouga nodded, though his brow was furrowed. On impulse, he turned the hot water as hot as it would go, put his hand over the faucet and sprayed Ranma with a jet of water. Ryouga was surprised.
Ranma's jaw dropped and her eyes widened in horror. She began to hyperventilate, her chest rising and falling quickly and her eyes tearing up. She began patting her body as though checking to see if she was still alive. When she seemed satisfied with herself and she had controlled her breathing, she grabbed Ryouga's shoulders and turned him to face her as she shrieked, throwing strikes wildly.
"You idiot! Dummy! Moron!"
"You didn't change..." Ryouga replied, his face ashen as he scrambled to block Ranma's hits.
"Yeah, thank fucking goodness! Ya think I want to change back? I couldn't know for sure if hot water would change me. You know what I woulda done ta you if I did!?"
Ryouga countered, "What? You'd stop acting like a nagging housewife?"
Ranma slugged Ryouga in the jaw, the force of her punch catching Ryouga off guard and forcing him to the floor.
"What the hell!" he said as he sat up, all the while nursing his jaw with a free hand.
Ranma took a breath and wiped her face. "Sorry. You didn't deserve that. You didn't know. I got carried away. Damn mood swings."
"Yeah... They ain't so bad now, but... be happy you haven't been around."
"Are you sick or something, Ranma?"
"Kinda, but not in the way you're thinkin', P-chan." She weakly replied. Ranma slowly lifted her dress.
"Woah! What the hell are you..." Ryouga began to protest when he saw the small, but prominent bulge in her lower abdomen.
"Yeah, uh, I'm..." Ranma fumbled to say. "Well, I s'pose it's kinda obvious what I am."
The last time Ryouga had returned from the forest, it was just early Autumn, barely past September. Rather, it was the sound of a small rubber flap that alerted Ranma of his presence. He came into the living room in time to see the small black piglet press one of his hooves onto a lever, which tipped over a thermos filled with warm water, restoring Ryouga back to human form.
Ranma walked up to him, holding a towel.
"What happened? Rain?"
"... no, I fell in the river cause I wasn't paying attention."
"We'll get your stuff later, come here." Ranma pulled the much taller man against her frame.
"What about you?" Ryouga asked.
Ranma shrugged. "I dunno. Just felt right bein' a girl today."
"Huh... that time of the month, huh" he lightly teased.
"Fuck off, piggy." she returned in the same easy-going voice as she rested her head on his chest. There was a comfortable silenced shared between them.
"I like it when you come home this time of year. You smell like cedar and smoke and apples."
"You really do feel like a girl today, huh?"
She stuck out her tongue. "I'll get you back for that." She smiled, "You know, I should be scared shitless of you?"
"You come in and out of the house whenever ya like, you get whiny if you haven't eaten, and sometimes you want me to cuddle you and other times you say I'm smotherin' ya like a girl. You're a goddamn cat, P-chan."
"Huh, now I kinda wish I fell in the Spring of Drowned Cat."
"It wouldn't have given ya a chance with Shampoo, ya know."
Ryouga rolled his eyes. "I was just thinking I would've loved being able to scare the shit out of you when we were kids."
That evening, Ryouga felt relief in his aching muscles as he nestled with Ranma in their soft bed for the first time in weeks. Ranma had the bedside lamp on. It shone brightly as she was reading a book. Ryouga took a glance at the new quilt he was sleeping under.
"Nice quilt. You bought it in town?"
"Nah, I made it."
"Do you even still turn into a guy, Ranma?"
"Cute, but dumb as usual, Ryouga. Nah. I kind of ended up fighting against this Martial Arts Cloth Crafts Master. I made this quilt as part of the final battle against the old biddy."
She held a corner of the quilt to explain. "Yeah. Look at the patterns on it. I tried to make it about my life. The outer yin-yang motif is kinda obvious, but the yellow part is there cause it reminds me of Akane... and you," she said, blushing. "The red and white pattern is supposed to be Saffron. The mantema flower in the middle is supposed ta represent home. And this yellow and red pattern around it... is supposed ta be us."
"That's, uh, thoughtful of you," Ryouga said, looking at the stitching of the mantema flower.
"Thanks, man. When I came home after I won, I just sat in bed, wrapping it around me and thinking of stuff. You know, life stuff. Friends, family..." she whispered, "us."
Ryouga was unsure what to say. He grimaced, unsure what to say when he noticed Ranma's shirt collar was lowered, exposing her shoulder and collarbone. Under the bright light of the bedside lamp, Ryouga saw small white scratches were just visible against Ranma's light skin.
"I never noticed those scratches before," Ryouga remarked absently.
Ranma nodded. "It's easier ta see em when I'm a girl for some reason. Even then it's hard ta see unless ya look under a bright light like this. I got a ton of 'em, ya know."
"Yeah..." Ryouga trailed off before slowly, lightly, he kissed her bare shoulder near the collarbone.
Ranma jerked forwards."Hey careful. I'm ticklish there."
"Sorry." Ryouga said, looking away.
"Are you blushing?" Ranma asked.
Ryouga slowly nodded. "Yeah, well..." He sighed, "This is so fucked up. I'm not even gay, but I'm more afraid of touching you as a girl than when you're a guy."
Ranma tried to not laugh, but an abjectly feminine giggle escaped her lips.
Ryouga yelled in impotent anger. "It's not funny! It's your fault for making me all confused and shit."
Ranma shrugged. "Sorry, man, but it's me, Ryouga. Jeez, I glad you still see me as a guy first, but... I guess I don't mind bein' a woman, too."
"Some woman," he whispered, "I don't ever remembering hearing a guy talk about how their first time with a woman ended with them not being able to walk right the next day."
Ranma gave him a little smirk. "You don't talk to the right people, I guess."
"Oh shut it, girl." Ryouga said, regaining the momentum with a slip of his hand under Ranma's shirt.
She jerked forward suddenly and gasped. "I'm gonna get you for that, Ryouga."
He raised his eyebrows suggestively. "Try me."
Ranma quickly removed her shirt and called his bluff.
When Ranma woke up the next morning, Ryouga had already left.
Ryouga stood there dumbstruck in front of Ranma, dripping on the wooden floor of the kitchen and giving him a narrowed-eyed look.
"You're pregnant? But, how?" he asked.
"Well, when a woman has sex with a man..." Ranma replied dryly.
"B-but, we only…" Ryouga sputtered as dry protest.
"Only takes one. That and it was technically three times that night."
Ryouga nodded sagely. In truth he felt a bit dizzy.
Ranma for her part softened her look. She dried the dish in her hand and, on her tiptoes, put it back on the shelf above the sink."You left so quickly. I thought it was like when we first..."
"No... I, jeez don't make fun of me, I was going to feed the chickens and I got lost finding the feed."
Ranma lightly hit him on the head with a fist. "Dumbass."
"Why didn't you use hot water afterwards?" Ryouga shivered at the thought of cold showers this time of year.
Ranma fidgeted a bit, rubbing the floor with the balls of her feet. "I… wanted to see if I… I was hoping I was."
"Hoping you got pregnant?" Ryouga said, "Isn't that a bit extreme?"
Ranma nodded. "I dunno. I guess. I'm almost forty, ya know. If I want a kid, I gotta..." She shook her head. "Sorry, Ryouga. It wasn't right. I should asked or said somethin' about it."
"Damn right." Ryouga remarked in a voice more hurt than accusatory.
Ranma turned away from Ryouga and puffed up her chest and shoulders, affecting her most macho posture. "Well, ya don't gotta worry about me. Ain't like we're married or nothin'. I can raise a kid just fine on my own!" She let out a pathetic laugh. "I mean, I can literally be the mom n' the dad."
Ryouga walked up to Ranma and looked over her shoulder. He could see the the tear tracks on her cheeks. "I don't understand."
"What's ta understand? We had sex and you knocked me up. You ain't that dense, Piggy," she pouted.
Ryouga looked unsure, his lip curled up in doubt and confusion. "I... fuck, man. Why didn't you say something? You should've told me what you wanted from me. It's a kid, Ranma!"
Ranma sniffed and turned back sharply, facing Ryouga. "I'm sorry, okay! I probably shoulda asked, but it kinda happened. It wasn't like I was tryin', ya know! I just... I wasn't gonna stop it if I did."
There was an uncomfortable silence between the two, the sound of dripping water in the sink the only thing breaking the tension. Ryouga slowly turned back and finished rinsing the nabe pot. He lightly setting it down on a dish rack. He then put his hands against the sink and began to weep.
"Ryouga?" Ranma asked tentatively.
"I thought you still loved her, Ranma," he asked in a frail voice.
Ranma pulled back her arm and Ryouga closed his eyes, expecting a second punch to the face. Seeing the defensive pose, Ranma relaxed her arm.
"You idiot," she said softly.
"What! What did I say?"
"You, you..." she began shouting, "It's been twenty years, Ryouga" her voice began cracking, "Ya really think lovin' somebody else'd take away from what either of us feel about Akane?"
Ryouga stayed silent, not moving.
Ranma swallowed and took a breath. "I know you don't wanna think about it. You'd be happy going on pretending what we're doing is just because we can't find a girl that comes close to Akane, so we bust a nut once in awhile, but otherwise live like monks."
Ryouga shook his head vehemently. "It isn't like that and you know it. It's just that after Akane died, I told myself I couldn't love again."
Ranma nodded, but pressed on. "Shit, Ryouga, ya think I didn't? But I realized a long time ago that was a damn fool promise. I love Akane. I always will," she said emphatically. "But I love my home, I love my quiet life, and, yeah, I think I love you, too."
Ranma walked away and slumped down at the small dining table, her legs spread apart. She grabbed the lukewarm tea and gulped it down. She looked back at Ryouga, who leaned his back against the sink.
"I left all those years ago 'cause staying in Tokyo would have forced me to carry her torch, her grave, her image with me. I ran away because all that weight woulda killed me. You saw what it did to Soun. Running away like a kid was stupid, but leaving by itself wasn't. We'll always carry that weight, but it gets a bit easier as time goes on. Don't you think?"
Ryouga slowly nodded.
Ranma gave an unsure smile. "I want to let someone in again. Aren't you lonely,too?"
Ryouga didn't move.
"Well? Aren't you?"
Ryouga closed his eyes and slowly nodded. "If break my promise, she'd never forgive me," he said softly.
Ranma slowly nodded. "I can't tell ya what she'd think. For me... I wanna believe she'd forgive me. I think she'd do the same to you."
"She'd forgive you, all right," Ryouga quipped."You'd just pay for it in beatdowns."
"I miss her gorilla strength."
Ryouga let out a short chuckle, "You know what? Me too."
Ryouga finally took a seat at the table. He folded his hands in front of himself. "Look... I dunno if I can do whatever it is you want from me."
"I don't want anything more than what you can give and you've already given me more than enough. Is it because I'm still a guy no matter what?"
"I'm over that, Ranma. Though it'd be easier if you 'went girl'," Ryouga said in a jocular tone.
"No it wouldn't and you know it," Ranma reminded him similarly.
"Yeah, I do..." Ryouga let out a great big breath, "Look, I'm tired of this back and forth, too. I like having something to come back to when I leave..." Ryouga finally looked up. "Ranma?"
"Yeah, Ryouga?" she replied.
"You're right. I dunno if I can ever say... those words. Like a normal... c-c-couple, but I do care about you. I..." he reached out and grabbed Ranma's hand. "Just don't let me wander off again. Not so soon, anyway."
"Ryouga..." Ranma half-whispered, before nodding.
Ryouga looked down and saw where his hand had gone to and, like a schoolboy, quickly brought it back to his side of the table. Ryouga began to look around the room for something interesting to look at that wasn't Ranma's face. He rubbed the back of his head. "So uh... how far along are you? Are you eating okay? Does your mo-" He slapped himself on the side of his head. "Oh shit, I almost forgot."
Ryouga ambled towards his coat. He dug frantically into the various inner pockets before pulling out a piece of paper. He walked back and gave this to Ranma.
"I ended up back in Tokyo for a bit. I ran into some people... She told me to give you this."
Ranma grabbed the paper. Inside was an address, phone number, and email address. Below that a message: A mother can always forgive her child.
"She's living at Kasumi's house now out near Mitaka. She and Tofu have a small army of kids."
"Tofu, huh?" Ranma asked before nodding. "Good for her. How... how is she?"
"That's the funny thing. Your mom's nothin' like I remember her. No kimono, no sword. She just looked like a nice old lady, except..." Ryouga grimaced. "She looked sad, Ranma."
Ranma set the paper down ans stood up. Slowly she wrapped her arms around Ryouga and squeezed him tightly. They stood still together for a second after Ranma let him go. she pulled back, leaving a small wet spot on Ryouga's shirt.
Ryouga began to ask "Are you gonna call-" Ranma nodded in response.
"I wasn't sure what to tell her about us, so I tried not to talk about it, but-"
"She figured it out?" Ranma said with a hint of a smile.
"She didn't say, but yeah I think so."
Ranma looked back at the paper. "Well can't be helped, I suppose."
"Are you gonna tell her your pregnant? What if she doesn't approve? What is she does and she wants to come visit. You know how bad the mountain pass gets in winter and she not as tough as we are and it's a long train ride and-"
Ranma rolled her eyes and tugged at the sleeve of his shirt with enough force to distract him. "Come to bed, idiot. We can talk more tomorrow."
"I'm tired and I wanna sleep beside something other than a pillow."
Ryouga nodded dumbly as he followed Ranma into bed. As he changed into a clean pair of bedclothes, he had a realization.
"Oh god, I'm going to be a father."
Ranma smirked, "Yeah. Me too."
"Uh, Ranma. You're pregnant." Ryouga said matter of factly.
"I don't care if the kid's comin' outta me, I'm still gonna be a father!" She raised her fists, "Wanna fight about it?"
Ryouga looked at Ranma again and laughed warmly. Ranma put down her hands and did the same.
Ryouga shook his head. "You're not at all excited about being a mother? Not even a little bit?"
Ranma sat down at the edge of the bed. "...okay, yeah, I'll be its mom when I gotta. Like, I dunno, parent-teacher conferences or when they call me at three in the morning for bail money or somethin', but any other time, I'm a dad, got it?"
Ryouga nodded. "Got it."
"And don't you forget it," she warned. Her lips curled up to a sly smile as she turned out the lamp by the bedside table.
As the two got under the thick layers of blankets and comforters. Ranma looked up at the ceiling, the room still lit by the small blue night light. She turned away from Ryouga and pressed her back against him, appreciating the warm body next to her.
"I still miss her," Ranma whispered. "After all these years, longer than we knew her. Hell, longer than she was alive. I miss her."
Ryouga didn't say anything
"If it's a girl... I was thinkin' I wanted ta call her Akane."
Ryouga rolled over and placed a hand gently on Ranma's stomach. "I think she'd like that."
"I bet she'll be a real tomboy."
With a comforting sigh, Ryouga wrapped an arm around Ranma."With parents like us? She couldn't turn out any other way."
Ranma smiled at the thought as they both slowly fell asleep.
The house stood there at the end of the gravel path, nestled at the edge of the forest. The wind was dying down, the snowfall has eased, and all was quiet.
This fic is, in a roundabout way, a song fic. The title is the second track from the 2008 album Cove by A Weather. I must have listened to the song at least a hundred times in conceiving the story and writing the piece. I'm not a particularly invested in slash pairings, but I was interested in writing a story about the tentative exploration of sexuality and the relationship between intimacy, friendship, and sexuality. The fun is doing that with characters who tend to act before they think. I hope I was able to convey a certain amount of uncertainty and hesitancy between the two, while at least in part, staying within character. This was also a story where I wanted to play with scenes, structure, and time, similar to my Madoka story, Dämmerung.
Thanks to tuatara and Kevin D. Hammel for pre-reading and offering suggestions for the story. Special Thanks to Unsurpassed Travesty who saw an early draft of this (bless her heart) and gave her feedback.