~~~~~ Chapter 5: Breaking ~~~~~
The time of breaking is critical to the development of an even-tempered, tractable horse. Mistakes during this phase can result in an animal which is skittish, intransigent, or even dangerous... The rider will be required to be patient and firm, and keep control of the process at all times... if this is done properly, the result is a bond between horse and rider which enriches both their lives.
The Taming of the Horse: An Equestrian's Guide
"'A date'?" Ranma was the picture of a pigtailed martial artist who couldn't believe his ears. He'd thought he was in Akane's room after supper to get help with his homework.
"You heard me," Akane said firmly. "I want you to ask me out. I want you to set a date and time that you'll come pick me up to go do something normal. Like dinner and a movie, or something."
Ranma looked dubious. "Why would I want ta make a big production out of it? Ya wanna go hang out somewhere, fine, but"
"It's what couples do, you jerk! We are a couple, aren't we?" Her glare dared him to say otherwise.
He took the dare. "Whaddaya mean, couple?"
Akane took a deep, cleansing breath and let it out. It didn't help. "A couple. I am your fiancee. You" God help me, her scathing glance implied "are my fiance. A Couple."
"Okay. You can ask me out on a date," he said smugly.
"Oooh! You... you...."
Ranma looked down into Akane's eyes. She was breathing hard and had her fists clenched, and he couldn't imagine why she hadn't hit him yet. His heart pounded once... twice... three, four, five and then her arms slid up around his neck and her fingers grabbed his hair and pulled his head down. Her lips were suddenly hot on his and not gentle, not gentle at all, but he didn't mind. His arms enclosed her like they knew what they were doing, which was a good thing, because he wasn't paying attention to them.
Akane broke the kiss and leaned back, looking up into Ranma's eyes. His lips settled into a goofy smile. "Wow. So that's what Shampoo an' Kodachi were tryin' for...."
Akane broke out of his embrace and stepped back, suddenly furious. "You're supposed to be thinking about me, not them!" she snarled.
Ranma's face flashed through several expressions before settling on the superior smirk Akane hated so much. "Heh. Why don'tcha make me?" She couldn't let that pass, could she? Akane let fly with her best right jab, targeted three inches past where his navel would be when he dodged, but it hit air behind his back because he'd flowed inside it and picked her up and was kissing her, kissing her the way he fought, with joy and abandon and... oh boy... with technique that started out clumsy but improved by the second. She heard a little moan and realized it was her own voice but didn't care, because she'd wanted this for so long and all she wanted to do now was to drag him down on the floor and... and... and what?
Ranma bounced off the wall yelling "What?! What?!" and stopped.
Akane was leaning against the opposite wall from the panicked shove that had separated them, hand at her chest, still breathing hard. "No! Not until we're married!" she gasped.
Ranma blinked, dumbfounded. "What, no kissing?"
"No, no...." She stopped and looked again. There was no way Ranma could be faking that stupid look. And that meant.... "Argh! I can't believe it! There's no way ANYONE could be that dense!"
"What?! If not kissing, then what?!"
"My god. You're not kidding. You weren't thinking...." And I was. Akane blushed deeply and hid her face in her hands. Oh, boy, was I ever.
Ranma stared at her flaming ears and suddenly Got It. "Oh. That. Uh...."
Akane peeked out. Ranma was blushing as badly as she was. Maybe he won't make fun of me.... "Well, I, um.... How could you not... you know?"
Ranma put his hand to the back of his head and examined the ceiling. "Uh... I dunno. Don't tell my momma, but I guess it was always jus' something that happened ta other people, far" He was interrupted by a thump from the next room and shut up quickly. In the sudden silence both Ranma and Akane could hear muffled noises, noises that sounded like... laughing? They stared at each other. Microphone? Sweatdrops appeared on both heads.
"NABIKI!!!" they screamed in unison, and darted for the door. Ranma was slightly ahead as they rounded the curve, averting a nasty pileup in the doorway.
Nabiki just had time to untangle herself from her headphone cable and pop the tape out before Ranma and Akane burst into her room. Her hand dove into her waistband and came out empty. "Ah-ah-ah!" she chided them. "Don't even think about it."
Ranma was thinking about it. He eyed the outline of the cassette in Nabiki's pants. His hand twitched. Akane caught his eye and mouthed "Go for it." Nabiki caught his eye and glared coolly at him. About that time he started thinking about what else was inside Nabiki's pants....
Ranma stepped back and shrugged helplessly at Akane. "Sorry, no can do. If ya wanna make dragon stew for dinner, I'll go kill the ingredients for ya, but not this."
"Coward," Akane muttered. She steeled herself and turned to Nabiki. "How much?"
"Priceless." They gaped at her. "No, really, you can't afford this and no one else can either. I'm keeping this one to cheer me through the dark years to come." Akane and Ranma exchanged desperate looks. "Besides, by the sound of it, pretty soon you'll have much better things to be embarrassed about." Ranma and Akane both flushed scarlet. "Think of it as a lesson in not getting caught."
Akane found her voice again. "Nabiki... if you ever, ever, ever let anyone listen to that tape, I'll... I'll hold it against you as long as I live." She slumped, deflated by the negligible weight of the best credible threat she could come up with.
"What, not even Kasumi? How about Father? Hey, I bet Happosai'd really get a kick out of it...."
"Whoa, in stereo yet." Nabiki smiled triumphantly and flapped a hand at them. "Just kidding. Really. I promise no one else will hear it, cross my abacus and hope to go broke."
Akane considered her for a moment. "Well, all right. But for god's sake, keep it in a safe place."
"But..." Ranma started.
"Come ON, Ranma!" Akane grabbed his pigtail and started dragging him out.
Nabiki couldn't resist a parting shot. "Hey, hey, What-No-Kissing-san," she whispered to Ranma as he stumbled past. Ranma just had time for a dirty look before the door slammed. Nabiki grinned, winced suddenly, and carefully fished the tape out. She turned it over in her fingers, then smiled, loaded it back into the recorder and pressed "Rewind".
Out in the hall, Akane let go of Ranma's pigtail. "We need to talk," she told him.
"We do? Uh, yeah, sure we do. Quit lookin' at me like that."
"Not here, though. Someplace without microphones."
"And fiancees. 'Cept you, of course. Heh heh."
"Heh." Baka. "The roof?"
"Nah, I think Nabiki can bug us there too. Mebbe the dojo roof... uh, no."
"Let's go." Ranma cracked his knuckles and smiled viciously. "If we're really, really lucky, we'll run inta some muggers. Ya need the practice." Bop!
The small park near the dojo had a few trees, some concrete benches, and a lovely view of the canal. This time of night, the city lights were kind of pretty if one squinted, too. Akane badly wanted Ranma to put his arm around her on the walk there, but couldn't quite bring herself to put her arm around him.
"Here," Ranma said, walking up to a backless bench near the embankment. "You sit that way, I'll sit this way, an' we're lookin' over each other's shoulders and nobody can sneak up on us."
Akane sighed and sat as indicated. "You're paranoid."
"Nah. That's only if no one IS out to get ya." Ranma grinned rakishly. He sat facing her. He lost the grin. The breeze made a lonely sound in the trees.
We could kiss so easily, sitting like this, Akane realized. Did he... could he have planned it that way? She waited hopefully. The breeze whispered again. Come ON, baka!
Finally she got tired of waiting. "You could kiss me again, you know," she told him shyly. "If you wanted to."
Ranma started. "Uh, yeah, I guess I could...." He leaned over a little and forward a little. Their lips met. Akane closed her eyes. Their lips moved around a bit. Their lips parted.
...That's all? What happened to.... Akane opened her eyes.
Ranma had a slight frown. He looked like he was mulling something over. "Jeez, Akane, that was pathetic," he said finally. "Even a cold gal like you oughta be able to kiss better than that."
It was his sensei voice at its most irritating, and Akane's reaction was automatic. Grr! I'll show him! She lunged forward. She didn't notice Ranma's expression change from disappointment to anticipation, but she did notice when his arms closed around her, her aura burst out in a soundless explosion and she could see it, she could see their auras spark and sizzle against each other with her eyes shut.... He has to love me as much as I love him, there's no other way something as wonderful as this could be happening....
Then it was over and her closed eyes were leaking tears. She took advantage of the way their arms were interlocked to hug him hard. He hugged her back, but not nearly as hard, as though she were something precious that might break if he weren't careful.
Akane pushed back to look up at Ranma. For the first time she could remember, he looked happy. Not triumphant-happy or relieved-happy or trying-to-look-cute happy, but ordinary, glad-to-be-alive happy. It didn't last, though. He started looking apprehensive. Akane figured she'd better say something before he did.
"What... what was all that about?"
He shrugged. "I dunno." His expression said that he did know.
Akane gave him an impatient look. "You have the worst poker face in history, remember? Try again."
He sighed. "I don't wanna say."
"You're not trying to get me mad so you can kiss me again, are you?"
He twitched. "Uh...."
She let her hands wander over his back a bit. Such a fine back... such a pity it has a shirt on it... whoa, girl. "Well, let's see here. We kiss, and it's... nice. We kiss when I'm mad, and... fireworks." She tilted an eyebrow at him. "It WAS fireworks for you too, wasn't it?"
"Mm." He blushed.
"Hold it, Akane. I don't wanna talk about this too much."
She stared at him, surprised. "Well, whyever not?"
"I... uh... it might be like the Art is, sometimes. You think about it too much and it sorta... goes away." He gestured helplessly. His voice fell almost to a mumble. "I... I don't... I don't want it to go away."
Akane stared at him. "Ranma...." Now! "Ranma? Remember just before the wedding?" He twitched. He did. She laid a finger across his lips just in case. "I know you love me, Ranma. I've known since Jusendo. Maybe you didn't tell me then, and maybe you sort of didn't before the wedding, and maybe you can't tell me now." She took a breath. "But that's all right, as long as you don't deny it now, because... because I love you, Ranma."
His eyes widened. She took the finger off his lips. He was trembling. Fear? She was. Fear... oh, god, what if I've ruined it, what if he doesn't love me back, what if I lose him because I said I love him? She called on what control she'd mastered. Now I have to be the strong one....
She hugged him again, clumsily, and tried to soothe him. It wasn't working. Oh, no! He wasn't ready yet!
"Akane?" His voice was ragged. "What about the curse?"
Hope surged within her. She tried to make her voice matter-of-fact. "I can live with it if you can."
He pulled back enough to look her in the eyes, and didn't say anything. His doubt was clear.
She sighed. "Go jump in the canal. Come back female, and I'll tell you again." She gave him a half-hearted glare. "But no perverted stuff."
His mouth twitched. It was a pretty ghastly excuse for a smile, but it was a smile. Then he was gone.
Ranma vaulted back over the railing. She stripped off her shirt, wrung it out, and put it back on, not looking at Akane. Akane got up, moved over beside her, and turned the shorter girl to face her.
"I love you, Ranma." Akane gazed into Ranma's eyes, willing her to believe it. Tears welled up and overflowed, and suddenly Ranma was crying, in great, wrenching sobs that sounded like they were being torn out of her one at a time. Akane put her arms around her, waited for the storm to subside, and tried to think happy thoughts.
Eventually Ranma sniffled and pulled away. Akane wordlessly offered her a handkerchief. "Thanks." Snort!
"You still blow your nose like a boy," Akane observed.
Ranma laughed a bit and wiped her nose. "I don't think ya want this back just yet," she said, inspecting the handkerchief. "Damnedest thing, though, this body handles the mushy stuff better than mine." She glanced at Akane. "That hurt a lot. Like... like a half-healed wound."
Akane shrugged. "Maybe it was one," she said lightly.
"Hmm...." Suddenly Ranma's gaze flicked past Akane. "Shit," she hissed. "Shampoo. On a bicycle. Let's go for the trees."
"Wait, Ranma," Akane said. She touched Ranma's shoulder. "Why should we run?"
Ranma straightened slowly from her crouch, looking confused. She opened her mouth and closed it. "Hell, you're right," she said wonderingly. "I ain't done nothin'...." She caught Akane's eye and Akane could read her thought: but Shampoo won't see it that way... oh shit.
Akane looked grim. "Just remember who's who and what's what," she told Ranma.
Ranma looked shellshocked. "I don't think I got that all sorted out yet," she blurted.
Ranma ignored the approaching bicycle. A look of joy suddenly spread over her face. She bounded away from Akane. "Hah, what's it to ya? Yer too slow ta catch me anyway! Bii-da!"
Akane stared in disbelief and suddenly got it. "Come back here and take your punishment like a man, you coward!" Now! She charged at Ranma, who sprang away right at Shampoo.
"Airen! Shampoo so" Crunch! "Aiya!"
"Sorry, Shampoo!" Ranma called over her shoulder without slowing down. "I've got a tomboy after me! Bye!"
Akane carefully ran over Shampoo's bicycle. "Oops! I'm so clumsy!" She sprinted after Ranma.
Shampoo stared after them. There was something strange about that.... Then she noticed her bicycle, its wheels bent and twisted. She started cursing in Chinese.
Well away from the park, Ranma dropped out of the night and raced along beside Akane. "Whee! That was fun!"
Akane glanced over and grinned. "We make a good team, don't we? Look out!"
Ranma barely avoided an inconveniently-placed light pole. "Don't DO that!" she yelled.
"Do what?" Akane asked innocently, slowing to a walk.
"Smile at me when there's posts and things in the way!"
Akane giggled and clapped Ranma on the shoulder. "It's not my fault you weren't looking where you were going."
Ranma suddenly looked up and past her and sniffed the air warily. Akane groaned. "Now what?"
"Rain comin'. Home's too far... ah. C'mon." Ranma ran down the street. Akane followed. They made it to shelter under the canal bridge just before rain started falling in roaring sheets. It slackened after the initial downpour, but kept falling.
"Well, if Shampoo's still lookin' for us, she's doin' it on four legs," Ranma said, staring out into the rain.
Akane dusted off a section of concrete abutment with her hand, wiped her hand on her skirt, and sat down. "Over here." Ranma turned to look at her, and she patted the concrete beside her. Ranma sagged a bit, but she came over and sat beside Akane, close enough that each could feel the other's body heat, but not quite touching. They listened to the rain for a while.
"Ranma? What are you thinking about?" Akane's voice was gentle.
"Dunno. I guess... hopin' things won't change too much." She felt Akane move sideways to close the small gap between them, so that they were touching from shoulder to knee, and sighed faintly. I didn't dare do that, but I'm glad she did. She felt a fist hit her in the ribs, not hard, but knew it was a hint to say the right thing. "I mean... things have been pretty good with us lately, but what just happened could change everythin'...." She shrugged desperately.
Akane took pity on her. "You don't want to lose the good things between us."
"Yeah... somethin' like that."
"Ranma... what DO you want? Really?"
"Ya mean, besides to be a guy full-time an' enough to eat?" She sensed Akane's nod in the dark, and thought about it for a while. She laughed a little. "I don't get asked that much. I guess I don't think about it much." She paused. "Good friends. And... good enemies."
"Well, hell, you like havin' friends, don'tcha? That part oughta make sense," Ranma said. "I only ever had but two before I came here. Ukyo and Ryoga." Akane said nothing. "I miss Ryoga. He's not exactly my friend, but he's my best enemy. Ya can't have good fights without good enemies, and we had some great fights."
"Is that why you were always picking on him?"
Ranma shook her head disgustedly. "Look, Akane, it's a guy thing. Hell, it's a martial-artist-guy thing. You're a martial-artist-tomboy, ya oughta be able to understand at least part of it ow!" Ranma rubbed her ribs. Akane had punched her, but hadn't pulled away.
"Which one am I?" Akane asked softly.
"I think you're more tomboy than martial artist, but ow!"
"No, you baka. Friend or enemy?"
"Uh, if you're gonna hit me, hit me someplace else, 'cause that spot is gettin' sore. Uh... both." She felt Akane lose interest in punching her again just before letting fly.
"Both? Ranma, you know you're going to have to explain that."
"Explain what? I enjoyed all the fights we had, okay? Even if I took all the hits!" Ranma's voice paused, then continued at a lower volume. "And you never hit me when I was down, and you busted your butt to cover me when my momma coulda had me slit my belly... and... and... you hardly ever let me be lonely."
"Ranma...." Akane put her arm around the smaller girl.
"Hey, I thought you said no perverted stuff," Ranma protested weakly.
"This isn't perverted," Akane told her. "Real girls do this all the time. Besides, no one's watching."
Ranma didn't answer, but her arm crept around Akane's waist.
Akane summoned her courage. "What about the engagement?"
Ranma sighed. "I guess I got used to it. Uh... if our friends hadn't wrecked the wedding, I think I woulda gone through with it. You were so pretty...." Akane blushed in the dark and tightened her one-armed hug. "Um... but... I dunno if I'm ready to be a hu husband. Right now, what I really want is a buddy." She paused. "If... if it helps any, if I had to get married, I'd want it to be to you."
"Oh...." Akane's voice was thick with emotion. "Oh, yes, it helps. Oh, Ranma...."
"I guess... another thing I want is for you to be happy. What do YOU want, Akane?"
"I... I want to be your... partner." The words spilled out in a rush. "That's the other reason why I wanted you to train me. So I could be good enough that you wouldn't have to protect me all the time, so that I could protect you if you needed it, so that together we could beat anyone we couldn't beat apart."
"But... but it's a man's duty..." Ranma's feminine voice began.
Akane sprang to her feet and turned to face Ranma. "NO! That's for other people! You keep calling me a tomboy. Fine, I'm a tomboy. Well, you're a boy who's a girl sometimes. That's fine with me too. But those silly man-woman rules don't work for us. They can't!"
Akane overrode her. "Someday you're going back to China looking for a cure, or someone's going to need a hero and you'll volunteer, or... or the weirdness of our lives will just get out of control again some way I can't even imagine, and you'll go do something dangerous again. Well, next time you're not going alone."
"I know, I know, you want me to be safe. But what's safe? I stayed 'safe at home' last time, and those bastards came and took me anyway!
"I couldn't STAND it when I had to wait, wondering if you were dead or alive. I want to go with you wherever you go. I want to fight by your side. If I d-die, I want to die in your arms. Don't you DARE take that away from me because you want me to be safe!" Her voice failed, and she covered her face with her hands, knowing that Ranma was seeing the same time and place that she was:
Ranma sat on a ledge of tortured stone by enchanted waters in a smashed cavern, holding a young woman clad only in his shirt. She lay limp and unbreathing in his arms, and he was sure that she was dead, and he knew that he had been able to save her, and had failed utterly. His tears fell on her face, and he screamed her name: "AKANE!!"
...and her hand touched his face.
Akane got control of herself and saw Ranma. She was huddled with her knees drawn up to her chin and her arms around her legs, shivering. Uh oh. Akane sat beside her and shook her. "Ranma?"
"I was so sure you were..." Ranma said indistinctly.
"Don't think about that. Think about afterwards, when I lived, and you held me, and everything was perfect." Right up until you started worrying about whether you'd told me you loved me, she added to herself.
Ranma uncoiled a little. "Yeah...." Akane heard her gulp. "Still. I don't ever want anything like that to happen again."
"I don't either, but I'd rather risk... what almost happened... than wait at home to find out you were gone... and wonder whether you might still be alive if I'd been there."
Ranma was thinking about that. She could almost hear the gears grinding away at the idea that he might be the one to die and she might be the one who could have saved him. "I guess we better train harder," Ranma said finally. It was as close to conceding defeat as Ranma could come.
Akane managed to hold her tongue and patted Ranma on the shoulder. "Partners?"
Ranma sighed. "Yeah. Partners."
"Then you've given me what I want. I'll go on being a good friend and a good enemy to you, Ranma. I'll try to keep Father off your neck about the wedding. Only...."
"Only what?" Ranma said warily.
"Well... I know you don't want to get married yet, but it would be nice if we could be... fiancees for real. You know, two people who are thinking about getting married someday. To each other, I mean."
"No problem. I, uh, I was sorta thinkin' that anyhow. I just didn't think you were."
"Oh. Well, I was." Akane paused. "What about Shampoo and Ukyo and Kodachi?"
Ranma sighed again. "I don't want to marry any of them. Shampoo's all right, but I can't forget her chasing me across China for two weeks. She's the first person who ever really tried ta kill me. Her curse don't help. And boy, she just don't give up. I'm tired of her grabbin' me all the time, an' I damn sure don't wanna be a Joketsuzoku husband.
"Ukyo's nice and all, but I still sorta think of her as a guy. I'm not confused enough to want to marry a guy. But I feel real bad about what my pop did to her. I gotta make that up somehow, or I'm just as worthless as he is.
"I'm not responsible for Kodachi. She don't listen any more'n Kuno does. If they listened, they'd know I don't want either of 'em."
"Well, why don't you just tell them that, then?" Akane said. I will NOT bring up all the times the 'pig-tailed girl' led Kuno-sempai on. Not now, anyway.
"I can't!" Ranma brooded. "Every time I try, I get it wrong or they get it wrong or something. I look at 'em lookin' at me all hopeful like and my brain just goes to jelly and the words come out wrong. I can't. I just can't, any more'n I can pet a ca-cat without flippin' out." She looked at Akane. "If ya wanna be jealous, I guess that's fair, but I tell ya you got no real reason to be. Go on hittin' me if ya hafta."
Akane smiled ruefully. "I don't want to hit you. I'd rather kiss you."
"Uh. If ya do that, THEY'LL hit me. Oh, well, I can take it." She ducked her head. "It's worth it...."
"Oh, Ranma, you say the sweetest things." Akane grinned and punched her lightly on the shoulder.
"Gaah." Ranma looked up. "The rain's stopped."
"So it has." Hot water.... Akane got up and waited. Ranma stood, rubbed her face, and followed Akane out from under the bridge.
Kasumi turned as Akane and Ranma came into the kitchen. "Oh, hello, Ranma-kun. Did you have a nice walk, Akane?"
"Sure, nice," Akane said casually. "Can you spare some hot water, Kasumi?"
"Of course." Kasumi handed Ranma the kettle. She slipped out to the veranda. He returned a moment later and gave the kettle back to Kasumi with a word of thanks, then followed Akane out.
Akane led Ranma back outside and stopped inside the dojo gate. "I'd like to be with you longer, Ranma, but it's getting late and we have school tomorrow... so...."
"Yeah, I know. Well... g'night." He turned to leave, then turned back. "Uh...." Akane was still standing there, nearly invisible in the shadow of the gate roof. Waiting. Watching him. Smiling. Ranma looked around for observers, then moved closer to her. She turned her face up, and got her kiss; no fireworks, but a silent promise of many more to follow. Ranma released her and turned for the gate.
"Oh, Ranma?" Akane's voice held a note of mischief.
He stopped and turned. "Yeah?"
"So when's our date?"
Ranma fell over.
~~~~~ end of Breaking ~~~~~
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