~~~~~ Chapter 8: Mating ~~~~~
Encouraging breeding can be quite frustrating for the equestrian... a stallion often appears to insist on his own choice in mates, foiling the careful plans of the would-be horse breeder even as he rejects the selection of mates made available... Sometimes a healthy animal will refuse to breed for no apparent reason. The only remedy in such cases is patience, as punishment is useless...
The Taming of the Horse: An Equestrian's Guide
"Another chat, Akane? Oh, good. It's been so long since the last one, I was afraid that your life had become boring!" Kasumi laughed gently, picked up the tea caddy, and led her sister to her room.
"So, what is it now?" Kasumi asked, once the door was closed and they were seated with cups of hot tea. "Is everything all right at school?"
"Oh, school is fine." Akane stared into the depths of her cup. "It's much better than Furinkan. Even Ranma thinks so. She he won't admit it, but he likes the teachers, and he loves the gymnastics. His grades are up, and mine are holding."
"'She'?" Kasumi prodded gently.
Akane cursed herself for the slip. "For god's sake, don't mention that to Ranma. He'd get really mad." She pondered. "Maybe that's part of the problem."
"He's not behaving improperly towards you, is he?"
Akane laughed bitterly. "No. No, he isn't. And that definitely is part of the problem. He looks at me like... like I'm really special, but I practically have to hold up a big sign to get him to hug or kiss me, and he won't go any farther than that at all."
Kasumi sipped her tea. "Is that so bad? After all, you're not married yet."
Akane blushed. "I'm not talking about that. I'm definitely going to be a, a virgin when we marry, and if he knows what's good for him, so will he. But sometimes I can barely keep my hands off him, he's so... so..." Akane gave up. "Anyway, if he feels that way about me, he's hiding it pretty well."
"Oh." Kasumi looked faintly embarrassed. "Well, some of that is probably my fault, and I"
"YOUR fault!?" Akane interrupted, heatedly. "What you didn't"
Kasumi waved her hands. "Nothing improper, I assure you," she said quickly.
Akane deflated. "Well, what, then?"
"As I was saying, some of that is my fault, and I have a good idea about the rest. Well, months ago, when it became quite clear that Ranma had feelings for you stop looking like a goldfish out of water, Akane, and let me finish. Some months ago, I had a talk with Ranma about you." Kasumi paused to see if Akane had any more interruptions to offer, but Akane was still looking stunned, so she continued. "I told him that you would probably react badly if he made, er, physical advances on you, and that he should let you set the pace there."
Akane found her voice. "Well, why the hell did you tell him that?!"
"Goodness, you're sounding more like Ranma-kun all the time," Kasumi remarked. "I told him that because it was true. It probably still is."
Control, control, Akane thought. Whatever she says. Don't. Hit. Kasumi.
Kasumi took the silence, give or take grinding teeth, as permission to continue. "Listen to me, sister. Remember before Ranma came? Those silly boys who attacked you every morning?"
"Yes!" Akane spat.
"What would have happened if one of them had defeated you?"
"Um... at best, he would have taken it as a license to... to take liberties, and if he was good enough to defeat me, there was a chance I couldn't have done much about it. At worst...." Akane shuddered. "I don't want to think about it. That's why I fought so hard, and hurt them so bad. I was scared to death."
"And when Ranma came, and you were suddenly engaged to a boy who was so good that you couldn't even hit him unless he let you...."
Akane saw where Kasumi was heading. "You're saying I was scared of Ranma?"
"Not exactly. You feared loss of control. A very reasonable fear, under the circumstances. But you came to trust Ranma when it became clear that he would never use his superior skills to force himself on you, and that he would always protect you from anyone else. A remarkable young man, given his upbringing."
"Yeah," Akane said dreamily.
"I simply explained this to him, in slightly different terms. He understood immediately. Actually, he seemed quite relieved. And then you came up with this horse-taming idea, and it was obvious that you wanted to take, and keep, control of your relationship with Ranma, which is entirely in keeping with the finest traditions of our culture, so long as you never, ever let the men-folk know."
Akane looked up at Kasumi's slightly roguish smile. "But this means I'll always have to take the lead. I'll never know if he really wants...."
Kasumi shook her head. "No, no. You're in control. You may let out as much rein as you wish. Just don't get thrown, because if you lose control, you will become afraid, and then you will become angry, and then someone will get hurt... and training with Ranma-sensei has given you great skill in the deadly arts."
"You're scaring me, Kasumi," Akane said quietly.
"Good. I suggest you talk to your sensei about that."
Akane shivered and nodded.
"Now, about the second part, I must be blunt. Ranma is very confused about his sexuality, with excellent reason. My books refer to ordinary transsexuals as confused, and my goodness, they only do it once in a lifetime! Poor Ranma-kun is lucky if he changes sex only once in a day!"
"Oh, yes. That's one reason for him to have mostly suppressed his sexuality. As a result, his sex drive appears low. He does not respond to stimuli such as seeing nude women the way a normal boy of his age would. He just, well, goes through the motions, doing what he's been told he's supposed to do."
Akane thought about it. "That's Ranma, all right," she agreed. "What can I do about it?"
"Well, to begin with, you might stop calling him a pervert, and you might stop punishing him every time he shows anything that even looks like it might be a sex drive," Kasumi said dryly.
A blinding light seemed to burst over Akane. Dozens of incidents whirled through her mind, each one involving at least one young woman of varying enthusiasm, and every one ending in pain of one kind or another for Ranma. "Oh, I've really been an idiot," she breathed. "I've TRAINED him. Just like the book says. Only this time I didn't mean to. Oh, damn."
"Quite," Kasumi said, "but look on the bright side. It's a good thing the Neko-ken hasn't affected his sexuality, or you'd be in real trouble."
Akane laughed, then thought about it and stopped laughing abruptly.
"There's one other thing." Kasumi went quite pink and looked down at her hands. "I'm not a professional," she said slowly, choosing her words with great care. "I don't think there are any professionals who would know what to do for Ranma. I am not recommending this, mind you. It might do more harm than good, I don't know. But you might not want to rule out the possibility of... of making, ah, advances to Ranma in... in her female form."
Akane met her sister's eyes. She didn't say anything. She didn't have to. "Ah," Kasumi said carefully. "I see."
Akane's blush deepened. "I'm not a..." she explained hastily. "I don't feel, um, that way about girls. Just... Just Ranma. Sometimes. Sort of."
Kasumi's expression lightened. "Oh. Well, then. If you are honest with him and yourself, it should all be all right."
"I hope so," Akane muttered. "It doesn't feel all right."
"You may wish to speak with your sensei about that, too."
Akane and Ranma ran into the Tendos' house, laughing, and stopped to take off their shoes. Akane ran upstairs to change into her gi, while Ranma headed for the kitchen. Kasumi met her with kettle in hand. "I tried to stop them," Kasumi said in a low voice, "but they wouldn't listen to me. I'm sorry, Ranma-kun."
Ranma took the kettle slowly. "Stop who?" she asked warily.
Kasumi looked distraught. "Our fathers," she said, twisting a corner of her apron. "Hurry up and change." She shooed Ranma toward the bathroom. Ranma went, looking back over her shoulder.
Ranma came into the main room a couple of minutes later, wearing his gi. Soun and Genma were sitting on the far side of the table, looking stern. Ranma put his fists on his hips. "So, what's up?" he asked in a challenging tone.
"Be respectful, boy," Genma told him. He ignored his son's disgusted expression. "We've noticed that you've been getting along with your iinazuke much better lately." Ranma's sinking feeling was validated by his father's next words. "It's time to plan another wedding."
"Hell if it is!" Ranma retorted. He folded his arms and glared at the two men. "You been off my neck since the last weddin', but I shoulda known it was too good to last. Why can'tcha just leave us alone?"
"Don't you want to marry my daughter, Ranma-kun?" Soun asked in a low, threatening tone. Ranma started to answer in the negative from habit, but just couldn't bring himself to say the lie. He tried to answer in the affirmative, and that wouldn't come out either; it was too much like admitting defeat.
Ranma felt a hand on his shoulder and looked down into Akane's eyes. "Want me to handle this?" she asked quietly. Ranma nodded gratefully. Akane shifted her gaze to her father. "He does want to marry me," she said evenly. "And I want to marry him. SHUT UP!" she yelled over the beginning of the celebration. Silence returned. Akane nodded in satisfaction at her father's astonished expression. "Neither of us is ready yet. We'll decide when we're ready, and then we'll tell you. All right?"
"Now, Akane, we only want what's best for you," Soun began in what he thought was a conciliatory manner. Ranma cringed, anticipating an explosion.
Akane closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She looked up at Ranma, read Go get 'em, tomboy! in his eyes, and looked back at her father. "No, you want what's best for the Musabetsu Kakuto. You're just lucky that what you want and what we want are in the same direction. All you have to do is wait a while."
Soun blinked. "But why? You just said you both want to be married"
"I said we're not ready yet," Akane interrupted. "He's not ready to be a husband. I'm not ready to be a wife. We need more time."
Soun and Genma looked at each other and shrugged, baffled. They looked back at the defiant couple. "You can work that out once you're married," Genma said confidently.
"Yeah, right, like you're an example, Pops!" Ranma burst out. Akane elbowed him.
"As I said the last time," Soun said, still trying to sound reasonable, "we were just putting off another wedding until you resolved your differences and cleared away any, ah, entanglements. Clearly, you have resolved your differences...." His eyes narrowed. "You HAVE detached yourself from those other girls, haven't you, Ranma-kun?"
Ranma cringed and put his hand behind his head. "Uh, sorta... well... the problem is, they, uh...."
"No," Akane summarized quietly, looking at the floor.
Soun's demon-head appeared. "WHAT?!"
Ranma stood his ground. "Hey, it ain't that simple!" he cried. "Kodachi, I can just ignore, but what about Shampoo and Ukyo? We ate Shampoo's prize in her village, and I beat her twice even if I didn't know what I was doing, I'm still stuck with it! My crazy old man made a promise to Ukyo and her dad, an' took his yatai, and I'm stuck with that!"
"MARRY AKANE! NOTHING ELSE MATTERS!" Soun's demon-head thundered.
Ranma looked unbearably frustrated and stuck his fingers in his ears. Jeez, I wish I had that thing Kasumi popped him with....
Akane stepped in front of Ranma and spread her arms. "Stop it, Father!" The demon-head retreated. Ranma took his fingers out of his ears and sighed.
Genma pushed his glasses up his nose. "I knew it was a mistake to let you go to that girls' school," he said to Ranma. "How can you let your iinazuke shield you from your responsibilities? It's a good thing your mother can't see what's become of her once-manly son."
Ranma went white and took a step forward. Genma recoiled from the fury in his son's eyes, but before he could prepare to defend himself, Ranma was gone, leaving a large hole in the shoji.
"Oh, great," Akane said tightly. She glared at the two men. "I spent MONTHS on him, and you just threw it away in a couple of minutes." She leveled a finger at Soun. "I'm going to go try and fix this. Stay the hell out of it." She turned a look of pure contempt on Genma. "Manly, eh?" Her voice dropped to a fierce whisper. "Does Nodoka-sama know what you're up to?" She ignored Genma's abject cringe and looked at Kasumi, who was hovering white-knuckled in the doorway. "Sister... wish me luck." She ran through the shoji after Ranma.
Genma looked at Soun, whose head was back to its usual appearance, give or take a look of shock. "Well, that could have gone better," he remarked cautiously.
"Father! Oji-san, how could you?!" Soun and Genma looked up at Kasumi's anguished face, and the magnitude of their error slowly dawned on them. Kasumi whirled and vanished into the kitchen. She reappeared a moment later. "I'm too upset to cook. Supper will be rice and water," she said coldly. She vanished again.
Soun burst into tears.
Akane leapt to the roof of the dojo. Ranma was there, standing with his arms crossed, looking into the lowering sun with a stern expression on his face. His hair was being blown around a little by the breeze. It was such a stereotypically manly pose that Akane had trouble suppressing a giggle. Then she got a good look at his eyes, and her amusement vanished.
"I hate my life," Ranma said quietly.
"All of it?"
Ranma's eyes snapped to Akane's at the tone in her voice. He winced. "Nah. I didn't mean it like that. If it wasn't for you, I'd'a been outa here long since."
"Well, that's something." She sat on the roof beside him and drew her knees up, glad she was wearing gi pants rather than her uniform skirt. "It's the only life you've got, Ranma. Hating it won't do you any good." He sighed, but didn't say anything. "I'm sorry about our fathers," she said. "They took me by surprise."
"They do that." He hesitated. "You did pretty good in there."
"Well, you fight better than I do. I talk better than you do. It seems fair."
"They can't get us married until we want to if we just stick together, so don't worry about that."
"If you say so."
Akane turned and looked up at him. The look on his face.... "This is bigger than what just happened down there, isn't it? More than the wedding, more than your parents, more than your curse, maybe even more than us?"
"Uh... one by one, no, but all together, maybe." Suddenly Ranma dropped to sit on the roof beside her. "Akane, I need to tell you about some things, and I need you to help me, 'cause if I just say 'em, you're gonna get all upset, and that ain't what I mean to happen."
Akane's eyes widened. "Wow. This is a new approach for you."
Ranma smirked. "Well, ya can't say I don't ever learn from my mistakes." He sobered. "What they were sayin'... before Pops said, uh, what he said... it was like they had this nice cage all set up and they was shovin' me into it."
Akane frowned. "Well, if marrying me is a cage!"
"Dammit, that's what I was talkin' about!" Ranma interrupted. "I didn't say it right, and now you're mad!"
Akane controlled herself. Darn. He's right. "Sorry. You were saying?"
Ranma eyed her warily before continuing. "I mean, they got this future where we get married, and start teachin' at the dojo, and have some kids, I guess, and... and that's it."
"What, isn't that enough?"
Ranma gestured helplessly. "It just seems kinda, I dunno, empty."
Akane smiled suddenly. "Oh, I see what the problem is. You have no imagination, Ranma."
"Huh?" He glared at her, affronted.
"Sure. Look, if you were to say something like that about your future just before you came here, it would go something like 'you're going to get engaged to a nice girl and live with her family for a year while you go to school.' Not a word in there about spirits, monsters, surplus fiancees, seventy-seven different kinds of martial artists, crazy teachers, Taro, the Musk Dynasty, Ryugenzawa, Phoenix Mountain... shall I go on, or have I made my point?"
"While we get married and live at the dojo and teach and raise children, I'm sure all kinds of other stuff is going to be happening. I mean, look at the last month. Those funny monks from Tibet thought Mousse was a reincarnated lama or llama or something, Taro tried to bribe a new name out of Happosai with a goddess' underwear boy, was she upset! It's a good thing her sister was so nice. That idiot tried to con Konatsu, and Nabiki had that plot to sell photos of your male form... oh, and your mother bought a haunted rice-cooker. No, that was the month before, wasn't it."
Ranma waved his hands. "I get it. Oh, man, and I thought I had problems now...." He put his head in his hands.
"Problems? It's called Life, Ranma. You're not an ordinary guy, and you're not going to have an ordinary life. This is it, and now it's mine, too, and you can hate it if you want, but I'd rather enjoy it, and I wish you would too."
"It don't feel like that," Ranma muttered to his knees.
Akane sighed in frustration, then got an idea. "Remember when Shampoo hit me with the depression-tsubo, and you told me to treat it like a battle? Remember what I told you about winning your yin-yang battle by making up your own rules? You always adapt, Ranma. I've never seen you in a situation you couldn't figure out eventually, sometimes by turning everything upside-down. What'll it take for you to adapt to your own life?"
"Hey, I just watched you use the Saotome Secret Technique on our fathers. It worked, too."
Ranma smiled, finally. "I guess it did. No way was I gonna use the Crouching Tiger."
Akane laughed and clapped Ranma on the shoulder. "Come on, we're missing our workout." She stood up, ran down the roof, and jumped down. Ranma followed, still troubled.
Akane stepped back out of range and regarded Ranma with concern. "What?" Ranma demanded, straightening from his stance.
Akane rotated her big toe on the dojo floor. "You're way off your center, sensei."
Ranma grimaced. Wish I could say she's wrong. "Still bubblin' in my head," he admitted.
"Want to talk about it?"
"No!" Ranma said automatically. Akane waited. "Uh... maybe."
Akane looked around. The dojo doors were shut, and she was quite sure that neither of their fathers would dare show their faces for some time. She knelt in the center of the floor. Ranma hesitated, then sat beside her, facing the other way. "The 'manly' thing again?" Akane said quietly.
"Sorta." Ranma didn't meet her eyes. "St. Hebereke's is all right, but I'm still worried about bein' a girl so much. I dunno. I'm real glad every day when the hot water hits and I change back."
Akane bit her lip. "So am I." Greatly daring, she put her hand out, slid it through the overlap of Ranma's gi, and touched his chest. His flesh trembled under her hand. She looked up into Ranma's eyes. Fear? "What's wrong, Ranma?"
Ranma's mouth quirked. He kept his voice low. "I don't feel real manly when ya do that," he confessed.
Akane frowned, hurt. She retrieved her hand. "Well, sorry for disappointing you," she began. "Maybe if Shampoo" She stopped. Ranma was shaking his head.
"Gaah." Ranma ran his hands through his hair. "You're gettin' it all wrong again. Just forget it." He started to stand up. Akane poked him hard behind the knee and he sat down again suddenly.
"Sorry, Ranma. I'll listen."
Ranma glanced at her. "Well...." He sighed. "Look, what would a 'man among men' do when you, uh, touched me like that? I'm supposed ta grab you, kiss you, push you down on the floor, and... uh...." He blushed.
Akane was feeling a bit warm herself. "So, um, why didn't you?"
Ranma half-smiled. "Ya mean, besides I didn't wanna get kicked through the ceiling?" He lost the smile. "Besides I ain't about to do anythin' like that 'less I'm sure you want me to?" He was visibly struggling for words, and as visibly gave up. "I dunno."
Akane reached out and touched Ranma's chest again. "Ranma... I'm certain that when the time comes, you'll be manly enough for me." She took a breath and kept her eyes firmly on the floor. "You know that time won't come until we're married. But... if you want to get more, um, physical... I don't mind." My hair should catch fire any moment now.
There was a moment of charged silence, and then Ranma laughed a short, unhappy laugh. "I need to tell ya about a dream I had last week. The night before that time you came up behind me and hugged me and I jumped over the dojo." He paused. "I was... we was startin' ta get, uh, physical, and I looked up, and the ceilin' was gone, and there they was, lookin' down at us: Happosai droolin', our fathers with cheerin' fans, my momma with her katana, Nabiki with a camera an' a tape recorder... an' Shampoo an' Ukyo an' Kodachi. An' I was, like, froze, and you looked at me an' said...." She felt him shudder. "I can't say it. I don't even wanna think it. But it was awful."
By this time Akane had both arms around Ranma. "I won't say things like that any more," she said to his shoulder. "I promise."
Ranma patted her carefully on the back. "You don't," he said. "Not really. I dunno why ya did in the dream." He sighed again. "Anyway, I looked down an' I was... I was a girl."
Akane winced. "Ouch. I can't tell you you're just being silly, either. I'm tired of all the people watching us, too. And I can see how your curse would mess up your feeling, um, that way about me."
Good thing I didn't mention P-chan. "Yeah. Akane...."
Akane pulled back and looked at him. Ranma's expression showed that he was struggling for words again. "What is it?" she prompted gently.
"I, I do feel, uh, that way about ya, though. I've felt that way for a long time."
Akane stared at him, wide-eyed. "You do? You have? Then why didn't you ever...."
Ranma blushed. "Everything's just so complicated, even without the curse. It was embarrassin', or... mmm... unwelcome, or even dangerous. So I couldn't. So I didn't. I tried real hard not ta even think about it."
Akane's perspective underwent a rapid rearrangement. Not fear! Control! Kasumi was wrong! And that means.... "Not unwelcome," she whispered shyly.
Ranma relaxed a little. "Still embarrassin' an' dangerous," he said wryly. "But I guess mostly I needed you to say right out it was okay. No way is my momma goin' to think that's manly."
"I'm getting really tired of that word." Akane sighed. "Can't you just be, well, as Ranma as you can, and forget about 'manly'?" She knew as soon as she said it that it wouldn't do any good. He's too concerned with his image to think about his self-image.
Ranma was shaking his head again. "Not as long as Momma still has her katana, I can't."
"I'll be really glad when I'm the one who gets to decide whether you're manly or not," Akane muttered.
"I think maybe I will be too," Ranma said very quietly.
Akane twisted suddenly in Ranma's arms. "Really?!" She knocked him over backwards, fell on top of him, and kissed him ecstatically. "Oh, Ranma!"
"Now, see, if I'd done that, I'd be manly," Ranma explained when he had his breath back.
Akane grinned, too happy to be offended. "Or flying," she suggested.
Ranma smiled from the floor. "Tomboy."
Akane sat up and studied him. "Ranma, if you really want to, we can get married as soon as you like."
Akane sighed. "Or not." She watched Ranma deflate a little. "My father had one thing right, though. We need to settle the other girls first. Can you do it?"
"Uh... I dunno."
"That means no." Akane considered. "You said you could just ignore Kodachi."
"Yeah. And you could beat her easy if you had to. Ukyo... I owe her. I can't give her what she wants, but I owe her somethin'. I dunno what, though. You can beat her, too, unless she gets the drop on ya. Shampoo's real dangerous. You might be able to take her if you got lucky, or if she had a bad day, but she's still a little better, uh, better at fightin' than you."
Akane felt a completely different warm glow begin. "Really?" she breathed. "Wow."
Ranma sat up and looked at her, surprised. "Sure. I thought ya knew. You're a lot better'n ya were before I started trainin' you. But I don't wanna fight any of 'em." He stared at his hands. "I want to be friends with 'em. 'Specially Ukyo."
Akane patted his shoulder. "I know." You want to be friends with everyone, and hardly anyone lets you, she thought. "Well, your father got you into this mess... maybe your mother can get you out?"
"Maybe." Ranma sounded doubtful.
"Well, let's talk to her about it and see if she has any ideas."
"Akane-chan! How nice of you to come by!" Nodoka said happily. "Come, sit down!" She gestured to the table in the Saotome's main room and went into the kitchen. Akane knelt at one side of the table. Ranma sat next to her, looking nervous. Nodoka came back in a minute with a teapot and cups and knelt opposite them. "So, how are things?" she asked once the tea had been poured.
Akane and Ranma glanced at each other. "Complicated," Akane said tactfully. "That's why we're here, actually." She looked around. "Um, is Saotome-no-ojisan here?"
"No, dear, he is out," Nodoka said. "Was there something you wanted to see him about?"
Akane winced. "Well, actually"
"What Akane don't, uh, doesn't want to say," Ranma interjected, "is that this mess is Pops' fault and we don't want him stickin' his face in while we're tryin' to fix it."
"Is that it, Akane-chan?"
Akane bit her lip and nodded. "We were hoping that you might be able to help us find a solution. No one else has been able to."
Nodoka studied them. "Well, I must say I'm honored by your confidence, and I'm so glad that Ranma is finally bringing his troubles to his mother, but what exactly is this problem?"
Akane and Ranma stared at each other for a long moment. "Well, yesterday our fathers told us that since we're getting along better it was time for another wedding," Akane began, "and we told them that we wanted to marry each other but we weren't quite ready yet. They wanted us to get married right away. There was, um, an argument. It got pretty hot."
"I see," Nodoka said. She sipped from her cup and put it down. "And of course your reasons were good enough to override your fathers' wishes?"
Akane winced. Naturally she'd see it that way....
"Oh, yeah," Ranma said. "Remember the last wedding?"
Nodoka grimaced slightly. "It was a bit lively, wasn't it," she admitted.
"It was so lively that no one ended up married," Akane said evenly. "One reason for that was Happosai and a cask of Nannichuan water. The other reason is the one we need help with. Shampoo, Ukyo, and Kodachi."
"That's three reasons," Ranma pointed out helpfully. Akane glared at him.
"I still don't see what the problem is," Nodoka said. "Ranma, you will marry Akane-chan. Your other girlfriends will simply have to accept that."
"I wish," Ranma said. "First off, Shampoo thinks I'm already her husband, because by the laws of her village if an outsider man defeats her, she has to marry him. Well, I beat her in the village because Pops and I ate the prize for the tournament she was in, so I had to beat her to win the tournament." Ranma took a deep breath. "I was a girl then, so she tried to kill me, but when she came here she found out I was really a guy, and I defeated her again by accident, so she had to marry me, but I wouldn't 'cause I was engaged to Akane, even though Shampoo was cute and Akane was uncute ow!"
Nodoka was massaging her temples. "Go on," she said weakly.
Ranma rubbed his thigh, eyed Akane warily and took another breath. "Ukyo's old man and mine made a deal. You know about that. We took her yatai and left her, dammit. Honor has gotta say that I we owe Ukyo something, but I can't marry her. I don't want to marry her." Ranma looked down. "Ukyo doesn't know that, though. She thinks I'm just marrying Akane because of the arrangement."
"But you haven't actually lied to her, have you?" Nodoka asked anxiously. "She just jumped to conclusions and you didn't correct them?"
"I guess so, sorta," Ranma said, but he didn't lift his gaze from his hands.
Nodoka relaxed. "Well, that's all right, then." She paused. "Do you have anything to add to what I already know about Kodachi?"
"I don't think so. She's mostly harmless if you don't sniff her flowers or eat her cooking." Ranma didn't elaborate. "Shampoo's dangerous, and she just doesn't give up. Ukyo's nice, mostly, but sometimes she forgets she's nice, and she's pretty good with those spatulas. Tryin' to dump 'em is just gonna get me lumps, maybe worse, and might get Akane hurt, not to mention walls and roofs and things."
"Hmm." Nodoka took another sip of tea and glanced at Akane. "Well, I know what you should do, but I'm not sure Akane-chan wants to hear this."
"Uh...." Ranma read doom in Akane's expression. "I'm not about to try keepin' it secret from Akane, so you might as well just say it, Momma."
Nodoka shrugged. "Very well, dear. There's no need to 'dump' them. You can keep them as concubines. A real man among men should be able to satisfy more than one woman...." She ignored the hairs springing out from Akane's head and the thump as Ranma fell over sideways, lost in her visions of the future:
Nodoka sat chatting with Kodachi over an English-style tea, holding a small pigtailed boy on her lap while, beyond them, a nurse rocked a cradle. The boy clutched a small bokken with a bow tied around it. On the wall was a framed photo of Ranma in a tuxedo and Kodachi in a gown, with Ranma holding an elbow out for Kodachi's hand.
In the room over the Ucchan, Ukyo held a baby in her arms for Nodoka to coo over. On the wall was a framed photo of Ukyo behind the grill, smiling at Ranma, who was sitting in front of the grill, smiling at the camera, and holding up two fingers.
Nodoka knelt to give a doll to a young girl with short purple hair while Shampoo swung a boy toddler in circles. On the wall of the Nekohanten was a framed photo of Ranma in a ready stance, stripped to the waist and smiling grimly.
"Oh, so many grandchildren!" Nodoka whispered happily, while Akane gritted her teeth and grabbed Ranma by the pigtail to haul him back up to a sitting position. "Ow!" he started, but Akane's glare quelled him instantly.
Nodoka's eyes refocused. "Eh? Is something wrong, Akane-chan?"
"Nothing, Oba-sama. Nothing at all. We'll have to talk about this some more sometime. Right now, I have matters to, um, discuss with my fiance. If you'll excuse us?" Akane stood; since she still had him by the pigtail, Ranma perforce stood as well.
Nodoka ushered them out of the house, waved farewell, and watched them run off down the street. She smiled fondly as she turned to go back in. Oh, Akane, you'll be so good for him.
"Don't get any ideas," Akane growled when they were out of earshot of the Saotome house.
"What the hell you talkin' about? You're the one who wanted to take the mess to my mother! Sounds like she got enough ideas to go around...." Akane stopped. Ranma ran on for a second before he noticed that she wasn't beside him any more, and did a hasty U-turn off a light pole to rejoin her. Her head was lowered as he ran up. "Jeez, Akane, signal when you're gonna stop... hey, whatsa matter?"
"Well, what do you THINK is the matter?!" Ranma couldn't tell whether her voice was shaking with suppressed tears or fury, and edged away from her a little just in case. Bad move. "So, you're just going to RUN off to your MISTRESSES, huh?! Your MOTHER said it was 'MANLY', so you're going to LEAVE your W-WIFE all alone!"
Ranma looked around frantically and made shushing gestures. "Argh! People are looking!" Another bad move.
"What, I'm not being DISCREET enough for a good wife? HEY, EVERYBODY, THIS GUY HAS THREE CO-CONCUBINES AND WE AREN'T EVEN MA-MARRIED YET!" Then the tears came. "BAKA!!" WHAM! Akane recovered from her follow-through and fled for home, dripping.
Ranma sat up in the fresh crater, shook his head to chase the little birdies away, and glared at the people pretending they weren't watching. Wow. I forgot how good her right was.... He sighed, shook his head again for a different reason, and took to the rooftops. He knew the route Akane would take; they'd just about worn a groove in the pavement.
Akane ran around a corner she couldn't see clearly and right into a pair of arms. "Let GO!" Strong arms.
"Not gonna," Ranma's voice said tiredly in her ear. "Hold still." She felt herself being gathered up against Ranma's chest, and then he jumped, and the street fell away, and struggling free was no longer a good idea. Rooftop. Jump. Rooftop. Jump. Tree. Stop. Somewhere in there her arms had found their way around his neck, and she was actually in a pretty good position to strangle him a good one, but for some reason she didn't feel like it.
"I guess this will do," Ranma said, still with the same tired note in his voice. He started to disentangle himself from Akane, but her arms tightened, informing the tiny part of Saotome Ranma that knew anything about women that strangling was still an option. Among other things. He adjusted his position on the tree branch and patiently endured the tears soaking his good shirt.
Finally Akane sniffled and pulled back slightly. "So, um, about Oba-sama's idea..." she began.
Ranma twitched. "It sucks," he said flatly. "Kuno'd be after me with a real katana all the time, Shampoo'd never settle for less than 'tai-tai', and...." His voice stopped for a moment, and Akane started to worry again. "Shit, I hope she don't suggest it to Ukyo," he resumed, "because I think she'd go for it."
Akane waited, but more didn't seem to be forthcoming. "Is that all? What about me?" She meant to put an edge in it, but somehow it came out plaintive. She pushed back farther and looked up at Ranma, who was doing an excellent impression of a guy who'd rather be almost anywhere else.
"Mallets," Ranma blurted. "Tables, shinai, frying pans, walls, floors, ceilings, stone lanterns... uh...." Akane searched his face. Not quite the answer she'd been hoping for, but it'd have to do. She smiled a little and laid her cheek against his chest again. Whew. I can't believe I got it right that time.
"What... what about you?" Akane said, muffled by his shirt.
"Uh... look, I gotta figure it'd be just like it is now, 'cept worse, and I don't think I can live through worse, and I damn sure won't enjoy it."
"Won't you?" Akane said seductively. "Just think... four girls, all trying to outdo each other for your favors...." She meant it half as a joke, but suddenly she found herself sitting on the tree branch with Ranma standing four feet away.
"Come off it, Akane," Ranma said roughly. "You keep callin' me a pervert, but I ain't, and you know I ain't. I don't even know if I want ONE girl! No way am I goin' ta try for four! Oh, shit." Ranma slapped his hands over his mouth and goggled at Akane. Akane stared at him, then put her forehead in her hand and shook her head. Her shoulders were shaking. Ranma dared to hope that she was laughing. She was.
Ranma relaxed, put his hands behind his head, and looked up at the sky, keeping one eye on Akane. Akane stood up, took a step out on the tree branch, and punched Ranma lightly in the stomach. "What am I going to do with you, Saotome?" she said fondly, and hugged him.
Ranma dropped his arms awkwardly around hers. "Uh... I dunno. I guess you'll think of something. WHAAA!"
Crash! Crash! Thump.
Ranma stuck his head up out of the bushes and reached down to give Akane a hand up. "Tomorrow, we work on balance," he said severely as he hauled her to her feet.
Akane cast her eyes downward, but she was smiling. "Hai, sensei." Her foot lashed out, hooked, and returned, and Ranma fell back into the bushes. For some reason Akane fell too.
"Aah! Get off, ya uncute no! Waa! Waha! Stoppit!"
"There?! You're ticklish THERE?! Oh, you're in for it now!"
"Cutitout! Wah! I'm not kiddin'! Wahaha! Mmmpph."
"Not funny. Howja like it if I started lookin' for ticklish spots on YOU?"
"...I dare you." The bushes rustled. "Mmm...."
"Not there, eh? How about here?"
"Mmmmmm. Oh, Ranma...."
The bushes stopped rustling. A sigh was heard. "How long didja want to put off the wedding, again?"
"Well, that depends. How many girls do you want, again?"
"Dammit. I knew as soon as I said that I'd be hearin' it for months.... One. Just one."
"Right answer... partner. Tickle me some more?"
Ukyo walked into the Nekohanten like a gunslinger walking into a hostile saloon. The effect was spoiled when no one turned to look at her. She racked her umbrella by the door and surveyed the empty restaurant. "Anybody home?"
Mousse came out of the kitchen. "One?" he inquired, blinking myopically as he approached.
"Well, actually, I'm here to see Shampoo," Ukyo said.
Mousse nodded. "Have a seat." He waved at the surfeit of available chairs and went back into the kitchen. Shampoo came out a moment later.
"Got your message," Ukyo told her. "What's up?"
"Need talk," Shampoo said, sitting at the table in the front corner. "Sorry for ask you come here, but...." She hooked a thumb at the afternoon rain falling outside.
Ukyo chuckled. "Yeah, I can see how that'd be a problem," she said, leaning her giant spatula against the table and seating herself across from Shampoo. "So, what's so urgent? Ran-chan got another date with Kodachi?"
Shampoo shot her a disgusted look. "No remind me. No, no date. You see Ranma much?"
"No, dammit. Not since he started going to St. H. He comes into Ucchan's every week or two, that's all, and usually with Akane. You?"
Shampoo shook her head ruefully. "No. He no come Nekohanten."
"Well, can't you go see him? You're out and about a lot more than I am, what with not going to school, and having Mousse and Cologne to run this place" Ukyo suddenly realized she was encouraging her rival and stopped.
Shampoo didn't notice. "I try go Kodachi school. They more smart than palm-tree-head. They send bill to Nekohanten. Second time, Great-grandmother order me no go there." Ukyo snickered, but again Shampoo didn't notice. "I go Tendo Dojo. Nice woman say Ranma no there. I go Ranma house. Ranma mother say sorry, just left. I no find. This happen many time. This rain season, too. You know about Ranma and cat...."
"But...." Ukyo considered. "What's going on, then?"
"I no know. I hope you know. If you no know, I we got big problem."
"I don't know," Ukyo admitted. "He goes to St. H as a girl, with Akane. He's sleeping at his mother's house. What goes on in between, I'm not sure."
"He at dojo after school," Shampoo said. "He train with Akane. He sometime eat at Tendo place, sometime at home. He study with Akane. I see in window."
Ukyo and Shampoo stared at each other. "We got a big problem, all right," Ukyo said.
"Akane." Shampoo nodded, her fears confirmed.
"It can't be," Ukyo declared, but her voice was less certain than her words. "He's just hanging around her because his folks and hers are making him do it."
Shampoo shrugged. "Maybe. One time I go Tendo place and nice woman not there. Tendo father make demon-head at me. Other time I try go in dojo when Akane and Ranma there, and Ranma father attack me." She shuddered.
"Genma beat you up?!"
Shampoo shuddered again. "Worse. He CUDDLE me. Like little child. His chin all scratchy. Was awful. I no try that again." She collected herself. "Ranma mother nice, though. She like me. She tell Ranma 'be nice to Shampoo'."
"Yeah, Nodoka-sama's sweet. She's nice to me, too. How she got married to a loser like Genma, I'll never understand."
"He make strong son," Shampoo said firmly.
"I suppose," Ukyo acknowledged reluctantly. "Still" She shook her head. "Never mind that. So, why are you talking to me about it?"
"We work together when things real bad, yes? I think things real bad now." Shampoo brooded. "Akane and Ranma too close. He no insult, she no hit. Very bad. Only good thing, Ranma no really like girls yet"
"What the hell are you babbling about?!" Ukyo interrupted. "Of course Ran-chan likes girls. He's not a pervert."
"No, no." Shampoo waved a hand. "No pervert, just no man yet. Still boy."
Ukyo stared in disbelief. "Bull. Why would you think that?"
Shampoo shrugged. "I test. I rub up against, I lure with body. He no get excited."
Ukyo snorted loudly. "Of all the conceited, arrogant...."
"No know word." Shampoo's glare indicated that she'd gotten some of the meaning, though.
"Look, just because he's not following YOU around with his tongue hanging out, doesn't mean he doesn't feel that way about ANY girls!"
Shampoo eyed her. "How you know? He get excited for you?"
Ukyo blushed. "Not exactly, but.... Look, I'm sure, okay?"
"Hmph. No young man resist this body. But even when I go Ranma bed in night, just lose sleep and get workout but wrong kind." Shampoo looked frustrated.
Ukyo bit off a string of swear words and counted to ten. "Ran-chan's not exactly an ordinary young man, you know," she pointed out finally. "Maybe the curse made him... I don't know... more choosy."
Shampoo regarded Ukyo from under her brows. "I almost think you insult. You think Ranma choose flat-chest, big-waist, short-hair food-waster? Over THIS?" Shampoo gestured at herself.
"He might, if he loves her!" Ukyo blurted.
Shampoo and Ukyo stared at each other in the echoing silence. Finally Shampoo sagged a bit. "If you right, very very big problem."
Ukyo was still kicking herself for saying something she didn't even want to think. "Yeah. I haven't been able to get away before because I have to run Ucchan's, and I didn't want to chase after him the way you and Kodachi do, but now...." She stood, picking up her spatula. "I'll go pay him them a visit and see how things are. I'll get back to you."
Shampoo caught Ukyo's wrist as she passed. "You no fight Akane."
Ukyo looked down at her. "What?"
"I warn. You fight Akane, you lose. Ranma train Akane. Ranma train Akane good." Shampoo released Ukyo.
"You're out of your mind. I'm not going there to fight anyway. See ya." Ukyo shouldered her spatula, retrieved her umbrella, and walked out of the Nekohanten.
Shampoo sat where she was, looking troubled. She didn't notice Mousse silently retreating out of earshot and going back into the kitchen.
Great-grandmother made a mistake, Shampoo thought. Ranma learns so fast. She thought she was teaching him techniques... but Ranma learned how she teaches. Now he's teaching Akane, and those girls from school, like a master. Her fist clenched. He is four treasures! Warrior, lover, father, and teacher! I can't lose him! I can't! Not to HER!
Ukyo must be mistaken. Ranma can't possibly be ready for a woman yet. How could he want a woman and not want me? Ukyo's words had cracked the shell of her blithe assumption, though, and allowed a new and horrifying thought to creep in. What if.... spirits of my ancestors, what if he has lain with her already, and that's why they're so close now?! Oh, gods, he's been resisting me like a faithful husband would!
Shampoo stared out the front door, cursing the rain that prevented her from being with her beloved, and trying to ignore the terrible desperation that was welling up inside her: the fear that she might already have lost.
Mousse slipped out the back door of the Nekohanten, deployed his umbrella, and hurried though the rain. He stopped at a public phone, picked up the handset, produced a coin, fed it to the machine, and dialed a memorized number.
A staff reached past him and gently depressed the hookswitch before Mousse heard the first ring. Mousse turned, still holding the handset.
"Not this time, boy," Cologne told him. "It's been amusing and instructive, but this has gone on long enough. It's time to end it, one way or another."
As had become her habit, Kasumi came into the dojo where Akane and Ranma were sparring, wearing her gi and carrying a tray of drinks and snacks. She left the doors open to admit the cool, moist air and the sound of the rain, moved into a corner, set the tray down, and knelt to watch them.
The dojo echoed with kiais, the smack of flesh against flesh, and the thump of bodies against wood. Ranma and Akane jumped, kicked, punched, and spun around each other in a display of agility and aggression which Kasumi's eyes had trouble following. What she could see told her much about the Musabetsu Kakuto that she did not know.
Suddenly, without a word or apparent signal, their dance changed; the pace was still fast, but touches were feather-light rather than brutal, and the sounds in the dojo were laughter, giggles, and occasional shrieks. Kasumi smiled and continued to watch intently as they played, springing nearly to the high ceiling and bouncing off the walls, but never straying into the corner where she sat.
Then they stopped, about two yards apart and facing each other, and for a moment Kasumi thought they would bow to each other. Instead, they each took a step forward, clasped each others' hands at shoulder level, and lowered them to their sides. Ranma bent his head down and touched his forehead to Akane's, and they stood silently.
The silence was broken by a choked sob and the smack of cardboard on wood. Akane and Ranma turned their heads and saw Ukyo standing on the veranda, holding an umbrella. An okonomiyaki box sat forgotten on the floor below her nerveless right hand. Her face was ashen. She dropped the umbrella, whirled, and vanished into the rain.
Ranma didn't even curse. He glanced at Akane. Akane read his eyes. "Go," she said quickly. Ranma squeezed her fingers for an instant and then dashed out of the dojo. Akane watched him change as the rain hit him. Ranma tightened her waist drawstring in mid-leap and was gone.
"I hope you did the right thing," Kasumi said.
Akane started and turned. "I hope so too." She shook her head. "But I'm sure that not letting him go would have been a wrong thing."
Ranma sprinted through the rain, cursing the wet roof-tiles, but gaining rapidly on Ukyo, who was moving as if she couldn't see clearly. Ukyo dropped to the street. Ranma followed. "Wait up, Ucchan!" she called.
Ukyo whipped the spatula off her back and spun around. Ranma dodged the razor edge as it cut viciously at her. "You asshole bastard son of a bitch!" Ukyo yelled. "When were you going to tell me, huh? When?" She attacked Ranma again, and again Ranma evaded it. "You were supposed to choose me, damn your tiny black heart!" Again and again the spatula hit only raindrops. "You said I was the cute one! You said she was.... Stop squirming and let me pulp you like the cockroach you are!"
Ranma kept dodging, trying to keep Ukyo away from innocent bystanders. "I'm really, really sorry, Ucchan"
"DON'T CALL ME THAT, YOU LYING, HONORLESS SCUMSUCKER!!"
Ranma shut up and started taking hits, carefully avoiding the spatula's edge. Ukyo's swings came slower and slower. Finally she sagged to her knees, dropped the spatula, and buried her face in her hands. Ranma squatted on the sidewalk nearby and listened to the heartrending sounds.
Eventually Ukyo raised her head and looked at Ranma. "What the hell are you still doing here, jackass?" she said without heat.
Ranma wiped her bangs out of her eyes. "I'm here for you to hit. I'm here for you to curse at. I'm here to hear anythin' you want to say to me. I owe ya that much."
Ukyou shook her head. "You owe me a hell of a lot more than that. You owe me you. Your slimeball of an old man promised me, damn him for a gutter tramp thief and damn my father for a gullible fool and damn me for trusting either of them, or you."
"I can't give you me, Ucc... Ukyo."
Ukyo laughed bitterly. "Yeah, I kinda figured that, after what I just saw. You chose her. After everything, you chose her. After all the lies, after all the protests, after all the bruises, after all the free okonomiyaki, after ten awful years and one pretty good one, you chose her." She pounded a fist against the pavement, not hard enough to crack it. "I helped Shampoo bust up your wedding because I thought you were being trapped into it by your families. I really thought neither of you wanted it. I thought I was doing you a favor. I thought that if I was nice, and patient, and there, eventually you'd see that I was the best one for you, and you'd choose me, and honor would be satisfied, and we'd be... we'd be happy."
"I gotta know something. When did you choose her? How long ago was it?"
Ranma sagged. "I dunno. A long time. I didn't know myself until Jusendo, when we were in China, just before the wedding. I didn't know she wanted me until a couple of months ago, before we started goin' ta St. Hebereke's. I'm really sorry."
"Save it," Ukyo said wearily. She sighed. "So that's what the truth sounds like. Months. Before the wedding. A long time. I should have known something was up when they didn't kick you out of St. Hebereke's the first day. I don't see you at school any more, and you don't come to Ucchan's much these days, and I knew you were at the dojo in the afternoons, so I left Konatsu minding the shop and brought you a snack so I could see how you were.... You were.... Why didn't you tell me?!"
"I didn't wanna hurt"
"Hurt?!" Ukyo interrupted. "What the hell do you think this is, a picnic in the park? I hurt more now than I would've if you'd told me then, and if you'd told me then maybe I wouldn't hurt anymore, so the ONLY thing ANYONE gained by you not telling me then is a few okonomiyaki, for YOU!"
Ranma bowed her rain-soaked head. "Yeah. I guess so."
Ukyo stared at her. "I really, really wish I felt like beating on you some more."
"So do I." Ranma didn't lift her head. "I still owe you, Ukyo. I can't marry you, but if there's anything I can do to restore your honor without touchin' Akane's, I hope you'll tell me about it, because I tried to think of something, and I couldn't... but I know I couldn't have thought of everything."
Ukyo snorted. "I'm not gonna tell you to slit your belly." She paused. "I wouldn't do that to Akane. She's always been nicer to me than I expected, given that we had you between us. I tried to hate her when I saw you two in the dojo, but... but I couldn't. It was so right. It was just what I wanted for myself. There was no way I could believe I had any chance at all after seeing that." Ukyo stood up shakily. "So go back to her. I'll... I'll wait some more. Maybe you'll come to your senses. Maybe I will. Maybe something terrible will happen, and you'll be glad of a second-string fiancee."
Ranma looked up, shocked. "Ukyo, I don't want you to do that. You deserve"
"It's not about what you want any more, Ranma," Ukyo interrupted. "I'm doing what I want." She picked up her spatula and walked away. Ranma watched Ukyo's upright figure fade into the gray curtain of the rain, and was grateful for the raindrops running down her cheeks.
Ranma trudged up the steps to the dojo veranda and stopped, unwilling to drip water all over the wooden floor. Akane and Kasumi were sitting inside the doors looking at her. Akane dropped her cup and stood hastily. "Ranma, you look awful," Akane said, hugging her despite her sodden clothes.
"I feel awful," Ranma said in a dead voice.
"You're chilled," Akane said, stepping back and looking Ranma over. "You're hurt. Let's get you into a hot bath and I'll get the first-aid kit and you can tell me how it went"
Ranma shook her head. "She knows how we are. She took it bad. She was madder'n when she first came here. She knows we're gonna get married, but she says she's gonna wait anyway. She blames me an' Pops, not you." She turned away. "I'm goin' home now. I'll see ya tomorrow."
"Ranma, wait, you're cold, you're hurt"
Ranma spoke without turning back. "So's Ukyo, an' she don't deserve it, and I do. I'll see ya tomorrow," she repeated, and left.
Akane stamped her foot on the wet veranda. "Honestly!"
"He needs you to let him go again, Akane," Kasumi said. "His conscience won't let you comfort him now."
Akane looked at her sister in annoyance. "Well, of course. I can see that. I just... oooh!" She stamped her foot again.
Kasumi moved the tea tray aside and stood up. "Well, since you're still feeling energetic, perhaps we can spar a little. You can teach me a few of the things Ranma-kun has been teaching you," she suggested calmly.
Ranma snapped awake in the middle of the night. Something was sliding his window open. Something that moved just like.... "Akane? You're not here for, uh...."
Akane laughed once in the dark, not happily. "I wish. Get up quick. I think Shampoo's trying to kill me for real this time." Ranma was already at his dresser, putting his pants on using Chinese speed techniques. "She broke into my room. I fought her off and got out. I didn't want her to wreck our house." Ranma dove out the window and swung up onto the roof. Akane followed.
"So you brought her here? Great." Ranma looked around. The rain had stopped hours ago, and Orion glittered in a clear sky. Their breaths made puffs of fog in the chill air. He spared a glance at Akane's torn pajamas, but she didn't appear to be injured.
"Damn you, I was scared, Ranma! If Mousse hadn't showed up and confused things, they might have caught me before I could get away!"
"Cologne was with her."
Something very cold materialized in the pit of Ranma's stomach. "Oh. Oh, shit."
"...Yes. And blood. And maybe tears. What the hell do we do now?"
"We wait for them to show up and we lead them away from here, so they don't wreck MY house or hurt my momma lookin' for us, then we beat their asses, partner. Battleground... hah. Vacant lot, by the railroad, north. You know it?"
"I think so."
"Good. If we get separated, meet there." Ranma stopped turning. "There they are." Akane felt his aura pulse up, colder than the winter night. "Ready... go!" She went, flat out across the rooftops, and knew Ranma was right behind her.
Akane dropped off the last roof and raced across the chosen battleground. She stopped at the proper spot and turned. Ranma turned with her. They watched Shampoo leap to the ground and stalk forward, carrying her bonbori. Akane took up a defensive posture, left hand out and right hand back, and sensed Ranma matching her to her left. She concentrated and her aura flared warm against her skin. She felt it flow up against Ranma's. Air, heated on one side and cooled on the other, began to circulate between them. He's not starting a Niryu Totsu Ha, though. Good. She didn't think her concentration was quite up to the Two Lunging Dragon Strike they'd been practicing.
Cologne and Mousse stopped twenty yards away. Shampoo came on. She stopped ten yards away and stared in disbelief. Her trained senses told her that she faced a single opponent with four arms, four legs, two heads and one heart. Her face contorted and she shrieked something in Chinese.
Mousse started forward and found his way blocked by Cologne's staff. He snorted and started to push past. The staff moved and his right arm went numb and limp. Mousse stopped and stared at Cologne, but she wasn't even looking at him.
Shampoo recovered her Japanese. "That MY place by airen!" she screamed. "Only I fight by Ranma side! You steal from Joketsuzoku, you DIE! Ranma MINE!"
Akane said nothing. She knew she didn't have to.
Shampoo fought for control and spoke to Ranma, trying to smile. "Airen. Why you choose her? I better fighter. I better cook. I more pretty. I love you long-time. She all-time hit you, talk mean you, poison you." She breathed hard, clouding the air. "Airen, you come China now. Always good food, always good fight, we have many fine child. I make you so, so happy all you life." She breathed again. "Make you girl-form Joketsuzoku, you not Joketsuzoku man, you get pri-vi-lege of woman, you learn many secret thing."
Ranma spoke, his voice very sad. "I can't do that, Shampoo."
Shampoo's false calm broke. "WHY?!" she shrieked. "WHY YOU CHOOSE HER?!"
Akane sensed Ranma's shrug. "I don't know," he said. "But I am hers."
Akane saw Shampoo's stance shift, and suppressed a sudden trickle of fear as she realized what it meant. Then she saw Ranma slide out in front of her. She felt the change in his aura as Shampoo darted in, and with instant crystalline certainty she knew what Ranma was about to do, and cried "DON'T!" She meshed smoothly with the sweep of his leg and the strike of his arm, deflected a passing bonbori, and registered Cologne blurring by.
Shampoo slid bonelessly to a stop on the brown grass and lay still. Her bonbori rolled away. Ranma crouched, trembling almost imperceptibly, still encased in an invisible shell of cold, between Cologne and Akane.
Cologne ignored Ranma and spoke to Akane. "You have the heart of a Joketsuzoku," she said calmly. She glanced at Ranma. "And excellent influence on your mate."
Mousse dropped to his knees next to Shampoo and rolled her over with his left arm. "She's alive," he said in wonder. His glasses glittered. "I thought What happened?"
Cologne sighed. "You blind fool. Learn now if you ever learn anything in your miserable life. She did something fatally stupid. She tried to kill Akane with Ranma in the way. She would be dead now if Akane hadn't told him not to kill her... for which I thank you," she added to Akane.
"Sure," Akane muttered. "No problem." She wasn't about to relax. She moved up next to Ranma and felt his stance shift to accommodate her. Cologne watched them and shook her head in admiration. "So now what?" Akane asked, trying not to sound terrified.
Cologne shrugged. "Shampoo has failed." She looked at Shampoo's limp form, now cradled as best Mousse could manage with one arm. "Failed in wooing, failed in battle, and worst of all, failed in judgment. Ah well, perhaps she'll have learned something when she wakes up. Ukyo's news should not have surprised her so much." She regarded Akane. "For now, we'll take her back to China. If she gains some wisdom, perhaps we'll be back."
Cologne gestured at Ranma, but continued to speak to Akane. "I want him and his children for the tribe, but now I think I want you and yours as well. If you grow tired of Japan, we would welcome you to join our village, for what you have been, and what you are, and what you may become."
Akane's aura vanished in her astonishment. She felt Ranma's flicker. She found her voice. "Um, just out of curiosity, what is Joketsuzoku law for two women who want the same man?"
Cologne smiled. "The council punishes them for creating a disturbance over something so trivial."
"And if they still can't settle it?"
Cologne grinned. "There is a very large sword. Its name, to you, would be 'Mansplitter'."
Akane tried to recall the foreign story. "And the woman who gives up the man rather than have him, ah, split, gets him?"
"Oh, no. That would only work once. No, we just cut the man in half. It's much simpler that way."
Akane stared in disbelief. "I ain't immigratin'," Ranma muttered.
Cologne shook her head. "You youngsters. No sense of humor at all. It was a JOKE, sonny." She hopped over to Mousse and tapped him on the shoulder. Mousse flexed his right arm carefully, tucked Shampoo's bonbori away in his robe, then picked Shampoo up and stood. "Take her to the Nekohanten," Cologne commanded. "I'll be along in a minute."
"Thank you," Mousse said to Akane and Ranma. "For... thank you. I wish you every happiness together." He bowed slightly over Shampoo, turned, and walked away.
"Ranma," Cologne said. She hopped closer and peered up at him. "I have enjoyed teaching you, and watching you. I'll give you a piece of advice which no one your age ever takes: don't take life too seriously, hey? Be well."
"Thanks," Ranma said. "Uh... you're an old bat, but you're a great old bat. I'll miss ya."
Cologne cackled. "You silver-tongued devil. If I were fifty years younger...." She ignored Ranma's shudder and turned to Akane. "Remember what I said, Akane. I think we will meet again." She hopped after Mousse.
Akane watched her go, then turned to Ranma and embraced him tightly. He hugged her back. "Let's go home," she said quietly.
"Sure. Your place or mine?"
"'You silver-tongued devil.'"
"Mine. They're probably worried sick. With luck, your mother doesn't even know you're gone." They started walking, arm in arm. "Why on earth were you going to, to kill her?!"
"You were there. You heard Cologne. She was gonna kill you. I wasn't gonna take the chance." Ranma hesitated. "Thanks for stoppin' me, partner."
Akane squeezed his arm. "I'm glad I could."
"Me too." Ranma twitched restively. "I can't walk. I gotta run or I'll go nuts."
Akane sighed and reluctantly let go of Ranma. "All right eek!" Ranma had scooped her up in his arms and now held her cradled against his chest. "Warn me, baka," she said. Ranma smiled, kissed her quickly, and leapt for the rooftops.
"I ain't no rollercoaster, dammit! Quit wavin' yer arms in the air!"
Ranma swung Akane to her feet outside the Tendo compound. They stood and listened to the wailing and sobbing coming from inside the brightly-lit house for a moment, then Akane shook her head and started for the gate. "Uh, Akane...."
Akane turned. "Hm?"
Ranma licked his lips nervously. "Uh, I was wonderin' if... I mean, before somethin' else happens... maybe it's time to get married?"
Akane stiffened and stepped up in front of Ranma. "You know what I'll say, Ranma," she whispered intensely. "You know what I want to hear. Say it. Say it right."
Ranma chewed on his lower lip and nodded slowly. He closed his eyes. Again, Akane felt the chilly caress of his aura. His lips moved soundlessly. Suddenly his aura was warm, almost hot. Ranma opened his eyes and gazed into Akane's. "Tendo Akane," he said carefully, "I love you. Will you marry me?"
Akane felt her hands take hold of Ranma's tank-top, but her eyes didn't leave his. "Saotome Ranma, I love you," she said. Her aura flared, invisible, as warm as his. "For that reason, and not for promises or honor, I will gladly marry you." She rose to her tiptoes and kissed him, gently, tenderly. Ranma's arms closed around her. Wisps of steam began to rise from the damp pavement around them.
Akane dropped back to her heels, laid her cheek against Ranma's chest, and slipped her arms around his waist. "I want to go someplace where no-one will bother us," she said to his shoulder, "but I guess we'd better go in and tell them we're still alive... and some other things."
"Yeah... I guess so. Oh, jeez, we have exams tomorrow!"
Akane couldn't help it. She laughed. After a moment, Ranma joined her. Still chuckling, he opened the gate, held it open for her, and followed her in.
~~~~~ end of Mating ~~~~~
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