Sorry for the very long delay in updating this, and for the shortness of the updates. I had a major bout of writer's block, lasting over a year, but it seems to be loosening up now. This chapter of Decision is nearly done, huzzah!


Decision, part two


Michael Noakes

Not until the light slipping between the curtains that fluttered in the occasional wind had crept high up the wall-until the light gained a reddish tint and lay softly in a diffuse glow against the far wall-did Akane begin to stir. She awoke slowly from a deep slumber broken only by faded dreams of a far-off voice whispering to her. At first she simply lay there, not so much feeling content as not feeling or thinking at all. She opened her eyes and recognized her room and had no recollection of how she had gotten here. There was her desk set next to her bed, the books standing in an ordered row, pens and pencils placed away in their holder. At the foot of the bed stood her closet. Hung against the wall her school uniform drooped heavily on its hanger in anticipation of tomorrow.

Akane sat up, blinking. She gazed without comprehension at the orderly state of her room. Her hand ached and she looked down at it and saw the dirty and tattered cloth bandage wrapped around it. In an instant everything that had happened came rushing back: searching through the night, the bridge, angry words, heavy silences, and holding a trembling, crying girl near as she drifted into sleep….

She sat there with the silence of the room broken only by the faint whispering of subtle wind slipping into the room. The world outside seemed subdued, rising occasionally in strength but always retreating to a subliminal buzz. Akane shook her head and fell back into the bed. She rolled over and pulled the covers up over her head, cocooning herself in warmth that bordered on stifling. She tried to sleep once again but found that it wouldn't come. The sounds outside became stronger and insistent, carried to her window by the breeze. They reached her even covered under the blankets as she was. The noise resolved itself into a voice:

"But she's been in there all day!"

…before receding once again.

All day? It was her first clear thought since waking. But that's impossible, she thought. Eventually she stuck her head out and looked at the colourful round clock sitting on the headboard. It was nearly seven o'clock. Night time, Akane realized. But that's impossible. We were under the bridge and Ranma was shaking in my arms and I was going to wait until she-

She shook her head dumbly. Until he. I was going to wait until he fell asleep and carry him back here. Akane slid her feet over the edge of her bed and sat up again. With a deep sign she realized that she must have nodded off herself. Did she find her own way home in some half-asleep state? I should stand up, she told herself. Go and find Ranma. He needs your help. But her feet stubbornly refused to move and she remained planted to her bed.

Some time later-the crimson wash against the far wall had disappeared to be replaced by the harsher flatness of artificial fluorescence-there was a hesitant knock on her door. Akane didn't answer. She didn't want whomever it was to leave. She didn't want the person to enter either. She didn't know what she wanted and stared blankly at the door.

The door opened a crack and a head poked in.


Nabiki blinked a few times before adjusting to the dark. She slipped into Akane's room and quietly closed the door. Akane felt her sister's eyes for several long moments. Finally the older sister released a sigh and sat heavily on the bed. They both sat in silence. Akane felt mild surprise when she felt Nabiki's fingers spider across the distance between them and slip into her hand. Nabiki offered a tentative squeeze.

"You okay there?"

Akane looked at her but couldn't think of anything to say and therefore said nothing.

Nabiki swept an errant bang back beneath her ear. She offered a wry smile. "'Cuz I gotta tell you, you look like shit." The forced levity of her words sounded awkward in the silent room. Nabiki sighed again. "You want to talk about it?" With no answer forthcoming she added, "You're probably wondering how you got home."

The younger sister gave a small silent nod.

"It was Ranma," Nabiki said. "He carried you."

The answer made no sense to Akane. She was taking care of him. After what he had gone through last night he needed to be taken care of. She thought of the slight, shivering girl sleeping fitfully in her arms. How long had she held Ranma close, smoothing the hair away from his face? Long enough for the voices on the bridge to leave and for the city to grow silent and still. She had never seen her home city from that perspective before-from beneath a bridge by a softly flowing river late at night.

Akane shook her head. "He couldn't. . . ."

"He did," Nabiki interrupted. "He sneaked in at around 6 am. I was still awake and waiting, though I wouldn't have heard him if he hadn't come to my door." She shrugged at her sister's quizzical look. "He put you in your bed and then came to my room. He told me that he tapped a spot on your neck"-Akane reached back as Nabiki spoke and felt the back of her neck and found an area that was tender and lightly bruised-"so that you wouldn't wake up. He said you needed the sleep."


"He was right, Akane. Like I said, you look terrible."

Akane took a deep breath. The lethargy she earlier felt burned away beneath the anger she felt at Ranma's actions. He had no right to knock her out like that-she could take care of herself! "Where did he go?" she asked, her voice only a little better than a growl.

"Dunno," Nabiki answered. "And you shouldn't go after him."

"Nabiki, he's my responsibility," Akane said. "I have to go after him."

"How is he your responsibility?" Nabiki asked, and she sounded exasperated. "He's not your fiancé . . . he's never been your fiancé, not really anyway. He's not even your boyfriend. It's Ranma, the guy who's been hanging around here for the last year and some and who's eaten our food and put you in danger time and time again. You don't owe him anything, sis."

"You don't understand!" Akane insisted, half-rising from the bed. Her sister's grip tightened, almost painfully so, and pulled her back. She could easily break free but didn't. Instead she looked back angrily at Nabiki. "Sis-it's my fault!"

"No, it's not."

"He needs my help."

"If he wanted your help he would've asked for it."

"I have to-"

"Akane, he asked me to tell you to leave him alone." The anger drained from Nabiki's voice and she looked even sad as she continued. "Akane, he doesn't want you around him right now."

The sudden pang she felt inside hurt more than she would have thought possible.

"Sis, he told me that he needed to be alone. And that if he was around you he was afraid-afraid he might say or do something he didn't want to. He was scared he might hurt you again."

That's not his decision to make, Akane thought. Not alone. He's hurt me so many times before and he's hurting me right now. Deeper inside she accepted and welcomed the pain as her proper due, as penance for her responsibility in what had happened to Ranma. Why should he trust me after how I've treated him?

Don't leave me-the whispered voice of a frightened young girl-the words wrapped themselves around her insistently. "Not even if you ask me to," Akane whispered. She felt her resolve harden once again. She pulled her hand free of her sister.

"What was that?"

Akane looked at Nabiki. She saw worry there, genuine concern for her well-being. It was not something she was used to seeing from her sister. Exhaustion hovered in the redness of her eyes and her pale and taut expression. Her sister was quick to decry Ranma and denounce him for a cheat, a vagrant, an egomaniac, and a leech; and given any chance she exploited him as much as possible.

"He also wanted me to give you this," and saying so Nabiki passed the thermos that Ranma had ignored last night.

Akane stared at the thermos and wondered what it signified. "He told me he loved me last night," she said.

"I know," Nabiki said, and smiled wanly. "Why do you think I've been looking for him all day?" She stood up and as she did so she released an exhausted sigh. "Now that you're awake I'm going to catch some sleep?" She staggered away but paused in the doorway. "He was a guy when I last saw him, okay? When you go looking-good luck, sis."

(Scene Break)

She went looking almost immediately, pausing only to throw on some clothes and to surreptitiously steal some food from the kitchen. It was already night by the time she began searching. It was another cool night and the silence she moved through seemed almost oppressive. The slap of her running feet against pavement sounded unnaturally loud in her eyes. Other sounds occasionally intruded-a tv turned on too loudly from a nearby house, or once children arguing in a park, eying her suspiciously as she passed by-but otherwise Akane felt as if she were passing, dreamlike, through some forgotten city. She moved quickly, occasionally calling out his name, running to all the possible spots. Her thoughts were random and scattered, though more than once they returned to Nabiki. How long had she and Ranma talked? Even as her breath began to burn in her throat she continued to search without expecting to find him. The searching felt nearly as important as actually finding him-more penance. How long did he run, she thought, after fleeing the clinic? How much did his lungs burn? She remembered the terrible raw marks on his forearms and across his stomach and continued to run late into the night.

Eventually she made her way home. Hopefully Nabiki had convinced Kasumi and her father once again that everything was okay. Akane felt exhausted yet hours away from sleep. If she couldn't find him then she could stay up and wait for his return. He had to return.

Holding on to that tenuous hope she slipped back into her home. The house was dark and silent as she padded through the entrance and quietly climbed the stairs. She wasn't used to this kind of subterfuge. Friends told her stories of sneaking away to meet friends for illicit vending machine beers, or for late-night secret rendezvous with boyfriends . . . rumours occasionally floated through the school of other girls-'bad' girls-who left home at night for questionable reasons and showed up at school late and tired looking but often with brand new and expensive-looking accessories, Gucci bags or Prada gloves, and they shared furtive glances and sly smiles with each other that silently spoke of an adult knowledge that seemed beyond Akane's understanding. Again she briefly wondered what it must be like to lead a normal life, one more concerned with boyfriends, homework and . . . and whatever else normal people dealt with. When she looked back over the last few months her highlights involved a crazy mirror clone-somehow she had almost ended up eternally trapped in a compact mirror-and all that nonsense with that ninja-transvestite Konatsu that somehow ended with her dressed in a Playboy bunny outfit.

No one noticed her return. She half expected the light to be on in her sister's room but she seemed to be asleep as well. Akane slipped into her own room, softly closing the door behind her. Again she wondered at the conversation between Ranma and her sister-at how long they had talked after he put her to bed and what he had told her. She sat at the edge of her bed in her darkened room. The moon through her open curtains threw a bluish tint across everything. Head in hands she wondered what more she could do. Was it past midnight yet? She had school tomorrow but that seemed very far off and unimportant. Was it too late to phone the people he knew, places he might have gone? Under the bridge, in the park, a few empty lots here and there, the top of the school: these places were his favourite spots when he wanted to be alone. But what if he wanted to talk to someone? She felt a pang of both sadness and jealousy at the thought that he might turn to someone else. 'He asked me to tell you to leave him alone,' Nabiki said, but obviously the two had talked at some length and now he might be finding the help he needed with one of his other friends . . . or fiancees even.

How can I be jealous, she thought to herself, at a time like this?

"Can I come in?"

Her head snapped up at the sound of his voice. Framed by the fluttering curtains in her window, half-in and half-out of her room, he crouched silhouetted against the light outside. She couldn't see his face. Seeing him like that brought back a sudden flurry of memories-how often had he hung from the eavesdropping over her window and tentatively knocked at her glass or laughed at her from outside? Seeing him in shadows she could still believe this was the Ranma of old-cocky and kind, arrogant and caring; in the dark she couldn't see the wounds along his stomach and arms.

Akane nodded. Soundlessly he slipped into the room, his soft footing not displacing a thing on her desk as he stepped down. She reached for her nightlight.

"Leave it off," he said, catching her by the wrist. Then his hand jerked away, releasing her. "Please."

His voice, the size of his profile in the dark-he was a guy again and she wondered if that meant anything. She scooted over to make some more room on the bed but he took the chair from her desk and pulled it across from her and sat there. The silence lengthened between them. She could feel his eyes upon her, but when he didn't initiate the conversation she suddenly felt at a loss as to what to say. All night while searching she hadn't actually thought of what she would do if he was actually found.

"Ranma," she started. "You . . . carried me home?"

She saw his nod. But when she opened her mouth to continue-unsure of what she was going to say-he interrupted her.

"No." For a moment his voice carried a hint of desperation, but then he continued in even, level tones that sounded strange coming from his mouth. "I mean, yes, I did. But I don't want to talk about that. I don't want to talk about today . . . at least, not yet. Not about last night. Or, or about the last week, about what's happened, about . . . me. For now I just want to ignore the last two weeks. Like they never happened."

"Sure. Sure, Ranma," Akane answered soothingly.

She thought she saw him frown but in the dark could not be sure. She felt a flash of annoyance and it spilled out before she could hold back. "Then what do you want to talk about?" she asked, more curtly than she would have liked. "I mean . . . you came back for a reason, right?"

Did he smile? "Yeah, I did." For a moment he sounded like himself, like the Ranma she knew. "I'm glad you asked. I've got a question for you, Akane."
She felt trepidation at the way he said that. "Yes?"

"Two weeks ago. Remember the party?" The bitter undertone was painfully obvious. "Yeah. That's what I want to talk about. The party. Akane, why were you so angry that I wanted to come with you?"

The question took her completely by surprise and she didn't know how to respond. In fact, for a moment she could hardly even remember the party. It seemed so long ago, seemed like part of another life, another existence far simpler than the one she now knew. In that world she would never be sitting on the edge of her bed in a darkened room with her pregnant fiance sitting opposite her. In that world Ranma would never, ever have said that he loved her. But those possibilities were forever gone and she was acutely aware of where she was now, of the profound silence that lay between them, of the night time tint that blurred the edges of everything, of Ranma's slouched back and slumped shoulders as he sat opposite her . . . of the very closeness between them, her knees pressed together and his one leg thrust almost awkwardly out nearly brushing her foot.

Had she really been that angry?

(Scene Break)

"You are not coming with me!"

"Who said I wanted to go to your stupid party anyway!"

Not another fight, she thought. Not again. I'm so tired of these stupid arguments. "If you don't want to go then stop bugging me!"

"Hey, this isn't my fault!" he retorted. "It's your father's."

"Whatever," she said. After a short train ride they were walking towards Kiyoshi's house. Everything Ranma did infuriated her more than usual: his cocky, strutting walk along the fence, the surly undertone of his voice. Why couldn't he leave her alone, just this once? "And you better not start any fights!"

"Hey!" he exclaimed. "Who do you think I am, Ryouga?"

"I'm serious, Ranma. No fighting. Promise!"

She could feel his stare before he turned away with a huff. "Fine! I promise."

"If you don't want to come, Ranma, then don't. I won't tell, believe me."

Ranma gave an angry snort. "Yeah, like I can trust someone as uncute as you to keep a secret."

She lashed out and punched the fence and nearly growled as he effortlessly hopped away from the impact. What the hell does being uncute have to do with keeping a secret? she wanted to yell at him. "Then just stay away from me!"

"Ha!" He gave a disbelieving laugh. "You think I want to be with you?"

What was with him tonight? Akane glared at him and wished he would just go away. This was her party. Sayuri had invited her and not Ranma; no one had invited Ranma. If Nabiki hadn't mentioned something over supper he might never had known. Odds are something stupid and improbable would have happened after she left anyway and he would've spent the night chasing after a silly ghost or hanging out with one of his 'other' fiancees or fighting a new rival. This was her night out and it was important to her-even if he didn't care.

"My daughter's going to a party! Waa!" Her father had wailed at the very notion of his daughter being old enough to go to a party, though she doubted he had any idea what that entailed. (She had to admit that she wasn't too sure either.) Then with the abruptness of a changed channel his mood shifted and became sombre. "A party's no place for a young girl to be alone."

"True, true," Mr. Saotome added, nodding solemnly. "Her fiance should be there to protect her."

From what? she wanted to scream at them.

But as they turned the corner and came into sight of Kyoshi's place she finally realized that it wasn't just a party at all. She double-checked the address to make sure it was the right place-as if the loud music and loitering teenagers weren't evidence enough. The house was large and enclosed a large backyard within its walls and seemed, as Sayuri had put it with only the slightest of disdainful sniffs, very American in style. The party itself seemed very American as well-not that she was entirely sure what that meant, but the loud, boisterous energy, apparent at even this distance and totally unconcerned with anything but itself, seemed somehow very un-Japanese. Nervousness that had bubbled just beneath the surface welled up and she hesitated, wondering if she really wanted to do this. Her life was chaotic enough already; in fact, the violent randomness that was Ranma's life was something she was almost used to by now, it was something she understood and in some bizarre way felt even comfortable with. This blatant teenage recklessness was something new to her. The party had an 'aura', an energy that filled the air that had nothing to do with martial arts or fighting spirit.

She suddenly realized that she had no idea what people actually did at parties like this. Listen to music? Dance? Would she seem out of place if she didn't drink alcohol . . . she didn't like the idea of drinking; Mr. Saotome alone was evidence enough in her mind of where that long, dark road could lead. And behind that she felt a faint tickle of fear . . . perverted things happened at parties, didn't they?

"Huh." Ranma snorted at her side. "Don't see what's the big deal."

The disdain and absolute indifference that coiled around his words infuriated Akane. That he could stand there so coolly confident when she felt nervous and uncertain made a mockery of her own doubts. These were her friends and schoolmates and Nerima was her town-yet this, this . . . jerk just waltzes in after a decade of wandering and invades her life; slips effortlessly into her friendships and school and town by the simple virtue of not caring what anyone thinks about him; and for this people actually like him, respect him! It was unfair. Cruel, even, all the more so since he was so obviously oblivious of his classmates-or even worse, indifferent. Arrogant as well: he expected to be the centre of attention and had been for so long he hardly noticed it anymore.

(Even as these thoughts flashed across her mind Akane knew they weren't entirely true. After a year of living with Ranma she had seen moments-rare, unguarded, quiet snapshots-when fear seemed to dance in his eyes; a trembling sigh released unexpectedly; or he hesitated and seemed momentarily lost approaching the most mundane of tasks.)

And now here he was, standing next to her, again forcing his way into something she had wanted to do alone. He was always there. At school. At home. Everywhere she went. She wasn't even 'Akane' anymore. She was half of 'Ranma and Akane'-and always seemed to come last.

"You're right. It's no big deal," she said, turning to him. It was a struggle to keep her voice level. "So why don't you just go home?"

It surprised her how long it took him to answer, as if he was seriously considering her question. She had expected another quick retort, another insult. He glanced back at the party, tugging at his pigtail, before turning back to Akane. "You really don't want me here, do you Akane?" His tone was level as well; cool, even.

"No, I don't," she answered.

His eyes met hers and in the space between there hung all kinds of expectations. Possibilities, maybe. If she could just explain to him why this night was so important to her-if she could just understand it herself!-if she could just make him understand that she needed one night, just the one; everything would be okay. But as always the words weren't there. Only the anger, and the fear. . . .

Ranma turned back to the party and sighed, the release sounding tired and tremulous. "Huh." He looked back the way he had come, the walk to the train station and the ride back to the Tendos. To Akane's surprise he seemed ready to leave. "I could go hang out at Ukyou's," he said, obviously baiting her though the words held none of their usual insinuating undertones. "So our parents don't know I didn't go with you."

"Fine." Akane couldn't believe he was actually going to leave.

He stood there, poised on the knife's edge of indecision.

Perhaps he would have left. At that moment Hiroshi walked by, talking loudly with a classmate. Ranma flashed an infuriating grin and made his decision. "This might be fun after all," he said, and walked into the party.

(Scene Break)

"I was afraid," Akane said. So much easier to admit that now. Her bedroom was quite dark. The streetlight outside must have switched off. The sky had clouded over during her search earlier that night. Ranma was an indistinct, deeper shadow against the darkness that seeped in and blanketed her room. The silence felt like a third person slouched, sad and heavy, in the empty space between them. But no, even at this late an hour there was noise scurrying at the periphery, little mouse-like sounds that were only noticed in the absence of other distractions. The hum of the refrigerator clicking on and off, faintly heard through the floorboards. The wind chime hanging by the living room, a gift to Kasumi from their mother, twirling and ringing clearly throughout the night. The heavy, distant plop of fish in the pond perhaps lost in some aquatic dream-or nightmare-of their own.

"Of what?" Ranma asked. The way he asked, it sounded as if he was searching for confirmation of something he already knew.

"Of-so many things," she answered. "And it made me angry. I was nervous about going to the party. It seems so silly now. But I wanted to fit in. To do and say the right thing, to look right." She thought for a moment. "No, not really. Maybe a little. I was more worried about being 'Akane'-of being the Akane my friends knew from over a year ago. I really wanted to be that Akane, I think."

It was better, she thought. Talking this way. She couldn't have done it two weeks ago. Not before the party. But now . . . if she was thinking about Ranma's question then she could forget, even if for only a short time, about the reality that sat across from her in her quiet little bedroom. There hadn't been a rape-not yet. Her fiance wasn't pregnant. Not yet.

"Have you changed that much?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Probably not. But it felt like I had. It seemed important. Really important, like the feeling had been building up for weeks. Since that nonsense with your mirror clone, I think. Maybe I was afraid that I hadn't changed and thought that I should have."

He chuckled. Akane was surprised at the sound and by its lack of animosity towards either of them. "What?"

"I was just remembering something Nabiki told me tonight."

They said it almost in perfect sync with each other: "you're not that deep!"

The laugh they shared felt nice. Honest even, despite the precarious illusion she understood they had crafted around themselves.

"Were you really that afraid?" he asked after a moment of silence.

Akane realized that she had been. Not just before the party, but for far longer, though she didn't know why. "I think so." She shook her head. "I think I've been afraid of . . . of I don't know, maybe just afraid, for a long time now." She had always considered herself strong, confident through her martial arts and proud of her accomplishments at school. But through it all, she wondered, had she ever truly felt safe? She felt an uncomfortable ache deep in her gut and for some reason wondered if this was how Gosunkugi always felt. It was strange to think that she might have something in common with her scrawny little classmate.


She tensed up at his grunt, though only momentarily. "And that was the other thing that made me angry: the fact that you so clearly weren't. I mean, Ranma, I was really, really nervous about going to Kiyoshi's party. I think that's another reason I wanted to go alone so badly-to prove to myself that I could. And then there you were, as if you hadn't a worry in the world." Unlike now. "You didn't even seem to care. That party meant the world to me, for whatever reason, and it meant nothing to you and that made me angry. At you. At myself. You were-"

He cut her off with a sharp bark of laughter.

"Not afraid?" Ranma said. "Akane, I was terrified of stepping into that place!"

Her doubt was invisible in the dark but he must have sensed it for his shape coalesced from the shadows to lean closer. "Akane, the only reason I wanted to go to that stupid party was because you didn't want me to go. I was bein' a jerk." The admission was itself amazing, but anything surrounded by terrible and unlikely objects or events fades into triviality. Sitting here talking with Ranma-that was amazing; and terrible and unlikely, and at any moment she realized that this eggshell existence they had wrapped themselves in could splinter and crack open, spilling out-what?

"And I was angry, and a bit hurt, I guess, but that probably sounds kinda girly," he continued, his voice thoughtful but with a sardonic undertone which Akane suspected was becoming habitual . . . self-mockery, she feared, would taint him forever. "You didn't want me there because you had something to prove, but Akane-I couldn't even manage that!

"I mean, what do I know about shit like that? And guys like Hiroshi and Daisuke, yeah, sure, they're buddies but not really, you know? Don't know them all that well, really. The only people I knew here in Nerima are you, and your sisters and your dad; and Ukyou and Shampoo, of course. Ryouga and Mousse ain't around all that much these days, and I guess we're getting' along better than before but still-we're not close, tho' I guess better than it used t'be." She felt rather than saw his shrug. "And it's not like when we get together we 'party' or anything, yeah? I mean, that's what normal kids do, right?"

She wasn't so sure herself. What did she do with her friends before Ranma showed up? It seemed so very long ago, and even then she had been aware that she was somehow different than most of her friends. Nabiki certainly told her so often enough, and Kasumi as well in that passively disappointed way of hers. But there had still been sleepovers, and movie nights, and shopping trips . . . all things that Ranma, she perhaps fully realized for the first time, had never really experienced. And from his point of view, Akane-or at least the Akane she had been back then, on the first day they met-must have seemed so very 'normal'. "Sure," she answered. "I guess so."

"Yeah. No martial arts, no weird magic or stupid fathers hangin' out . . . Kiyoshi's place, it felt kinda weird to me. We got there and lookin' at the house and people realized if I stepped in there that I wouldn't have a clue what to do or say or how to act. And that wouldn't have been too bad, 'cus I thought I could hang out with you." He chuckled dryly. "I mean, yeah, you kept tellin' me you didn't want me there but you always say that, I figured you were just being, you know-"and he hesitated for a moment and she felt a momentary pang at the difficulty Ranma had at forming the word, "uncute.

"Then I saw that you really didn't want me there, and I couldn't figure out why but in a way it gave me an excuse to just take off."

"So why did you stay?" she asked. If only you had left, she thought. If only you hadn't been so stubborn.

"Hiroshi," he said.

(Scene Break)

Resting naked over crumpled bed sheets, staring at the reflection of himself in the mirror overhead cradling a likewise naked Sayuri in his arms, Hiroshi once again asked himself, with equal parts bemusement and incredulous joy-what the hell just happened?

His girlfriend sighed in her sleep and his embrace tightened slightly, instinctively, and he wondered at his own reaction. His eyes slipped from the mirror to the bared flesh next to him, sliding along the smooth dip of her slender shoulder before shifting away again, back to the mirror. The thought of what they'd just done and the reality of a naked girl in bed next to him was still too much to grasp . . . it left him with a trembling in his belly that he only knew as nervousness. But looking up at ceiling, at their reflection-there he saw two people comfortable with each other, possibly even in love. And watching himself he felt . . .

Holy shit! thought Hiroshi. I've just had sex! How cool is that? His bemused half-smile split in a huge grin that threatened to erupt into silly giggles. We argued, he thought, remembering last night. We fought. We made up. And then . . . then we came back here. To a love hotel-none of my friends have ever been to a love hotel!-and we talked and we made up some more and we kissed and we. . . . .

Woo hoo!

He watched as his hand slipped along the curves of Sayuri's body and rested comfortably across her left breast, small but firm in his palm, and he gave a small squeeze that felt both tentative and possessive. Hiroshi felt manlier than he'd ever known before, grown up and strong, confident in the feeling of a girl pressed up against him and held in the circle of his arms with one of her delicate hands pressed against the smooth expanse of his chest.

"Feeling frisky, are we?" Sayuri's voice was soft and sleepy. She lifted herself on one arm over him, her long hair sweeping across her face like a veil and tickling his chest. Hiroshi felt a strange tightness somewhere inside as he brushed her hair back with his hand and tucked it behind an ear. I want to see this again, he thought. I want to see this every morning: to wake up with a woman next to me, with long hair that tickles my chest as she wakes up and who sleeps with one hand pressed against my chest feeling for the beating of my heart. Sayuri sat back and let out a prodigious yawn and stretched her arms wide; her fingertips wiggled as she did and Hiroshi loved that about her; and at the same time he watched as her breasts shifted and flattened out and then dropped as she brought her arms down. I don't want to forget any of this, he thought. My first time in bed with a girl, the first time I watch a girl wake up in the morning.

Perhaps feeling his watchful eyes, Sayuri paused and looked at him quizzically. "What you looking at?" she asked.

"You," he answered, and his face split in a wide grin. "You. God, you're so beautiful," he said.

She blushed; as he continued to stare her blushed deepened and spread, touching the slope of her breasts pink. "Stop that!" When he stuck his tongue out at her she took a pillow and smothered him with it. Laughing, he caught hold of her wrists and pulled her down and rolled onto her, and she poked him in that ticklish spot she'd found last night, and Sayuri flipped on top of him, giggling, and suddenly they slipped off the edge of the bed and landed with a thump and she sat on his chest with a triumphant grin. "Gotcha!"

You certainly did, Hiroshi thought. She gave him a quick kiss and stood. He watched as she padded towards the bathroom, lithe legs and pert bum. She stopped and looked back, eyes enigmatically glinting through the unkempt fall of her hair. "I'm going to take a shower, okay?" she said.

Hiroshi nodded. He remained lying on the floor, half-wrapped in the tangle of sheets they'd dragged off the bed, and his eyes drifted back to his reflection overhead as he heard the hiss of water start from the next room. It occurred to him that she wanted him to join her in the shower. Another first experience to remember.

"How can any of you hope to compete with legs like hers, a chest like hers?" He'd said that once to Sayuri, long ago it seemed, comparing her to Ranma's girl body. He'd seen Ranma naked before, brief glimpses before the martial artist managed to cover up, usually the result of some bizarre accident or sequence of events seemingly intended to get her out of her clothes. And Ranma did have an amazing body, slender, tight and firm but with surprisingly soft curves that belied his over-active lifestyle. But sexier than Sayuri? He must've been insane.

Standing on that bridge last night his thoughts had been so conflicted. He thought that he might break up with her. He thought he might confront her about the crusade against his friend. He had felt exhilarated at the palpable sense of possibility that filled him-something he had rarely if ever felt before-and that sense of empowerment to make a change had been temporarily overpowering. And something in Sayuri had responded to him . . . or perhaps, standing on that short bridge arcing over the water snaking into the dark distance, she'd felt filled with a similar sense of possibility. So much had changed around them over the last few weeks and instead of standing by and watching events flow past he felt compelled to grab hold and mould-something, to change something.

"Something's bothering you," Sayuri had said.

(Scene Break)

"It's nothing," Hiroshi answered.

"Is it Ranma?"

He understood at that moment Sayuri's own frustration with his friend-the sense that everything that happened in Nerima, or at least within the circle of Furikan, somehow had to be connected to Ranma. The frustration was all the more powerful because events so often did. But he realized at that moment that the swell of emotions he felt, hand tightly gripping the pitted bridge railing, was only peripherally connected to his friend. He wanted to help Ranma with his problems. But I also have my own problems to deal with.

"You're right," Hiroshi had said. "There is something we have to talk about."

Sayuri sighed. "You want to break up with me, don't you?"

He opened his mouth to answer. Closed it. Tried again-"Huh?"

She smiled wryly, but her voice was heavy. "You don't think I've been through this before? Getting dumped? Boys, they're always the same right before. They get all quiet and angry, and when you hug them it might as well be a plank of wood. There's the sullen silence and then you finally drag it out of them, they don't think it's working, they want their space or-whatever."

Hiroshi shook his head. "You're wrong. I don't want to break up with you."

"Come on," she said, sounding slightly exasperated. "The whole night's been leading up to this. I could tell. You're a really nice guy, Hiroshi, but you're a terrible liar."

"You said you'd had a good night," he said.

"I did." Sayuri shrugged. "Especially after what happened at school. But-all night, you were drawing away from me and growing more distant. And then you brought me here, to this bridge, and. . . ." She stopped, and swallowed, and her eyes grew damp and Hiroshi felt a sudden, terrible pang at the thought that she was about to cry. But she didn't. She sniffed and blinked and glared at him angrily. "Am I right? Is this what you want?"

It frightened him a little to think that she could read him so easily, especially as she remained such a closed book to him-or at least, a confusing and only dimly understood one, as if written in another language he was only vaguely familiar with. But this time she was wrong.

His eyes never left hers as he reached out to brush an errant bang from her face. She flinched and pulled away but he brushed his fingers across the length of her cheek.

"Damn you, Hiroshi."

"I don't want to break up with you," he said.

She turned back to him. "Then what's been wrong with you?"

"Sayuri . . . I don't know. I don't know! I've never done this before." He looked out across the water again, speaking into the night. "You talk about how guys act before they break up, and I realize that this isn't something new for you, you've had other boyfriends before and you're, well, good at this, at relationships, and meanwhile I've absolutely no clue what's going on, you're the first girlfriend I've ever had and I'm constantly scared of screwing up . . . but then I look at you or you touch my arm and suddenly I'm even more scared that you'll finally realize that you can do so much better than me and then you'll be gone. You'll be gone and I have no idea what that means.

"And so, yeah, tonight I thought I was going to break up with you. I was going to . . . to cut my losses, I guess, end it now because I know that if it doesn't happen now, when it does happen-

"And then there's all that stuff with Ranma, and he's my friend and you hate the guy, and that seemed so important and, well, it is important, and I felt like I had to do something about the way you treat him at school-

"And . . . and I don't know, there was just so much building up inside and it seemed like the right thing to do was to just, just end it, and so maybe you're right, I've been burning bridges and now here we are. . . ."

Hiroshi sighed. "And now I know it has nothing to do with Ranma, or any of that other stuff, because I look at you and I realize that the only right thing to do is whatever it takes to hold on to you, Sayuri. I thought I had to break up with you because it would be easier that way but I'd rather everything be difficult and scary."

He stopped talking, suddenly exhausted and nearly trembling with the effort of having spoken. The silence that followed seemed unnaturally deep. He had a sudden panic at the thought of Sayuri sneaking away as talked, that she was gone and he'd just spoken his words to an uncaring night sky. He turned around.

Sayuri stood there, silently staring at him with angry eyes that shimmered in the gleam of the electric light overhead.


"Hiroshi, you're an idiot!"

And after that it all became a bit blurry, because she hit him, and then kissed him, called him an idiot several times and kissed him several more, and then they talked for hours, at first with their feet dangling over the edge of the bridge but eventually moving on, walking through the quiet streets of Nerima. By then it was quite late, the sky already tinted by the dawn, and they both knew they'd be in trouble when they got home and in a sudden and unexpected streak of rebelliousness they stopped at a love hotel. It had been Sayuri's suggestion. When the words had escaped her lips, hesitant but quick, eyes wide as if in shock, he'd felt a sickening churning in his own stomach, and knew that staying with her would be difficult and scary indeed.

(Scene Break)

Under the bridge that night, with a small girl cradled in her arms that slept fitfully, occasionally shivering and crying out softly, Akane overheard the discussion between Sayuri and her boyfriend. For the full hour that they argued and talked and sat and made up (and made out) overhead, Akane sat in the gravel, smoothing the hair of her former fiancé and listening quietly. She wanted to feel angry or jealous, or even happy for her girlfriend. Mostly she felt nothing, staring down at Ranma's face. His face was gritty with dirt and mud, streaked by tears, caked with blood, bruised and battered after his fight with Ryouga. She dabbed at that face with the edge of her shirt and tried to wipe away the worst of it. It helped, but only a little. The cuts and bruises were deep and would take time to heal.

He's really quite pretty, Akane thought. She stared down at his face. She looked at him in a way that she had never managed before, unclouded by jealousy or anger. Even marred by fighting it was obvious why so many of the boys lusted after him, why Kuno, filtered through an obsessive and delusional lens, loved him so strongly. That she was really a boy meant nothing when you looked at the girl like this.

Why couldn't we have a single moment like this? Akane thought. It's not fair. It's not fair, we were never able to just be friends, to try and be boyfriend and girlfriend, a normal couple, have normal fights or an ordinary night out. Sayuri and Hiroshi's voices had faded into silence, until she heard a subdued giggle from overhead. She imagined sitting at home watching a movie with Ranma's head in her lap. He'd have a bowl of popcorn, shovelling his mouth full before suddenly remembering to pass some up to her. She'd lean down and give him a light kiss on the forehead. He'd probably grunt and continue to watch the movie, and she'd feel annoyed until she felt a tender squeeze at her ankle, maybe he'd reach down and massage her foot and they'd watch the rest of the movie in silence, together and comfortable with each other's company and touch. Isn't that what normal couples do, she wondered?

Instead, Akane thought, suddenly snapping back to the present, to her darkened room and the boy hiding in the shadows across from her and the impossible distance that now lay between them; instead, the only time he's laid quietly in my lap is under a bridge sprawled in gravel, his body battered and his mind consumed with the horrors of the past day.

"Hiroshi?" she said, remembering him walk by as she argued with Ranma before the front gate to Kiyoshi's house. And she understood how the boy could have been the deciding factor in Ranma's joining the party . . . after all, hadn't her social fears been relaxed by the knowledge that she would be hanging out with Sayuri and Yuka and others from Furinkan at the party?

"Yeah." Ranma's voice sounded barely above a sigh. "And we did hang out a lot that night, at first. It was kind of nice, and a bit weird, and very different from being with, you know, Ryouga and those guys."

"Sure," Akane said. When he didn't continue she felt compelled to ask, "Do you hate him now?"

"What for?" His voice sounded genuinely surprised.

"He's the reason you went to the party, you said. If he hadn't walked by just then, you would've left. You wouldn't have stayed. You wouldn't have been-"

"If you and I hadn't fought," he interrupted, "I wouldn't have drank."

Her breath caught in her throat. The room suddenly felt stifling hot.

Ranma sighed. "This isn't your fault, Akane."

"And it's not yours, Ranma," she said softly.

Neither said anything for some time after that. To her surprise, Akane realized that it was starting to grow lighter outside. Not the brilliance of true dawn, but the purplish glow of very early morning. When Ranma finally spoke it almost came as a surprise.

"It's been . . . a very long day, Akane."

Where had he been all day? She tried to imagine what must have gone through his mind after he dropped her off—what thoughts and feelings drove him over the last twelve hours or so. If she was honest she had to admit that she couldn't imagine . . . what did a guy feel after discovering that he'd been raped two weeks before, that he was pregnant, after his friend had attacked him and left him bruised and bleeding . . . after his fiancée had failed him?

"And I've got a lot to tell you. I . . . need your help. To make a decision. It's probably the most important I'll ever make. It's not what I was expecting to find when I went off this morning but . . . ." His voice trailed off into the dark momentarily. "So, please, just listen. I'll probably mess this up but I want to tell you what happened today. And I'm going to try and be as honest as I can. No more bullshit. Because this is too important, and I need you to understand. Okay? Can you just listen?"

Akane nodded.

(Scene Break)

"I went to. . . ," Ranma began, but then stopped. "Nah, I should start before that. Shit, this is gonna be harder than I thought." Akane watched him tug at his pigtail, a gesture so familiar that it brought both a pang of sadness and a small grin, hidden in the dim light, to her lips. She waited patiently and silently, for him to start over.

"Yeah, let's bring it back t'when I dropped you off. I gotta say, I was surprised when I woke up all, you know, as a girl and cuddled up to you and lying under that bridge. Couldn't figure out where I was for a bit, but then the night before came back, most of it anyway, and I guess we both fell asleep. And I'll be honest, Akane: I felt bad, waking up like that. It's not right. I shouldn't need protecting. I'm supposed t'be-strong. And there I was.

"And I know you were tryin' to help and all, and I'm not sure if I was angry or happy with you when I woke up in your arms. I think I might've hated you for a moment. I might've loved you, too. The two seem almost the same lately. Maybe I felt nothing, kinda dead inside, you know? I feel like that a lot. I knew I couldn't leave you there and you were lookin' pretty rough and you needed sleep so I tapped that spot at the back of your neck and carried you home. I know you're probably pissed off about that, but I don't think I could've dealt with talkin' to you this morning.

"And this morning . . . the streets, they were beautiful. They were quiet, and empty." He sighed and stood and walked over to the window and stared outside. Ranma reached down and picked up her coin bank, a small ceramic duck shaped like the one on her door nameplate, in whose hallow recesses a few lonely coins rattled. He toyed with it unconsciously as he continued talking.

"The sun wasn't quite up but the sky was turning lighter. There was a light mist coming up from the canal as the day warmed. You felt very light in my arms, Akane, and I don't think we passed a single person on the way here. I wonder if anyone would've said anything, at some rough-lookin' girl carrying an unconscious one in her arms. There wasn't a whole lot of thinkin' goin' on on that walk home. I might've talked to you a bit while you slept, but now I couldn't tell ya what about.

"Before I knew it we were back here. The light in Nabiki's room was on. I didn't want to talk to her so I came in through the back. She'd even set up a few traps, can you believe it? I still don't get that girl, whether she hates me or wants to help. Still, they were easy to get around and I brought you up to your room and put you to bed. I didn't know what to do next. I still don't. It's so hard to make decisions, now, Akane, how can I trust myself anymore? And so I sat in your room for a bit, kinda just watching over you, not really thinkin' about anything and then suddenly I found myself walking over to Nabiki's room and knocking on her door.

"'Come in, Ranma,' she said when she opened the door, and if she was at all surprised to see me she hid it well. That girl scares me. She took her seat and I grabbed the edge of the bed and sat there awkwardly not at all sure what I was doing there. I guess you could say that she was the one to break the ice.

"'So, you are going to keep the baby?' she asked."

Standing by the window, he put the fragile clay duck down. He glanced back at her before returning his gaze to outside. He gave a hollow laugh. "Can you believe I hadn't even thought about it? I mean-fuck! There's this thing inside of me, but it's not like I can feel it, the only way I know it's there is because Doc told me so, and so far all it's meant to me is proof that something happened at that party that I can't even remember. If this-thing, hadn't been left inside of me, I'd never have known I'd been . . . raped. I was raped, Akane. I was raped." His voice faltered for a moment, but when he finally continued he sounded stronger than before. "I've just been trying to wrap my head around that, what that means, but now there's a whole other thing to deal with. There's a fucking baby growing inside of me, even when I'm a guy, somehow, and I've got to decide . . . decide tonight, what I'm going to do about that.

"No, wait," he continued without even turning, "I'm not done. There's more. I need you to know where I've been today. Because after I had that friendly chat with Nabiki I knew I had to . . . get away. I left the house running. No idea where I was going. Not as bad as when I flipped out yesterday but . . . pretty close. It's all messed up inside, Akane, tryin' to deal with this shit and it's too much, every time I start trying to hold on to everything that's gone wrong, in my head, I start to lose it, everything slips away and I think I either freak out or just go totally numb. I'm not sure which is worse.

"I ended up at the train station. Where was I going? No idea. I stood there on the platform panting and pacing back and forth, like a-wild horse, caught in a burning stable. No wonder nobody asked me for a ticket. I was probably heading for the mountains, or the woods . . . another training session. Every other time I've had a big problem, I go off and train, get better, come back and everything gets fixed, yeah? But I can't do that this time. Maybe I understood that at some level, 'cuz when that first morning train pulled up, I just screamed and hollered and bolted from the station.

"When I stopped running I was in front of the Nekohanten.

"You're probably wondering what brought me there. Yeah, I kinda wondered that myself. After everything that old crone's done to me, the times I've been attacked by Mousse or Shampoo's tried to trick me . . . you'd think I'd've stayed far away from that place. But something still just brought me there. The place was closed; those little colourful windows were all dark inside and outside, the streets still empty, mostly, maybe just a couple of students heading to school. Yeah, I knew the shop wasn't going to open for a coupla hours yet and I started to think again and wonder what the hell I was doing there.

"I guess 'cuz it was so damn quiet that I finally noticed that it wasn't all quiet after all, there was noise from around back the restaurant. So I went and checked in the back alley, and go figure, there was Mousse, hauling out some trash and sweeping up the pavement with this tiny little hairbrush. His hair was all matted with grease and his robes weren't exactly white anymore, and I'd rather not know what you've gotta roll around in to turn 'em brown like that. I swear he probably looked worse than I did. He must've been at it for hours, scrubbing the ground with that thing. Never did find out what he'd done to piss off the old lady." He gave a short chuckle. "The guy's got sharp ears. He looked up when I stepped into the alley but obviously couldn't see me. He was in a bad mood. 'Who's there?' he called out, but I didn't answer. I figured anything I said would probably set him off, and I wasn't lookin' for a fight. I don't know what I was lookin' for but-yeah, not that. Goin' ten rounds with Ryouga was enough for the day.

"Not answering just pissed him off more, though, and he stood up and flicked his hair back and swept his robes out of the way, as if he was getting' ready to pounce. He adjusted his glasses and kinda squinted at me in that way he's got, and I swear, he sneered. 'Ranma,' he said, and it wasn't exactly friendly-like. 'Couldn't wait until opening hours to come mock the hired help, is that it? Wanted an early start on the gloating?'

"It's like, I haven't seen this guy in a couple of weeks and the first thing outta his mouth is an insult. Like it's my fault he'd pissed off Cologne. Still, like I said I wasn't lookin' for a fight. So I put my hands up and tried to calm him down a bit. 'Yo, relax Mousse,' I said. 'I'm just here 'cuz-just because, okay? I was walkin' by and just thought I'd see if anyone was up. I'm not looking to start anything. You okay? You're lookin' a little rough.'

"I think it freaked him out a bit, me askin' if he was okay, because for a moment he didn't seem to know what to do. He came a coupla steps closer and peered at me really intense-like. 'Is that Ranma?' he asked. "Because you don't sound like that jerk. You sound like a nice girl to me,' he said, and he adjusted his glasses again.

"I swear, I almost ripped him apart right there. But I didn't. Barely.

"Mousse gave a little snort. 'Well, I don't want your pity, Ranma. It's none of your business.'

"I'd have laughed if I wasn't choking back the urge to kill him. Pity? Yeah, can't say I've got much of that to waste on others, lately. 'Trust me,' I said, when I could talk again, 'I really don't give a shit.'

"I dunno, maybe it was my answer or something in the way I'd been talking but he came a bit closer and I guess I was finally near enough for him to see properly. He blinked a couple of times. He gave a low whistle. 'Wow. You look worse than I do.'

"Believe it or not, I hadn't really noticed until then. Even with those clothes you'd lent me I looked a mess. I wasn't half-naked anymore, but just about any bit of me showing was either bruised or cut. And the pain, well . . . I'm kinda good at tuning it out when I have to, and I'd been ignoring it up till then. I guess him mentioning it brought it back. Ryouga'd really done one over on me. And wouldn't you know but I suddenly felt really uncomfortable, being eyeballed by that guy, by Mousse of all people, even though he could probably barely see me, but I was standing there in that really tight t-shirt with my tits all in his face and I felt really exposed and suddenly kinda afraid."

His voice faltered for a moment. He wasn't looking out the window anymore. Against the brightening square of sky the silhouette slumped for a moment, leaving heavily against the desk on both arms with head hanging low. "Is that what it's gonna be like for now on, Akane? Me afraid of-everything, everywhere I go, anytime I'm within a coupla feet of a guy, any guy, when I'm a girl? I mean, we're talkin' about friggin' Mousse here; the guy's good but he's not that good, he couldn't give me a solid run for my money on his best day . . . last week, anyway. Now? He'd probably kick my ass.

"And I didn't want him pitying me any more than he wanted me to pity him. And I didn't want to be afraid of him or anyone. And I didn't want him looking at me or seeing me all beat up like that. And I was feeling scared, and angry, and I didn't know what to feel and I just kind of froze up in front of him and everything went a bit strange in my head for a moment.

"I'll say this about the blind jerk, though, maybe he can't see worth shit but he's damn perceptive when he wants to be. He knew something was off . . . that something'd gone wrong. Any other day he'd probabl've taken advantage of my weakness and given me a royal beat down. I'd have deserved it, too. But he didn't even ask what was up. Instead, he just stared at me without blinking for a long moment, those glasses of his shining white as the sun started comin' up behind, and I just trembled and shook in fronta him, clenching and unclenching my fists and trying to sort myself out. And then he turned towards the restaurant behind us. He didn't say a word. A small stone just kinda appeared in his hand from-well, from wherever he keeps all that shit stashed up his sleeve-and he tossed it against a window overhead. It clattered against the glass and there was an angry shout in Chinese, and a light came on upstairs. Then he bent back down to the ground, picked up his brush, and started scrubbing.

"'You owe me, Ranma,' he said, without looking up. A few moments later the door behind us that led into the restaurant banged open and there she was. Old Cologne, perched on that stupid stick of hers.

"The moment I saw her I think I figured out what I was doin' there. I suddenly realized just how much I respect that old goat. Yeah, sure, Cologne's a royal pain in the ass, and she's screwed me over big time in the past, and I swear that half the stuff she's done to me was done kinda like a game just to keep her entertained . . . but at the same time, any time I've had a problem, a really serious problem, she's been there to help, you know?

"In fact, other than Dr. Tofu she's always been there when I really needed her-and Tofu sorta took off soon after Cologne showed up. She helped with the Musk, and when the old freak stole my strength . . . and somehow, standin' there in the back alley with Cologne lookin' me over, I kinda expected her to solve this problem, too."

Ranma snorted. "Stupid, huh? But know what? It was amazing. There she was, and I swear she was about to swear at Mousse or somethin', but she saw me and froze, her eyes goin' all wide and surprised. She just sat there, balancing on that stick and staring at me for a long time, and I just kinda stood frozen too, staring back at her. And then suddenly she seemed to . . . I dunno, deflate, and she let out this really deep sigh and suddenly looked really, really old. She hopped down off of her staff and walked up to me.

"'Son-in-law,' she said, and her voice was really soft and tired-sounding. "What has happened to you?'"

His silhouette moved from the window and tossed itself back down into the chair. Ranma threw his head back, as if in silent laughter. Even in the slowly brightening room his features were covered in shadows, and his expression remained hidden. "She knew," he said. "One look and she knew. But I shouldn't've been surprised. 'Cuz you know why? Because when I stop and listen-I can tell, too. I know I said that it's only Tofu tellin' me that I know it really happened . . . but I think I knew, somehow, even before that . . . knew that somethin' was wrong. And when I stop and listen to my body, yeah, there's somethin' different. It's tough t'explain but it's there somehow in the way my chi flows, or somethin' like that. And Cologne? Yeah, she's good. One look and she not only saw the difference, she knew what it was and what had happened.

"The fact that she could tell that easily almost killed me, Akane. I . . . I . . . aw, shit Akane, I actually started crying, right there in front of her, with fuckin' Mousse right there in the alley, bawlin' my eyes out and snivelling like some dumbshit little girl with a skinned knee.

"Cryin' like that in fronta her was almost as bad as her knowin' what'd happened. I mean, I really respect that old crone . . . she's a pain but she's an awesome martial artist, yeah, and I've learnt a lot from her and I've always taken pride in taking whatever she's shovelled my way and doing her one better. And I think she's always had a bit of a soft-spot for me, or I'd like to think so . . . I mean, why else would she've taught me so many secret Amazon techniques and all? Who know what kinda plans she had in that twisted little mind of hers? But there was respect there, too.

"Man, did I ever let her down. . . .

"So, I stood there with these tears runnin' down my cheek, nothing as bad as last night but not lookin' all that manly, if you know what I mean. Mousse did his best to ignore me, I think. I must've freaked him out bad. He probably got a kick out of it, tho'. Bastard. And Cologne? She just kept starin' at me with those huge eyes of her, and finally she let out a big sigh, and then. . . ."

Ranma's voice trailed off, and grew silent, but his shoulders were visibly shaking. Akane wondered if he was crying, and whether she should reach over to comfort him-but then she heard a giggle, and realized that he was laughing to himself. "The old bitch hit me!" He laughed again, this time out loud. "She wacked me upside the head with that stick of hers, and I swear, even if I hadn't been a mess I wouldn't've seen it coming!

"So suddenly I'm seeing stars and I've hit the ground hard, and she jabs me with that stick and lifts my chin with the end and I'm starin' her right in the eyes and she says, 'We'll have none of that now, you hear?' And know what? It shut me up good. I nodded and stopped crying and got to my feet real quick like. She looked over at Mousse, who was kinda confused.

"'Son-in-law and I are heading into my private room to talk about a few things,' she said, and Mousse nodded. 'I don't want to be interrupted. By anyone.' She stopped for a moment but kept her eye on Mousse. 'And I mean anyone. Do you understand?'

"Yeah, Mousse understood. He looked confused but he stood up and brushed his robes off and nodded again. I guess he knew there were certain times ya didn't mess with Cologne. I gotta say, I'm not sure I've ever heard her speak so seriously. Maybe when Herb was around. She's scary when she wants to be.

"So we stepped into the restaurant and made our way to a back room, and Mousse followed and kinda stood guard outside. I took a seat and she hopped onto the table opposite me. We sat there for a long moment in silence. I mean, what was I supposed to say? I rubbed my head where she'd hit me. 'Nice one, granny,' I said.

"But all she did was shake her head in reply. "You are pregnant?" she said.

"I nodded without saying a word.

"'Have you been . . . intimate, with a male?'

"I felt my face burn when she put it like that, but once again I nodded.

"The expression on her face didn't change. 'Was the act voluntary?'

"'Of course not!' I shouted.

"'You were raped.'

"'Yeah,' I answered, my voice barely over a whisper."

Ranma fell silent again. When he continued his voice was less sure, questioning, no longer drawing on the past and suddenly afraid of where it found itself. "Granny's sure got a way with words, huh. But you know, I think the way she asked me really forced the point home. Worse, it made me think for the first time how other people might see this. I'm pregnant, Akane, and that means I've had . . . sex. And even if people are shocked by the fact that there's something growing inside of me, they're gonna think it's my fault it's there. Those who don't know about the curse, they'll just think, how sad, another silly young girl who's done something stupid.

"And the people who actually know about the curse . . . !" He sighed. "I'm supposed to be a kick-ass martial artist. Best of my generation, and all that shit . . . who's going to believe that this could happen against my will? They're all going to think I wanted this to happen, I let this happen, that I chose to . . . to. . . ."

"You didn't choose anything, Ranma," Akane said softly.

"I know," he whispered, eyes boring into hers. After a few moments his stare became too much for her; she glanced away uncomfortably. When she looked back he had silently pulled his chair a little closer and was now sitting directly across from her, close enough for their knees to almost touch.

"So what did Cologne say after that?" she asked.

"Not much, to be honest," Ranma answered, and shrugged. "She stared at me for a long time and finally let out a long, deep sigh. She suddenly looked really tired and old. 'Why have you come here, Ranma?' she asked, and believe me, I noticed that she called me by name instead of 'Son-in-Law'.

"'I don't know,' I told her. 'I didn't—plan, I didn't—expect. . . I don't know what to do, I don't know what to . . . do, Cologne!' And from there, well . . . I kinda broke down into a rant, you know? I'm not sure what I said. Everything, I think, every thought that'd been bouncing around my head since you told me what had happened back in Tofu's office. I told her how scared I was. How sorry I was. I told her about the party, I think. And then I said how I'd failed as a martial artist, how weak I'd been, and how this . . . thing, inside of me, how being pregnant and all that was, well, going to destroy everything I was and had done and worked for over the last ten years. . . .

He shook his head. "Cologne was not impressed. Next thing I know, her staff's an inch from the side of my temple and she's in my face and I'm not sure I've ever seen her that angry. 'I will not have you speak like that!' the old crone said, and those giant spooky eyes of hers stared straight into mine. 'Or I'll hit you so hard you won't come to until you've already birthed that child.' Man, was she ever pissed off! 'Nearly two years!' she said, 'You've been changing into a girl for nearly two years now, and have you learnt nothing?'

"She kinda went off on a rant of her own, then. About the Amazons, and how there was no dishonour in bearing a child, and how in times of duress some of the warriors of the tribe had sacrificed themselves to Jusenkyo so that their people could continue. Usually women turning themselves into men, of course, but there were even a couple of guys who did it, too, when they needed to get their numbers up, quick, after some terrible battle or disease or something.

"And she told me the most amazing story, Akane." He leaned in closer, his voice rising a little. "The old ghoul told me a story from her youth, when she was pregnant and went to war with a neighbouring tribe that had fallen under some kinda evil influence. They fought some major battle on the side of a mountain. Some of the martial arts she described sounded—amazing!" For a moment his eyes flashed with genuine enthusiasm, with sheer pleasure, something Akane hadn't seen in far too long. "And Cologne fought right in the middle of it, until the enemy was in retreat, even all pregnant with her belly huge and all.

"And once the enemy retreated, she sat down and damn well popped out her kid, right there on some bloodied battlefield on the side of a friggin' mountain! She handed the child over to one of the male aides who brought it back to the Amazon camp, and then Cologne hauled herself back to her feet and returned to the fight.

"'A birthing fit for an Amazon," she told me. That was Shampoo's grandmother. And the point of it all, Cologne said, was that she wasn't going to listen to any more nonsense about how being pregnant was the end of my life and somehow wiped out everything I'd accomplished."

But as Akane watched, Ranma's smile turned waned, then faded, and soon returned to the grim, empty countenance of before. "But even she had to admit that this is Japan, not the Amazon tribal lands. That I wasn't an Amazon. And that the rape made it a very different matter, indeed."

Akane surprised herself by reaching out and taking his hand. Even more surprisingly, he didn't pull away. He barely seemed to register the motion, staring off into space. "And then? Is that where you were all day, then?"

He focused on her, looking almost sheepish. "Ah, well . . . after Cologne talked to me, she ah . . . put me to work."

"She what?"

"Yeah, I know." He shook his head in disbelief, though a brief smile danced across his lips. "She threw an apron on me, and put me to work. And she worked me hard! First cleaning up alongside Mousse, waiting for the restaurant to open. And when the lunch rush came along, out front waitressing. And you know how busy that place gets when I work there! The place was really jumping. Mousse was flipping all over the place, using his chains and everything to clean up tables and toss-out rowdy customers that was taking too long. Shampoo was in the kitchen and tossing out food almost as fast as the old ghoul.

"And me? I was racing back and forth, balancing bowls and plates and it didn't stop for a couple of hours. And you know what? For those couple of hours, I didn't think once, not once! about all this other bullshit. It was just 'pork ramen for three!' and 'gyoza for two!' and 'more rice, and make it quick!'

"And when everything was done and Mousse had shut the shop down for the afternoon, Cologne came out of wherever she'd been hiding. She called me aside to show me something."

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a slender, small vial, plugged with cork and sealed with wax. He held it gingerly between forefinger and thumb and displayed it to Akane.

"What is it?" she asked.

"A cure," Ranma answered.

(scene break)

He staggered away from the Nekohanten in a daze. Clutched in his hand he held the tiny vial. He wouldn't let it go. Nothing could have pried it from him at that point. Ranma walked down random streets, mindless of where his wandering brought him. With each step he felt the weight on his shoulders lessen. It was an almost giddy feeling. This is it! he told himself. This will set everything right!

It won't change anything, a darker voice whispered in the back of his head. You'll still know what happened. You'll always remember. You were raped. A man took you and penetrated you. You know this. Akane knows this. This changes nothing.

He tried to ignore the voice. He tried to ignore his own doubts, and Cologne's warning.

He wasn't surprised to find that his feet had brought him towards Ucchan's, but as he turned the final corner leading to her shop, he suddenly took fright and walked away down a side-street. Too many people already knew what had happened to him: Akane, Nabiki, Tofu, Cologne. Shampoo and Mousse must have been wondering what was going on. And with this vial—no one else would have to know.

Ryoga. Ryoga knew. Ranma suddenly fervently wished that the lost boy was around. I won't see that bastard for another month, he thought. The road ended at a small park. I need to talk to someone, he decided. I don't know what to do with this. I can't just—use it, not without talking to someone. Cologne refused to tell me what to do. I need someone's advice.

And then, stepping into the park just as the early setting sun touched the treetops in crimson hues, he heard a loud, controlled cry; and stepping a little further into the park he saw Kuno, sword raised above his head, practicing his Art.

(scene break)

"A cure?" Akane asked, not without apprehension. "For the curse?"

Ranma smiled wanly. "Not for the curse, no."

"Then for—"

"This thing inside me."

Akane stared at the tiny, fragile-looking vial with a growing sense of . . . what? She felt strong and conflicting emotions rising within.

"The Amazons use this," Ranma continued, "in the very rare case of an unwanted or impossible pregnancy. Often in the case of rape, appropriately enough, when the father threatens to pollute and weaken the family line." He held the vial up to the faint light now creeping in from outside. "It's a very powerful potion, Cologne told me, and it only works within a couple weeks of conception. At this stage, she says it won't kill me. It won't kill me, but I'll probably wish it had."

"You're going to ab—," Akane swallowed and struggled with the word. "You're going to—"

Ranma raised his hand. The other closed around the vial and slipped it back into a pocket. "I don't know," he said. "I thought—I thought I was going to. It seemed like such an easy thing to do. One little swallow and all these problems go away. My body's purged of this . . . this thing, and life goes back to normal.

"But it wouldn't go back to normal, would it? Because so much has happened since the party. And this thing, this thing inside of me . . . ."

"It would be dead," Akane finished.

Ranma leaned forward, his face suddenly close to hers, eyes wide and eager. "Would it be? Is it alive, Akane? If I do it now, am I killing a life? Or just cleaning out a little lump of flesh, some tiny blob, floating around inside me somewhere? Which is it, Akane?" His hand in hers grabbed hold of her wrist with sudden strength.

"This is the decision I have to make, Akane, and I have to make it tonight. Tonight! Even since I left that restaurant with this thing in my hand, I've been wrestling with this question. And now I need your help." He was speaking quickly, almost feverishly. "What do I do, Akane?"

"What do I do?"