Notes: Every now and again, a story surprises you in the telling. Nothing much else to report, other than I'm contemplating doing a rewrite of the first chapter which would save the in media res prologue for the story's climax, and expand the rest of the chapter to fill in. I'm interested in what the long-running readers (or anyone else for that matter) think about it. As always, I encourage you to leave your thoughts in a review. Thanks for reading!
Chapter 16: Tempest
Ran-chan always hated hospitals. The sterile air felt dead. The overpowering stench of disinfectants made her nose wrinkle in disgust. Rolling her eyes as the nurse made an innocent comment about her being "a dutiful sister visiting her brother," she soldiered on down the labyrinth of corridors to her male half's room. The faux inviting colors, warm tan paint and cool blue carpet, had been rolled off the assembly line in pre-fab hell.
His door was open. She knocked once on the door frame before entering; she was treated to the sight of Akane and his other half locking lips. The love of her life sensed the intrusion, hackles raising in alarm. The tomboy broke the kiss, but thin line of saliva trailed between them.
"Gross," said Ran-chan.
The boy shook his head. "Don't lie to yourself."
Akane, at least, seemed a little embarrassed. Something ugly in her almost liked seeing the look of guilt on the tomboy's face. That wouldn't tip the scales of fate, and at any rate the rest of her felt ashamed of that impulse. "Um, wasn't looking to interrupt anything. Didn't figure you'd be here, Akane."
"It's alright," said Akane, straightening out the wrinkles in her shirt. "I'm already late as it is. I'll leave you to it."
There was that smile that made it impossible to stay mad at her. "I, uhh, like your outfit."
"You should; I borrowed them from you," said the tomboy with a smirk. In that momentary lapse of blushing embarrassment, Akane slipped close and planted a kiss on her lips. She sensed the indecision behind those lips, souring the otherwise sweet taste of Akane's lip gloss. "See you, Ran-chan."
Ran-chan stood motionless. It was only now dawning on her just what sort of complicated she was getting herself into. She didn't have time to dwell on it.
"Ran-chan?" said her other half.
She shrugged. "It fits, given I'm half the man I used to be."
"So…about that kiss…"
"You and I both know we've put Akane in an impossible position. I've probably been a bit selfish. You and I both know we feel the same way about her. Would you really give her up without a fight if the tables were turned?"
"I suppose not. Can't say I'm not jealous. But then again, I suppose I've got no room to complain about this."
"We're both learning then."
BoyRanma laughed. "That's because we're the best."
"Except maybe at humility. But we'll get that problem beaten soon too." Ran-chan pulled a chair across from him. "I brought you some clothes; you look ridiculous in that hospital gown."
"Thanks. I should be out in no-time. I already feel fit as a fiddle, jus' these doctors want to keep me here for 'observation', whatever that means."
"Prolly wanna figure out why we heal so fast."
The tense silence reminded Ran-chan why she hated smalltalk. It was the worst with him, because there was so much that just didn't have to be said. Or shouldn't have to be. "So…there's something you should probably know about."
"Is it about that cretin Gosunkugi? I can't believe I used to pity him. I'll get him…unless you've already taken care of that."
Ran-chan sighed. "It's more complicated than that. Nabiki thinks he wasn't acting alone, and I believe her. And that someone deliberately showed those photos to Kuno to goad him into doing something stupid. Probably to cause a mess and lay the blame at Nabiki's feet given her reputation."
"And you're sure she's not just pulling the wool over your eyes to escape fault?"
"This is going to sound crazy, but I trust her. I've seen the agony this has put her through. I think she can change. We're going to find who did this." And kill them, she silently added, surprising herself with the conviction behind it.
He puzzled over what she said, absentmindedly tugging at the loose threads of his hospital blanket. "I believe you. She's definitely smarter than us, and in spite of everything, I know she loves her sister."
"I'm glad. Don't worry about it right now though."
"So what's this I hear about you and Ryoga?" boyRanma said, twiddling his fingers, "I mean, we've never had a shortage of rumors…"
She flushed as red as her hair. "Ah, well—"
"So it's true!"
"What…have you heard?"
"That your dating the pig, at the very least."
"No, I'm not. Though, not for lack of trying."
"Criminy, the curse has gone to your brain!"
"Oh shut up. You and I both know that ain't true. And look deep into yourself and be honest: we thought he was beautiful even before we went to Jusenkyo."
"It was middle school! They were…confusing…times."
"I found the answer then. You can too. And I'll never judge you for it."
"So are you like in love with him?"
"Oh hell no! Not that way. It's just…he's a friend, and he's trustworthy, doesn't judge me for trying to cope with what I've got left. And he's fucking gorgeous. I'm wasn't looking for Mr. Right, just Mr. Right-now. But he can't see me as anything other than a guy, and some stupid part of me can't help but like him more for thinking that of me."
"Did you rehearse that?"
"Yes, I did actually. I've been having to justify myself to a lot of people, so I've been getting a lot of practice."
He'd hidden it well, but there was a twinge of relief on boyRanma's face. She smiled when she saw it, and for a moment all the resentment and self-loathing she felt vanished. She moved next to boyRanma and wrapped her arm around his shoulders.
He froze as she touched him. After a moment of trepidation, he melted into her hug. He rested his head on her shoulder, the tension draining from his body. "I'm sorry for being such an ass," he whispered.
"I'm sorry for being such a bitch," said the redhead, hugging him tighter. In this moment, she remembered what it was to be whole. "It's hard, living in your shadow. I think I understand something of what Ryoga felt, nursing that grudge all these years. And maybe someday I won't be in your shadow, and we can relate to each other as equals. I do love you, but I also hate you a bit. Which, honestly, isn't any different from how I feel about myself."
"Couldn't have said it better."
It had been really hard to get back into the swing of things at school after a week of freedom. When Ran-chan sat down in homeroom on Monday morning, she could feel the tension thick in the air. She felt the eyes staring at her, the oppressive feeling of unasked questions waiting. There were rumors spreading again, and she didn't like this one bit.
Hiroshi slumped down next to her. It was more than just not wanting to be in class; he let out a heavy sigh as he leafed through his notebook.
"Uh, what gives Hiro? Last time we talked you were high on the hog over your date."
The mask of indifference cracked, revealing the morose boy underneath. "She's great and she wants to see more of me, but I just know when she finds out how big of a dork I am I'll be finished."
"I'm pretty sure she already knows."
"Urk. I'm finished…"
"Oy, don't you give up just yet. She wants a second date. You've already passed the hard part."
When lunch came, Ran-chan tried to eat with Akane. But she was spending time with boyRanma again. Now that they weren't being so discreet about things, it was getting harder and harder to get any alone time with her. When he was in recovery, it was understandable. But it didn't stop when he left the hospital.
So instead she found Nabiki sitting under a lonely tree and plopped down uninvited next to her. Nabiki's lunch seemed half-forgotten next to her as she flipped through a pocket notebook. "Any breakthroughs?" asked Ran-chan in between bites.
"Not as many as I'd liked. I'd probably make more if I hadn't had to spend all morning being treated like I do compensated dating. Whoever's behind this knows what buttons to push."
"Anything I can do?"
"Well, you could cash in on your friendship with Ukyo. See if she could get Konatsu to do some of his kunoichi stuff on Voodoo Spike. You know, break into his house, look for clues."
"I think I can work that out."
Nabiki put aside her notes and gave her bento some much needed attention. "So, what's eating you, Ranma?"
Ran-chan suppressed the urge to give a pointed denial. "What makes you think that something is bothering me?"
"You're spending time with your least favorite Tendo sister rather than Akane. You're probably trying to distract yourself from that by turning your attention towards an enemy you can fight."
"Okay fine, you got me. It's just getting harder to find any alone time with Akane."
"That's not the whole story is it?"
"What makes you say that?"
"You have some obvious tells when you're trying to hide things. You avoid eye contact, or you get nervous and start playing with your hair. Like you're doing right now."
She hadn't even noticed she'd been playing with the end of her pigtail until Nabiki pointed it out to her. Having been read like a book, she decided to just give in lest the mercenary girl resort to blackmail to get what she wanted. "Okay, promise not to tell?"
After completing the sacred ritual, Ran-chan took a deep breath. "Okay…Akane has been trying to not just write me off. She says she doesn't want to break my heart, and I think she means well. But I don't think she can love me the same as she loves him. I'm…I'm afraid."
Nabiki blinked and shifted towards her. "Welp, This is a little out of my wheelhouse, I'm afraid. I'm more of the practical problems kind of girl. But I'll listen. I owe you at least that much." Nabiki slurped at her juice can pensively. "How do you know?"
The redhead flitted her eyes back and forth. When Nabiki's stare didn't relent, she shrugged, "It just seems like she doesn't have time for me anymore. She's always spending time with him. And just when I'm getting to the point where I'm not feeling so resentful of him, this happens. And I can't exactly blame him, cuz if the situations were reversed I'd be monopolizing her time too."
Nabiki blanched, unprepared for the deluge of earnest human feeling. "I'm really out of my wheelhouse," she muttered into her juice can.
"You don't gotta fix things. Sometimes…sometimes I just want someone to listen so I don't gotta keep it all bottled up inside."
Nabiki looked at her like she was some puzzle to solve. "Well I can do that at least."
Nabiki spent the rest of her afternoon reflecting on Sun Tzu's maxim that "all warfare is based upon deception." With classes slowly easing their way back into a normal pace, and the ever manic Principal Kuno now on a leave of absence, it left the girl plenty of time to think.
On the surface, it seemed like an open and shut case. But that's where all good detective stories begin. Most people thought the worst of both Nabiki and Gosunkugi Hikaru already. Two associates engaged in the illicit trade of voyeur shots, now feuding over a disagreement seemed all too plausible. And from the whispers, she could tell a lot of students just plain believed she sold her own sister out.
It's not like I haven't before, Nabiki thought. Self-reflection was bitter, like ashes in her mouth. The taste wouldn't go away.
She briefly wondered if she was chasing ghosts. The crazy-person corkboard up in her room wasn't helping in her defense. And some small part of her, which sounded eerily like her long-withered conscience creaking back to life, told her that all this talk of conspiracy was just another way for her to avoid responsibility.
The final bell rang. One thing can be two things. There is a conspiracy here, and it's one that I'm ultimately responsible for.
Nabiki trudged home, brushing off Ranma's invitation to walk home together. She needed to be alone with her guilt right now. Her notes felt like lead in her pocket, as her thoughts crept towards two names she'd circled in red-ink.
Kenzan Konatsu. And Sarugakure Sasuke. The two people who Ranma had said were capable of infiltrating the dojo undetected and getting those creep shots.
Nabiki had chosen not to share her thoughts with Ranma. It was clear from the nonchalant way Ranma had told her that the redhead didn't think that either were capable of such depravity. Poor naïve girl pitied the both of them and didn't seem to understand the lengths to which someone would go for revenge—and she'd had a rival willing to chase him/her round the Straits of Tsushima, round the Naruto Maelstrom, and round Perdition's flames over a feud about bread.
Nabiki felt a little guilty laying a trap for one or the both, using Ranma as her catspaw. She'd make sure she'd be there when Ranma asked her favor. For moral support, of course. She'd see for herself if Ranma's trust was well placed. And if it isn't, I'll destroy them. She came to halt, surprised by her own conviction.
It was time to put this matter aside, she decided, lest her small heart grow another size today. Lucky for her, her father was waiting when she crossed the threshold, bursting at the seams to with the "good news." Apparently, the Saotomes were coming over for dinner tonight. It'd be just one giant mess of awkwardness to distract her.
Nabiki shut herself in her room, trying to busy herself to ignore the board-of-crazy above her desk. She got a little further into a spy novel before her thoughts turned back to the Conspiracy. Groaning, she tossed the dog-eared paperback aside. "I'm sorry, Smiley-san," she thought aloud, "but you're not helping me forget. We'll just have to find the mole in the Circus some other—"
Her brain ground to a halt. Who else would have the skill, the resources, and the intel to so perfectly thwart you but one of your own? Nabiki pounded her fists into her bed. Before she could beat herself up about being betrayed, she heard Kasumi calling for her to come to dinner.
It was probably for the best. She needed to take a break from this anyway. But before she trudged downstairs, she pinned one more notecard up on her board-of-crazy: the Roman numerals XX.
Dinner with the soon-to-be extended family was somehow even more tense than even Nabiki expected. Soun and Genma managed to fill most of it with their conversation about the bad old days, but the air remained thick. BoyRanma sat next to his mother, embarrassed as she continued to dote on him like an invalid. But try as he might to tell Nodoka that he was mostly healed, his mother seemed to relish in getting baby him one more time.
"Come-on mom, I'm just a bit stiff on that side, I'll be good as new before ya know it," he cried.
GirlRanma seemed to delight in his embarrassment. "Come on now, take your medicine like a big damn hero."
"Language dear," tutted Nodoka. "But I'm afraid your…sister…is right. If you didn't worry your poor mother so with your heroics, I wouldn't feel this overpowering urge to nurse you back to health."
"All I'm sayin', ma, is that I can feed myself," he said.
"Yes, and I'm very proud of how grown up you are," said Nodoka. She pincered another morsel of fish with her chopsticks. "Now open up for the airplane, dear."
"I'm going to die of—" boyRanma was cut off by his mother stuffing the fish in his mouth. He chewed reluctantly.
Akane sat on the boy's other side. She ate quietly, but her gaze kept turning dreamily toward him. It hadn't gone unnoticed by girlRanma. Her face would screw up momentarily, then she'd needle him again.
Well damn, thought Nabiki. Her overdeveloped scheming centers in her brain started churning before she slammed on the breaks. The last thing you need is a hard-luck case to pity.
When the first course was finished, her father chose to use the lull to make an announcement. Clearing his throat, "So, Saotome and I have been talking, and we feel after the recent events it was time to move forward with uniting the schools."
The chorus of "what" was almost deafening. Genma interjected, "I'm sure you're thinking we want to move forward with a wedding, and I can tell you that's not the case. Tendo and I both agree that this would be unnecessary and probably a mistake."
Understatement of the century. Nabiki still hadn't quite lived down the part she played in the disaster that was the forced wedding attempt after Jusendo. A small part of her told her that whatever her motives were at the time, it had been right to sabotage that wedding. But that was cold comfort.
Nodoka chose to pipe in, "We've been discussing this, and your fathers both have concluded that they've been neglecting in the teaching part of the School with both of you." She meant well, Nabiki was sure. But her choice of words, and the fact that she was gazing intently at boyRanma and Akane had left no room for doubt.
Nabiki sensed girlRanma bristling next to her. In a momentary impulse of humanity, Nabiki grabbed the girl's hand under the table, squeezing reassuringly. The girl sighed heavily and squeezed her hand back.
Soun struck a match and lit the cigarette clenched in his lips. Taking a long drag as he waved out the match, he jetted smoke from his nose. "We've decided to take the two of you on a training trip once summer break begins. I will instruct Ranma in the Tendo-ryu of Anything-Goes. Saotome will teach Akane his own school."
It had gone a long way to cutting the tension in the room. Even Kasumi had glared at her father when he'd dropped the bomb. Akane was ecstatic at the thought of being treated as an equal, and boyRanma seemed to relax.
But girlRanma slumped her shoulders and stared into her teacup. She'd been sparring with Akane regularly since the calamity. She tried to hide it, but Nabiki could see the desperation in girlRanma's eyes, the unspoken vow that something like that would never happen again. And now amid all this talk about the future of the School of Anything-Goes kenpo, there hadn't been any thought about what place she had in it—if any. The practical part of Nabiki's brain told her its not like they'd disinherit the girl. But the long neglected human part of her soul told her that didn't matter, that thoughtlessness was the sharpest knife.
Ranma had always been stoic. Nabiki would at least for now respect the girl's wishes to not make a scene of it, to help hide the hurt she was feeling. Nabiki desperately wanted to hug her and tell her it would be okay. But not right now. That would come later, when the only one Ranma would have to hide it from was herself. Wanting to comfort her should have been an alien feeling. Or maybe Nabiki was remembering what it was to be human.
The prattling on about the details and logistics of this went in one ear and out the other. Nabiki held the girl's hand and remembered the details for her.
One week later
Akane gritted her teeth as she slowly pulled herself to her feet. The pain was rippling through her body, but she refused to give in just yet. Her gi was soaked with sweat and her body bruised. She hadn't ever felt this level of pain in training before.
But as she steadied herself, putting her guard as she faced that panting redhead, she decided it was a good pain.
"Akane, you don't got nothing to prove," said Ran-chan.
Yes I do, she said to herself. Reaching deep within, Akane gathered up all the strength she had left, and began her final attack. She couldn't match Ran-chan in speed or technique, at least not yet. But she had finally got fast enough that Ran-chan couldn't just avoid her attacks. She doubled down on her strength, and made sure each parry stung, every block hurt, and any hit left a dent.
With a loud kiai, Akane launched at full tilt. Ran-chan tried to avoid the charge, but she corrected just in time. After a quick feint, Akane threw her weight behind a powerful cross. The redhead parried, but Akane countered quick enough to prevent her from clinching, stepping in to follow up the cross with an elbow slash.
They traded punches in quick succession. Ran-chan kept fighting for space with quick foot jabs. Each blow to her shins and calves stung. But that was just the distraction. The real blow was still yet to come, and this time Akane was determined to endure it. She strained to watch her opponent's footwork, not daring to lower her eyes for more than an instant. She'd learned that lesson the hard way too many times.
This time, she saw it coming. The ever so slight shifting of Ran-chan's weight was a portent of the pain to come. She just barely blocked that devastating knee strike this time, shifting to the left and guarding her stomach with her arm. Somehow, her next cross connected to Ran-chan's shoulder, sending her sliding across the dojo barely keeping her balance.
A small chuckle emanated from her lips. Akane could barely stand, and her right arm was numb, but she'd gotten a good hit on her teacher.
"Owowow," said Ran-chan, sucking in air. "That smarts."
Maybe they'll start taking me seriously now, she said to herself, smiling through the pain.
"Well…you did good, Akane. Just don't expect me to get all gushy about it," said the redhead. She put on that tsundere act pretty well, but Akane could still see the smile of pride on her face. "Come on, let's go get cleaned up."
As they left the dojo, they could already smell Kasumi's cooking. "We'll have to be quick, I think dinner is almost ready," said Akane.
Ran-chan nodded silently. After quickly changing out of their gis and washing up, they dressed. Well, Akane dressed; she could scarcely call that singlet and shorts that Ranma wore being dressed.
They devoured Kasumi's cooking in record time, scarcely pausing in between bites for the usual Tendo dinner table banter.
Nabiki sat pensively in her orange cut-out shoulder shirt and jean shorts. "You really worked up an appetite, Sis," she remarked over her tea cup.
Akane felt the warmth rising in her cheeks. "Ah, well, we've been training really hard, and it's starting to pay off finally. Ranma has been helping me with my form and technique, and Ran-chan has been pushing me to my limit in matches."
"Two Ranmas training you? Honey, I would've thought you would have thought of a more imaginative use of their talents."
Ran-chan choked on some noodles. Akane's own face was burning following the cavalcade of taboo thoughts Nabiki had so expertly provoked. "Nabiki, cut it out!"
"It's a good thing Father is out, Nabiki-dear," Kasumi said sweetly.
"Don't say things like that Nabiki," Ran-chan growled.
"You guys are no fun," said Nabiki. It sounded almost like pouting to Akane's ears.
"Things are a bit…complicated. You don't need to stir the pot just because it amuses you," said Akane.
Kasumi quietly excused herself, muttering about getting a head start on the dishes. A pregnant silence settled over the room. Ran-chan nibbled at a riceball while Akane squirmed under Nabiki's gaze. She didn't know how to explain herself to her mercenary sister when she didn't even understand why she had said the things she said. At least the feminine reflection of her fiancé hadn't brought it up again.
"Is this about you promising to consider the harem solution to your little love triangle problem?" said Nabiki.
"Oy, you promised!" cried Ran-chan
"You told my sister?" said Akane. She filled to the brim with a cocktail of anger and embarrassment. Her fists clenched involuntarily as her eyes burned holes in the redhead's flustered face.
Nabiki finished her tea with a sigh. "Oh quit the dramatics, I would've found out eventually. Besides, you still haven't told the other guy about this. I guess that's something to talk about on your date tonight."
You bitch, Akane said to herself.
Now it was Ran-chan's turn to glare at her. "Why didn't you tell me?" demanded the redhead.
"I didn't want to upset you," she replied.
It was the truth. She didn't feel like she was set free by it. Ran-chan's rising anger felt like chains weighing her down. "What, am I some little fragile porcelain doll you have to protect?"
"That's not what I meant. You've been through a lot."
"So what, you're just going to keep avoiding me except when we're training?" said Ran-chan.
"I have not been avoiding you," she replied, feeling indignation well up within her like bitter tears.
"Every time I try to just spend time with you, you're too busy. Or you're not around," Ran-chan said with a huff, "It wasn't even about trying to still be your fiancé…just your friend. But you're too busy for that."
"That's not true."
"Kind of is, Sis. You've been spending a lot of time with boyRanma," Nabiki chimed in.
"Butt out," Akane growled, "things are just difficult right now."
Ran-chan got up and began walking towards the kitchen. "No, it sounds like I'm the difficulty. I didn't ask for any of this, Akane."
"Don't you walk away from me," said Akane.
"I'm going to help Kasumi with the dishes and give you time to chill out."
"I do not need to chill out!" Akane said forcefully.
Nabiki winced and rubbed her ears. "Yikes, no need to yell, Sis."
Akane didn't remember getting up from the table. But she found herself standing behind Ran-chan, her arm gripping the redhead's shoulder tightly. "Face me like a man."
Ran-chan spun on her heel and glared at her with teeth clenched. "Fine then…if we're going to fight about who isn't being manly"—the redhead suddenly got up in Akane's face, a wordless preface to a challenge—"then take me upstairs and make a woman out of me."
"You heard me. Time to put up or shut up, Akane. Either fuck me or don't, just stop stringing me along."
"It isn't that simple Ran-chan. Don't say such indecent things."
"Ah, but it's not indecent when it's with him?"
"It's different with Ranma. It's different than when it's two girls."
Like it had been in a thousand arguments before, the words were not having their intended effect. Ran-chan was just getting angrier. And every cutting word they both spoke left its verbal wounds. "So I don't even get to be Ranma anymore then? I'm just one half of what I used to be to you."
"That's not what I meant," Akane protested.
"Oh yeah? Maybe you just like him more than me?"
"Maybe I do," shouted Akane.
The hard look on Ran-chan's face broke. The stoic mask of thinly concealed pain replaced it as the redhead recoiled, stepping back in shock. Her words had brought the Tendo house to an eerie silence. Like a decree chiseled in stone, they could not be undone.
Even Nabiki sat in remorseful silence. The mercenary girl's eyes were strangely judgmental. Akane could not bear to look at her. "I should go," she said flatly.
After Akane's words had pierced her heart, time escaped Ranma. She didn't know how much time had passed, or any memory of retreating from the dining area to the Tendo guest bedroom. She lay on her futon staring blankly at the ceiling, numb to the world. Rain hammered on the roof. Thunder crashed in the distance. Memories of wet, lonely nights on the road percolated up. The dread and terror felt by a little boy in a very big world came with them.
The void of timeless oblivion crumbled against the sound of bare feet pattering on lacquered wood. The door to her room slid open, and the footsteps came closer. She heard a body lying down on the mats beside her.
"You okay, Ranma?" Nabiki asked.
She heard herself say, "I've been better."
"Well, that certainly did not turn out like I planned."
Ranma rolled over on her side. She propped her head up as she stared inquisitively at the brown-haired girl. Nabiki's eyes were slightly puffy, like she'd been crying. She was placidly staring at the ceiling, twiddling her thumbs on her belly.
"How did you imagine that one ending?"
"I was only half-joking when I brought up the harem solution, Ranma."
"That word is so…crass."
"Whatever. You two weren't talking, Not really, anyway. You weren't telling each other what you were really feeling, keeping secrets from each other. I figured I could nudge things in the right direction. I guess I'm just not as clever as I thought I was."
Ranma chewed over Nabiki's confession for a minute. "I want to be angry with you. But I can't really feel much of anything right now. I've been living on borrowed hope for too long."
"Well I was rooting for you, kiddo. If it's any consolation I like you more than the other guy."
"It isn't but thanks I guess. I mean, I appreciate what you're saying, but it's not making the heartache go away."
The room was silent but for the pounding tempest outside. The silence steadily grew oppressive. "Nabiki…what do you do when you can't do nothing, but there's nothing you can do?"
"I wish I knew. Everything in me tells me to scheme, strategize, trick, or otherwise bamboozle my way out of a problem. But that'd be worse than useless. So I'll do all I can: listen. Were I your average teenage girl I'd tell you to hold onto hope. Or some stupid shit about 'moving on,' as though all it took was shifting your heart into first gear to leave it all behind."
The redhead tried to ignore the clenching feeling in her heart. Nabiki was right, she'd been castaway in stormy seas now. The storm didn't care whether she was called Ranma, Ran-chan, Ranko, or anything else. Right now she felt tiny, less than half the man she used to be. The remainder of an unbalanced equation.
She didn't have much time to ponder it. Another set of footsteps approached. She felt who they belonged to. Her body became a coiled spring of tension as she shot to her feet.
Akane was standing in the open doorway. She tried to ignore the lines of mascara on the tomboy's cheeks, and when that failed she reached deep for the resentment that Akane was dolling herself up for him.
To Ranma's surprise, Nabiki spoke first. "You should go, Akane."
"I need to talk to her."
"I think we've talked quite enough," hissed Ranma.
"Would you just—"
"No, I will not. I don't know what's left between us anymore, but if you don't leave now then there's not going to be anything left."
"Oh, you're sorry, oh my mistake then. It's all better now. Take a hike." Ranma turned to the window. The storm seemed more inviting.
"I'm not leaving until we talk about—"
"Then I am!" Snarling, Ranma threw up the sash and leapt out into the pounding rain.
Akane braved the whipping winds to chase after her. Heedless of the danger, Ranma fled as fast as her legs would carry her. The wet asphalt shingles were slick under her bare feet as she jumped from roof to roof, dreading each landing. Her luck seemed to be holding for now.
Akane did not relent, and Ranma regretted teaching her how to roof-hop. She turned into the wind, leaping as fast as her legs would carry her. She left a wake of overturned garbage bins, smashed car roofs and shattered windows as Akane chased her through the neighborhood.
Their winding path of destruction took them to Furinkan High, the fulcrum of the madness in her life. Soaking wet, chilled to the bone, with only the fury in her heart to warm her, Ranma chose to end the chase. She skidded to halt in front of the P.E. supply building, fists clenched at her sides.
Akane landed behind her. Panting, she said, "Are you going to talk to me now?"
"Fine! Let's just get this over with." Lightning cracked the night sky. A shiver of primordial fear came over her. The door opened with a bit of coaxing. "Maybe not outside though."
The shivering wasn't just fear. Akane's lips were blue as she trembled in her soaked clothes as well. It tempered Ranma's anger. She cut off Akane when she was about to start: "Gimme a sec."
After rummaging around the shed, she found some blankets. Akane was cold enough she didn't protest or need to be told twice to strip out of her clothes. Stripped down to their skivvies, they slumped down on a pile of gym mats, rolled up like sushi in their blankets.
The meter of distance between their bodies felt right. "Okay, you can start now," said Ranma. Her hard tone felt forced.
"I'm sorry, Ranma."
"You keep saying that. But that doesn't make being strung along any better."
She'd expected Akane to be just as angry. It surprised her when the tomboy remained demure. Akane averted her eyes, speaking barely loud enough to be heard above the raining pounding on the tin roof. "I wasn't trying to. And I know that doesn't make it hurt less."
"Because I'm afraid."
"Ranma, what did you feel when you first realized you were attracted to Ryoga?"
"What's that got to—"
"—please, just answer it."
"Ooohkay. I felt embarrassed. It was middle school and I was just starting to notice girls were a thing. Pop told me to not get tied down by such things, and focus on the art. Then along comes this boy who makes me feel weird, and I wonder if it's because it's an all boy's school or if Pop's screwed me up again with his training."
"But it didn't go away."
"No. The curse gave me an alibi, but it only made it worse. And when I'd play a game of pretend and fool him, I couldn't help but like the way his attention made me feel. It felt…similar…to how you, Ucchan or Shampoo made me feel when you got dere-dere. The feeling didn't go away, when I changed back."
Akane sighed. "When you first showed up at my door, I was relieved I wasn't being pushed into being engaged to a boy. It was the last thing I needed in my life. You were sweet, you loved martial arts, and you made my heart flutter."
It started to dawn on Ranma the point Akane was trying to make.
Akane slid closer. Her bare thigh brushed up against Ranma's. "I started wondering if daddy would pretend that nothing was wrong and just try to push ahead engaging two girls together. And while I didn't really know you yet, it wasn't an…unpleasant idea. Then I remembered all the insinuations that other girls made about me, and I wondered if there was something wrong with me."
"There wasn't anything wrong with you," Ranma offered.
"Maybe. When you turned out to be a boy, I remembered what every boy I'd known had wanted from me, it almost broke my heart. But you turned out to be okay. More than okay. I tried to tell myself when we had little romantic moments when you were in your girl form that it was okay just because it was you. Not that I could ever admit that to you."
Ranma stared blankly at her. Akane looked up at her, half-hurt, half-smiling.
"The closer we got, the harder it was. There was something wrong with me. And I blamed you for it. Called you a pervert, because deep down, I knew I was the real pervert."
"What…no! You're not a pervert!"
"And neither are you. I've just spent way too long lying to you and myself about how I feel. I could be honest with him because that's just the way things are supposed to be right? Girls are supposed to like boys. But the boy I like is a girl too. And my obscene secret is that I liked the girl just as much as the boy. And now they're two people, and I can't face you because I'm the reason why you're living in his shadow. All because I couldn't tell you how I felt, that I loved you more than life itself, that I was just as attracted to the girl part of you as the boy part."
The tears started streaming down Akane's face. Her sobs stilled when Ranma began gently wiping the tears from her cheek. "Akane, my life might be a mistake. But it's still mine. I'm right here now, alive, and I don't regret existing. All of the hurt I've felt, whoever's fault it is, it's mine. It means I'm alive and I'm real."
It wasn't surprising that they kissed. What was surprising, though, was that Akane initiated it. Her blanket fell from her shoulders as she pulled the redhead's lips to hers. She tasted tears on Ranma's lips, spurring her onwards. The eon of repression, denial and negation melted away as she kissed the stunned girl.
The shock was momentary. Ranma pulled Akane closer, her fingers entwining with wet hair. When they came up for air, her lips felt bruised by the intensity. The tears kept coming though. Akane kissed the tears from her cheeks.
Before she knew it, the redhead was flat on her back. Akane's weight pressed down pleasantly on her as the tomboy kissed her lips and sucked at the sensitive skin on her neck. Their bodies fit together like a dream she wished would never end. On pure instinct, she wrapped her legs around Akane, trapping her tightly between her thighs. She wasn't going to escape this time.
The year of tension dissolved as their fingers intertwined. The masculine voice in her head urging her to take charge shut himself up. Right now, the committee in her head was content to be led wherever. The shivers intensified; whether it was release or the cold, she couldn't say. Their tongues mingled in the next deep kiss. After gasping for breath, Akane dove back in for another, smothering her lips in another kiss. When the tomboy nibbled at her earlobe and hummed into the delicate skin, Ranma scared herself with the purr coming from her lips.
The remaining clothing was discarded soon after. Akane's finger's were gentle on her, but just insistent enough to draw a panting moan from Ranma. The rush, like everything in the universe and total oblivion all at once, overwhelmed her. Any thoughts of it being unmanly or improper were completely forgotten. Ranma muffled her cries by biting into Akane's neck.
There was tranquility after the storm. They lay cuddled together, utterly content. For a fleeting moment, she felt whole again. Ranma returned the favor as best she could, but her efforts were clumsy from lack of familiarity. If Akane minded, she didn't let it show. She patiently guided Ranma's efforts to their completion, and clang to the redhead for dear life as she contemplated life, the universe and everything.